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The Heidelberg Catechism received its name from being composed in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III (1516-1576), ruler of the Palatinate, an influential German province. To secure harmony in Protestant teaching and to facilitate the establishment of the Reformed faith in his province, this pious prince commissioned Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), twenty-eight years of age and professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), twenty-six years old and Frederick’s court preacher, to prepare a Reformed catechism for instructing the youth and guiding pastors and teachers. Of these two young and learned divines, Ursinus bore the primary responsibility for the Catechism’s material content, while Olevianus was more involved in final composition and editing. Blessed by the Spirit “the learning of Ursinus and the eloquence of Olevianus are reflected in the final product-a catechism of unusual power and beauty, an acknowledged masterpiece”. Further, Frederick indicates that many others, including the theological faculty and the chief officers of the Palatinate church, provided assistance in perfecting its final reading.
After the Catechism was approved by a Heidelberg Synod in January 1563, three additional German editions, each with small additions, as well as a Latin translation, were published the same year in Heidelberg. The fourth edition is regarded as the official text of the Catechism and is used as a basis for the English translation printed on the following pages.
When the first edition of the Heidelberg Catechism appeared, the German Bible had not yet been divided into verses. Consequently, Scripture passages listed in the margin included only book and chapter. Moreover, the Catechism’s questions were not numbered. A Latin translation soon rectified these problems by including verse references and numbering the questions. Moreover, the Catechism was also soon divided into fifty-two sections so that one section – referred to as “Lord’s Day’ – could be expounded each Sunday of the year.
In this present edition the more than 700 textual references have been printed in full for good reason. The Catechism contains more prooftexts than other catechisms of its day because its authors wanted it to be “an echo of the Bible.” These prooftexts were to be regarded as an important part of the Catechism, as noted in Frederick’s original preface: “The Scripture proof by which the faith of the children is confirmed are such only as have been selected with great pains from the divinely inspired Scriptures.”
The Heidelberg Catechism’s 129 questions and answers are divided into three parts patterned after the book of Romans. After a moving introduction related to the true believer’s comfort questions 3-11 consider the experience of sin and misery (Romans 1-3:20); questions 12- 85 are concerned with redemption in Christ and faith (Romans 3:21- 11:36), incorporating a lengthy exposition of the Apostles’ Creed and the sacraments; questions 86-129 stress true gratitude for God’s deliverance (Romans 12-16), primarily through a consideration of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. One of the Catechism’s precious distinctives is its presentation of doctrines with clarity and warm piety in an experiential, practical manner. It is more subjective than objective, more spiritual than dogmatical. It is not surprising that the Catechism, so personal and devotional throughout as exemplified in its use of singular pronouns, has been called “the book of comfort” for God’s people.
The Catechism was translated already in 1563 into Dutch by Petrus Dathenus and was published in his rhymed Psalter in 1566. Its personal style and experiential content soon won the love of God’s people also in the Netherlands. Already that same year Peter Gabriel set a pattern for Dutch ministers by expounding the Catechism every Sunday afternoon to his Amsterdam congregation. Moreover, the Catechism was approved by the Synods of Wesel (1568), Embden (1571), Dort (1578), the Hague (1586), as well as the great Synod of Dort (1618-1619), which officially adopted it as the second of the Three Forms of Unity and made its weekly exposition by the ministers obligatory.
The Heidelberg Catechism has been translated into all European and dozens of Asiatic and African languages. It is thought to have been circulated more widely than any other book “except the Bible, The Imitation of Christ, and Pilgrim’s Progress.” Diffused with the unction of the Spirit, soundly Calvinistic, yet moderate in tone and irenic in spirit this precious “book of comfort” remains the most widely used and warmly praised catechism of the Reformation period. May God grant that its weekly exposition may be honored among us to the glory of His Name, the spiritual growth of His people, and the conversion of the unsaved.