What Does Geneva Have to Do with Heidelberg?: Calvin’s First Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism

A version of this essay was originally delivered as part of The Arts and Humanities Colloquium at Hope College (Holland, MI).

As the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century began and gained momentum, many of the reformers sensed a need within the new movement: Education. While the theologians understood the new doctrines, the masses did not. The majority of people did not initially know why the Reformers rejected the Mass and included only 2 sacraments. They did not fully comprehend justification by faith, God’s providence, election, and salvation (among other things). Seeing this pressing need, many reformers developed catechisms as tools to help teach the new doctrine to the people. Luther wrote two catechisms, one Smaller and one Larger. And in the Reformed tradition, John Calvin wrote an initial catechism known as Instruction in Faith, while later in the German Palatinate the Heidelberg Catechism was penned.

It is these last two catechisms, Calvin’s Instruction in Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, and their relationship that shall be examined in this paper. First, we will begin with an account of the historical circumstances that produced these documents and the purpose of their writing. Second, we will situate these catechisms theologically within the Reformed tradition, emphasizing their similarities and overall congruence. Third, we will look at the distinctive characteristics of each document in both theology and structure. Lastly, we will look at the evidence of Calvin’s opinion concerning the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly in his dedication to his commentary on Jeremiah. The hope is that by examining these two catechisms, we may be able to see their complex relationship and understand how, though it has ecumenical origins, the Heidelberg Catechism is a thoroughly Reformed catechism.

Part 1: Historical Circumstances

When John Calvin arrived in Geneva in August of 1536, the city was a newly minted Protestant town. Their infant Protestantism consisted in refusal to take Mass, general support of ‘Protestantism’, and a pledge to live according to the Word of the Lord. Calvin, being known for his keen mind and organizational skills, was called in to help shape this amorphous ‘Protestantism’ into a Church truly under the authority of God’s Word.

In addition to publishing his first edition of The Institutes of Christian Religion (1536), Calvin proposed three documents that would be crucial to a well-formed church: a Confession of Faith, a Church Constitution, and a Compendium on the Faith. All three documents were quickly written and accepted (though not without difficulty). By November of 1536, the Genevans had a confession of faith. It was January 16, 1537 before a Church Constitution was settled upon. Calvin’s original plan for a ‘compendium on the faith’ was his 1536 edition of The Institutes, but it proved too long and difficult. As a result, Calvin published the Instruction in Faith. He drafted the first edition in French in February of 1537.

John Calvin’s first catechism appeared in a new protestant community. Geneva had little history with Protestantism and scarce doctrinal definition to their new faith. Calvin’s catechism was one of many tools that he employed to help shape the Genevan church.

In contrast to Geneva and Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism was created in a context of controversy, struggle, and political intrigue. The City of Heidelberg was the capital of the Lower Palatinate in Germany, one of the major political regions of the Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of the Palatinate was an ‘Elector’ and was part of the small group that decided who would be the next Holy Roman emperor. The Palatinate region had lost much of its political power and territory in a war shortly before the Reformation had begun. The region could ill-afford any dangerous policies and was forced to consolidate for much of the first half of the sixteenth century.

However, the religious atmosphere was ripe for an introduction of Luther’s reforms. The region began to lean in a protestant direction beginning in 1545 under the Elector Frederick II (1545-1556). However, it was under his successor, Otto Henry, that reform took root in the Palatinate. Otto Henry actively sought religious reform through state-sponsored iconoclasm and the enforcement of Reformation confessions. However, he also contributed to the religious tensions among Protestant groups in the region through his heavy-handed tactics. Around the time of the next Elector’s ascension, controversy began to break out over the Lord’s Supper.

Frederick III (‘the Pious’) followed Otto Henry and was thought to have had more ecumenical Lutheran convictions upon his ascension, but as controversy multiplied his allegiances shifted toward the Reformed view and placed him in a perilous situation. A controversy over the Lord’s Supper that began as an exercise in academic liberty eventually evolved into a doctrinal debate over the presence of Christ in Communion. The Gnesio- or ‘Exclusive’ Lutherans held a position known as ‘ubiquity’ in regards to Christ’s presence, claiming that Christ’s humanity was fully present in the Lord’s Supper, which appeared to the Calvinists to deny the reality of Christ’s physical ascension to heaven. The Exclusive Lutherans felt that the Calvinist position separated the two natures of Christ in a way similar to early Church heresies. As a result, Lutherans saw Calvinists as bitter enemies. In this context, the people of Heidelberg began to appeal to the Reformed theologians of Zurich and Geneva for guidance. In 1561, two theologians were invited to Heidelberg: Olevianus as the court-preacher, and Ursinus as University professor.

Frederick III called together a committee including Olevianus and Ursinus to form a new catechism for the Palatinate. The result came to be known as the Heidelberg Catechism. The catechism was published in an area with a profound history of division and tension surrounding the doctrines of the Reformation. The Heidelberg Catechism was commissioned by a Lutheran Elector who supposed to follow the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, instead he chose a Reformed understanding of Communion. The Palatinate contained Calvinists, Zwinglians, and a range of Lutherans. It is out of a context of plurality, strife, and division that the Heidelberg Catechism was created.

Both Instruction in Faith of Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism had the primary purposes of education and unity. Calvin had intended his catechism primarily for the instruction of youth in Geneva. He had consolidated his Institutes of Christian Religion into a form by which children could be taught the basics of the Christian faith. In the Palatinate, Frederick III had taken a tour of his realm and in his introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism recognized the overall lack of Christian instruction in the region. He found many people falling back upon their folk traditions and he believed it was essential that young people would be trained in the faith. Frederick identified three explicit purposes for the new catechism. First, it was to be used as a catechetical tool for teaching children. Second, it was to be a preaching guide to pastors for instructing the common people. Third, Frederick hoped to use the catechism to form a confessional unity among all the various Protestants in his realm. While many see this unity as purely doctrinal, others have argued that it included a common worship life as well, represented in the division of the catechism for 52 Sundays. These worship elements were part of Frederick III’s desire to provide church unity and common worship. Calvin had also intended his catechism as an educational tool for children, but had not envisioned the Instruction in Faith serving as a guide for preaching.

Frederick did not present his catechism as either Reformed or Lutheran, but focused on sound Christian doctrine and hoped that this ‘ecumenical’ catechism would bring Christian unity among his people. As Lyle Bierma states about the Heidelberg Catechism:

[it allowed a] Lutheran Elector [to] repudiate certain Gnesio-Lutheran doctrines that he found objectionable and unify Melanchthonian-Lutheran, Calvinist, and Zwinglian factions in his realm without straying outside the boards of the Augsburg Confession and thus violating the Peace of Augsburg.

In this extremely muddled situation, the Heidelberg Catechism was created to bring unity to the people of the Palatinate. Calvin had a similar purpose to his Genevan catechism. In 1538 (one year after its initial publication), Calvin translated Instruction in Faith into Latin. A Latin translation gave the catechism a wider audience and Calvin believed that this promoted the unity of the Church. For theologians in the sixteenth century, unity was not achieved through the cooperation of ecclesiastical bodies, but through shared doctrinal statements. Unity could not be had among people who had profound doctrinal differences. In this way, both the catechisms of Heidelberg and Geneva sought ecumenical agreement.

Both catechisms had similar purposes: the education of Christians in essential doctrines of the Christian faith. However, the expanded aims of the Heidelberg Catechism are clearly evident in its structure, while its different context accounts for the minor theological differences from the Instruction in Faith.

Part 2: Similarities between the Catechisms

As protestant catechisms, Instruction in Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism have similar teaching on all of the typical protestant doctrines, such as justification by faith (sola fides) and an emphasis on God’s revelation in Scripture (sola scriptura). The overlap between the catechisms is considerably larger since Frederick III held Reformed views in many areas. Thus it will be more instructive to focus on their similarities on those doctrines that are known as distinctly Reformed.

The first distinctively Reformed aspect of both catechisms is their view of Christ’s ascension to heaven. The Calvinist position on Christ’s ascension was distinct from the position of ubiquity in Lutheran thought. In discussing the Apostle’s Creed, Calvin claims that “he [Christ] has been raised to heaven and the presence of his body has been taken from our sight.” He continues to say that Christ’s physical ascension will be followed by his physical descent at the consummation of all things (implicitly only then). Christ’s physical body is seated at the right hand of the Father, though in Christ’s divinity he continues to be present with us. Later in the catechism Calvin claims in direct reference to Communion that it presents a “true yet spiritual communication of his body and his blood.” Thus, for Calvin, though the Ascended Christ is not physically present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, he is present spiritually. When we turn to the Heidelberg Catechism we find in the answer to Question forty-six “Christ, while his disciples watched, was lifted up from the earth to heaven and will be there for our good until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.” The implication in this response is that Christ, having ascended, will stay there until he comes again. On this, Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism agree.

The second distinctly Reformed aspect of both catechisms is their inclusion of ‘gratitude.’ Typically Lutheran catechisms focus first on the fallen human condition (‘guilt’ or ‘misery’), followed by God’s redemptive act in Jesus Christ (‘grace’ or ‘deliverance’). This structure results from Luther’s reading of scripture as being primarily a juxtaposition of ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’. In Calvin’s Instruction in Faith, we see evidence of the Reformed addition of ‘gratitude’ to this structure. Thus, Reformed catechisms tend to follow a pattern of ‘guilt, grace, and gratitude’. ‘Gratitude’ is the Reformed focus on a Christian life of thankfulness to God. Thus, Reformed Christians do not believe that faith ends with ‘eternal salvation’, but continues with a life of thankfulness and obedience to God. Calvin demonstrates this in Instruction in Faith through a discussion of justification and sanctification. He states that “we cannot receive through faith his [Christ’s] righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification.” The natural outgrowth of being justified by God is a life of holiness (sanctification). God continues to work in the life of the believer after the initial work of salvation, and thus, the Christian is called to a life of thankfulness to God. In the Heidelberg Catechism, this aspect of ‘gratitude’ is demonstrated through the very sections of the catechism. Questions 86-129 are all grouped under the heading of ‘Gratitude’ that is part of the whole document’s three part structure (‘Misery’, ‘Deliverance’, and ‘Gratitude’). Both catechisms display a firm understanding of the Christian life of gratitude toward God.

Both catechisms also contain the common structure of contemporary catechisms. Expositions on the Apostle’s Creed, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer were all common elements of the Church’s instruction. Including them in a catechism showed the Reformation’s solidarity with the Church universal, both in space and in time. It demonstrated that the Reformation was not intended as a breakaway movement.

Part 3: Differences of Theology and Structure

While these catechisms share many similarities, there are also distinct differences between the two catechisms. The first difference is in the area of predestination and election. For Calvin, the doctrine of predestination was seen as a comfort for the faithful. Both the elect and the reprobate are predestined by God to be such before the foundation of the world. When the believer struggles in faith and feels distant from God’s presence, she can be comforted by the fact that her eternal salvation is not in her own hands, but rests with God. Thus, Calvin believes it is important for Christians to be instructed about God’s election and reprobation and thus includes a section on the doctrine in Instruction in Faith. In the Heidelberg Catechism, election is mentioned, but there is not definitive talk about ‘predestination’ or the ‘reprobate’. Instead, it is solely God’s election in Christ that is the comfort. As Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, the believer’s only comfort in life and death is that one belongs to Jesus Christ. It is God’s positive choice, ownership, and care of the believer that is emphasized in the Heidelberg Catechism. The difference is that while Calvin’s Instruction in Faith presents a doctrine of ‘double predestination’, the Heidelberg Catechism focuses on the positive election of God in Christ.

The second theological difference is closely related to each catechism’s structure. In Calvin’s Instruction in Faith, he begins by discussing the knowledge of God, then proceeds to outline the sinfulness of humanity followed by God’s gracious action toward us. The basic pattern is Law then Gospel. However, in the Heidelberg Catechism, God’s gracious action is always seen as extending toward us even before our knowledge of our sinfulness. The Heidelberg Catechism opens by claiming that our election in Jesus Christ is the greatest comfort that we have. It begins with the comfort, then explains why we need comfort, who the comforter is, and what that comfort looks like in the life of the believer. The basic structure is then moved to Gospel-Law-Gospel. God is seen, in the Heidelberg Catechism, to be always extending his grace toward us, before we ever respond or even know of our need to respond. The twin foci of the positive election of God and the priority of God’s grace are the two theological differences between Instruction in Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism. While both ideas are very Reformed readings of Holy Scripture and have their weight in the theological tradition, they are not universally acknowledged in the Reformed tradition.

However, the most obvious difference between the two catechisms is literary style. Instruction in Faith provides headings and short answers, while the Heidelberg Catechism is written as a series of questions and answers. While each has their strong points, the question and answer format was adopted by many catechisms for its educational benefit. Answers could be memorized easily and children could be taught more successfully.

The question and answer format also lent itself readily to use in liturgical worship. This stylistic difference allowed the Heidelberg Catechism to be integrated into the liturgy, bringing the people together in a common worship and faith. The catechism was recited when the people gathered to worship, unifying them in a common, communal faith and worship.

The last structural difference deals with the order of material. Calvin begins his catechism with how we obtain knowledge of God and ends with a section on the government and magistrates. In contrast, the Heidelberg Catechism is structured to reflect the shape of the Christian life, beginning with God’s grace and comfort (Q&A 1) and ending with ‘Amen’ (Q&A 129). In the same way, the Christian life is to begin with God’s gracious activity and end with our prayer of ‘Amen’ to what God has done.

Both catechisms use their structure to help develop their theology and accomplish their intended purpose. There are many striking similarities between the distinctly Reformed Instruction in Faith and the ‘ecumenical’ Heidelberg Catechism. Their different emphases and structures are also evident. So what was John Calvin’s opinion of the illustrious catechism of the Palatinate?

Part 4: Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism

Calvin was still alive in 1563 when the Heidelberg Catechism was published and he received a copy in Latin along with a letter from Olevianus. Sadly, we do not have any record of a written response from Calvin, either to Olevianus or to the Catechism in general.

However, this situation does not leave us without clues of Calvin’s view of the Heidelberg Catechism. Fred Klooster argues that we can get inferences about Calvin’s view of the catechism by examining his commentary on Jeremiah. Calvin dedicated his commentary on Jeremiah to Frederick III, Elector of the Palatinate. The Genevan theologian finished his dedication in July of 1563, three months after he would have received and presumably read the Heidelberg Catechism. There is speculation as to why Calvin did not include a direct reference to the catechism in his dedication, but this is most likely because of the stigma of ‘Calvinism’ in Germany, and Calvin’s desire not to let his endorsement cause the catechism to be misjudged based upon prejudice against Calvin. Nonetheless, Calvin filled his dedication with glowing praise for Frederick including his “labor to cherish and to promote true Religion.” It is difficult to see how it is likely that this reference did not include the Heidelberg Catechism, which Calvin would have read only months earlier. In addition, Calvin expresses a sense of duty to Frederick in praising and encouraging him against those who were attacking him. Furthermore, the majority of the dedication deals with the major theological issues between Calvin and the Lutherans: Christology and Communion. It was on these issues that Frederick was being assailed and about which Calvin was encouraging him. While it is possible that these references are all coincidences, it is more likely that they are a veiled praise of the Heidelberg Catechism and a defense against its opponents. While not assured, the historical and contextual evidence points to Calvin as supporting the reform of Frederick III and with it the Heidelberg Catechism.

In conclusion, the Heidelberg Catechism and John Calvin’s Instruction in Faith developed in varying contexts. One was unabashedly Reformed, while the other was intentionally ecumenical. Yet in the end, it was the ‘ecumenical’ Heidelberg Catechism that was chosen as the catechism of the Reformed Church. The Heidelberg Catechism maintains a deep resonance with Calvin, the Reformed Tradition, and the Church as a whole. This is evidenced through its similar theology and structure. However, the differences in circumstance and purpose led to some slight differences in theological emphasis and literary style. From Calvin’s veiled defense of the catechism and its commissioner, we can be assured that the Heidelberg Catechism is a truly Reformed Catechism. Yet it also fulfilled the purpose of its creator, the Heidelberg Catechism is more than simply a Reformed catechism; it is a catechism of the Church.

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