Heidelberg Catechism: Introduction

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is among the most cherished catechisms ever written, and is perhaps best known for its first question and answer: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

It was composed in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, who ruled the Palatinate, an influential German province, from 1559 to 1576. The Palatinate was one of the few pockets of Calvinistic faith among the Lutheran and Roman Catholic territories of Germany at that time. Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus are traditionally considered coauthors of the new catechism. Ursinus (1534–83), a student of both Calvin and Melanchthon, and a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg, is often credited with providing the initial drafts of the catechism by means of his Summa Theologicae (323 questions) and in the condensed version of the Summa, his Catechesis Minor (108 questions). As for Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), he had been a student of Calvin and Beza and served as the pastor of the Holy Spirit Church at Heidelberg. Although he probably played a less prominent role than earlier scholarship has suggested, he certainly participated in the deliberations about the final form of the catechism.

It is worth noting what Elector Frederick III himself reported in his preface to the catechism, dated January 19, 1563. There readers are informed that the Elector secured the preparation of the catechism “with the advice and cooperation of our entire theological faculty in this place, and of all superintendents and distinguished servants of the church.” Therefore, a committee of theologians, appointed by Frederick III, was responsible for the official text of the catechism, drawing on resources that proved useful.

The Heidelberg Catechism was approved by a Palatinate synod in Heidelberg in January 1563 and printed with the above-mentioned preface by the Elector in February. Second and third German editions, each with small additions, as well as a Latin translation, were published the same year in Heidelberg. Soon the catechism was divided into fifty-two sections, so that on successive Lord’s Days a portion of it could be expounded from the pulpit, getting through the catechism in one year.

The Synod of Dort in 1618–19 approved the Heidelberg Catechism, and it soon became the most ecumenical of the Reformed catechisms and confessions. Indeed, it was the most widely used and most warmly praised catechism of the Reformation period.

The Heidelberg Catechism, after two introductory questions and answers, is divided into three parts: (1) human misery (Q&As 3–11); (2) divine deliverance, including an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, as well as justification, good works, and the means of grace (Q&As 12–85); and (3) Christian gratitude, which expounds the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer as chief constituents of the Christian life (Q&As 86–129).

The English translation presented here (a thorough revision of the version that appeared in the 1976 Psalter Hymnal) follows the third German edition of the catechism.1 This is the German edition that was included in the Palatinate Church Order of November 15, 1563, and is the “received text” used throughout the world.

1 De Nederlandsche Belijdenisgeschriften, edited by Bakhuizen van den Brink, pp. 144–217. This revised translation was approved by the URCNA Synod 2016.