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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

The Heidelberg Catechism

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The most attractive of all the catechisms of the Reformation, was drawn up at the bidding of Frederick III., elector of the Palatinate, and published on Tuesday the 19th of January 1563. The new religion in the Palatinate had been largely under the guidance of Philip Melanchthon, who had revived the old university of Heidelberg and staffed it with sympathetic teachers. One of these, Tillemann, Heshusius, who became general superintendent in 1558, held extreme Lutheran views on the Real Presence, and in his desire to force the community into his own position excommunicated his colleague Klebitz, who held Zwinglian views. When the breach was widening Frederick, "der fromme Kurfiirst," came to the succession, dismissed the two chief combatants and referred the trouble to Melanchthon, whose guarded verdict was distinctly Swiss rather than Lutheran. In a decree of August 1560 the elector declared for Calvin and Zwingli, and soon after he resolved to issue a new and unambiguous catechism of the evangelical faith. He entrusted the task to two young men who have won deserved remembrance by their learning and their character alike. Zacharias Ursinus was born at Breslau in July 1 534 and attained high honour in the university of Wittenberg. In 1558 he was made rector of the gymnasium in his native town, but the incessant strife with the extreme Lutherans drove him to Zurich, whence Frederick, on the advice of Peter Martyr, summoned him to be professor of theology at Heidelberg and superintendent of the Sapientiae Collegium. He was a man of modest and gentle spirit, not endowed with great preaching gifts, but unwearied in study and consummately able to impart his learning to others. Deposed from his chair by the elector Louis in 1576, he lived with John Casimir at Neustadt and found a congenial sphere in the new seminary there, dying in his 49th year, in March 1583.

Caspar Olevianus was born at Treves in 1536. He gave up law for theology, studied under Calvin in Geneva, Peter Martyr in Zurich, and Beza in Lausanne. Urged by William Farel he preached the new faith in his native city, and when banished therefrom found a home with Frederick of Heidelberg, where he gained high renown as preacher and administrator. His ardour and enthusiasm made him the happy complement of Ursinus. When the reaction came under Louis he was befriended by Ludwig von Sain, prince of Wittgenstein, and John, count of Nassau, in whose city of Herborn he did notable work at the high school until his death on the 15th of March 1587. The elector could have chosen no better men, young as they were, for the task in hand. As a first step each drew up a catechism of his own composition, that of Ursinus being naturally of a more grave and academic turn than the freer production of Olevianus, while each made full use of the earlier catechisms already in use. But when the union was effected it was found that the spirits of the two authors were most happily and harmoniously wedded, the exactness and erudition of the one being blended with the fervency and grace of the other. Thus the Heidelberg Catechism, which was completed within a year of its inception, has an individuality that marks it out from all its predecessors and successors. The Heidelberg synod unanimously approved of it, it was published in January 1563, and in the same year officially turned into Latin by Jos. Lagus and Lambert Pithopoeus. The ultra-Lutherans attacked the catechism with great bitterness, the assault being led by Heshusius and Flacius Illyricus. Maximilian II. remonstrated against it as an infringement of the peace of Augsburg. A conference was held at Maulbronn in April 1564, and a personal attack was made on the elector at the diet of Augsburg in 1566, but the defence was well sustained, and the Heidelberg book rapidly passed beyond the bounds of the Palatinate (where indeed it suffered eclipse from 1576 to 1583, during the electorate of Louis), and gained an abundant success not only in Germany (Hesse, Anhalt, Brandenburg and Bremen) but also in the Netherlands (1588), and in the Reformed churches of Hungary, Transylvania and Poland. It was officially recognized by the synod of Dort in 1619, passed into France, Britain and America, and probably shares with the De imitatione Christi and The Pilgrim's Progress the honour of coming next to the Bible in the number of tongues into which it has been translated.

This wide acceptance and high esteem are due largely to an avoidance of polemical and controversial subjects, and even more to an absence of the controversial spirit. There is no mistake about its Protestantism, even. when we omit the unhappy addition made to answer 80 by Frederick himself (in indignant reply to the ban pronounced by the Council of Trent), in which the Mass is described as "nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry"- an addition which is the one blot on the bred/coo of the catechism. The work is the product of the best qualities of head and heart, and its prose is frequently marked by all the beauty of a lyric. It follows the plan of the epistle to the Romans (excepting chapters ,x.-x1.) and falls into three parts: Sin, Redemption and the New Life. This arrangement alone would mark it out from the normal reformation catechism, which runs along the stereotyped lines of Decalogue, Creed, Lord's Prayer, Church and Sacraments. These themes are included, but are shown as organically related. The Commandments, e.g. " belong to the first part so far as they are a mirror of our sin and misery, but also to the third part, as being the rule of our new obedience and Christian life." The Creed - a panorama of the sublime facts of redemption - and the sacraments find their place in the second part; the Lord's Prayer (with the Decalogue) in the third.

See The Heidelberg Catechism, the German Text, with a Revised Translation and Introduction, edited by A. Smellie (London, 1900).

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'The Heidelberg Catechism'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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