Heidelberg and Westminster: Two Reformed Catechisms

Sandy Finlayson

Part 1: Background and History

The Christian church has, since its beginnings, sought to give instruction in the truth of the gospel. It has done this for the benefit of the souls of the faithful, as well as the defense of the truth in the face of opposition and heresy. One of the ways that this has been done has been through the use of creeds and catechisms.

Two of the most influential catechisms that have come down to us are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648). They arose out of different situations and had different purposes, but for Christians, particularly within the Reformed tradition, they have had considerable influence. In this three-part series, we will first look briefly at the historical background of both catechisms, and then in subsequent articles we will examine the contents of each of the catechisms and assess their lasting value for the church today.

From the earliest days of the church, these doctrinal statements took the form of creeds. A creed has been defined as "an authoritative statement of the main articles of the Christian faith to which believers are expected to assent."[1] The best known of these are the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed, which date from the third to the ninth centuries.

When people made a profession of faith in the early church, they became "catechumens" and underwent careful instruction before they and their families were received into the church through the sacrament of baptism. During the Middle Ages, this careful instruction declined somewhat, and so the church, during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, refined another teaching tool for the faithful, namely, the catechism.

According to T. F. Torrance, catechisms set forth "Christian doctrine at its closest to the mission, the life and growth of the church from age to age." They "aim to give a comprehensive exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of the whole Counsel of God and the whole life of the people of God."[2]

During the early stages of the Lutheran Reformation, a wide variety of catechisms were produced in Germany, including one by Luther himself. The Roman church also produced catechisms to teach doctrine, including one prepared by the Council of Trent in 1566.[3]

The Heidelberg Catechism, which has been called the "most ecumenical of the confessions of the Protestant churches,"[4] had its birth in the German city of Heidelberg, then the capital of the Palatinate. This German state had become the scene of significant debate, even battle, amongst various Protestant groups, particularly on issues having to do with the "real presence" of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The catechism was then commissioned by the Elector Frederick III, who believed that the doctrines of the Reformation should be taught and defended and that peace and unity might be maintained within the churches.[5] The principal framers of the catechism were Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus. Ursinus was a professor of theology at Heidelberg, and Olevianus was a young pastor. Other members of the theological faculty at Heidelberg probably had an impact on both the contents and the shape of the catechism.[6]

The Heidelberg Catechism was published within the context of church life and was given a place in official church documents between the church's formulations for baptism and the Lord's Supper. Its contents were divided into fifty-two sections, so that one section might be learned and studied each Lord's Day of the year.

This means that faith and order, doctrine and worship, were intentionally held "together in unity, with the result that if the Catechism supplies the norm for the life and liturgy of the church, it is no less true that its doctrinal instruction cannot be divorced from the daily worship of the Community."[7]

The Westminster Shorter Catechism arose out of quite different circumstances. It was one of the documents produced by the Assembly of Divines who met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It appeared three generations after the Heidelberg Catechism, and thus reflected developments in Reformed theology during the intervening years.

The work of the Westminster Assembly should be seen in the context of the English Civil War and the struggles that were taking place in society between the Crown and Parliament and the Crown and the Church. During the war that had broken out between Charles I of England and the Scots, the English Parliament seized the opportunity to call for legislation that would reform the Church of England along Puritan lines. In 1643, Parliament called for an Assembly of Divines who were "to confer and treat among themselves of such matters and things, touching and concerning the Liturgy, Discipline, and Government of the church of England, of the vindicating and clearing of the doctrine of the same from all false aspersions and misconstructions, as shall be proposed to them by both or either of the said houses of Parliament, and no other."[8]

The Assembly convened on July 1, 1643, and began work on the revision of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Events, however, overtook this work. Facing defeat at the hands of the King's forces, Parliament turned to Scotland for help, and on September 23, 1643, entered into the Solemn League and Covenant. The Scots promised to join with Parliament in their struggle against the King, and in return the Assembly agreed to the following course of action:

That we shall sincerely, really and consistently, through the grace of God, endeavour in our several places and callings, the preservation of the reformed religion in the church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline and government, against our common enemies; the reformation of religion in the Kingdom of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the Word of God and the example of the best reformed churches; and shall endeavour to bring the churches of God in the three Kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship, and catechising, that we and our posterity after us may, as brethren, live in faith and love, and the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us.[9]

With this changed and expanded mandate and the addition of commissioners from Scotland, the Assembly set to work, and over the course of the next five years produced five documents, including the Confession of Faith and the Larger Catechism in 1647 and the Shorter Catechism in 1648. Unlike the Heidelberg Catechism, which was basically the work of two men, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were the work of committees of ministers and theologians. This gives the Shorter Catechism a slightly less pastoral tone than the Heidelberg Catechism.[10]

With this historical background in mind, the next article in this series will look at the contents of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Part 2: The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism begins by asking, "What is your only comfort in life and in death?"[11] To that the answer is given:

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.

By beginning in this fashion, the Heidelberg Catechism sets a tone that is carried forward throughout the document. There is a personal tone that focuses the attention of the reader not just on biblical doctrine, but also on the personal application of that doctrine.

The Heidelberg Catechism has three main divisions (see Q. 2). Questions 1–11 deal with sin, the Fall, and humanity's need for redemption. Questions 12–85 focus on redemption in Christ. Questions 86–129 emphasize how redeemed humanity ought to live in gratitude for their redemption.

Following the teaching of the Reformers, the Catechism seeks from the outset to be clear about how man may know of his standing before a holy God. The next three questions spell out the fact that the law of God has been given so that man may know of its just demands and how he may measure up to it. Quoting from Matthew's gospel, the Catechism states that, according to the law, it is man's duty to

love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The catechism then logically asks the fifth question, "Can you keep all this perfectly?" The answer is given: "No, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor."

The issues of the Fall and of man's lost condition are dealt with in the next group of questions. There is also a discussion of the character of God, in terms of both his goodness and his justice. God, in his goodness, created man perfect and in his image, but as a result of his disobedience, man is liable to be punished by a just God. The opening section of the Catechism concludes with a note of reality and hope when Question 11 asks, "Is not God also merciful?"

There is a strongly affirmative response:

God is indeed merciful, but He is likewise just; His justice therefore requires that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul.

The next (and longest) section of the Heidelberg Catechism sets forth the plan, accomplishment, and application of redemption in Christ. Questions 12–22 deal with the need for a mediator between God and man, and make clear that the only mediator is Jesus Christ. The nature of faith and the essential part that it plays in the work of salvation are dealt with.

Then, beginning with Question 23, the substance of faith is addressed in a series of questions based on the Apostles' Creed. The use of the Apostles' Creed places the Heidelberg Catechism firmly within the tradition of the church catholic. This acknowledges that the Reformers were not inventing new doctrine, but rather recapturing apostolic truth that had become obscured within the church.

Next comes a discussion of the sacraments. The Catechism carefully places them within the context of the life of faith and the preaching of the word. Question 65 states:

Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from?

And the answer is:

The Holy Ghost works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.

Similarly, John Calvin teaches in the Institutes:

The Lord teaches and trains us by His word; next, He confirms us by His sacraments; lastly, He illumines our mind by the light of His Holy Spirit, and opens up an entrance into our hearts for His word and sacraments, which would otherwise only strike our ears, and fall upon our sight, but by no means affect us inwardly.[12]

In the section on the Lord's Supper, the Heidelberg Catechism clearly differentiates its view from the Roman and Lutheran views. It is at this point that the Catechism becomes most polemical and pointed. In Answer 78 it is made very clear that the bread and wine do not become the "very body and blood of Christ." Then, in Answer 80, the "Popish Mass" is clearly distinguished from the Lord's Supper:

The Lord's Supper testifies to us that we have full forgiveness of all our sins by the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which He Himself once accomplished on the cross; and that by the Holy Ghost we are engrafted into Christ, who, with His true body, is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and is there to be worshipped. But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is still daily offered for them by the priests, and that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and is therefore to be worshipped in them. And thus the Mass at bottom is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.

It may be argued that these words are much too strong, but we should remember that they were inserted into the second edition of the Catechism after the Council of Trent reaffirmed the Roman doctrine of the Mass. Trent set forth the idea of transubstantiation, declared that the Mass was to be said for the living and the dead, that the host must be adored, that the cup should be withheld from the laity, and then pronounced an anathema upon any who disagreed. It can well be argued that the clarity of thought and plainness of speech found at this point in the Catechism is needed by the church in every age if it is going to defend the faith.

The third section of the Heidelberg Catechism (Questions 86–129) deals with the life that Christians should live in response to the great salvation that they have received by grace through faith in Christ. It speaks of the need for the disciplined life, as expressed in obedience to the Ten Commandments. The law of God was previously mentioned to show the sinner his need for Christ, but now it provides the rubric by which the Christian lives a life of thankfulness.

Finally, the Heidelberg Catechism turns to the Lord's Prayer as the model prayer that all Christians are to pray. Prayer, Answer 116 tells us, is

the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us, and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing ask them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.

So the Catechism which begins by asking what the believer's comfort in life and death is, concludes with a study of prayer as the greatest expression of that believer's joy and hope.

As we conclude our brief look at this catechism, we should note that each question is personal, addressed to "you." This reminds us that truth must be applied to the individual, as well as being understood. Also, each answer draws heavily on biblical language. This reminds us that what we believe must be grounded in the Scriptures.

Finally, the catechism's tone is irenic. Even though there is strong language at certain points, the overall tone is gentle. We would do well to model this in our own day, when contending for the truth is often done in a way that is hurtful rather than edifying.

Part 3: The Shorter Catechism

In this final part of our series on the Heidelberg and Shorter Catechisms, we will be looking at the Shorter Catechism, its emphases and approach.

As we saw earlier, the Shorter Catechism was produced by the Westminster Assembly at the end of their work and was published in 1648. It was originally intended for the instruction of the uneducated and of children, but over the years it has come to have a much wider use.

Like the Heidelberg Catechism, the Shorter Catechism's tone and approach is set by its first question, which asks, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer given is, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever."[13]

The brevity of the opening of this catechism is striking, and we may well wonder why this is the case. The framers of the Shorter Catechism were concerned to bring as much logic and precision of language to their task as they could. It has been said of the Westminster Confession (and catechisms) that it

... embodies a theology that attempts to state the Christian faith in precise, abstract propositions that are bound together by impeccable logic. The authors ... had found that logic had a high value. As teachers in pulpits and classrooms, they had discovered that precision and logic were aids in teaching as well as in the solution of theological problems.[14]

If the twin themes brought to the fore and then pursued in the Heidelberg Catechism are the comfort and joy of the Christian, then in the Westminster Shorter Catechism they are the glorification and enjoyment of God in the life of the Christian and in the world. This is not to suggest that the former catechism is centered on man and the latter exclusively focused on God, but there is a difference in emphasis that is maintained throughout both documents.

In its first three questions, the Shorter Catechism points out that humanity's duty before God is "to glorify and enjoy him," and then teaches that this knowledge comes only from the Scriptures. It is within the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that we learn, in the words of Answer 3, "what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man."

We noted in our discussion of the Heidelberg Catechism that, after its introduction, it turns directly to man's plight as a sinner before God. The Shorter Catechism takes a different approach. Following upon its emphasis on God in Question 1, over the course of Questions 4–12 it deals with who God is and how he reveals himself through the creation and through his providential workings in the world.

The Westminster standards have been accused by some of being too "scholastic"—too academic in tone, too rigid in seeking after precise definition. At first glance, the answer to Question 4, "What is God?" may appear to be a case in point:

God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

But before we hastily dismiss this answer as simply an academic formulation, the account of how it came to be written is instructive. A committee had been struggling with what the statement ought to be, and decided that rather than force the issue they would commit the matter to prayer. And it was the youngest member of the committee—a representative of the Scottish church—who, in the course of his prayer, spoke the words that would eventually be used for the catechism's definition of God.[15]

Having described God and the revelation of his work in the world through creation and providence, the catechism turns to the state of mankind before God. Like the Heidelberg Catechism, it is very clear about the seriousness of man's sin. Question 19 asks, "What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?" The answer given is:

All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever.

Having stated the consequences of sin, the Shorter Catechism then begins to explain God's plan of escape from this predicament. In this section, a threefold emphasis emerges. It has been well said of the Assembly's Confession that it is "Calvinistic in emphasis, its theology covenantal in orientation and its soteriology evangelical."[16] The same can also be said of the Assembly's catechisms.

This section of the Shorter Catechism begins with Question 20, the answer to which states that

God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.

Questions 21–38 focus on the person and work of Christ and upon his threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. The specifics of the plan of salvation are dealt with, in terms of redemption, effectual calling, justification, adoption, and sanctification. It is worth noting in passing, that the doctrine of adoption is given a much fuller treatment in the Westminster standards than in earlier confessional documents. In focusing on this truth, the framers of the Westminster standards were looking back to Calvin, who placed a great deal of emphasis on adoption as being definitive of Christian experience.[17]

Having dealt with the way of salvation, the Shorter Catechism then turns to the life of the Christian. In Questions 39–41, we learn that the standard for the Christian life is clearly set forth as a life of obedience to God's law as expressed in the Ten Commandments. This leads into an exposition of each of the commandments in Questions 42–81.

The emphasis on the commandments has led some to accuse the Shorter Catechism of having a "distinctly moralistic tone."[18] However, as we saw previously, there was a similar emphasis in the Heidelberg Catechism. Far from being moralistic, the real emphasis in both catechisms is one of pastoral concern. The life of obedience brings joy to the faithful and glory to God.

Having covered the commandments, the Shorter Catechism then deals briefly with the means of grace: the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and finally (like the Heidelberg Catechism) prayer, focusing on the Lord's Prayer as a model.

The Shorter Catechism begins by teaching that man's chief purpose is to glorify and enjoy God, and it concludes on a positive note by reminding us:

The conclusion of the Lord's prayer, which is, For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever, Amen. teacheth us, to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise him, ascribing kingdom, power and glory to him. And, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.

It has been four hundred and forty years since the Heidelberg Catechism, and three hundred and fifty-five years since the Westminster Shorter Catechism, were first published. Since their production, both catechisms have had a significant impact, particularly in the lives of Christians from Reformed and Presbyterian churches. But it is legitimate to ask if these catechisms still have any usefulness for the church in the twenty-first century.

Both catechisms can do at least three things for us today. First, there is a continuing need within the church to understand the essentials of the faith. Here particularly the Westminster Shorter Catechism has proved to have lasting value, with its succinct questions and answers that highlight many of the key doctrines of the faith. In an age where there is little place for truth, the Shorter Catechism reminds us that there is a core to the Christian faith which is nonnegotiable and should be guarded and defended.

Second, these catechisms—in this instance, particularly the Heidelberg Catechism—remain useful as a guide to the application of the message of Christianity in individual lives. A familiarity with the Heidelberg Catechism will help to ensure that Christian doctrine is not simply an abstraction. Each person will be made to answer the question, "What is your only comfort in life and in death?"

Third, both catechisms provide a basis for a pastoral ministry of nurture and discipline. The church in the twenty-first century will be stronger if it reclaims the link between catechetical instruction and pastoral ministry. With the catechism firmly in the hearts and minds of the faithful, the church can undertake pastoral ministry that is concerned with helping the individual live a life that will "glorify God, and enjoy Him for ever."


[1] B. Demarest, "Creeds," in New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 179.

[2] T. F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (London: James Clarke and Co., 1959), xl.

[3] P. F. Jensen, "Catechisms," in New Dictionary of Theology, 131.

[4] Allen O. Miller, "The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism," in Controversy and Conciliation, ed. Derk Visser (Allison Park, Pa.: Pickwick Publications, 1986), 215.

[5] "The Heidelberg Catechism," in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, ed. Jerald C. Brauer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 391.

[6] Miller, "The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism," 216.

[7] Torrance, The School of Faith, 67.

[8] William S. Barker, "Forward," in The Westminster Standards: An Original Facsimile by the Westminster Divines (Audubon, N.J.: Old Path Publications, 1997), vii.

[9] Ibid., vii–viii.

[10] W. M. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinburgh: James Gemmell, 1878), 306.

[11] All quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from the electronic version distributed by Daric Bossman, © 1998.

[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.8. Electronic version © Blue Banner Ministries, 1997.

[13] All quotations from the Westminster Shorter Catechism are taken from the electronic version distributed by Daric Bossman, © 1998.

[14] John H. Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973), 69.

[15] W. M. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinburgh: James Gemmell, 1878), 370.

[16] Sinclair B. Ferguson, "Westminster Assembly," in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 864.

[17] Ibid., 865.

[18] T. F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (London: James Clarke and Co., 1959), xvi.

The author is director of library services and associate professor of theological bibliography at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, January, February, March 2005.