Question and Answer

Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Standards

Question:

Is the Heidelberg Catechism the same as either the larger and shorter catechisms? If not, what is the Heidelberg Catechism? Also could you explain to me why the catechisms and Westminster Confession of Faith are so important to your church? I think I read that your pastors and elders have to believe everything in them. Isn't that the same as saying they are infallible?

Answer:

1. You asked, "Is the Heidelberg Catechism the same as either the [Westminster] larger and shorter catechisms?" Well, not exactly. The form is different, but the substance is essentially the same. All three are Reformed, but they are different documents.

The official (secondary) doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) are the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Westminster Larger Catechism, as can be seen from What Is the OPC?:

During an enormous religious and political struggle to determine the character of the English and Scottish national churches, the Westminster Assembly met in London from 1643 to 1649. It issued the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. These documents are distinctly Reformed, much like the Heidelberg Catechism and other earlier Reformed creeds. They became the basis for what we today call Presbyterian churches. With slight revisions reflecting developments in American Presbyterianism, they are the doctrinal standards of the OPC.

Note, however, that both the Westminster Standards and the Heidelberg Catechism are described as "distinctly Reformed."

The OPC is a member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), which describes this as their basis:

Confessing Jesus Christ as only Savior and Sovereign Lord over all of life, we affirm the basis of the fellowship of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches to be full commitment to the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God written, without error in all its parts and to its teaching as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. (http://www.opc.org/relations/NAPARC.html)

Note that what is primary is "full commitment to the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God written, without error in all its parts." NAPARC members follow the Westminster Standards and the Heidelberg Catechism only as secondary standards, but standards believed to summarize accurately the teaching of the Bible.

2. You also asked, "If not, what is the Heidelberg Catechism?" The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the creeds of the Dutch Reformed churches (and other Reformed churches of European background, such as the Reformed Church in the U.S.). They have 3 creeds, which they call "The Three Forms of Unity": the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.

Here is some information on the Heidelberg Catechism, as found in Today in Church History on this Web site:

On January 19, 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was published in German under the title, "Catechismus, or Christian Instruction, as Conducted in the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate."

It was named after the German city where it was prepared by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, at the request of the Elector Frederick III. Soon after it was written, it was translated into Dutch, and along with the Belgic Confession and the Canons of the Synod of Dort, the Heidelberg Catechism became part of the doctrinal standards of the Dutch Reformed churches. For centuries it has been cherished by Presbyterians as well, especially for its warm and autobiographical style, as displayed in its first question and answer:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong " body and soul, in life and in death " to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.

     He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

     Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to serve him.

The Reformed Church in the U.S. (another member of NAPARC) has on its Web site the Heidelberg Catechism in English and audio, as well as a link to a Spanish translation.

3. You asked, "Also could you explain to me why the catechisms and Westminster Confession of Faith are so important to your church? I think I read that your pastors and elders have to believe everything in them. Isn't that the same as saying they are infallible?" Well, to be sure, we do not believe that the Westminster Standards ("Standards" is simply the short way of saying "Confession of Faith and Shorter and Larger Catechisms") are infallible. We regard them as our "secondary standards", the Scripture being our primary standard.

What Is the OPC? describes well an important distinction between what is required of officers of the church vs. what is required of the general membership:

Members are received into a local Orthodox Presbyterian congregation by the session on the basis of their credible profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. While members are exposed to the Reformed faith from the pulpit, from the teaching ministry of the church, and from the sincere convictions of their elders and deacons, they are not required to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms as a standard for membership....

All church officers-ministers, ruling elders, and deacons-are required to receive and adopt the Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible, and to approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Church.

This helps the church to be unified and all of one mind. Officers are, by the way, allowed to take exceptions to the Standards, within reason. This allowance somewhat distinguishes the Westminster Standards from the Scriptures (on which we are not allowed to take exception!).

I hope these comments are helpful to you.


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