TO ALL BRITISH PROTESTANTS: THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM.
Rev. A.S. Thelwall, Protestant Association.
“The doctrines of the Reformation”—“The common faith of the Protestant Churches”—these are expressions with which every one must be familiar. But is there not reason to fear, that they are frequently used without any very clear, and, certainly, with no very enlarged apprehension of what was truly the common faith?—what were really the doctrines maintained by the Protestant Churches, at the period of the glorious and blessed Reformation? It has even been said that "Protestantism is a merely negative system:” and said by those who ought to have known better: and many, perhaps, who would not altogether subscribe to that assertion, have been accustomed to regard Protestantism, and the doctrines of the Reformation, too exclusively in connexion with the idea of mere opposition to the errors and corruptions of the Church of Rome; and to overlook the positive, the blessed, the soul-comforting, and soul-saving doctrines which the Reformers maintained; which they laboured and suffered to make known in their day and generation, and to bequeath to their posterity; the faith and love of which it was, that constrained and enabled them so strongly and earnestly to protest and contend against Popery.
Is it, then, too much to assume, that every one who attaches any meaning or value to the name of Protestant, will be glad to have at hand, in a compendious form, a statement, brief and clear, of the true Protestant faith, as it was held by the confessors and martyrs of the Reformed Churches, and by their immediate successors?
Such a brief and clear compendium, such a summary of the doctrines of the Reformation, I have the pleasure and the privilege of presenting to my Christian and Protestant Brethren of every denomination, in the following Catechism. It has special claims upon their attention and regard, arising out of historical facts.
This Catechism was drawn up by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, both of them learned theologians, and Professors in the University of Heidelberg, in the Palatinate, at the command of the Count Palatine Frederic III., surnamed the Pious. The occasion was this: the Ubiquitists (a party of the Lutherans who maintained the omnipresence of the human body of Christ,) attempting by all means to introduce and enforce their own particular doctrine, had thrown the whole church into confusion, and continually thwarted the orthodox or Reformed party; so that the schools were brought into contempt, and the tender youth either manner, according to the notions of different individuals. The object of the good Prince was, that, in this Catechism, there might be a general formulary of unity, to which all the instruction, both in the churches and schools, should be conformed. It was drawn up both in German and Latin; revised by an assembly of the principal Divines of the Palatinate, and solemnly approved, as being agreeable to the Word of God. It was first printed at Heidelberg in 1563, and recommended by authority to all the Churches and schools in the Palatinate, for the maintenance of uniformity in their method of instruction. The pious Count sent it also to all the Reformed Churches of Christendom; who received it with much approbation, as appears from the letters of acknowledgement, written by those several Churches, and long preserved among the public records of the Palatinate. It was soon translated into Dutch, printed, and recommended to the Churches of the Netherlands, as agreeing with God's Word, by the Synod of Embden, in 1571: which recommendation was further confirmed by the National Synod, which met at Dordrecht (Dort), in the year 1578. Having been attacked and found fault with by the Remonstrants, it was again examined, approved, and authorized, by the famous Synod of Dordrecht, in 1619; and was highly praised by the Foreign Divines there present, and very particularly by those of our own country.
That Synod may be fitly considered, and ought to be acknowledged, as the only General Council of the Reformed Churches. This, of course, is not the place to enter into any lengthened account of it: but I may just state, to those who know little about it but the name, and recall to the remembrance of those who have more information, that the States General of the United Provinces, when engaged in an arduous and protracted struggle for Christian liberty and the truth of the Gospel, took advantage of the truce between them and Spain, which began in 1609, and was to conclude in 1621, and of their friendly relations with England and other Protestant countries, to invite all the Reformed Churches of Europe to send Deputies or Representatives, to assist in the deliberations of the National Synod of the Dutch Churches, which was summoned to meet at Dordrecht, in November, 1618; so that this Synod might be, to all intents and purposes, an Oecumenical or General Council of all the Reformed Churches.1
Deputies were accordingly sent from Great Britain, by James I., with the advice and concurrence of Dr. George Abbot, then Archbishop of Canterbury; from the Palatinate, from Hesse, from the four Reformed Republics of Switzerland, by the Counts and Churches of the Wetteravian Correspondence, and by the Republics and Churches of Geneva, Bremen, and Embden. The French Reformed Churches had also deputed four of their ministers to attend, but the King of France, Louis XIII., forbade them to do so.
The English [sic] divines, who attended the Synod, were—
George Carleton, Bishop of Llandaff. He was afterwards Bishop of Chichester, and died in 1628.
Joseph Hall, D.D., Dean of Worcester, (afterwards Bishop of Exeter first, and then of Norwich). His praise is in all the Churches. But, his health suffering from the unquietness of a garrison town, he returned to England after two months, and was replaced by Thomas Goad, D.D., Precentor of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, and Chaplain to Archbishop Abbot. He was afterwards Rector of Hadley and Prebendary of Canterbury.
John Davenant, D.D., Margaret Professor of Divinity, and President of Queen's College, Cambridge. Afterwards Bishop of Salisbury, and generally allowed to be one of the first divines of his time; nor is there any one whose reputation stands higher to this day.
Samuel Ward, D.D., Master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and Archdeacon of Taunton. He was afterwards Prebendary of York, and Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.
Walter Balcanqual, B.D., a Scotchman by birth, but was, on account of his singular erudition, chosen Fellow of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. Afterwards Dean, first of Rochester, and then of Durham. He died in 1645.
These, with all the other deputies of the foreign Churches, to the number of twenty-one, eleven of whom were Professors in different Universities on the Continent, agreed with the Dutch Churches in commendation of the Heidelberg Catechism, as appears from the following record of the proceedings in regard to it, which I extract from the Acta Synodi, (Dordrechti, 1620; fol.; pp. 316, 317.)
"Sessione Centesima Quadragesima Septima.
Calendis Maii, die Mercurii ante meridiem.
Illustres Delegati declararunt, hanc quoque esse Illust. DD. Ordinum Generalium voluntatem, ut Catechesis Palatina jam olim ab Ecclesiis Belgicis recepta, atque in iisdem hactenus tradita, eundem in modum recognosceretur atque examinaretur: utque singuli declararent, num quid in hac Catechesi tradi existimarent, quod verbo Dei non consentire videretur. Hunc in finem omnes quaestiones et responsiones ejusdem relectae fuerunt, rogatique sunt singuli, ut sententiam suam de doctrina in eadem contenta, sincere declararent.
"Sessione Centesima Quadragesima Octava.
Eodem Die post meridiem.
Declaratum fuit consentientibus omnium tam Exterorum, quam Belgicorum Theologorum suffragiis, doctrinam in Catechesi Palatina comprehensam, Verbo Dei in omnibus esse consentientem, neque ea quidquam contineri, quod ut minus eidem consentaneum mutari aut corrigi debere videretur, ipsamque hanc Catechesin, esse admodum accuratum Orthodoxae doctrinae Christianae compendium; singulari prudentia non tantum ad tenerae adolescentiae captum, verum etiam eorum qui adultiores jam essent, commodam institutionem accommodatum. Ac proinde eam in Ecclesiis Belgicis magna cum aedificatione doceri posse, atque omnino retineri debere.”
“In the 147th Session, held on Wednesday
the 1st May, (1619) in the forenoon.
The illustrious Delegates2 declared that it was also the will of illustrious Lords, the States General, that the Palatine Catechism, now long received by the Dutch Churches, and thus far handed down in the same, should be in the same manner [as the Confession had been] reviewed and examined; and that each should declare, whether they thought anything to be delivered in this Catechism which did not seem to agree with the Word of God. To this end all the questions and answers of the same were read over, and each was requested, that they would sincerely declare their opinion concerning the doctrine contained in the same.
“In the 148th, the same day, afternoon, It was declared with the consenting suffrages of all the Theologians, as well Foreign as Dutch, that the doctrine contained in the Palatine Catechism, in all respects agrees with the Word of God; neither is there anything contained therein which, as less agreeable thereto, would appear to require to be changed or corrected; and that this same Catechism is a very accurate compendium of the orthodox Christian doctrine ; adapted with singular discretion not only to the capacity of tender youth, but also as a suitable instruction to those who are now more advanced in years. And that, therefore, it might be taught with great edification in the Dutch Churches, and ought by all means to be retained."
This is all that appears in the Acta Synodi: but this is abundantly sufficient to prove, that the Heidelberg Catechism was fully acknowledged and thoroughly understood, at that period, to be "a very accurate compendium of the orthodox Christian doctrine" of all the Reformed Churches. The authority of the Synod of Dordrecht is the highest authority upon that point that can possibly be produced.
It is further recorded, in the "History of the Synod," by James Trigland, (who was himself one of the Members present,) that the English divines above mentioned (Carleton, Davenant, Ward, Goad, and Balcanqual,) in a more especial manner commended this Catechism; for (though they did not consider that the answer to Question 44 contained the true exposition of the Article in the Creed, He descended into hell, and maintained their Christian liberty in regard to the interpretation of that Article) they all agreed in saying, "That neither their own, nor the French Church, had a Catechism so suitable and excellent; that those who had compiled it were therein remarkably endowed and assisted by the Spirit of God; that in several of their works they had excelled other theologians; but that, in the composition of this Catechism, they had outdone themselves."
A work which has been so highly commended by such men requires no further praise from any man. It may safely be left to the judgement of the truly Christian reader: nor will such be moved or surprised by the attacks and abuse with which the Papists, especially the Jesuits, or other heretics, have assailed it. It is thus that they give the best and only testimony they can give to that which is truly Scriptural and edifying. Their censure is great praise.
1. That it was intended so to be, and so regarded at the time, is evident from the language used in the "Praefatio ad Reformatas Christi Ecclesias," which (by the authority of the States General) was drawn up and prefixed to the Acta Synodi. In this authentic document we find such expressions as these:—
"Visum fuit Illustribus ipsorum Celsitudinibus, ex omnibus vicinorum Regnorum, Principatuum et Rerumpublicarum Ecclesiis Reformatis, Theologos aliquot pietate, eruditione, et prudentia praestantes ad hanc Synodum invitare, ut judiciis ac consiliis suis Belgicarum Ecclesiarum Deputatis assisterent, atque ita hae controversiae, communi quasi omnium Ecclesiarum Reformatarum judicio examinatae dijudicataeque, tanto certius, felicius, tutius ac majore cum fructu componerentur."
"It seemed good to their Illustrious Highnesses, to invite to this Synod, from all the Reformed Churches of the neighbouring Kingdoms, Principalities and Republics, some Theologians distinguished for piety, erudition and prudence, that they might by their judgements and counsels assist the Deputies of the Dutch Churches; and that so these controversies, having been examined and thoroughly discussed as it were by the common judgement of all the Reformed Churches, might the more certainly, happily, safely, and with greater benefit be composed."
"Nationalem hanc (Synodum) ab Illustr. et Praepotentibus Ordinibus Generalibus convocandam, quasi Oecumenicam et Generalem fore. Cum ex omnibus fere Reformatis Ecclesiis Deputati sunt eidem interfuturi."
"This National (Synod) to be called by the Illustrious and most Powerful the States General would he as it were Oecumenical and General. Since Deputies from almost all the Reformed Churches would be present at the same."
It may here be well to observe, that the term Reformed Churches has been, and is, constantly used on the Continent, to designate the Churches which took the Calvinistic view of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, as distinguished from those which embraced the views of Luther on that point: so that the distinction between the Reformed and the Lutheran Churches is just as clearly marked and understood on the Continent, as the opposition between the Protestant Churches and the Church of Rome.
It is also worthy of note, that the Church of England was publicly and fully recognised, in all the proceedings connected with this Synod, and generally all over Europe at that period, as one of the Reformed Churches; and as far more closely allied to the Reformed than to the Lutheran: for the bond of agreement in sound doctrine was held to be much closer and stronger than that of resemblance in external form and government.
2. These were Delegates appointed by the States General of the United Princes, —who occupied much the same position in the National Synod, that the Lord High Commissioner, as the Representative of the Sovereign, occupies in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. At their suggestion the Confession of the Dutch Churches had been revised and examined on the two days preceding.
Reproduced from the beginning of the preface of the Rev. A.S. Thelwall’s The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Christian Religion, London, 1850.