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“Give it back. You can’t have it if you’re going to use it like that. That’s not what it’s for.”
Okay, I’ll admit that I have used a table knife when I needed a screwdriver, but I keep a couple of tools in my kitchen drawer. I wouldn’t take my car to a mechanic whose toolbox was all forks and knives. It’s never best practice to use something for which it wasn’t designed, even when sometimes we have to.
The 2022 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) used the Heidelberg Catechism for what it was not designed. It misused it as a law. In a peculiar twist of Reformed terminology, the Synod declared its interpretation of answers 108 & 109 to be “confessional.” The Catechism, however, was not written to be a confession. It was not adopted by the infant Dutch Reformed church to be a confession — we already had one. The Catechism was adopted as an authorized curriculum. To use it otherwise is to misuse it.
Using creeds as weapons is an ancient practice in the holy catholic Church. Go back to the age of Constantine, when the creeds were backed by the sword of the Empire. In 1619, just after the Synod of Dordt, the Calvinist mob executed the Arminian statesman Oldenbarneveld. So it was not a new thing that the Synod of 2022 did, but did they have to use the Catechism to do it?
Why didn’t the Synod weaponize one of the Creeds? Well, because there’s nothing in them touching sexuality, apart from one important case of virginity. Why not the Belgic Confession, which truly is “confessional”? Because the Belgic does not touch sexuality. Why not the Canons of Dort, which truly are rules (“canons”)? No sexuality there either. The closest the Synod could get was the Catechism’s Lord’s Day 41, but even here they had to cantilever an interpretation out from one word: “unchastity.”
The Catechism was not meant to be a “confession.” It was written for educational use “inside” as opposed to bearing witness “outside.” Calling the Catechism a “confession” is largely an accident from the title of a 20th century book: Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions. Before that, we always called the Catechism a “Doctrinal Standard” or a “Form of Unity.” And it’s only since our awareness of the Belhar Confession that we’ve started labeling contemporary issues “confessional.”
Yes, the Catechism was intended as a Form of Unity by its sponsor, the Elector Frederick, in order to unite the factions within the Palatinate. Yes, the Catechism was designed as a Standard of Doctrine, to guide and form the substance of preaching and teaching in the Palatinate. (And for both purposes it was adopted by the early Dutch Reformed churches.) But the Elector did not commission his new catechism as rules or canons. His rules for the church were elsewhere in his Palatinate Church Order.
The primary interest of the pious Elector and his writers was to make a curriculum for the pastors of the Palatinate. Most of these pastors had been Roman Catholic priests, and when, in the German way of things, they discovered themselves to be Protestants they needed help. Father Franz and Father Hans were faithful, loyal, responsible, and adequately literate, but school was now beyond them. So in 1563 the Elector said, “Here, use this for your homilies and your teaching.” Go through it every year, and in due time you’ll end up Reformed. The Heidelberg Catechism was basically a “how-to-be-a-Protestant-pastor-kit” for Father Franz and Father Hans.
The Catechism is a curriculum, not a confession. It’s a teaching tool, a heuristic. And like all heuristics and curricula it has its benefits, liabilities, and gentle inaccuracies for the sake of its teaching purposes. It bears the interests of the pious Elector, that his catechism form a populace to be peaceful, friendly, well-behaved, and cheerfully loyal to their prince. For all of that, it displays brilliant insight into the human soul, the theology of St. Paul, and the heart of the Gospel. It is always wise, even when it’s wrong on certain points of scriptural interpretation.
Take the Synod’s passage in question, Lord’s Day 41. Answers 108 and 109 might well be God’s will for us, but they are certainly not what Exodus 20:14 means by “adultery.” To use these answers as a law for churches is unwise indeed. Or take answer 103 about the fourth commandment. It may well be God’s will for us to support the Gospel ministry and regularly go to church but that is not what Exodus 20:8-11 is about. But again, the Catechism is a heuristic, a teaching tool — and you have to kill the frog to use it in a High School science lab. The Catechism is well worth our study, and still today our regular use of it, even when it’s wrong, as long as we are honest about it.
As a Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister, I have frequently declared that “I accept the Standards as faithful and historic witnesses to the Word of God.” I have taught the Catechism in all my charges, I have preached through it several times, I have memorized parts of it, and made some teenagers do so too. I have researched it and published on it. I love the Catechism, and I am jealous for its proper use.
What I can’t abide is a synod using it as a hammer. Or a chisel. It’s a fork for nourishment and a table knife for spreading butter. Use the Catechism in the way it wants to be used. If you think you need to raise sexuality to the level of a confession (you can’t make it credal because the Creeds are closed), and if the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort won’t help you (and they won’t, which should tell you something), then have the integrity to do it the right way, by daring to write your own new confession or canon or whatever.
Don’t weaponize the Catechism. It’s not your Catechism to do with it as you please.