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A week ago today my colleague Dan Meeter posted here about what he regards as recent misappropriations of the Heidelberg Catechism. Consider this blog as a kind of sequel to Dan’s thoughts.
In any event, my professor Fred Klooster fairly beamed when he talked about the Heidelberg Catechism. He regarded it as the crown jewel document of the whole Reformation era. When Professor Klooster talked about the genius of the Catechism, it was always the theme of comfort that came to the forefront. He used to suggest we take Martin Luther’s classic hymn and substitute “comfort” for “fortress” to capture the essence of the Heidelberger. “A Mighty Comfort Is Our God!”
He delighted in pointing out how the Catechism turned the conventional wisdom of the 16th century on its head when it took something like the fearsome and fierce prospect of divine judgment—used as a bludgeon by the Medieval Church—and instead asked and answered the question “How does Christ’s coming again to judge the living and the dead comfort you?”
Professor Klooster also pointed out how in the Catechism, the Misery section is the shortest in every way. It contains the fewest questions and answers of the three sections and the ones it does have are themselves among the shortest Q&As in the document. Despite the caricature of Calvinists as judgmental people hung up on sin, the Catechism actually wants to spend most of its time on grace, comfort, and joy. Klooster was also careful to note how unlike Luther’s catechism and some other catechisms of that era, the Heidelberg Catechism strategically did not use the Ten Commandments in the Misery section.
A list of laws, after all, has a way of becoming a checklist that could lead to a sense of self-righteousness—see, for instance, the rich young ruler in the gospels: “All these have I kept since my youth. What do I still lack?” Instead the summary of the Law was used as more than sufficient to convict us of our need for what was to come next in the Deliverance part of the Catechism. The Ten Commandments were reserved for the Gratitude section where instead of serving as a bludgeon to convict us of our sin, each commandment was transformed into a joyful way by which to live out our thanksgiving to God for the great salvation by grace alone depicted in the middle part of the Catechism.
As I just noted, Professor Klooster fairly beamed when he talked about all this as he rather emotionally noted the pastoral warmth at the heart of the Catechism.
All of which contributes to the sadness I feel for what has been happening to the Catechism of late. As most people reading this know, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church went to Q&A 108 and the Catechism’s treatment of the seventh commandment to imbue a single word—unchastity—with a welter of meanings covering an array of things but most of all to define this one word as prohibiting homosexual sex. And Synod made very sure to note that this interpretation and expansion of definition of “unchastity” is itself now confessional such that no one may disagree with it.
So much has been said, could be said, and will be said about the specifics of this. But for this blog I merely want to note my sorrow that all of this has undone—or has begun to undo—what was genius about the Catechism. Because now we have taken a Q&A on one of the Ten Commandments in the Gratitude section of the Catechism and have turned it into something better belonging in the Misery section after all. In the section of the Catechism meant to revel in the joy of the salvation by grace alone that had just been detailed in the Deliverance part, we have now introduced a moral hammer.
Now we tell people that if in fact they are guilty of or struggle with an array of sex-related sins or of any one sin in that array, they as a matter of fact have no business being in the Gratitude part of the Catechism in the first place. As it turns out, they never actually got through the Deliverance part and if they thought they did, they are mistaken. The Human Sexuality Report recommended to the churches by Synod 2022 made it clear that the things it dealt with in its report were salvation issues.
But now all of this is loaded onto and embedded into a part of the would-be joyful Gratitude part of this crown jewel of the Reformation.
Professor Klooster loved the warm pastoral heart of the Heidelberger. But what we’ve been doing with one word in that part of the Catechism is cooling things down on that front considerably.
Of course it is true that the Catechism’s treatment of the Ten Commandments includes words on the negative side of the ledger—that is, what each commandment forbids. I am not ignorant of this obvious fact. Still, it feels like we’ve done damage to the logic and structure and flow and, yes, to the comfort of the Catechism by what has been happening of late. If so and/or to the extent that this is so, that is a loss.
Maybe we’d all be better served to go back to the Misery part of the Catechism and remind ourselves that Ursinus and company knew that it was more than enough to humble each one of us to be reminded of one salient fact: what God wants most from us is love—love for God, love for neighbor. On our own we cannot muster such love. By grace we can. By grace we do. And that is a mighty comfort we ought not wish to see eclipsed.
Those last lines, especially. Thank you, Scott.
Thanks for your article. Reminded me of how I grew in appreciation of the catechism in Dr Klooster’s class. Contagious! T
Yes and amen. In a culture that regularly bludgeons people who are struggling with a host of hard things we need the catechism comfort like never before.
Scott, what is really sad for me is this: The CRC is now stuck with this action. Will it ever be redone? Rescinded? Or, going forward, will it be a forgotten footnote of CRC history?
Apparently some are celebrating the fact that (finally) there is “clarity,” that homosexual/lesbian practice is really “sinful” (adulterous). But that clarity has come at the expense of “comfort,” especially for our gay brothers and sisters. I don’t think you can “love them” while insisting they are living in sin. That doesn’t work very well.
The Synod action has bound the church to a culturally fixed interpretation of scripture that ignores what science is revealing about how sexuality may be formed, and to deal with it accordingly. The reality is that there have always been gay persons, male and female, and that, not by their own choice. They and we wrestle with what it means to live into that identity. It’s a different world today than the Greco-Roman world.
The Synod action tears at the fabric that has held us together as people of faith. Are we people who are open to changing views or closed to changing views? We seem to insist on building walls instead of bridges.
It appears to this participant and observer that we are at another watershed moment in the history of the Christian faith, comparable to what was happening during the height of the Protestant Reformation. Old allegiances are being questioned, and in many cases, abandoned for new loyalties. It’s too early to know who we will be when the dust settles. We are in a whirlwind of dust and debris. We need another John Calvin to help us make sense of all the turmoil that’s tearing up the religious landscape.
Scott (and others), you are one of those voices. Thank you for engaging, for sifting through the bits and pieces to point us in a better direction. Acts 13 reveals decisions that seemed good both by “the Holy Spirit and us.”
Meanwhile, individual persons in existing congregations are making choices. Congregational leaders are making choices. Will we be “open and affirming” or “closed and rejecting”? Can we have it both ways? Can we deal with persons and issues on an individual basis as questions come up? What is the role of hierarchical decisions for the sake of unity and purity?
We will have discussions about what sin is and discerning what forgiveness means. The congregations I know want to keep putting into practice, “loving God and neighbor” in fresh and meaningful ways.
The real action will come from congregations and with entities with whom they affiliate and support. All for the purpose of bringing and embodying “good news” to those bogged down with “bad news.” New wine is finding new wine skins. Then, in the time of our Lord. And now, in our generations.
Thank you Scott (and others) for the ongoing discussion and wrestling with these important matters.
Thanks for your insights and reflecting on Professor Klooster’s appreciation of the catechism. I’ve been emphasizing when I have opportunity that it uses the 10 C as a way of showing gratitude not a means of salvation. The Israelites received them as a guide for living and loving, not “Keep these and I’ll deliver you from Egypt.” When asked about the greatest…Jesus answered, “Love God and neighbors. ” There…I feel better now.
Remembering that the word “comfort” comes from the Latin meaning “with strength,” I hope that if we exchange this for fortress in Ein Feste Burg, those being trampled in the church in the name of purity will indeed find comfort that is “with strength.” Reading the headlines of the pope apologizing to First Nation peoples I was at first thrilled. Then I saw the pictures of the pontiff, sitting in his wheelchair amid all those graves and my heart melted/broke. There is no justification when in the name of Jesus we hurt people. How many people has the cruelty of rejection and condemnation led them to reject the faith? We want to “fix” others and in doing so we sow hatred and do irreparable harm.
Why, oh why is the condemnation of LGBTQ+ the predominant theme of the church’s concern?
I pray for “comfort” – “with strength” for everyone humiliated or harmed by the church. Truly Jesus is theirs and ours only comfort in life and in death. Lord, have mercy upon us.
Thank you. This post gives me hope for CTS. It was getting to where I barely recognized the place I graduated from in 1985.
Thanks for this post. I appreciate your ending. I only wish the Catechism Q&A 5 would have had a better interpretation of Q&A 4. Certainly we hate God and our neighbor as #5 notes, but I think we also hate ourselves, as Jesus’ summary of the Law notes (love neighbor “as we love ourselves”), and thus we hate ourselves when we fail to live the Law (failure of #5 to note, as our inability to keep the Law). I note this, because the “moral hammer” of unchastity in Q&A 108 creates an ongoing dynamic of self-hatred for many people in our congregations rather than comfort in gratitude. This self-hatred leads to a myriad of destructive outcomes. I believe Scripture and Christ call us to an open and affirming embrace of LGBTQ+ folk in the church, but if you don’t agree, I think you must wrestle with the outcome of your approach. Does it lead to comfort, even in the challenge you offer to a person’s behavior, or does it lead to further self-hatred? I can’t answer that question. I’m a cis-gender, straight man, but it seems that a lot of conversation with LGBTQ+ folk might help get that answer and that might help all of us with how we engage with Q&A 4-5 and the grace and gratitude sections of the Catechism.
What a joyous perspective! How different from the killjoy self-righteousness of modern Pharisees. Thank you Prof. Hoezee.
And let’s remember that those of us who were never members of the CRC or RCA have been indelibly harmed by your “outreach.” My sense is that you believe it’s only about you all. Nuh uh.
Always my pastor of Grace. Thanks, Scott, for this terrific insight. I remember well Fred Klooster’s emphasis on comfort and grace while teaching the HC. This sets the record straight—the gift of the HC is grace, not an obsession with sin.
I am so encouraged and heartened by all of this. Hopefully our LGBTQ friends will sense the sweet scent of these vibes.
Thank you for the balm of comfort you bring to a deep wound that has been inflicted in the name of cleansing our denomination of the sins of sex, but, curiously, not a host of others. Please keep speaking the truth of grace.