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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.