This year it is 450 years ago that the Heidelberger Catechism (abbreviated as HC) first appeared. It seems that this catechism if still sufficiently important to get a lot of attention during this festive event. For all those who want to know more about the ins and outs of this age-old document, a voluminous book with some 450 pages came just off the press: The Handbook of the Heidelberger Catechism (Kok Publishers, 2013). This Dutch version will soon be followed by an English and a German translation. The reader will find a wealth of information about its history, its use since the sixteenth century, its theology, etc. And for the experts the book offers a long list of relevant literature.
In the meantime I have read most of the book. I must, however, honestly admit that I have skipped some pages here and there, but I have discovered many things I did not know before, and as I read, new questions continued to arise.
I remember that my Reformed friends of the elementary school were forced to attend the weekly catechism study, taught by their local pastor. They told me that they had to learn a small section every week. The book is in question and answer form. I remember that the first question was about one’s only comfort, both in life and in death. And they knew the answer by heart: ‘Our only comfort is that we know that in life and death we belong to Jesus Christ, our Savior, with our entire body and soul. In retrospect one wonders how much 11- and 12-years old children really understood.
As I read in the Handbook about the use of the HC by 17th and 18th century missionaries in the Dutch colonies, I asked myself how effective it was to try to teach ‘pagans’ the first principles of the biblical message with the use of the HC!
However, one element struck me in particular, when I thought about it a bit further. I knew quite a few things about the Heidelberger Catechism and, after my reading this week, I know more. But I realized that I hade never actually read the book itself. I looked for a copy in my book case and did indeed locate a book with the Dutch traditional Confessional Documents—the HC among them. I decided to read a major chunk of it. And so I found the (in)famous question no. 80. There the question is asked about the difference between the Lord’s Supper and the ‘popish mass’. In the reply to that question, today’s members of the United Church in the Netherlands are still warned that the Catholic mass is a denial of Christ’s sacrifice and is ‘a form of cursed and gruesome idolatry’.
Remarkably enough, we often tend to read about certain texts, without ever reading these texts themselves. There are plenty of people, in and outside the Adventist Church, who have a definite opinion about the person and work of Ellen G. White, but have never read anything that she wrote (although they may have several of their books in their book case). And, what is even more regrettable: many people (including pastors and other theologians) spend a lot more time reading about the Bible than in the Bible.
It would seem that the glory time of the Heidelberger Catechism is past. Even in many ultra-conservative Dutch churches the sermon about the catechism on Sunday afternoon has been abandoned. And to ensure that young people will listen to the gospel, surely other means are needed that this 450-year old book.