Wittenberg, Geneva, and Heidelberg - Dr. F. G. 0osterhoff
Adapted from a speech held at the Annual Meeting of the Women's Societies of Manitoba on June 28, 1973.
I promised to say something about the teachings of Luther and Calvin; first of all about the similarities, but then also about the differences between the two. That intention explains the first two place names in the title: Wittenberg, the town of Luther, and Geneva, the birth place of the Calvinist church. The reason why the third one, Heidelberg, is added will later become apparent.
Before a great deal can be said about Luther and Calvin, some attention must be given to the situation in the Roman Catholic church, which gave rise to the great Reformation in which Luther and Calvin played such leading roles.
Often it is assumed that the main cause of the Reformation was the existence of abuses in the Roman church. Now as you all know, there were many glaring abuses. The popes in Rome, who called themselves the representatives of Christ on earth, were worldly. They were more interested in money and power and glory than in the spiritual well-being of the flock. Morality was low. There was, on the eve of the Reformation, hardly a pope who did not have one or more mistresses and a number of illegitimate children. The popes fought with kings and princes for territory and influence. They used the money of the believers to fight their wars, to enrich their friends and relatives, their mistresses and children, and to build beautiful palaces. Other great church leaders did the same.
Religion had become primarily a matter of finances and favoritism. Little care was taken to find clergy members who would take their spiritual duties seriously. Instead, church offices, which were often the source of considerable revenue, were sold to the highest bidder, or given to favorites and to the children of favorites. Pluralism - the practice whereby one person held several offices - was rampant. Several of the more influential clergy had more than one office; they might have an archbishopric, some bishoprics and other lucrative posts, sometimes in different countries. Absenteeism was the inevitable result. A similar pluralism and absenteeism was also increasingly found at lower clerical levels.
And the flock was left without guidance. The people had of course their parish priests, who were at the lower end of the clerical scale. But in the choice of parish priests also little regard was had to the spiritual needs of the people. The parish priests were underpaid and in the majority of cases uneducated. They might be able to say their Latin masses, but they were hardly in a position to give a great deal of pastoral care and instruction. Preaching was not an integral part of the services, and the reading of the Bible by laymen was frowned upon by the clergy. Eventually it would become a capital offence even to possess a Bible.
The people, then, were kept in gross ignorance, and in many instances popular religion, with its stress upon external performances, good works and worship of saints, with its magic and its superstitious beliefs, was closer to paganism than to Christianity. People were kept in the church primarily by fear; fear of excommunication, fear of damnation, fear also of death. At the same time they were exploited by their spiritual leaders. They had to pay their church taxes, they had to pay for the use of certain sacraments and for their funerals. They were even urged to disburse money for their soul's salvation. You all know of the indulgences which the popes allowed to be sold to the people, promising them that they would shorten their time in purgatory and hasten the soul's entry into heaven. These indulgences are only one of many examples, however. The church dispensed grace and controlled the means of salvation, and whenever it saw an opportunity to do so in return for a monetary consideration it did not hesitate to use that opportunity.
We could go on talking about the abuses of a corrupt and worldly church. Even Roman Catholic historians admit that the situation was shameful, and that by the time of Luther a "reformation of the church in head and members" was long overdue. Yet these abuses were not in themselves the cause of the Protestant Reformation. They could have been removed. In fact, many Roman Catholics at the time were asking for such a cleansing of the church. And some decades after Luther started the Reformation by issuing his Ninety-Five Theses against the sale of indulgences, the leaders of the Roman church began their attack upon the most glaring abuses - in the hope that by so doing they might prevent further losses and at the same time regain the allegiance of those who had followed the Reformation. This was done at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which completed what the Roman Catholics call the "Catholic Reformation." Yet this attempt, insofar as it was inspired by the wish to heal the breach between Rome and the protestant churches, had no success. The Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the other protestants did not return to the church of Rome.
For the quarrel which the Reformers had with Rome was not in the first place about the abuses, but about the teachings of the church, about its doctrine, its theology.
What was the theology of the Roman church? Perhaps the best way of defining it is by saying that it was essentially man-centred, and that it was based not only, and not even in the first place, upon the Word of God, but upon the ideas of man. True, Rome admitted that the Bible was God's Word, but in its theology and practice it ignored the Bible, or added to it, or changed its precepts and teachings in various ways.
This is what is called self-willed religion. It is not a sin that was restricted to the Roman church. We are already confronted with it in the Old Testament. Remember the golden calf which Aaron made for the children of Israel when Moses was up on the mountain receiving the commandments of God. Aaron did not intend to make a new religion; he just wanted to give the people something by means of which they could be aware of God. The calf represented God, at least in Aaron's view, who built an altar for it and proclaimed a feast day unto the Lord. And the same happened later, after the separation of the ten tribes under king Jeroboam, who erected the altars at Dan and Bethel so that he might keep the worship within his own kingdom.
What was God's reply to this self-willed religion? We know it from the second commandment, where He tells His covenant people that in their worship and service of Him they have to follow His commandments, and where He warns them that He will visit the sins of the fathers in this regard upon the children, unto the third and the fourth generation.
We meet the same sin also in the New Testament. Paul and the other apostles had to warn against it and to attack the ideas of the Jews, the Greeks and others. The temptation has always been there, and it is still very much with us today. For by nature man wants to take God's place, and to be like unto Him. By nature man wants to be the centre of things, to decide how and why he shall serve God. By nature man tries to forget that God is the Creator, the sovereign - that He is so infinitely far above His creatures that they cannot know Him, nor His will, nor His attitude toward them, unless He comes down to man and reveals Himself. By nature man also feels that he is more than dust and ashes, more than the clay in the potter's hand; that he can cooperate with God, decide about his own salvation, do good works that put God in man's debt.
And so it happened that time and again man created God in man's image, and gave his own ideas greater authority than the Word of God, and so fell into idolatry. And, as 1 said, it is still with us, while many church leaders, also today, condone and encourage it. Often with the best of intentions, because they fear that otherwise they will lose the people, or because they believe that the Gospel should be adapted to the needs and ideas and preconceptions of the age. Thus, if people have objections to certain Biblical teachings, or if it is felt that these teachings cannot stand up to the test of "modern knowledge", they are ignored. Predestination, for example, is considered objectionable, and consequently few churches confess it any more. Free will is what man prefers to believe in, and that is what is taught. The fall of man in sin also goes against modern man's ideas, and therefore it is under emphasized, or declared a mere symbol or myth. Even the truth and necessity of Christ's sacrifice for our salvation are attacked. We see these developments in churches all around us, and we ourselves are prone to fall into the same temptation, if we allow human wisdom and human desires and human counsels to rule over the Word of God.
We see these developments in churches all around us, and we ourselves are prone to fall into the same temptation, if we allow human wisdom and human desires and human counsels to rule over the Word of God.
In the Roman church then this same sin was present, although it took somewhat different manifestations. And here, too, it had spread almost imperceptibly and could often be explained with reference to the circumstances and needs of the time. Look, for example, at the idea of the bishop of Rome being the head of the entire church. This had many practical advantages. It made it possible for the popes in Rome to organize missionary activities and the establishment of churches and monasteries; it helped to knit western Christendom together; and it enabled the church to ensure and enforce doctrinal unity. Yet the entire system of church government was clearly unscriptural, and the harmful consequences would become more and more evident. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), who did much to establish these claims for universal papal dominion, might still consider himself the "servant of the servants of Christ", but in fact the popes became the rulers of the church. Their word was law, also if it went against the Word of God, and disobedience to them was a mortal sin.
Another example is the doctrine of purgatory, and the belief in the meritoriousness of good works. In the spread of these and similar unbiblical ideas Gregory the Great played again an important role. He did not invent these ideas; most of them had been broached earlier. He did, however, popularize them, and was instrumental in making them an integral part of the church's doctrine.
Pope Gregory, a great statesman and leader with a keen psychological sense, was not a profound scholar or theologian, but he was a very pious and a well-meaning man. He ruled at the time when the western Roman Empire had fallen and when Europe had been overrun by barbarian tribes. Gregory felt it to be his duty to convert these barbarians to Christianity and in order to do so he considered it advisable to make some adaptations. He constantly advised his missionaries, for example, to make use of every pagan custom and belief that could be harmonized with Christianity, and so to facilitate the conversion of the primitive barbarians.
One of the many difficulties which the missionaries encountered was that the pagans had been accustomed to gods whose goodwill had to be secured by ritual and sacrifices. The concept of a God who saves sinners out of grace only was foreign to them, and it might be assumed that they would have fewer problems with a religion that placed at least some stress upon good works. An additional advantage of such a religion was that it would put force behind the church's requirements that the converts lead a moral life. These considerations may well have played a role in Gregory's theology and in his departure from the biblical and Augustinian teaching of salvation by grace and by faith alone. In any event, he taught a form of semi- Pelagianism: salvation was the result of cooperation between God and man, between God's grace and man's works.
And since it was clearly impossible for most men to accomplish their share, Gregory worked out the doctrine of purgatory, where through suffering the souls of the dead would be cleansed of their remaining sins.
And since it was clearly impossible for most men to accomplish their share, Gregory worked out the doctrine of purgatory, where through suffering the souls of the dead would be cleansed of their remaining sins. But in order that the believer might fulfil his share as far as possible, and so shorten his time in purgatory, he was given various aids by the church. The believers were advised to rely on the aid of the saints, to run, as Gregory put it, "to the protection of the holy martyrs", to adore the relics, to go on pilgrimages, and to do whatever else the church said was advisable or necessary to make up for their sins.
As appears from the foregoing the cult of saints also was stressed by Gregory, although here, too, the practice was much older than the sixth century. But since the time of Gregory the Great - who is usually considered the transitional figure between the period of the early church and the church of the Middle Ages - saint worship spread widely, and here again the "needs" of the people undoubtedly played their customary role. After all, the barbarians had been used to many gods and found it difficult to believe in one God. Things could be made easier for them if they could turn to the saints and their visible images. It was not the intention of the popes that the saints should be deified, yet this was the practical result. Mary and the other saints became the actual gods for many of the people; God and Christ were too far away, too unknown. Saints and their images multiplied and occupied a central place in the people's worship.
With this belief in the mediatory role of people, and with the doctrine of the meritoriousness of good works, Christ had ceased to be the only Saviour for the Roman church. The people were advised to seek their salvation and welfare in the saints, in themselves, and, not in the last place, through the church. For without the church, that is, without obedience to the pope and his doctrines and commandments, there was no salvation. Nor was there salvation without the priests. For the church and its clergy were the distributors of supernatural grace, and the means by which this grace was given to the members were the sacraments. By the sacrament of baptism, for example, the sins which the recipient had committed up to that time, as well as his original sin, were forgiven. Automatically. This was one of the reasons why, in the earlier centuries (and until the church forbade it), some people postponed their baptism until their old age, so that as many sins as possible would be forgiven to them. It was also the reason why newborn babies who showed no promise of life could, if no priest was available, be baptized by a lay person. For without baptism they could not obtain salvation.
The Roman church had various other sacraments, seven altogether, but we cannot take the time to describe them all. Something must be said, however, about the sacrament of the Lord's Supper or the mass. You know about this Roman sacrament from the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day XXX. According to the papal church Christ's sacrifice was of no profit to the believers unless it was daily repeated by the priests. During the ceremony the bread and wine changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. As such they were offered up to God, and as such they received the adoration and worship of the people. And like baptism, the mass also infused grace into its recipients. It did more than that: the mass was celebrated not only for the benefit of the living, but also for that of the dead whose souls were suffering in purgatory. The faith in the efficacy of the mass to shorten the soul's torment in purgatory was so strong that those who could afford it made provision for the celebration of masses on their own or their relatives' behalf. A veritable traffic in paid masses resulted.
I have had to be brief, but I hope that you have some idea as to the consequences of the Roman church's man-centred, self-willed religion. The Word of God had become a closed book. The church, that is the pope and the theologians and philosophers, knew better than God Himself who God was, what His will and attitude were towards man, how He wanted to be worshiped, and how He redeemed sinners. God, the Creator and Redeemer, was pushed from His throne, and man occupied it. The pope and the priests saved and damned, and the flock, instead of being fed, was poisoned, generation after generation.
It was against this theology that the reformers fought, Luther as well as Calvin. I want to stress this. Certainly, there were differences between Luther and Calvin, even important differences. We will come to them in a moment. But the agreements between them were greater. For both saw what was the root cause of all the corruption and spiritual misery in the church, and both attacked this root cause: namely the church's refusal to live by the word of God. The great principles of the Reformation, of Luther's as well as Calvin's, were these four:
Sola Scriptura - that is, the Bible alone; the infallible Word of God is the only norm for faith and for life;
Sola fide - that is, salvation is by faith alone, and not by works; faith in the one and all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ, who died for sinners;
Sola gratia - that is, by grace alone, for it comes all from God. It is not man who seeks God, but God who seeks man, quickens and redeems him;
Soli deo gloria - that is, all is to the glory not of man, but of God. God is the sovereign who alone created, and who alone redeems and saves, according to His sovereign good pleasure, and unto His glory.
Luther and Calvin then, were in agreement in their opposition to the theology and practices of the Roman church by their return to the Scriptures as the only norm of faith and worship, and therefore also by their confession that salvation is by faith in Christ's sacrifice alone.
What then were the differences between the two reformers? In discussing them I will make frequent use of the Heidelberg Catechism, because some of the major divergencies can be explained with reference to that confession. For the Heidelberg Catechism was born not only out of the struggle between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, but also out of that between the adherents of the Reformed and of the Lutheran teachings.
I should say something about the origins of this Catechism. As you probably know, Lutheranism established itself in the larger part of Germany and in the Scandinavian countries. Calvinism spread from Switzerland to France, Belgium, Holland, Scotland and England, to certain areas in eastern and central Europe, and also to a number of states in Germany itself. Among these German states was the Palatinate, a country situated in the Rhineland. The capital of the Palatinate was Heidelberg, and its ruler, from 1559 to 1576, was Frederick III, often called Frederick the Pious, who was indeed one of the most religious rulers Germany knew at the time.
When Frederick came to the throne Protestantism was already widespread in the Palatinate. Lutherans and Calvinists had been appointed as professors to the University of Heidelberg and served as ministers in the various churches. Disagreements had developed among Lutheran and Reformed theologians, however, especially in connection with the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Frederick wanted peace in the churches and invited theologians of both sides to discuss the differences. The result of this discussion was that Frederick himself wholeheartedly embraced Calvinism. And he stuck to it, in spite of severe attacks by various Lutheran princes and theologians.
Immediately after the discussion in question Frederick ordered that a Catechism be drawn up for the instruction of the church members. This became the Heidelberg Catechism. It was completed in 1563. The largest amount of work on it had been done by two Reformed theologians, Zacharius Ursinus, professor at Heidelberg university, and Caspar Oliveanus, minister of the Church of the Holy Ghost in Heidelberg. Both were quite young. In fact, practically all the reformers were young when they began their work. Luther had been 34 when, in 1517, he issued his Ninety-Fifth Theses. Calvin was 27 when he published the first edition of his famous work The Institutes of the Christian Religion and started his life's work in Geneva. Ursinus and Oliveanus were 28 and 26 respectively when they wrote the Heidelberg Catechism. But they had studied under Calvin, Beza and other reformers, they knew the works of all the major protestant theologians, and they knew their Bible. So did their Prince, Frederick III. Frederick was greatly interested in the work on the Heidelberger and when it was completed he called a conference or "synod" of church superintendents and preachers to judge it. When it was accepted it became a best seller, overnight, and was translated into various languages. It was, and still is, widely regarded as one of the most influential, and also as one of the most beautiful, catechisms produced during the time of the Reformation. Its history in following centuries is also of great interest. I want to say something about that later.
First, however, we must return to the differences between the teachings of Luther and Calvin. One important difference was in their interpretation of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Here Luther stayed much closer to the Roman view than did Calvin and most of the other reformers. He did not take over the entire Roman Catholic interpretation. Rome had taught transubstantiation; the bread and wine ceased to be bread and wine and became the real body and blood of Christ, which the priest offered up to God as a repetition of Christ's sacrifice. Luther rejected the idea that the mass was a sacrifice, and he also opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation. Yet he felt that the words of Christ, "This is My body," must be taken literally. And so he developed what has become known as the doctrine of consubstantiation: the bread and the wine do not change, yet Christ's real flesh and blood are present in, with and under the elements of bread and wine. To clarify this concept Luther used the example of iron that is put into the fire; it remains iron, yet it also partakes of the fire. Because Christ then was really and bodily present in the sacrament, the people who participated in the Lord's Supper ate and drank Christ's actual body and blood, and by doing so they received grace and forgiveness of sins. Luther added, however, that forgiveness can be had only by faith, so that unbelieving and unrepentant communicants did not receive this blessing.
Few reformers agreed with Luther's views about the Real Presence. A Dutch lawyer, Cornelius Hoen, studied the question and became convinced that the words, "This is My body," must not be taken literally but figuratively or symbolically. Christ had also said, "I am the door," and "I am the true vine," and that also was taken in a non-literal sense. Hoen wrote a treatise on the Lord's Supper and sent it, in 1521, to Luther, but Luther would have nothing to do with it. Then, in 1523, it was sent on to Zwingli, the Swiss reformer at Zurich, who did use it in developing his interpretation of the sacrament.
And Zwingli's views influenced those of John Calvin, who came to Geneva in 1536, some years after Zwingli's death. Calvin was in full agreement with Zwingli's rejection of consubstantiation, and also with his view that a distinction must be maintained between the sacramental sign and that which was signified by it. He did not say, however - as Zwingli had often done - that the Lord's Supper was primarily a meal of remembrance. For to say that is to ignore the fact that God gives something in the sacrament. Calvin was convinced that in the Supper the believers have a real communion with Christ, also according to His humanity; that they partake of His body and blood - although in a spiritual sense and with the mouth of faith - and that thus, through the working of the Spirit, they are incorporated into His body which is in heaven. How this happened he could not explain, but that it was so he believed on the authority of the Scriptures. Calvin's teachings in this regard have been briefly, but clearly, summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism. I am particularly thinking of question and answer 76, where it says that to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink His shed blood is "not only to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and the death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal, but, further, also to become more and more united to His sacred body, by the Holy Spirit, who dwells both in Christ and in us, so that, though Christ is in heaven and we are on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones, and live and are governed by one Spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul."
What were the major differences here between Luther and Calvin? In the first place, Luther's teachings could lead to the idolatry of the bread, as had happened in the Roman church. It is true that Luther forbade such an "adoration of the host," but the tendency nevertheless developed in the Lutheran church to treat the bread as something sacred, no crumb of which was allowed to fall to the ground. Furthermore, and in spite of his emphasis upon faith, Luther retained something of the magic materialistic interpretation associated with the doctrine of transubstantiation, which had given support to so many other corrupt practices and false beliefs in the Roman church. And finally, Luther based his teaching of consubstantiation upon the principle of the ubiquity of Christ's body - that is the belief that Christ, according to His human nature, is omnipresent, and is therefore also present on earth. He in fact denied, in other words, the literal truth of Christ's ascension into heaven and the fact that He remains there, at the right hand of God, the Father, until He shall come to judge the living and the dead. It was certainly also with a view to these Lutheran teachings that the Heidelberg Catechism confessed in various places that according to His human nature Christ is no longer on earth, and that it emphasized the comfort which this gives us (see, e.g., Lord's Day XVIII, especially question and answer 49).
Luther and Calvin differed not only in their interpretation of the Lord's Supper, but also in that of the sacrament of baptism. It took Luther some time before he had developed his views on this sacrament. Believing in the necessity of faith he had, at first, tried to retain the distinction between the sacramental sign and that which it signified, but later he put less stress on this distinction, as he had also done in the case of the Lord's Supper. The water in baptism too acquired supernatural qualities, it became a "divine, heavenly and sacred" element, and the sacrament conferred forgiveness of sins: he who comes forth from baptism is, according to Luther, "truly pure, without sin, and wholly guiltless." From here it was only a short step to the declaration of the "ordinary necessity" of baptism for salvation, - even though Luther continued to emphasize that without the Word, and without faith in the Word and its promises, the sacrament is of no profit.
Calvin agreed with Luther's emphasis upon faith but, like Zwingli, he opposed his close identification of sign and substance. The Swiss reformers went back to the covenant teachings of the Bible and confessed that the children of believers must be baptized because they are, with their parents, included in the church and covenant of God and heirs of the promises. I do not have to go into the Reformed teachings on this sacrament. They are well known to us from the form of baptism used in our churches, and from the section on baptism in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord's Days XXVI and XXVII).
In a comparison of Lutheranism and Calvinism we cannot confine ourselves to the sacraments. There were other differences, and although there is no time to speak about them all, I want to touch upon a few of them. In some cases the differences were to a certain extent a result of the circumstances under which the reformers worked, and of the manner in which they had come to their break with Rome. Luther had come to that break as a result of a desperate fear of damnation. His great and overwhelming question had been, for many years: How can I find a merciful God and escape everlasting damnation? The answer he had found in the biblical revelation of Christ's sacrifice, on account of which God justifies sinners and accepts them as His children. All is grace. Luther's teachings on salvation were wholly biblical. The fact remains, however, that for him and for his followers one of the major concerns continued to be this quest for personal salvation. This led to a somewhat individualistic attitude, and also to a strong emphasis upon the religious needs of man. It is probably one of the reasons why many Roman traditions and practices were retained in church ritual and ceremony and in church furnishing. It also helps to explain, I think, why the sacraments, which for Luther were instruments of grace, continued to occupy such a central place in the Lutheran church.
If Luther's emphasis then was upon the search for man's salvation, Calvin felt that this should not be the believer's preoccupation.
If Luther's emphasis was upon the search for man's salvation, Calvin felt that this should not be the believer's preoccupation. Calvin was convinced that our salvation is not our business, but God's. Our concern is to be His servants, to work in His kingdom and unto His glory, and that in all spheres of life. It is true that the Lutherans have done much in the cultural and social life of the nation, yet they often tended to be far more "quietistic" than the Calvinists. And this is particularly so in the field of politics, both in Luther's time and later. It is one of the criticisms which German Lutherans nowadays levy against themselves that in majority they remained so passive under anti-Christian governments, and that they allowed a man like Hitler to come to power.
This passivity, however, is also a result of another divergency between Luther's and Calvin's teachings, namely those concerning the relationship between church and state. Luther would probably have preferred a greater amount of autonomy than his churches achieved, but he needed the help of the rulers too desperately. And while the Calvinists maintained that Christ was the head of the church and that therefore no dominion by man was to be allowed, neither in the form of an ecclesiastical hierarchy nor in the form of governmental dominion, Luther permitted the rulers to play a role in the affairs and government of the church, and so contributed to the church's subservient position under the state. Furthermore, Luther was most emphatic in requiring obedience to the territorial princes, and until the end of his life he warned against the evils of armed resistance, even against a ruler who threatened the very life of the church. Calvin however, while agreeing with Luther about the requirement of civil obedience, stated also quite strongly that the government is under God, and that a prince or magistrate who forces his subjects to go against God's commandments has to be withstood. If, for example, a ruler sets himself up against the Gospel, then resistance is not only allowed, but it is required. This is what the Calvinists did in France, in Scotland, and also in the Netherlands, where the Spanish king Philip II tried to root out the Reformed religion by fire and sword.
Although I have by no means exhausted the topic, I have to come to a conclusion. Before doing so, however, I want to return once more to Heidelberg and the Palatinate, and that in order to say something about the history of the Heidelberg Catechism in the country of its birth. I will do that by quoting from the work of two German ministers who worked in the Palatinate some time during the previous century.The history of the Heidelberg Catechism in the Palatinate had by no means been an undisturbed one. After the death of Frederick III the Reformed churches in this country went through many struggles and tribulations. When Frederick died a Lutheran ruler came to the throne, who tried to suppress the Reformed religion. Somewhat later Roman Catholic princes or conquerors took, for a time, control of the country and attempted to do the same. And when, by the early nineteenth century, after the French Revolution, freedom of religion was proclaimed and the threat of religious persecution ended, the situation continued to be dangerous. For this was the time when Christianity was under attack by the forces of rationalism and "liberalism", and the churches in the Palatinate did not escape these attacks. Attempts were made to unite Lutherans and Reformed and to provide the newly united church with a handbook of instruction or catechism that was more up-to-date (that is, more in tune with the modernistic views of the day) than the old Heidelberg Catechism.
The Heidelberger, although at times it had been forced "underground", had survived during the earlier persecutions, and by the middle of the 19th century it was still remembered by some people.
The Heidelberger, although at times it had been forced "underground", had survived during the earlier persecutions, and by the middle of the 19th century it was still remembered by some people. This appears from the memories of the two ministers to whom I referred.
One of these ministers, the Rev. Thelemann, became in 1851 pastor of one of the churches in the Palatinate. He was against the new rationalism and wanted to teach the scriptural confession, also to the children in his catechism classes. This is what he wrote about his experiences:
"It was in the year 1851 that I was minister of the congregation at Billigheim . . . in my native country the Palatinate. And my problem was, how could I teach my pupils from the rationalistic Catechism? I found a way out, because it was permitted to use, with that new Catechism, my own book of instruction, from which I could dictate to the children. Originally the congregation had been Reformed, and according to the "Union" the confessions had to be kept "in reasonable honour." So it was with a good conscience that at the first catechism class I began to dictate to the children from my own booklet the confession of the "only comfort", the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.
"After some time I noticed that several children no longer wrote down the questions and when I asked them why, they answered: Reverend, we have it in print, why then do we have to write it? It appeared that when the children came home and learned by heart that which had been dictated to them, the older people began to remember and knew that they had heard it before. And when it appeared that everything was from the Heidelberg Catechism the children looked in the attics and among old papers, and the result was that this old book of instruction came to the fore in all possible shapes and forms.
"It was in the same congregation that I found the Heidelberger, which had so long been forgotten, with a poor widow, who was dying, and I found it not among the old papers, but in her heart. The woman showed that she had knowledge of God's Word, and when towards the end I pointed, with the words of the Catechism, to the only comfort, she immediately took over and prayed the entire answer of the first question, and that quite accurately."
Rev. Thelemann related that in another part of the Palatinate, in a region where 300 years earlier Frederick III had one of his hunting castles, he had experienced a similar revival of the old Heidelberger after the introduction of the new catechism. Here also it took place in a congregation that had originally been Reformed. In that region, Thelemann wrote, "it is customary that the children sleep with their grandparents in the back part of the house. I noticed during family visits that at night, in bed, before they went to sleep, the old people taught their grandchildren . . . the questions derived from the Catechism and discussed these questions with them. And during the catechism classes I could clearly notice where such a home catechism instruction had taken place."
The other minister, professor Plitt, who served a congregation in the city of Heidelberg itself, also told that during this period it was especially the older people who remembered the Heidelberg Catechism. "In that congregation," he wrote, "I came to know many old men and women whose eyes were radiant when during illness or on their deathbed they were reminded of the first question. Most of them still knew it, from their childhood, by heart. Many said that as children they had never quite understood it and that they had found it very difficult to memorize, but now they thanked God that they knew it, and they prayed it for their comfort and strengthening in faith. The later generation, which had no longer been brought up with the Heidelberger, did not have such an anchor. The older ones, to whom in their youth the treasures of the Heidelberger had been communicated, had seen the passing of many new philosophies without being affected by them. They stood upon a foundation that no flood could wash away . . . "
Why have I been quoting all this? Because it summarizes one of the points I wanted to make in speaking about the history of the Reformation.
The Roman church declined because it turned away from the Scriptures. The Lutheran church declined for the same reason. And the Reformed churches too have done so, time and again. For the church cannot live if it ignores the Word of its Lord; if it forgets that that Word is its anchor and foundation.
The history of the church therefore contains a serious warning, also for us. For we, as members of the church, old and young, are living under the same threats as those which existed in the middle Ages, and at the time of the Reformation, and in the 19th century - and, indeed, throughout the ages. The dangers have always been there, and today they are as great as they have ever been. We are warned, therefore, to hold on to the only anchor given to us, and to be diligent that also our children, and our children's children, know of that anchor. For our covenant God has warned that He will visit the iniquities of the parents, who depart from His commandments, upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation. But He has also promised that He will show mercy unto thousands of them that love Him, and keep His commandments.