The Church's Book of
Rev. Angus Stewart
The Church's Book of
edited by Willem van 't Spijker, translated by Gerrit
Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009, hardback, x
+ 291 pp.
The title of
this fine work on the
Heidelberg Catechism, The Church's Book of Comfort,
alludes to the famous first question: "What is thy only
comfort in life and death?" It consists of nine articles in
seven chapters by six Dutch theological doctors, dealing
with church history, biography, theology and catechetics,
and complete with helpful pictures, boxed inserts and
Summary of Contents
The opening chapter, "The Reformation in Germany," sets
forth the historical background very well, dealing
especially with Martin Luther, including his Heidelberg
Disputation of 1518 (pp. 4-10), the spread of Lutheranism
and the rise of Calvinism in Germany.
Chapter 2 homes in on Heidelberg, the centre of the
Palatinate electorate, tracing the political and
ecclesiastical developments from Elector Philip the Upright
(1476-1508) to the godly Elector Frederick III (1559-1576),
as the influences of Romanism, Lutheranism and Calvinism
waxed and waned (pp. 27-38). The writing of the Heidelberg
Catechism is set within progress in education, religious
instruction and earlier catechisms (pp. 38-61).
People Behind the Heidelberg Catechism," the next chapter,
focuses on "Two Crown Witnesses," Ursinus and Olevianus (pp.
67-74); before turning to two men in the theological
faculty, Boquinus and Tremellius, a converted Jew (pp.
74-78); four church superintendents, Veluanus, Willing,
Sylvanus and Eisenmenger (pp. 78-83); and the four remaining
members of the Heidelberg consistory, Zirler, Diller,
Zuleger, Erastus (pp. 83-88). These twelve men were a
cosmopolitan lot, being born in what are now Poland,
Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
This is a useful chapter, especially since it covers the
lesser known figures.
From the more German context of the Heidelberg Catechism in
chapters 1-3, chapters 5 and 6 move to the Netherlands. What
religious instruction was communicated in family, school and
church before and after the Reformation (pp. 129-139)? What
were the main Reformed catechisms used by the Dutch in the
sixteenth century before and after the publication of the
Heidelberg Catechism (pp. 139-145)? What about Peter
Dathenus, who translated the Catechism into Dutch and
versified the Psalms (pp. 156-161), and Herman Faukelius,
who abbreviated the Catechism in the Compendium in 1608 (pp.
161-163)? What about the recognition of the Catechism in the
Dutch Reformed church in its synods and classes from Wezel
in 1568 to Dordt in 1618-1619 (pp. 163-186)?
Chapter 6 treats, first, the preaching of Heidelberg
Catechism sermons from the sixteenth to the twentieth
century (pp. 187-199); second, collections of Heidelberg
Catechism sermons in book form for the same period (pp.
199-210); third, the instruction of catechumens in classes
using the Heidelberg Catechism up to the nineteenth century
(pp. 211-250). It is within the best aspects of this
tradition that the PRC stands, by God's grace, including the
Heidelberg Catechism Memory Books and Work Books by Revs.
Wilbur Bruinsma and Dale Kuiper, respectively.
Willem van 't Spijker ably sets forth "The Theology of the
Heidelberg Catechism" (ch. 4), which "superbly captured the
message of the Reformation" (p. 89), and "The Continued
Relevance of the Heidelberg Catechism" (ch. 7), comparing it
with other Reformed creeds (pp. 251-264), defending it from
criticism (pp. 264-270) and explaining its "eternal youth"
(p. 94), as some have described it (pp. 270-272).
This brief summary of the
contents of The Church's Book of Comfort
hardly does it justice but it at least introduces some of
the excellent subjects addressed.
Interesting and Helpful Material
Church's Book of Comfort
states the contemporary consensus on the authorship of the
Although the precise course of events leading to the
appearance of the Heidelberg Catechism remains obscure,
historical research of the last few years has led to the
conclusion that Ursinus was its chief author. A draft
prepared by him was approved by a team of collaborators
from various factions, among whom Olevianus carried the
most weight (pp. 60; cf. 54-55).
But not all those involved in the finalizing of the text of
the Heidelberg Catechism ended well. Johannes Sylvanus moved
from Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Zwinglian to Reformed
views, before becoming an Arian! He was beheaded in the
marketplace of Heidelberg, while his friend Adam Neuser,
minister at St. Peter's Church in Heidelberg, fled to the
anti-trinitarians in Transylvania, ending up a Muslim in
Turkey (pp. 81-83)!
Frederick III's preface to the first edition of the
Catechism (19 January, 1563) is helpfully cited in full (pp.
63-65), including these words on its origin and purpose,
emphasizing the instruction of the youth of the church:
For this reason, on the advice of our entire theological
faculty here, also in cooperation with all
superintendents and the chief ministers of the church,
we have had prepared and compiled in both German and
Latin a concise booklet of instruction or catechism of
our Christian religion extracted from the Word of God.
This was done so that in the future not only will our
young people be instructed in the Christian doctrine in
a godly manner and admonished in unanimity, but also so
that pastors and schoolteachers themselves will have a
reliable model and a solid standard as to how to
approach the instruction of our young people, and so
that they will not change one thing or another on a
daily basis or introduce a contrary doctrine (p. 64).
This is true Reformed "youth ministry"!
The Elector's noble defence of the reformation in the
Palatinate and the Heidelberg Catechism before Roman
Catholic Emperor Maximilian II at the Imperial Diet of
Augsburg in 1566 is also provided in a boxed insert (pp.
As far as my catechism is concerned, I confess it. In
its margins it is also so solidly grounded in Holy
Scripture that it has proven to be irrefutable. Indeed,
thus far you yourself have not succeeded in doing so and
I hope that with God's help it will continue to be
irrefutable for a much longer period to come (p. 57).
Zurich Reformer Heinrich Bullinger highly praised the
Heidelberg Catechism as the "best catechism" in a latter to
I have read with great eagerness the Catechism that was
produced with the encouragement of the eminent Elector
Frederick III of the Palatinate, and while reading it I
sincerely thanked God, who initiated and prospered this
work. The structure of this book is clear, its content
pure truth; everything is very easy to follow, devout
and effective. In succinct conciseness it contains the
fullness of the most important doctrines. I consider it
to be the best catechism that has ever been published.
Thanks be to God! May He crown it with His blessing (p.
The Church Order of Heidelberg placed the Catechism after
the baptism form and before the Lord's Supper form, clearly
presenting a thorough catechizing of the covenant children
and their believing response as the way from their (passive)
reception of the first sacrament to their (active)
participation in the second sacrament (pp. 96-97). Moreover,
The forms for the administration of baptism and the
Lord's Supper that are incorporated in this [Heidelberg]
church order closely resemble the classical forms of the
Dutch Reformed tradition. They express the "doctrine as
taught here in these churches as the doctrine of
complete salvation" (p. 97).
Around the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth
century, profession of faith was typically made in the
Palatinate at age 14 (p. 43).
Marten Micron's (1523-1559) Shorter Catechism (1552), one of
the catechisms used in the Netherlands before Dathenus' 1566
Dutch translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, indicates a
firm grasp of God's covenant with the children of believers.
It defends infant baptism "on the grounds that small
children share in God's salvation, not as a reflection of
their profession, but on the basis of God's Word" (p. 142).
Note also its care for deaf or mentally handicapped church
92. Q. Why was faith and its oral profession not equally
demanded from the children of the church prior to
A. The church has far surer confirmation of its
salvation from the Word of God than from the profession
of adults. And congenital illness, as a result of which
some persons can neither believe nor make profession, is
not counted against them for Christ's sake, in whom they
are blessed—that is, regarded as holy, righteous, clean,
and faithful—no less than are other adult believers. The
same must be thought with respect to the baptism of
adults of the church who are deaf or mentally
handicapped (p. 142).
Indeed, A Brief Orderly Summary (1558), a catechism used in
the Palatinate before the publication of the Heidelberg
Catechism (1563), concluded with A Brief Christian
Confession for Young Children and the Mentally Handicapped,
in which the following three things are centrally confessed:
"(1) I am a poor sinner, (2) I am saved by Christ, and (3) I
confess that I am called to gratitude" (p. 50)—essentially,
the three "parts" of our Heidelberg Catechism.
What Christian parent or minister or elder is not moved by
these words of a dying fourteen-year-old Dutch girl?
My dear Father, I desire that thou wilt promise me that
thou wilt go to Rev. De Witte and Rev. Ardinois and
thank them that they have taught me catechism classes
(for they teach the Catechism every Tuesday in the Mare
Church, as their colleagues do in due course in other
churches) and tell them that those beautiful Scripture
references that they have taught me in their catechism
classes have brought me so much comfort on my deathbed,
indeed have brought me salvation. Oh! Oh! Those
wonderful and lovely catechism classes that I always
attended with so much joy and never once missed in all
the time that I attended them ready to respond to
questions (p. 223).
Also included are encouraging examples of ladies reading and
discussing catechism sermons while ironing or sewing, or of
saints reading aloud from a catechism sermon book to each
other in their homes on the Lord's Day or through the week
But not all in the Netherlands enjoyed Heidelberg Catechism
preaching, especially, though not exclusively, the Arminians
and worldly folk (pp. 187-199), with apostasy leading to
dropping Catechism preaching which led to deeper apostasy
(p. 199). Something to guard against here!
Besides the authorial labours of the six Dutch doctors, we
must register our thanks for the translational work of three
members of the Bilkes family, especially Gerrit, the main
translator, for this was a big task (p. x).