A Sketch of the
Rev. Angus Stewart
A Sketch of the
William Ames, trans. Todd M. Rester
Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008, hardback, xxxii + 253 pp.
a Heidelberg Catechism Commentary
If you are looking for a commentary on the Heidelberg
Catechism, this book will disappoint you, for it is not
really an exposition of the Heidelberger. William Ames did
not believe in preaching the Heidelberg Catechism. Instead,
he picked a verse or verses from the Bible on the subject of
the Lord's Day and expounded his scriptural text.
The 52 Lord's Days are treated in 48 chapters, with Ames
taking Lord's Days 26 and 27 (on baptism), 28 and 29 (on the
Lord's Supper) and 36 and 37 (on the third commandment)
together, and not covering Lord's Day 32, evidently
reckoning it dealt with in his discussion of good works in
Lords' Day 25. Ames' 48 chapters, averaging about 4 ½ pages,
are headed with the relevant Lord's Day: "Lord's Day 1,"
"Lord's Day 2" and so on.
However, the text of the specific Lord's Day is not quoted
at the start (or the middle or the end) of a single chapter;
the ideas, sentences, clauses or terminology of the Lord's
Day are not explained; and sometimes the chapter does not
even refer to the Catechism at all. This is always Ames'
approach throughout the book. This is what he taught his
students to do. But these are not model Heidelberg Catechism
Perhaps this is why Ames'
friends—"former students and colleagues from the Academy at
Franeker"—compiled and published this work under the (Latin)
title Christianae Catecheseos Sciagraphia
(p. xxvi), rendered in English as A Sketch of the
Christian's Catechism, recognizing
that it is closer to a sketch than an exposition of the
Furthermore, it is hard to see how Ames' view of faith and
assurance (pp. 37-43; cf. xxi-xxii) can be squared with
Lord's Day 7.
Ames' method is one which twenty-first century readers might
take a while to get used to. After quoting his scriptural
text, his first paragraph makes exegetical remarks. Then he
draws several "Lessons" (ranging from two to seven), which
he reinforces with "Reasons" and applies with "Uses."
Sometimes he includes "Questions" with their accompanying
As in Ames' famous The Manner of
Theology, his writing style is
terse, with deep truths being stated in a short space.
A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism
is not, therefore, an easy read. However, it does contain
profound theology—examples are too many to cite—and it
repays a more meditative form of reading, including pausing
for reflection. This is the way in which, I reckon, God's
people today would most benefit from the work, and preachers
on the Heidelberg Catechism could find it stimulating in
their sermon preparation.
Beside the practical use of A
Sketch of the Christian's Catechism,
it is also of value historically, as the book's fine
biographical and historical introduction especially shows
First, it fills out our
picture of William Ames (1576-1633), a highly regarded
Reformed preacher, and professor, the chief theological
advisor and secretary to Bogerman (the presiding officer at
the Synod of Dordt) and the author of The Marrow of Theology
and Conscience With the Power and Cases Thereof,
a significant manual of Puritan casuistry.
Second, Ames demonstrates well the inter-connections and
cross-pollination of the Reformed world. He was an English
Puritan who taught at a Dutch university and who was most
influential in New England, especially at Harvard College
and amongst the Congregationalists. Moreover, this book
deals with a great German creed, the Heidelberg Catechism,
and was originally printed in Latin in Franeker, Friesland
Third, we see in Ames and
his A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism
a fusion of Reformed theology and piety, doctrine and
practice. This was served by the Ramist theological method
and rigorous scholarship, including a discriminating use of
Latin translations of the Old Testament (always the
Tremellius-Junius version, with a few of Ames' own
emendations) and the New Testament (usually the Beza
version, with several Amesian variations) (pp. xxix-xxx,
Ames' A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism
is the inaugural volume of the Classic Reformed Theology
series under the general editorship of R. Scott Clark. It
sounds like a fine project (pp. vii-xi) and one looks
forward to more scholarly critical English translations of
primary texts of Reformed orthodoxy.