Next to the Westminster Confession (1646–48), the most important Reformed confession. The Heidelberg Catechism (Catechesis Palatina ) takes its name from the capital of the Rhenish Palatinate, which became Lutheran in 1546 under Elector Frederick II (1483–1556). The growing influence of the Swiss Reformers toward the end of the reign of Elector Otto Henry (1502–59) precipitated violent controversies, especially about the Sacrament of the Altar. Otto Henry's irenically disposed successor, Frederick III ("the Pious"; 1515–76), while disclaiming any formal knowledge of Calvinism and adhering to the 1540 ("Variata") edition of the Augsburg Confession, availed himself more and more of Calvinistic theological leadership, staffed the theological faculty of the University of Heidelberg exclusively with Calvinistic professors, and reformed the worship of the church in his domains according to Reformed principles. In 1562 he commissioned his theologians to prepare what became the Heidelberg Catechism, formally adopted by a synod convened in Heidelberg in January 1563.
Since Heinrich Alting (1583–1644), tradition has ascribed the authorship of the catechism to Zacharias ursinus and Caspar olevianus (1536–87). Although they are unquestionably the major contributors, available evidence points to the broad cooperation of a considerable number of others as well. The 16th-century rumor that the real authors were Heinrich bullinger, the successor of Huldrych zwingli at Zurich, and his associates is unfounded. A second and third edition preceded the authoritative fourth edition, published in November 1563 as part of the Palatine Church Order. Prompted by Olevianus, Frederick ordered the inclusion, in the second edition, of the condemnation of the "papal mass" as a "denial of the once for all sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ" (q.80), presumably as a response to the Tridentine decree on the sacrifice of the Mass; the third edition added the characterization of the Mass as "an accursed idolatry."
The Catechism consists of 129 questions and answers, supported by Biblical proofs and divided, after a brief introduction (qq. 1–2), into three parts: man's misery, exposed by the divine law (qq. 3–11); man's redemption—Apostles' Creed, justification, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, the office of the keys (qq. 12–85); and man's gratitude—Decalogue (with four commandments in the first table, six in the second) and Our Father (qq. 86–129). The questions are distributed over 52 parts for annual review on successive Sundays. The tone is warmly devotional, the emphasis primarily ethical, the approach strongly practical; the theology is a mild Calvinism (there is no discussion of predestination), with elements traceable to Philipp melanchthon and to Bullinger. Except in a few places—such as q. 80, the condemnation of excesses in the veneration of the saints and of the use of images, and the moderate but firm disavowal of certain characteristically Lutheran views—the Catechism avoids polemics. Widely adopted in Reformed circles almost from the start, it has been translated into some 40 languages. In 1619 the pan-Reformed Council of Dort gave the Heidelberg Catechism confessional status. In North America both major Reformed bodies, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, include it among their doctrinal standards; and it is greatly cherished in the former Evangelical and Reformed sectors of the United Church of Christ. Because of difficulties that children had in understanding and learning it, Elector John Casimir (1543–92) of the Palatinate directed the preparation of a simple and popular extract, the "little Heidelberg Catechism" (1585).
See Also: confessions of faith, protestant.
Bibliography: w. niesel, ed., Bekenntnisschriften und Kirchenordnungen der nach Gottes Wort reformierten Kirche (2d ed. Zurich 1938), 148–187, Ger. text. h. a. niemeyer, ed., Collectio confessionum in ecclesiis reformatis publicatarum (Leipzig 1840) 428–461, Lat. text. a. o. miller and m. e. osterhaven, trs., The Heidelberg Catechism (Philadelphia 1962), 400th anniversary Eng. tr. a. pÉry, The Heidelberg Catechism with Commentary, tr. a. o. miller and m. b. koons (Philadelphia 1963). k. barth, The Heidelberg Catechism for Today, tr. s. c. guthrie, jr. (Richmond, Va.1964). d. j. bruggink, ed., Guilt, Grace and Gratitude (New York 1963), a comment on the Heidelberg Catechism.
[a. c. piepkorn]