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Preaching the Heidelberg: A new look at the tradition of catechetical preaching

Following a prescribed pattern for preaching, such as the Common Lectionary provides, is certainly not a new concept in Reformed churches. For centuries pastors in the Calvinist tradition have preached sermons based on the consecutive Lord's Days of the Heidelberg Catechism. It's a practice called "catechetical preaching," and it grew out of the church's need to educate its people about the doctrines and standards that they professed.

A Confession to Learn By

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1563 under the watchful eye of Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, an influential German province. He hoped to create a simple ecumenical statement of doctrine that would unite the people of his realm in the spiritual direction set by the expanding Reformed movement. Zacharias Ursinus at the University of Heidelberg is credited with the theological substance of the Catechism, though the name of Caspar Olevianus, pastor of Heidelberg's Holy Spirit church, is always mentioned as well. The latter may have had a hand in shaping some of the pastoral sensitivity and emotional warmth that have given the Heidelberg Catechism its broad impact, appeal, and continuing relevance.

As early as 1566, Pieter Gabriel, a prominent pastor in Amsterdam, began using the Heidelberg Catechism as a substantive teaching tool in the afternoon worship service. The practice of holding an additional worship service originated with several of the Reformers who were concerned about the spiritual and scriptural illiteracy in their communities. The second Sunday gathering was intended to be a doctrinal classroom, and the Heidelberg Catechism soon became the primary teaching material for that service. In 1586, a Reformed synod in the Netherlands broadened this practice by legislating that the sermon be preached from the Catechism each Sunday afternoon throughout the Reformed churches of the Low Countries.

Not until the great Synod of Dordtrecht in 1618-1619, however, did the practice of "catechetical preaching" become fully institutionalized.

From its origins, the Heidelberg Catechism had a clearly developed three-part structure: I—Human Misery; II—Deliverance; III—Gratitude. But with the fourth edition, editors overlaid it with a secondary structure, featuring 52 "Lord's Days." These smaller groupings were intended to provide topical segments for study spanning a full year's weekly congregational gatherings. The delegates of Dordtrecht declared that all of the Reformed churches were to have sermons explaining the contents of these Lord's Days, in succession, each Sunday afternoon. That practice has been enshrined in nearly every Reformed Church order since the Synod of Dordtrecht and continues as a regular practice in many Reformed churches today.

Three Approaches

What does it mean to preach from the Heidelberg Catechism? Because of the strong emphasis on expository preaching in the Reformed tradition, pastors have struggled with this perplexing issue for generations. Three related, yet methodically distinct, approaches have resulted.

1. Catechism as Homiletic Text.

Some pastors, following the original intent of the Synod of Dordtrecht and the subsequent tradition of the Reformed churches, have indeed prepared sermons (or didactic addresses) structured according to the individual statements of the answers in the Heidelberg Catechism. Thus, if a Lord's Day carried three or four theological propositions in its explanation of some element of Christian doctrine or life, the sermon itself would have those propositions as its "points." For example, Lord's Day 17 says this:

Q. How does Christ's resurrection benefit us?

A.

First, by his resurrection he has overcome death,
so that he might make us share in
the righteousness he won for us by his death.

Second, by his power we too
are already now resurrected to
a new life.

Third, Christ's resurrection
is a guarantee of our glorious
resurrection.

A catechetical sermon following this approach would probably be preceded by the reading of a relevant Scripture passage (such as 1 Cor. 15 or 1 Pet. 1:3-9), but would be developed as a three-point sermon expounding the three "benefits" of Christ's resurrection outlined in the text of the Catechism.

If one were to challenge this approach because the "text" of the sermon came from the Catechism rather than from the Bible, the minister would probably point out that the Catechism is merely a distillation of biblical statements and ideas (each line of the Catechism's 129 answers is footnoted to relevant scriptural passages).

Most of the Lord's Days of the Heidelberg Catechism, however, are much more complex than Lord's Day 17 Lord's Day 18, for instance, has four questions and answers, ranging in topics from the historical evidence of Christ's ascension to issues of Christology (the ubiquity question) and the nature of Christ's present intercession and reign in heaven. The homiletic difficulties of trying adequately to explain all of these ideas in a single message have fostered a second approach to catechetical preaching.

2. Scriptural Exposition.

The preacher who uses the Scriptural Exposition approach chooses a Scripture passage that seems to relate to many, if not most, of the theological propositions contained in a single Lord's Day. He then prepares an expository sermon based upon that biblical text rather than directly upon the Catechism propositions themselves. Elements of the Catechism are usually brought into the sermon as illustrative material or as summary statements of belief.

3. Doctrinal-Topical.

A third method of catechetical preaching is essentially topical in character. The pastor extracts a single topic from the collection of ideas contained in a Lord's Day and then designs a sermon that unfolds that topic in ways both relevant to the congregation and consistent with the theological heritage of the denomination. The sermon doesn't pretend to be expository, though it may include the exegesis of one or more Scripture passages. Nor does it necessarily follow the Heidelberg Catechism's development of a doctrinal statement. The primary emphasis is placed on sound homiletical development of the topic rather than on the exposition of either the Catechism text or the biblical text.

Changing Traditions

Although these latter styles of catechetical preaching are more prevalent today than is the first, the Synod of Dordtrecht clearly intended that the preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism should be in the form of didactic sermons explaining each of the theological propositions of a Lord's Day in rote succession. In fact, when pastors in the Christian Reformed Church in North America at one time attempted to "hide" catechetical preaching behind exegetical or topical approaches, their synod (1950) specifically instructed them to read the questions and answers of the Catechism before the sermon. Synod's reasoning was clear: the Lord's Day must be stated as the doctrinal text upon which the message is based and from which it receives its homiletic structure and development.

But traditions change, and many Reformed churches (including the Christian Reformed Church) now encourage "confessional" preaching. Here the historic emphasis on using the creeds and confessions of denominational identity as teaching tools remains, but now it is broadened to include other confessional statements beside the Heidelberg Catechism (such as the Belgic Confession of 1561, the Canons of Dort 1618-1619, or even some of the more contemporary expressions of faith).

Few of these documents, however, are as succinct as the Heidelberg Catechism or as clearly didactic in intention. Many ministers are moving away from preparing sermons that use the text of the confessional statements to structure the form and content of the message itself. Instead, they are using expository or topical methods of "catechism preaching."

The best of catechetical preaching today is a hybrid. It combines the traditional Reformed emphasis on teaching the theological insights enshrined in its historic confessions with the warmth and pastoral sensitivity of insightful topical proclamation.

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