“Your comfort”: The personal approach of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism was not the only catechism written in the time of the Reformation. The method of teaching children through questions and answers was very popular at that time. Many Reformed leaders published catechisms, including Luther, Calvin, and Ursinus. But the Heidelberg Catechism became the most popular of all.

One thing that stands out in the Heidelberg Catechism is its personal approach. The very first question asks: “What is your comfort,” and the answer speaks of “my faithful Saviour.” This personal tone continuous throughout the lessons; unlike our other confessions, it is full of words like “I”, “me”, “you”, “we”, “us”. The catechism has a keen interest in our personal lives with the Lord, in our everyday activity as well as our emotions, our mind, and our heart. In this sense, the Heidelberg Catechism is experiential, warm and pastoral in tone.

In comparison, the Westminster Catechisms (used e.g. in the OPC) is more distant and abstract. “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” (WSC q&a 1) This is not wrong, but it lacks the personal warmth of our catechism.

Throughout history, theologians have often taken a systematic approach. First define your terms, then make your statements, and leave the application for last. The first question might then be: “What is God?” But this systematic approach to our faith is not the best tool for teaching and for reaching the human heart with the astonishing gospel of Jesus. I am glad that the authors of our Heidelberg Catechism knew this, and started directly where people are at: “What comfort, what hope do you have?”

In its personal approach, the Heidelberg Catechism is an important example for us: for parents who teach their children, for ministers who proclaim the Christian faith, for all of us as we study the things of God. Christian doctrine may not and cannot function in the abstract; it must be an integral part of our lives, as individuals, as families, as congregations. When we talk about our Lord, let it be full of “I” and “you” language. “I love the Lord, he saved me, what about you?” A few words spoken sincerely from the heart and from our lived experience of faith say much more than volumes of theoretical theology.

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