Book Review: The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism by Lyle D. Bierma

The churches I have been a part of my whole life were not confessional by any stretch of the word; neither did they ever use a catechism. Most people in those churches probably didn’t even know what “catechism” meant. My first exposure to the word was in college. I picked up a Roman Catholic Catechism my first year of college. So I thought a catechism was a Roman Catholic thing. As I moved towards the reformed tradition in college I began to grow in appreciation of confessions and of catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism is now one of my go to catechism for there is something beautiful to this catechism. There is a real sense of “heart” and relationship with God in it. (There I go revealing my pious roots!) When I saw this book on a catechism I really enjoy I thought it would be a worthwhile read. I was right.

Summary

During the 400th anniversary of this catechism, a lot of voices came out saying that the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) is a fantastic ecumenical statement of faith. However, the anniversary came and went, and so did the buzz about the document’s ecumenical nature. Yet recently there has been a revival of trying to interpret the HC as an ecumenical document. Much of this effort has taken place along several lines including the study of the historical context out of which the document arose and through a sort of text-criticism of the document. This book takes the second route.  As Bierma progress through a study of the texts behind the text he shows that in the HC “we encounter traces of the grafting of Reformed branches onto a Lutheran vine.” (11) Much like the church in the Palatinate, this confession has a Lutheran (specifically a Melanchthonian) foundation with Reformed elements/themes/language built on top.

Bierma spends seven chapters studying the text and the texts behind the text in order to show how he comes to believe his thesis. He shows that the HC draws upon 1-Luther’s Small Catechism, 2-Melanchthon’s AC, 3-Melanchthon’s Examen Ordinadorum, 4-Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, 5-the north-German Lasco catechisms, and 6- two confessions by Beza. The authors of the HC establish common ground finding middle positions, toning down controversial points, state view positively rather than polemically, and sometimes combing elements of various traditions (12).

Chapters are dedicated to 1-The Theme and Structure of the HC, 2-The Law and Gospel, 3-Providence and Predestination, 4-Christ and the Holy Spirit, 5-The Sacraments, 6-Covenant, and 7-Good Works.

Pros

  1. Bierma does a excellent job exploring the history of scholarship on the HC. I know about the theology of the HC, but I didn’t know much about the history of scholarship of the HC, so I found it truly enlightening.
  2. Bierma makes a strong, yet short, case for the HC being a proto-confessional document based upon the historical context of the HC. The university at Heidelberg was a pretty ecumenical university with a pretty ecumenical faculty. The committee that wrote up the document was pretty ecumenical as well. It included Melanchthonians, Zwinglians, and Calvinists. Also, Ursinus, who was the primary mover and shaker in the bunch strattles the line between being a Calvinist and a Bullingerian.  Not to mention he has Lutheran roots.
  3. As an added bonus, Bierma includes a version of the HC in the appendix.

Cons

I have one qualm with this book. Its actually a pretty serious one too. I am not sure that Bierma is engaged in a very practical project. As I was reading the book I was reminded a lot of Old Testament source-criticism; scholars searching for the text behind the text (JDEP). That project has been largely abandoned in favor of OT study that focuses on the text itself or on response to the text. That is not to say that its impossible to find texts behind texts, but in my opinion the prospects are bleek. When it comes to finding the text behind the text in the HC I think the prospects are bleek as well. Bierma shows that there are textual similarities between the HC and other Lutheran/Reformed documents, but its hard to show causal dependence upon them. Were the authors of the HC influenced by these texts? Probably. They grew up around them. That is like asking if I have been influenced by MLK’s “I have a dream speech.” However just because I write the phrase “I have a dream” in a sermon of mine that doesn’t mean that I am causally dependent upon MLK’s speech, I am constantly being culturally shaped in ways that I am not aware of. To imagine that you can understand my psyche, is a pretty bold claim. Its even bolder to claim that we can understand the psyche of people who lived 450+ years ago. All this to say, if we are looking for textual similarities, then Bierma has done us a huge favor in this book. But if we are looking for actual causal dependence, I’m not so sure I buy Bierma’s work.

Conclusion

I don’t mean to sound overly critical, but as I mentioned, I am wary of the possibility of discovering texts behind texts. Maybe that’s the result of my biblical studies professors. Maybe it’s a different case when it comes to dealing with theological texts. Maybe not though. Either way, I highly recommend this book for historical theologians. You aren’t going to find much about the theology of the HC itself, but you will find a lot about the historical-theological context of the HC. For this reason I recommend this book to historical theologians.

Note: I received this book courtesy of WJK and Netgalley. I was in no way obligated to give a positive/negative review.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism by Lyle D. Bierma”

  1. Bierma’s claims are entirely at odds with the history of the Heidelberg Catechism’s production, context, and reception. It is not a scholarly book that will gain any attention (or none that’s positive) from expert historians in this area. It is a book written for churches and seminaries, and unfortunately it is very myopic and full of inaccuracies.

    Nobody but Calvinists liked the HC when it came out — or since then. Conservative Calvinists themselves resist the idea that it is an ecumenical statement, and it’s hard to argue against that. The HC notoriously attacked the Catholic mass and view of communion, but it was also incompatible with Luther’s view of it too. This led to centuries of ire and drama.

    The most offensive material in the HC has been edited out or apologized for in some denominations, but even among Lutherans it can only be attractive as a confession for post-confessional Lutherans who don’t share Luther’s view of communion and worship in general — which is not the mainstream of European and North American Lutherans. The fact that there are some Lutherans for whom the HC is “ecumenical” is precisely why it has always been divisive. Lutheran and Calvinist identities became quite firmly cemented as irreconcilable early on when Luther and Zwingli could not agree on the lord’s supper.

    As a point of fact, “the university at Heidelberg was a pretty ecumenical university with a pretty ecumenical faculty” only up until Frederick came to power and the Calvinist leaning Lutherans and Luther-leaning Lutherans started arguing heatedly with each other. Frederick ended of taking the Reformed-ish side and got rid of the hardline Lutherans. None of them were involved with the writing of the HC, and they attacked it right away.

    If you just look at the division in the family of the man responsible for the HC — the prince-elector Frederick — you can see how torn they were, like their whole region, in what is probably the biggest example of a failure at Protestant unity in the Reformation.

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