Editions & Reception
It is safe to say that as soon as it was published on January 19, 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism attracted a lot of attention: some very positive and some quite negative. The positive side is indicated by the number of editions the Catechism went through in a fairly short time, as well as its widespread translation. The negative side of the story is contained in some of the criticisms that were lodged against the Catechism.
Editions and Translations
Already in its first year of publication, 1563, the German version of the Heidelberg Catechism went through four separate editions and printings. The list below gives some of the most pertinent details:
- First edition (January) This edition contained the original preface by Frederick III but did not contain Q&A 80 concerning the papal mass.
- Second edition (March) This edition added a short version of Q&A 80 condemning the papal mass.
- Third edition (April) This edition added a longer version of Q&A 80 condemning the papal mass.
- Fourth edition (?) The text of this edition is the same as the third, but adds a different, shorter preface which explains and defends the necessity of catechism instruction.
In addition the Catechism appeared in Latin already in 1563. Indeed, this had been Elector Frederick III’s plan right from the start. Whether the children of the Palatinate were being instructed in German schools or Latin schools, he wanted all of them to be learning from the same Catechism.
In the same year the Heidelberg Catechism also appeared in a Dutch translation and has held a beloved place in Dutch Reformed church life ever since.
Thus, in the same year that it was published the Heidelberg Catechism went through four editions and two translations. And more translations soon followed: English (1572), Hungarian (1577), French (1590), and Greek (1609). The growing list of translations continues to this very day. This website endeavours to collect as many of those translations as possible. You can find our current selection here.
Criticism of the Heidelberg Catechism
No sooner did the Catechism see the light of day, and various people began to react strongly against it. One of the critics was Tilemann Heshusius. He wrote a pamphlet entitled, True Warning against the Calvinistic Heidelberg Catechism, together with a Refutation of Several Errors Contained in It. Of course, given his past, and not so pleasant, history in Heidelberg (see here), it is possible he had an axe to grind.
Heshusius was joined by Matthias Flacius who wrote, Refutation of a Short German Calvinistic Catechism (1572). Both of these men were Lutheran; however, Roman Catholics also criticized the Catechism. For instance, Engelbertus Kenniphovius wrote A Refutation of the Heidelberg Catechism.
The Catechism’s principal author, Zacharias Ursinus, rose to the defense of the Catechism by writing his Reply to Various Critical Theologians in 1564. Still, the most moving defence of the Catechism undoubtedly came from the man who provided the initial impetus for its composition in the first place, none other than Elector Frederick III.
Summoned to appear at the Diet of Augsburg in 1566, Frederick III was asked to defend the Heidelberg Catechism before a decidedly hostile audience, including Emperor Maximilian II himself. He stood up and spoke as follows:
As far as my catechism is concerned, I confess it. In its margins it is also so solidly grounded in Holy Scripture that is has proven to be irrefutable. Indeed, thus far you yourself have not succeeded in doing so and I hope that with God’s help it will continue to be irrefutable for a much longer period to come….
If it turns out that someone, whether young or old, learned or uneducated, friend or foe, indeed, the very lowest kitchen or stable servant, can more successfully teach or inform me on the basis of God’s Word about the biblical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, outside of which there is no salvation, then I shall be grateful to him, beside God, and shall thereby offer the required obedience to God and His Holy Word. If in this assembly there would be any gentlemen or friends of mine here present who would like to deny this, then I would gladly hear this from them; we can soon enough come up with a Bible here….
If, however, my most humble confidence should turn out to have been idle and despite this Christian and honest offer of mine one were to take action against me in earnest, or plan to do so, then I shall comfort myself with the sure promise given to me, and all believers, by my Lord and Savior Christ Jesus, that everything that I shall lose for the sake of His honor and Name, will be restored to me a hundredfold in the other world. With this I desire to commend myself to the grace of Your Imperial Majesty.
Upon hearing the Elector’s defence of the catechism, one member of the imperial court said, “Frederick, you are a better man than any of us.” To which another added, “Why do you attack this man? He is godlier than any of us.”
And so, despite criticism, the Heidelberg Catechism was defended on the very same basis as it was written: the Holy Word of God. It is that inspired Word of God—and that Word alone—which gives the Heidelberg Catechism its enduring value and beauty.
Note: some of the details and quotations in this section are taken from Van ‘t Spijker, Willem. The Church’s Book of Comfort (Grand Rapids, 2009), 56-58.