Ronald A. Wells
Forty-five years ago, I arrived in Heidelberg, Germany, for military service. With my freshly minted doctorate in history and an officer’s commission, I had come to be the commanding officer (some command—five people!) of the Military History Detachment at the headquarters of the U.S. Army European Command. While I was aware of the historical importance of the Palatinate in the history of the Reformation in Europe, I had not given much attention to the Heidelberg Catechism.
A career teaching history at Calvin College, however, made me more than a little familiar with this statement of faith that has defined Reformed churches around the world. So this past summer, on the catechism’s 450th anniversary, my wife and I found it moving to visit its hometown. Visitors cannot miss the red and green posters and signs all over town proclaiming and celebrating the anniversary. They read “Macht des Glaube” (The Power of Faith). There are excellent exhibitions about the catechism: one, at the Kurpfalziches Museum, emphasizes history and theology; the other, at the city’s iconic Schloss (castle), emphasizes politics and royal leadership.
But back in 1968, during my first stay in Heidelberg, I knew little of the catechism. I was on the job market, and one ad to which I responded was from Calvin College. While I had never set foot in Michigan, I was aware of Calvin because of its association with Abraham Kuyper, whose Lectures on CalvinismI had read. I was particularly taken with Kuyper’s theology of culture, especially its comprehensive view of the academic vocation. I was not much interested—in 1969 or now—in the doctrinal particulars that identify and separate Protestant denominations. But Calvin’s history department seemed interested in me, so I thought I should delve into the foundational documents of the Christian Reformed Church.I liked the Belgic Confession as much for belief as for its irenic tone. I did not like the Canons of the Synod of Dordt, which to me were combative, triumphalist, and scholastic. But I warmed to the Heidelberg Catechism, which suggested that I had found in the CRC a community with which I could identify.
In December 1968 I was brought to Grand Rapids from Heidelberg for a whirlwind three days of interviews with administration, department, faculty committees, and the board of directors. The board was a group of what my kids would have called “serious dudes”—mostly clergy in dominie suits.
I was very surprised by the questions. I was all ready to quote Kuyper chapter and verse, and I had prepared intensively on the Three Forms of Unity (catechism, confession, and canons). Instead, I received next to no questions about theology but was pointedly asked if I would do any of the following: play golf or tennis on Sunday, send my children to Christian schools, or join the Masonic lodge.
I replied no, yes, and no, which I guess was enough to allow college officials to offer me a contract before I went back to Heidelberg for the final six months of my military service. In those months I wondered what I was getting myself into by joining a community that was said to be identified by confessional theology but spoke the language of pietism.
I was not long in Grand Rapids before learning the importance of the Heidelberg Catechism in ordering the worshiping life of the CRC. Instead of following the ecumenical lectionary and church year used by about 85 percent of Christians worldwide, the CRC used the Heidelberg’s questions and answers to organize worship into a series of “Lord’s days.” Yet when I read church history, I found the Heidelberg had been meant to organize the evening service, not the main morning service. People in Grand Rapids seemed not to know about that.In the fall of 1969, I started attending a Christian Reformed church. The first few months were intellectually and spiritually stimulating, and the sermons were well crafted and theological, unlike the simplistic exegetical ones I’d heard in army chapels. I enjoyed the vibrancy of the congregational singing. But I was puzzled by the use of historical tunes for the CRC’s unique versifications of the Psalms. I was bemused that most Christian Reformed people had no idea they were a small minority of Christians in pairing these words with those tunes.
When the church year was about to begin again, as the falling of snow signaled the Advent season, the organist and the minister were not on the same page. We sang the seasonal hymns one might expect: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry.” But the clergyman wanted to finish up the catechism’s Lord’s days before Christmas. So we heard a sermon on Question 127, about the part of the Lord’s Prayer where we pray that we not be led into temptation. No prayers that God might rest the merry gentlemen for us; rather, we were enjoined to pray (as Q 127 reads) “that we may not go down to defeat in this spiritual struggle.”
Not that it was a poor sermon. To the contrary, the clergyman prepared intensively, and his delivery had something for each possible segment of the listening congregation. That good man preached a good sermon on a subject that by his lights was the right one. For him, it was November 30, not the first Sunday of Advent, and he needed to finish up the catechism.
Over the years in Grand Rapids I came to sense two things about the Heidelberg Catechism: in its Reformation context, it was fresh and dynamic, offering the most ecumenically accessible of all the era’s confessional formulations; at the same time, it had become ossified both as a vehicle of passing on the faith to young people and as an organizing principle for worship. I heard stories from my colleagues and other friends, later from my wife, about how “going to catechism” was an onerous burden felt by young people growing up. For me, as an adult newcomer to the CRC, the catechism was a lively, engaging—even compelling—formulation of the faith, all the more so because it had been produced during the terrible years of religious wars in the sixteenth century.
When my wife and I went to Heidelberg this past summer, we enjoyed seeing the lovely old city again and visiting where I had lived and worked in the late ’60s. But even more satisfying was to see the way the catechism was being celebrated. It is an important matter for the city and for its churches. All that was on our minds when we entered the largest and most famous church in the old town, the Church of the Holy Spirit. Yet we were surprised at the personal impact we experienced at seeing a large banner and poster on the wall about halfway down the nave. On it, in very large letters, was the first question of the catechism. Something touched us deeply as I read aloud, “Was ist dein einziger Trost im Leben und im Sterben?” (What is your only comfort in Life and Death?)For me, the good feeling was about my coming back to Heidelberg and experiencing a new dimension of the place I had not known four decades earlier. Something very important happened here 450 years ago, and my life in Grand Rapids had given me a new vocabulary to appreciate that heritage. Like T. S. Eliot, I returned to a place I had known before but knew it now for the first time.
For my wife, seeing and hearing that question in this, for her, new space caused an unexpected warmth of recognition: something drudgingly done a half-century ago in Kalamazoo on Monday afternoons after school took on a new life. She realized anew that what had been presented to her in the parochial context of a small, ethnic denomination had in fact a long and distinguished history and a universal appeal that crossed boundaries of time, culture, and language.
As we left the church we stopped at the book stall to buy a booklet prepared by the Alliance of Reformed Churches in Germany, 450 Years of the Heidelberg Catechism: Creation, Content and Impact. We were surprised to read the following on page 12: “Shortly after publication, it became clear that the Catechism was too detailed for children, and even for some adults. Therefore an abridged version . . . the ‘Small Catechism,’ containing 61 short questions and answers, was published in 1578. In 1598 an even shorter version with only 22 questions was printed.” We both smiled when we thought of all the young people who had struggled through the longer version and how much they would have given to have had access to a 22-question version! We also thought of all the dull sermons preached and endured as clergy and people trudged from “What is your only comfort?” to “What does that little word ‘amen’ express?”
Just as we were about to leave the Church of the Holy Spirit, we saw one other item in the bookstall. It was a small card about the size of a credit card. On one side is the number 450, which is filled with a picture of Heidelberg, from the tower of the Church of the Holy Spirit on the right to the Schloss on the left. On the other side is the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.
I keep one of these cards in my wallet now, so that every time I open it for a transaction I see it. I know a little card is not much of a religious statement, but having it on view several times a day helps me to recall the central importance of the gospel in my life. Having that first question of the Heidelberg Catechism handy on a daily basis reminds me of who and whose I am and where and to whom I belong.
With the matter of my ultimate belonging settled, I can go about my business of witnessing to and helping to articulate what Kuyper called “a theology of culture,” in which all things are made new under the lordship of Christ.
The historic Heidelberg Catechism is a living entity with great implications for our lives together in our time. What a good thing it is to celebrate anew on its 450th anniversary, both back in Heidelberg and around the world.