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Notes on the Heidelberg Catechism taken by Dr. Peter Krey, July 21, 2011

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Notes on the Heidelberg Catechism taken by Dr. Peter Krey, July 21st 2011

Reading Luther’s Small Catechism again is like reviewing old and familiar thoughts from way back when. Of course, now reading the Fourth Commandment, the Fifth one for the Reformed tradition, I follow Reinhold Niebuhr, who maintains that the rulers and heads of governments do not belong in there beside the fathers. According to Niebuhr, they are not like fathers of the people, but rule by the consent of the people.

In reading the Heidelberg Catechism,[1] I realized during Question 33, that contrary to us, Jesus did not have a natural father between himself and his Father in Heaven. I myself am a father and I know how far short I have fallen of the mark. I also realize how much I faulted my own natural father and now I’m humbled to realize that in some ways he gave me more than I’ve given my own sons.

The Heidelberg Catechism is very much more theological than Luther’s Small Catechism, which is written for children and common folk. It delves into technical theological issues that distinguish the Reformed tradition from the Catholic and Lutheran ones. Never does the term “mediator” come up in the Small Catechism, while it plays a prominent role in the other. In the Reformed catechism, a theory of atonement – by the blood of Jesus Christ, is brought right into the sacrament of Holy Communion. One analogy is used in it that never occurred to me. The bread and wine do not change into the body and blood of Christ just like the baptismal water does not change into blood to wash away our sin (Question 78).

This Reformed teaching is very much adverse to Lutheran theological sensibilities. Luther’s Word of God Theology is not there. Granted the atonement plays a role. According to 1 John 1:7, “The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin.” But confession also is involved a few verses after: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (9). I have often thought about it from the viewpoint of John 15:3: “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.” Granted that “cleansing” here means pruning away branches of a tree that prevent bearing fruit, but that also spells purification.

The long and the short of it: the way eating the body and blood offends some people washing in the blood of a sacrifice offends others. Luther would, however, see all God’s actions taking place through God’s Word, embodied in eating and washing, rather than through spiritual experiences outside of God’s Word.

Thus in and with the elements, the water, bread, and wine, God’s body and blood are received. “How can water do such great things?” Luther asks in the Third Article on Baptism. “It is not water that does these things, but God’s Word with the water and our trust in this Word. Water by itself is only water, but with God’s Word it is life-giving water which by grace gives the new birth through the Holy Spirit.”

Where the Heidelberg Catechism appeals to a theory of atonement Luther appeals to the Word of God.

In Question 48 the Heidelberg Catechism denies the ubiquity of the human nature of Christ, while its residing in the divine nature remains affirmed. Amy Nelson Burnett notes that in the early stages of the Reformation’s Eucharistic debate, the real presence of Christ was termed the spiritual real presence versus the corporeal real presence (Luther’s position). She excludes the middle term, so to speak, and presents the issue between the spiritual and corporeal presence of Christ in Holy Communion.[2]

Lutherans feel that the miracle of the incarnation itself is subtly undermined by denying the corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament. If the bread and the wine are excluded from body of Christ, then how can the body and blood be received and how can God’s Son have become incarnate and received a human body and have become fully human? How can the congregation become the body of Christ and the universe become God’s body? If the spiritual presence excludes the body, then does that also preclude the resurrection of the body, which is asserted in the Apostles’ Creed? (These questions, however, require much more discussion because they oversimplify the issues involved.)

Reading Question 49 brought to my mind that the sharp opposition of not having one’s mind on the things of the earth but rather on the things of Heaven, should be for the sake of a new Heaven and a new Earth. Our concern today has to include the earth. We can reject the old earth, which is so hostile, destructive, and devastating to people, but the new Earth is emerging in God’s continuous creation.

What I meant by more thought being required in the former paragraph is touched upon by Question 57, which speaks about having our bodies formed-alike with the glorified body of Christ. His glorified body need not remain in Heaven, but in its human nature may well also be ubiquitous on earth.

In Question 72 in the Heidelberg Catechism the Holy Spirit is not referred to by the Word, and thus there is the danger of interpreting the Holy Spirit abstractly. Luther’s Theology of the Word is a concrete Theology of the Holy Spirit. Following Luther Hegel speaks of the concrete spirit. Question 78 departs from the Lutheran understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion. For the Reformed it is only a sign and not a symbol that actually participates in the reality being experienced and Question 81 says nothing about discerning the body of Christ, although this is the point about receiving the sacrament unworthily in the verse this catechism brings to bear on the question (1 Corinthians 11:28 – 29): “Examine yourselves and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who unworthily eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”


[1] This catechism was commissioned by the elector Frederick III of the Pfaltz, who also participated in writing it, along with a series of theologians under the leadership of Zacharias Ursinus. Caspar Olevianus is also supposed to have participated in the work. The catechism appeared in 1563 and was presented before the Imperial Diet in Augsburg of 1566. It has won significance around the world as the best known teaching and confession of the Reformed tradition. Der Heidelberger Katechismus, seventh edition, Neukirchner Schul- und Volksausgabe, (Neukirchener Verlag, 1967), p.  2.

[2] Amy Nelson Burnett, Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Debate, (Oxford University Press, 2011), page 9.

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Written by peterkrey

July 22, 2011 at 3:56 am

Posted in Theology

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