A Faith Worth Teaching

Article by   June 2013
payneheckfaith93.jpgJon D. Payne and Sebastian Heck, eds., A Faith Worth Teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism's Enduring Heritage (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 360pp

If you can keep a secret, I will share it with you: I am falling in love with the Heidelberg Catechism. As a Presbyterian pastor, the Westminster Standards hold a special place in my heart (I don't want my fellow presbyters overreacting here), but the Heidelberg has been encroaching upon that Westminster-dominated region over the past year. A year ago, I took a call to labor "out of bounds" at a Reformed Church located squarely in the Dutch Tradition. This sent me scurrying in every direction to find resources that would help this newbie in learning the Three Forms of Unity. To my shame, I hadn't spent much time with these confessional documents and this new call came with an immediate desire to know the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, and Heidelberg Catechism. As I have begun to study them, the Heidelberg Catechism has quickly become a favorite.

As I have searched for good resources on the Heidelberg Catechism, there have been some helpful additions to my library. Early commentaries on the Catechism like William Ames' A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism and Zacharius Ursinus' Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism have been invaluable. More recent commentaries on the Catechism such as Fred Klooserter's Our Only Comfort and Kevin DeYoung's The Good News We Almost Forgot have been beneficial in preparing to preach through the Catechism for the first time. They both are written in a pastorally sensitive and theologically rich way. Two recent books, both of which are collections of essays, have offered insight into the Catechism. The first is Willem Van'T Spijker's The Church's Book of Comfort, and the second is Lyle Bierma's An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism. And yet, the availability of helpful resources in the English language on this 450 year old confessional standard is still quite insignificant. That is why I was excited to see this new volume on the Heidelberg Catechism, A Faith Worth Teaching, edited by Jon Payne and Sebastian Heck. 

A Faith Worth Teaching rightly brings to our attention the importance of this catechism on its 450th anniversary. The contributing authors demonstrate the monumental effect this catechism has had upon the church in the past, with a hopeful outlook for its effect upon the church going forward. In this way, the book is a well-ordered plea divided into four parts. The first part addresses the history of the Heidelberg with regard to its formation, as well as its use, in the United States. This section is followed by four chapters that highlight the Heidelberg Catechism in its relationship to the means of grace: preaching, baptism, and the Lord's Table. Part three considers Christian doctrine and the Heidelberg Catechism with chapters on the Church, Justification and Sanctification, Christology, and the Holy Spirit. The final portion of the book ends with three chapters on the Heidelberg Catechism as an actual catechetical tool. Each of the fourteen chapters of the book are written by well-respected scholars and pastors of significant ability. Each of the contributors demonstrates thorough knowledge about the subjects on which they write. The editors are also to be commended for selecting men from various Reformed communities and a number of countries (Germany, Netherlands, and the United States).

As would be expected, certain chapters stand out above others, but there is no chapter that the book would have been better without. With any book of this type, every reader will have suggestions about what should have been included, though obviously the editors couldn't include everything. I will offer a few critiques and suggestions as we look briefly at each chapter in a given section, with the caveat that I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this book in its entirety. 

The first section includes two chapters. The first chapter is how a book of this genre should begin. Lyle Bierma provides a helpful and brief history of the Catechism. He helpfully engages the theological movement in Frederick III and Ursinus that led to the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. In addition, he aids the reader in understanding the movement of Reformed theology across the European continent. My one critique of this chapter is that it would have been helpful to have a few facts detailing why the academic community now believes Olevianus had a more minor role in writing the catechism than was once believed. The assertion is made, but no genuine evidence is given to support it. The second chapter was one of the more disappointing in the book. Hart is an able scholar and I was looking forward to reading this chapter. However, his restricted focus on commemorations as a gauge of the Heidelberg's continued use and influence was too limiting. In addition, his personal scruples and concerns about revivalism showed forth more than was warranted and was often distracting for a chapter on this subject and of this length. In addition, I would suggest that the first section would have benefited from a chapter on the Heidelberg's spread, use, and current state in other parts of the world where the Reformed church exists (i.e. South Africa, India, France, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Australia, etc.). 

The second section begins with chapters three and four by Joel Beeke, which were two of the finest chapters in the book. These chapters alone are worth the price of the work. The chapters were well-structured, thorough without being pedantic, and incredibly practical. His second chapter, though focused particularly on catechetical preaching, may be one of the most overall helpful, brief, and practical works on preaching that I have read. The fifth chapter, written by Sebastian Heck, addressed baptism and was written in a scholarly manner. It is an in-depth analysis and interaction with the Heidelberg's questions and answers on the subject. Contained within this well-written chapter is a thorough-going Reformed case for covenantal baptism. Jon Payne's chapter on the Lord's Table is pastoral in tone and positive in approach. It was quite refreshing. The second section would have benefited from a chapter on prayer, but that seems like nitpicking in what was by far the most well-written and helpful portion of the book. 

The third section was not lacking in well-written and useful chapters either. It begins with one of my favorite chapters (chapter seven) in the book, featuring Michael Horton at his best. His chapter on the church is Christological, interacts with different traditions of the Christian faith, and is sensitive to current issues. He helpfully details the differences between Legalism, Antinomianism, and the Reformed faith, as well as Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and Reformed theology. If that wasn't enough, Horton also contrasts the Reformed view of the church and its mission with the current "missional church movement." Cornelius Venema's chapter on justification and sanctification is a useful corrective to many of the errors prevalent in evangelicalism and Reformed circles today. Mark Jones' chapter on the Christology of the Heidelberg Catechism is a tour de force. It is a rich and concise interaction with the catechism's Reformed view of the work, natures, and person of Christ. One has trouble imagining a better effort in so few pages on this crucial subject. The tenth chapter by d'Assonville is an interesting look at the three offices of Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism, but read more like a journal article than a chapter in a book. However, that may be only a particular irritation for this reviewer. Daniel Hyde's chapter closes this section with a helpful rejoinder to critics of Reformed theology regarding its perceived lack of emphasis upon the Holy Spirit. This chapter could easily be the most significant in the book, given current pressures upon the Reformed community. Hyde provides a ready answer to the Pentecostal and Charismatic concerns on one side and Hyper-Calvinism on the other side. The one minor complaint I have about this section is that it felt more like a conglomeration than one complete unit. Having said this, we must realize that a book of this length and composed of different contributors will always have some issues with continuity. 

The fourth section begins with Robert Godfrey's comparison of the Heidelberg Catechism with the two Westminster catechisms and the two catechisms written by Calvin for Geneva. As someone who knows the Westminster tradition and is just delving into the Heidelberg Catechism this was a chapter I was hoping would be included in the book. It is a helpful chapter, but I walked away thinking it could have been more so. Godfrey uses a few subjects (faith, Christ's Ascension, etc.) as samples for comparison. These are beneficial in and of themselves; however, a more full and complete conclusion would have aided this chapter. In many ways the overall differences are swallowed up in the particular analysis offered and a short conclusion which emphasizes a united Reformed identity. Chapter thirteen by Willem Verboom is a quality introduction to the history of the Heidelberg Catechism as an actual catechetical tool. In addition, the beginning of his chapter helpfully lays the foundation for proper catechizing. The book closes with a chapter refuting the accusation that the Heidelberg Catechism is too deeply indebted to scholasticism. William van't Spijker presents the convincing case and rounds out this book with a gospel-saturated chapter. His chapter ends the work by highlighting Ursinus' conviction that theology should begin, proceed, and conclude upon the foundation of Scripture. What better way to conclude a book about the Heidelberg Catechism?

A Faith Worth Teaching is a volume that I heartily recommend. Payne and Heck have served the church well with this addition. I expect that most of you will find this book, devour it, and enjoy it as much as this reviewer did. Even more importantly, with the contributors to this book, my overriding hope is that reading this work will encourage the church to celebrate the Heidelberg Catechism on its 450th anniversary by getting to know it, love it, and use it. This Presbyterian is doing just that.

Jason Helopoulos is ordained in the PCA and is an Assistant Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He regularly blogs at the Gospel Coalition and has a forthcoming book, A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home, being released in July by Christian Focus Publications.

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