Legacy of the Heidelberg Catechism

Dr. Ferenc Szűcs is an emeritus professor of Systematic Theology at Károli Gáspár Reformed University, where he is a member of the theology faculty and teaches the knowledge of confessions as a part of systematic theology. This year marks the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the main confessions of the Reformed Church in Hungary. I sat down with Szűcs to discuss the important historical and spiritual role it plays in the life of the church. "Confession belongs to the living faith," Szűcs said. He explained that Christian faith is not solely a private matter, but a public one as well, because Christians belong to a community. "The Reformers described the church as a 'community on the way.' We arrive at crossroads and we have to decide where to go together." And according to Szűcs, the church confession is searching for this common way, and not simply for one denomination but for the entirety of Christianity.

First of all, I'll start with a very basic question. What is the Heidelberg Catechism?

As far as I see, the Heidelberg Catechism has a twofold task in our history. First, it was a confession of the church but also – as its name says – a catechism, which was used for youth before confirmation and also, it was a custom in the Reformed church even up to the middle of the 20th century in many churches, it was a Catehetical worship used on Sunday afternoons. If you see the Heidelberg Catechism is divided into 52 Lord's Days, which means Sunday after Sunday they used it as topics for the worship. It means in the Reformed tradition, catechism isn't finished after the confirmation class; it was a continuing education for the congregations. This twofold task is the best description of the Catechism.

Who uses it?

As we don't have Sunday afternoon worships, many pastors use it in bible classes. This year I've heard there are some pastors who reintroduced these Catehetical Sundays in some churches. Of course, the answers are 16th century answers we can put 21st century questions to the Catechism?

Why do you feel it is so important to the church or individuals? What made this one Catechism so widespread?

It's a difficult question, "Why is it so popular?" I would say that the first question and answer is an existential one. "What is the only comfort in your life and in your death?" This is unique among the other confessions. The Catechism doesn't start with a theoretical question like, "Who is god, or what is our aim on the earth?" but we need comfort. Our nation and our church needed it very much – to have a certain knowledge of comfort that I don't belong to myself but I belong to god. I believe this so-called Preamble of the Catechism is very important and perhaps this is the only one question that is best known among our church people. In the last pages of our hymnbook there are two questions from the Heidelberg Catechism and it is one. In some places, we use it in the liturgy of the Lord's Supper as a confession of our faith. After the Apostolic Confession some ministers ask our special Reformed Confession and people can see the text in the last pages of the hymnbook and we can say it together. I think the first question is the basis of the whole Catechism.

How has it remained relevant for 450 years?

I usually say to my students the Heidelberg Catechism is like the other classics, even in music, literature and everything. There are values, which are still relevant from our past – for instance, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach or Beethoven and the plays of Shakespeare. We can use it in our time because they say something to our age. This is the heritage of the Reformed theology the basic Reformed principles – faith alone, the bible alone, by grace alone and so on. Even the form – ask questions and give short relevant answers. I think it's very up to date because even we have questions sometimes – sometimes not the same ones – but the confessions are the ways to the Bible and we have the same way to the Bible as our forefathers had.


Would you say it is more used in Europe as opposed to other countries around the world?

As far as I know, it is used in the Dutch Reformed churches and in Hungary, but I'm not quite sure about Switzerland and any other countries. But, I think the respect for the Heidelberg Catechism is generally in the European Reformed churches. I would say that sometimes we have in our theological classes some students from other denominations and they also learned the Heidelberg Catechism, and many of them say they find it in most cases, very ecumenical. The answers are very common, except some few questions like the 80th question, the question about Roman Catholic mass being "an accursed idolatry," which should be revised now, I think.

What makes it so important? Is it unique in the way it approaches these issues, or is it, again, its form that makes it so ecumenically friendly?

I would say the content and the details; the three basic details of the Heidelberg Catechism – sin redemption and our gratitude. I think this is a very common, basic Protestant principle. So, I would say the Heidelberg Catechism didn't want to say anything that is not our common Christian heritage.

Do you think it helps bring communities together?

Apart from the Geneva psalms, which are our common heritage, it's a very good experience, mutually, when I go to a church in Holland and I don't understand the language, but we sing the same psalms. In some churches they use a Catehetical worship on Sunday afternoons, especially in the more traditional Reformed congregations. It is true that it makes a connection – a common Reformed background.

You talked a little bit about the comfort part of the Catechism and why you thought that was something Hungary needed as a nation. Can you go into that a little more about the significance of this confession specifically to this nation?

If we look at our 16th century situation, the Turkish occupation for example – the country was divided into three parts. The Turkish occupation stood for 150 years, here. We have had a lot of freedom frights in our history in many hopeless ages. I think the comfort of the Gospel and not only the Heidelberg Catechism, but the comfort of the Gospel was very much needed in our situation. Otherwise, we are a little bit a hopeless people; we see the future as dark sometimes. I think it's important to know I don't belong to myself, but I belong to my God. This is a certain faith and a certain behavior in our situation, that we have our place on the earth. We have our task. I think it's a very important and very up to date message.

During the Habsburg Monarchy they had this strong counter-Reformation, how did this confession survive throughout this really trying period?

It's a good question because there was a time when the censorship didn't allow publishing of the full text of the Heidelberg Catechism. For example the question and answer about mass was not allowed to be published. After these strict times the church was able to publish the full text again.

Were they able to use the confession in the churches? Were they allowed to practice their faith?

Yes, yes. There was a continuous fight for religious freedom that's also part of our history. Our nobles and our Transylvanian princes fought for religious freedom. This meant that we can practice our faith publicly, which means in the churches we can use the Bible and Heidelberg Catechism and so on.


Why doesn't the RCH use a Hungarian confession?

We used to have several Hungarian confessions from the 16th century, but I see two reasons why these confessions did not survive. One would be that in the divided country there was not much possibility to have national synods. These confessions spread only in unofficial ways. For example, if a confession was accepted in Debrecen it could be used in the Transdanubian church district as well, but they probably didn't have the opportunity to accept the same decision. The other is that in these confessions there is a mixture of practical matters and theological and dogmatic matters. For example, there are 16th century confessions where the first part deals with the Lord's Supper and the theological questions, and the next article deals with the election of the minister, which is a very timely issue that was not relevant 20 or 30 years later. I think these two confessions, because the second confession is the Second Helvetic Confession, which was accepted in Debrecen in 1567 – I think these two confessions [Heidelberg and Helvetic] became enough to be the confession of the church. But of course we respect these old Hungarian confessions, but rather as a heritage.

What is the relationship between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Leuenburg Concordia?

The Leuenberg Concordia is an agreement between the Reformist churches in Europe. It was a signed in 1973 as a means of connecting the individual member churches in common witness and service.

I think there is no direct contradiction, but I think the Leuenberg Concordia is more ecumenical. I have to say that before the Leuenberg Concordia, we used to have a Hungarian Concordia with the Lutheran churches and especially it relates to the historic situation because in some places there were little communities of both denominations. They agreed to use the same churches and common worships and they accepted each other's communion services, baptism and so on. However, there was no official unification of the two churches. There was an agreement and it is still, in the 20th century, used in some places. Of course, the majority and minority question are treated a little bit.

Along those lines, in 2009 the Synod discussed including the Barmen Declaration into the Church's confessions. Why do you think they decided not to incorporate it?

The Barmen Declaration was constructed at the Synod of Barmen in 1934, where German Protestant leaders met to voice resistance against theological claims of the Nazi government. Several denominations have since accepted the declaration as a church confession.

Unfortunately, when it would have been very up to date for the Reformed church, our church had a little bit different position. I mean that the church state relations here in Hungary. Up until the German occupation of Hungary until 1944, the church didn’t need to face these questions because it was relatively free in the Hungarian society and in politics. After the communist time I think it was not possible to have such a confession. But, there is an interesting parallelism. In 1995 rose a similar confession made by some pastors and theological professors and Karoli played a big role in it. This was the time of the centenary of our theological academy and it was possible to celebrate it in international circles. Many leading theologians and church leaders were invited to this event. This declaration, which was a very strict resistance against the influence of the state into the church affairs, was given to delegates. In the next year when the central committee of the World Council of Churches held its meeting in Hungary, in many of the delegates brought this text with them. So, it is very much like the Barmen Declaration. Probably, it was inspired by it, but I wouldn’t say it was a confession because the political situation did not allow for a Synod like the Barmen Synod, because it was more strict censorship and control over the churches during the communist time. But many people would say that we agree with this declaration but it was not officially accepted.

What does a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism entail?

I don’t know very much about it because I was not a part of the committee. As I know, it is not a new translation, there are some alterations of the old fashioned expressions, which are not used in the present Hungarian language and probably the structure of the sentences are simplified and more understandable. The other question with the acceptance of the new translation was an acceptance of the 80th question and answer. I feel that it was an unfortunate mixture of the problems because alterations of the text and translation of the text are two different questions. I think it would need more discussions and theological debates about it than happened.

Do you feel it is time to update the RCH's confessions?

There are two way of using confessions. The updating is also need, but if the time comes the church may construct a new confession, which answers questions that were not raised in the 16th century – ecological problems, ethical questions. In today's Reformed church the time has not come, yet.

I hope that this anniversary puts an emphasis on the importance of the church confessions, because confession belongs to the living faith, and from time to time the church has to answer the basic question of all confessions that Jesus put to the disciples. "Who do you say I am?" That's the situation of the birth of a confession. From time to time we have to face this question, and the anniversary is a good time to make this emphasis to our church.


Amy Lester