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A Happy Birthday for the Heidelberg Catechism

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I’ve just returned from Heidelberg, Germany, where I joined brothers and sisters from around the world to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.  In addition to illuminating papers and warm fellowship, we enjoyed one of the city’s several museum exhibits celebrating the anniversary.  Of special note was the Heidelberg Palace exhibit, “The Power of Faith: 450 Years of the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Frederick III, ruler of the Palatinate and imperial elector, was nicknamed “the pious” by fellow princes.  Embracing Reformed teaching, he was distressed with the low level of knowledge of even the basics of the Christian faith in his territory.  Drawing together the best theologians and pastors in the region, he oversaw (and even contributed to) the drafting of a catechism that would be taught in schools, churches, and homes.

Soon after publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was translated into various languages—including early modern Hebrew and Greek.  It soon enjoyed wide use in the English-speaking world as well.  Students learned this catechism at Oxford and Cambridge.  Today, it is more widely known and used in Asia, Africa, and the Americas than in Europe or even North America.  As my children repeat back the clear teaching of the gospel from this great catechism, I am reinvigorated in my own faith.

Yet in Germany itself, the story is rather different.

In Luther’s home state of Saxony-Anhalt, after nearly a century of atheistic indoctrination, only 19% of the population professes belief in God.  Yet even more tragic is the widespread unbelief in the west, under the auspices of a privileged but largely apostate Protestant Evangelical Church (EKD).  A union of Lutheran and Reformed bodies, the EKD and the Roman Catholic Church claimed 30% of the population each by the end of 2008.  Affiliation, however, may mean no more than having been baptized.  These Landeskirchen (established churches) continue to receive tax money to fund their undermining of the Christian faith.  In recent decades, there have been free (i.e., independent of the state) Lutheran bodies maintaining evangelical convictions, but Arminian Baptist and Pentecostal groups are much larger.

Across the nation, 45% say, “I believe there is a God,” while among the youth the percentage drops to 30%, and 34% are “unaffiliated.”    According to a 2010 Eurobarometer Poll, 55% of the total population claim to be atheists, agnostics, or “non-religious.”   Germany has always been the vanguard of intellectual, cultural, and religious trends on the continent.   What happens in Germany, for good or ill, has repercussions for the whole of Europe.

During my brief time in Heidelberg, I was impressed with the small group of committed believers who are longing and praying for a new Reformation.  Spearheading this event last week was the Free Reformed Church (Selbstündige Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche) in Heidelberg with the Rev. Sebastian Heck.   I joined North American colleagues Joel Beeke, Lyle Bierma, Jason Van Vleet, and Jon Payne in giving some papers on the catechism, but for me it was definitely more blessed to receive than to give.

Among other speakers was Dr. Victor d’Assonville, an astute Reformed theologian.  He leads a new seminary that holds great promise as a center for sound training of the small but growing band of future ministers, evangelists, and teachers.   Students come from Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds and I had the pleasure of getting to know some of them at the conference.  Many were raised in East Germany, where atheism was the state ideology.   I was deeply moved by their stories of coming to understand the evangelical faith against all odds (including their own churches) and the depth of their zeal, knowledge, and clarity.

In other travels, I’ve seen first-hand the remarkable blessing of God on his means of grace.  There is a hunger for Reformation Christianity around the world.  And yet the land of the Reformation is now largely pagan.  There is a great need for prayers and financial support for small but zealously faithful ministry in Germany.

If you would like to help this work in Heidelberg, or if you know anyone in the area who is looking for a good Reformed church, contact Sebastian Heck at sebheck@mac.com.   The nascent seminary there has enormous potential as a catalyst for long-range gospel ministry, but it is struggling to find the necessary resources in the short term.  If you have an interest in supporting this work, please contact Dr. Victor E. d’Assonville at vicdas@rtsonline.de.
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  • Guest - Nick Davis

    I just started going through the Heidelberg since I'm pretty new to the goodies of the Reformed faith. Man it's been so good and helpful for understanding what I believe, and it's just beautiful the way it was written!

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  • [...] The church where I serve as Associate Pastor is from the German Reformed tradition. The Whitehorse Inn has a nice piece on the birthday of the Heidelberg Catechism. [...]

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  • Guest - Gottfried

    Great article! Thank you! It was a blessing to had you and the other speaker here in Germany!!!

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