"The Origins of the Heidelberg Catechism
in Ecumenical Perspective"
Lyle Bierma, Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary
Given on October 31, 2013
In this year of the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Meeter Center hosted a Reformation Day lecture by Lyle D. Bierma entitled “The Origins of the Heidelberg Catechism in Ecumenical Perspective.” Dr. Bierma is professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and has authored several scholarly works on the Catechism, most recently The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism: A Reformation Synthesis (2013). In the lecture it was asked if the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) in its day was ecumenical in origin and character? The answer, it was suggested, is both “yes” and “no”.
The first part of the lecture showed how the HC was in its design and origin ecumenical in a qualified sense. Hoping to mediate between Gnesio-Lutherans, Melanchthonian Lutherans, late Zwinglians / Bullingerians, and Calvinists as the territory of the Palatinate shifted towards Reformed doctrine, the Elector Frederick III appointed the scholarly team tasked with drafting the Catechism wisely and representatively. Ursinus and his co- laborers blended various Protestant flavors together: Luther’s Small Catechism (1529), Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession (1530) and Examen Ordinandorum (1552), Calvin’s Genevan Catechism (1542), and Beza’s two confessions (1560). The result was what Dr. Bierma called “a kind of Lutheran vine onto which various Reformed branches were grafted.”
The second part of the lecture focused on ways in which the HC’s ecumenicalism was limited. Its cumenicalism was restricted, for example, by the political motives underlying the Elector Frederick’s promotion of the HC. Internal political unity, rulers felt, suffered from theological divisions. The HC was also less than ambitiously ecumenical in participating in the fray of sixteenth-century church and theological polemics. A number of HC questions and answers opposed Roman Catholic practices and teachings, combated specific Anabaptist views and countered some understandings of the Gnesio-Lutherans. The historical context helps to explain this trend: religious practice, it was believed, was a social glue that had to hold communities and territories together.
In his conclusion Dr.Bierma noted the remarkable confessional unity which the HC achieved. Conciliatory and irenic minds clarified true doctrinal common ground and expressed it in the HC with pastoral sensitivity.
Calvin Theological Seminary Ph.D Student