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Book Review – The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lyle Bierma)

Lyle D. Bierma. The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 266 pp. $30.00.

heidelbergI’ve never been a member of a confessional church, but for a while now I’ve been thinking about studying through and memorizing a catechism. I just haven’t been able to choose between the Westminster and the Heidelberg. Since I’m interested in both, I was eager to read this new book published in the 450th anniversary year of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC). From my very brief and often second-hand encounters, it always seemed to me that the Westminster Catechism is more explicitly Reformed and more “heady” and the Heidelberg is more general (i.e. broadly evangelical with a wider appeal) and devotional.

However, despite the fact that the Heidelberg is perhaps the most ecumenical catechism to come out of the Reformation period, Bierma believes that in the past fifty or so years its ecumenical nature and potential has not been discussed much. He states that the major barrier to the HC being viewed as an ecumenical document lies in the fact that for most of its history, it has been identified almost exclusively with the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Furthermore, “[t]his Reformed ecclesiastical identity of the HC has been buttressed over the past 150 years by a body of scholarship that finds in the catechism a distinctly Reformed theological character as well” (2). Many scholars asserted that the HC is not Lutheran, Melanchthonian, Zwinglian, Bullingerian, nor Bucerian, but distinctly and thoroughly Calvinistic and Reformed.

Yet despite these arguments that point toward the HC being a Reformed catechism, there are, according to Bierma in this text, three things that point to the HC being an ecumenical document. The author spends some time illuminating the body of scholarship that sees the HC as not distinctly Reformed, but rather, as a combination of strands from Reformed and Lutheran traditions. The other two elements that Bierma develops as pointing to the ecumenical nature of the HC are its historical context and the text itself.

This book aims to show that in the HC, we have a “grafting of Reformed branches onto a Lutheran vine.” In looking at each part of the HC and the major theological topic(s) presented therein, Bierma shows how it integrates textual and/or thematic elements from both Lutheran and Reformed doctrines into all of its major doctrines. Many parallels between the HC and other confessions are noted; the ones in the Lutheran tradition that are mentioned over and over again are Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529, Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession, and Melanchthon’s Examen ordinandorum. Of course, texts from the Reformed tradition that the HC draws on and interweaves are mentioned as well. The book concludes with a chapter on the ecumenical spirit and potential of the HC.

This book is a bit different from what I had expected. It’s not theological in the way we typically think of a theological treatment. The treatment often reminded me of source criticism of biblical texts. This is not a bad thing, and this is indeed a good book; I think it’s just different from what most would expect based on the title. If you’re looking for a theological guide to the HC or an exposition of the content, this might not bethe book you’re looking for. However, if you like history and historical theology, you will love this book. Bierma’s The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism looks at the major doctrines of the HC from the perspective of its historical context and sources, showing how it is an interweaving of both Lutheran and Reformed traditions – that it is, contrary to what many think, an ecumenical catechism.

The other thing that may come as a surprise (but is obvious if you look at the table of contents) is that the appendix includes the full text of the HC. So the main body of the book is actually just over 100 pages.

Purchase: Amazon

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a free digital copy from Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review; I too have not read the Heidelberg Catechism =)

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    • Have you read the Westminster, though? You’re so Reformed, you probably have it all memorized 😀 I think I’m going to do Westminster first.

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  2. Bierma is not a historian or historical theologian (he’s in systematics), and he seems remarkably unfamiliar with the conflict and violence surrounding the HC from its beginning. It’s a very odd document to call “ecumenical,” when it is notoriously anti-catholic and was a point of conflict for that reason for centuries. The German Lutherans never liked it and resisted it from the start too.

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  1. Book Log: February 2014 |

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