Without question the Heidelberg Catechism is one of the most, if not the most, beloved Confession of all time. Those who cherish the heritage of the truth and turn to the Confessions of the church to learn it will rejoice in the Heidelberger as a precious gift of God through the Spirit of Truth Whom Christ promised the church.
Not only those who belong to churches which have made the Catechism their theological basis, but God's people from any tradition and from all ecclesiastical backgrounds, love and cherish this glorious creed.
Its attractiveness lies in two characteristics. The first is its warm and personal style. It speaks to the experience of the child of God. It tells him what the truth means to him personally in his own life and calling in the world. The second is its dominating theme of comfort. The personal and experiential aspect of the Catechism looks at the truth in all our life as a truth which brings comfort. It echoes the words of God in Isaiah 40:1: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God."
In the last chapter we described the role that Frederick the Pious played in the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. In this chapter we will let the authors themselves step out of the obscure past and take their place momentarily on the stage of history to tell us of what God worked in them.
Ursinus's Early Life
Zacharius Ursinus was born on July 18, 1534 in the town of Breslau of Silesia, a province of Austria. He was born of a family by the name of Baer, or Bear. Those who know the Big Dipper as Ursa Major will also know that Ursinus is only the Latin word for bear.
His parents were poor, for the wages of a tutor were meager and his father was a tutor. Two advantages, however, were his, brought up as he was in a tutor's home. The first was that he was surrounded from infancy with learning, and the second was that he had an opportunity to meet many of the rich and famous in the course of his early years.
Ursinus studied in Breslau until his 15th year, when he went to Wittenberg. Four years after Luther's body had been laid to rest in the cathedral of Wittenberg, and while Philip Melanchthon, Luther's colleague and close friend, was still teaching, Ursinus came to this notable and famous school. Because his parents could not support him, his expenses were underwritten by the Senate of Breslau, with the understanding that he would return to his native town to teach after he had completed his education.
Although he was a very able and gifted student, Ursinus was shy and retiring, tending somewhat to be moody, and not at all inclined to participate in the intellectual rough and tumble of classroom life in a university. Nor did he eagerly seek the companionship of his fellow students who, oftentimes with excessive gaiety, would celebrate the freedom of an academic life. He preferred to compose Greek and Latin verses in the solitude of his study.
He would probably have passed through the halls of the university scarcely noticed if it were not for the fact that Melanchthon observed his ability, took Ursinus into his own home, and became a friend and companion as well as teacher to the shy student. It was a strange but rich friendship, a 53 year old gifted theologian with a poor student of 16.
The Lutheran Reformation had penetrated Breslau prior to Ursinus's birth and had influenced his parents. Wittenberg was the center of Lutheran studies. It is not surprising that Ursinus became an ardent Lutheran. But already Melanchthon was having second thoughts about Luther's view of the Lord's Supper and was more inclined to agree with the Swiss theologians on the presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Ursinus was influenced by Melanchthon and developed his own views, which were more like those of his mentor.
Ursinus spent seven years with Melanchthon and even accompanied him to Worms and Heidelberg in 1557. Heidelberg was the city in which Ursinus would do his most important work. He saw it for the first time in the golden autumn of October. On the hillside covered with trees stood the imposing castle in which the Elector lived. The city was in the narrow valley of the Neckar River which flowed through the Black Forest to the Rhine just a few miles away. The Church of the Holy Spirit dominated the city with its spires soaring above the roofs of the houses. Almost at the feet of the spires was the most famous and oldest university in Germany, the University of Heidelberg. It had been Roman Catholic; it was now Protestant. Whether it would be Lutheran or Reformed had yet to be decided. It was Melanchthon's home, the land for which he longed. But Melanchthon had not come to stay; his life's work was on the sandy and dusty soil of Wittenberg.
After traveling together to Heidelberg, Ursinus and Melanchthon parted ways, Ursinus to travel for a year throughout Europe visiting the Protestant centers of learning in Germany, France, and Switzerland. He could read the Hebrew lectures of Jean Mercier in Paris, sit at the feet of Bullinger in Zurich, and talk with Calvin in Geneva. In fact, Calvin presented him with a gift of a complete set of Calvin's works, signed by their illustrious author.
For a few short years he fulfilled his obligations to Breslau by teaching there. But the Lutherans suspected him of being more Reformed than Lutheran in his views of the Lord's Supper. They were right; but it was a whispering campaign against him, finally exploding into public debate, which persuaded Ursinus to resign his position and leave the city. He never did enjoy controversy, and the bitterness of the hatred in Breslau was more than he could bear.
From Breslau Ursinus went to Zurich for a short time of peace and quietness in which he became a close friend of Peter Martyr, the Reformer from Italy who had made such a notable contribution to the Reformed doctrine of the Lord's Supper. His decision to go to Zurich was a difficult one. He told his uncle:
Not unwillingly do I leave my fatherland, since it does not permit the confession of the truth, which I can not with good conscience give up. If my teacher Melanchthon still lived, I would go nowhere else but to him. But as he is dead, I will go to Zurich where there are pious, great and learned men. As for the rest, God will care.
Ursinus found companionship and fellowship here with men with whom he was in complete agreement.
Frederick the Pious wanted a Reformed professor in Heidelberg and called Peter Martyr. Martyr declined the call on the grounds of old age, but recommended Ursinus. When Ursinus received the call from Frederick, he was most reluctant to go. He as well as anyone knew the tensions and controversies which were tearing apart that city. To a friend he wrote: "Oh that I could remain hidden in a corner. I would give anything for shelter in some quiet village."
But God has a way of calling a person to a work from which he shrinks. So it was with Moses. So it was when Calvin, at the threats of the fiery Farel, was persuaded to stay in Geneva. So God called Ursinus, shy and retiring, to the swirling ecclesiastical and doctrinal hubbub of Heidelberg.
Years In Heidelberg
Times in Heidelberg were trying. Although through the wise and godly rule of Frederick the Pious Roman Catholicism had been pretty much rooted out of the city, Lutheranism and the Reformed faith were vying for dominance. The differences were almost exclusively over the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, but violent and radical Lutherans were doing everything they could to rid the city of any men who disagreed with their position.
Ursinus was appointed head of the Collegium Sapientiae, the College of Wisdom, as it was called. But it was not long after, that he was appointed to occupy the chair of Dogmatics. And every imaginable chore and obligation were thrust upon him, as Frederick and others sought to make use of his enormous abilities and clear understanding of the truth.
It was not as a joke that Ursinus put a sign on the door to his office in the University which contained on it a bit of Latin doggerel which translated read: "Friend who enters here: be quick, or go; or help me with my work."
Yet his work for which he is renowned is his authorship of the Heidelberg Catechism. With Caspar Olevianus, he was instructed to draw up a confession which could be used for the instruction of the people of the Palatinate and could serve as a basis of unity.
Ursinus had earlier written a small Catechism in Latin, which also had proceeded from the idea of comfort. It had suggested to Ursinus the theme of this Catechism, and much of this earlier work was absorbed into the Heidelberger. It is hard for us to believe that Ursinus was only 28 years old at the time, but he had been steeped from infancy in Reformational theology and he was a man of brilliant gifts with which God had endowed him. The work began in 1562 and took nearly a year. It was a great time for Confessions: the Thirty-Nine Articles had been adopted by the Church of England; Bullinger had written his beautiful Second Helvetic Confession; and Spanish persecutors in the Lowlands were hunting the author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès.
Frederick pressed the work forward at the swiftest possible rate. When the Catechism was nearly ready in early 1563, he summoned a large company of ministers and teachers from throughout the Palatinate to meet in solemn assembly to discuss and, if possible, approve the work. After solemn worship services and lengthy discussion, the assembled group was so moved by the genius of the work that they unanimously recommended to Frederick that it be adopted without change. And so it was.
In the second edition, Frederick ordered Q. & A. 80 to be added, though without the sharp language concerning the mass; but when the attacks of Roman Catholics increased in bitterness and intensity, Frederick made another change in this same question and answer which included the words which have ever afterward vexed the souls of Roman Catholics, words which branded the mass as "an accursed idolatry." Frederick also ordered that it be divided into 52 sections, or Lord's Days, so that it could be preached from beginning to end in one year.
It quickly ran through many editions and was soon translated into different languages, including the Dutch, where it became a treasured confession of the Dutch Reformed Churches.
Ursinus's Post-Heidelberg Years
The rest of Ursinus's years in Heidelberg were busy and relatively unhappy. Not only did his duties continue in the University, but he was now also asked to preach each Lord's Day on the Heidelberg Catechism. Furthermore, he became the chief defender of the Catechism against the many and vicious attacks made against it by Roman Catholics and Lutherans alike. They so wearied him who loved peace, so physically exhausted him, and so impaired his health, that in 1566 he ceased writing and two years later resigned his chair of Dogmatics. The chair went to the esteemed Italian reformer, Hieronymous Zanchius, whose work on "Predestination" is still widely read.
Disputes in Heidelberg continued, now over church government. Did the discipline of the impenitent rest with the State or with the church? The controversy was sharp and bitter. The main defender of Presbyterianism was an Englishman named George Withers. Bullinger and Beza were called in to give advice. Finally, annoyed by the silence of Ursinus, Frederick ordered him to express his views. He did so in a public assembly and in such a candid and kindly way that his views carried the day, and Presbyteries were established with discipline safely in the hands of the church.
All these years he had remained unmarried and had lived with the students in the dorms of the University. But in 1572, at the age of 38, he began to consider the possibility of marriage. He had noticed a quiet and friendly woman only a block away from the University, and one day, summoning up his courage, he took time out from his studies to propose to her. She accepted; they were married -- perhaps one of the shortest courtships on record. They lived together nine years, and brought forth one son.
But things were soon to change in Heidelberg. Frederick died, worn out by the cares of his kingdom. The Elector Louis came to the electorate. Louis was an ardent Lutheran and determined to force Lutheranism on the Palatinate. Within one year he succeeded in doing this, and the Reformed faculty at the University, including Ursinus, were dismissed. Over 600 teachers and preachers left the Palatinate during this unhappy time.
Although Ursinus was invited to teach at Lausanne in Switzerland, he chose instead to go to Neustadt, where he set up a school in a nunnery with the help of his good friend Casimir, son of Frederick the Pious. The school obtained a good faculty and soon attracted many students from throughout Europe.
But Ursinus taught only briefly in it. He was asked by a Reformed Convention which met in Frankfurt in 1577 to draw up a confession which could serve as a basis for unity of all Reformed Churches in Europe, but he declined on the grounds of ill-health.
The great work of these years was the writing of his well-known commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, a volume which all who love this creed ought to purchase. The volume was put together from his lectures on the Catechism in Neustadt, lectures which he edited and prepared for publication, although this latter work he never finished. The book was published in 1584 after his death.
His health continued to decline and his teaching became increasingly sporadic. Finally on March 6, 1583, at the age of 49, he died in Neustadt, leaving his wife a widow and his child without a father.
Ursinus was not a very good preacher; his gifts lay in the classroom, where his lectures were learned, incisive, instructive, and delivered in a most interesting way. He was ever the cautious man, so much so that when questions were asked of him in class, he almost always postponed the answers to the following day so that he could have time to formulate a careful answer. His strength was in his penetrating mind and his deep commitment to the truth. The truth was not for him an intellectual matter however; it was his "comfort," that which alone could sustain him through the grueling years of his work in Heidelberg.
God thrust this shrinking man into the maelstrom of Heidelberg. God knows what to do with His appointed servants even when it seems all wrong to them and others. But we are the beneficiaries , for to us has been given the time-honored treasure of the Heidelberg Catechism.
God used more than one man to write the Heidelberg Catechism. Frederick III, elector of the Palatinate, ordered it written and supported the project, even offering suggestions from time to time. Zacharius Ursinus was its theologian. But Caspar Olevianus left his own indelible mark on it.
History has not recorded for us what precise part each of the two authors of the Catechism played in its formation; and speculations on the subject by historians have proved fruitless. But it does seem to be a manifestation of God's great wisdom when, in the formulation of this marvelous creed, God used both the theologian Ursinus and the preacher Olevianus. Not only is the Catechism an unsurpassed summary of the Christian faith with the touch of a theologian; but it is a confession eminently suitable to preach: it has the touch of a man who was himself a gifted and eloquent preacher and pastor.
Early Life and Training
Caspar Olevianus was born on August 10, 1536, two years after the birth of his colleague Ursinus. He was born in one of the most famous cities in Trans-Alpine Europe, the city of Trier, or, as it was sometimes called, Treves. The city was built on the banks of the Moselle River on the border of Germany and Luxembourg. It boasted of the fact that its history went back to the days before the birth of Christ, and it claimed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest city north of the Alps. The Emperor Caesar Augustus had started the city in 15 B.C. and had made it an important city in an ocean of barbarians.
The city had the distinction of being briefly the home of the great church father Athanasius, when, because of his uncompromising defense of the truth of Christ's divinity, he had been banished from his church in Alexandria in Egypt. That was back in the first half of the 4th century.
The prominence of the city in the Middle Ages was due in large measure to the fact that the cathedral in the city claimed to have in its possession the seamless robe of Christ over which the soldiers gambled at the cross. (This robe is still put on public display at 25-year intervals, and hundreds of thousands crowd the city to look at it.) Further, the abbey church in the city claimed to be the burial place of the apostle Matthew, the only apostle, so tradition said, to be buried north of the Alps.
Olevianus was born of Gerhard von der Olewig and Anna Sinzig. The name "Olewig," which means "olive," actually refers to a part of the city, perhaps even a small village annexed to the city, known by that name. "Olevianus" is the Latinized form of that name.
Caspar's father was a merchant, relatively wealthy, and a prominent citizen of this historic place. He was a baker, a president of the Bakers' Guild, a member of the city council, and treasurer of the city. He followed a family tradition of service to the city, for Caspar's grandfather was president of the Butchers' Guild and also a member of the council. These positions in the city were important, for Trier, because of its ancient and illustrious past, was a "free" city in Germany.
Caspar's mother was a pious and godly woman who exerted great influence on her family and son. It is striking, if I may make here a somewhat parenthetical remark, that so many of those men who occupied places of great importance in the cause of God and of His church, had very godly and pious mothers. It is a fact of history that ought to give all covenant mothers pause: they never know what the effect of their piety and humble service of God will be upon their children and how God will use their godliness for His cause.
Trier was a Roman Catholic city. It remained such even though the Lutheran Reformation spread through much of Germany. It remained immune to Lutheran teachings. Caspar was brought up, therefore, in a Roman Catholic home and taught in a Roman Catholic school in Trier the first 14 years of his life.
Offsetting this Roman Catholic influence was one incident which made a deep impression on Casper during these years, an incident of which he himself later spoke. While Casper was at school, an aged but kindly and saintly priest planted a seed in his heart which was eventually to bear fruit. It was nothing more than a remark which the old priest made to him in the corridors of the school. Recognizing the abilities of the young boy, the priest put his arm over Casper's shoulder and said to him: "Never forget that salvation and comfort are to be found only in Christ's perfect work." Again and again, through those dark and dreary centuries when Roman Catholicism held sway over the minds and consciences of men, we find these isolated individuals who, in spite of Rome's denial of Christ's perfect sacrifice for sin, held to the truth that all our salvation is only in Christ. It must have been these lonely and scattered men who enabled the church of Christ to stay alive during those perilous times.
In 1550, at the age of 14, Caspar completed his studies in Trier. His grandfather stepped in and offered to support Caspar's further education in France provided Caspar would study law. This was somewhat strange, for Trier had its own university; but it becomes a bit understandable when we remember that Trier was solidly Roman Catholic and its schools were steadily losing students, while the universities of other parts of Europe were becoming very popular because of openness to Renaissance and Reformation teachings.
It was in France that Caspar's life took an extraordinary turn.
Conversion and Early Work
The years Olevianus spent in France were profitable, if for no other reason than that they led to his conversion to the Reformed faith.
Caspar attended the universities of Paris, Orleans, and Bourges, the same universities in which Calvin had received his training. Although he studied law, he came under the influence of leading thinkers in the universities who were more or less committed to Lutheranism; but more importantly, he came under the influence of Huguenot teaching. The Huguenots were French Calvinists who had been delivered from Roman Catholicism, but who were forced to meet secretly because they were severely persecuted by the king and the church. The shadow of the stake, the hangman's noose, and the sword hung constantly over them and their families. Not only did Caspar come in contact with them, but he became persuaded of their position and even attended their secret meetings.
Especially one experience changed his life. While walking with a friend, a prince from Germany, along the river which ran by Bourges, Caspar and this friend were invited to cross the river in a boat in which were other students. Caspar refused because the students in the boat were drunk, but his friend took up the offer. In midstream the students began rocking the boat and it overturned. Caspar dived into the water to save his friend, but was unable to do so because of the swift current. He was himself in danger of drowning. At that crucial point, Caspar promised that, if God would spare his life, he would preach the gospel in Trier. His friend's valet, thinking Caspar was his master, hauled Caspar from the water, while the friend drowned. Although Caspar continued his studies in law, that promise, made in the cold waters of the river Auron, was not forgotten.
After completing his studies in France, Caspar returned to Trier -- not yet to preach (for this he was untrained), but to practice law. His promise, however, sat heavily upon his soul, and he found no satisfaction in the legal niceties of 16th century law practice. In disgust and restlessness, Caspar traveled to Geneva for the express purpose of talking with Calvin.
The two years he spent in Switzerland were important ones. He not only met with and talked to Calvin, but had opportunity to spend many hours with Theodore Beza, Henry Bullinger, Peter Martyr, William Farel, and Peter Viret, all luminous stars in the Reformation heavens. The years were not spent, though, in idle chatter; he studied in Geneva under Calvin, learned Hebrew, mastered theology, was instructed in the art of preaching, and prepared himself for the ministry.
It must have been good instruction which he received in preaching because, along with the development of his native gifts, this instruction made Caspar one of the outstanding and most eloquent preachers of the times -- and the times were blessed with many gifted preachers!
The year 1559 was an important one in the history of the Reformation. During this year French Protestants held their first Synod in Paris, John Knox returned to Scotland to establish the Presbyterian Church there, William the Silent made his vow to drive "the Spanish vermin" from the Netherlands, Elector Frederick III the Pious began his reign in Heidelberg, and Calvin opened his Academy in Geneva and published the last edition of his Institutes.
In June of this important year, at the urging of Farel -- that firebrand of a Reformer who had been instrumental in keeping Calvin in Geneva, Olevianus returned to Trier.
Trier was still a Roman Catholic City, and Caspar's presence as a minister of the truth of the Calvin Reformation would not have gone over very well there. But two men, Otto Seele and Peter Sierk, influential in the city, were known in Geneva to have some Calvinistic leanings. To them Calvin wrote to try to encourage them to work towards reformation in the city, and especially to bring Caspar Olevianus to the city to help.
It seems as if Caspar went without really revealing what his position on reformational matters was. He must have, for the time being, concealed his true purposes, for he had no difficulty, because of the reputation of his parents and grandparents, obtaining an appointment to teach philosophy in the school of a solidly Roman Catholic city. He chose to teach Melanchthon's Dialectics. The instruction was in Latin, and Dialectics was rather boring to any but the most ardent students; so Olevianus could be of little influence. Here he stayed for awhile, in his home town, in a sense flying under false colors, eager to keep a vow he had made long before, stuck in a philosophy class in a dying school.
Work In Trier
Because few people in Trier could understand Latin (even most of the students were not very proficient in the language) Olevianus, though able to slip in a few Reformed remarks from time to time, could scarcely be an effective teacher of the truths he had learned to love.
In his discomfort over his vow that he would preach, and determined to reach the common people, he decided to hold a public lecture in German, the language of the people. It was subsequently announced. A large crowd assembled. The success of the lecture was the beginning of a series of lectures in the German tongue, lectures which became expositions of a Reformation Catechism.
Because the people received what he had to say eagerly and because the crowds continued to grow, he asked permission of the council to preach to the people, which permission was reluctantly given. He chose for this sermon the subject of justification by faith, which he ably set forth in a crowded room, and which became an occasion for him to attack various Romish practices. At last he was beginning to keep the vow he had made to God in the river of Bourges.
Although the town clerk supported this public proclamation of the gospel, Olevianus was brought before the city council, which was less receptive to the idea. Somewhat reluctantly and probably because the city council did not really understand what was at stake, the men of the council voted to permit him to preach.
The crowds grew rapidly and soon a Protestant and Calvinistic congregation was organized. But Archbishop John, a cleric in the church of Rome as well as Elector of that region, heard reports of what was going on. He knew the significance of it, and soon, marching with a number of soldiers to the gates of the city, he demanded that such "nonsense" stop. When the city refused to open the gates to him, he took up headquarters near the city and began to harass the citizens by taking away their status as a free city, burning their crops, seizing and attacking citizens as they traveled to and from the city, threatening the city with many fierce threats, cutting off their water supply, preventing supplies of food from entering the city, and summoning more soldiers to make a determined march on the city.
Finally John attacked the city, threw Olevianus into jail, banished all who upheld Protestant practices, and restored Roman Catholicism. It was a total triumph for Rome. John, to add insult to injury, instituted an annual "Olevian Procession" to celebrate the banishment of this man of God. It was nearly 250 years before any worship services other than Romish were held here again.
Olevianus was held in prison for ten weeks and was finally released only at the insistence of the Elector Frederick the Pio