Tag Archives: Heidelberg Catechism

The Synod of Dort and Catechism

The following is a talk I did for the Dort Conference held in Caruaru, Brazil on March 23, 2019.  The Portuguese version can be found here.   

The scene happens almost every week in Reformed churches in Canada and Australia.  It is usually a Tuesday or a Wednesday evening.  The parents bring all the children between the ages of 12 and 18 to be taught catechism by their pastor.  Most of the time it is the pastor who teaches; if a church is vacant, then an elder or even someone else might do it.  In a large church, the pastor might not be able to teach all the classes.  Because there are so many students, there will have to be others teaching beside the pastor.

In some parts of Australia, these catechism classes are taught by the pastor at the Christian school during the day.  In my congregation, like in Canada, we do the classes in the evening.

Let me describe in more detail what it looks like where I am a pastor.  In Launceston, we have three classes, all on Wednesday evening.  The first class is from 7:00 to 7:45.  This class is for the children between the ages of 12 and 15.  We call it the junior class.  In this class, the children learn the doctrine of the Bible with the help of the Heidelberg Catechism.  They are expected to memorize a part of the Catechism every week.  I teach them what it means with the Bible.

The next class is from 8:00 to 8:45.  This class is for the children between the ages of 15 and 18.  This is the senior class.  This class is divided up into three years.  In the first year, they study the biblical teachings of the Belgic Confession.  They do some memorizing, but they memorize Bible passages and not the Belgic Confession.  In the second year, the focus is on the Canons of Dort.  Then, in the third year, they again study the Heidelberg Catechism.

The last class begins at 9:00.  This is the class for those who hope to make public profession of faith.  This class mostly reviews the biblical teachings of the Reformed confessions, but in my church I also teach our young people several weeks of apologetics – that’s all about how to defend the Christian faith.

As I mentioned, this is standard practice in our Reformed churches in Canada and Australia.  I don’t know about how it goes here in Brazil.  But if something like this is done in Brazil too in your churches, I wonder if the same thing is missing that is often missing in Canada and Australia.  Reformed churches usually do well at teaching their young people.  The thing that is often missing is the parents.  The parents are often not teaching their children.  In the minds of many Christian parents, the church has to teach their children.  But they don’t have to teach.  And so they often don’t.  This is sad.  Our churches could be stronger and more faithful if all the parents were to teach their children Christian doctrine.

This is where we would do well to pay attention to the Synod of Dort.  The Synod discussed a great many more things besides how to deal with the Arminians.  One of the topics discussed early in the Synod was the question of how best to teach the youth of the church.  On November 30, 1618 the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the best manner of catechesis.  In this talk, we will look at what Dort decided on this, why, and what can we learn from it for today.

Why the Synod Discussed Catechism Teaching

We need to begin with some background.  The Reformation placed a strong emphasis on the importance of catechisms for teaching Christian doctrine.  There were many Protestant catechisms written and published in the 1500s.  But without a doubt one of the most popular was the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563.  This Catechism was first translated into Dutch in the same year it appeared in German, 1563.  Before long, the Heidelberg Catechism became the catechism of Reformed churches in the Netherlands.

The Synod of Dort started in 1618.  As I mentioned, the Synod had to deal with the Arminian problem.  But part of the Arminian problem had to do with the Heidelberg Catechism.  The Arminians did not like it.  They had theological issues with it, but they also said it was too difficult for young people.  They said that it didn’t have enough of the Bible in it.  So, as we come to the Synod of Dort, the Heidelberg Catechism was under pressure.

But there were other issues related to the question of catechism teaching more generally.  Before the Synod of Dort, the Dutch Reformed churches did not have catechism classes as many Reformed churches have them today.  Often they would have a brief class in Christian doctrine for those who were about to profess their faith.  But to have a regular weekly class for the youth of the church taught by the minister – that was unheard of.

What they did have in some places was catechism preaching.  At the Synod of the Hague in 1586, the Dutch Reformed churches agreed that each Sunday afternoon the pastors should “briefly explain the summary of doctrine contained in the Catechism.”  This became part of the Reformed Church Order.  Now the problem was that, even after 1586, in some places this was poorly done.  In other places it was not done at all.  This was especially the case in many small country or village churches.  So there was a lack of consistency in the Dutch Reformed churches leading up to the Synod of Dort.  Whole congregations were missing out on regular doctrinal instruction, and that obviously included the youth of those congregations.  And obviously the future of the church is not very bright if the youth are not being discipled in the Christian faith.  As we come to the Synod of Dort in 1618, the question is there of how to improve the teaching of Christian doctrine in the Dutch Reformed churches.

The Synod Discussion

When it came to the Heidelberg Catechism and catechism training, the Synod of Dort discussed and decided upon several matters.  They made a decision about catechism preaching.  They reaffirmed what the Synod of the Hague decided in 1586.  The Synod dealt with all the objections of the Arminians to the Catechism.  The Catechism was examined and approved by all the delegates, including the foreign ones, as being in full agreement with the Bible.  But our focus is going to be on the discussion and decision about the best manner of teaching Christian doctrine.

The Synod divided that topic into two parts.  They looked at the best way of teaching the youth of the church and then the best way of teaching the adults.  We are only going to look at what the Synod said about the best way to teach the youth.

The discussion began in the morning session of November 28.  As you may know, we have Acts of the Synod, but the Acts do not always give much detail about the discussions.  However, in this situation we have an eyewitness account from an Englishman named John Hales. He observed the synod on behalf of the British ambassador to the Netherlands and reported back to him with letters.  These letters were later published.

John Hales reported about what he observed on the morning of November 28, 1618.  Johannes Bogerman, the chairman of the Synod, first gave a speech about the necessity and usefulness of catechizing.  Bogerman said that catechism was the basis and ground of religion.  It was the only way for the principles of Christianity to be passed down.  Bogerman spoke of how catechism was an ancient practice going back to the early church.  When catechism is neglected, he said, ignorance results among the members of the church.  Confusion also results when catechism is not practiced – people drift into Roman Catholicism, Anabaptism, and other errors.  Bogerman argued that the practice of Reformed catechism was needed now more than ever because of the growing aggressiveness of the Jesuits.  The Jesuits are diligent in teaching doctrine – to combat them, the Reformed churches must be even more diligent.

After the chairman’s speech, the delegates were asked to present their advice on the topic.  The Acts include copies of the advice given by the seven foreign delegations present.[1]  I am not going to go through all the details of these documents.  I just want to note one important element found in several of them.  That has to do with the role of parents.  For example, the delegates from Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.”  Parents who were careless about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families.  Likewise, the delegates from Bremen advised the Synod that they recognized three kinds of catechism instruction:  scholastic (in the schools), ecclesiastical (in the church), and domestic (in the families).  Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis.  The same was stressed by the two delegates from Geneva, Johannes Deodatus and Theodorus Trochinus.

All of those advices were presented and discussed on November 28, 1618.  The following day a sermon was preached by one of the British delegates (Joseph Hall).   Then in the morning session of November 30 the Synod came back to the question of how to teach catechism in the best way.  The chairman had been meeting with the executive officers of the synod and, taking all the advice into account, they worked together to produce a proposed decision.  The chairman presented this proposal and it was adopted.

The Synod Decision

The decision regarding the best way of teaching the youth had three parts.  There was to be a three-fold manner of catechizing the youth of the Dutch Reformed churches.

It began with the home.  Parents had the responsibility to instruct their children in the basics of the Christian faith at an age-appropriate level.  They were to urge them to godliness.  Parents were to train their children in prayer.  The Synod declared that parents have the responsibility to take their children to church and then afterwards to review what they heard, especially in the catechism sermons.  Parents must read the Bible with their children and explain it to them.  Finally, the Synod decided that parents should also give their children Bible passages to memorize.  Now what if there were parents who failed to do these things?  The Synod decided that negligent parents were to be admonished by the ministers.  If they did not listen to the ministers, then the elders were to reprimand them, and if necessary, place them under church discipline.  Failing to teach your children was considered to be a sin for which you could be placed under church disciple.  That is how serious this was considered to be.

In the second place, catechism was the responsibility of the schools.  According to the Synod of Dort, the state was responsible for the establishment and maintenance of education in general.  The teachers in these schools had to be Reformed.  They had to subscribe to the Reformed confessions and be trained in teaching catechism.  Dort decided that the teachers should teach catechism to the students twice every week and require them to memorize it.  Additionally, the teachers were also required to take their students to the Sunday catechism preaching – presumably this requirement was for the students whose families were not members of the church.  There were to be three types of catechism tools for this work in the schools:  a basic simple catechism for the youngest students, a simplified version of the Heidelberg Catechism (known as the Compendium), and then the Heidelberg Catechism for the older students.  The ministers had the responsibility to make sure this was all taking place.  If there was any negligence the ministers would report this to the government.  The government must then replace any negligent school teachers.

Finally, said the Synod, catechism was also the responsibility of the church.  The youth of the church were to be taught by the pastors, but not in catechism classes as we know them today.  Instead, the ministers were to teach the youth, along with the rest of the congregation, through the regular catechism preaching.  For this reason, the Synod decided that ministers should preach their catechism sermons at the level of the youth.  This teaching should also be followed up with review.

There are two things I want to mention about this decision.

First, there is the role of the school.  In that old Dutch context, the school was an instrument of both the church and the state.  Moreover, church and state were connected in ways that are foreign to us today.  As history moved on that connection was broken.  Eventually, the catechism class taught at the school became the catechism class taught by the church.  So, the second and third ways of teaching catechism to the youth were eventually brought together.

Second, I want you to note that the Synod followed the advice of the delegates of Hesse and Bremen in dividing it into this three-fold manner.  But there is an important difference.  The difference is in the order.  The Synod of Dort put the role of parents first.  Moreover, the Synod said a lot more about the responsibility of parents than did any of the advices received.

Relevance for Today

The Synod of Dort was correct in emphasizing the role of parents in catechism.  This is a biblical emphasis.  We could think of Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  Parents, especially fathers, are called to keep their children in order and also to teach them God’s Word.  Sometimes you hear about other churches that have “youth pastors.”  Reformed churches also have youth pastors – they are called parents.  The parents are supposed to be the youth pastors in the church of Christ.

Moreover, parents in a Reformed church promise to do this.   When their children are baptized, Reformed parents promise that they will instruct their children in Christian doctrine.  They promise that they will do it.  They have the primary responsibility, not the minister.  The church supports the teaching of the parents, but the church does not replace the teaching of the parents.

Christian parents should teach their children Christian doctrine.  But how?  Let me give some practical suggestions.

First of all, to teach your children you must have a good basic understanding of Christian doctrine yourself.  You have to make use of the resources that are available to you.  If you are in a Reformed church where there is catechism preaching, make it your habit to be there every time so you can be strengthened in your understanding of biblical doctrine.  Then you also need to be reading the Bible for yourself every day.  You cannot teach others if you are not being taught yourself.  That happens through studying the Word of God for yourself.  I also want to recommend reading good Christian books that will teach you doctrine.  If you need a suggestion for a book like that, ask your pastor.  Many parents don’t teach because they don’t have the confidence or feel like they have the knowledge.  But if you are a Christian parent, you have the calling and responsibility to do that, so you must find ways to build your confidence and knowledge.

Next, Every Christian home should have a set time for family worship every day.  In many Reformed homes in Canada and Australia, this happens after the evening meal.  But it does not have to be after a meal.  There just needs to be a time every day when the family will be gathered for worshipping God together.  During this time, there should be prayer and singing.  There should be Bible reading.  But there should also be a short time of learning Christian doctrine with the help of a Catechism.

In my family, we usually use the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  This is a catechism from the Presbyterian churches, but it teaches Reformed doctrine just like the Heidelberg Catechism does.  We have a book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Each question and answer has six days of teaching to go with it.  We have also used the Heidelberg Catechism with a similar book.  Sometimes we go through the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well.  But each day, we spend maybe five minutes of our family worship time learning Christian doctrine.  By doing this, when our children go to the church’s catechism classes, they have already learned many of the basics.

However you might choose to do it, the important thing is that you do it.  Parents, please listen to me:  if you love your children, teach them the Lord’s ways.  Nothing is more important for their well-being!

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me also say that this is very important for the future of the church and the progress of the gospel.  We will not have a strong church without strong families.  Strong families are the backbone of strong churches.  We will have spiritually strong families when parents, and especially fathers, take their responsibility seriously to provide spiritual leadership and teaching for their children.  When we have that, our churches will stand stronger.  Our gospel witness will shine brighter.  And God will be praised with greater fervour.

[1] An eighth foreign delegation (from Nassau-Wetteravia) would not arrive until December 17.


Reformation Confessions and Evangelism

We’re continuing to celebrate what God did in the Reformation starting 500 years ago.  For today, I’m sharing the notes from a talk I did in Brazil back in August.

*************************

Introduction

One of the most important contributions of the Reformation was its production of confessions and catechisms.  Only a few of them are still well-known today.  For example, Reformed churches continue to use the Heidelberg Catechism written in 1563.  They also continue to use the Belgic Confession written in 1561.  What many people do not know is that there were numerous confessions and catechisms produced during the time of the Reformation.  If we only look at the Netherlands, there were at least 18 Reformed confessions and catechism produced between 1530 and 1580.[1]  James Dennison has produced a four volume set of Reformed confessions from the 16th and 17th centuries.[2]  Volume One covers 1523 to 1552.  It contains 33 confessions and catechisms translated into English.  These come from all over Europe:  Switzerland, Germany, Spain, England, the Netherlands, Bohemia and more.  Moreover, this is not even close to a complete collection.  The number of Reformed confessions is simply amazing.

Why did the Reformation produce so many confessions?   After all, was not the Reformation all about Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone?  They said they believed in the Bible alone.  Yet they had all these manmade documents for their churches.  How could they fit those things together?  The answer is simple.  They believed that their confessions were just faithful summaries of biblical teaching.  Their confessions and catechisms never replaced the Bible or stood over the Bible.  They were guides to the important teachings of the Bible.

The Reformation churches saw that confessions and catechisms were helpful.  They were helpful as statements of faith.  When someone wanted to know what their church believed, they could turn to the confession of the church.  They were helpful as teaching tools.  When someone was going to be brought into the church, the confessions were a pedagogical tool for teaching the important doctrines of Christianity.  When young people were being discipled in the church, they would be taught with the help of confessions and catechisms.  They were also helpful as something to bind the church together in doctrinal unity.  These documents contained the faith that the church agreed upon together as the basis for fellowship.

In some instances, Reformation confessions were also regarded as evangelistic tracts.  This is certainly true for the Belgic Confession.[3]  It was addressed to a Roman Catholic world lost in darkness. It was an effort to win Roman Catholics with the gospel.  The Belgic Confession was originally written in French, not in Latin.  It was written in the language of regular people in order to win the regular people.  It was also originally written in the format of a tract.  It was printed in a small convenient format which would fit in your pocket.  It was meant to be printed cheaply and in great quantities so that it could be widely shared.  And it was.

In what follows, I want to look at some of these Reformation confessions and what they have to say about the evangelistic calling of the church.  I’m going to mention the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, of course.  I’m also going to be discussing some of the confessions and catechisms that are not as well known.  I should say that I will not be discussing the Westminster Confession or Catechisms.  These were written in the post-Reformation period in the 1600s.  Our focus is going to be on the Reformation in the 1500s, particularly on the non-Lutheran side of the Reformation.

William Farel’s Summary and Brief Declaration

One of the earliest Reformers was William Farel.  Farel is most remembered for the role he played in getting John Calvin to stay in Geneva in 1536.  Calvin was just passing through on his way somewhere else.  With fire in his eyes, Farel told him that if he would not stay in Geneva, Calvin would be cursed by God.  However, there is far more to Farel than this one incident in his life.  He became a Protestant in France already in 1520.  He was known as a powerful and passionate preacher of the gospel.  Farel also had a strong sense of the missionary calling of the church.  In 1529, he was preaching in the Swiss town of Aigle.  While there he drafted up one of the first Reformed confessions, his Summary and Brief Declaration.[4]   This confession was a personal effort and it doesn’t appear to have been ever officially adopted by any church.

In his introduction to the Summary, Farel speaks about his purpose in this confession.  He says that he was writing “for the well-being, profit, and salvation of each one.”  He expressed his desire “that the whole world give honor and glory to God alone.”  Finally, in the introduction he prayed that God would shine the light of his salvation in Jesus Christ “to such a degree that those from all parts of the world may come to worship our Father…”  This confession had a missionary purpose behind it.

Chapter 16 of Farel’s Summary is about the doctrine of the church.  The most important calling of the church is to preach the gospel.  The true church of Christ must preach the gospel not only to those of a high social status, but also to the simple.  Like Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:16, we will be cursed if don’t preach the gospel.  And if we don’t bring the good news to the lost and wayward, Farel uses Ezekiel 3 and 33 to remind us that we will be accountable for the loss of their souls.

In chapter 17 he develops this a little bit further when he writes about the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  These keys do not come from human beings, but from God.  Specifically, Farel says that the Holy Spirit helps us to understand the Bible, but also sends us out to preach the gospel.  Here Farel refers directly the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, and John 20.  Farel understood that the Great Commission to bring the gospel to the world is still a commission for the church today.

Chapter 35 is about the Power of Pastors and here too we see a missionary and evangelistic emphasis coming through.  Listen to what Farel writes:  “When the true pastors evangelize purely, ‘God speaks in them’ (Matt. 10:19-20) by such a great power that believers have eternal life, and unbelievers are confounded.  And never will the messenger of God be overcome.”  The greatest portion of chapter 35 is a prayer to God – quite unusual for a confession.  Farel prays about how the Word of God has been kept out of the hands of the people for so long.  He then says,

Must your holy gospel be so lowly revered so little that it is neither spoken, nor regarded, nor read?  Why have you commanded that it is to be preached throughout all the world to every creature” (Mark 16:15) so that every creature may hear it and know it, if it is not permissible for each one to read it?

Notice again how he refers to the Great Commission in Mark 16.  He believes it is God’s command for the church of all ages.  Let me give just one more quote from chapter 35.  Here again, Farel is praying:

Rise up, Lord, show that it is your pleasure that your Son be honoured, that the ordinances of his kingdom be publicized, known, and kept by everyone.  And that everyone know you through your Son “from the greatest to the smallest” (Jer. 31:34).  Make the trumpet of the holy gospel be heard to the ends and tip of the world.  Give strength to the true evangelizers, destroy all sowers of error, that all the earth may serve, call upon, honor and worship you.

Another form of this prayer is found at the very end of Farel’s Summary.  From this confession dated 1529, it is readily apparent that this Reformer had a heart for the lost and an eye for the calling of the church to bring the gospel to the lost, not only nearby, but also “to the ends and tip of the world.”

Calvin’s Catechism (1537)

Moving on to another Reformation confession, we look at something written by John Calvin.  Calvin is well-known for his book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes in March of 1536.  He arrived in Geneva later that year, in August of 1536.  The Institutes were then quite a bit smaller than the final edition published in 1559.  While the book was meant for theological training, it was not suitable for teaching children or the less educated.  Consequently, one of the first things that Calvin did in Geneva was to summarize the Institutes into the form of a catechism.  This was Calvin’s first catechism and it was published in French in 1537 and in Latin in 1538.[5]  This catechism would have been used for teaching in the Reformed church at Geneva.

The 1537/38 Catechism is not written with questions and answers, but with articles or paragraphs.  It’s still called a Catechism because it was used for teaching, and also because it contained the three essential parts of Christian teaching:  the Law of God, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Historically, having those three parts is what defines a catechism, not having questions and answers.

Like his friend William Farel, Calvin too had a missionary heart and it shows in this first catechism.  It’s especially evident when he deals with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  What was Christ teaching his people to pray for?  Calvin writes, “We pray…that God’s reign may come, that is to say, that the Lord may from day to day multiply the number of his faithful believers who celebrate his glory in all works…”  We are praying for the success of the gospel.  Calvin adds, “Similarly, we ask that from day to day he may through new growths spread his light and enlighten his truth, so that Satan and his lies and the darkness of his reign may be dissipated and abolished.” According to Calvin, the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer has to do with evangelism.

Calvin’s Catechism (1541) and the Large Emden Catechism

In 1541 Calvin wrote a new catechism for the church in Geneva.[6]  This time, however, he didn’t use paragraphs or articles.  Instead, he tried the question and answer format.  This catechism was large — it contained 373 questions and answers.  But again, as before, it covered the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Just as with the earlier Catechism, Calvin links the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer to evangelism and the growth of the church.  Christ was teaching us to pray that “day by day the Lord may increase the numbers of the faithful…”  Note how he speaks of an increase in numbers.  In the next question and answer he says something similar.  The question asks, “Is that not taking place today?”  The answer, “Yes, indeed – in part, but we pray that it may continually increase and advance…”

This understanding of the second petition was common amongst Reformation catechisms.  I can mention two other examples.  The Polish Reformer John à Lasco wrote the Large Emden Catechism in 1546.[7]   This catechism too speaks of asking God to “sanctify, increase, strengthen and preserve in the unity of the faith, the gathering of the faithful…”  The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 speaks in a similar way, “Preserve and increase your church.”  The word that was used in the original German for “increase” means multiply numerically.  There was a consensus amongst Reformed churches that the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer involves Christians praying for God to grow his church through evangelism and mission.  Just in passing you should note that this understanding is found in the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms later on too.

The First and Second Helvetic Confessions

The First Helvetic Confession was published in Basel, Switzerland in 1536.  There were several authors, but the most well-known of them was Heinrich Bullinger.  The First Helvetic Confession was written to unite Reformed believers in Switzerland, but it was also hoped that this document could be instrumental in bringing unity with the Lutherans in Germany.

The First Helvetic Confession was therefore sent to Martin Luther for his review.  It was hoped that he would approve of it and that would lay the foundation for closer relations with the Lutherans.  Along with the Confession came a declaration or introduction written for the Lutherans by Heinrich Bullinger.[8]  That introduction speaks of the evangelistic calling of the church.  Bullinger wrote the following:

Although the Lord has expressly said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), yet it was his will that the gospel of the kingdom should be preached to all nations and that bishops should discharge this duty of the ministry, with great care and diligence, and with special watchfulness, and be instant in season and out of season, and by all means, that they might gain as many as possible unto Christ.  For therefore, when he was ready to depart hence into heaven in his body, he said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). [9]

I really do not understand how any serious scholar can say that the Reformation churches didn’t believe in the abiding relevance of the Great Commission.  We see it here again.  Bullinger and the church at Basel believed that the gospel was to be preached to all nations by the church today.  And it’s also noteworthy that Luther did review this confession and did approve of it – he had some reluctance but only about some of the wording in the articles regarding the Lord’s Supper.[10]

Since there was a First Helvetic Confession, there must also be a Second.  And perhaps you’re wondering what that says about evangelism.  The Second Helvetic Confession was written by Heinrich Bullinger and appeared in 1566.[11]  The first chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession is the most well-known part of this document.  It’s about preaching.  Bullinger famously said that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”  What he meant was that when the Scriptures are faithfully proclaimed, God is speaking to us through such preaching.  Bullinger goes on in that first chapter to point out what Scripture says about inward illumination.  The Holy Spirit has to bring light to a dark heart before there will be faith.  But, he says, that does not eliminate the need for preaching.  Bullinger writes, “For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, ‘Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15).”  So the gospel needs to be preached, and not only in the church, but “to the whole creation.”  Again we ought to note the abiding relevance of the Great Commission for the Church.

Many Reformation confessions spoke about the marks of a true church.  Three marks are often mentioned:  faithful preaching of the gospel, the faithful administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline.  One of the confessions that mentions these three marks is the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560.[12]  Six men with the first name John were responsible for writing it, the most famous of these Johns was John Knox.  The Scottish Confession of Faith says in article 18 that the first mark of a faithful church is “the true preaching of the Word of God.”  Now you might be tempted to think that this is referring only to preaching done within the church, and not missionary or evangelistic preaching.  However, there is a proof-text for this statement in the original Scottish Confession.  The proof text is Matthew 28:19-20 – the Great Commission.

The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism

We find something similar with the Belgic Confession of 1561.  This was written by Guido de Brès as the official confession of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Article 29 deals with the marks of the true and false church.  Just like with the Scottish Confession, the first mark of a true church is that she practices the pure preaching of the gospel.  In the first editions of the Belgic Confession, one of the proof-texts for that teaching was again, Matthew 28:18-20.  The Reformed Churches were not just thinking of preaching within an instituted church in a worship service.  They were also thinking of Christ’s continuing call for the church to preach the gospel to the nations.

That brings us back to the Heidelberg Catechism to finish off.  I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times.  The Heidelberg Catechism is the most well-known of all the Reformation catechisms – and for good reason.  It was commissioned by a godly prince named Elector Frederick of the Palatinate.  It was first published in 1563.  It was mainly written by Zacharias Ursinus, a professor of theology in Heidelberg.  He was assisted by Caspar Olevianus, a pastor in Heidelberg and others as well.  The Heidelberg Catechism is loved all over the world for its warm and personal presentation of the faith of the Bible.  It also deserves to be known for the way it speaks of our calling towards those who are lost.  I’ve already mentioned what it says about the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer – we pray for the increase of Christ’s church.  But there are other places where the Catechism speaks about evangelism, about our calling to be God’s instruments in increasing his church.

In Lord’s Day 12, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about the three-fold office of Christ.  Other Reformed catechisms do that as well, including the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  It’s common to confess that Christ is prophet, priest, and king.  However, it is rare to confess that Christians share in Christ’s three-fold anointing and office.  In fact, I have not been able to find any other Reformed Catechism which says that besides the Heidelberg Catechism.[13]  The Heidelberg Catechism asks in QA 32, “Why are you called a Christian?”  Answer:  “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing…”  Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be a prophet, priest, and king, and so have Christians.  We have the same Holy Spirit living in us giving us the same calling as our head Jesus Christ.  As part of that, I may “as prophet confess his name…”  This is a calling to speak to everyone we can about the Saviour.  A prophet must speak.  A silent prophet is unimaginable — a silent prophet is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  If we truly are Christians, then we are prophets.  Then we truly need to witness to Jesus Christ to whomever we can with the words from our mouths.

The Heidelberg Catechism also speaks about our lives having an evangelistic purpose.  The Catechism divides up into three parts:  our sin and misery, our deliverance, and our thankfulness.  Lord’s Day 32 begins the third part of the Catechism on gratitude.  The question is:  since we are saved by grace, we must we still do good works?  There are four reasons given.  One is for us to show our thankfulness to God.  Another is so that he may be praised.  The third reason has to do with our assurance.  And the fourth reason has to do with our neighbours:  “that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ.”  Living in obedience to God sets us up for evangelistic opportunities.  Unbelievers watch and see that we are different from others.  That can make them curious.  That can make them ask us questions.  Questions like, “Why are you different?”  Then we can tell them about the Saviour who has redeemed us and who is working in our lives with his Spirit to make us different.

Conclusion

The Reformation produced this vast quantity of confessions.  In each instance, the Reformed people behind these documents were seeking to be faithful to the Word of God.  I haven’t told you about all the proof-texts and Scriptural support for everything you’ve heard.  A lot of it is obviously biblical — at least I hope it is.  Certainly we can all agree that the missionary calling of the church is biblical.  The Bible calls us to evangelize.  Since this is such a strong message in the Bible, we should not be surprised to find it being expressed in various Reformed confessions and catechisms.  Now I should add that you will not necessarily find it in all Reformation confessions and catechisms.  But definitely in the best ones, and especially in ones that have stood the test of time – ones like the Heidelberg Catechism.  In conclusion, one of the most important ways to understand the Reformation is as a missionary event.  Because it was a missionary event, many of its creeds and confessions also speak of the evangelistic calling of the church of Christ.

[1] See Williem Heijting, De catechismi en confessies in de Nederlandse reformatie tot 1585 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989).

[2] James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008-2014).

[3] See my For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession (Fellsmere: Reformation Media and Press, 2011) and To Win Our Neighbors for Christ: The Missiology of the Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015).

[4] In what follows, I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 53-111.

[5] In what follows, I’m quoting from the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions, 354-392.

[6] I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison, 468-519.

[7] Dennison, vol. 1, 590-642.

[8] Luther and Calvinism, eds. Herman J. Selderhuis, J. Marius J. Lange van Ravenswaay, 195.

[9] Peter Hall (ed.), The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992 reprint), 255.

[10] “The Myth of the Swiss Lutherans,” Amy Nelson Burnett, Zwingliana 22 (2005), 48-49.

[11] See Arthur C. Cochrane (ed.), Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 224-301.

[12] Cochrane, Reformed Confessions, 163-184.

[13] Craig’s Catechism (1581) speaks of Christians sharing in Christ’s office as a priest, but not as prophet and king.  The Large Emden Catechism asks (QA 135):  “Are there no priests any more?”  Basically, the LEC’s answer is no.


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


Clearing the Confusion on Regeneration

With my preconfession students I’ve been surveying what we call the Order of Salvation — theologians usually use the Latin term Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps involved in salvation.  The Reformed Order of Salvation looks like this:

  • Election
  • Effectual Calling
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

I’ve been devoting a class to each of these.  Last week, we looked at the topic of regeneration.  Unfortunately, there’s often a bit of confusion in our Reformed churches on what regeneration involves.  In this post, I briefly want to address that.

It’s always important to begin with a definition.  We are speaking here about regeneration in this basic sense:  God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  A more thorough definition can be found in chapter 3/4 of our Canons of Dort, particularly article 12.  It is the “new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…which God works in us without us.”  It is a “supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious and inexpressible work.”  If we look at Canons 3/4, article 11, we find that this regeneration or conversion is a comprehensive act of God upon the human subject.  It includes the enlightening of the mind, as well as the opening, softening, and circumcising of the heart.  It also instills the will with new qualities, makes it come alive, makes it good, willing, and obedient.  It is a radical change in a person which leads onward to faith and a transformed life.  From all this, it is clear that the church confesses that regeneration is not a process, but an event which takes place logically prior to God bringing a person to saving faith.  After all, “raising from the dead” is not a process.  Either you’re dead or you’re alive.  At one point Christ was dead in the tomb, and the next moment he was raised to life.  The same thing happens in regeneration as described in chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort.

This is precisely the point where confusion often sets in.  We have sometimes been taught that being born again/regenerated/converted is not an event, but an ongoing daily process for believers.  We’ve heard things like, “We must be born again every day.”  Is that wrong?  Is regeneration a process throughout our lives or an event that takes place prior to saving faith?

The misunderstanding partly arises because there is some overlap with the terminology used for our progressive sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification is most definitely an ongoing affair.  We are always works in progress, until the very moment we are called to glory.  Now sometimes our confessions use the terminology of regeneration to describe sanctification.  You could think of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 88:  “What is the true repentance or conversion of man?  It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  Notice the word “conversion,” the same word used in Canons of Dort 3/4, article 11 as a synonym for regeneration.  But in the Catechism it’s being used to describe the process of sanctification.  It’s the same word, but used in a different sense.  Notice how the Canons use “conversion” to describe an event that “God works in us without us.”  However, the Catechism in QA 88 uses “conversion” to describe a process that includes our actions — QA 89 speaks of us hating sin and fleeing it.  We are to apply ourselves to these things and work with God in them.  In other words, we are passive in our regeneration, but active in our sanctification.

But, to be clear, the Catechism also speaks of regeneration as a definite one-time event.  We find that in QA 8, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  There regeneration is viewed in terms of the Order of Salvation — this is regeneration as an event in which we are passive.  That’s evident from the fact that the proof-text for the second part of the answer is from John 3:3-5, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about being born again.  Being born again there is an event — just as you are physically born once from your mother, so the Spirit gives spiritual birth but once as an event.

Perhaps the clearest place in Scripture that speaks of regeneration as an event is 1 Peter 1:23, “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”  “You have been born again” are the key words here.  In Greek, this is written in the perfect tense, which means that the action is completed, but has effects into the present.  Peter’s readers are not being spoken of as being born again as a process day after day, but as people who have had a radical change in them by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

In terms of Reformed theology, nothing I have written above is anything new or innovative.  For centuries, Reformed theologians have properly distinguished regeneration as an initial sovereign act of God which has renewed the mind, will, and heart from sanctification as a continuing action in the life of the Christian.  Understanding the Reformed Order of Salvation helps keep this important distinction clear.


Now Available: To Win Our Neighbors For Christ

To Win Our Neighbors for Christ

Now available from Reformation Heritage Books!

In many modern histories of Christian missions, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is depicted as a movement lacking missionary zeal. It has virtually become a given that the Reformation was not oriented to the church’s missionary task. In To Win Our Neighbors for Christ, Wes Bredenhof answers these charges, proving that it is a mistake to say the Reformation and the confessional documents it produced have nothing to say about missions. The author demonstrates that the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort — properly understood, have much to offer the study of missions. More importantly, they encourage us to care about a world lost in unbelief, making us more mission-oriented and outward-looking.

Endorsements

“To Win Our Neighbors for Christ is a helpful tool for every Reformed Christian seeking to understand and use our confessions in a missional way. It gives the historical background for each of the three forms of Unity and shows that the original intent of our confessions was indeed to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel. It also shows how we as a church need to have that same desire to clearly articulate these truths to our own generation of souls today.” — Richard Bout, missions coordinator, United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

“Full disclosure: Dr. Wes Bredenhof is my family’s enthusiastic pastor, through whom we are fed with pure gospel preaching. His heart pulses with true love for the biblical, Reformed faith and with a deep desire to reach the lost. In this book he shows us that these two things belong together— indeed, that the Reformed confessions themselves encourage mission. I pray that many more believers would see the intricate interconnections of these two pulses, and I’m sure that this book will help them.” — Dr. Theodore Van Raalte, professor of ecclesiology, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

YOU CAN PURCHASE THIS BOOK HERE