Heidelberg (Hyper-)Calvinism? | (a celebration)


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Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

So begins the Heidelberg Catechism, a 16th-century document written under extraordinary circumstances. Long story short, after the counter Reformation, different “princes” over different regions were allowed to declare what “denomination” their region would be. The problem for Frederick III? His region was split pretty evenly between Lutherans and Calvinists. And so, he brought together some people from different traditions, and had them write a document they all agreed upon. The Heidelberg was born.

This document is one of the main doctrinal statements of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and my church. I’ve read little bits and pieces of it in the past, but I recently sat down and read the whole thing. And I was pretty surprised.

As many of my church stories have begun, I begin again: I grew up as a Southern Baptist n Dallas, Texas–about as anti-Calvinistic as you could think. But, upon entering college and hearing about “Reformed” thought (it was actually more like Calvinistic Baptist), I quickly became a Hyper-Calvinism (that link doesn’t fully capture what I thought, but it gives you a taste).

I became every bit of the caricature of a very young man that has grabbed ahold of new, interesting, and intellectually titillating ideas. Luckily, I had people around me that kept me from spreading this around to too many people.

These ideas persisted even through my first semester at a Presbyterian seminary in Philly. At the time, I even wrote a 35 page paper defending God as the source, creator, and implementer of evil, suffering, and sin in the world. Yes, seriously.

But even then I was in transition, and God was using people and writings to shape me, especially as I began moving into the RCA, and drinking deeply of its theological ethos. I felt that I grew and matured in a lot of these areas and have been (hopefully) finding balance, nuance, and subtlety in my still-thoroughly Reformed views.

The Heidelberg Uh-Oh.

Still, I have to admit that parts of the Heidelberg Catechism gave me unpleasant flashbacks to Neo-Calvinists who treat the glory and justice of God as a strictly binary zero-sum game between him and us, where only one side can “win”. In this scheme, it can seem that the only apparent way one can love, know, or have faith in God is by more or less first condemning oneself in their mind to Hell and wrath, so they can truly “feel” and “appreciate” God’s salvation, so that he might get Glory.

Because God apparently only does anything for his own Glory–be it save, condemn, love, or hate. Humans are more of an after thought, and only a means of him getting more Glory.

There’s no talk of humanity’s worth for which God would die, or God’s giving up of Glory for the sake of giving us glory. No mention of common grace and common good. Every statement of God’s mercy, is quickly followed by a “but he is just” (but, interestingly, unqualified statements of his justice and wrath don’t seem to “need” the same qualifiers).

It seems anathema to sit under Grace and Mercy too long. If we have to choose whether to abuse God’s grace or justice, it seems too often that we are more scared of abusing the former rather than the latter. And I don’t know that this is the most helpful thing.

(Part of me thinks God wants us to radically abuse grace. If you can’t abuse it, is it still grace?)

Maybe I’m still over-reacting and recovering from one pendulum swing by going too far on another. Maybe I’ve drunk too much of the “watered-down” and “feely” liberal culture in which I live. I don’t know.

But I was pretty surprised at the moments of harshness in the Catechism. I read the first question (at the top of this post), and I nearly expected the rest of the Catechism to be an almost devotional and mystic meditation on those similar themes. But nope. Not the case. (It still wasn’t as bad as the Westminster Confession of Faith, but still, it was pretty stark at times.)

And yet…

Other than this little quibble, though, I absolutely adored the Heidelberg Catechism. It is so beautiful. I know, I know, it probably sounded like I was fuming throughout the Heidelberg, but I wasn’t. These were merely unfortunate surprises in the midst of otherwise fascinating and helpful pieces. Out of the 128 questions, there maybe 6 or 7 that hit me like this.

The Catechism was written after the Middle Ages brought, which a much more binary, “legal system” approach to Systematic Theology. We also need to remember that it wanted to highlight and emphasize those aspects of Lutheran and Calvinist thought that could co-exist.

And so it might emphasize what I may not, or phrase things the way I wouldn’t today, but it did it for historical reasons and, ironically, for the ultimate sake of unity.

Overall, it really is a beautiful piece. It can offend some of our modern sensibilities and ways of phrasing certain things at certain times, but overall it simply is beautiful. That really is the best way to put it. For the most part, it’s phrasings are so nuanced, balanced, potent, and still concise:

Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.

That is so good. So I encourage all of you to read it. Especially the last half, which goes line-by-line through the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, explaining each part and how it applies to our lives. Ever wonder about that little line about “Christ descended to Hell”? Well you can look for that question and read the rest of the Catechism right here. I’ll leave you with the last question of the catechism:

Q. What does that little word “Amen” express? 
A. “Amen” means: “This shall truly and surely be!” We mist remember: it is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire what I pray for.

Amen indeed.

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