A Catechism on the Holy Spirit (I)

“Reformed theology has . . . ended up creating a monster of theology that dampens the place of our passion and partnership with God.”1 Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, recently spoke these words about what he sees as the inevitable results of the beliefs of Reformed churches. His thought is not uncommon in evangelical circles today, as this Reformed pastor can testify after hearing literally hundreds of visitors to my congregation say Reformed churches are cold, lifeless, dry, and dead. Perhaps it is because of our lack of preaching, writing, and teaching on the person and work of the Holy Spirit that we have been called the “frozen chosen.” Our seeming timidity toward the Holy Spirit is what Hayford has picked up on, saying our theology causes our passion and partnership with God to be dampened.

While we as Reformed believers and preachers may have given this impression in our age that is so dominated by Pentecostalism, the question is whether the fault lies at the doorstep of Reformed theology itself. A prima facie reading of one source of official Reformed teaching, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), may reasonably seem to give the impression that the Reformed Christian faith lacks any emphasis on the Holy Spirit. After all, the Catechism speaks for itself as only one question and answer is devoted to the Spirit of God in it (Q&A 53):

What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost?

First, that he is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Secondly, that he is also given unto me, makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all his benefits, comforts me, and shall abide with me forever.2

This seeming lack of emphasis has even led one within the Reformed circle, Eugene Heideman, to conclude that “in the Catechism one finds, only the barest outline of Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit . . . the Catechism’s discussion of the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and the church is deficient for our day, in that the biblical concept of evangelism and mission as being essential to the ministry of the Spirit and the life of the church is absent.”3

As one who has come out of Pentecostalism to be an inheritor of the theology of John Calvin, I hold that it is vital that we recapture our rightful claim as sons and daughters of “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” if we seek to minister the precious Reformed faith to those who come to us influenced by Pentecostalism.4 As Sinclair Ferguson says about the Reformed emphasis on the Holy Spirit, “Indeed Edmund Campion, the famous Jesuit missionary to England, said on one occasion that the great dividing line between Rome and Geneva lay along the axis of the doctrine of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.”5 We need to recapture our doctrine and emphasis upon the Holy Spirit, then, in order to counter the claim that our theology dampens a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. One way to make a beginning of doing this is by examining the theology of the Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism, as an ecclesiastical document of Reformed churches across the world.6

Only a Bare Outline?

Heideman’s thesis stated above is incorrect for at least two reasons. First, the Heidelberg Catechism is an ecclesiastical document that was intended to be a curriculum for children, a basis for catechetical preaching, and a form of unity for a region beset by theological and political strife.7 A document such as this cannot be expected to say all there is on any given subject, nor can we expect a sixteenth-century document to answer or anticipate all of our modern theological questions. Second, and more importantly for the purposes of this essay, Heideman’s thesis is incorrect because the person and work of the Holy Spirit are integrated into the overall structure and essential content of the Heidelberg Catechism. Although we would have serious issues with his overall theology, this feature of the Heidelberg Catechism has been recognized even by Karl Barth, who said, “One may say that it is distinctively a theology of the third article, a theology of the Holy Spirit.”8

As we look closer at what the Heidelberg Catechism says about the Holy Spirit, we will see that it is a pastoral exposition of the Spirit’s work.9 From its beginning to its end, the Holy Spirit is described in His person as well as work, in relation to Christ, the believer, and the church.10

The Spirit and the Overall Structure of the Catechism

In this essay, I want to recognize the comprehensiveness of the Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism in light of it macrostructure. Far from being a bare outline or a cold theology that dampens our passion for Jesus Christ, we see that the Spirit fills the entire Catechism, and hence, our entire faith.

The Theme (Q&A 1)

Question and answer 1 give the overall theme of the Catechism as being the Christian comfort derived from the triune God: the work of Jesus Christ, the providential care of God the Father, and the work of the Holy Spirit in assuring believers of eternal life and producing within them heartfelt gratitude.

What is thy only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him. (emphasis added)11

The Christ-centeredness of this answer is evident. What is so interesting is that because we belong to Christ, among other things, His Holy Spirit assures us and makes us ready to live for Him. The conclusion, then, is that the Holy Spirit is of the very essence of the Heidelberg Catechism’s theme of our Christian comfort in Christ. Apart from the Holy Spirit we would have no comfort.

The Outline (Q&A 2)

Question and answer 2 are grouped with question and answer 1 as Lord’s Day 1 of the Catechism, and so it flows out of what was just said. Because our comfort in Christ is the theme, the next question asks, “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort mayest live and die happily?” The answer, like answer 1, is a classic in Reformed catechetical literature: “Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.”12

Question and answer 2 give the overall structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, as we will examine below. As Heidelberg Catechism scholar Lyle Bierma has demonstrated, this threefold division of our knowledge of our guilt, God’s grace, and our gratitude was a part of “the common stock of Protestant theology.”13 How does this relate to the purpose of this article on the Holy Spirit? As a part of the common stock of Protestant doctrine, this common division had at least one contemporary expression in Theodore Beza’s Altera brevis fidei confession (1559), according to Walter Holweg. In his Confession, Beza described this threefold knowledge that the Heidelberg Catechism uses as its outline as the threefold work of God the Holy Spirit.14 The entire Christian life, then, is one in which the Holy Spirit works in us to convict us of sin, apply to us the grace of Jesus Christ, and create heartfelt gratitude within us. As we will see below, within these three sections of the Catechism the Holy Spirit is essential throughout.

Guilt (Q&A 3–11)

As we move into the body of the Catechism, question and answer 8 bring home the all-too-real predicament the Holy Spirit reveals to us, that we are “wholly unapt to any good, and prone to all evil.” The way out of this situation of guilt and misery (Q&A 3–11) is to be “born again by the Spirit of God.” Here the Catechism draws upon Jesus’ familiar double entendre about the work of the sovereign Spirit to cause us to be born again/born from above (John 3). Apart from the Holy Spirit, not only would we not be convicted of sins but also we would have no ability to escape them.

Grace (Q&A 12–85)

Furthermore, those to whom the Spirit of Christ gives this new birth are also given true faith. Not surprisingly, the Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes that it is the Holy Spirit who creates this faith in us, according to question and answer 21:

What is true faith?

It is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a hearty trust which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. (emphasis added)

The Catechism goes on to say that this faith believes “all that is promised us in the Gospel” (Q&A 22)—a gospel “which the articles [i.e., the Apostles’ Creed] of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in sum” (Q&A 23). Thus, faith is created by the work of the Holy Spirit, and faith has as its object the work of all three persons of our triune God—the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us (Q&A 24). What is telling about the intent of the primary author of the Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus, is that at this point in his Commentary, heeven shows the reason for the seemingly random division of the third section of the Apostles’ Creed in the Heidelberg Catechism. In the Catechism’s division into fifty-two Lord’s Days, the holy catholic church, communion of saints, and forgiveness of sins go together. In commenting on all the clauses in the third section of the Creed, he says “a holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” are all the benefits of Jesus Christ bestowed upon believers by the work of the Holy Spirit.15

Appended to the section about grace in the Heidelberg Catechism, which focuses on an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, is an explanation of the means of grace (Q&A 65–82), preaching, and the sacraments. In another article we will have opportunity to demonstrate the pneumatological focus of preaching and sacraments, but for now it suffices to say that they are described as the work of the Holy Spirit in creating and confirming faith in the people of God: “Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith? The Holy Ghost works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments” (Q&A 65; emphasis added). The Holy Spirit, then, reveals our guilt and applies Jesus Christ through the means of preaching and sacraments.

Gratitude (Q&A 86–129)

The final section of the Catechism, dealing with our gratitude for the overwhelming grace of Jesus Christ, is organized around the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Just as He convicts of sin and creates and confirms faith, so also He renews us after the image of Christ in a life of gratitude:

Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, renews us also by his Holy Spirit after his own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his blessing, and that he may be glorified through us; then, also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof, and by our godly walk may win our neighbors also to Christ. (Q&A 86; emphasis added)

Within this section are exposited the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. The Holy Spirit is central to this section on gratitude, as well. He is mentioned in the key summary question on the Ten Commandments in question and answer 115:

Why, then, doth God so strictly enjoin upon us the ten commandments, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that all our life long we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that we may continually strive and beg from God the grace of the Holy Ghost, so as to become more and more changed into the image of God, till we attain finally to full perfection after this life. (emphasis added)

The strict preaching of the Ten Commandments has as one of its ends stirring us up to a constant begging for the grace of the Spirit to transform us in Christ’s image.

As well, the Spirit’s centrality in the third section of the Catechism is seen in its opening question and answer on prayer:

Why is prayer necessary for Christians?

Because it is the chief part of the thankfulness which God requires of us, and because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to such as earnestly and without ceasing beg them from him and render thanks unto him for them. (Q&A 116; emphasis added)

Conclusion

In understanding this macrostructure of the Heidelberg Catechism, we have seen that the Heidelberg Catechism is far from being an insufficient, bare outline of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and is even further from being a damp theology, because the Holy Spirit is the source of Christian comfort as well as our constant experience of our guilt, God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and our response of gratitude for it. The Heidelberg Catechism, by its overall structure and content—a content that focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to Jesus Christ, in relation to the Christian, and in relation to the church—helps us recapture the personal and powerful work of the blessed Spirit in these “spiritual” days.

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 1. Tim Stafford, “The Pentecostal Gold Standard,” Christianity Today 49:7 (July 2005): 26.

2. All references to the Heidelberg Catechism are from The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff (1931; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 3:307–55.

3. Eugene P. Heideman, “God the Holy Spirit,” in Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: A Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Donald J. Bruggink (New York: The Half Moon Press, 1963), 112.

4. B. B. Warfield, “John Calvin: The Man and His Work,” in Calvin and Calvinism, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter, 10 vols. (1932; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5:21.

5. John Owen: The Man and His Theology, ed. Robert W. Oliver (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 103–4.

6. For further study see Daniel R. Hyde, “The Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 17 (2006): 211–37.

7. Lyle D. Bierma, “The Purpose and Authorship of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Lyle D. Bierma, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 50–52.

8. Learning Jesus Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. Shirley C. Guthrie Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 25; cf. Phil Butin, “Two Early Reformed Catechisms, the Threefold Office, and the Shape of Karl Barth’s Theology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44:2 (1991): 209–13.

9. Cf. Fred H. Klooster, A Mighty Comfort (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1990), 59.

10. Cf. Klooster, A Mighty Comfort, 59; Appendix 4a, 4b, 5; Fred H. Klooster, Our Only Comfort, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2001), 2:660, 674.

11. Schaff, Creeds, 3:307–8.

12. Schaff, Creeds, 3:308.

13. Lyle D. Bierma, “The Sources and Theological Orientation of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Lyle D. Bierma, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 86; cf. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 272–73.

14. Cited in Bierma, “Sources and Theological Orientation of the Heidelberg Catechism,” 83. Bierma goes on to demonstrate that Holweg’s thesis of this threefold work of the Spirit as found in Beza being the source of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 2 is incorrect because both the Augsburg Confession (1530) and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession(1531) contained this very same language (85); cf. Lyle D. Bierma, “What Hath Wittenberg to Do with Heidelberg? Philip Melanchthon and the Heidelberg Catechism,” in Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence Beyond Wittenberg, ed. Karin Maag, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 108–11.

15. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (1852; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1985), 220.
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Rev. Daniel Hyde 
is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, CA.

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