As a pastor who “signs on” to the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dort), I often hear other Christians say things like this to me: “Well, that stuff worked back then, but all that doctrine stifles true Christian living.” Or, “Our church used to use those things, but they are for the head, while biblical religion is for the heart.” I’m sure many of you have either heard or thought some of the same things.
Of course, point well taken: rigid dogma has indeed resulted in cold Christian living, where true knowledge and true piety are split up. However, the fault does not lie in the doctrines. It is wrong to say that since some fifth and sixth (or tenth and eleventh!) generation Reformation Christians did not practice true piety, we should abandoned the Reformation confessions. I would submit that the opposite is true: since some Reformation Christians do not practice what they preach, we better preach it better and more clearly! Just to get the point across, let me say it another way: don’t blame our confessions for our lack of piety.
William Ames (1576-1633) is a good start to get “back into” the confessions, specifically the Heidelberg Catechism. The level of orthodoxy and piety in this volume will sweep the reader away. For example, in the first brief chapter Ames interprets Psalm 4.6-8 to explain man’s chief good (summum bonum) to be found “in God’s favor towards him.” This is the solid comfort that Lord’s Day 1 hammers home. Here are the five “lessons” he gives for this text, in relation to Lord’s Day 1.
Lesson One: The highest good ought to be considered and sought above all other things in our entire life.
Lesson Two: The highest good of people in this life cannot be obtained from earthly goods.
Lesson Three: Our true and highest good consists in the union and communion we have with God.
Lesson Four: The joy that believers gain from the communion that they have with God overcomes, by its own sweetness, all human delights and happiness.
Lesson Five: This joy and holy consolation convey a certain security to the consciences of the faithful.
Also, in a highly pastoral way, Ames gives reasons and uses for each of these five lessons. For example, he talks about this chief good of man to be a source of consolation, exhortation to the good, refutation of the world’s delights, admonition for our souls to look above, and as encouragement to us for our eternal future.
This is theology and piety at its finest: orthodoxy drips with piety, and piety drips with orthodoxy. Reformation preaching and teaching would do well to strive for the balance.
Many thanks to the editors and translators of this new series (more to come!), and also to RHB for putting this out.