Preaching the Catechism(?)

The Church's Book of Comfort In the confessional German and Dutch Reformed traditions ministers typically preach what is called a catechetical sermon for one of the two Lord’s Day services.  This is a helpful way to keep God’s people rooted in the main truths of the Christian faith as outlined by Romans and echoed in the Heidelberg Catechism: 1) Guilt/Sin, 2) Grace/Salvation, and 3) Gratitude/Service.  As many of our readers probably know, the Heidelberg Catechism is divided up into 52 parts – one for each Sunday of the year.

I realize this has been and is being debated, but I believe that the Scripture should be preached and the catechism used only to explain and summarize Scripture’s truths.  In other words, I appreciate and have “done” catechetical preaching (and will do it again), but I don’t believe a minister should preach from and exegete the words of the catechism.  Jacobus Koelman (in 1678) said it nicely while quoting William Ames and Gisbertus Voetius:

“In accordance with synodical decrees, the Catechism is preached throughout the year, and in their Sunday afternoon sermons ministers are not at liberty to discuss other material in line with the situation and condition of the church and God’s providence, so that those catechism sermons turn into worn-out form sermons, thus making preachers lazy.  The Catechism is explained in such a way that the corresponding Bible text is barely mentioned.  Indeed, in some places the Catechism is preached without a text from Scripture.  First the Ten Commandments are read, and then the text of the Catechism, as it is done in Middleburg.  They might as well preach from the Apocrypha.”

“Ames put it well when he said: ‘Although the Catechism must be impressed upon the people with all due diligence, nevertheless a distinction should always be made between such a human form and Holy Scripture.  It is therefore not appropriate for the Catechism to be presented in church as though it were equivalent to Scripture, when Scripture itself ought to be read.  It is therefore most advisable, in deference to Scripture, in recognition of the efficacy of the proclaimed truth and in view of the risk of provocation, that selected Scripture passages be presented as the foundation of catechetical instruction, and that the teaching of the Catechism be drawn from these as the teaching of Scripture.’  In defending this view of Ames, Voetius indicates in his writings that this approach is more profitable, more appropriate, more secure, and more edifying.”

Jacobus Koelman, “De Pointedn Van Nodige Reformatie” – quoted in The Church’s Book of Comfort, edited by W. Van’t Spijker, p.195,

shane lems
hammond, wi


The Covenant of Works in Dutch and German Reformed Theology

Essential Truths in the Heart of a Christian (Classics of Reformed Spirituality) Wilhelmus Schortinguis was a pastor who served in German and Dutch Reformed churches until he died in 1750.  Though not all of his work was widely accepted and read, his booklet that summarized the Christian faith in catechetical form was quite popular.  The title of this booklet is Essential Truths in the Heart of a Christian.  Here are a few of his questions and answers that have to do with the covenant of works and covenant of grace. 

What is the covenant of works?  The agreement of God with the righteous man [Adam] in which God promised life and threatened death, with the stipulation of perfect obedience to his law.  If man met the stipulation, he would enjoy eternal life (Hos. 6:7, Job 31:33).

Did man have the ability to fulfill these demands?  Yes, indeed; because he was created in God’s image (Gen. 1:31, Ecc. 7:29), he was perfectly good and completely upright.”

What do you learn from this covenant?  1) The happiness of the first man in the original state; 2) the privilege of the believer, who now lives in another, unchanging covenant; 3) never to seek salvation in a covenant of works, but as a miserable sinner to seek it in Christ in the covenant of grace (Matt. 11:28, Prov. 18:10). 

What does God promise and demand in the covenant of grace? He promises all the essential benefits here and especially for eternity.  He promises: ‘I shall be a God to you (Jer. 31:33).  And he demands faith and conversion (Acts 16:31; Ezek. 33:11), both of which he promises to provide (Eph. 2:8, Ezek. 36:27).

William Schortinghuis, Essential Truths in the Heart of a Christian, p. 56-57, 66.

rev. shane lems

The Law/Gospel Distinction in Old Holland

Our Reasonable Faith One thing I’ve mentioned quite a bit here over the last five years is how the law/gospel distinction is part of the veins and sinews of historic Reformed theology.  More narrowly, the law/gospel distinction is also part of the Dutch Reformed theological tradition.  Here’s a great later example of this by Herman Bavinck, found on pages 410-411 of Our Reasonable Faith which was first published in Dutch in 1909 (called Magnalia Dei).

“Law and gospel are the two component parts of the Word of God.  The two are distinguished from each other but they are never separated.  They accompany each other throughout Scripture, from the beginning to the end…. [The terms law and gospel designate] two entirely different covenants.  The law really belongs to the so-called covenant of works which was concluded with the first man and which promised him eternal life in the way of perfect obedience.  But the gospel is the proclamation of the covenant of grace which was made known for the first time after the fall of man, and which gives him eternal life by grace, through faith in Christ.”

“The covenant of grace is, however, not the discarding or annihilating, but rather the fulfilling, of the covenant of works.  The difference between the two is mainly that in our stead Christ fulfills the requirements which God by reason of the covenant of works can bring to bear on us.  Hence it is that the covenant of grace, although in itself is pure grace, can from the very beginning put the law of the covenant of works in its service, unite itself with that law, and by the Spirit of Christ bring it into fulfillment in the believers.  The law keeps its place in the covenant of grace, not in order that we by keeping it should try to earn eternal life, for the law cannot do this because of the weakness of the flesh, but, in the first place, in order that through it we should come to know our sin, our guilt, our misery, and our helplessness, and struck down and stripped by the consciousness of guilt, should take refuge in the grace of God in Christ (Rom 7.7 and Gal 3.24), and, in the second place, in order that we, having died and been raised with Christ, should walk in newness of life and so fulfill the righteousness of the law (Rom 6.4 and 8.4).”

“There is no room in Christianity for antinomianism, for despising or violating the law.  Law and gospel should go together, as in the Scriptures, so also in preaching and teaching, in doctrine and in life.  They are both indispensable and real constituent parts of the one complete word of God.”

“All the same, identifying the two is as bad as separating them.  Nomism, which makes of the gospel a new law, is in error no less than antinomiansim.  Law and gospel differ from each other not in degree but in kind.  They differ as demand and gift differ, as commandment and promise, and as question and offer differ.  It is true that the law as well as the gospel comprises the will of God, and that it is holy, wise, good, and spiritual, but it has become impotent by reason of sin, does not justify but rather aggravates sin, and provokes wrath, doom, and death.  And over against this stands the gospel which has nothing but grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, and eternal life.  What the law demands of us is given us in the gospel for nothing.”

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith.

rev. shane lems

Bavinck’s “Sharp” Law/Gospel Contrast

Here’s Herman Bavinck (d. 1921) on the law/gospel distinction.  No doubt Ursinus, Boston, Turretin, and Watson would put their stamp of approval on this.  Note: right before this section Bavinck criticizes the Papacy for making the gospel into a second law and “erasing” the “Pauline antithesis of law and gospel” (even the modern RC catechism uses similar language – cf. Part III, ch III, Art. 1).

“While, on the one hand, the Reformers held on to the unity of the covenant of grace in its two dispensations against the Anabaptists, on the other hand they also perceived the sharp contrast between law and gospel and thereby again restored the peculiar character of the Christian religion as a religion of grace.  Although in a broad sense the terms ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ can indeed be used to denote the old and the new dispensation of the covenant of grace, in their actual significance they definitely describe two essentially different revelations of divine will.”

“Also the law is the will of God; holy, wise, good, and spiritual; giving life to those who maintain it, but because of sin it has been made powerless, it fails to justify, it only stimulates covetousness, increases sin, arouses wrath, kills, curses, and condemns.  Over against it stands the gospel of Christ, the euangellion, which contains nothing less than the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, which comes to us from God, has Christ as its content, and conveys nothing other than grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, freedom, life, and so forth.”

“In these texts [Bavinck cites around 20 in the above paragraphs] law and gospel are contrasted as demand and gift, as command and promise, as sin and grace, as sickness and healing, as death and life.  Although they agree in that both have God as author, both speak of one and the same perfect righteousness, and both are addressed to human beings to bring them to eternal life, they nevertheless differ in that the law proceeds from God’s holiness, the gospel from God’s grace; the law is known from nature, the gospel only from special revelation; the law demands perfect righteousness, but the gospel grants it; the law leads people to eternal life by works, and the gospel produces good works from the riches of eternal life granted in faith; the law presently condemns people, and the gospel acquits them; the law addresses itself to all people, and the gospel only to those who live within its hearing; and so forth.”

This is [Dutch] Reformed theology at its best.  Maybe we could call this the Holland Hermeneutic.

Quotes taken from volume IV of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, p. 452-3.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Systematic Theology: In Catechism Form

 I just got this in the mail from Reformation Heritage Books (RHB): Essential Truths in the Heart of a Christian by Wilhlemus Schortinghuis.  (If you’re Dutch, that’s Nodige Waarheden in het Herte van een Christen)  Schortinghuis (the most Dutch Dutch name I’ve ever heard!) was a pastor in the Reformed churches of Holland in the early to mid 18th century.  He was at the tail end of what scholars call the “Dutch Second Reformation” (Nadere Reformatie), which waned around the middle of the 18th century.  While it is true that Schortinguis wrote some very pietistic (in a negative sense) stuff, this book, Essential Truths, is quite in line with the orthodoxy of Reformed scholasticism before it.

Essential Truths is pretty much a very brief systematic theology in catechetical form, with proof-texts (citations, not the full verses) as part of the answers.  Below I’ve put a few examples of how this book is in line with Reformed orthodoxy (the examples also show the catechetical structure).

Part one talks about the knowledge of God.  “In whom is the knowledge of God found fully, to a greater or lesser degree?”  A: “In God himself (1 Cor. 2:7), in Christ (Matt. 11:27), in the holy angels (Matt. 18.10), in the believer in heaven (2 Cor. 5.7), and on earth (2 Cor. 5.7).”  The scholastics talked about archetype and ectype (concerning knowledge); this is the catechetical brief way to talk about it.

Part 11 (after Creation, Providence, etc.) is about the Covenant of Works.  “What is the covenant of works?  The agreement of God with the righteous man in which God promised life and threatened death, with the stipulation of perfect obedience to his law.  If man met the stipulation, he would enjoy eternal life (Hos. 6:7; Job 31:33).”  Later, the question is asked: “Did man have the ability to fulfill these demands?  Yes, indeed; because he was created in God’s image (Gen. 1:31; Eccles. 7:29), he was perfectly good and completely upright.” 

Part 26 is Schortinghuis’ discussion of justification sola fide.  “How is a believing sinner justified?  Not because of the worth of his faith or because of his imperfect Christian obedience, but purely by grace, for the sake of Christ’s perfect atonement and intercession (Rom. 3:24-26), with faith only as an instrument (Rom. 5:1), and apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28).”  He also mentions that a believing sinner embraces by faith Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed to the sinner (Q/A 5). 

“Do not our good works contain some virtue that God nevertheless may want to reward?  No, because they do not answer the requirement of meritorious work, since eternal life is a gracious gift earned by Christ that God grants for his sake by grace (Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9).”

This has to do with the covenant of grace.  “What does God promise and demand in the covenant of grace?  He promises all the essential benefits here and especially for eternity.  He promises: ‘I shall be a God to you” (Jer. 31:33).  And he demands faith and conversion [repentance] (Acts 16:31; Ezek 33:11), both of which he promises to provide (Eph. 2:8, Ezek. 36:27).”  The conditions in the covenant of grace are met by God working in the heart of the elect.

While I’ll summarize them to keep the post brief, Schortinghuis also talks about other Reformed truths, including the regulative principle of worship (part 10, Q/A 4), the law as both a threatening command that shows sin and a “rule of thanksgiving” (part 10, Q/A 10), the visible/invisible church (part 39, Q/A 4), and the essence of saving faith as a receiving instrument which consists of knowledge, assent, and trust (part 24, Q/A 4, 6).

The catechism itself is only around 100 pages; it is not long and tedious.  In many ways it reflects the Heidelberg catechism only with a few more “application” type questions.  Or, to put it another way, it is sort of like a very brief summary of the other Wilhelmus’ (Wilhelmus a Brakel) systematic, The Christian’s Reasonable Service.  At the end of many sections, the question comes: “What does [the doctrine under observation] teach you personally?” 

In summary, while I hesitate to commend all of Schortinghuis’ works (most of them are in Dutch anyway), I do recommend this one as a great, clear, and concise snapshot of orthodox Dutch piety – practical Christian doctrine in Q/A format.  The translators, editor, and publisher deserves a hearty thanks!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Children’s Catechism in the Wake of the Reformation

The Church's Book of Comfort This book, The Church’s Book of Comfort, gets more fascinating with each chapter.  I’ve read quite a few sources on the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and surrounding circumstances, and for now I am putting this near the top of my “go to HC stuff” list.  Here’s another reason why.

Recently (before reading this book), I stumbled upon a kids version of the HC written around 1608 by H. Faukelius called “The Compendium of the Christian Religion for Those Who Seek Admission to the Lord’s Supper”  (the cool Dutch title is: Kort begrip der Christelijke Religie voor dei sich willen begeven tot des Heeren Heilig Avondmaal).  The Synod of Dort (1618-1619) advised that this compendium be used for the middle-age children.  The younger kids were to use the even shorter Hanenboekjes (Rooster Booklet) while the older kids were to use the HC itself (p. 134).

Actually, kids catechisms in the Lowlands, Germany, and elsewhere were quite popular in Reformed circles following the Reformation.  A few others were Micron’s Shorter Catechism and Brief Inquiry, Laski’s Larger Catechism, and St. Aldegonde’s Compendium (Kort Begrip), along with a few others (p. 140-144; 164-5, etc.).  Though classes and synods before the 1618-19 Synod of Dort didn’t always suggest the same kids’ catechism from the above list, many of them did in fact recommend each church use a kids’ catechism (cf. pages 163 ff).

Here’s a sample of one of the shorter and more polemical kids catechisms, namely, St. Aldegonde’s Compendium, which may rub us the wrong way in our age of “tolerance.”

Q: Where does this God dwell?
A: In heaven.

Q: Does he not dwell in the church of the papists?
A: No, he does not.

Q: Is the church of the papists then not God’s house?
A: No.

Q: Who then dwell in the church of the papists?
A: Idols.

Q: What are these idols?
A: Large dolls.

Q: What are they then?
A: Dumb blocks.

You’ve gotta hear the Dutch of the last two answers to really get the nearly comical tone: What are these idols? Groote Poppen. What are they then?  Stomme blocken. The Popish church is full of groote poppen and stomme blocken (say that out loud!). You wonder if a child chuckled when he answered!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Covenant of Works and the Three Forms of Unity

The Synod of Utrecht in 1905 wrote up several theological conclusions that had been discussed in Dutch Reformed churches in the preceding years.  In the second of these conclusions, by way of analogy, the covenant of works is mentioned.

The Synod discussed eternal justification, and said that just because the term is not used in our confessions, this does not mean it has to be rejected (then went on to discuss this term and concept).  Same thing goes for the covenant of works: just because the term is not used in  our confessions, it has since been adopted “through theological usage.”

Of course the Synod was not debating the covenant of works, but it explicitly said that it is well and good to use that term and teaching in conjunction with the Three Forms of Unity.  It was a synodical affirmation.

Here’s the historical picture.  In “Three-Forms Churches” in 1904, it was synodical and commonplace to discuss, defend, and teach the covenant of works as an orthodox way to read the confessions (see Bosma or Bavinck or Kuyper for individual examples).  However, in the 20’s and beyond it was questioned and denied in some of these same circles.  Why the step away from the “confessionalness” of the covenant of works after hundreds of years’ affirmation?  What happened in the years between 1904 and the 1920’s?

shane lems

sunnyside wa