More Thoughts on the Heidelberg Catechism (1563)

The Heidelberg Catechism, from its outset, is concerned with addressing the notion of having comfort in life and in death. In response to the first question that is specifically posited as, “What is your only comfort in life and in death,” the answer that follows states, in part, “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins.”[1] The ten questions and answers that ensue further develop a theologically most adequate understanding of sin by chiefly imploring to the five following personifications of sin: sin as the core of the three things that are necessary for a Christian to know in order to live and die happily,[2] sin as a misery that arises from the law of God,[3] sin as something which makes humankind “prone by nature to hate God and [their] neighbor,”[4] sin as a “wicked and perverse” state of human existence that is the result of “the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin,”[5] and sin as the “depraved nature of man” that employs God’s justice, mercy, and punishment.[6] Each of these personifications of sin contributes to the doctrine of sin in The Heidelberg Catechism –subsequently, what is constituted within this doctrine of sin, then, is a systematic means of explaining what sin is, why sin exists, where sin originates in humankind, and how sin came to be manifested in human existence.

So, for The Heidelberg Catechism, the doctrine of sin is, essentially, an expository on the doctrine of original sin. To say original sin is to refer to the first sin of Adam and Eve. With Adam and Eve’s sinful act, not only does death become the wage of their sin,[7] but it is through their first transgression that directly caused a “loss of the divine image [which] was followed by a universal corruption of the powers of the soul …which kindled within them unlawful passions [and] it was in this way that they began to die, since they revolted from God the author of life; and thus the divine sentence began to be put in force.”[8] Not only were the consequences of Adam and Eve’s first sin a “lost [of] their holiness and righteousness [along with] the principal features of [their] divine likeness [being] destroyed,”[9] but the ramifications of their first transgression were extended to their posterity. The wickedness and perversion projected onto all of humanity counted among the posterity of Adam and Eve, as The Heidelberg Catechism theologizes, makes sin and sinfulness interwoven into our human nature since “we are all conceived and born in sin.”[10] Moreover, the first sin, or first transgression, and all of humanity’s connection to that act through an existential lineage with Adam and Eve’s humanity suggests that “it has somehow become second nature for [humankind] to oppose the will of God, and thereby to fall into contradiction with [their] fellow [humankind], with [itself], and with the world.”[11] This contradiction is between the depravity in human nature, as mentioned in The Heidelberg Catechism, and the full seriousness of sin as an affront to “the full potentialities of human existence as created in the image of God.”[12]  What becomes further crystallized in this contradiction is the inevitability of sin, which The Heidelberg Catechism describes as something that humankind is prone to exhibit by nature.[13] In this, it can be ascertained that “[humankind] sins inevitably [doing so] without escaping responsibility for [its] sin [to the extent that] the temptation to sin lies [therefore] in the human situation itself.”[14] Within this human situation, “[humanity’s] spirit transcends the temporal and natural processes in which [it] is involved and also transcends [itself, and] thus [its] freedom is the basis of [its] creativity but it is also his temptation.”[15]

Since sin is conceptually equated as having an inevitability that predisposes humanity to temptation, there still exists the implicit notion that sin is linked to freedom, choice, and free will. To that end, with sin always being an act, “it seems that all acts of will presuppose a reason for willing and that this reason is naturally prior to the act of will.”[16] In speaking of “acts of will” as objectifications of the acts of sin, there is an underlying action of the body that connects to the act of will by the bond of causality,[17] where action, in itself, can only be action if it is exuded with freedom and choice. Through this assertion, the possibility of being free does not justify sin nor simply make an excuse for it, but, rather, it puts forth an argument that “man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God [and, therefore, a] sinful man is not free.”[18] What this suggests, then, is, if “a sinful man is not free,” just “by coming into existence, [the human] becomes a sinner [because the human] is not born as a sinner in the sense that [they are] presupposed as being a sinner before [they are] born, but [they are] born in sin and as a sinner.”[19]

It is for this reason that The Heidelberg Catechism expresses the theologically most adequate understanding of sin: the notion that the totality of humankind is born as sinners because they are conceived in sin, have an inevitable nature that predestines the act of sinning through being enslaved by sin,[20] and have a situational existence that functions in relation to temptation and opposing God.

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[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer #1.

[2] Ibid., Question and Answer #2.

[3] Ibid., Question and Answer #3-4.

[4] Ibid., Question and Answer #5.

[5] Ibid., Question and Answer #6-7.

[6] Ibid., Question and Answer #8-11

[7] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), 137.

[8] Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology (London, UK: R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1836), 199.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer #6-7.

[11] Walter M. Horton, Christian Theology: An Ecumenical Approach (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1958), 147.

[12] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977),  259.

[13]  The Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer #5.

[14]  Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: Volume I: Human Nature (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 251.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, eds., G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), 36.

[17] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Indian Hills, CO: The Falcon’s Wing Press, 1958), 100.

[18] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 77.

[19] Robert Bretall, ed., A Kierkegaard Anthology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 218.

[20] The term “enslaved by sin” is an adaptation of John Calvin’s notion of humanity being the slaves of sin. Henry Beveridge, ed., Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002), 10.

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