I’ve recently begun teaching a class at my church on the Heidelberg Catechism & Orthodox Catechism. As part of my preparation for each week’s lesson, I’ve been reading through Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. On page 9, Dr. Ursinus begins a brief summary of the three methods of teaching and learning Christian theology, “the doctrine of the church.” These can be labeled as follows:
2. Systematic Theology
3. Study of Scripture
Why does Ursinus place these methods in this order? It does seem, at first, to be backward. Yet once the section is read in its entirety, we’re left with some interesting insight into how Ursinus (and Confessional Christianity in general) understands the relationship between Scripture, theology, and Confessions/Catechisms.
The method of teaching and studying Theology is three-fold. The first is the system of catechetical instruction, or that method which comprises a brief summary and simple exposition of the principal doctrines of the christian religion, which is called catechising. This method is of the greatest importance to all, because it is equally necessary for all, the learned as well as the unlearned, to know what constitutes the foundation of true religion.
For Ursinus, the use of catechisms wasn’t just for teaching children or recent converts. It was to be an ongoing process of review and refreshment even for seasoned Christians. Perhaps you’ve heard someone express disinterest in studying a catechism because he thinks he is beyond hearing about the fundamentals of Law and Gospel. This is an incredibly naive view, both of one’s own spiritual maturity as well as the purpose of catechisms.
The second method is the consideration and discussion of subjects of a general and more difficult character, or the Common Places, as they are called, which contain a more lengthy explanation of every single point, and of difficult questions with their definitions, divisions, and arguments. This method belongs more appropriately to theological schools, and is necessary:
First, that those who are educated in these schools, and who may afterwards be called to teach in the church, may more easily and fully understand the whole system of theology; for as it is in other things, so it is also in the study of Divinity, our knowledge of it is obtained slowly and with great difficulty; yea, our knowledge of it must necessarily remain confused and imperfect unless every separate part of this doctrine be taught in some systematic form, so as to be perceived and understood by the mind.
Secondly, that those who are students of theology may, when they are called to act as teachers in the church, be able to present clearly and systematically the substance of the entire doctrine of God’s word. To do this it is necessary that they themselves should first have a complete system, or frame-work, as it were, of this doctrine in their own mind.
So far, everything seems fairly straightforward. All Christians are to be catechized, that is, taught the fundamental doctrines of the faith, necessary for salvation and holy living. Deeper theological study is then recommended, particularly for those who will go on to catechize and teach others in the faith. This is so they may better understand the systematic nature of the truth themselves, as well as to equip them to better explain correct theology to those who are being taught. Ursinus’ third reason for deeper study of systematic theology might surprise some readers at first, however:
Thirdly, it is necessary, for the purpose of discovering and determining the true and natural interpretation of the Scriptures, which requires a clear and full knowledge of every part of the doctrine of the church, in order that this interpretation may be in accordance with the analogy of faith, so that the Scriptures may be made to harmonize throughout.
“Wait a second!” someone may object. “Do you mean we need a catechism and a full-orbed system of theology before we can understand the natural interpretation of Scripture?” If that is what Ursinus intended, it would certainly be putting the theological cart before the scriptural horse. We will return to this seemingly odd comment, but for now, let us continue to hear Dr. Ursinus.
Lastly, it is necessary for the purpose of enabling us to form a proper decision in regard to the controversies of the church, which are various, difficult, and dangerous, lest we be drawn from the truth into error and falsehood.
The discipline of systematic study and arrangement of theological doctrine is an invaluable tool in distinguishing and warding off heresy. When a new, creative, heretical doctrine or movement rears its head, those who have studied the system of Christian truth, especially how all the parts are interrelated and interdependent, will be much more well-equipped to recognize and refute theological falsehoods.
The third method of the study of theology is the careful and diligent reading of the Scriptures or sacred text. This is the highest method in the study of the doctrine of the church. To attain this, the two former methods are to be studied, that we may be well prepared for the reading, understanding, and exposition of the holy Scriptures.
Here’s another statement that may leave readers scratching their heads. How on earth can Scripture be the final step in learning the doctrine of the church? Never fear, Dr. Ursinus will soon shed some light on the matter.
For as the doctrine of the catechism and Common Places are taken out of the Scriptures, and are directed by them as their rule, so they again lead us, as it were, by the hand to the Scriptures.
Now we see the missing first piece of Ursinus’ recommendations — the origin of the catechism & doctrine of the church. At the very beginning of his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus writes,
The doctrine of the church is the entire and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and gospel concerning the true God, together with his will, works, and worship; divinely revealed, and comprehended in the writings of the prophets and apostle, and confirmed by many miracles and divine testimonies; through which the Holy Spirit works effectually in the hearts of the elect, and gathers from the whole human race an everlasting church, in which God is glorified, both in this, and in the life to come.
So now we see that Scripture is the starting point, as it of course must be. From Scripture, the Church discerns the “principal doctrines of the christian religion” and expresses and teaches them in the form of catechesis. Using Scripture, these principal doctrines are developed and connected with other doctrines, forming a systematic network of truth. It is this larger, more detailed grid, itself derived from God’s Word, which can help us as we read Scripture, enabling us to avoid error and inconsistency in our interpretation of any piece of the Bible. Passages that can be confusing when read in isolation can be made clear when viewed in the light of primary, fundamental doctrines reinforced throughout Scripture.
As we come to understand Ursinus’ meaning, we begin to see the value of catechisms and written confessions of faith. Those who accuse confessional Christians of elevating man’s words to (or above) the level of Scripture fail to understand the Scriptural basis for the Confession. The Confession is not itself inspired, and is always subject to the Word of God. Yet for those who confess the doctrines of the Confession, their belief is that the Confession is an accurate statement of the key doctrines taught by Scripture itself. It is not seen as an addition to Scripture, but a very useful summary of the truth of God’s Word. As such, it can be a help, as Ursinus says, in teaching the truth and avoiding error.
Although I do take exception to a couple of statements in the Heidelberg Catechism, it is on the whole a remarkable, outstanding document. I highly recommend it, especially if read alongside Particular Baptist Hercules Collins’ revision of it, The Orthodox Catechism (to which I still take a couple of exceptions on other issues). May you find it edifying and a comfort to your soul!