1536 - 1587
1534 - 1583
The two young men (only 26 and 28 years old
respectively) couldnt have guessed that their Heidelberg Catechism, designed
for teenagers, would find adult readers annually buying more than 100,000 books that
discuss the crown jewel of the shorter Reformation writings. Written in German, within 25
years it would be translated into Dutch, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, French, Italian, Polish,
English, Lithuanian, Czech and Rumanian. At present it can be read in 30 languages.
Plainly the Catechism is cherished inasmuch as it continues to fortify Christians
who find themselves beleaguered in any way for any reason.
Four hundred and fifty-three years after its publication (1563),
Christs persecuted still find in it the substance their head requires and the
stiffening their heart craves if they are going to stand firm in their struggle against
all principalities and powers. Designed to be memorized, the Catechism has readily
sunk to the bottom of the minds of young people only to effervesce years later when the
assaults and seductions of adult life are threatening to bend them and break them.
"What is your only comfort in life and in death?", Question #1 asks
without apology. Then it provides an answer that millions have found not only fathomlessly
profound but also endlessly moving: "My only comfort is that I am not my own but
belong body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Saviour Jesus
The comfort spoken of here is more than the "warm
fuzzy" of religious sentimentality. Con is Latin for "with"; fortis
for "strength." This "comfort" consoles only because it first
strengthens Christs people in the face of pressures that will otherwise find them
capitulating and collapsing.
The second question is similarly pithy and pertinent: "What
must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?" Answer #2: "Three
things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free of all my sins
and misery; three, how I am to thank God for such deliverance." The first section is
the shortest and the second (the setting-forth of our salvation) is the longest, while the
third section (Christian obedience or the life of discipleship) has the simple yet grand
title, "Thankfulness." In other words the whole of the Christian life is a
response neither resented nor grudged but rather rendered freely, joyfully, spontaneously,
Caspar Olevianus was born in the city of Treves on the border of
Luxembourg. His father, Gerhard von der Olewig, headed the bakers guild of the city.
The family was well-to-do and could afford a fine education for its gifted son. Graduating
from a Roman Catholic monastery school, Olevianus was haunted for years by the parting
words of a godly priest: "My boy, never forget that Gods people in all ages
have found their comfort in the atoning life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ."
A age 14 Olevianus moved to Paris to study law. Startled at his
brush with death when several drunken fellow-students drowned in a boating mishap, he
allied himself with French Protestant students whose spiritual depth and searching
friendship soon won him to the Reformation. Afire now with the gospel, he finished law
school and began devouring the theology of the Reformers. His insatiable appetite took him
to the classrooms of Peter Martyr in Zurich, Theodore Beza in Lausanne, and John Calvin in
Upon returning to Treves, Olevianus forthrightly announced the
gospel and denounced the "holy coat" of Joseph, together with similar
superstitions that impeded Word-quickened faith. And just as quickly city authorities
imprisoned him. A wealthy benefactor was allowed to ransom him on condition that he leave
the city permanently. Heidelberg immediately welcomed him, installing him as pastor and
principal of the universitys faculty of theology. In the spring of 1562 he, along
with Ursinus, was asked to write a catechism instructing young people in the faith.
Zacharias Baer was born in Breslau (today a city in Poland.) Like
all young humanist scholars of that era he gave himself a Latin name (ursus,
"bear"; olevianus, "wrestling school") in order to identify
himself with the learning of antiquity. He enrolled at Wittenberg University, boarding for
the next seven years with Melanchthon, Luthers erudite successor. Melanchthon
admired the young man for his intellectual gifts and his spiritual maturity, commending
him to mentors throughout Europe. Subsequently Ursinus too studied under Reformation
giants at Strasbourg, Basel, Lausanne and Geneva. Sojourns in Lyons and Orleans gave him
expertise in Hebrew. Returning to Breslau he published a pamphlet on the sacraments.
Opponents vitriolic reaction succeeded in driving him out of the city. Eventually he
was brought to Heidelberg as professor of theology.
Ursinus and Olevianus never disdained the work of their
predecessors. For this reason they began writing their catechism only after they had
researched all the instructional material they could procure. By 1563 they had fulfilled
their commission, and two copies, in Latin and German, were sent to Heinrich Bullinger in
Zurich, accompanied by the note, "It is obvious how much we owe to you and to the
Swiss reformers. We have drawn not from one but from many sources. To God alone be
When political power changed hands in Heidelberg both men were
expelled. Olevianus moved to Herborn where he gave himself to practical church reforms,
visiting congregations, administering discipline, and ordering church life. Ursinus fled
to Neustadt where his health soon broke and his wife, Margaretha Troutwein, nursed him as
his life dribbled away. Neither man saw old age. Yet both will be remembered throughout
Christendom for their 129 questions and answers. They were alike devout, brilliant,
dedicated and diligent. Possessed of immense affection for students and parishioners, they
were also relentlessly industrious, always "making most of the time" (Colossians
4:4) as the motto above Ursinuss desk indicated:
Friend, who comest here to stay,
Be brief, or go away I pray,
Or help me while I work today.