Herman Hoeksema: The Heidelberg more than loci of dogmatics

Jerrod Hess

Puritan Board Freshman
Reading last night a bit of Hoeksema, I figured I'd share this excerpt I read. Our pastor has been leading us every Friday through the Heidelberg Catechism, and I personally have found the catechism to be of much greater benefit to me than any other confessional document:

“What is thy only comfort in life and death?” There can be no doubt about the fact, that the Heidelberg Catechism considers and explains the truth from the viewpoint of the consciousness and subjective experience of the believing Christian in this world. In this respect it differs radically from the Westminster Catechisms, both the larger and the shorter. the Westminster Larger Catechism begins as follows: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever. How doth it appear that there is a God? The very light of nature, the works of God declare plainly that there is a God: but his Word and Spirit do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation. What is the Word of God? The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, the only Rule of Faith and obedience.” And then it continues to treat the doctrine of God, His virtues, The Trinity, the decrees, creation, man, the fall, etc. Now, look at the first lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechism. You at once discern the difference. The Westminster starts out from the question of the objective end and calling of man: to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever; the Heidelberger speaks of the subjective appropriation and experience of this truth by the individual Christian: my comfort is that I belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. The viewpoint of the Westminster Catechism is doctrinally objective; that of the Heidelberg Catechism is experientially subjective. The standpoint of the former is general and impersonal: it addresses no one, it speaks of man; that of the [Heidelberg] Catechism is specific and personal: it speaks to the man of God.

Let us not misunderstand this viewpoint of our Heidelberger. When we insist that our catechism proceeds from the standpoint of the subjective experience of the individual believer in this world, we do not imply at all that it is anthropocentric. This has often been alleged. It is pointed out that this is the characteristic difference between the Catechism of Heidelberg and some other symbols, such as the Netherland Confession, and the Westminster Catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism is anthropocentric, i. e., it makes man the center and end of all things, his redemption and deliverance, his happiness and eternal life are the things that count. But symbols such as the West minster Catechisms are theocentric, i.e., they place God in the center of things and present Him as the end and purpose of all existence. But this judgment is not quite correct. And it surely is not our intention to characterize the Heidelberg Catechism in this way, when we claim that its viewpoint is subjectively experiential. It is, we judge, surely not impossible to present a theocentric truth from the viewpoint of its being appropriated by the faith, and experienced in the consciousness of the Christian. And this is what, in our opinion, the Heidelberg Catechism attempts to do. It is not anthropocentric to appeal to the law of God as the criterion and source of the knowledge of man’s misery, or to begin a discussion of the contents of the Christian’s faith with an exposition of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, or to teach that man was created rightly to know God his Creator, to heartily love Him, and to live with Him in eternal happiness to glorify and praise Him. It is not anthropocentric to describe the quickening of the new man as a “sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works,” nor to limit good works to those “which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God and to His glory.” Lord’s Day 33. And it certainly is not anthropocentric but positively theocentric to present true prayer as the highest expression of thankfulness, or to close the discussion of the subject of prayer with the words: “all this we pray for, that thereby not we, but thy holy name may be glorified forever.” Q. 128. But we do claim that the Heidelberg Catechism considers the truth which, of course, is always theocentric, from the viewpoint of its being appropriated and experienced by the believing Christian in this world, and, more particularly, from the point of view that it is his comfort, his sole comfort in life and death…

We repeat, the viewpoint is that of the subjective experience or, if you prefer, that of the spiritual knowledge of the objective truth of the Word of God as possessed by the believing Christian in this world. There is an evident difference between the questions: “What is the chief end of man?” and “What is thy only comfort?” There is an obvious difference between the threefold division of the Heidelberger: sin and misery, redemption, gratitude, on the one hand, and the well known six loci of dogmatics. The Catechism treats the truth, not merely as a science, but as the spiritual knowledge that is eternal life. John 17:3. It discusses the system of doctrine from the viewpoint of his faith to whose heart the objective Word of God has been applied by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, Who dwells in the Church, and Who leads into all the truth. It is not a theology, it is knowledge of God. The one that speaks here is regenerated and called. The Word, And as he the truth of which he discusses, has been applied to his heart. He has ears to hear, eyes to see. stands in the midst of the present world, full of misery and darkness, and as he himself, outside of Christ, lies in the midst of death, the clear understanding of that Word, or rather, that Word itself as it reveals to Him God in Christ, redemption and deliverance from the power of sin and death, and as he by faith lays hold upon that Word, is his comfort, his sole and all-sufficient comfort in life and death. In that thoroughly sound sense of the word the Heidelberger is experiential and subjective in its approach of the truth.

In close connection with this viewpoint of the Heidelberg Catechism stands the fact that the Catechism is very personal, and that it addresses through out the child of the Church as “the man of God” that must be thoroughly furnished unto all good works. It speaks in the singular throughout: “What is thy only comfort?” “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort mayest live and die happily?” “Whence knowest thou thy misery?” “What believest thou,” etc, etc… This, then, is the viewpoint of the Heidelberg Catechism. There can be no question about this fact. They that are called to preach from this book of instruction I will do well to bear this in mind. Approaching the truth from the standpoint of the conscious experience of the believing Christian in this world, and addressing the living member of the Church, it aims to bring the “man of God” to a conscious knowledge of the living truth, of the only comfort in life and death!

Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge, Vol. 1 (Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1943), p. 19-28.