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§ 90. The Typical Catechisms of Protestantism.

In this connection we may anticipate a brief comparison between the most influential manuals of popular religious instruction which owe their origin to the Reformation, and have become institutions, retaining their authority and usefulness to this day.

These are Luther’s Little Catechism (1529), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Anglican Catechism (1549, enlarged 1604, revised 1661), and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The first is the standard catechism of the Lutheran Church; the second, of the German and Dutch Reformed, and a few other Reformed churches (in Bohemia and Hungary); the third, of the Episcopal Church of England and her daughters in the British Colonies and the United States; the fourth, of the Presbyterian churches in Scotland, England, and America. They follow these various churches to all their missionary fields in heathen lands, and have been translated into many languages.

They are essentially agreed in the fundamental doctrines of catholic and evangelical religion. They teach the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer; that is, all that is necessary for a man to believe and to do in order to be saved. They thus exhibit the harmony of the chief branches of orthodox Protestant Christendom.

But they also differ, and reflect the peculiar genius and charisma of these churches. The Lutheran Catechism is the simplest, the most genial and childlike; the Heidelberg Catechism, the fullest and the richest for a more mature age; the Anglican Catechism, the shortest and most churchly, though rather meagre; the Westminster Catechism, the clearest, precisest, and most logical. The first three are addressed to the learner as a church-member, who answers the questions from his present or prospective experience. The Westminster Catechism is impersonal, and gives the answers in the form of a theological definition embodying the question. The first two breathe the affectionate heartiness and inwardness which are characteristic of German piety; the other two reflect the sober and practical type of English and Scotch piety. The Lutheran and Anglican Catechisms begin with the Ten Commandments, and regard the law in its preparatory mission as a schoolmaster leading to Christ. The other catechisms begin with an exposition of the articles of faith, and proceed from faith to the law as a rule of Christian life, which the Heidelberg Catechism represents as an act of gratitude for the salvation obtained (following in its order the Epistle to the Romans, from sin to redemption, and from redemption to a holy life of gratitude). Luther adheres to the Roman division of the Decalogue, and abridges it; the others give the better division of the Jews and the Greek Church, with the full text. The Lutheran and Anglican Catechisms assign to the sacraments an independent place alongside of the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer; while the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms incoporate them in the exposition of the articles of faith. The former teach baptismal regeneration, and Luther also the corporeal real presence, and private confession and absolution; the latter teach the Calvinistic theory of the sacraments, and ignore private confession and absolution. The Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, however, likewise teach the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. The Westminster Catechism departs from the catholic tradition by throwing the Apostles’ Creed into an appendix, and substituting for the historical order of revelation a new logical scheme; While all the other catechisms make the Creed the basis of their, doctrinal expositions.735735    For a fuller comparison, see Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I. 543 sqq.

The difference is manifest in the opening questions and answers, which we give here in parallel columns: —

luther’s catechism

The First Commandment.

Thou shalt have no other gods.

What does this mean?

We should hear and love God, and trust in Him, above all things

The Second [Third] Commandment.

Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in vain.

What does this mean?

We should so fear and love God as not to curse, swear, conjure, lie, or deceive, by his name; but call upon it in every time of need, pray, praise, and give thanks.

The Third [Fourth] Commandment.

Thou shalt keep the holy Sabbath day.

What does this mean?

We should hear and love God as not to despise preaching and His Word, and willingly hear and learn it.

heidelberg catechism.

What is thy only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort mayest live abd die happily?

Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Secondly, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Thirdly, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

anglican catechism

What is your name?

N. or M.

Who gave you this name?

My Godfathers and Godmothers 736736   The American Episcopal Prayer book reads instead: My Sponsors. In my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

What did your godfathers and godmothers [sponsors] then for you?

They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in them all the days of my life.

westminster catechism.

What is the chief end of man?

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?

The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.

What do the Scriptures principally teach?

The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.

What is God?

God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

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