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Reading the Catechism Harmonically

By March 1, 2012 No Comments
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by Scott Sherman

Question 54: What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?

Answer: I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Studies of the Heidelberg Catechism often point out its silence regarding the doctrine of election. Only Q&A 52 and 54 mention it, and then just in passing. Reading it side by side with other Reformed confessions, one is struck by what the Heidelberg does not say. As the story goes, Elector Frederick III needed a form of confessional unity that would unite Protestant factions with differing understandings of the doctrine of election, the nature of the sacraments, and other divisive issues.

As I read this particular question and answer, I am struck by what it does say. In its explication of the Apostles’ Creed, the one thing emphasized for us to understand and believe about “the holy catholic church” is that it exists because Jesus has called it into existence. The Son of God, from the world’s beginning until its end, is the one who “gathers, protects, and preserves” the true church. Behind the reality of the church there is a missionary God. This is Reformed missional theology!

Zacharias Ursinus, the principal author of the catechism, brings out this theme in his lectures and commentary. He notes that the Greek word for “church” in the New Testament, ekklesia, does not refer to any ordinary assemblage of persons who gather themselves together, but to those who have been called together. The church is the community of those “called out of the Kingdom of Satan by the voice of the Lord, and by the preaching of the gospel for the purpose of hearing and embracing the word of God.”

This is a great insight, and it helps me love Q&A 54 all the more. But I have to admit to a frustration with what this answer does not say. There’s a pothole between this question and the next, and my mental car hits it every time. I don’t mean that I’m looking for more Reformed juju on the eternal mysteries of double-barrel predestination. No, thank you. My struggle is this: how is it that the catechism does not go on to call the church to participate in this mission? As I read it aloud, I find the silence jarring. Why didn’t they connect the dots between the mission of Christ and the mission of the church?

I think this is a serious concern. In his 1953 book The Household of God, Lesslie Newbigin charged that a church that has forgotten the missionary character of the doctrine of election—that the elect are chosen in order to be sent—is a church that has lost its way. “Wherever [people] think that the purpose of election is their own salvation rather than the salvation of the world, then God’s people have betrayed their trust.”

I agree with Newbigin, but I’ve begun to rethink this pothole. Perhaps it is best to see in Heidelberg’s language a church that is in the infant stages of rediscovering its mission—which is remarkable, given that it was formed in the context of Christendom. In fact, I’m hard pressed to imagine a more Christendomshaped context than a power-center of the Holy Roman Empire four hundred years ago! Christendom kept the church blinkered from its mission. For all the renewal and revival of the sixteenth century, this is still a church that had yet to fully discover its essential missionary character.

To a certain extent, the catechism does envision a missional ecclesial reality. A grateful community of people whose old selves are dying to sin and whose new selves are being renewed unto life so that God “may be praised through us” (Q&A 86). A community that lives out the intentions of God’s law and seeks God’s will on earth through prayer. This community is, in a seed-form, the missional church; the sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God; the only hermeneutic of the gospel before a watching world.

What strikes me in reading Q&A 54 is how many missional notes are present even in the Christendom context. I’ve come to see that it is possible to read the catechism harmonically: to hear the undertones of the sixteenth century while allowing them to resonate with the component frequencies that the Spirit has added in the subsequent centuries. Q&A 54 is not a full-blown theology of the missio Dei—that comes many years later. It does not say, with the Lausanne Declaration, that “the church exists to serve the mission of God.” But it does set out a principle that resonates with the thinking of many of the theologians I love—Barth, Brunner, Newbigin, Bosch, Moltmann—that there is a church because there is a mission, and not vice versa. That undertone supports some pretty sweet tunes.

Do you hear the harmonics when you read these old confessions? Read Q&A 54 one more time. God calls a community “from the entire human race”—I hear this, and I also hear the music of the Belhar. Jesus “gathers, protects, and preserves”—I hear the music of the deep theology of assurance that lies at the heart of Reformed theology. “I am and will always be a living member”—now I’m hearing “water music,” refreshed with the promise of my baptism. “United in true faith”—I hear the music of Christian unity (and I’m pretty sure I can hear Newbigin’s voice in the choir).

I haven’t quite filled that pothole, but I hear the music and I don’t mind the bump quite as much as I once did.


Scot Sherman is president of the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, California, a member of the Perspectives board of editors, and the guest editor of this issue of Perspectives.