The Story Behind the Confessions

Faithfulness Under Fire: The Story of Guido de Bres (2010) and The Quest for Comfort: faithfulness-under-fireThe Story of the Heidelberg Catechism (2011), by William Boekestein.  Reformation Heritage Books, 28 pp.  Age/interest level: 10-14.

Ten years ago, I was not very clear on what Reformed churches call the “Three Forms of Unity.”  I may have read a passing reference to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, but I was a Presbyterian.  That meant the Westminster Standards.  And before that, I was brought up in a fundamentalist church that ascribed to “no creed but Christ.”  That sounds good until you encounter confusion about Christ and his work, so I’ve come to appreciate the historic creed and confessions as a handy guide to What We Believe (with scriptural support).

But I still didn’t know much about how these works came to be, and most accounts of their history were rather dry and detailed.  That’s a gap that William Boekestein, pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, seeks to close with his three books for young readers.

As we’ve been mentioning all month, the Protestant Reformation was a tumultuous and significant chapter in the history of the world, not just the church, but the world isn’t very interested in church history.  Too many Christian kids feel the same, partly because their parents know so little about it and have no clue how to teach it.  If that’s you, these books could be a welcome addition to your library.

But more than sound doctrine, there are dramatic stories behind these works.  The Belgic Confession was written in a time when holding “heretical” Protestant doctrines could cost a believer’s life, the Heidelberg Catechism came about by the providential cooperation of three men who had already faced trials and testing, and the Canons of Dort (that book will be available next year) were written in response to a serious doctrinal challenge.  The work these men produced has been used by God to educate and encourage Christians for generations.  So, who were they?

“WANTED: Guido de Bres.  Suspect is tall, pale, rather thin with a long face and a reddish beard . . .”  Though there was probably no such notice posted for the author of the Belgic Confession, it’s a good way to emphasize that when de Bres converted to Protestantism in his twenties, he was in for the life of a fugitive.  After a period of study in England, he returned to his native Belgium and became a dedicated pastor, meeting in believers’ homes and often, like the covenanters of Scotland, in the open air.  He wrote his Confession in 1561 as a way of setting out the main tenets of the faith and proving to Catholic Church authorities that Protestants were not rabble-rousers or lawbreakers.  Needless to say, the Church was not convinced, especially when over-zealous Protestants began breaking into Catholic churches and smashing statues. De Bres’ story encompasses an exciting if bloody chapter of European history, including such pivotal characters as John Calvin and Philip of Spain.

The story of the Heidelberg Catechism is less violent but just as interesting, bringing together three men from different backgrounds: a ruler, a shy young pastor, and a brilliant young theological student.  Caspar Olevianus (the student) and Zacharias Ursinus (the pastor) were both in their twenties when Frederick III, elector of Heidelberg (in Germany), commissioned the two to write a Catechism as a means of achieving unity among the Protestant churches of his domain.  But its warm, personal tone has made “The Heidelberg” one of the most beloved catechisms in church history.  The Quest For Comfort takes its title from Question and Answer #1: “What is your greatest comfort in life and in death?”  The answer (included in the book) is one of the clearest statements of Christian hope ever written.  After Question 1, the writers organized the catechism under three great themes: Sin, Salvation, and Service, corresponding to man’s biggest problem, God’s remedy, and the Christian’s response.

There are places in these two books where a little more background would have been helpful, such as a basic timeline of events.  American kids (and their parents) might also need more help understanding words like “elector” and “Palatinate,” and I wanted to know why Frederick’s son Louis hated the Catechism and tried to suppress it after his father’s death.  But Rev. Boekestein has done a valuable service in shining light on a pivotal time that most of us know too little about.  The books are available from many online booksellers, but Reformation Heritage actually seems to have the best price.  And while you’re there, you might just want to take a look at the Three Forms of Unity.

Check out the new video for The Quest for Comfort here.  Speaking of church heroes, don’t miss Emily’s interviews with Simonetta Carr about Athanasius and John Calvin.  And don’t forget to come back on Monday for podcast interview with William Boekestein!


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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Ellen on October 29, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks again for a great resource!

  2. Gently Mad on November 2, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I attended a PCA church some years ago. The pastor there often referred to the Heidelberg confession. Growing up in a liturgical church I was familiar with the Apostolic and Nicene creeds since we recited one or the other every week.

    Recently, I had an ongoing (though friendly and respectful) conversation with some Catholics at another website. Their basic argument was if I respected the authority of these creeds, why didn’t I respect the authority of the Church that wrote them.
    Your article about these reformation confessions gives me food for thought. I believe that it was the authority of God who inspired men to write those creeds and I believe the same for these confessions, although admittedly I haven’t read them yet. This article has spurred me on to look them up and read them. (And I’m probably going to have to get this book too.) Thanks for the article!

    • Janie Cheaney on November 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

      This is very encouraging, GM. The answer to the first question is one of the most beautiful and complete expressions of Christian faith I’ve ever read. One reason I didn’t include it in the review is because I was hoping readers would look it up for themselves! I urge everyone to do that, but I’ll help ’em out a little. Here’s a link.

  3. Gently Mad on November 2, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    I linked to Jeff’s blog and read both the Heidleberg and Belgic confessions. I’m still going to buy the books to have them for myself. They are just incredible! Every Christian needs to read them. I plan on reading them over and over again. Thanks for sharing the link.

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