Book Review

"The Church's Book of Comfort" edited by Willem Van't Spijker, translated by Gerrit Bilkes

R. Scott Clark
Willem Van't Spijker
Friday, January 1st 2010
Jan/Feb 2010

Few documents are as important to the history, theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed churches across the globe as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Although there are many volumes offering an explanation of the catechism, most are pedestrian and obvious. Most fail to place the catechism in its historical context as they try to interpret it. This volume, a collection of seven essays by six contributors from various Reformed denominations in the Netherlands, proposes to remedy this problem by providing a comprehensive introduction and orientation to the catechism.

The work opens with a brief survey of the German Reformation. Chapter two offers a helpful survey of the catechetical, religious, and liturgical context in which the catechism was composed. This section will interest those curious about the various sources from which the catechism draws. It reinforces the notion, known to Reformation scholars for some time, that the catechism was not utterly unique, that it drew from a number of sources, and that even its famous "guilt, grace, gratitude" structure was commonplace in Protestant catechesis before the creation of the Heidelberg Catechism. Chapter three introduces the reader to the personalities involved in the creation, revision, and adoption of the catechism. The reader will appreciate the brief biographies not only of Zacharias Ursinus, whom this chapter rightly identifies as the primary author of the catechism, but also (and unusually) of the other members of the Heidelberg theology faculty, the church superintendents, and the consistory who reviewed and edited the catechism. This chapter relates the catechism to the Palatinate church order, a key document often ignored by commentators. The fourth chapter offers a brief and generally fair survey of the key doctrines of the catechism. Readers familiar with the modern reassessment of the nature of Reformed orthodoxy will flinch at a few of Van't Spijker's characterizations of medieval (e.g., Anselm) and Reformed scholasticism (e.g., Beza). His account of the catechism's relation to Anselm's Cur Deus Homo struck this reader as less than obvious and even tendentious. Positively, however, confessional Protestants will be pleased to see a clear and unequivocal recognition of the distinction between law and gospel in the catechism. This chapter also recognizes the pan-Protestant nature of the doctrine of justification and of the definition of faith in the act of justification. Its treatment of the catechism's doctrines of church and Sacraments is brief but illuminating. Chapter five tells the story of the reception of the catechism in the Netherlands, a point that illustrates the international nature of Reformed theology. The account also offers a particularly helpful window into an aspect of the relationship of the Reformed churches to the catechism that is not well known or often explored. The narrative of the Remonstrant (Arminian) reaction to the catechism is particularly useful. Those seeking a brief introduction to the Dutch Reformation will be thankful for this chapter.

Catechism instruction and preaching is a most important and even vital element of Reformed piety and practice that seems to be fading from the current picture. One step toward recovering this resource for reformation is understanding the history of catechetical instruction. Chapter six provides an excellent starting point for this endeavor as it covers, in some detail, the history of catechetical preaching in the Netherlands. This chapter also examines the Dutch Reformed practice of catechesis of young people. We live in a fallen world and our "go-go" culture does not encourage children to memorize the basics of the faith or even God's Word. Thus, pastors, presbyters, and parents who continue to struggle to introduce covenant children to the riches of the faith will be instructed and encouraged to see how the church has addressed this problem in the past. The final section in the volume considers the contemporary relevance of the catechism. Appended is a bibliography of Dutch secondary and primary sources with English translations of the titles provided and a helpful index.

This is a valuable work for the reasons already suggested, and even those who are well acquainted with the catechism will benefit from this volume. These commendations, however, must be tempered by four rather pointed criticisms. First, this volume is repetitive. This quality caused this reader to wonder why material covered in one section reappeared in a later section. It would have been more useful for the reader if the editor had consolidated these redundant sections. Second and related to the first criticism is the somewhat unfinished and syllabus-like feel of the volume. Third, this volume would be considerably improved with the addition of footnotes. The authors make numerous historical and factual claims, some of which are not obvious and others of which are controversial, all without the slightest documentation. Pastors, elders, and even scholars will be frustrated by the choice not to allow readers to check sources and follow trails of investigation suggested by the text. Fourth, some of the scholarship behind the volumes seems behind the times. For example, though the authors are aware of modern Dutch scholarship on the catechism, the volume does not consistently reflect modern developments in Reformation and post-Reformation scholarship. The omission of these perspectives is odd since the editor has participated in at least one English-language volume dedicated to the reassessment of Reformed orthodoxy. The omission of important English-language sources on the catechism, the Palatinate, and related topics is also puzzling.

These criticisms are intended only to encourage the editor and publisher to improve the second edition of this volume. They are not intended to discourage laity, elders, pastors, and students from buying and profiting from The Church's Book of Comfort. Churches and schools must add this valuable book to their libraries, and lovers of the catechism will certainly want to take and read.

Friday, January 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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