The Heidelberg and the Westminster Shorter—two catechisms teaching the same doctrinal system, yet having such different tones and styles. People who have been raised on one of them are often curious about how they compare—and people raised on one of them who later find themselves in a church or other community that uses the other are often willing to offer a comparison.
Here is my take. I say this as one who was raised on the Heidelberg but has been in churches of the Westminster standards now for 12 years, and has taught from both. I also say this as one who loves both.
I think the most common comparison is that the Heidelberg speaks to one’s heart, whereas the Westminster Shorter is very head-driven. To observe this, Look no further than the first question and answer of each.
1 Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in
death— to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
1 Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God,
and to enjoy him forever.
Besides its patent terseness, we see that The Westminster Shorter is concerned with our chief end, what purpose God had in creating us. It reasons its way through Christian doctrine and life from there. We receive the fruit of mature, theological thinking.
The Heidelberg places its central or at least starting concern as comfort. The authors acutely sense that life in this fallen world is hard. The famines and plagues of the middle ages and the persecution of the Reformation seem to groan behind the first question as we grope for the paraklesis that Paul speaks of in 2 Cor 1, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (v 5).
Still looking at the first question and answer of each, we see that the Westminster Shorter is more general, almost objective in its scope: It is concerned about man’s chief end. The Heidelberg asks after your comfort. In doing so it immediately makes a distinction between the church and the world, because the one answering the question is one who belongs to Christ, else he or she could speak of no comfort.
(The Westminster Shorter must first lay the foundation of revelation, the Trinity, God’s decrees, creation, providence, the covenant with Adam, the fall, and original sin before making this distinction, observing that God “elected some to have everlasting life.”)
I recently noticed another comparison point that underscores the head vs heart distinction. Anyone familiar with the Westminster Shorter will know right where to find the list of God’s attributes, “wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” It’s part of the answer to QA 4, the definition of God (“What is God?”, not “Who is God?”).
Less well known is a very similar list that appears tucked away in the Heidelberg, “almighty power, wisdom, kindness, justice, mercy, and truth.” That’s from QA 122, which exposits the first request of the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be your name.” The words the Westminster Shorter uses in an objective definition of God are used in the Heidelberg to enumerate the things for which we worship God.
Digging deeper, I like to observe the differences in how the two catechisms are organized. I think this is especially fascinating because on the surface, the outlines of the two are very similar. The well-known Heidelberg summary is “grief/grace/gratitude,” that is, “how great my sin and misery are; how I am set free from all my sins and misery; how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” The Westminster Shorter summarizes scripture’s teachings under “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”
Although the Heidelberg makes three points and the Westminster Shorter two, in either case the catechism begins with a theological or doctrinal part (what we are to believe—with an emphasis on soteriology), followed by a applied or practical part (how we should live in light of our redemption). Surely this is a conscious effort by the authors of the catechisms to imitate the structure of Paul’s letters, especially Romans.
Below the surface, the outlines diverge. In the Heidelberg, the bulk of the doctrinal section is an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. Questions ask about the meanings and details of Jesus’s names, birth, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and return, all along the way asking how these things benefit or comfort us. To use John Murray’s terms, salvation in the Heidelberg is organized around “Redemption Accomplished.” Although pointers to “Redepmtion Applied” are scattered throughout, the head-on treatment is tucked into a few questions of Lord’s Day 23, especially QA 60, “How are you right with God?”
In the Westminster Shorter, it is the opposite. To be sure, “Redemption Accomplished” isn’t missing—the “offices and estates” section covers it, though it covers other christological matters as well. But in this case the head-on treatment of soteriology is introduced by “How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?”. It is the believer’s life, not Christ’s, that is set out (chrono-)logically, with the discussion traversing the ordo salutis, defining effectual calling, justification, adoption, santification, other earthly benefits, and glorification.
I hope no one uses the data gathered here to promote one catechism over the other. My own conclusion is that the two catechisms are complementarily ingenious. Both our hearts and our minds must grow in grace. It is good both to think of all God’s ways and to worship him form them. Our redemption is beautiful, viewed both in terms of accomplishment and application. This is why I teach both catechisms and love to see my students make comparisons.
There is much more that can be said, and I’m planning a later essay to point out places where the catechisms appear to disagree. (Hint: I think the disagreements are only “apparent.” I hope to show that they, too, are complementary.)