The Heidelberg Catechism was composed in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, who ruled the Palatinate, an influential German province, from 1559 to 1576. An old tradition credits Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus with being coauthors of the new catechism. Both were certainly involved in its composition, although one of them may have had primary responsibility. All we know for sure is reported by the Elector in his preface of January 19, 1563. It was, he writes, "with the advice and cooperation of our entire theological faculty in this place, and of all superintendents and distinguished servants of the church" that he secured the preparation of the Heidelberg Catechism. The catechism was approved by a synod in Heidelberg in January 1563. A second and third German edition, each with small additions, as well as a Latin translation were published the same year in Heidelberg. Soon the catechism was divided into fifty-two sections so that one Lord's Day could be explained in preaching each Sunday of the year.
The Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 approved the Heidelberg Catechism, and it soon became the most ecumenical of the Reformed catechisms and confessions. The catechism has been translated into many European, Asian, and African languages and is the most widely used and most warmly praised catechism of the Reformation period.
The 1968 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church appointed a committee to prepare "a modern and accurate translation ... which will serve as the official text of the Heidelberg Catechism and as a guide for catechism preaching." A translation was adopted by the Synod of 1975, and some editorial revisions were approved by the Synod of 1988.
The English translation follows the first German edition of the catechism except in two instances explained in footnotes to questions 57 and 80. The result of those inclusions is that the translation therefore actually follows the German text of the third edition as it was included in the Palatinate Church Order of November 15, 1563. This is the "received text" used throughout the world.
Biblical passages quoted in the catechism are taken from the New International Version. In the German editions, biblical quotations sometimes include additional words not found in the Greek text and therefore not included in recent translations such as the NIV. The additions from the German are indicated in footnotes in Q & A 4, 71, and 119.
The content is divided into the following sections:
- Q & A 001-002 (Introduction)
- Q & A 003-011 (Part I: Human Misery)
- Q & A 012-025 (Part II: Deliverance)
- Q & A 026-028 (Part II: Deliverance: God the Father)
- Q & A 029-052 (Part II: Deliverance: God the Son)
- Q & A 053-064 (Part II: Deliverance: God the Holy Spirit)
- Q & A 065-068 (Part II: The Sacraments)
- Q & A 069-074 (Part II: The Sacraments: Baptism)
- Q & A 075-085 (Part II: The Sacraments: The Lord's Supper)
- Q & A 086-129 (Part III: Gratitude)
- Q & A 092-115 (Part III: Gratitude: The Ten Commandments)
- Q & A 116-129 (Part III: Gratitude: The Lord's Prayer)