What is thy only comfort in life and death? – The Life and Significance of Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism

Zacharias Ursinus - Illustration from Hendrick Laurensz, 1647

Zacharias Ursinus – Illustration from Hendrick Laurensz, 1647

Guest Contributor: Mark S.

A student and friend of many great Protestant Reformers, Zacharias Ursinus is remembered along with his mentors for his work as the principle author of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the best-loved catechisms within the Reformed Protestant tradition. Ursinus, born Zacharias Bear (he later Latinized his name to Ursinus) was born in the town of Breslau, modern-day Wrocaw, Poland in the year 1534. His father was a tutor, and Ursinus grew up surrounded by learning and education. (“Ursinus and Olevianus”)

At the age of 15, Ursinus entered Wittenberg University, the great institution at which Martin Luther had ignited the first sparks of Reformation in Europe. Here he befriended Phillip Melanchthon and studied under his teaching, opening his mind to a moderate view of the Lord’s Supper, which eventually led him to a Reformed way of thinking. Melanchthon recommended Ursinus to the finest minds in Protestant Christendom, and he met with Jean Mercier, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin. At the end of Ursinus’ education at Wittenberg, he headed back to Breslau to teach, where he was soon thrown out under suspicion of being too Reformed for the staunchly Lutheran townspeople. After this controversy (he was a quiet, peace-loving man), Ursinus decided to go where he could study and work among those who agreed with his Reformed beliefs: Zurich. (“Ursinus and Olevianus”)

It was from the relative peace and quiet in Zurich where Zacharias Ursinus would be uprooted and thrust into the theological tumult of the University at Heidelberg. Some background information is required to understand the situation at Heidelberg at this time. As the second generation of the Reformation came into being, the unity enjoyed by the followers of Martin Luther was threatened by the theological opinions of the Reformed thinkers in Switzerland and from internal divisions between the moderate Lutherans under the leadership of Melanchthon and the conservative Gnesio-Lutherans with most controversy centering on the presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. (“HCRT 2010- The Heidelberg Catechism (Carl Trueman).”)

The Heiliggeistkirche in Heidelberg

The Heiliggeistkirche in Heidelberg

In Heidelberg, it was still unclear as to which theology would reign supreme: the Reformed or the Lutheran, and if the latter, the Phillipists (Melanchthon’s faction) or the Gnesio-Lutherans? (“Ursinus and Olevianus”) Frederick III, Elector Palatine, the local prince and amateur theologian in his own right, was Phillipist/Reformed leaning in his theology and needed a Catechism to unify these two factions at Heidelberg since the old Augsburg Confession was not acceptable to the Reformed faction there. Ursinus and several others put together a catechism that was adopted by both parties and remains with us to this day as one of the Three Forms of Unity in the Dutch Reformed tradition. (“History” Heidelberg Catechism)

What makes the Heidelberg Catechism so remarkable is its first-person, question and answer format with portions on how certain teachings are applicable to the Christian life. The Catechism is divided into three parts: The Misery of Man, The Redemption of Man, and The Gratitude Due from Man. The whole catechism is further divided into 52 “Lord’s Days” so that one piece of it could be taught every Sunday of the year, instilling church doctrine in the minds of generally uneducated congregants. A notable compromise in favor of the Lutheran faction at Heidelberg was the decision not to include the doctrine of predestination in the catechism. (“HCRT 2010- The Heidelberg Catechism (Carl Trueman).”)

1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him. – The Heidelberg Catechism

Ursinus is best remembered for the Heidelberg Catechism, but it should also be noted that his commentary on the Catechism is also a very useful tool. It was recently used in an article by Kevin DeYoung in support of John Piper’s Christian Hedonism against those who claim that such a notion of Christianity was a product of the Great Awakening and had nothing to do with the Catechisms. DeYoung refutes Piper’s Critics with Ursinus’ own words, which closely parallel with those of Great Awakening preacher/theologian, Jonathan Edwards. (“Christian History and Christian Hedonism: Did Edwards Read Ursinus.”)

No man, however, truly knows what justifying faith is, except he who believes, or possesses it; as he, who never saw or tasted honey, knows nothing of its quality or taste, although you may tell him many things of the sweetness of honey. But the man who truly believes, experiences these things in himself, and is able, also, to explain them to others. – Zacharias Ursinus (quoted in Deyoung)

Zacharias Ursinus was dismissed from Heidelberg in 1576 along with approximately 600 other Reformed faculty members when Frederick III died and his Lutheran replacement set out to rid the Palatinate of Reformed thinking and worship. (“Zacharias Ursinus”) He taught at Neustadt until his death in 1583. Ursinus College, founded by the German Reformed Church in America (Collegeville, PA) bears his name. (“History” Ursinus College)

Works Cited:

DeYoung, Kevin. “Christian History and Christian Hedonism: Did Edwards Read Ursinus.” The Gospel Coalition, 9 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

“HCRT 2010- The Heidelberg Catechism (Carl Trueman).” The Heidelberg Conference on Reformed Theology. Vimeo. 18 November 2010. Web. 11 October 2015.

“Heidelberg Catechism.” Westminster Theological Seminary. 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

“History.” Heidelberg Catechism. Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. 2015. Web. 11 October 2015.

“History.” Ursinus College. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

“Ursinus and Olevianus.” Protestant Reformed Churches in America. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

“Zacharias Ursinus.” Theopedia. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.


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