Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Manifesto for the Christian Counterculture

M. Craig Barnes, Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism

Today’s evangelical Protestant church has moved away from creeds and catechisms; particularly among highly emotive denominations, the “No Creed but the Bible” belief has become widespread. Craig Barnes, long-term minister and president of Princeton Theological Seminary, doesn’t buy that. And with the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism upon us, he sees the time to move that classic back into common circulation.

The Heidelberg Catechism, first published in 1563 to build ecumenical bridges in the religiously fraught Rhenish Palatinate, is now the core doctrinal statement of several Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. Its simple, scripturally fortified belief statements distill centuries of learning into 129 short declarations. And they start with this: “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

That seemingly simple, but profoundly countercultural, belief establishes the first and most enduring principle for generations of Christians. I am not my own. I do not desire my own grandeur, but strive after my Savior’s mission. I do not fear for my own downfall, but trust in my Lord that, whatever happens in the short term, all things work for good in the God who created me. Think how different that sounds from today’s “me first” society.

Barnes slowly unpacks how much revolutionary insight dwells beneath the surface of the brief but dense Heidelberg Catechism. If we believe that first principle, then the Catechism’s further statements on topics like salvation, prayer, and sacraments serve to help us distill the truth which flows forth. Though the Catechism’s straightforward language makes for insightful reading, Barnes helps translate it into contemporary circumstances.

The Bible provides the foundation upon which all Christians base their beliefs—or should. But the Bible was written for a certain people in a place and time, and that people is not us, here, now. Particularly for new Christians, catechisms allow us to recognize important parallels between passages physically separated by many pages and centuries. The Bible, though solid, is not self-obvious, Martin Luther notwithstanding.

This is emphasized by Barnes’ inclusion, in this book, of the entire Heidelberg Catechism. Not only does the Catechism unpack the entire Lord’s Prayer, Decalogue, and Apostles’ Creed; it’s also thoroughly annotated, underlining scriptural passages written centuries apart, but which work in tandem to convey important beliefs. No one should mistake this document as a replacement for the Bible, but a key to help us understand it, here and now.

The gradual disappearance of catechisms from the Protestant tradition has not led, as some fundamentalists had hoped, to increased authentic spirituality. Indeed, if you talk to your typical American white Protestants today, you’ll find them terribly unversed in their Bible and unable to explain their beliefs. Not just among the laity, either; an appalling number of pastors, active in the pulpit, know more about what TV preachers contend than what the Bible says.

As a Lutheran myself, I know Martin Luther believed anyone could read the Bible and witness the truth thereof. This belief did not stop him from writing two catechisms himself, the Small Catechism for laity and the Large Catechism for clergy. But I also know that these books, and assorted successors, scarcely merit mention in religious discussion after youth confirmation. The loss is palpable.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, observes that traditions which have sturdy catechisms and rigorous liturgies, maintain great fervor and suffer little apostasy. Contrast the modern Catholic church, with its millennia-old rites and fairly solid numbers, with Protestant churches. I propose that we suffer today, not from a general secularization of society, but from spongy theology and a lack of shared beliefs.

The answer to this is not more dramatic worship programs or more dynamic preaching. The Heidelberg Catechism was written to unify the Rhenish people’s beliefs, to reinforce their identity as a nation. A return to catechisms for all Christians would do more than give everybody shared references. It would help re-establish the sense of Christians, not as fellow adherents to airy-fairy beliefs, but as a culture and a people.

Because Christians are always learning to trust God more, hope more in Christ’s salvation, and live better in the Spirit’s mission, catechisms help make us better students. Simple statements of belief, foundational principles upon which to build, always give us a sturdier structure of faith. Even if this is not the catechism of your church, its ecumenical, scriptural support will help guide you into deeper understanding of yourself and your God.

Follow-up: The Christian Counterculture, Part Two

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