Catechized to Read: Zacharius Ursinus

The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563 in a Calvinist community in Germany, is one of the more warm-hearted catechisms that emerged from the Reformation periods, and still remains in prominent use among many Reformed Churches.

One of the chief architects of the Heidelberg Catechism was the German theologian, Zacharius Ursinus (1534–1583). In his commentary on the Catechism, he notes three core elements of the theological disciplines: first is catechesis, which is the summary explanation of Scripture; next is what he calls "commonplaces," which are extended reflections on particular theological issues (what we might call systematic theology); and third is the reading of Scripture, which he calls "the highest method in the study of the doctrine of the church."

Mathew Mason comments on the significance of the order of this threefold structure. It suggests that, for Ursinus, "the goal of catechesis is the right hearing of Scripture." Catechesis and systematic theology are all, in a sense, preparatory for the more important task of being able to read Scripture well. It seems that Scripture, while obviously being the ground and source of catechetical and theological reflection, is also unable to be read "on its own," without any help.

We need to be catechized in order to read Scripture rightly.

This will come as no surprise to Reformation historians, who know that the first iteration of Calvin's Institutes, for instance, was originally meant to do a similar kind of preparatory work. But this is often lost among the champions of "sola scriptura."

My priest here in Waco, Fr. Lee Nelson, is fond of saying that we don't just have a "biblical illiteracy" problem—as so many have opined. We have a much more pervasive problem of "theological illiteracy." Especially in areas of the country where church attendance is still high, we know a lot about Scripture, but we don't really know what it means to read it well. We need to know how to how to think theologically about Scripture: this is one of the main things catechesis does.

This emphasis on being catechized to read will hopefully shift our understanding as to the proper goal of reading Scripture. That is, we don't read simply read Scripture in order to do something else (to theologize, to "do ethics," or whatever). We do these other things in order to read Scripture well, to come to a place where Scripture inducts us into the life of God. And that is really an end in itself—an end which needs no other justification.