Chances are pretty good that many people reading this are wondering, What in the world is a catechism? The short answer is that it is a method of teaching Biblical truth in an orderly way. The word "catechize" comes from the Greek word katecheo, which is the word Paul used several times in the New Testament translated "instruct" or "teach" (see for example, 1 Cor. 14:19, Gal. 6:6, and Acts 18:25). Typically, a catechism teaches the doctrines held by the church through a series of questions and answers, with references to supporting Scriptures.
More specifically, the Heidelberg Catechism is one of several historic church documents produced around the time of the Reformation for the purposes of instructing children (and adults) in the doctrines of the new Protestant faith. It was published in 1563, written primarily by Zacharias Ursinus, who was a professor at the University of Heidelberg. The catechism contains 129 Questions & Answers, arranged into 52 Lord's Days. The idea was that students being taught the catechism would memorize a set of Q&A's each week, reciting them in their catechism class (a predecessor of "Sunday School") on the Lord's Day.
The Heidelberg is divided into three main sections: The Misery of Man, Man's Deliverance, and Thankfulness. Or, as the sections are more commonly known, "Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude". These sections teach us systematically our need for salvation, God's work in accomplishing our salvation, and the Christian's response to salvation. The catechism also focuses largely on three elements: The Apostle's Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer.
If you've never read a book on the Heidelberg Catechism before, you're not alone. In fact, C.J. Mahaney mentioned this in his endorsement of the book: "I'm sure this will be the best book on the Heidelberg Catechism I've ever read. I know it will be the first." After reading the book, though, I am convinced that this would rank among the best books written on the subject even if there were many!
The format of the book is simple but effective. There are 52 chapters, corresponding to the 52 Lord's Days. In each chapter, DeYoung offers a short exposition of the Q&A's for that week and the Scripture verses on which the answers are based. This would make the book an ideal tool for aiding in the teaching of the catechism, or for a weekly family devotional.
DeYoung does tend to use a lot of big, intimidating theological words in his writing, but balances this out very well with analogies that explain those concepts in "layman's terms" (though always with the goal of building the theological vocabulary of the layman). For instance, here is his explanation of "imputation", one of the more complicated components of our doctrine of salvation:
"Jesus was not punished because He actually possessed sin in himself, just as we are not justified because we actually possess righteousness in ourselves. Rather, both things happen by imputation. Imputation means instead of holding $500 in your hand, someone else wires it to your account. The money is not actually in your physical possession, but it is legally and truthfully considered to be yours. This is what imputation is all about, God counting to us a perfect life of obedience richer than we've ever lived. Thus He grants us a perfect righteousness we have no chance to ever achieve."
The foreword states that there are likely things in this book with which readers will not agree. This will be particularly true of Baptists, as the Heidelberg Catechism presents a very Reformed/Presbyterian understanding of the sacraments. That being said, I (as a Baptist) greatly appreciated DeYoung's treatment of baptism and other potentially divisive doctrines. In the chapter for the first of two Lord's Days dealing with baptism, DeYoung presents a Bible-saturated explanation of the purpose of baptism, highlighting the many Truths shared in common by paedo- ("infant baptism") and credobaptists ("believer's baptism"). Any Baptist, Presbyterian, or any other Protestant should be able to affirm everything he says here.
In the following chapter (winsomely titled "Vivacious Baby-Baptizing"), he then lays out a very thorough and unapologetic defense of infant baptism. Personally, I quite enjoyed reading this chapter, as it answered a lot of misconceptions about the Reformed (as opposed to the Roman Catholic) paedobaptist position that I have had. While I am still not in 100% agreement with DeYoung on this issue, I am in full agreement that this is a peripheral doctrine, where there is room for disagreement and healthy debate within the realm of orthodoxy.
Despite this and a few other areas where non-Reformed Christians may have differences, this is a book that will benefit every Christian. DeYoung is probably the perfect author for a book of this nature. He is "gladly" Reformed, and firm on the theological distinctions that make him so, but focuses on the vast number of doctrines (including the "essential" doctrines) on which all Christians should agree, rather than the few secondary doctrines on which we may not. He acknowledges the largest criticisms against the Reformed tradition (that it grants "moral license" to sin, and that it provides no incentive for evangelism), and graciously rebukes Calvinists who give legitimacy to these criticisms by continuing in sin and not evangelizing.
By far the best part of the book is its epilogue, entitled "The Crust and the Core". Here he gives the best explanation I've ever read for striking the balance between being a discerning, intellectually informed theologian and being a warmhearted, approachable, loving, evangelistic Christian. A slightly different version of this section of the book was published on DeYoung's blog last year, and you can read it in its entirety if you search for it there. Highly recommended! (But you should buy the book anyway, even though I said this was the best part...)
I am thankful to have received a free copy of this book from the 2010 Band of Bloggers gathering.