Barnes Interprets Heidelberg; Offers Postmodern Reading

Barnes_10152013M. Craig Barnes.  2012.  Body & Soul:  Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism.  Co-published:  Grand Rapids:  Faith Alive and Louisville:  Congregational Ministries Publishing.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

November 15, 2013 is the 450th anniversary of the publishing of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC).  The HC famously begins with this question:  What is your only comfort in life and in death?  The answer is:  That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ (165).  The HC consists of a 129 questions with answers structured in much the same manner.

The HC is straightforward, yet a bit intimating.  Many protestant communicants continue to study it, yet the prospect of being tested on its contents is intimating—and not only for teens.  The appeal of a short book which talks about the theology and origins of the HC is obvious.

Author Craig Barnes (biography at: http://bit.ly/1bUJLgy) is an intriguing candidate to write an introduction to the HC.  Dr. Barnes has a doctor of philosophy in church history and began 2013 as the new president of Princeton Theological Seminary.  He was previously on the faculty of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and senior pastor of a church.  Perhaps most interesting is that he also serves as a professor of pastoral ministry.  Being a professor of pastoral ministry implies that his primary job is to teach aspiring pastors the art of pastoring.   It is interesting that this pastor to pastors has placed a high priority on communicating the details of the HC—I like his priorities.

Body and Soul is organized in six chapters around the structure of the HC itself.  Before the HC discussion is an introduction.  After the discussion is a reproduction of the HC itself and a brief set of notes on the history.  The HC reproduced is the new 1988 translation from the German and Latin complete with the scriptural references that were previously not readily available.  This translation represents collaboration between the Christian Reformed Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America (163).

Chapter 1 is entitled:  The Only Comfort—question 1 (abstracted above).  The chapter starts with three vignettes of people lost in pain—a pastor coming home from a funeral; a firefighter having trouble making ends meet; and a new widower visiting his wife’s grave.  The chapter then proceeds through a number of contemporary problems.  The headings are descriptive:  contemporary anxiety; is religion the answer; an inheritance of faith; help from the sixteenth century; a holy conversation; my only comfort; I belong; to my faithful savior.  Barnes makes a compelling case that the HC is 450 years old but still very applicable to the problems we face today.

Body and Soul is a neat little book. Barnes is an artful story teller who is able to bring amazing historical and theological insights into his presentation of the HC.  Barnes’ stories make his written accessible to a wide audience, much like the Q&A format of the HC itself.

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