Q: What is thy only comfort in life and death?
A: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
One might straight away ask, at the start of a confession, to ask for some definitions. Here, we have a number of words used which may be open to (mis)interpretation. These would include ‘soul’, ‘sins’, ‘devil’, ‘heavenly’, ‘salvation’ and ‘Holy Spirit’. Yet there might be a risk of infinite regress and this whole confession might ground to a halt before it gets started. Instead, I would rather hold onto these lightly and read this as a sort of ‘executive summary’. This should be unpacked in the weeks and months to come. If they are not, then I may need to revisit this; please hold me to it.
I would use the phrase ‘body and soul’ to mean everything that I am, my whole being, my thoughts, feelings and memories. I would not dispute the idea that I am not my own, though it is an idea that prompts one to stop and think what this means. We often hear the possession is 9/10ths of the law, though since the abolition of slavery the idea of the ownership of a person has become increasingly alien to us. That should not be interpreted as a lament at abolitionism, but merely a pointing out that the analogy might be somewhat outdated.
In the modern western-world, this might be seen as more counter-cultural than ever. The ideology of ‘I’ often places the needs of individual front and foremost. When it comes round to election time, listen out for how politicians try to appeal to the desires of individuals; likewise listen to the canvassing of opinion on the streets and hear how many times people ask the question “[what will their policies do for me?]”
Yet this level of individualism is present within the Heidelberg Catechism. It is very centred on the individual beliefs and personal salvation. I am somewhat cautious about this. I would not reject it outright, by any means. Though it might have been better phrased in the corporate sense, to give the church as a body of people a greater emphasis than the person who is part of that body.
When it talks of precious blood, I must confess that I cannot help but think of the film, Dr Strangelove, and the unhinged American General’s obsession with precious bodily fluids. I don’t think this is at all what it means. Rather, it is an unambiguous reference to the implications of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In using the term ‘satisfy’, I would not read it necessarily as a pleasant thing. We might think of satisfaction in terms of being pleased, of getting what we want; yet I don’t think that’s the point that was being made. Working, as I do, in finance, I am inclined to think in terms of debt. The sacrifice that Jesus made was the payment of debt, in a sense “filling the hole” that one might think of being satisfied by a good meal. It has filled you up so that you need no more. The general idea is usually known in theological jargon as “atonement” – though this will be expanded upon later in the project.
I will not expand here on what I understand by the term ‘sin’; that will come up again soon enough. I will also make no statement here about the devil; that might be for much later. If anything, I would have been tempted to cut it out of the catechism at this stage as it might be an unnecessary distraction.
The idea of God preserving us is an odd one. I’m not sure either the composition or the translation is particularly good. The references provided are both to John’s gospel: chapter 6, verse 39 and chapter 10, verse 28. In both of these, Jesus speaks about keeping hold of what he has been given, of not losing it. It is my current understanding that these references were those used by Calvin as a basis for his idea that salvation was a once-and-for-all transaction. In other words, there could be no such thing as an ex-christian; leading to the logical conclusion that those who renounce their faith were never truly saved in the first place. I have qualms about such a view, but they may be kept for another time. I think the idea that the gospels were getting at was about the idea that no external influence could take someone away, rather than putting up a barrier against a wilful exit.
That not a hair will fall from one’s head without God’s will is an interesting one. It’s beautifully poetic, though I would caution about too literal with it. In one sense, I would say that God has laid down the foundation of the universe. That is not say I believe in ‘God the magician’ or ‘God the tinkerer’ but rather than the physical and mathematical laws which we have gotten to know, love and even understand to some extent, are ultimately authored by God. How this might be, I honestly don’t know. But the notion of how a hair falls from one’s head entails not only gravity acting between the hair and the earth, but also the complicated biology of how that hair grew and then became loose enough to fall. It is not that God goes around plucking people, but rather that God established the rules that would allow it to happen and therefore the act of falling is not a surprising act outside of nature, but just is.
I would disagree with the idea that “all things are subservient to my salvation”. Indeed, the reference given in support of this clause is Romans 8:28 which states (NRSV), “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” I cannot see how the latter quote is equivalent to, or even, implies, the first. I might just be being a little slow on the uptake. I consider the gospel to be multi-faceted, so to emphasise one aspect over another may lead to a skewed vision. I would not rush to join the anti-evangelicals though in downplaying the message of salvation within christianity.
At this juncture, the Holy Spirit seems somewhat bootstrapped on, though this is not wholly a bad thing. If one regards this as an executive summary then it is good that it contains some evidence of Trinitarian thinking. The phrase “eternal life” may be problematic for some, not least because of over-simplifications and consequent misunderstandings, not least about “where” that life will take place. The more modern trend is to use the phrase “life in the age to come” which, though more clunky, maybe conveys the message better.
The final clause “makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him” is a good touch to end on, as it brings us back to the present life, reminding of us of our obligations here. I have heard some preachers take reformed theology too far, in my view, encouraging people to have their eyes fixed on eternal life, that it may be easy to take our eyes off the world around us. At this stage, the instruction is fairly vague, but that might be left as it is for now, I think.
So having said all that, how might I respond to the question with my own personal catechism?
I cannot say that have an ‘only comfort’. Rather, I might respond with what my ‘greatest assurance’ instead. That greatest assurance, then, is that with everything I am and have, I must recognise that I am not king of my own world; I am a part of someone else’s world, along with billions of others. I regard myself as a sinner; though I am not a sinner because I sin; I sin because I am a sinner. But ‘sinner’ should not be seen as a pejorative term. It could just as well be a synonym for human. Yet there is one exception. The one human, Jesus, to whom the royal title of Christ is conferred, was crucified and later resurrected, to pay the debt created by the sin of all humankind. Though we constantly strive to understand how the cosmos works and how it arose, I believe that it is because of the work of the one who created it – or rather, who created the means by which it was created. This was done wilfully and with a plan, so that acts of nature accord with that plan. It is this God, who is one and the same as the man, Jesus, whose Holy Spirit gives us assurance that we are to take part in the resurrection, where Jesus led the way, in new and incorruptible bodies. Until then, though, we are to live for God – and all that entails.