Here is the latest installation of brief reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism. As a way to mark the 450th anniversary the publication of one of the most significant documents in the Reformed tradition, I’m offering these thoughts. (For some background and the entire document, check this out). As with the last post, I’ll be looking at the sets of questions and answers for the previous two Lord’s Days.
LORD’S DAYS 9 and 10
Q. 26. What do you believe when you say, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence) is for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and Father; on whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt, but he will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body and further, that he will make whatever evils he sends upon, in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage; for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father.
Q. 27. What do you mean by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his own hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed that all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
Q. 28. What advantage is it to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things?
A. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.
This series of questions and answers may be among my favorite. Having said that the Apostles’ Creed includes the ‘articles of faith’ that a Christian must believe, the catechism now begins to expound that Creed, and this first set deals with our beliefs about God the Father.
The first thing by which we should be amazed is the fact that we can call the Almighty God “Father”. This is typically taken for granted or just assumed to be a given by many Christians, but the catechism rightly points out that it is only in Christ–and for his sake–that we can know the Creator of all things as our Father. As Calvin used to say, it is only in Christ that the God whom we know as Judge can now be safely called “Father”.
Because he is the Father who is also the Almighty, we are to see that all things come from him–even those things that we might initially consider “bad”. These temporary evils will someday be revealed as means by which he has advantaged us and conformed us more and more into the image of his Son, though we not see that at the time.
This is expressed in one of the most warming phrases of the whole document: “for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father.” With this, the catechism turns to briefly expound on the doctrine of Providence.
A hallmark of Reformed theology is the belief that God actively governs and upholds the world. He did not ‘wind it up’, sit back and let it go, hoping that it would run the way it was supposed to. History is not guided by the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith believed governs free markets nor by indeterminate Chance or impersonal Fate . God is not absent from his Creation, but continually upholding, governing, and sustaining it.
Difficult times are not a sign that God has taken the day off or that we have been separated from his love, for nothing “can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). For a wonderful reflection upon this doctrine, consider these wise words from Herman Bavinck. The doctrine of Providence is central to our understanding of the character of God and the experiences of life.
So what does this produce in us? As the final question says, the ability to be ” patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love”.
For a biblical portrait of someone who came to cherish this doctrine, read the account of the prophet Habakkuk. Troubled by the evil he saw around him and worried that God had forgotten about his people, Habakkuk enters into a prayerful time of wrestling with God, eventually being given the assurance that God was working all things out according to his purposes, even if Habakkuk couldn’t see that at the time. He ends his book with the words of one who has come to see that God is God even when things aren’t good:
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of the deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (3:17-19).