In our year-long series covering the history and content of the Heidelberg Catechism during this year of commemorating its 450th anniversary (1563-2013), we began last Thursday a brief mini-series looking at the translations of the “HC”. The fact that this Reformed catechism was translated into five (5) languages after only five years and into eleven (11) languages after only a little more than twenty-five years, shows how popular (and needed!) it was and how quickly it spread to other parts of Europe during the great Reformation of the 16th century (The Heidelberg Catechism In Its Newest Light, J.I.Good, 1914 – pp.7-9). God was certainly at work in this, providing for His newly formed church (Re-formed according to the Word of God) a precious tool for her continued growth in knowledge and godliness throughout the world. And we can be thankful that from the original German it was translated into many languages to reach many peoples with the Reformed faith.
It is always an interesting question as to which was the first language into which the “HC” was translated. It had been assumed the Latin, since this was “the universal language of the day”, but as it turns out, Dutch was probably the first. And that because of a small Dutch Reformed congregation in northwest Germany. Amazing! Here is what Good writes concerning this:
It has been a question which language had the honor of the first translation. No less than three translations appeared in that first year. Heretofore, it has been supposed that the Latin version, made by Rev.Mr.Lagus, of Heidelberg, together with Professor Pithopoeus, of the Latin school there, was the first. For Latin was the universal language of that day, the language of literature, commerce and diplomacy; and so the catechism eas early translated into that language for use in the higher schools and universities. But the late Professor Doudes, of the University of Utrecht (in the Netherlands -cjt), who was one of the great authorities on the catechism, has in his researches unearthed two Dutch translations of 1563, one published at Heidelberg. The other was published at Emden, that Reformed city at the northwestern corner of Germany. Now this Emden translation was made from the second edition of the catechism, while the Latin was made from the third edition. The Emden Church may, therefore, have made this translation before the third edition appeared. The truth probably was that the Reformed Church at Emden, the first of the Reformed Churches in Germany, seems to have been so delighted to have another Reformed Church in Germany that it did not wait long, but hastened to put itself under the powerful protection of the Elector of the Palatinate by publishing his catechism in Dutch, which was the language of Emden at that time, so that it might be used in its churches and schools. From these facts it looks very much as if the Dutch translation was made before the Latin. But whether so or not, the catechism soon came into use in the Netherlands, for in 1566 (the picture of the title page in Dutch has this date -cjt) it was used in Amsterdam by Peter Gabriel, in spite of the persecutions of that time, and in 1568 it, together with Calvin’s catechism, was adopted by the Dutch synod of Wesel. Later this adoption was completed by the action of the Dutch synod of Dort in 1574. In 1618-1619 the General Synod of the Reformed Churches of Europe, also held at Dort, adopted it, and thus virtually made it the ecumenical symbol of the Reformed Churches, because that synod had in it delegates from most of the National Reformed Churches. This Dutch translation is now used in South Africa, in the Dutch East Indies, in the Dutch West Indies and in Dutch Guiana in South America (pp.4-5)