The Story of Two Fredericks (3)

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


Frederick III, better known as The Pious, has gone down in history as the father of the Heidelberg Catechism. This alone is sufficient to secure for him a cherished place in the memory of God's people. 

But from a certain point of view this was not the spiritually high point of Frederick's life. After all, although he ordered the Catechism to be written, he did not compose it himself. Probably the clearest touch of his finger on the Catechism is Question & Answer 80, dealing with the popish mass, which Frederick ordered inserted into the original edition. But the high-water mark of Frederick's own commitment to the Reformation came at the Diet of Augsburg in 1566. To the story of that stirring event we now turn.

The Diet of Augsburg

A few brief statements about the background will help to put this important meeting in perspective.

The attacks made against the Heidelberg catechism were many and fierce. They came from almost all quarters. The Roman Catholics hated it for its sharp condemnation of their many sins. The Lutherans were no less affronted by it, both because it constituted a threat to their domination in Germany and because the attacks made against their position on the sacrament of the Lord's Supper were no less sharp than those made against Rome. But, clearly, the more popular it became and the more widely it was hailed for its quiet beauty and deep comfort, the more vicious became the attacks.

Maximilian II was emperor of Germany. He was deeply devoted to the cause of Roman Catholicism, but was prevented from exterminating either Lutheranism or Calvinism by events which continued to crowd in on his life and distract his attention. Notably, the Turks were knocking on the Eastern door of Europe and were threatening to overrun the continent, to engulf Europe in a tidal wave of Mohammedanism. He was, therefore, content to abide by the provisions of the Peace of Augsburg (1555) in which Lutherans and Roman Catholics had come to a tenuous agreement that the ruler of each province would decide the religion of that province. The difficulty was that the Peace of Augsburg made no provision for Calvinism - it was an agreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Frederick III was a Calvinist. 

Maximilian summoned a Diet to decide on various problems confronting Germany, including the problem of the Turkish threat. But on the agenda was also an item ominous for Frederick: "How to check the destructive and corrupting sects." By virtue of his sponsorship of the Heidelberg Catechism, Frederick had been specifically charged with violating the Peace of Augsburg. 

Considered a heretic by Roman Catholics and Lutherans, Frederick was in danger of losing everything at the Diet, including his life. Because of the danger, his closest friends urged him not to go. But, as with Luther before the Diet of Worms, so Frederick was convinced that a faithful testimony to the truth required his presence. He responded to one friend:

I find consolation in the hope that the Almighty power of my dear and faithful Heavenly Father will use me as an instrument for the confession of His name in these days in the holy empire of the German nation, not only by word of mouth, but also by act.... I know . . . that the same God who kept [Duke John Frederick] in the true knowledge of the holy Gospel is still living, and is well able to preserve me, a poor, simple man, and, by the power of the Holy Ghost, will certainly do it, even if it should come to this that blood must be spilt. And should it please my God and Father in heaven thus to honor me, I should never be able to thank Him sufficiently for it, either in time or in eternity.

His own family bade him farewell with tears, certain that they would never again see him on earth. 

At the Diet, almost all were against him, including the emperor. When the business of "destructive and corrupting sects" came up, Frederick was summoned before the emperor, by whom he was given the choice: Either retract your position or suffer deposition. Lutherans and Roman Catholics alike eagerly nodded agreement. Only the small huddled group of Calvinists wondered what would happen and even half-seriously wished Frederick would capitulate. 

We cannot quote here the speech Frederick made in his own defense, although it has come down through the ages presented for us. Only a few scattered quotes of the speech, which could not have lasted more than five minutes, will have to suffice.

. . . I promise myself . . . that his Imperial Majesty . . . will graciously hear and weigh the defence I shall make; which, if it were required, I would be ready to make undaunted in the center of the market place in this town. So far as matters of a religious nature are involved, I confess freely that in those things which concern the conscience, I acknowledge as Master, only Him, who is Lord of lords and King of kings. For the question here is not in regard to a cap of flesh, but it pertains to the soul and its salvation, for which I am indebted alone to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and which, as his gift, I will sacredly' preserve. Therefore I cannot grant your Imperial Majesty the right of standing in the place of my God and Savior.... 

That my Catechism, word for word, is drawn, not from human, but from divine sources the references that stand in the margin will show. For this reason also certain theologians have in vain wearied themselves in attacking it, since it has been shown them by the open Scriptures how baseless is their opposition. What I have elsewhere publicly declared to your Majesty in a full assembly of princes; namely, that if any one of whatever age, station or class he may be, even the humblest, can teach me something better from the Holy Scriptures, I will thank him from the bottom of my heart and be readily obedient to the divine truth.... Should it please your Imperial Majesty to undertake this task, I would regard it as the greatest favor.... With this, my explanation, I hope your Imperial Majesty will be satisfied.... Should contrary to my expectations, my defense . . . not be regarded of any account, I shall comfort myself in this that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has promised to me and to all who believe that whatsoever we lose on earth for His name's sake, we shall receive an hundred fold in the life to come.

It was a courageous defense. Everything hung in the balance - even the future of Calvinism in Germany. Elector August of Saxony, the only one among the princes to support Frederick, tapped him on the shoulder in full view of the entire assembly and said, "Fritz, you are more pious than all of us." 

Although the minds of few if any were changed, the godliness of Frederick was so obvious that no one dared to press the accusation brought against him. He was able to leave the Diet in peace and continue his work.

The Last Years

The victory at Augsburg was significant, for it saved Calvinism in Germany from Lutheran and Roman Catholic domination. 

But Frederick really never knew any peace, even within his beloved Palatinate. Although the controversy over the question of the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was settled by the adoption of the Heidelberg Catechism, other controversies plagued the province. One of the most serious was a controversy over discipline, particularly whether the church or the State would exercise discipline in the Palatinate. Calvin had settled the problem in Geneva after a long struggle with the authorities in that city; but Lutheranism, with Luther's encouragement, had always tended towards giving ecclesiastical discipline to the civil magistrate. The struggle between Calvinism and Lutheranism in the Palatinate brought about this controversy over discipline. Unfortunately, Frederick, a civil ruler himself, favored the position that the State exercised key power in the church as well as sword power in the State. 

Shortly after the triumph of Augsburg, Maria, Frederick's devoted wife of 30 years, died. After two years of deep mourning, Frederick married Amelia, a countess of Neuenahr and a widow from the Netherlands. She was related to various French Huguenots and, as a result of this marriage, Frederick's attention was more and more drawn to the sad plight of the suffering Huguenots in France. 

Frederick began, in these years, to send his armies to the aid of French and Dutch Protestants. The French Protestants were being butchered by the Roman Catholic king under the prodding of his Roman Catholic advisers; the Dutch Protestants were being slaughtered by the cruel and merciless Margaret of Parma and the Duke of Alva. Unable to bear the suffering of his fellow saints, and out of sympathy for his agonizing wife, he ordered his troops into France and the Netherlands. Ursinus was opposed to this decision and urged upon Frederick the biblical truth that the cause of Christ in the world was not advanced by the sword and that "they that fight with the sword shall perish with the sword." 

The University of Heidelberg gained an international reputation for learning, piety, and strong doctrinal commitment. It had an international faculty and about half of the student body were foreigners. From it went out men to preach and teach in all Europe the great truths of Calvinism. 

But Frederick's days were swiftly drawing to a close. His piety in his death was as great as in his life. 

Just a few days before he died, he said to his chaplain:

I have lived long enough, both for you and the church. Now I shall be called to a better life. I have done for the church the best I possibly could, but have not accomplished a great deal. God who can do all things and who cared for his servants before my day, still lives and reigns in heaven. He will not leave you orphan, nor will he leave without fruit the prayers and tears which I have brought to him on my knees in this room for my successors and for the church.

A bit later he was speaking to Olevianus:

The Lord may call me whenever it pleases him. I have a clear conscience in Christ Jesus my Lord, whom I have served with all my heart, and I have lived to see that in my churches and schools the people are directed away from men to him alone.

Just before he died he murmured to those about him:

I have been detained long enough by the prayers of pious Christians. It is time that my earthly life should close, and that I should go to my Savior into heavenly rest.

After asking that Psalm 31 and John 17 be read for him, and after hearing them read, he prayed in a voice that all heard a very brief prayer and quietly departed this life to-be with Christ in glory. It was November, 1576. 

Calvin thought so highly of Frederick that he dedicated his commentary on Jeremiah to him. In the concluding paragraph of the Dedication Calvin says:

Though I can add nothing to the character of your Highness, either by my praise or by the dedication of this Work, yet I could not restrain myself from doing what I thought to be my duty. Farewell, Most Illustrious Prince. May God enrich you more and more with His spiritual gifts, keep you long in safety, and render your dignified station prosperous to you and yours (Geneva, July 23, 1563).

No one who loves and cherishes the Heidelberg Catechism ought to forget to breathe a quiet prayer of thanksgiving to God for the gift of Frederick, whom God used to give this blessed creed to us. And no one can read of his courage before kings and rulers without resolving in his own heart, by God's grace, to stand for truth and right with equal dependence upon Christ, in whom we have the victory through faith.

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