Recommended Pastoral Reading, pt. 3
Confessional References for the Pastor’s Study
By Rev. Andrew Compton and Rev. Shane Lems
Pastors in historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches need to be well versed in the studies, theology, and language of the creeds and confessions. Of course, Scripture should be a pastor’s primary study and focus, but our confessions are like teachers that give us lessons on biblical truths. And resources that help us read and understand the confessions ultimately help us read and understand Scripture in a deeper, richer way. Here are some resources that we have found helpful in our own pastoral ministries. At the end of each paragraph you’ll find an abbreviation of the confessional reference discussed in the book (i.e. HC = Heidelberg Catechism, WCF = Westminster Confession of Faith, etc.) We also want to note that while we didn’t list them, G. I. Williamson has written helpful commentaries on several Reformed confessions.
William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008).
William Ames (d. 1633), who also wrote The Marrow of Theology, wanted to give seminary students and pastors a brief, helpful, and inexpensive commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. This book is the outcome. It is short and structured quite succinctly. For example, he typically divides the HC Q/A into a few parts, gives a few lessons from the parts, and then lists “reasons” and “uses” of each teaching (“uses” is application). This doesn’t really read like a normal commentary, but it is a helpful Reformed resource on the Heidelberg Catechism. HC
Henry Beets, The Reformed Confession Explained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1929).
This is a standard commentary on the Belgic Confession of Faith. Or, from another angle, it is a short systematic theology since it covers the main heads of Reformed doctrine. There are also a few study questions at the end of each chapter. Though it may be tough to find a copy of this book, if you do have it you might not need another commentary on the Belgic Confession since it is so thorough. BCF
Lyle D. Bierma (ed.), An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
This collection of essays on the Heidelberg Catechism is of a more academic bent, but the historical content of the chapters is very informative. Lyle Bierma’s chapter on the sources and theological orientation of the catechism is quite good, highlighting both common ground between Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger and Melanchthon, but also describing what he calls “key silences” in the catechism. While there is, of course, historical theological debate on these topics, Bierma does an excellent service of provoking discussion of why the boundaries of the catechism were drawn where they were. My favorite part of this volume, however, is its inclusion of the full texts of Zacharias Ursinus’ Large and Small Catechisms, which are nicely formatted for easy study and reading, and are footnoted with references to parallels in the Heidelberg Catechism. HC
Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Chicago: Moody, 2010).
Kevin DeYoung has a very readable writing style and has written this popular book with lay people in mind, winsomely presenting the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism and showing its relevance to today. Among his intended audience are those who feel that catechisms and confessions are dry, dusty and irrelevant to the Christian life in the 21st century. In his characteristic way, DeYoung shows just how practical and well stated are the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism. In my own teaching and preaching, I have especially utilized DeYoung’s vivid illustrations and application. The lessons are short – almost too short – but teach the catechism in a wonderful and fresh way. HC
Peter Y. DeJong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Comemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008).
This is another collection of historical essays, but serves as an excellent backdrop to the text of the Canons of Dort itself. What is more, the writers intentionally highlight how this history continues to be relevant to contemporary issues the Reformed Churches are facing, covering topics such as Bible translation, preaching, pastoral work, and even recent criticism of the Canons from within the Reformed Camp (e.g., G. C. Berkouwer, A.D. R. Polman, H.R. Boer, etc.). The appendices are a veritable treasure trove of historical data concerning the Synod. Originally published in 1968, the reprint of this classic volume is an excellent resource for one’s shelves. CoD
Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008)
Hyde’s exposition/commentary of the Belgic Confession is a readable contemporary resource. Though aimed at lay people, I have found it to be a good reference in my own teaching. Hyde weaves the text of the confession together with historical theological observations and biblical exposition, enabling readers to get a nice sense of the biblical, historical and theological character of the Belgic Confession of Faith. Study questions at the end of each chapter make this volume a good text for use in small group study. This is a nice companion to P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Belgic Confession, The Church’s Witness to the World. BCF
Henry Petersen, The Canons of Dort: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968).
Henry Petersen’s study guide is a unique resource. Written simply and accessible to even high school age students, I found his writing style to be very readable and his organization of the Canons of Dort to be intuitive and helpful. He intertwines exegesis and theology in a nice way, and draws in the insights of numerous Reformed theologians throughout. Though almost 50 years old and difficult to come by (I see only 2 copies on Amazon marketplace!), it is a fine resource that I consult regularly in my own teaching of the Canons. CoD
Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2008).
This is an excellent 19th century commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is solid, full of biblical citations, and clearly written. This commentary is also relatively brief; Shaw himself said he wanted to write with “the utmost possible brevity.” When I study the Westminster Confession, this is one of the first resources I take down from the shelf. Those interested might also want to look at A. A. Hodge and R. C. Sproul’s commentaries on the Westminster Confession. WCF
Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg: P&R, n.d.).
Ursinus, one of the primary authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, wrote this commentary to go along with the catechism. I assume many readers of this VFT blog are familiar with Ursinus’ commentary so I won’t to go into details. Suffice it to say that if you are a preacher or teacher who wants a solid and detailed commentary on the HC, this is probably the first one you’ll want to own and use. HC
Johannes VanderKemp, The Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage books, 1997).
This is a two-volume set of VanderKemp’s (d. 1718) sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism. I appreciate this resource because it is the best of old-school Dutch Reformed theology. It isn’t always easy to read since it is photolithographed from an old edition, since the language is a bit archaic, and since it is quite long, but it is a solid and detailed resource for Heidelberg Catechism studies and preaching. HC
Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004).
Thomas Vincent wrote this very short commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism in 1674. John Owen, Thomas Watson, and other such theologians spoke very highly of this commentary. I appreciate it because it is to the point and full of Scripture references. Vincent first gives the Q/A from the WSC and then breaks it down into further questions and answers in which he lists numerous Bible verses to prove the doctrine. Vincent was also very much concerned with the practical side of doctrine, so he often explains how the truths of the Christian faith are comforting to God’s people. (Those interested in a resource on the Westminster Larger Catechism will want to consider J. G. Vos’ commentary.) WSC
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008).
This well-known work of Puritan Thomas Watson (d. 1680) has stood the test of time. It is basically a detailed exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in extended outline form. But it is more than a basic commentary – it is also in many ways a brief systematic theology that is full of Scripture, illustration, and application. For example, after discussing sanctification, Watson explains how to grow in sanctification. I really cannot recommend this book enough. To be honest, it is probably one of my favorite theology books overall. WSC