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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in the process of voting on whether to replace the current translation of the Heidelberg Catechism in our Book of Confessions with a new translation.  Thus it is appropriate for the church to review the importance of the Heidelberg Catechism as well as its content and the changes being suggested.

The Heidelberg Catechism: Background

The Heidelberg Catechism was a compromise document.  It was intended to articulate the basic agreement between Reformed and Lutheran Christians and to even forge greater agreement between the two camps.  The primary issue of tension was regarding the presence of Christ in the bread and cup.

Our current BOC reads: “He wishes to assure us by this visible sign and pledge that we come to share in his true body and blood through the working of the Holy Spirit…” (Q&A 79).  Saying that it is “his true body and blood” is meant to make our Reformed position more attractive to the Lutherans at the time.

Frederick the Elector, ruler of the Palatinate, called for the catechism’s creation to end the divisions between the Reformed and Lutherans.  Our BOC introduction mentions that he asked Zacharias Ursinus and Kaspar Olevianus to write one acceptable to both sides.  However, the current historical understanding is that Ursinus wrote the whole catechism and Olevianus had as much input as the other pastors of the city who checked it.  Ursinus also wrote a commentary on the catechism.

The great Reformer John Calvin would tell people that he was a Lutheran because of his great admiration for Martin Luther and his desire to see the Lutherans and Reformed united.  Calvin could not go so far as to agree with Luther on the Lord’s Supper but he did not like Zwingli’s merely symbolic take either.  So his approach, like that of the Heidelberg, was to argue that we Spiritually feed on Christ.

The Reformation in Heidelberg was not to last.  At the time the catechism was rapidly and widely embraced.  Today people there would not know what you were talking about.  But the catechism was taken to the Netherlands and there became immensely popular and spread throughout the world.  It is one of the most used catechisms in the Reformed Christian world.

The third German edition divided the catechism up into 52 Lord’s Day portions so that a pastor could preach the whole catechism every year.  Dutch Reformed churches used it as the preaching text for their Sunday evening services.

The catechism was designed especially for teaching youth.  The “original introduction” to the catechism (see G.I. Williamson’s The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide for the whole text in modern English) says that it is “a brief and simple orally given summary of the main parts of Christian doctrine in which the youth and beginners are examined and heard on what they have learned.”  They were expected to learn these things at home, at school, and at church.  Learning in the style of catechizing was seen as following the example and command of Scripture.

This was particularly the case for confirmands.  The introduction reads: “Just as the children of Israel, after circumcision and as soon as they were able to understand, were instructed in the mystery of this covenant sign, and also in the covenant of God, so our children too are to be instructed in the significance of baptism which they have received, and in the true Christian faith and repentance, in order that before they are admitted to the Lord’s table they may profess their faith before the whole Christian congregation.”

Much of the catechism is an explication of the (so-called) Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

The catechism is divided into three parts:
Part I: Our Misery
Part II: Our Redemption
Part III: Our Thankfulness.

The Ten Commandments are in the final part because we strive to keep them in thanksgiving for our redemption in Christ from our misery.

Heidelberg Translations

The current BOC translation of the Heidelberg Catechism reprints a translation copyrighted in 1962.  Our denomination did not approve the original German catechism but rather this translation.

There were efforts made to seek a re-translation of the catechism at the General Assemblies of 1997 and 1998.  Neither efforts went anywhere.  In 2008 a special committee was formed to correct “translation problems” in questions 19, 33, 55, 74, and 87.

In 2010 the General Assembly went forward instead in an effort to re-translate the whole catechism together with the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America (the CRC and RCA).  It is a translation from the German text and was approved by their synods in 2011.  The CRC and RCA are generally seen as more conservative than the PC(USA).  It is this text that we are being asked to approve.  A number of evangelicals like the new translation and the addition of Scripture references.

“Homosexual Perversion”

Question & Answer 87 of the current BOC reads:
Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved? A. Certainly not! Scripture says, ‘Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.

The original German text was quoting from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 but left out “homosexual perversion” to shield young people from sexual behavior that was unmentionable in polite company.

Actually the words rendered “homosexual perversion” are much more explicit in the original Greek of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  There are two terms: one refers to the passive and the other to the active partner in consensual homosexual sexual behavior between men.

It is true that the word “homosexual” will no longer be in the BOC if this re-translation is approved.  However, the new Heidelberg includes Scripture citations and question 87 cites 1 Cor 6:9-10.  And, moreover, the Westminster Larger Catechism answer 139 includes in a list of sexual sins, “sodomy” (BOC 7.249).

Perhaps then our reasons for approving or disapproving this re-translation should not be about whether it mentions “homosexual perversion.”

The Proposed Q&A 87:
Q. Can those be saved who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and unrepentant ways?

A. By no means.
Scripture tells us that
no unchaste person,
no idolater, adulterer, thief,
no covetous person,
no drunkard, slanderer, robber,
or the like
will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5-6; 1 Jn. 3:14

What the text above fails to capture is the new formatting of the answer.  Often it is a helpful change, though there are times when it breaks up the flow of the text.

More problematic is the odd wording of question 108 (in Lord’s Day 41).  The current translation is clear: “That all unchastity is condemned by God, and that we should therefore detest it from the heart and live chaste and disciplined lives either in holy wedlock or in single life.”  Thus there are two settings for living a chaste and disciplined life: holy wedlock or singleness.  But the new translation is less clear: “That God condemns all unchastity, and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it and live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy estate of marriage.”

I find it somewhat curious given all this that the translators made such a big deal in Question 77 regarding the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper.  The Scripture passage, they cite the NRSV rather than the Greek manuscript (mss) issues, does not have the word “broken,” and so they put it in brackets and say that it is not in the NRSV but it is in the original German of the Heidelberg Catechism.  This seems to me to be the opposite issue as the one we just discussed.

Some Considerations

I am not an expert in the German language, let alone the German language from that particular time period, let alone theological German from that period, so what I cannot do is comment on whether the new translation is in fact a better translation than the one in our current BOC.

However, there does not appear to be any difference between question 19 in the new and old, and the differences for questions 33, 55, and 74 are small.  They hardly warrant a new translation.

The EPC uses modern language versions of the Westminster Standards, whereas we have not seen the need to update ours.  Yet the Heidelberg Catechism translation in our BOC is dated to 1962.

Are we going to move then to adopt the versions of the Westminster Standards that the EPC uses?  Or are we going to suggest that we go back to the original Westminster Standards and put that into modern English (and the original Nicene Creed)?

Our Book of Confessions is not simply a theological library, or museum pieces in a display, they are to tell our members and the world who we are, what we believe, and what we resolve to do.  Our Confessions are not simply statements of what the church used to believe at one point or another but statements of what we now believe.  We did not adopt the original German of the Heidelberg Catechism.  We adopted an English version of the Heidelberg Catechism that is well suited to our present context and our present audience – our members and the modern world.

Catechisms are designed to be memorized.  If a new translation means more people will memorize key questions from the Heidelberg then I will gladly memorize the new version of those questions I know.  Since the last Sunday of September 2011 we at Niagara Pres have been reading each Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg in its current translation, except using the Apostles’ Creed on communion Sundays and for special days (just completed week 41).  It works just fine.  But if a new translation means that more churches are going to rotate through the Heidelberg Catechism each Lord’s Day that would be great.

My challenge to all who decide to champion the new translation is that you actually study, teach, and memorize the text.

My instinct is to resist this change because of the nature of catechisms, the lack of necessity to do so, the expense it will cost to print a new BOC, and a few other reasons.

What if it passes?

What the new translation would mean for those who actually pay attention to the BOC –

Not a whole lot.  Adopting the new translation does not mean that we are endorsing homosexual lifestyles.  Certainly Ursinus and his contemporary pastors, Reformed and Lutheran, were not in favor of such lifestyles.  The failure to include mention of the issue was not because they endorsed it but because it was just that gross to them.

There have been questions as to not knowing what the new way of wording it in English means.  The current translation is clear, everyone knows what it means at every point, but the new one is somewhat less clear at times.  But if there are future debates about its meaning, we will just have to find a scholar who specializes in German theological language from that particular time and ask for a ruling.  Meaning is no longer in the English translation we adopt.  And I am perfectly comfortable with saying we must go with the original meaning since Ursinus was an orthodox Reformed theologian.

Some Notes on the Content of the Heidelberg

The first question and answer sets the tone:

What is your only comfort, in life and in death? (the new question omits the comma)

And the beauty of the answer is part of the reason that so many in the Reformed world have fallen in love with the catechism.  It is a little bit of a longer answer to memorize than the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation.  Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

I wish that the new translation had simply retained the old one for the first question since this is the one that more people have memorized than any other question in the whole catechism.  After all, they clearly used the older translation as a base when doing their translation work, otherwise there would be many other differences.

Most of the changes it makes are in the order of phrases,  it begins, “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”  Aside from the different order of phrases and the different way of opening the other change is that instead of “therefore” it says “because I belong to him…”

Question two then asks “How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?”  The new translation substitutes “joy” for “blessedness” – “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”

There are three things: “the greatness of my sin and wretchedness” (wretchedness becomes misery in the new translation); “how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences” and third thanksgiving.  (I lament that they are proposing taking away the fun word to say — wretchedness and wretched.

The older translation said, “am freed” a divine passive – freed by God, the newer translation says, “am set free” – not sure what difference that makes.

The major difference is how the third one is worded: “What gratitude I owe to God for such redemption” becomes “How I am to thank God for such deliverance.”  I actually prefer the new translation for this phrase and think that it corrects a potential misperception of what is being said.

The third question asks where you learn of your sin and its wretched consequences – the answer being “from the law of God” – but in the new translation it is only “How do you come to know your misery?”

Next is a summary of the law and then the question if we can perfectly keep it.  The answer in the older translation said, “No, for by nature I am prone to hate God and my neighbor” and in the newer translation says, “No.  I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.”  I do not like this change at all.

The catechism continues through the topic of creation – we were created good (“in true righteousness and holiness”); the fall – where corruption of the human nature came from; we are “totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil” (as the new translation puts it) unless born again; the question whether this makes God unjust since we cannot keep the law; and so forth.

Heidelberg & Westminster

The Heidelberg Catechism takes a different tack from Westminster regarding the phrase “descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed.  Westminster understood the phrase to be another way of saying that Christ was under the power of death or continuing in the state of the dead (BOC 7.160).  Heidelberg says the phrase was added so, “That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment by the unspeakable anguish, pains, and terrors which he suffered in his soul both on the cross and before.”

The proposed new translation says instead, “To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.”

The only other notable difference between Heidelberg and Westminster concerns the fourth commandment.  In Heidelberg it says, the fourth commandment requires, “First, that the ministry of the gospel and Christian education be maintained, and that I diligently attend church, especially on the Lord’s day, to hear the Word of God, to participate in the holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian service to those in need.  Second, that I cease from my evil works all the days of my life, allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.”

Westminster focuses on ceasing from all work on the Sabbath, whereas Heidelberg does not talk about that but instead we might say it takes a more “spiritual” approach to interpreting the commandment.

Instead of on “the Lord’s day” the new translation says, “on the festive day of rest.”  And instead of saying, “to give Christian service to those in need” it simply says “to bring Christian offerings for the poor.”  It seems the new translation is less missional.


Some of my favorite answers are to questions 60, 114, 115.  Comparing the new version to the old I perfer the old.  Sure part of this is that I already have the old way memorized, but also the older translation has a way with words that is better than the new translation, it has a better sense of language style.  This is just my preference.  I can live with the new translation and even use it, but I do not think it is necessarily an improvement and there are some ways that it is clearly not.  I do like that the new includes Scripture references and even like the way they put a few phrases here and there better but all in all I prefer the old one.

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