PCUSA Presbytery Proposes Revisions to Adopted Translation

Thanks to Stephen Ley for alerting me to this interesting discussion. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of PCUSA (the mainline, largest and most liberal Presbyterian body in North America). 

What is interesting about this sort of argument in this context is that it is an appeal an historic confessional document, it is an appeal to return to the original text, and it demonstrates some knowledge of the original text. Parts of the overture may, however, be relying on some older historical theology and historiography so I’m not sure all the points are correct and the last point makes one wonder if there is not some agenda (of what sort I don’t know) relative to the PCUSA’s stance concerning homosexuality. Clearly that is how the folks at Presbyterians for Renewal are taking this overture. Here is the substance of the overture.

April 24, 2008
Theology Worship and Education Ministry
Item C.105 

Ovt 036

On Restoring the Heidelberg Catechism to Its Historic Form—From the Presbytery of Northern Kansas.

In accordance with G-18.0200, the Presbytery of Northern Kansas herewith overtures the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in San Jose, California to take appropriate steps toward the following amendment of The Book of Confessions, and to appoint a
committee to fulfill the requirement of G-18.0200b.:

To restore The Heidelberg Catechism to an authentic and reliable English version of the historic document by replacing the 1962 translation, The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563-1963. 400th Anniversary Edition. Copyright 1962. United Church Press, with a translation that more faithfully
renders the original text.


The Heidelberg Catechism was formally adopted as a confessional document of the UPCUSA when the denomination adopted The Book of Confessions in 1967. The version of the Heidelberg Catechism approved at that time was a 1962 translation prepared for and published by United Church Press. However, according to the later recollections of Professor Edward Dowey of Princeton Theological Seminary, who chaired the committee of the General Assembly that drew together the confessions, thorough checking of this version was never undertaken and certain “illicit” changes made to the text of the Heidelberg in this translation went undetected.1 A comparison of the text of the Heidelberg Catechism in the version included in The Book of Confession with the original German and the early Latin version reveals five passages in which the original text is not faithfully rendered and key theological meanings are obscured:  

1. 4.019: “…the holy gospel, which God himself revealed in the beginning in the Garden of Eden, afterward proclaimed through the holy patriarchs and prophets and foreshadowed through the sacrifices and other rites of the Old Covenant, and finally fulfilled through his own wellbeloved Son” (emphasis added). The phrase “rites of the Old Covenant” is a loose translation which is not well supported by either the German or the Latin; “ceremonies of the law” is a traditional rendering which is well supported by the German (ceremonien des gesetzes) and the Latin (ceremoniis legis).2 This flawed rendering is significant for three reasons. First, substituting “Old Covenant” for law obscures a traditional Reformed interest in biblical law per se. Second, it misleadingly suggests to readers and students that the catechism‟s writers invoked here an explicitly covenantal image. Third, it suggests that the writers were working with a scheme of biblical interpretation that contrasted Old Covenant to New Covenant, a hermeneutic which is not very well represented in the Reformed theological tradition and not supported by the text of the catechism in its original form. 

2. 4.033: “Christ alone is God‟s own eternal Son, whereas we are accepted by God for his sake as children of God by grace” was traditionally rendered “Christ alone is the eternal natural Son of God, but we are adopted to be children of God through grace for His sake” (emphasis added). The  significance of this change is that it obscures the authors‟ use of the image of adoption—an important theme in Reformed reflection on Christ, Christ‟s work, and the justifying and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The translation “adopted” is very well supported by the original German (angenommen) and the Latin (adoptati). 

3. 4.055: “…believers one and all, as partakers of the Lord Christ, and all his treasures and gifts, shall share in one fellowship” (emphasis added): The future tense is not indicated in the original text, which has the present tense. This translation differs from traditional versions which indicate that sharing or fellowship with Christ is a present reality. 

4. 4.074: “This was done in the Old Covenant by circumcision. In the New Covenant baptism has been instituted to take its place” (emphasis added). The original German supports “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” The Latin has in Veteri foedere and in Novo foedere, which could support “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant,” although the German has generally been preferred as the text from which translations are to be made. (The German text was the basis of the translation of 1962.) 

The difference between “covenant” and “testament” may seem subtle or insignificant to some readers. But in fact there was a significant difference in connotation through theological use in the sixteenth century. The Reformed tended to emphasize the singularity and antiquity of God‟s covenant with God‟s people; thus they tended not to emphasize a distinction between two covenants. On the other hand, they emphasized that a single covenant had somewhat different applications in two distinct times or epochs: the time of the law and the time of the gospel, or (to use an alternative designation) the time of the Old Testament and the time of the New Testament. The use of the word “Testament,” then, resonates with other Reformed allusions to a distinction in times, which is not the same thing as a distinction in covenants. 

5. 4.087: two elements in the answer to question 87 are supplied by the translators and do not appear in the original text (nor in any translations produced prior to 1962). Neither the original German nor the Latin has texts corresponding to the following phrases: 

‘Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake:” and “or of homosexual perversion.”  [<em>Ed. note: the PDF from which this is taken uses a single quotation mark before “surely.”</em>]

The remaining items in the vice list supplied in the answer to question 87 have equivalents or rough equivalents in the original text (although some singular nouns have been rendered as plural nouns). This innovation was created by the translators‟ decision to ignore a portion of the Heidelberg Catechism answer 87 and instead to replace it with the New English Bible translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. In 1997, one of the translators, Professor Eugene Osterhaven, disclosed that this replacement was entirely intentional. In light of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, “it would be well to be more specific [about sexual practice]… than [the author of the Heidelberg Catechism] had been in his day.”3 This “amendment” to a traditional Reformed document was the creation of two translators and was never deliberated upon by a body of the church before The Book of Confessions was adopted.4

Every ordained minister, elder and deacon is required to answer in the affirmative the following question: 

“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do?” G-14.0207c, G-14.0405b (3).  In so doing, church leaders trust that the translated versions of the  historic confessions are, as far as humanly possible, authentic transmissions of the faith of our forbearers and reliable expositions of what they understood Scripture leading them to believe and do.  That the 1962 translation of The Heidelberg Catechism has proven to be unreliable casts a shadow on all the translations in The Book of Confessions.  Trust in all these historic documents can be restored by replacing that translation of The Heidelberg Catechism with a version that is more authentic and reliable. The 1988 translation in Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (CRC Publications) is one such version.5 


1 The Special Committee on a Brief Contemporary Statement of Faith presented a report to the 1965 General Assembly of the UPCUSA to include the 1962 translation of the Heidelberg Catechism in a Book of Confessions. Presumably the committee chose this translation because it was the most recent edition.  Professor Dowey acknowledged (in a letter to Professors Christopher Elwood and Johanna Bos of Louisville Seminary, dated October 21, 1996) that both he and the committee as a whole were “guilty of negligence”: “there should have been thorough editorial work on all the documents” but, because of time pressures, the committee settled for some brief spot-checking of the translation.  

2  All references to the German and Latin texts come from Catechismus oder Christliche Underricht, wie der Kirchen und Schulen der Churfürstlichen Pfaltz getrieben wirdt (Heidelberg: Johannes Mayer, 1563) and the first Latin edition of 1563: Catechesis religionis Christianae: quae traditur in ecclesiis et scholis Palatinatus. These have been published together in a facsimile edition published by Theologisher Verlag of Zurich in 1983. The German original has been compared with the modern critical edition by Wilhelm Niesel in Bekenntnisschriften und Kirchenordnungen der nach Gottes Wort reformierten Kirche (Zurich, 1938). 

Professor Osterhaven‟s letter to the editor of Monday Morning, dated November 25, 1996, which appeared in edited form in Monday Morning, vol. 62, no. 4. 

4 Professor Dowey expressed in 1996 that he was “dumbfounded that I and such careful scholars as [Leonard J.] Trinterud, [George S.] Hendry, [James D.] Smart, et al. failed to discover the illicit change.” 

5 Other reliable English translations may be found in the following texts: The Heidelberg Catechism in German, Latin and English, with an Historical Introduction (New York: Scribner, 1863); Reformed Standards of Unity, ed. Leroy Nixon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Society for Reformed Publications, 1957); Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith (London: James Clark, 1959). 

A few comments:

It is heartening to see a presbytery in the mainline call Presbyterian ministers to greater fidelity to the Reformed confessions. Is this a sign of a turn to the confessions in the mainline? Does this signal a shift away from the Confession of ’67 in favor of the older confessions?

It is surprising to see suggestions of “illicit” changes being made in the 1962 translations. One wonders how such charges by conservatives or confessional types would have been received in the early 60s? That such things are being aired and discussed openly now in the PCUSA suggests that the ecclesiastical playing field may be changing shape.

As to the particulars:

1. I’m no fan of the 1962 United Church Press translation or the 1976 CRC translation but I doubt that there is any substantive difference between “the ceremonies of the law” and the “rites of the Old Covenant.” If you ask most 16th-century Reformed writers, including those who wrote the HC, you’ll not find any great disjunction between “the law,” in this context, and “Old Covenant.” They were used interchangeably. In the 16th and 17th century the word “law” could denote either the imperative mood or an historical epoch.

The claim that the translation “obscures traditional Reformed interest in biblical law per se” is a stretch. All one has to do is to read the third part of the catechism to see what the Reformed churches think about the abiding validity of the moral law. It’s hard to imagine that this one translation might lead to antinomianism.

I don’t know the contours of discussions in the PCUSA so I may be misunderstanding what is happening here. The objection, however, that the translators’ invocation of “covenantal imagery” is unfaithful to the original intent and that distinguishing between “old” and “new” covenants introduces a false contrast is probably rooted more in Barthian biblical theology than in historic Reformed theology.

The 16th-century writers were quite aware of the distinction between Moses (the Old Covenant) and Christ in the history of redemption. This is because, unlike most twentieth-century covenant theology, including Barth’s, they believed in a legal covenant between the Trinitarian persons (pactum salutis) the a legal, pre-lapsarian covenant of works (foedus operum). The relatively legal nature of the Mosaic/Old Covenant was one of the chief proofs for the existence of a pre-lapsarian covenant of works.

They distinguished routinely between Moses and Christ. One of the great sixteenth-century arguments against Roman worship was that it had more to do with Moses than with Christ. They were not dispensationalists, inasmuch as they understood and taught clearly one way of salvation in every economy, by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone, but that did not obliterate genuine economic differences between the old and new covenants.

The overture seems to assume that there was some tension between “testamental” theology and “covenantal” or “federal” theology. In fact, there was no great semantic difference in 16th- and 17th-century Reformed usage between foedus and testamentum and pactum. Modern research into covenant theology has established this with reasonable certainty.

I agree that “adopted” is probably more faithful to the original than “accepted” and that the original intent of the catechism.

It’s not clear to me what is afoot regarding Q. 87 but the Latin text of the answer to 87 says:

“impudici, nec idolatrae, nec adulteri, nec fures, nec avari, nec ebriosi, nec convitiatores, nec raptores, haereditatem regni Dei consequentur.”

It says, “neither the unchaste, idolators, adulterers, thieves, the avaricious, drunkards, revilers, robbers, shall enter the kingdom of God.”

The German text says the same thing. It may be even more sweeping when it uses the phrase, “und dergleichen.” In the 16th century, when sodomy and homosexuality were illegal and punishable in the civil and ecclesiastical courts, there is little question whether homosexuality is implicitly forbidden in Q. 87.

As to which text is normative, well, the Latin text is that which was used in the schools and it was the text adopted at Dort. The normative status of the German text is, I suspect, a 19th-century phenomenon, probably arising around the tercentennial of the HC in 1863.

A follow-up post is here.

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  1. -“It’s not clear to me what is afoot regarding Q. 87 but the Latin text of the answer to 87 says:

    “impudici, nec idolatrae, nec adulteri, nec fures, nec avari, nec ebriosi, nec convitiatores, nec raptores, haereditatem regni Dei consequentur.”

    It says, “neither the unchaste, idolators, adulterers, thieves, the avaricious, drunkards, revilers, robbers, shall enter the kingdom of God.””

    Does not the latin phrase “nec raptores” (see above, Q.87 of the HC) mean people who believed in the Rapture. Therefore they shall not enter the kingdom of God.


  2. Thanks. I was hoping you would shed some light on this issue. Yes, it would be nice if this signaled a shift toward greater fidelity to the Reformed confessions in the PCUSA, but given the state of affairs I doubt it. It’s more likely a Trojan horse for other agendas.

  3. Hi Stephen,

    I don’t understand what, if any, is the agenda behind the overture. I’m trying to keep an open mind. I think there may be a growing openness in the mainline denominations to confessionalism and that’s exciting.

  4. Scott, I’ll try to keep an open mind too. Given the atmosphere surrounding the range of issues dealing with homosexuality in the denomination I can see how groups like Presbyterians for Renewal would be wary.

    My wife and I are members of an evangelical PCUSA church here in West Palm Beach and I’m seeing some signs of what you describe. Our church is the closest thing to a Reformed, confessional church in this city. That’s one of the reasons we’re there despite our misgivings about the denomination as a whole.

  5. Mr. Clark,

    Great post and thanks for your insights on this.

    Is there more behind this in the PC(USA)? I think the answer is yes and no.

    There are three overtures dealing with the Heidelberg Catechism of which this (overture 36, now item 13-04) would probably be considered the “best” since it asks for a full reconsideration of the whole catechism. That and the fact that three other presbyteries have concurred including Pittsburgh which has some academic muscle to it. But I would note that the Pittsburgh concurrence was a somewhat close vote at 128-94.

    Of the other two overtures, one of these (overture 95, now item 13-06) is clearly unconstitutional since it just says to make changes without going through the full process. The other (overture 45, now item 13-05) is closer to the correct process but still wants to wholesale adopt another translation without consideration.

    Is there an agenda here? I think there clearly is for some people. I do think that there are some concerned about the intellectual integrity of the document. However, this has been on the PC(USA) agenda for a long time. I remember being lobbied about it when I was a commissioner to the 209th in 1997. The persistence of the issue and the very public pressure being applied from More Light Presbyterians
    make this seem like a significant issue for them aside from the intellectual integrity.

    What will happen? I would bet that only one of the two confessions on the table (Heidelberg versus Belhar) would be recommended by the committee and I would bet on Belhar since this seems to be an agenda item for some at the central PC(USA) office. Whichever is recommended by committee the other would probably have a minority report. Whether either makes it out of the full assembly is tougher to guess and the fact that both have the appearance of being on someone’s agenda will tend to tarnish it with the Assembly. But I could be completely wrong on this. My thoughts, your mileage may vary.

  6. Hi Steve,

    This is very helpful. I doubt that, read in context, the MLPs will find any real comfort or support from a return to the original text of the HC.

    Thanks too for alerting me to the Belhar. I wasn’t aware of it and should have been.

    I think the integrity of the document and the integrity of our relation to it are the most important issues for all of us.

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