The New Heidelberg Catechism Translation: A Work of Love

This winter presbyteries are asked to consider the new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism approved by the 220th General Assembly in the summer of 2012. The support for the new translation at GA was strong: in committee, only one person voted against; in the plenary meeting the proposed text passed by voice vote and without debate. This strong support for the new translation was all the more remarkable given the partisan debate in years previous.

It is undeniable that the conversation about the adequacy of the current translation of the Heidelberg Catechism in the Book of Confessions originated in the deep divisions in our church about sexuality and ordination. Those who originally brought the case for a new translation to GA in 2008 were motivated by a desire to change the way the English translation made a much more explicit reference to homosexuality than the original German and Latin texts. However, where in 2008 the question for the church was how to deal with the politics fueling this debate, this is not the question for the present moment. The proposed new translation does not come to the presbyteries from a particular party in the church, but from a Special Committee commissioned by the whole church to get this text right. Now the question for the church is: does the proposed new translation do more right by the original text of this document than the text we are currently using? And as no one will deny, the answer is a simple “yes.”

In other words, the issue for our presbyteries right now is no longer one shaped by our ecclesial strife, but it is a question of love. When we love a text that is not born in our native culture, we want a translation that is as adequate as possible so as to hear the original writers speak in our mother tongue. For instance, in Reformed cultures every other generation re-translates Calvin’s Institutes so as to better understand what the reformer actually was trying to do. New translations of the Bible appear all the time as both our understanding of the original language and culture of Scripture and our own language changes. We love these texts, and that is why we ask people to translate them for us again, and again. The question for our presbyteries is simply: do we love this confession enough so that we want to understand what the text is saying even better than the current translation allows us to?

Moreover, one of the unexpected graces of this process has been the close cooperation between the PC(USA)’s Special Committee and similar committees of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. The result is that the new translation is commonly owned by all three denominations, whereby the PC(USA) is the last of these three to officially accept this text. In other words: in the process, we discovered that we are not the only ones who love this text, but that our love is shared. And that is, of course, exactly what confessions aim to do: they remind us that we do not confess on our own, but in communion with all the saints. We believe it is an ecumenical event that in this time of growing polarization and ecclesial fragmentation these three denominations come out together and say, speaking as with one mouth, “This is among what we believe.”

Of course, the fact that the RCA and CRC have embraced this text should also alleviate all fear that the new translation is a smokescreen effort to dilute Scripture and to decide the debate on sexuality and ordination through a backhanded way. The RCA and CRC are not known for the diluting of Scripture. On matters of sexuality and ordination they are to the clear right of the PC(USA). Nonetheless, they happily accepted the newly proposed translation of the Catechism.

As theologians who love and teach the Heidelberg Catechism, we are glad with this more adequate translation of the Catechism, and we call upon the presbyteries to follow GA 2012 not to let the conversation about it be bogged down by our ecclesial divisions and strife, but to accept the new translation as an act of love.

GEORGE HUNSINGER is Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology.

EDWIN CHR. VAN DRIEL is Assistant Professor of Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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