On May 23, the Office of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) announced that the proposed changes to the translation of the Heidelberg Catechism from the denomination’s Book of Confessions had passed. As of the time I write this, 122 presbyteries had voted for the change, while 11 had voted against. Forty presbyteries had yet to vote.
I will attend one of those presbyteries soon. I look forward to reviewing with them the changes proposed in the new translation, including the most controversial change to question 87, which had formerly referred to “homosexual perversion.” (The new version follows the original German much more closely and excludes this phrase.)
I am grateful that the presbytery is living into its responsibility to consider the changes with integrity, even though prior presbytery votes have moved these changes from “proposed” to “adopted.” However, my thoughts have moved from “Should we adopt this new translation?” to “What do we do now that the new translation has passed?”
I want to offer three ideas on how to answer this question pastorally — how we can use the Catechism to strengthen the faith of Presbyterians.
The first idea comes from Heidelberg’s winsome summation of the Christian faith into three themes: guilt, grace and gratitude. Question 2 describes them like this:
Q. What must you know to live and die in the joy [from knowing we belong to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ]?
A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are [guilt]; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery [grace]; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance [gratitude].
Guilt, grace and gratitude: three words that can help people new to the Reformed faith to understand its distinctive qualities. While many Christian traditions talk about these three topics, it is uniquely Reformed to mention our depravity first, and then to speak of God’s initiative in showing us grace, to which we then respond with gratitude (as, Karl Barth said, thunder responds to lightning). “Guilt, grace and gratitude” provides a useful framework for helping others understand our faith in Christ.
The second idea speaks to how the Holy Spirit can use added scriptural references in the Catechism to strengthen our faith. Their absence from the former translation in the Book of Confessions made the biblical foundation implicit, rather than explicit.
With the new translation, the scriptural connection is much clearer, giving a number of options for the Catechism’s use. For example, Gary Neal Hansen of Dubuque Seminary suggests the pastor or worship planning teams cross-reference the Catechism with the Scripture being preached to see if there is a section of the Catechism which could be used as a Call to Worship, a call to or prayer of confession, or the statement of faith.
A third idea comes from Heidelberg’s construction in 52 sections, corresponding to the 52 weeks of the year. This gives many options for use. Individuals might include a section in their devotions each week. Small groups might begin with an overview study of the Catechism, then consider a section of the Catechism each week.
Of course, God uses all sorts of writings to shape and strengthen our faith.
However, the Heidelberg Catechism deserves attention not just because of its new translation, nor because we celebrate its 450th anniversary, nor even because it stands at the heart of the Book of Confessions, but because it reminds us whose we are:
Q1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong —
body and soul, in life and in death —
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
CHIP HARDWICK is director of the Office of Theology and Worship and Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).