After defeating a minority report that would have left intact the translation that was added to the Book of Confessions in 1967, the commissioners approved the plan of retranslation by a vote of 436 to 280.
Although the retranslation process may cover the whole catechism, the Assembly action flags five passages for particular consideration. Most of the debate in the Assembly revolved around question 87 that asks “Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved?” The present version answers, “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.’”
Proponents of the new translation argue that the words “or of homosexual perversion” are not found in the original German version of the nearly 450-year-old catechism. Jack Rogers, theologian and former GA moderator, told the commissioners that in the early 1960s the Reformed Church in America (RCA) commissioned two professors to do a 400th anniversary translation of the catechism. “Ideology entered into their work in the light of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. They added the phrase ‘homosexual perversion.’”
Rogers also added that the RCA later retranslated the catechism “and took out the unauthorized phrase.”
Kathy Wolf, theological student advisory delegate from Columbia Theological Seminary and Ohio Valley Presbytery spoke in favor of the changes. She cited a letter signed by 31 seminary professors. “I know three of the signers of the letter. They don’t hide in their studies with their books. They also are pastors. They care deeply for their students. I am willing to humble myself before their scholarship.”
Tammy Letts, minister commissioner from Yukon Presbytery in Alaska spoke of theologians who can debate for hours on the translation of words in Latin, Greek, or German. “Here we are asking people in the pews to affirm or disaffirm these actual translations. I think it is inappropriate to ask people in the pews to do this.”
Attempts to change question 87 were proposed and defeated in General Assemblies that met in 1997 and 1998.
Now that this proposal has been adopted, the moderator of the General Assembly will appoint a committee to study the catechism and propose changes to the 2010 Assembly. If a majority of those commissioners approve those changes, they will be sent to the 173 regional presbyteries for ratification. If two-thirds approve the changes, then a majority of the commissioners to the 2012 GA will also need to approve them. If so, then the changes will become official.
Just after finishing this lengthy debate, the commissioners approved without debate a proposal to initiate a process of study toward the possible inclusion of the Belhar Confession (BC) into the Book of Confessions. Written and adopted in 1986 by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa, the BC provided a theological framework for Christian efforts to eliminate Apartheid. It affirms key elements of the classical, orthodox faith, and carries them to the implications of racial equality, social justice, and unity in the body of Christ.
A study guide on Belhar has been developed by the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship in response to a directive of the 2006 GA. Now the moderator will appoint a task force to lead a denomination-wide study of the confession and to develop a proposal for its adoption, to be referred to the 2010 Assembly. If adopted, it will be sent to the presbyteries where a two-thirds majority will be needed to ratify. If so approved, the 2012 GA will cast its vote, with a simple majority being needed to complete the approval process.