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GA 2010: GA recommends Book of Confession changes

MINNEAPOLIS — The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has directed a special committee to engage in a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism. And it voted to ask the presbyteries to add the Belhar Confession from South Africa to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions

Heidelberg to be retranslated           

The Presbytery of Boston presented an overture to the 218th General Assembly (2008), calling for translation corrections of five passages in the catechism.  That assembly directed that a special committee be created to study the catechism in its original German, to assess whether those passages ought to be retranslated.  Particularly at stake:  the condemnation of homosexuality, which appears in the current translation, but not in the original German

            The special committee, whose members were ministers, elders, and scholars reflecting theological convictions across the full range of the church, “found dozens, maybe as many as a hundred” errors, reported Dawn DeVries to the assembly. Devries, a member of the special committee, is a professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.

            In the light of that, the special committee voted unanimously to ask this year’s assembly to empower it to retranslate the whole catechism, and to do so in conjunction with an ecumenical effort already underway.

            The commissioners gave their approval, voting to direct the special committee to continue its work, joining in partnership with the existing translation committee of two other denominations, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, both of which are already working to retranslate the Heidelberg Catechism.

Devries told the commissioners that the special committee had compared the existing PC(USA) translation of Heidelberg to the existing translation presently in use in the two other denominations, and found the others’ existing translation to be superior in accuracy to that of the PC(USA).  Nevertheless, the Reformed churches have undertaken a process to retranslate their own version.  The PC(USA)’s special committee has engaged in discussion with the people involved in those translation efforts, and all are willing to work on the project together.

Neal Presa, chair of the special committee on the Heidelberg translation, reported that the committee members have also studied a preliminary draft of the new Reformed translation and have suggested about 50 possible improvements.  The other two churches have welcomed those suggestions, incorporating two-thirds of them into the draft, Presa said.

With the assembly’s blessing, the committee will now work formally in partnership with the two other denominations, with the hope that all three denominations can approve the retranslation, ratify it, and add it to their constitutions.  The new translation will be presented to the 2012 General Assembly. If adopted, it will be sent to the 173 presbyteries for ratification.  If two-thirds of those presbyteries approve, then it will return to the 2014 General Assembly.  If approved by a majority vote at that assembly, it will replace the existing Heidelberg Catechism in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.

The assembly approved the Heidelberg recommendation by voice vote, garnering a near-unanimous affirmation.

Belhar approval advances

The assembly also voted to send to the presbyteries for their ratification the Belhar Confession for inclusion in the PC(USA)’s  Book of Confessions.

On the recommendation of the assembly Committee on Theology and Theological Institutions, the Belhar Confession will be footnoted with supporting Biblical references.  An “accompanying letter” traditionally included with the confession will be published with it for introductory purposes; but that letter will not be given confessional status.           

            The Belhar Confession was written in 1982 in South Africa under the leadership of Allan Boesak  as a theological statement calling for racial equality and reconciliation and, at the same time, church unity.  The Dutch Reformed Mission Church there formally adopted it in 1986.

The same denominations  in the United States that are engaging the retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism – the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America – also are finalizing their own adoption of the Belhar Confession to be added to their constitutionally authoritative affirmations of faith.  The RCA formally completed the process this past June 10th.  The CRCNA anticipates its full inclusion in 2012.           

            Jane Dempsey Douglas, theology professor emeriti of Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the special committee that studied and offered the proposal to the General Assembly, urged the confession’s adoption.  “The Belhar Confession is a profoundly Biblical cry from the heart,” she declared.  

“Adoption of the Belhar Confession will give witness to the new reality of our unity with churches in the global south,” Douglas added.

The commissioners adopted the proposal by a vote of 525-150.  It will be sent to the 173 presbyteries for ratification by next June.  If two-thirds of those presbyteries approve, then it will return to the 2012 General Assembly for those commissioners’ final approval.

Other actions           

The commissioners approved the renewal of the denomination’s covenant relationship with El Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico. They endorsed the election of new seminary presidents Steve Hayner for Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., Michael Jinkins for Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Paul Roberts as dean and president of Johnson C. Smith College and Seminary in Atlanta, Ga.

They also approved, for ratification by the presbyteries, a slight word change that will clarify the church’s directive that “not yet baptized persons who present themselves to the Lord’s Table be warmly received and promptly invited into conversation on the significance of the sacraments, in order that their hunger for spiritual nourishment might be met by a gracious invitation to Christ and to Christian life through baptismal discipleship.”