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.


The 218th General Assembly (2008) formed a special committee to study claims of inaccuracy in five passages in the catechism. They studied the original texts (having been written in German in 1563) 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” translation 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 nearly unanimous approval, voting to directing the special committee to continue its work, joining in partnership with the existing translation committee of two other denominations, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), both of which are already engaged in its retranslation.

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 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.

Jane Dempsey Douglas, theology professor emeriti of Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the special committee, 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.