The publicity about summer’s General Assembly was primarily about what it decided not to do — there was no redefinition of marriage, and no divestment.
Many may not have noticed that GA actually did do one very important thing: It gave initial approval to placing a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism in our Book of Confessions. It went through committee and the floor with a minimum of controversy. Now that lack of controversy may mean it will move through the next stage of the process without a hiccup. My own presbytery voted to approve it last Saturday.
I am glad that the new translation is finding approval. After spending four years on the GA special committee that brought it to the assembly I would be disheartened to see it turned down. However, I long for the process to include serious study of the document by the ruling and teaching elders who will vote on it. So, as well as talking about the importance of the vote, I am going to suggest four ways elders and churches can get to know this venerable text in its new form.
Really, I long for the steps toward spiritual health that individuals, churches, presbyteries and the denomination might take by spending time studying this text that we claim as one of our denomination’s theological standards. If we think and talk about Heidelberg’s genuine theological issues, our conflicted church might develop a common language for our faith and nurture some shared assumptions — the language and assumptions of Reformed theology. Ours is a theological tradition, and we will be moving, at least in baby steps, down the road to health when we nurture a theologically driven faith. When all we have in common is polity, no matter how smooth our procedures we are empty on the inside.
I think it is a wonderful translation. I am grateful to the translation team of the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America for their good work, and for the gracious welcome they gave our PC(USA) committee when we wanted to suggest changes in their text.
I am grateful as well to our committee for their painstaking work restoring the system of Scripture citations from the original 1563 German and Latin editions. I have seen seminarians and Ruling Elders encounter our old translation and take its lack of biblical citations to mean that the authors had no scriptural justification for their teachings. Now, with this winsome new translation, readers will be able to see that the authors present a rich synthesis of the Bible’s teachings — because they can use the 16th-century Scripture citations to better understand what the authors were thinking, even in sections that rub modern readers the wrong way.
It is really fine if Heidelberg does sometimes rub us the wrong way. Often, but not always, understanding the 16th-century context will remove the irritation. Exploring the Scripture citations will resolve many more problems. We may not like what the catechism says at one point or another, but we will see that it is, by Reformation-era understanding, biblical.
As we discern where our own faith is in harmony or at odds with a particular confession, we grow into a faith that engages Scripture and our tradition. We bring our personal convictions into conversation with the faith of those who shaped the church, and in the process we bring our faith into conversation with Scripture and with one another.
My first suggestion: before your presbytery votes on Heidelberg, make sure that your church offers an adult study of the new translation and be sure to attend. The “Being Reformed” curriculum series put out by Congregational Ministries has just published a “Participant’s Book” (full disclosure: I wrote it) and “Leader’s Guide” on the Heidelberg Catechism. It is, so far as I know, the only resource designed to introduce the new translation to the churches.
Like all the “Being Reformed” pieces, it is a six-week study with five pages of text plus some reflection questions for each session. For those new to the catechism, it introduces key theological concepts, especially points I have seen students stumble on. For those familiar with the old translation it directly addresses key points of difference and potential controversy. And it invites all to read the catechism in conversation with Scripture by exploring a few of the citations given by the catechism’s Reformation-era writers.
Even if your presbytery has already voted it would be a good thing to offer a study on Heidelberg between now and the next GA. I was told by one pastor that his church would never support the idea of such a study. The sad testimony that a church does not care enough about the biblical faith (a.k.a. “Reformed theology”) to explore the Heidelberg Catechism (a.k.a. “the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do”) is all the more reason for the pastor to lead a class on it. When people begin to understand Scripture’s teaching (and Heidelberg does make remarkably good sense of the Bible), they often begin to grow.
Second, whether your church is willing to have a study or not, all Presbyterians should be encouraged to read the catechism — and the best way to do that is to include it as part of daily devotions. The text of the catechism is available for free from the online “PC(USA) Store” so it could easily be made available to all church members. And Heidelberg is famously divided into 52 “Lord’s Days” so each week about half a page is assigned. If you read the section for one “Lord’s Day” every day for a week, especially in a spirit of prayer and reflection, occasionally following the catechism into the Bible, you may come to know it quite well. You might just come to like having Heidelberg as a conversation partner.
Third, I have a very particular challenge for those who are responsible for planning worship: If your church has a “Confession of Faith” in its order of worship, leave behind the Apostles’ Creed for a year. Instead, for 52 Lord’s Days, let the church confess its faith in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism. I have seen churches use the famous first question and answer as a confession of faith, but the catechism covers the whole range of biblical topics. Look at the theme of the sermon for the day, and find the relevant question and answer. You get a different feeling for these words when you stand and proclaim them as the faith of the church — and as part of the Book of Confessions that is exactly what they are.
I have a fourth and final challenge for teaching elders who are brave enough: Take a year and preach the catechism. That is what the Dutch Reformed Church has traditionally done in its afternoon services. Of course you will actually preach biblical texts — now handily provided in the notes to every question and answer. But make it your work to teach the shape of Reformed faith by preaching it to your congregation topic by topic for 52 Lord’s Days. I dare you.
Making a change to the Book of Confessions is something we take lightly at our peril. At our ordinations and installations, we do more than swear before God that we will receive and adopt the teachings of the confessions as faithful expositions of Scripture’s teachings. We swear that we will be instructed and led and continually guided by these confessions. Before we change or add to them, we owe it to ourselves to pay very close attention.
GARY NEAL HANSEN is associate professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He served on the GA Special Committee on the Heidelberg Catechism, and is the author of “Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers.”