Good Reasons to Get Worked Up Over the Restoration of the Heidelberg


Arcane errors in the translation of 16th-century German religious texts are not typically something to get worked up over. So why is the restoration of the Heidelberg Catechism — a topic before our General Assembly this summer — so important to many in the PCUSA, myself included?

This is a question that even I was hard pressed to answer until recently, when a conversation with a wonderful pastor in the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia clarified it at last. While he and I disagree on some things, including the place of GLBT people among us, we can and do agree on our analysis of life in the church.

As Presbyterians, we take pride in our scholarly study of Scripture and theology, a tradition that reaches all the way back to John Calvin. Of course, we Presbyterians are also human, and sometimes mistakes are made. When that happens, intellectual honesty and scholarly integrity require that we acknowledge past mistakes and take the necessary actions to remedy them.

The origin of mistakes in the Heidelberg Catechism was this: In the 1960s, a GA committee recommended a new translation of the Heidelberg in honor of its 400th anniversary. This translation has proven to be deeply flawed — a fact supported by the Special Committee reporting to the GA this July, which has recommended unanimously that the PCUSA restore the present English translation of the catechism to its original meaning.

But it is not just our scholarly duty to review and restore the Heidelberg Catechism; it is also an opportunity. As Presbyterians, we place a high value on dialogue with one another. GA’s, committees, and taskforces have pleaded with us for over thirty years to talk with one another, especially where we disagree. Unfortunately, this has proven to be extremely difficult for us to do.

The restoration of the Heidelberg offers us common ground where we can all be Presbyterians together. This is a place where we can do something good and quintessentially Presbyterian together and feel good about it. And through this agreement, we can forge friendships from which honest conversation about our disagreements may grow.

I’ve been blessed to witness the fruit of this dialogue again and again. Just this week in Pittsburgh the Heidelberg gave a diverse group of Presbyterians a way to be together, to talk about the concerns over which we disagree in the light of Scripture, tradition and faith. I felt like I was on holy ground that evening. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this same kind of dialogue — throughout the whole Church — was the outcome of this process to restore the Heidelberg?

Finally, in correcting the Heidelberg, we can also do something together on the pastoral level. In this case, the scholarly integrity of the Heidelberg is deeply intertwined with our pastoral duty to embrace all the faithful, as Jesus did.

One of the many problems in our present translation is the answer to Question 87, where the translators substituted the New English Bible (1962) translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 for an actual translation of the German words of the 16th century writers. GLBT Presbyterians bear the brunt of this mistake, which is more fully explained in the More Light Presbyterians resource on the Heidelberg. This substitution has contributed to our modern church casting doubt on the place of GLBT people among the faithful.

It is our pastoral responsibility to lift burdens from our GLBT brothers and sisters that they need not bear.

I am passionate about helping our church be the best the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be, upholding our most deeply cherished values: scholarly integrity, Christian dialogue, and pastoral care for all the faithful.

We are Reformed, Always Reforming — this is our gift to all of Christendom. Here is an opportunity for us to fulfill our historic duty to correct our inevitable human errors (G-1.0307).

The restoration of the Heidelberg Catechism is a place where we must wholeheartedly come together as Presbyterians in order to preserve the wisdom and original meaning of one of our Reformed faith’s earliest founding texts.

Will you join me in getting passionate about this? Please say yes!


Reverend Janet

3 Responses
  • Donna on June 13, 2010

    Dear Janet,

    While I can’t profess to be a scholar at the same level as all involved in this conversation, the opportunity it presents to allows GLBT people their integrity within the church is clear. There are those who would deny, prevent, or even rob from others every possible contribution they could make to God and to the world. Let it not be so in the church.

    That the opportunity comes with the intent of “we can forge friendships from which honest conversation about our disagreements may grow” is full of hope and earnest faith.

    Can’t we all sing as one “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less…”


  • Janet Edwards on June 13, 2010

    Dear Donna,

    I am really glad you see how “full of hope and earnest faith” this restoration of the English translation of the Heidelberg can be. May that be so in the church!

    And you remind me of another verse of that wonderful hymn, a verse I know many GLBT Christians hold fast as some, as you say, deny their heartfelt contribution to God and the world:

    His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood.
    When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.
    On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand;
    All other ground is sinking sand.

    Thanks for reminding me of that assurance for us all. Peace, Janet

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