Click (here) for a Microsoft Word version of this article.
There are seven overtures to the upcoming Presbyterian General Assembly that ask the church to restore the Heidelberg Catechism to its original text. Why the interest in the Heidelberg Catechism? Recent scholarship has shown that in 1963 two Reformed Church in America translators made several unauthorized and theologically unwarranted changes to the Heidelberg Catechism. They appear to have inserted their personal biases into an official church document. The erroneous version was unwittingly adopted by the Presbyterian Church in our Book of Confessions. The overtures coming before this General Assembly present the opportunity to correct these unauthorized changes and restore the Heidelberg Catechism to its original wording.
Discovering unauthorized insertions
The Heidelberg Catechism is the only confession in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions that mentions homosexuality. Question and Answer 87 in the Heidelberg Catechism (italics mine):
Q. 87 Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved?
A. 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.”
But in 1996 in the midst of the debate over what later became G-6.0106b, Professor Johanna Bos, at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, pointed out that the version of the Heidelberg Catechism contained in our Book of Confessions is not an authentic translation of the original text. A footnote in the Book of Confessions indicates that this translation of the Heidelberg Catechism had its origin in the early 1960s, when the Reformed Church in America and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches produced a 400th anniversary edition of The Heidelberg Catechism.
Johanna Bos was born and raised in The Netherlands where she received rigorous training in the Heidelberg Catechism. Bos said that despite all of her study of the Heidelberg Catechism, she had never heard any mention of homosexuality in the text. Bos later worked with Louisville Seminary Professor Christopher Elwood to document the errors in the 1963 version of the Catechism.
I’ve spent most of my professional life teaching the Reformed Confessions. In 2001 as I was teaching a class on the Reformed Confessions I decided to follow up on the research started by Bos and Elwood.
I do most of my research at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. There, I discovered a significant number of editions of the Heidelberg Catechism available only in the rare book room. I read Question and Answer 87 in the Latin version of Zacharius Ursinus, in a work published in 1586. I followed that with a German version from 1795. (Caspar Olevianus is believed to have authored the German text.) Then I read a Dutch version of the Catechism, published along with a Psalm book, from 1591. I found and consulted a 1645 English edition published in London during the meeting of the Westminster Assembly, and I concluded my catechism inquiry by studying a 1765 English translation of the Catechism prepared for the Dutch Reformed Church in New York.
Answer 87 was the same in the Latin original and all of these early translations. The list of those impenitent sinners excluded from the kingdom of God was always, in the same order, “unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like.” In none of the texts was there even a word where the 1963 version inserted the phrase, “homosexual perversion.” In every case the list went from adulterer to thief, with no intervening word or phrase which could have been rendered “homosexual perversion.” My research confirmed the findings by Professors Bos and Elwood that in fact the 1963 translation had inserted a phrase that does not exist in the original text.
Chair of the Special Committee acknowledges the error
Professor Edward Dowey was the chair of the Special Committee that prepared the Book of Confessions that contains the erroneous translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. When the unauthorized insertions in the modern translation were later pointed out to him, Dowey contacted one of the translators, Eugene Osterhaven to find out what had happened. Osterhaven told Dowey that Osterhaven and another translator, Allen Miller, made the unauthorized insertion because they believed it was needed to combat the sexual revolution of the 1960s -- even though homosexuality was not mentioned in the original text. Dowey later wrote, “Our committee, and I especially, as chair, are guilty of negligence.” Dowey continued, “no one dreamed of such chicanery as this…”
Translator admits he added words not in the original text
I was stunned that such an unauthorized change had been made to an official church document. So I decided to contact Osterhaven myself. We had an exchange of letters and one phone call. He sent me material he had published in response to the criticism of Bos and Elwood. In a phone conversation with Osterhaven, when I asked why they chose to insert the phrase, “homosexual perversion,” even though there is no corresponding word or phrase in the original text he replied, “We just thought it would be a good idea.”
From a scholarly perspective, it is inexcusable to insert words that were not in the original text of the Catechism. Second, from a Christian perspective it is inexcusable to create a mid-twentieth century rendition of the Catechism that appears to condemn all same-sex relationships when that condemnation is not present in the 16th century original. The fact that this unauthorized and theologically incorrect insertion is used to condemn a whole class of church members makes it all the more egregious.
Other errors in the 1963 translation
Since that time, scholars have discovered four other changes to the original catechism that again appear to reflect the theological bias of the 1963 translators rather than the original text. The four additional mistranslations seem to evidence a bias for what is called “federal theology” which developed in the period following the death of John Calvin.
Federal Theology maintains that God first made a covenant of works with humankind in which salvation was offered on condition of keeping the law perfectly. When people failed to fulfill the covenant of works, God made a covenant of grace with them in which salvation was achieved by faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on their behalf.
By contrast, Calvin believed that there was only one covenant between God and God’s people, and it was based on God’s grace manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Presbyterian theology is based on the one covenant as articulated by Calvin rather than the two covenants of Federal Theology. Yet, scholars have discovered four instances in which the translators in 1963 removed the word “law” from the original 1563 text and replaced it with the word “covenant.” By changing these key terms, the 1963 translation thus gives the impression that there is more than one covenant – which is contrary to traditional Presbyterian doctrine.
It’s a simple question of honesty
This issue comes down to a simple question of honesty. Do we want our confessions to honestly reflect the original text? Or will we allow the biases of two translators in the early 1960s to continue to taint this official church document? The overtures to restore the Heidelberg Catechism to its original text present a wonderful opportunity for the PC(U.S.A.) to restore honesty and integrity to our Book of Confessions.
For a more complete discussion of these issues (along with full citations) please see, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church pages 114 to 119.
Update #1: According to Presbyterian News Service: "Thirty-two history and theology faculty members from the 10 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries have signed a petition calling for a better translation of the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism." Full article (here).
Update #2: Many of those who wish to retain the 1963 version of the Heidelberg Catechism point out that Osterhaven and Miller substituted two sentences from the New English Bible translation of I Corinthians 6:9-10 for much of the original text of Answer 87 in the Heidelberg Catechism. That's part of the story but not the full story of what happened. It's important to note that:
1. The phrase, "homosexual perversion" appears for the first time in any New Testament translation in the New English Bible published in 1961. Osterhaven and Miller only used the New English Bible for Question and Answer 87. In translating the rest of the Catechism they used the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. By their own admission, Osterhaven and Miller chose to use the New English Bible translation of I Corinthians 6:9-10 precisely because they wanted to insert the phrase "homosexual perversion." So by their own admission they borrowed from a different translation to suit their own personal preferences rather than attempting to authentically represent the original text of the Heidelberg Catechism.
2. Heidelberg Q&A 87 is not meant to be a meditation on I Corinthians 6:9-10. In addition to I Corinthians 6:9, there are three other biblical texts cited in the margin of the Catechism. They focus in quite other directions than the New English Bible version of I Corinthians 6:9-10. Ephesians 5:5 condemns "greed which makes an idol of gain." I John 3: 14-15 says that "everyone who hates his brother is a murderer." Galatians 5:21 has a long list of sins, including "quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions." All of these verses, equally cited in the Catechism, go in very different directions than the allegation of sexual sin inserted into the Catechism by Osterhaven and Miller.
3. In 1988, The Reform Church in America revised the Heidelberg Catechism and in Q&A 87 took out the phrase "homosexual perversion." So as it stands right now, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is still using the 1963 version of the Catechism that was commissioned by the Reformed Church in America even though the RCA itself no longer uses that version.
Regarding Q&A 87, the bottom line remains that the phrase "homosexual perversion" is not in the original text of the Heidelberg Catechism. From a scholarly perspective, it is inexcusable to insert words that were not in the original text of the Catechism. From a Christian perspective it is inexcusable to create a mid-twentieth century rendition of the Catechism that appears to condemn all same-sex relationships when that condemnation is not present in the 16th century original.