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Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing | jeffgissing.com

In 2008 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was overtured to make several changes to the Heidelberg Catechism, one of our confessional standards.

Most controversial of these was the request to redact any negative reference to homosexuality from the catechism. The rationale espoused at General Assembly—where the overture was approved and a special study committee formed—was that of historical accuracy. The drafters of the original catechism, we were told, made no mention of homosexuality and any reference to it had been introduced by way of the homophobic machinations of subsequent English translators. Certainly, it was inferred, making this change had little or nothing to do with removing a confessional barrier to the “full inclusion” of GLBTQ in the church. Instead, it has everything to do with the historical integrity of the church’s confessions.

This claim rings hollow as can be demonstrated by the document “Frequently Asked Questions About Correcting the Heidelberg Catechism in the Book of Confessions,” produced by advocacy group More Light Presbyterians and viewable here.

The document makes two claims that are inconsistent with one another: that historical accuracy is the chief reason for the amendment and that the Heidelberg Catechism is simply the preserved remains of 16th century Christian belief. If the latter is the true then the case for amending it fails since the catechism has no binding role in the life of the church today.

The debate centers on the version of the catechism found in the Book of Confessions with its inclusion of the words “homosexual perversion.”

Q/A 87. “Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved?”

Certainly not! The 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.’Book of Confessions, 4.087

Other versions of the catechism translate the German literally, for example:

By no means; for the Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, [ ] thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

The second version clearly omits (as marked by the brackets) any reference to homosexual practice. Yet the writers of the catechism envisioned their task as one of arranging the Scriptures as answers to questions so that young children and new Christians could learn the content of their faith.

It seems then that the Question/Answer 87 are referring to the words of Paul to the Corinthians (cf. Ephesians 5:1-20):

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, ESV)

The reality is that the addition of the term neither changes nor alters the meaning of the question and answer (Q/A 87, 4.087) since it is consistent with the Scripture reference on which the question/answer is based. The only plausible reason for editing the document is a thinly veiled attempt to countermand the voice of the General Assembly that adopted the Catechism as part of our Book of Confessions.

What is laughable is the incredulity demonstrated by More Light Presbyterians in the face of the charge that the term “homosexual perversion” was omitted in the original because the document was to be used in catechizing children and such references were deemed to be inappropriate a plausible explanation.

To this they respond—in effect—how dare you impose “our current beliefs about childhood” onto the writers of the catechism! To do so, they claim, would be to “disrespect the choices the actual writers made.” Simply pick up the Presbyterian Hymnal and you will discover a “monument to disrespecting the choices of the actual writers.” Hymns are restructured and materially changed to remove references unpalatable to our contemporary sensibilities, but it is only problematic to do this when such an alteration undermines or materially alters the intent of the writer. This is not the case with the catechism found in the Book of Confessions.

In a moment a phalanx of progressive Presbyterians has morphed into a gaggle of fundamentalists unwilling to believe that the “original” can be anything other than sacrosanct, “Who are we to second-guess the wisdom and intentions of those German divines?” Apparently this is truer for a confession—at least in this instance—than it is for the Bible.

The document unambiguously states that the reference to “homosexual perversion” should be removed because it “is the only reference to homosexuality in the whole Book of Confessions.” The implication is, of course, that once this single barrier in the Book of Confessions is removed then, given our General Assembly’s inability to come to any consensus on the teaching of Scripture on sexuality, we can progress further in our path to affirming GLBTQ Christians and even redefining marriage.

This reasoning is only hinted at and cloaked, instead, with the language of accuracy: “as Presbyterians, we pride ourselves on our history, and placing a faithful English translation of the original into our Book of Confessions is the best way to honor our tradition and the wisdom of our forebears.” I find it incredible to imagine Zacharius Ursinus turning in his grave because someone added “homosexual perversion”—a biblical reference—to his catechism.

The More Light document also shows that our understanding of the role of confessions in the life of the church is dysfunctional. In a poignant example of our inability to conceive of confessions as useful as anything other than relics of prior expressions of the faith, I cite the debacle and ensuing controversy from the 220th General Assembly (2012) on the issue of marriage. The question—in brief—is whether a motion to General Assembly can be ruled “out or order” on the basis of its violating the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

A delegate asked this with respect to marriage. He cited the fact that at least three confessions—part of the constitution of the church—define marriage as between a man and a woman. The question was referred to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution whose representative effectively stated that the confessions of the church cannot function as part of the constitution of the church—at least with respect to issues raised by conservatives—because they represent “broad theological perspectives,” and “span a thousand years” and some of them “are in disagreement.”

What he failed to acknowledge is that none of them disagree on the definition of marriage. In a single ruling, the entire Book of Confessions officially became optional to the life of the church.[1] This prompted the Moderator to issue a clarifying statement that fails to clarify much of anything.[2] This dysfunctional view is consistent with that espoused by More Light in their Heidelberg document.

The claim that the Heidelberg’s original version is sacrosanct is incompatible with a subsequent line of argumentation pursued in the FAQ document. If, as the authors state, “The Book of Confessions was created to preserve the wisdom of our ancestors” we must ask a subsequent question: what bearing has that wisdom on the life of the church today?

The document answers this question by telling us that in adopting the Heidelberg Catechism the United Presbyterian Church was not expressing its theological belief. Instead, it was mummifying the beliefs of former generation of reformed Christians so that today’s Presbyterians will be able to access—and presumably disregard—the “wisdom of our ancestors”?

Emphatically, the authors state, “The Confession of 1967 is the statement of faith of that generation [who adopted the Heidelberg], and it is helpful to recall that it does bring up sexual relations in section 9.47 without mentioning homosexuality.” The argument from silence is less than persuasive at the best of times and here it places the reader in the unenviable position of attempting to enter the mind of the drafters of the Confession and of setting the Confession in opposition to Scripture.

What More Light Presbyterians are telling us is that when the writers of the Heidelberg did not include “homosexual perversion” in their citation it was decisive and sacrosanct, yet when the General Assembly adopted a version of the catechism—with the full knowledge that it contained this phrase—their decision was ill-informed and open to alteration. This seems inconsistent at best, and special pleading at worst. They are also suggesting that the drafters of the Confession of 1967 were endorsing homosexuality since they failed to affirmative mention it as an example of “sexual confusion.” This seems implausible.

In short, there is no compelling reason to edit or alter the Heidelberg Catechism as found in our current Book of Confessions. The version there differs from the original German, but in a way that is consistent with that original version. The effort to change it is part of a broader strategy aimed at removing every systemic or structural barrier to both affirming homosexuality and to endorsing same sex marriage. The attempt to do this is a tacit acknowledgment by progressives that, despite arguments to the contrary, The Book of Confessions has some bearing on the life of the church today. If it didn’t the outcry to alter the catechism would not exist.

The problem arises in figuring out precisely what that role is. Perhaps it’s easier to say what they are not. The several creeds, confessions, and catechisms found in our Book of Confessions are not museum pieces, remnants of the beliefs of a bygone age that have little or no bearing on the church today. That this view has become so prevalent in the Presbyterian Church (USA) goes a long way to explaining our current state as a theologically impoverished church, which looks to political processes to answer theological questions. Until we can amend this aspect of our shared life, there’s precious little hope of any meaningful change.


[1] For more analysis see Viola Larson, “The Book of Confessions: A controversy with the Moderator, the Stated Clerk, and Paul Hooker of the PC(USA).” Available online: http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-book-of-confessions-controversy.html