McCormack, Willis and Bush Challenge Efforts to Amend the Heidelberg Catechism

A few days before the 218th General Assembly of the PCUSA, a letter was issued by a group of seminary professors supporting the efforts of three overtures sent to General Assembly seeking to amend the Heidelberg Catechism.  By way of response, Bruce L. McCormack, E. David Willis, and Michael D. Bush have since issued the following letter:

Dear Commissioners and Advisory Delegates to the 218th General Assembly:

Some of our Presbyterian colleagues in the fields of theology and church history have petitioned the General Assembly to take steps toward changing the theological teaching of the P.C. (U.S.A.) by changing the Heidelberg Catechism as it stands in our Book of Confessions.

We are writing to you as well so that you may have a fuller scholarly account of the issues before you. We apologize that we must say so much: we have found that theological and historical scholarship cannot be well done in sound bites. Please bear with us!

Our colleagues wrote to you in support of overtures from the Presbyteries of Northern Kansas, Boston, and Newark.  Not all the claims in the rationales for these overtures are mistaken, but those that are not mistaken seem hardly worth the emotional and financial expense the Church will incur by changing them, since no one of our eleven confessions is definitive.

We would like to point out three historical and theological problems in the rationale for these overtures, expressed most fully in the version from Northern Kansas, which appear to be endorsed in our colleagues’ petition.

First, this overture, endorsed by our colleagues, claims that the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism did not contrast the concepts of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant. The rationale describes such a contrast as “not very well represented” in the Reformed tradition and “not supported” by the Catechism.

These claims are simply incorrect. There have been many forms of covenant theology in the Reformed tradition, and no one form has definitive authority. The Northern Kansas overture identifies one of these several forms, one that emphasizes a unitary covenant with different expressions through time. Such a view has had advocates in our tradition. Even Zacharius Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, sees the old and new covenants as “one in substance,” and even writes that “there is but one covenant,” in the sense that God promises forgiveness both before and after the coming of Christ.

However, it is precisely through the Heidelberg Catechism that much of Reformed theology receives from Ursinus (and, perhaps Caspar Olevianus) the distinctive form of covenant thinking that uses an old covenant God made with humankind at the creation of the world as a foil for a new covenant in Christ. Ursinus makes it abundantly clear in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism that he understood God’s covenant in just these terms: “The old testament, or covenant, is often used in Scripture…for the law… For in the old covenant, the law was enforced more strenuously, and there were many parts of it. The gospel was also more obscure. The new testament, or covenant, on the other hand, is for the most part taken for the gospel, because in the new a great part of the law is abrogated, and the gospel is here more clearly revealed.”

Thus, denying that the Heidelberg Catechism, to say nothing of the Reformed tradition as a whole, makes use of a two-fold covenant scheme is akin to denying the roundness of the earth. It is manifestly untrue in light of the evidence.

Second, the Northern Kansas overture points out that the terms “testament” and “covenant” are not synonyms. Indeed, in order to make sense of the whole range of covenantal thinking in the Reformed tradition, it is important to maintain this distinction. However, here again, in the case of the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus makes his intention clear in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism: “In the Scriptures, the terms Covenant and Testament are used in the same sense, for the purpose of explaining more fully and clearly the idea of this Covenant of God.”  Since the major author of the Heidelberg Catechism sees the terms as synonyms, even though some of his contemporaries would have disagreed, it is clear that the P.C.(USA)’s Heidelberg Catechism is faithful to the theological perspective of the original version of this Catechism.

Third, we come to the point that we all know is behind this apparent fishing expedition for problems in the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism: Did Ursinus have in mind 1 Corinthians 6:9, with its negative view of homosexuality, when he composed the answer to question 87?

Once again, Ursinus has recorded for us a definitive answer: he did associate this verse of Scripture with this question and answer. In his Commentary, Ursinus mentions this verse as having particular relevance for understanding what is at stake in question 87.  The translators of the P.C. (U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism, as good translators do, took into account the stated intention of the authors in order to show us what the passage meant in its historical and literary context. They did this faithfully.

Unless these overtures and scholars wish to claim that Ursinus did not know what he meant by the words he and his collaborators chose, we can only conclude that the overtures have made serious historical and theological mistakes.

If we as a church are going to look for theological guidance in the sixteenth century, then it is only responsible to respect that period in its distinctiveness, and not to flatten its witness into the kind of one-sided sloganeering with dubious historical and theological claims that we read in these overtures. It is unworthy of our academic and ecclesial calling to reduce these complex issues to sound bites and then deploy them, with a scholarly patina, in the service of church politics.

These overtures show signs of wanting to find a kind of inerrant Ur-text to treat as the “real” Heidelberg Catechism, playing this original off against the actual text of the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism. Such an approach fails to understand how the Confessions function in the P.C.(U.S.A.). It is not the Latin and German texts from the sixteenth century that guide our Church, but rather it is the English texts adopted by the deliberative assemblies of the Church and published in the Book of Confessions by which every officer of our Church has vowed to be guided. These English versions have been responsibly translated and carefully chosen as “faithful expositions of what Scripture teaches us to believe and do.”

Will the Presbyteries who have sent these overtures, together with their academic sponsors, next ask that we revert to the seventeenth century texts of the Westminster standards, without the chapters on divorce and the Holy Spirit, and restoring the claim that the Pope is the anti-Christ, as the original indisputably said? Will they question the translation of the Second Helvetic Confession?

We suspect not, because we suspect the goal of these overtures is not to restore early modern texts or their embodiments in our Constitution to some pristine state, but only to remove from the Constitution of the P.C. (U.S.A.) a single phrase they find disagreeable. These other issues, with the infelicitous scholarship that underwrites them, have apparently been sought and found to provide cover for this one goal.

In other words, these overtures appear to us to be a disturbing effort to change the church’s normative teaching about homosexuality under cover of historical-theological scholarship, instead of using the legitimate, above-the-table process our Constitution provides for considering such a change. Trying to slip a change by the church under cover of correcting mere errors of translation is inappropriate as deliberative process, short-circuiting the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s ongoing contemporary discussion of this issue, even as it undermines the trust the church places in its seminaries and teachers.

Bruce L. McCormack, Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Systematic Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

E. David Willis, Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus
Princeton Theological Seminary

Michael D. Bush
Erskine Theological Seminary


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