GA backgrounder: confessional statements
220th General Assembly to consider corrected Heidelberg Catechism, will revisit Belhar Confession
June 27, 2012
Two doctrinal statements will be considered by the Assembly ― the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and the Belhar Confession, which was developed in the mid-1980s by South African churches as their theological response to the racism of apartheid.
Working in cooperation with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Reformed Church of America (RCA), the PC(USA)’s Special Committee on the Heidelberg Catechism is recommending a “common new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism that was in keeping with the original 16th century versions of the catechism.”
The new translation of the 129-question catechism ― originally published in German and then in Latin ― also restores the scriptural citations in the original. It has already been adopted by the CRCNA and RCA.
The current version of Heidelberg found in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions has been widely repudiated by scholars as a corrupted text that was tampered with by theologians in the 1950s. The proposed new version corrects typographical errors in the original English translation and eliminates the later additions to five sections of the original text.
“Our hope has been to give the catechism back to the church in full as it was first presented, with the Scripture citations that allow the readers to explore the text in conversation with the texts of the Bible that informed the people who wrote it,” states the special committee.
The 2010 Assembly recommended inclusion of the Belhar Confession, which proponents say is valuable because it seeks to address issues of racial justice and reconciliation that are still relevant today, but it failed to receive the required two-thirds majority by presbyteries ― 116 affirmative votes were required; it received 108 ― to add it to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.
National Capital Presbytery has submitted an overture reintroducing Belhar for inclusion in the PC(USA)’s book of doctrinal statements.
The Reformed Church in America added Belhar to its Book of Confessions in 2010. Earlier this month, the Christian Reformed Church approved Belhar as a theological statement but did not give it confessional status.
The Belhar Confession surfaced at the 2004 General Assembly, which “called upon Presbyterians to confront the sin of racism in our history and in our midst.” The Assembly urged presbyteries and congregations to study the Belhar Confession ― which grew out of the theological struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a process similar to the German churches’ theological struggle against national socialism in the 1930s that resulted in the Theological Declaration of Barmen ― “as a way to deepen the church’s commitment to dealing with racism and strengthen our unity.”
To be added to the Book of Confessions, a proposed doctrinal statement must be approved by a two-thirds vote of two consecutive Assemblies and by a two-thirds majority of the presbyteries between the Assembly votes.
Matters related to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belhar Confession will be considered by Assembly Committee 18 ― Confessions of the Church.
Assembly Committee 18 will also consider an overture from Cascades Presbytery “to encourage every presbytery to set aside time to study the Book of Confessions in preparation for the grand celebration in 2016.”