Proposed Translation of Heidelberg Catechism

The 1975 CRC Synod will be asked to adopt a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. It is to this matter that Rev. Harry Downs addresses himself in this article. Rev. Downs is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Dresden, Ontario.

I regret that, at the time which I had to complete this article in order that it might reach the deadline for publication, I did not yet have access to a final copy of the Committee’s work promised to each Consistory of the Christian Heformed Church. For this reason I had to limit myself to the translation which has been published in the Psalter Hymnal Supplement. It is my hope that the suggested changes for the New Provisional Translation of The Heidelberg Catechism (hereafter referred to as NPT), appearing in this article, will have already been incorporated into the final product of the Committee. Many of these suggested changes have already been submitted to the Committee by myself along with my Consistory.


Before I say anything negative about the NPT I want to express my general appreciation for the work of the Committee. It is my opinion that the Study Committee has generally done a tremendous piece of work. However, this does not negate the fact that there are a few very crucial weaknesses in the product as published in the Psalter Hymnal Supplement.

If any of these weaknesses remain in the final report I sincerely hope and pray that the Synodical Advisory Committee and the delegates to the 1975 Synod as a whole will lake these matters very seriously in their deliberations and decisions.

I would like to begin by making a few stylistic evaluations and then the bulk of this article will deal with the Biblical and Reformed character of the NPT.

Stylistic Evaluations

Although I am thankful that the Committee’s primary concern was accuracy of translation from the original German text, I am happy that also the matter of style received much emphasis. In general the NPT is stylistically much easier to read and memorize than the present translation. For example, the NPT phrase “in fact, all things must work together for my salvation” in Q&A 1 is a great improvement in style over the archaic and clumsy phrase “yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation” of the present translation.

Also, in Q&A 15 the NPT phrase “he must also be true God” is much smoother, without sacrificing meaning, than the present phrase “one who is withal [Italics, H.D.] true God.”

One more example should convince the reader that the language of the NPT often flows much more easily than that of the present translation. This can be seen very clearly in a Question and Answer such as Q&A 48. The present translation reads as follows:

Q. But if His human nature is not present wherever His Godhead is, are not then these two natures in Christ separated from one another?

A. Not at all; for since the Godhead is illimitable and omnipresent, it must follow that it is beyond the bounds of the human nature it has assumed, and yet none the less is in this human nature and remains personally united to it.

The NPT states it much more clearly as follows:


A. Certainly not. Since the divinity is not limited and is present everywhere, it is evident that Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of the humanity he has taken on, but at the same time his divinity is in and remains personally united to his humanity.

Evaluation of Biblical and Reformed Character

When one turns to an evaluation of the Biblical and Reformed character of the NPT he will find several weaknesses. In spite of the fact that the Committee has done a fine piece of work as a whole and has sought to render an accurate translation from the original German text, there are five basic areas of weakness.

1. First, the doctrine of sin is greatly weakened.

The term “in reckless disobedience” in Q&A 9 of the NPT is a poor substitute for the present phrase “by his own willful disobedience.” The word “reckless” does not say the same thing as “willful.” “Reckless” leaves the impression that Adam partook of the fruit carelessly, but not necessarily purposely. It could leave the impression that Adam did not know ahead of time the consequences of his disobedience. This tends to absolve man (Adam) of the full responsibility for his sin and thus tones down the fact that Adam’s sin was real apostasy, a conscious turning away from God and against God and a plunging of himself and “all his posterity” into a downward direction.

In Q&A 10 the term “original sin” should not be removed from the translation. It is a doctrinal, Biblical, and understandable term which has become a classic one in Reformed and Evangelical circles, and therefore, should be maintained.

The Biblical and Reformed doctrine of sin and total depravity is also weakened in the NPTs substitution of the term “stained” in Q&A 62 for the term “defiled.” We are not just “stained” with sin, but we are “defiled” (polluted, corrupted). The doctrine of sin and total depravity is also not set forth as strongly in Q&A 36, which speaks of “the sin I was born with,” in contrast to the much stronger statement of the present translation: “my sin wherein I was conceived and brought forth” (Italics, H.D.). The present translation docs greater justice to Psalm 51:5, which states, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

2. The second area of weakness in the NPT concerns the doctrine of Christ.

The term “only begotten Son” in Q&A 19 of the present translation should not be removed in favor of the vague term “his own dear son” found in the NPT. Every true Christian believer is also His own dear son, even though it he by adoption (Gal. 4:6). In view of the confusion and misrepresentation of the Person of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, throughout history and all around us, Q&A 48 should not he changed to “humanity” and “Divinity.” “Human nature” and “Divine nature” (“Godhead,” present translation) are much dearer terms.

Not only does the NPT do injustice to the Person of Christ, but it also does injustice to His work; especially His work of atonement. In Q&A 21, the NPT’S term “have had my sins forgiven” does not have as complete a meaning as “remission of sins.” The removal of the term “remission of sins” and of the phrase “everlasting righteousness . . . freely given by God” tones down the idea of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner. Therefore, the judicial side of the atonement does not come through as clear as it should; the bearing of God‘s wrath against sin by Christ in order to remove the sinner’s guilt does not come out as clear in the NPT. This is tragic in a day when we have men like Wiersinga within the Reformed Community, outrightly denying this crucial side of the atonement. A teaching of original sin and the removal of its guilt through the imputation of the sacrifice and righteousness of Jesus Christ go hand in hand.

3. The third area of weakness in the NPT may be slimmed up as that having to do with the matter of the application and appropriation of Christ’s redemptive work to our lives.

The dearest example of this weakness can be seen in Q&A 20. The substitution of the word “accept” were for “receive” weakens the Reformed emphasis and opens the door for a possible Arminian interpretation. This same danger is also to be found in Q&A 30, 60, 64. Ephesians 2:1ff, Romans 9:13ff, and I Peter 2:21 (as well as Canons of Dort: Chapter I, Article 7, and Chapters 3 and 4, Article 14) make it clear that the election of God, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the applicatory work of the Holy Spirit are all equally sovereign and initiatory to man’s actions. Therefore, we can only “accept” what we have first  of all “received” or have become recipients of through God’s sovereign grace. We are not free to accept or reject at will. Therefore, no such implication should be left in a confessional standard of a believer and his church.

This same weakness in Q&A 20 (also Q&A 53) is to be seen in the NPT’s substitution of the word “blessings” for the word “benefits.” Because of the completed work of Christ we become the recipients or benefactors (not first of all the acceptors; that comes afterward) of everything which He has accomplished for us. The word “blessings” is, therefore, a much weaker word than the word “benefits” found in the present translation.

Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred upon him, breathed and infused into him; not even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ, hut because He who works in man both to will and to work, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also (Canons of Dort, Ch. III and IV, Art. 14).

This is why the NPT‘s phrase “share in Christ,” in Q&A 55, is a wholly inadequate substitute for “partaker of Christ and all His benefits.” We do more than “share in Christ,” we are made partakers of Him and of all His treasures and gifts” (Italics, H.D.). They are imputed to us, and are gradually imparted to us and infused in us by the Holy Spirit.

In conneetion with the matter of the application of Christ‘s work of redemption, the NPT’s substitution of the words “keeps us safe” in Q&A 51 does not do justice to the idea of “preserving us” in the present translation. The present translation provides a wonderful link with the “preserves for Himself . . . a Church” found in Q&A 54 and docs greater justice to the doctrine of God’s preservation of His saints, and therefore, His saints’ perseverance. This same weakness in the NPT can be seen in Q&A 1 where the phrase “He also watches over me” is substituted for the much better phrase in the present translation, namely, “and so preserves me” (Italics, H.D.).

4. The fourth area of weakness in the NPT is its doctrine of the Church.

This weakness comes out especially in Q&A 54, 55, and 85. In Q&A 54 the NPT substitutes “a community” for “a Church.” In Q&A 55 it substitutes “as members of this community” for “members of Christ.” In Q&A 85 “exclude from the Christian fellowship” is substituted for “excluded from the Christian Church.” To substitute the term “community” for the “Church” is not only unbiblical, but is a very dangerous term in the present context of anti-Church spirit. There are all kinds of communities springing up within Evangelical and Reformed circles which seek to take the place of the Church, with its offices and its three marks: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments according to God’s Word (the Bible), and the proper exercise of Christian discipline. Not only arc there such communities, replacing the Church, as the “Neo-Pentecostals” and the “Jesus People,” but such organizations as the AACS and other Christian organizations under the influence of AACS philosophy which place themselves on an equal level with the Church.

These Questions and Answers, as worded in the NPT, leave things wide open for all kinds of organizations, associations, groups etc, to spring up and place themselves alongside of or above the Institutional Church—established or instituted by Christ and His Apostles. Under no circumstances should we substitute “community” for “Church” in our Confessional Standards. In fact a community (Q&A 54 and 55) and a fellowship (Q&A 85), as set fortIl in the NPT, may even carry a secular connotation. A Church may be called a community or fellowship of believers (even Christian believers) does not necessarily make up a Church.

5. The fifth area of weakness in the NPT is in the area of obedience or gratitude; especially as it relates to Sabbath or Lord‘s Day worship and observance.

The present translation does not hesitate to identify the fourth Commandment as the commandment which has to do with the New Sabbath. Worship with “the Church of God” and not some vague “assembly of God’s people,” as the NPT seems to imply, is one of the chief concerns of the present Q&A 103. Besides this the present translation is not afraid to identify the day of rest and worship in our day as a specific day, “the Sabbath” day, and not some “festive day of rest” (NPT). The NPTs “festive day of rest” could eventually be interpreted as any “festive day” that an “assembly of God‘s people” might decide to set aside for rest and worship—even a different day than the Lord‘s Day or the New Testament Sabbath. This would be disobedience to the fourth commandment. However, as the NPT puts it, it would not necessarily be disobedient as long as some “festive day” is set aside.

A Few General Conclusions

In conclusion I would like to make a few other comments.

It is my opinion that the use of the term “tyranny of the devil” in Q&A 1 of the NPT is an excellent substitute for the present term “power of the devil.” The word “tyranny” is also very aptly used in Q&A 34. The word “tyranny” includes all that is implied in the word “power,” but it has a much fuller meaning. It more fully expresses the greatness of the redemption or full deliverance through our blessed Savior Jesus Christ—including also the work of Christ’s Spirit in our hearts and lives. For a similar reason I regret that the Committee chose to use the term “happiness” instead of “blessedness” in Q&A 6. The term “blessedness,” used in the present translation expresses much more fully the greatness of the eternal inheritance which we already have in being restored to the image of God, with true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness; an inheritance which indeed is and shall be filled with happiness but much more—“eternal blessedness” is the fellowship and praise of our Triune God.

It is also my opinion that the Committee has provided a tremendous harmony of the Heidelberg Catechism with the Belgic Confession and The Canons of Dort (see pp. 619–622 of the 1974 Acts of Synod). However, I do feel that the recommendation of Overture 15 (1975 Agenda For Synod, pp. 468–469 ), by the First Sheldon Consistory, to put these references to the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort in a footnote to each Q&A would makc them more practical and more likely to be used by ministers, catechism teachers, and others within the churches.

It is my hope and prayer that the delegates to Synod will not allow these weaknesses to remain in the finally adopted translation, a translation which is otherwise a very excellent piece of work both from a stylistic and Biblical-Reformed point of view.