The New Translation of the Heidelberg Catechism

As one of the Doctrinal Standards of the Christian Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism is familiar to readers of THE OUTLOOK, and the proposed new translation of it is of special interest and concern.

Rev. Nicholas De Vries, of Ripon, California was asked to evaluate this new translation and he herewith complies with this request. Besides serving as a missionary in China, on the Indian field, and in the State of Washington, Hev. De Vries also held pastorates in California, New Mexico, Michigan, and Arizona until his retirement in 1961.

The forthcoming Synod of the Christian Reformed Church will be called to pass judgment, favorable or otherwise, on the “New Translation of the Heidelberg Catechism.” It might be noted that for a period of ten years, at least three committees have worked on the project under the guidance and supervision of several Synods. It is now under scrutiny by the church at large. Let us take a look at it too.

A good place to begin our scrutiny of this New Translation may be found in the overture of Classis Hamilton to the Synod of 1965. It reads as follows:

“Classis Hamilton overtures Synod to request the Committee on Education to consider:

1. To reintroduce the Heidelberg Catechism in full in the Curriculum of catechetieal instruction. 2. To study the feasibility of accepting a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism for educational purposes such as is published by the North American Area of the World Alliance of Reformed and Presbyterian churches as the 400th Anniversary (edition) of the Heidelberg Catechism.


a) The Catechism is the Confession of the Church to the church.

b) The study of the Heidelberg Catechism itself in our catechism classes would be a great help to keep the confession alive in the hearts and minds of our people.

c) A New Translation of the Heidelberg Catechism in the language of today would facilitate its understanding.

d) The uniform practice of catechism preaching in our churches will benefit greatly from the teaching of the Catechism itself in all our churches.”

This overture was adopted by the Synod of 1965 and referred to the Committee on Education for study and recommendation.

Precisely what did Classis Hamilton have in mind? It would seem that Classis Hamilton:

1. Favored a reintroduction of the Heidelberg Catechism in full in the curriculum of the church’s catechetical instruction.

2. Was of the opinion that the practice of Catechism preaching would benefit greatly from such reintroduction.

3. Had in mind a possible New Translation of the Catechism for Educational Purposes and not one for its own sake. 4. Was deeply concerned about the spiritual welfare of the Christian Reformed Church and was hopeful of promoting that welfare through this overture.

Ten years have passed sinee this overture was first presented. Three committees have worked on the matter requested: the Committee on Education; the Translation Committee; the Proof texts Commiuee. Their report in the form of a New Translation of the Heidelberg Catechism will be placed before the Synod of 1975. The church is studying it. What shall we say about it?

We might ask Classis Hamilton that question. Of course, everything changes here on earth. “Change and decay in all around I see.” That might have happened to the constituency of this Classis too. But to me it would seem that if the Classis hasnt changed, there must be great disappointment in their midst. But didnt they in their overture suggest the idea of a New Translation? Yes, they did. Well, then why shouldnt they be happy and thankful? To read their overture of 1965 will explain the matter.

Classis Hamilton asked for or suggested a possible New Translation for Educational purposes so that it could be used in the classroom and become of great benefit also to the practice of Catechism preaching. They dreamed a dream of power released in the classroom and pulpits—power that would revitalize and revive the churches. But as matters stand, if this Translation is adopted, it will either turn yellow with age in the archives or gather dust in a showcase.

But on what basis are such statements made? That’s a fair question, and it must be answered. Here it is. The Translation Committee, in approaching its work adopted certain “Principles of Translation” for its own guidance (cf. Agenda 1970, p. 197). The Synod of 1970 approved these principles. The fifth one reads as follows:

“We assume that this is to be a translation and not a paraphrase, and furthermore, that this is to be a translation aimed at no particular goal (e.g. – case of memorization) other than one which can with dignity bear the name of an official translation.”

The committee’s goal therefore was “to prepare a document which with dignity could bear the name of an official translation.”

Here then is the contrast. Classis Hamilton has a dream expressed in their overture. They feel that the study of the Heidelberg Catechism itself in full in our Catechism classes would be of great help to keep this confession alive in the hearts and minds of our people, and, that the uniform practice of Catechism preaching would benefit greatly from the introduction of the teaching of the Catechism itself in all our churches. As was said, Classis Hamilton has a dream—a dream of power, spiritual power released in the church—a dream of a church rallying around a standard of faith—a dream of a new spiritual emphasis—a dream of a revitalized church community—a community united in one great goal—the glory of God, and the way to attain to it.

But the Translation Committee has no such dream; they have a goal—a dignified official translation. But to attain to this goal does not at all mean that the dream will come true. And that’s what’s wrong with the whole project; the goal is not the answer to the overture. Somewhere in the course of ten years of study the dream has been sidetracked and this goal has been placed on the main line. And that’s the problem we as a church have before us; whatever is done about the goal, all efforts must be made to put the overture back on the main line.

The question remains; Can the Christian Reformed Church be revitalized and revived?—or is it too late? The answer in part will be given next June and depends in part as to what will be done with the New Translation. And this is said, not because I believe that the New Translation promotes heresy, or is in any way inferior to the present one, but because the Church might harbor the illusion that if Synod approves this report, we as a Church have taken a giant step ahead. But such would not be the case. It might be more to the point in such a case to say that the Church has settled back into the comfortable illusion of a job well done. Once again, a Creed or Confession that is worthy to be called such should not bc written for show but raised as a standard round about which we as a church, young and old, can rally in our battle for the truth of God and the glory of His Name.

Well, the overture of Classis Hamilton was sidetracked. Let it be for only a short time. Let’s make the mandate clear. Let us believe that, if we pray the Lord of the harvest, He will direct us to those men and women who have the special talent to make even the deep truths of God‘s Word plain. We can do it with confidence in God to lead and inspire.