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June 3, 2008

DAY 14 ON nFoG WATCH: Nothing new to report.

Committee Survey: Committee 13, Theological Issues and Institutions

Keeping in the pattern of 3's, there are three items of business that will be the focus of the discussions of this committee. The Belhar Confession, revising the Heidelberg Catechism, and commending the study material for the Trinity paper.

1. Belhar -- The General Assembly is being asked to approve the first step of the process for including the Belhar Confession in the Book of Confessions. G-18.000 sets out the process for a constitutional amendment involving the Book of Confessions. (Book of Order, too.) The study material written by Eunice (Junior) McGarahan and the Office of Theology and Worship was helpful.

This confession has been knocking around the PC(USA) world for a little while. It was the confession developed by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa addressing the context of apartheid -- because apartheid needed to be understood as a theological issue.

The question here is whether it should be a part of our Book of Confessions. We can study it -- in fact, I intend to do several weeks in the fall during a class in the congregation I serve -- and we can appreciate it. It can be worthy of study and appreciation without necessarily justifying its inclusion in the Book of Confessions. I am not sure what standard applies for determining whether it should be included -- how does this help declare who we are, what marks it as being important for us to "own" it as something that defines us, or do we just like it? I don't know. I don't have a real opinion formed. I will enjoy the discussion about whether we should begin the process to have it included. For what it is worth, I would love to serve as a commissioner to an Assembly where these were the kinds of questions that dominated the time.

2. Heidelberg -- There are two overtures requesting that the Heidelberg Catechism be changed. Item 13-04 requests the General Assembly to begin the process to amend the Book of Confessions to reflect a more literal word-by-word translation from the Latin and German versions.

Two quick points on this: 1) the General Assembly has been asked to do this previously and refused; in large part because 2) the issue involved here is a question of whether the Heidelberg Catechism should contain the words "homosexual perversion" in the answer to Question 87.

"At no time since the adoption of The Book of Confessions have the original Greek, Latin, or German versions of the various confessional statements been regarded as authoritative for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The English versions of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Theological Declaration of Barmen, as presented in the current edition of The Book of Confessions, are the authoritative versions for constitutional purposes." So wrote the ACC in response to a question in Item 13-10. Literal word-by-word translation is not the standard for contemplating changes to a confession. The question is whether the proposed changes draw us closer or away from the intent of what we want to confess.

Item 13-05 is significant insofar as it does not ask for a correction of the approved version of the Heidelberg Catechism; rather, it asks to replace it with a more recent translation used by the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

3. Trinity -- This one made my early "Top 10" list. The General Assembly will be asked to "commend" a study guide for a paper that was highly controversial at the 217th General Assembly (2006). I wrote about it previously, on March 26, here.

At this point, it looks as if the materials are not going to be presented on-line. They are not going to be available until the Assembly; and then, apparently, only in hard copy form to commissioners on Committee 13. (I would be delighted to be wrong about this, by the way.)

This raises the issue of trust. I really struggle with this process. By the time we get to San Jose, it will be too late to make changes to this process -- but this is not right. It is not right to ask commissioners to approve something without ever seeing it. If it is going to become widely available -- either electronically or in print -- so that we can review it, I will make note of it and apologize for jumping the gun. However, that does not appear to be the case.

The original Trinity paper was not "approved" (which is different than "not approved"), it was received and commended for study. Why was it not "approved"? Because there were some real problems perceived with it. As reported in Presbynews, "The original recommendation from the General Assembly Council called for the Assembly to approve the paper. An amendment during the debate changed the word to 'receive' when some commissioners expressed concern that the word approve meant endorsement. While a majority of the commissioners were uncertain about endorsing it, they were ready to commend it to congregations for study."

Now, the study material is being held back from commissioners. If the material is not going to be available to commisioners in time to read and evaluate it, the General Assembly should not be making any comment or commendation. So, here's my suggestion: the GAC is making the recommendation seeking GA commendation and they've seen it. Let their "commendation" be sufficient.