Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review of the Heidelberg Catechism material from the Being Reformed: Faith Seeking Understanding Curriculum

Heidelberg Catechism
by Gary Neal Hansen
From Being Reformed: Faith Seeking Understanding
A Curriculum from Congregational Ministries Publishing
An imprint of the PC (USA) Publishing House

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After making the acquaintance of Gary Neal Hansen at Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and expressing my growing interest in the Heidelberg Catechism, Dr. Hansen arranged for me to have the opportunity to view and review the curriculum he wrote for the PC (USA) on the catechism.

For those of you who do not know, the PC(USA) is updating their translation of the Catechism. Dr. Hansen seems the appropriate person to write the curriculum since he served on the committee that gave this new translation work oversight.

All of the rest of my resources reviewed thus far (but not the one to come) end up going through and discussing the catechism based upon the Sunday that it is assigned to be studied. This resource is a brief, six week overview of the whole document for a church Sunday school class. Thus, it touches on the common themes of comfort, deliverance and gratitude. It also makes a point to give special attention to the historical and biblical resources that the catechism gives reference to. Namely the Apostle's Creed, The Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer are given special mention.

The other primary purpose, as I have said before, it to reintroduce the catechism in light of the coming vote on its revisions by the PC(USA). The Presbyterian church, in concert with some of the things that have been done with the RCA and the CRC, is planning on releasing an updated translation of this old document. Many of the changes are not controversial. For instance, the denomination has decided to include footnotes for each question and answer in the catechism that give reference to specific scriptures that the answers were drawn from.

Other changes have a little more controversy associated with them. Most of these controversial "new translations" have to do with human sexuality. In each case, the translation committee chose to go back to the original translation instead of the later editions of the catechism that added more words to match the answer with its Scriptural reference. In particular, two answers have been singled out for question and concern in regard to how they are translated. One is question 87. The other is Question 108.

Question 87 in the PC(USA)'s book of confessions used to use the word "homosexual perversion". The translation committee has decided to go back to the original language which used the blanket term sexual immorality (which of course evangelicals believe would include homosexuality).

Question 108 changes the terms "in holy wedlock or in the single life" to "within or outside the holy state of marriage". This, Hansen says, better reflects the original German vocabulary.

Hansen does a good job of explaining the committees rationale for these changes, and they are already adopted by more conservative Reformed fellowships that the PCUSA. However, with both changes applying to issues related to human sexuality, it is natural that people will become suspicious of a hidden agenda relating to the denominations leftward lurch on human sexuality issues. My position is that 1./ I am in favor of the changes for the reasons Hansen states, and 2./ That I do there is a bigger agenda than simply being better translators, but 3/there are ways to jump through the hoops of about anything like this if that is what you are seeking to do, so 4./ people should relax a little bit and not worry about the changes. After all, the Scripture references are now included as part of the document anyway, so that reference can be made to  the Scripture when imploring people to be committed to the Catechism.

Enough of the political drama.

What are the strengths of this curriculum?:

  • It is brief, and gives people the "big picture" story of the Christian life that the Heidelberg communicates,
  • The teachers guide (by Michael Harper and Mark Hinds) offers several thoughtful discussion questions and ways of getting into the dialogue of the text
  • Hansen does a good job of moving the people who participate in the study toward spiritual disciplines that will enhance their mastery of the catechism as well as grow deeper in their Christian faith
  • It is specific to real life changes that are before the PCUSA
  • It is an overview, which gets people to read over the curriculum, but not feel like they have to commit to a year of learning it. It whets the appetite for going deeper into the document. 
What are the challenges this curriculum faces?:

  • It is poorly publicized and marketed, and thus difficult to find
  • It is very specific to its denominational context, which might present some challenges for groups beyond the PCUSA fellowship who want to use it.
  • It is very much oriented toward a read/response method of teaching, which is a more contemporary pedagogy than the catechism itself, but could have been improved with more handouts, worksheets, and/or activities for folks to participate in. This is not the fault of Hansen, who tends to write well. It is instead a common challenge of denominational curriculum oriented toward people in their 70s or older.
Finally, as I encourage you to study the Heidelberg catechism, I would like to share some of Hansen's words from the introduction to this curriculum, which summarize my feelings as well:

"Having taught the Heidelberg Catechism...I am convinced that far too few Reformed Christians have ever read it. However, once people know it, they often love it. I think we will find that this centuries old document has the ability to put us better in touch with the comfort that comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ, and and aim us toward a life of gratitude for all that he has done for us." (p.6)

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