Updating the Language of the Doctrinal Standards

David C. Noe

At the Eighty-Fifth (2018) General Assembly of the OPC, held in Wheaton, Illinois, the commissioners elected a Special Committee on Updating the Language of the Doctrinal Standards. This committee was constituted of four ruling elders and three ministers. The ministers are Glen Clary, John Fesko, and Alan Strange; and the four ruling elders are Mark Bube, Jim Gidley, John Muether, and myself (since ordained as a teacher of the Word). The assembly also elected two alternates, ministers Tony Curto and Ryan McGraw.

The assembly gave us this mandate: “To propose specific linguistic changes to the doctrinal standards of the OPC. The committee is authorized to propose only such changes as do not change the doctrine or meaning of the standards.”

In addition, the assembly authorized us to consider only four kinds of changes: “1. morphological (e.g., ‘hath’ to ‘has’); 2. replacing archaic pronouns (e.g., ‘thou’ to ‘you’); 3. replacing obsolete and/or archaic words (e.g., ‘stews’, LC139); 4. substituting a modern Bible translation for the text of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.” We were also tasked “… to strive to propose changes that preserve the cadence, memorability, and dignified style of the standards.”

The Work Thus Far

In order to fulfill this mandate, we have worked both online and, before COVID, during an extended viva voce session in Oviedo, Florida, in February 2020. My responsibility as chairman (with Mark Bube as vice-chairman) has been to shepherd a lively and complicated discussion about how to meet the expectations of our mandate. We have found this to be very challenging, but thus far God has granted us a salutary consensus. Despite some natural disagreements among us about particular points, a spirit of preservation—that is, an unwillingness to risk losing anything of theological or literary significance—has characterized all of our discussions. And the task of Mr. Muether as the clerk of our committee has been to keep track of the very numerous proposals, motions, amendments, amendments to the amendments, and so forth, that render presbyterianism both a joy and a challenge.

Of the four tasks, proposing “morphological changes” has been the easiest thus far and entirely without controversy. We soon formed three subcommittees (one for each of the confessional documents) and finished this portion without much difficulty. The second element of our mandate, the replacement of archaic pronouns, was similarly uncontroversial. We have so far completed work on the Confession of Faith as well as the majority of the Shorter Catechism (through Q/A 75). Quite predictably, the third item of our assignment, “replacing or substituting archaic words,” has occupied the majority of our time.

Here are some examples of our tentative work, taken from our report to the Eighty-Seventh General Assembly (GA) this past summer. Please note that none of these have been approved, or even discussed, by GA, nor are they our final report.

In Confession of Faith 1.8, we suggest substituting common for vulgar in the phrase “[the Scriptures] are to be translated into the vulgar language.”  This decision was reached after some debate, in which we weighed whether the connotations of vulgar in the seventeenth century included something low, base, or indecent (as the word does today). And, does the proposed word common capture the necessary meanings of vulgar? We concluded that it is the best available alternative.

A second example is found in Confession of Faith 1.10. There we suggest substituting verdict for sentence in this portion: “The supreme judge … in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” We decided this captures well the joint propositional and juridical meaning of “sentence” (Latin sententia). Today, the word sentence conveys to the reader either a simple grammatical construction or to the more learned a juridical meaning, while verdict captures both meanings better.

A third example is taken from Confession of Faith 3.8. Here the word “vocation” (Latin vocatio) is better represented in the twenty-first century by calling, as vocation in common parlance now only refers to one’s job. And we decided that this is not a term of theological art (like predestination or consanguinity) that should be maintained despite the potential for contemporary confusion. After all, the Shorter Catechism uses the phrase effectual calling in two Q&As (30 and 31). This strongly argues that vocation and effectual calling were synonymous terms in the minds of the Divines. It is worth noting that we are suggesting no changes at all for Chapter 4, and only morphological changes for Chapters 7–9, 11–12, 14–15, 17, 21, 25, and 32.

Looking Ahead

The work that remains for us is to finish making suggestions for the Shorter Catechism, including the difficult task of choosing an alternative, more contemporary Scripture translation for the Lord’s Prayer, and doing the same for all of the Larger Catechism. God willing, we will have this done for the Eighty-Eighth GA in 2022.

The process thereafter, should the church decide to update the language of the secondary standards, is much more involved. First, the GA’s advisory committee for our committee would need to bring our report to the whole GA with recommendations. GA would then need to decide what to do with it (which could include simply receiving the report as information, which would end the process). If the Eighty-Eighth GA decides to accept and act upon it, it is our view that another committee would need to be erected to make recommendations based upon our suggestions. If that committee’s work is adopted by a subsequent GA with a two-thirds majority, its decisions would then be submitted to all presbyteries. And two-thirds of the presbyteries would need to ratify the GA’s decisions before any changes would be made to the standards. The wheels of presbyterianism grind slowly. Why is this? Perhaps because, in the words of John Calvin, “all changes are dangerous, and sometimes even harmful.”

We as a committee humbly ask the churches to pray for our work, that we would be wise and judicious in our choice of words, endeavoring to fulfill the GA’s mandate faithfully without exceeding it in any direction. We all are blessed to belong to a church governed by Christ and no mere man, a church whose worship and life are regulated by the Scriptures with the standards as a fallible but reliable source of wisdom to instruct us.

The author is an independent scholar and OP minister serving as a teacher of the Word at Reformation OPC in Grand Rapids, Mich.


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