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Why We Should Not Revise the Standards: Three Reasonable Reasons (and a Proposed Alternative)

T. David Gordon

The general assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has appointed a committee to consider revising the Westminster Standards, as adopted by the OPC (The Confession of Faith, the Larger, and the Shorter Catechism, as modified by the American churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Even before the conversation begins, some of us (if asked) would be able to “count noses,” as it were, and predict beforehand which individuals we know would approve the proposed revision and which would not. Most who made such predictions would be correct about 90 percent of the time, but for the wrong reasons. Progressivists tend to dismiss conservatives as fuddy-duddies, and conservatives tend to dismiss progressivists as unwitting Modernists (or fad-chasers), so neither takes very seriously their opponents’ respective arguments, since they have already dismissed one another as not to be taken seriously. However, a small (and, one may hope, influential) minority within the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC) communions will actually listen to one another, and will consider fairly and honestly whether the time has come to revise the standards to accommodate the ever-changing nature of the English language. I hope to be in that minority.

English, like all other living languages, continues to change. We probably all agree that the Old English of Beowulf (AD c. 975–1025) is simply beyond our capacity to read with understanding. To examine Beowulf in manuscript, most of us would think the manuscript was written in Latin. Chaucer’s Middle English Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400) is a little closer, but still not really readable; the versions we read in high school and college/university were translations: “When in April the sweet showers fall …” is easy enough, compared to “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote …” All of us who are in the non-dismissive, willing-to-think-honestly-about-the-matter category, recognize that our language has changed sufficiently that Old English and Middle English are beyond the comprehension of most of us. I suspect we also agree, on the other hand, that Elizabethan English is early Modern English, considerably more comprehensible to us than Old English or Middle English. So the fair and general question (before the specific question of revising a catechism) is the question of knowing how to address linguistic change in such a manner that the substance of valuable literature (sacred or secular) can be retained. What I will suggest below is that there is a preferable middle ground between retaining the original language and revising the original language, a middle ground that should work for several generations. That preferable middle ground is annotation. But I begin with three reasons for why revising the language is not yet necessary.

1. Catechisms Are to Be Memorized and (Then) Studied

Part of the rationale behind revising the Westminster Standards is that they are allegedly too difficult; ostensibly, such reasoning goes, a confession or catechism should be easy. I suggest that this expectation falls somewhere between unreasonable and impossible. If the purpose of a confession or catechism is to summarize, in a fairly brief space, the teaching of the entire Bible consisting of sixty-six books, how could such a summary be easy? The only way to include a summary of all of the important biblical teaching in a brief space is to employ the most circumspect concision. Such conciseness demands the use of technical, precise language; otherwise, you have such bland generalization that there is little left of substance. One could replace the entire Confession of Faith with a general statement: “Some sort of deity has something to do with the material order and with humans.” This would be true, general, and easy, but hardly worth the trouble of memorizing.

A catechism is designed to be memorized, so that its content can be placed in the mind where it can be reflected upon, meditated upon, discussed, and studied for a lifetime. Its meaning is not intended to be self-evident upon careless reflection, but rewarding to careful reflection. Consider what B. B. Warfield said in the opening paragraph of his very interesting essay “Is the Shorter Catechism Worth While?”:

The Shorter Catechism is, perhaps, not very easy to learn. And very certainly it will not teach itself. Its framers were less careful to make it easy than to make it good. As one of them, Lazarus Seaman, explained, they sought to set down in it not the knowledge the child has, but the knowledge the child ought to have. And they did not dream that anyone could expect it to teach itself. (emphases mine)[1]

This quote is as enlightening as it is refreshing (He may have been the last human to admit that sometimes people purposefully make something that isn’t easy …). Twice in that brief statement Warfield expressly stated that the catechism’s instruction would not be self-evident, but would require instruction (“certainly it will not teach itself … did not dream that anyone could expect it to teach itself”). If, a century and a half before our day, Warfield believed that the catechism would require instruction, would it require too much of such instruction that it explain the occasional word that might be archaic or unconventional (even in Warfield’s day)? If, in other words, the necessary instructors (because it could not “teach itself”) could explain theological words like “justification” or “sanctification,” could they not also explain words or expressions that are mildly archaic (e.g., “any want of conformity … keeping of stews”)? Surely any instructor capable of explaining the technical theological vocabulary in our standards would be able to read the Oxford English Dictionary to determine the range of meaning of English words in the mid-seventeenth century.[2]

2. Synonyms Are Rarely Purely Synonymous

When translators of Holy Scripture update it to make it conform to more contemporary English, they routinely “translate” in such a manner as to create interpretive problems, because what they thought was merely a contemporary update (a modern synonym) was actually a change in substance. Here are two “updates” from the original NIV that were later changed:

1 Corinthians 7:1 “It is good for a man not to marry.” (Later version: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” This is still not very good, but it is an improvement, and it is not a mere synonym).

Galatians 4:15 “What has happened to all your joy?” (Later version: “Where, then, is your blessing of me now?” These are not even close to being synonymous.)

I applaud Zondervan and the NIV committee for making these changes, for listening patiently to those who suggested the corrections. I cite these two examples merely as examples of the reality that there are very few pure synonyms; most translational “updates” are actually changes in substance. Each of these two updates is not a synonym for the other, nor for the translations that antedated them.

Closer to our immediate concern (updating catechetical language) is an example from the Heidelberg Catechism. One English edition of the lovely first Q&A of the Heidelberg Catechism includes these words as its fourth and final stanza: “Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.” Another English version puts it this way: “… and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.” These two (heartily/sincerely) are not pure synonyms. The second (“sincerely willing”) is almost negative: not insincere or hypocritical; the first suggests that the Spirit actually renews the heart to produce heartfelt willingness to live for the Savior. I could “sincerely” acknowledge who the two presidential candidates were in the last election without doing so heartily. I have a preference for “heartily” here in HC 1, but my point here is primarily that the terms are not, in fact, entirely synonymous; and I suppose a second point is that neither is especially more contemporary than the other; “heartily” is hardly archaic (and “from now on” is less archaic than “henceforth,” but neither is unintelligible).

It is entirely possible that one man’s synonym is another man’s non-synonym; there are probably some people who regard “heartily” and “sincerely” as synonyms. I do not, but here we come upon a potential problem: What do the ordination vows mean for men whose second ordination vow embraced a different version of the Westminster Standards? I have actually, personally, met people before who have stated that “justification” and “sanctification” mean the same thing; for them, they are synonyms. If such people serve on the committee, they could negotiate away hard-won, important theological distinctives of our tradition under the sincere effort to “modernize” the standards. I doubt this would happen frequently (and surely not with these two terms), but it could happen. Such confusion would not happen, however, if we retain the current language and merely provide marginal explanations of the meanings of archaic terms (see below).

3. Pan-generational Fellowship

Our grandson Tripp is only 19 months old, and his parents have not yet begun catechizing him (nor do I intend to offer any unsolicited advice on the matter). But if they do catechize him, and if they select the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I would like to think that Tripp and his Papa might have the occasional conversation through the years about the meaning of the catechism; Papa might even ask Tripp the occasional catechism question, to reinforce his parents’ instruction. If I do so, I don’t wish to “correct” his memory work when he has memorized a different version than I have; this would just confuse him. And while I put this example in a personal form, it would be true of all younger and older followers of Christ within the Westminster tradition. Would the ostensible gain in intelligibility compensate for the reinforcing gain of all Westminster catechists being able to join one another in reciting and discussing a common document?

A Tertium Quid

I am actually sympathetic with the concern that our confessional standards be intelligible (though I may have a higher regard for the intelligence of the average adult than the proponents of the revisions have), but I think we can address the matter with a few strategic marginal notes. We already publish some editions of the standards with proof-texts, how difficult would it be to put in the occasional marginal note at the bottom of a page, explaining older terms, the way Bible translations often put alternative translations at the bottom of the page?

Such an approach would greatly expedite the work of the committees entrusted with the project. Instead of re-editing the entirety of the text of both catechisms and the confession of faith, they could first study them to discover truly archaic expressions, and then propose explanatory notes for those occasions, rather than re-edit all three documents, seeking to “improve” them stylistically. Once editors begin editing for style, they will encounter, in almost every paragraph, some clause or phrase or word that could be improved in some way, each of which would have to be deliberated (exhaustingly?) in committee. For how many minutes or hours do we really desire the committee to discuss “from now on” v. “henceforth,” or even “sincerely” v. “heartily”? If they merely located the genuinely archaic expressions (expressions that probably less than half of the adult, educated population would know, such as “keeping of stews” in the seventh commandment), they could then merely add an explanatory gloss at the bottom of the page that would not need to be debated in fine detail. I would even recommend that such annotations simply quote the pertinent examples from the Oxford English Dictionary, to make clear that the annotations are not theological judgments but linguistic ones.

For nearly a century now, published editions of the complete works of Shakespeare have had marginal annotations, to assist readers in understanding genuinely archaic forms of speech. Such annotations, I suggest, are the proper middle ground between retaining or revising the original language of an original text. Our confessional standards may have reached the moment in the development of the English language where some well-considered annotations would prove beneficial. I propose, therefore, that those who regard the standards as borderline unintelligible (I am not there yet, but I am told that others are) consider annotating them with marginal explanations. Such annotations might very well serve adequately for several generations before revised language becomes as necessary as it is for Old English and Middle English.

Not all decisions in life are irrevocable. If a couple tries a new restaurant, and doesn’t have an especially pleasant evening, they may simply determine not to return. The decision to try the restaurant once does not make the decision irrevocable. Other decisions, however, are practically irrevocable: giving a child his first piece of chocolate, for instance. Once an alternate form of the Shorter Catechism is “out there,” it cannot be returned to Pandora’s Box. The confusion will enter the language of our Reformed traditions, and the damage will not be undone. Recall how this happened just a couple decades ago with the decision to “revise” the Apostles’ Creed in the Revised Trinity Hymnal. The several stylistic changes introduced there meant that congregants can no longer recite the Creed in worship from memory, because there are at least two versions out there. So now, the assembled saints have to ruffle through their hymnals, looking for the right page to find a copy of the revised Creed, a creed they had previously cited for many years from memory. The same confusion will now attend the Shorter Catechism; people discussing it will not know whether their conversation partner memorized it incorrectly, or simply memorized another version, and their conversation will likely turn from the catechism’s meaning to discussing whose memory was “right.”

And now for the elephant in the room: If the standards are revised, they will be worsened. When the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals met initially in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1990s, there was some informal conversation about framing a new creed, free from some of the differences about sacraments or church government that characterized the existing creeds. My friend (and then-colleague) David Wells made an insightful comment: “While I appreciate the sentiment, I am afraid we must face the reality that ours is not a creed-making generation. We have neither the linguistic nor theological training that previous generations had, and anything we produced would likely be inferior to the existing confessional standards” (this is my paraphrase, from memory, so don’t hold David to the exact language). I agreed with him then, and nearly three decades and a billion Tweets have not persuaded me that the situation has improved since then. What David said about creed-making would also be true about creed-revising, because the sensibilities and abilities needed for the one are needed for the other.

Since it would be too easy, however, for me to predict the likelihood that the revision will be inferior to the original, I will predict four specific ways in which it will be precisely inferior: the revision will be vague, verbose, effeminate, and infantile. The revision of Heidelberg Q/A 1 that I mentioned earlier is an example of the vagueness that will occur. “Heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him” is not the same as “sincerely willing,” and “heartily” conveys something that is very precise and very important, to wit that the Holy Spirit works within us “to will and to work according to his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). By contrast, “sincerely” is somewhat vague: it could mean merely “without hypocrisy,” or “truthfully,” or it could mean, “earnestly/heartily.” But it is vague (compared to “heartily”). In our cultural moment, words are chosen as much (perhaps even more so) for their connotative value as for their denotative value, and those words are almost always less precise than the ones they replace.

Second, we may safely predict that the revision will be longer than the current standards, because imprecise language is always more verbose than precise language. The concision that makes our current standards both memorable and worthy of memory will be replaced with the contemporary tendency to use more words to say less.

Third, the virile, forceful language of the current standards will become effeminate; Westminster’s granite will become smoothed. In short, it will be (for some) a tad easier to understand (at a superficial reading), but for everyone much more difficult to memorize, which is the purpose for which a catechism exists. If the current standards are like traditional hymns; the revised standards will be like contemporary worship choruses: easy, sentimental, wordy, and vapid (though they will not be nearly as bad as contemporary worship choruses, they will lean in that direction).

Finally, such revisions will almost surely be as infantile as so many of the recent translations of Scripture have been. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15–23 is a single sentence in the original, consisting of nineteen verbs. Both the KJV and RSV were able to retain this prayer as a single sentence (and therefore a single petition). Note, however, what happened with other, more-recent English translations:

ESV 2 sentences
NASB 4 sentences
NIV 5 sentences
HCB 5 sentences (with a paragraph break and subtitle)
GNB 6 sentences
The Message    9 sentences (and one breathless exclamation point, right in the middle of it all)

Note, then, that the “revisions” are moving closer and closer to the syntactically simple sentences of children. But this leaves open the possibility, e.g., in the NIV, that Paul was praying for five things, rather than for one, highly-qualified thing. The nature of his single request was revised/converted into five requests (and, in the Message, into nine).

As a closing consideration, I would recommend that when the time comes to revise the language itself (rather than simply provide annotations), the revision begin with the Confession of Faith, then proceed to the Larger Catechism, and only as a final stage revise the Shorter Catechism. The Shorter Catechism is the most memorized of the three standards, the one most likely to be discussed, whether in formal or informal settings, and therefore the very last one to revise, because such revision would diminish the reinforcing effect (so important in a memorized document) of rehearsing and discussing a common text.[3] Listen to Martin Luther on this subject:

First, the pastor should most carefully avoid teaching the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the sacraments, etc., according to various texts and differing forms. Let him adopt one version, stay with it, and from one year to the next keep using it unchanged. Young and inexperienced persons must be taught a single fixed form or they will easily become confused, and the result will be that all previous effort and labor will be lost. There should be no change, even though one may wish to improve the text.[4]

Endnotes

[1] In The Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1970), 381.

[2] If I were asked by the moderator of the general assembly if I had any advice regarding how to debate the matter, I would suggest that he rule out of order any speaker who says the current standards are “too difficult to understand,” because such a public acknowledgment would constitute prima facie evidence that the speaker had taken his ordination vows insincerely: If he could not understand them, how could he vow to teach in accord with them? Of course, any moderator who did this (I would) should certainly expect the following motion: “Shall the ruling of the chair be sustained?”

[3] If I am even partly right, the OPC should either abandon the revision project or restrict it severely, to this: Instruct the committee to study the standards, creating a list of demonstrably archaic (i.e., the dictionaries say “archaic” as part of their entry) words, phrases, or clauses, with a proposal for change in each case; and then to present these seriatim to the general assembly, for each to receive a vote of “approve,” “disapprove,” or “remand to committee for further revision.” This would have the likely result of the committee producing a shorter list of proposed revisions than if they are turned loose to make as many as they deem needed. If they are so turned loose, by the time they report their work to general assembly it will have many changes, some more needed than others (none, by my estimation). Then what will the assembly do? Go through the entirety of all three documents, debating every proposed change? Instruct the committee to propose their revisions seriatim, arguing in each case for the necessity of a revision, and for the propriety of the particular proposal.

[4] Martin Luther, preface to the Small Catechism, Concordia, http://catechism.cph.org/; a printed version of an older translation: Joseph Stump, An Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1935), xi–xii.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, June–July 2019.