Why a New Translation
of the Heidelberg Catechism Is Not Needed:
Homosexualist Forces in the PCUSA Seek It
by Robert A. J. Gagnon,
Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA 15206-2596
June 19, 2008
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Homosexualist forces (i.e. groups advocating for full
acceptance of immorality of homosexual practice) have pushed through
seven overtures seeking a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism. In
my presbytery, the Pittsburgh Presbytery, the overture was sponsored by
two homosexualist “Covenant Network” churches (East Liberty Presbyterian
and Sixth Presbyterian).
Why the Push for Retranslation?
Why the vigorous push for a retranslation? The Pittsburgh
overture, as an example, alleges four problems in the 1962 English
translation by Arthur Miller and Eugene Osterhaven. However, the first
three are just smokescreens to get at the real reason for calling for a
retranslation; namely, to eliminate from the confessions explicit
negative reference to homosexual practice. (Some homosexualist
advocates, for example, Jack Rogers, claim that among the confessions in
the Book of Confession only the Heidelberg Catechism mentions
This is false. The question-and-answer 139 of the Larger Catechism
includes "sodomy and all unnatural lusts," footnoting Rom 1:26-27 and
Lev 20:15-16, among "the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment"
What the Original German and English Translation of the
Catechism Say and How It Compares with 1 Cor 6:9
In question 87 the Heidelberg Catechism (4.086) asks:
"Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life
be saved?" A literal English translation of the original German
of the authors of the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus and Kaspar Olevianus,
“By no means! Because
Scripture states that no idolater, adulterer, thief, drunkard, or
slanderer will inherit the kingdom of God.”
However, instead of rendering the text this way the
1962 English translation of the Heidelberg Catechism inserted the
New English Bible text of 1 Cor 6:9-10:
Scripture says, "Surely you know that the unjust will never come into
possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or
idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual
perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or
swindlers will possess the kingdom of God."
The original German is clearly alluding to 1 Cor 6:9-10.
It lists as reference texts 1 Cor 6:9-10, Eph 5:5-6, and 1 John 3:14,
but only the list in 1 Cor 6:9-10 corresponds to the order and use of
the offender groups in the German.
Here is a literal translation of 1 Cor 6:9-10,
with offenders not picked up in the German original of Heidelberg
Catechism A 87 put in boldface:
"Or do you not know
that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Don't be
deceiving yourselves [or: do not be deceived, make no mistake]: Neither
the sexually immoral [pornoi], nor idolaters, nor
adulterers, nor soft men [malakoi], nor men who
lie with a male [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the
covetous [or: greedy persons: pleonektai], not drunkards, not
slanderers, not swindlers [or: robbers; literally, "snatchers":
harpages] shall inherit the kingdom of God."
I will begin by making a few comments on my translation.
The Greek word behind my translation “the sexually immoral” is pornoi.
In the New Testament the word is a general term for sexual immorality
that English translations sometimes mistakenly constrict to
“fornicators.” Here it includes not only the three sexual offenders
mentioned after idolaters but also the incestuous man in 1 Cor 5:9-11
(who is called a pornos), men who have sex with a prostitute (porne)
in 1 Cor 6:15-17, and men who have sex outside of marriage in 1 Cor 7:2
(porneia). The Greek word behind my translation “soft men” is
malakoi. In context it refers to men who feminize themselves to
serve as the passive or receptive sexual partners of other men. “Men who
lie with a male” is a literal translation of
a distinctly Jewish and Christian term formulated from the absolute
prohibitions of homosexual practice in Lev 18:22 and 20:13: "You shall
not lie with a male (arsen) as lying [koite] with a
Would There Be a Push for Retranslation If the English
Translation of the Catechism Had Inserted Only “the Covetous” and “the
Greedy” into the Original German in accord with 1 Cor 6:9?
Now the German text of Heidelberg A 87 leaves out five
"The sexually immoral"
"Men who lie with a
"The covetous [or:
The "Covenant Network" churches who want a new
translation more faithful to the original German would not be asking for
a new translation if the 1962 English translation had inserted into the
German text, from 1 Cor 6:9-10, only "the sexually immoral," "the
covetous/greedy," and "swindlers," or at least only the last two. Why?
Because they would agree that such things should be prohibited. They
would rightly reason that even though the translators of the 1962
English translation had added these offender groups to the German of the
catechism, such an addition is in keeping both with the Scripture on
which the German is based and with the church's historic teaching.
They would also reason, correctly, that Ursinus and
Olevianus could not have left out any of these terms because of any
theological disagreement with Scripture. Probably "swindlers/robbers"
was omitted simply because of a perceived overlap with the term for
"thieves," already mentioned. The reason for omitting "the
covetous/greedy" is not as obvious; at any rate, it could hardly have
had anything to do with approving of greed. Perhaps it was omitted
because of the misunderstanding that it might have raised; namely, that
any feeling of covetousness or greed could exclude one from God's
kingdom when, in fact, Paul had in view only extreme instances of
serial, unrepentant hording and exploitation.
Textual Purists or Ideologically Driven Propagandists?
The Real Reason Why the Catechism Omits “Soft Men” and
“Men Who Lie with a Male”: Protection of Children from Obscene Material
As with the Catechism's omission of the "covetous/greedy"
and "swindlers/ robbers," the omission of "sexually immoral persons [or:
fornicators]," "soft men," and "men who lie with a male" can have had
nothing to do with a desire to affirm fornication, incest, sex with
prostitutes, and homosexual practice. The only logical reason for
sixteenth-century reformers to omit terms having to do with sexual
immorality, especially homosexual practice, is that these behaviors were
viewed as obscene and thus wholly inappropriate to mention, especially
in a catechism that would be used to instruct children. Calvin himself,
when he comments on Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9, and Jude 7 in his
commentaries, does so only in an oblique way, referring to desires and
actions that are "monstrous," "polluted," "most filthy and detestable,"
and "the most abominable."
Even as late as the early twentieth century, the Loeb Classical Library
published by Harvard University Press would routinely render Greek
classical texts into Latin rather than English whenever coming across
favorable discussions of homosexual practice. The reason: such material
was regarded as obscene and likely to corrupt young minds.
So commissioning a new translation of the Heidelberg
Confession for the obvious purpose of getting rid of any reference to
"homosexual perversion" gets things precisely backwards; namely that the
omission of the terms for homosexual practice in 1 Cor 6:9 is a
reflection of how bad and obscene Ursinus and Olevianus, among all other
reformers of the day, thought homosexual practice was.
Conclusion: New Translation Would Only Service
Homosexualist Agenda and Distort the Original Intent of the Reformers
Since no one would be calling for a retranslation of the
Heidelberg Catechism if only the "covetous" and "swindlers" had been
added to the German text by English translators in keeping with 1 Cor
6:9, there is no need to call for a retranslation on the basis that a
term for homosexual practice was added to the German text in keeping
with 1 Cor 6:9. Producing a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism
for the obvious singular purpose of removing the phrase "homosexual
perversion" would be a one-sided concession to an ideological agendas
that have shown little interest in studying the strong and numerous
arguments for a male-female prerequisite in Scripture, in reading the
Book of Order's ordination standard for sexuality in a reasonable
way, or in discerning the apparent historical motivation behind the
omission of terms for homosexual practice in the Heidelberg Catechism's
allusion to 1 Cor 6:9-10. Ironically, those who most loudly trumpet
their desire to put Spirit over Letter are here attempting to put Letter
over Spirit. The spirit of the text of the Catechism is clear enough. It
is the exact opposite of the attempt now being made to make the
Confessions open to homosexual practice.
The attempt at retranslation is not about history and
honesty but ideology and a homosexualist agenda.
Review of How We Know That 1 Corinthians 6:9 Rejects All Homosexual
malakoi (“soft men”)
and arsenokoitai (“men who lie with a male”) in 1 Cor 6:9
are clearly inclusive of all homosexual bonds, understood in their
historical and literary contexts. Detailed documentation for each of
the arguments below can be found elsewhere.
As regards the meaning of malakoi (lit., “soft men,” in the sense
of men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners)
As regards the meaning of arsenokoitai (literally,
“men lying [koitē] with a male [arsēn]”) note:
Although lacking the degree of documentation that I
supply above, Dan O. Via,
a New Testament scholar supportive of homosexual unions, rightly
The Pauline texts . . . do not support
this limitation of male homosexuality to pederasty. Moreover, some Greek
sources suggest that—at least in principle—a relationship should not be
begun until the boy is almost grown and should be lifelong. . . . I
believe that [Richard] Hays is correct in holding that arsenokoites
[in 1 Cor 6:9] refers to a man who engages in same-sex intercourse.
. . . True the meaning of a compound word does not necessarily add up to
the sum of its parts ([Dale] Martin 119). But in this case I believe the
evidence suggests that it does. . . . First Cor[inthians] 6:9-10 simply
classifies homosexuality as a moral sin that finally keeps one out of
the kingdom of God.
Even Walter Wink, in his otherwise mean-spirited review
of my book The Bible and Homosexual Practice, had to admit:
Gagnon exegetes every biblical text
even remotely relevant to the theme [of homosexual practice]. This
section is filled with exegetical insights. I have long insisted that .
. . efforts to twist the text to mean what it clearly does not say are
deplorable. Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior,
and there is no getting around it. . . . Gagnon imagines a request from
the Corinthians to Paul for advice [about how they should respond to a
man in a loving and committed union with another man], based on 1
Corinthians 5:1-5. “. . . . When you mentioned that arsenokoitai
would be excluded from the coming kingdom of God, you were not including
somebody like this man, were you?” . . . No, Paul wouldn’t accept that
relationship for a minute.
A great irony in the attempt to remove mention of
homosexual practice in the Heidelberg Catechism is that it treats the
clear witness of Scripture as secondary to the confessions.
Recent works on the Bible and homosexual practice by two
Presbyterian professors have completely ignored the arguments and
evidence that I have put forward in several publications: Jack Rogers’s
Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the
Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006) and William Stacy
Johnson’s A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion,
Law, and Politics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). Neither is a
biblical scholar and both clearly the lack the expertise necessary to
evaluate the matter. In treating 1 Cor 6:9 (Rogers: pp. 73-75; Johnson:
pp. 131-33) both are entirely beholden to the work of previous biblical
scholars whose work I have already extensively rebutted (Rogers relying
on Martti Nissinen, Dale Martin, and Victor Furnish; Johnson relying on
Rogers and Johnson make no attempt to respond to any of my critiques of
the work of these scholars or any of the other arguments that I put
Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian
Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1996), 126 n. 41, 260 n. 132.