IV. RESPONSE TO OVERTURE ONE OF THE EIGHTY-THIRD (2016) GENERAL ASSEMBLY (620–23)
A. Action of Eighty-third (2016) General Assembly
The Eighty-Third (2016) General Assembly granted the request of Overture 1 by directing the CCE to consider the preparation of a “Modern English Study Version” of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that would modernize the language of the catechism without changing its meaning, and report to the 84th General Assembly.
1. CCE Recommendation to Eighty-fourth (2017) General Assembly
The CCE considered the preparation of a “Modern English Study Version” of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (MESV) and presented the following recommendation to the Eighty-fourth (2017) General Assembly:
The CCE recommends to the Eighty-fourth (2017) General Assembly that it, in accordance with FG 32.3, elect a special committee or authorize a standing committee to make specific proposals for changes to the doctrinal standards of the OPC (The Confession of Faith and Catechisms) that are morphological in nature (e.g., “thee” to “you” and “hath” to “has”) and update clearly obsolete and archaic words (e.g., “stews” in Larger Catechism 139).
a. This recommendation permits a committee to propose the narrowest sort of linguistic changes that would not alter a theological term or doctrine.
b. While there may be things in Scripture that are hard to understand, the church’s summary of what Scripture teaches should not use language that is hard to understand. Doctrinal standards by their very nature should use the language commonly used in the church today.
c. Given the widespread use in our church of modern English versions of the Bible, it is unseemly that our members (and particularly our youth) find the language of our doctrinal standards less accessible than the Bible translations in general use. There are some archaic forms and words in our doctrinal standards that grow more foreign with the passing of time.
B. Action of Eighty-fourth (2017) General Assembly
The 84th General Assembly acted in the following way upon this recommendation:
43. ACTION ON RECOMMENDATION. The recommendation of the Committee on Christian Education was placed on the floor (See §37). On motion it was determined that the pending motion be referred to the Committee on Christian Education for any perfections that may help the Assembly, and to confer with the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations as to whether or not it is necessary to communicate this recommendation to other churches that adhere to the Westminster Standards, and if so, how, and report to the 85th General Assembly (84th GA Minutes).
C. CCE Consultation with Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (CEIR)
The CCE endeavored to follow such instructions of the General Assembly and took the following actions:
1. It committed the matter to its Special Committee to Consider the Preparation of an MESV of the WSC.
That Committee met on several occasions and reported to the October 2017 meeting of the CCE, at which the CCE authorized Messrs. Olinger and Strange to confer with the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations at its meeting on Friday, November 17, 2017, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about whether it is necessary to communicate the CCE’s recommendation regarding changes to the doctrinal standards of the OPC to other churches that adhere to the Westminster Standards, and if so, how. Messrs. Olinger and Strange met with CEIR as instructed and interacted with the CEIR members. The CEIR then communicated their counsel to the CCE in a letter.
The CCE through its Special Committee appreciates its consultation with the CEIR on this matter and offers the following observations.
1. The suggestion of the CEIR that, with the approval of the General Assembly, the CEIR request NAPARC to form a study committee to recommend specific changes that update the language of the Westminster Standards, seems at odds with the NAPARC Constitution, which says one function of NAPARC is to “Promote the appointment of committees to study matters of common interest and concern, and when appropriate, make recommendations to the Council with respect to them” (Constitution, IV.3), and the NAPARC Bylaws, which state, “Study Committees are established to study matters of mutual concern to the Member Churches and, when appropriate, to make recommendations to the Council with respect to such matters (bearing in mind the nature and extent of the Council’s authority, Constitution, V)” (Bylaws, V.2). This suggestion would seem to put NAPARC in the position of recommending something to one of its member churches that said member has not even decided to undertake.
2. What is in view here is not doctrinal modification of the Westminster Standards but linguistic updating. This is a work that the OPC can, and should, do if it is to be done. To look to an outside body to give us its suggestions before the General Assembly even decides to undertake linguistic modifications is unprecedented and unwarranted.
3. We do believe that consultation with NAPARC should occur if the OPC determines that it should modify its standards as proposed. If the GA erects a committee to update the language of its doctrinal standards, then it should, at that point, notify the members of NAPARC as to its actions and invite any input that they care to offer. Such a procedure (especially the invitation for members’ input) would more than fill the NAPARC mandate in this regard and would be the appropriate interaction with NAPARC (as opposed to what CEIR proposes).
In addition to interacting with CEIR and its advice, the Special Committee has engaged the arduous work of attempting to produce a version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism with updated language. Subsequent to the meeting of Messrs. Olinger and Strange with the CEIR, the Special Committee met in phone conference twice and in person once (at Mid-America Reformed Seminary). The Special Committee agreed on morphemic changes (“hath” to “has” and the like) as well as that certain words are obsolete or archaic and warrant changing. However, the Special Committee was unable to agree in every case on what such words should be changed to as well as what to do with other matters such as Bible translation.
The Special Committee has concluded that deciding in detail what should be changed and to what it should be changed is properly the work of a special committee elected by the General Assembly to make such proposals to a subsequent Assembly (following the constitutional process of FG 32.2). While this Special Committee of CCE had anticipated providing the General Assembly a completed example of updating the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Special Committee has concluded that such an offering would be presumptuous and might unduly tie the hands of any committee elected by the General Assembly to propose updated language for the doctrinal standards of the OPC.
Thus, the Special Committee has concluded that it would be better to clarify the principial issues in such an undertaking (see attached summary), rather than provide an example of a finished product, and bring to the 85th General Assembly the recommendation that we brought to the 84th General Assembly, with this change: we have come to believe that a committee whose members are all elected by the General Assembly would be preferable to undertake such work (rather than giving it to an already extant committee). Electing a committee to do this work would give the GA maximal control over its membership as well as its mandate and best serve the Church.
Accordingly, the special committee recommends to the CCE that it propose the same recommendation to this Assembly with this change: “…the Assembly elect a special committee to make specific proposals for changes….” The Special Committee believes that the grounds brought to the 84th GA should be retained, though the CCE may wish to add additional grounds. The Special Committee also recommends that the CCE add a second recommendation regarding communicating with member churches of NAPARC should the Assembly adopt the first recommendation.
1. The CCE recommends that the Eighty-fifth (2018) General Assembly, in accordance with Form of Government XXXII.3, elect a committee of seven members, with two alternates, to propose specific linguistic changes to the doctrinal standards of the OPC (The Confession of Faith and Catechisms). The committee is authorized to propose only such changes as do not change the doctrine or meaning of the standards. The kinds of changes that the Assembly authorizes the special committee to consider are limited to the following:
a. Morphological changes, such as “executeth” to “executes” and “hath” to “has.”
b. Replacing archaic pronouns, e.g., “thou” to “you.”
c. Replacing obsolete and/or archaic words, e.g., “stews” in LC 139. This includes, as in the example just given, replacing words that are still current in the language but are used in obsolete or archaic senses in the standards.
d. Substituting a modern translation of the Scriptures for the text of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
In all cases, the committee is to strive to propose changes that preserve the cadence, memorability, and dignified style of the standards.
1. This recommendation permits a committee to propose the narrowest sort of linguistic changes that would not alter a theological term or doctrine.
2. While there may be things in Scripture that are hard to understand, the church’s summary of what Scripture teaches should not use language that is hard to understand. Doctrinal standards by their very nature should use the language commonly used in the church today.
3. Given the widespread use in our church of modern English versions of the Bible, it is unseemly that our members (and particularly our youth) find the language of our doctrinal standards less accessible than the Bible translations in general use. There are some archaic forms and words in our doctrinal standards that grow more foreign with the passing of time.
2. If Recommendation 1 passes, the CCE recommends that the Eighty-fifth (2018) General Assembly notify the member churches of NAPARC that it has erected a special committee to propose linguistic updating of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and include details of the specific mandate, and that it welcomes any input that the churches of NAPARC might desire to give with respect to such proposed linguistic revision.
Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2019.