Does the Heidelberg Catechism Have Anything to Say About Homosexuality?
It is sometimes claimed by proponents of gay marriage in the RCA that our Standards don’t say anything about the subject. For the most part this is true. The Three Forms of Unity were written at a time when no one was questioning the sinfulness of homosexuality. There was no reason to explicate a subject no one was talking about. Our Standards don’t say much about alien abductions either.
On closer inspection, however, our Standards do say something about homosexuality. The Heidelberg Catechism intends to condemn homosexuality in Question and Answer 87. It is true that Q/A 87 makes no explicit mention of homosexuality. The new joint CRC-RCA version is accurate: “No unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like will inherit the kingdom of God.” This is an obvious references to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. And yet, unlike Paul, the Catechism does not mention homosexuality. Is this because Ursinus wanted to be open and affirming? Or is something else at work?
Interestingly, the 1962 translation of the Catechism by Allen Miller and Eugene Osterhaven (longtime professor at Western Theological Seminary) includes “homosexual perversion” in the list of sins mentioned in Answer 87. Miller and Osterhaven understood that Answer 87 is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Hence they included the full Corinthians text from the New English Bible in their translation. Admittedly, this is poor translation practice, which is why the new CRC-RCA translation simply translates the German word unkeuscher with “unchaste.” But in keeping with their own stated translation purposes Osterhaven and Miller were trying to capture the authorial intent behind the text. The translation is poor, but they were right about the meaning.
In summarizing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Ursinus (Heidelberg’s chief author) does not include every sin in the vice list. Most notably, he leaves out several terms related to sexual immorality. This is certainly not because Ursinus and the reformers were ambiguous in their assessment of homosexuality. The reason no explicit mention is made of homosexuality in Answer 87 is because it was considered inappropriate and obscene to even mention such deeds. This is why the Catechism includes the phrase “or the like” (the German text of the Catechism contains no ellipsis as in the old RCA edition). We are meant to fill in the blanks with the rest of the text, the part of the text not fit to be printed for all to see. As Robert Gagnon, one of the world’s foremost scholars on homosexuality and a member of the PCUSA, points out, when Calvin comments on Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9, and Jude 7 in his commentaries he mentions homosexuality only obliquely, referring to the actions and desires as “monstrous,” “polluted,” “most filthy and detestable,” and “the most abominable.” Gagnon also notes that as late as the early 20th century the standard edition of ancient Greek texts published by Harvard University Press “would routinely render Greek classical texts into Latin rather than English whenever coming across favorable discussions of homosexual practice.” To talk or write openly about homosexuality was, for many, simply impolite.
Furthermore, we must remember that Frederick’s first purpose in commissioning the Heidelberg Catechism was “that our youth may be trained.” The Catechism was meant first of all for children, and children, it was thought, should not be corrupted by exposure to such unnatural behavior. Adults would have understood that Answer 87 forbids all the vices mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, including the ones left out or too unseemly to mention.
Clearly, Ursinus believed homosexual behavior to be a sin. In his Commentary on the Catechism, he defines marriage as “a lawful and indissoluble union between one man and one woman, instituted by God for the propagation of the human race” (592). Just as importantly, he says with regard to the seventh commandment: “The first class or kind [of lust] are those which are contrary to nature, and from the devil—such as are even contrary to this our corrupt nature; not only because they are corrupt and spoil it of conformity with God, but also because this our corrupt nature shrinks from them and abhors them. The lusts of which the Apostle Paul speaks in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, are of this class, as the confounding of the sexes, also abuses of the female sex” (591). Not only do we see here an unmistakable rejection of homosexual behavior, we also see Ursinus’ reticence to talk of it in frank terms, referring to such behavior as “the confounding of the sexes” and “the lusts of which the Apostle Paul speaks in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans.”
There is inescapable evidence, then, that the chief author of the Heidelberg Catechism thought homosexuality a sin (which should come as no surprise since every Reformer would have assumed as much). We also have good evidence that Christians of the sixteenth century, not to mention Ursinus himself, were embarrassed to openly name the act of same-sex intercourse. We also have evidence in the words “or the like” that we are meant to fill in the blanks with the rest of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 referenced in Answer 87 (see also Q/A 109). All of this leads to the strong conclusion that while Osterhaven and Miller may have been wrong, from the standpoint of translation philosophy, to insert words in the Catechism that weren’t there in the original, they were not wrong to think that the words they inserted (e.g., “homosexual perversion”) captured the spirit of the Catechism and the true authorial intent of the text. The “unchaste person” or “fornicator” in Answer 87 includes those engaged in same-sex behavior.