Adopting the Belhar: Confession or Testimony?
Published by Calvin Seminary
The Christian Reformed Church is on the verge of doing something it has never done before: adopt another confession. Our other three confessions—the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort—were inherited from our parent denomination, the Reformed Church in America, when we broke away in 1857. We also supplemented those confessions with a less authoritative “contemporary testimony,” Our World Belongs to God, in 1986. But in 2012, for the first time in our history, a synod will vote on adding a fourth confession to our standards of unity—the Belhar Confession (1986) from the country of South Africa.
Not everyone in the CRC, of course, favors this move. Some have argued that the Belhar Confession should first be modified, others that it be given the lesser status of a testimony, and still others that it be rejected altogether. In my judgment, however, the CRC is on the right path in what it is proposing. The Belhar should indeed be adopted, without modification, as a full fourth confession and not simply as another testimony.
Form of Unity
One way of supporting this claim is to look at the roles or purposes that confessions serve in our denomination, and then at how well the Belhar Confession fulfills each role. Four major purposes of confessions are implied in the titles of our three forms of unity and our contemporary supplement: we have a Belgic Confession, a Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, and a contemporary testimony.
In the first place, these documents serve as confessions. The word confession literally means “saying together.” Those who subscribe to a particular confession, therefore, say together, or voice in unison, what it is they believe. In other words, a confession is a form of unity, or one way of expressing the harmony of faith that Christians share across congregational and denominational lines.
The Belhar Confession provides the CRC with a wonderful opportunity to do precisely that. The Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, a denomination of mixed-race and black people that composed the Belhar in the worst days of apartheid (legalized racial segregation) in the 1980s, has long been asking the CRC and its other ecumenical partners to say together with them these powerful words about unity, reconciliation, and justice. In the 1600s the Dutch brought to South Africa the gifts of three confessions born in the midst of religious conflict in Europe. Now a partner Reformed denomination in South Africa is offering the rest of the church a gift born in the midst of their own suffering—a rich explanation of the nature, message, and calling of the church in a broken world. Will the CRC heed their call to stand together with them?
Second, confessions serve as catechisms, or aids in the teaching and preaching ministries of the church. As summaries and interpretations of some of the central themes of Scripture, they can be effective tools in helping people understand the Bible and the basics of the Christian faith. Not all confessions, however, have the same scope. Some, like the Belgic Confession, cover a wide array of doctrinal material. Others, like the Canons of Dort, are narrower in scope, providing fuller explanations of certain doctrines that are treated only briefly in the other confessions.
The Belhar is more like the Canons of Dort than the Belgic Confession in this regard. It begins in Article 1 with a summary of the doctrine of the church that echoes the language of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 54: “We believe in the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects, and cares for the church through the Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.” The remaining articles of the Belhar function as a commentary or deeper reflection on this foundational doctrine of the church. To be “the church” challenges us to manifest ourselves as one church (Art. 2). “God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of . . . irreconciliation and hatred” and “will enable the church to live in a new obedience” in the world (Art. 3). “The church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged” (Art. 4). These grand biblical themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice are not given much attention in our other confessions, and the Belhar would provide us with an authoritative tool for preaching and teaching this expanded doctrine of the church.
Standard of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis
Third, confessions like the Belhar serve as canons, that is, as standards by which to measure orthodoxy (correct teaching) and orthopraxis (correct behavior) and to warn us against false teaching and wrong behavior. To be sure, North American society today does not practice the legal separation of races, and churches do not try to defend it theologically. But those of us in the United States belong to a country that for hundreds of years forcibly transported millions of Africans to our shores, bought and sold them as property, compelled them to work as slaves, dehumanized and brutalized them, and often defended this with Scripture. We belong to a country in which, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, a number of states introduced an American version of apartheid that was often harshly enforced with vigilante violence. We belong to a country that even after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in many ways still practices de facto segregation. And our track record is no better when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans in the United States and First Nations peoples in Canada. Adopting the Belhar, therefore, would hold us more accountable to combat the sin of racism that is still embedded in our hearts, our church, and our society.
Finally, confessions serve as testimonies or statements of identity. They help explain to others who we are and what we stand for. In this role, the Belhar Confession would help the CRC to present a somewhat different face to the world than we have in the past. Our denomination has long been identified with Dutch (and, to a lesser extent, German) ethnicity, and this has sometimes led to racist attitudes and discriminatory practices among us. For example, in the early days of our mission work at Rehoboth, New Mexico, efforts were often made to stamp out the native Navajo culture and replace it with the more “civilized” culture of the white race. In 1920 the CRC synod chose to send its first overseas missionaries to China rather than West Africa because “the people in the Sudan are the type of people of whom one cannot expect the most in the kingdom of God” and “the conservative, intellectual spirit of the Chinese harmonizes more with the character of our people than the emotional nature of the African natives.” And some of us remember the controversial decision in 1965 by the Timothy Christian School board in Cicero, Illinois, to refuse to allow African American children to enroll at the school because of the fear of community violence. With its emphasis on racial reconciliation and harmony, the Belhar Confession would assist the CRC in offering a different public witness than we have sometimes done in our history.
Why Not Another Contemporary Testimony?
Some people who like parts of the Belhar but not the whole confession have suggested that we assign it the lesser status of a contemporary testimony. It should be remembered, however, that when the CRC created this category in the 1980s, it did so because it was introducing a brand-new document (Our World Belongs to God) that could be tested, modified, and perhaps eventually adopted as the confession of a single denomination. The Belhar, by contrast, is not something new, tentative, provisional, or associated with just one denomination. It has stood the test of nearly thirty years as a bold proclamation of some of the fundamental themes in Scripture. Moreover, the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa has from the start urged that it be adopted as a full confession by the broader church, and several denominations, including the Reformed Church in America, have already done so or are in the process.
The Belhar Confession is not a perfect document, as other writers in this issue have pointed out. No human explanation or application of infallible Scripture ever is. Nevertheless, its teachings about the unity of God’s people, the church’s message of reconciliation, and Christian social responsibility pick up some of the dominant rhythms of Scripture. The Belhar thus provides us in the CRC with an historic opportunity to join voices with a partner church from the Global South, to engage biblical truths that are muted in our other confessions, to hold ourselves more accountable for sins of the past and behavior in the future, and to bear witness to our commitment to the visible unity of the church and the promotion of racial reconciliation and justice. The Belhar will serve the CRC well not just as a confession, but also as a catechism, a canon, and a public testimony.
By Lyle D. Bierma
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