Context and Confusion: What Does the Belhar Confess? 

Date Published

October 1, 2010

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Synod 2012 will decide whether to adopt the Belhar Confession as a doctrinal standard of the CRCNA. There are powerful denominational and ecumenical pressures to do so. The Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa has urged us to adopt it. The Reformed Church in America already has adopted it. Those who challenge adopting it risk suspicion of racism or indifference. But the Belhar raises theological issues beyond social justice and racial reconciliation. Our decision will affect our confessional identity, our role in the newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches, and other ecumenical relations. 

My view is this: Properly understood, the Belhar’s condemnation of racism, expression of solidarity with victims, and affirmation of racial reconciliation in Christ are crucial implications of the gospel that we should endorse. But its theological perspective is problematically ambiguous. Because a doctrinal standard should clearly affirm doctrinal truth as well as the right action, we should not adopt the Belhar as a confession but as a contemporary testimony. Our rationale can provide valuable theological leadership in the WCRC. 


Theological Ambiguity 

The ambiguity of the Belhar is its openness to significantly different understandings of God’s redemptive activity that are espoused within the WCRC. These perspectives yield incompatible interpretations of the Belhar, especially its allusion to an axiom of liberation theology: “God is in a special way the God of the destitute, poor, and wronged.” 

Some advocates read the Belhar broadly and progressively. Redemption means liberation not merely from racism but from all kinds of oppression and exclusion—religious, ecological, political, economic, social, cultural, gender, and even sexual orientation. Thus Alan Boesak, an original sponsor of Belhar and past president of the World Association of Reformed Churches, insists that it affirms committed homosexual relationships. Other prominent supporters infer the economics of the Accra Confession or Latin-American socialism, comprehensive prescriptions for global warming, and spiritual affirmation of nonChristian religions. These readings extrapolate well beyond the text. 

However, other advocates, including original sponsors in the URCSA, reject such broad conclusions. Richard Mouw has challenged Boesak on gay marriage. The CRCNA synod of 2009 declared that the Belhar does not affirm homosexual practice, that sin is deeper than social strife, and that salvation comes through true faith in Christ alone. Confessional Reformed advocates typically focus on the Belhar’s condemnation of racial injustice and affirmation of reconciliation in Christ. They deny that it implies a merely social gospel, liberation theology, religious inclusivism, or anything inconsistent with Reformed orthodoxy. 


Theological Context 

Why do well-informed readers understand the Belhar so differently? A key reason is the diversity of “Reformed” worldviews. The WCRC includes denominations with very progressive wings as well as confessional denominations. All WCRC members affirm “the sovereignty of God over everything in creation and redemption,” but we understand that motto in different ways. Unless we face this situation candidly, we cannot participate in the WCRC with integrity, much less discuss the Belhar. 

To make my point, I distinguish two general perspectives— confessional and progressive— each on an end of a theological spectrum. However, I do not know their actual proportion or distribution in the WCRC, and I realize that they have been blended or blurred in a variety of ways. 

The confessional perspective understands the Christian faith as stated in the Reformed confessions (e.g., Three Forms of Unity, Westminster Confession), explained by Reformed theologians (e.g., Bavinck, Warfield), and spelled out in a redemptive-historical worldview that reflects the full teaching of Scripture (e.g., Abraham Kuyper, the testimony Our World Belongs to God). It affirms historic Christian supernaturalism—that the transcendent God acts in supernatural (miraculous) ways as well as in his providence within nature, human hearts, and history. It is evangelical in affirming that the gospel of eternal life in Jesus Christ calls sinners to repentance, faith, and obedience irrespective of their ethnicity, status, or quality of life. It promotes justice and reconciliation in the church because of our unity in Christ. It promotes justice and reconciliation in the world because of God’s providence, Christ’s rule, and the church’s witness to the world’s need for redemption through him. This perspective neither separates nor confuses church and world or this life and eternal life. 

The progressive perspective likewise affirms the sovereignty of God over everything in creation and redemption, but in quite a different way. Its background is Schleiermacher, Hegel, and those Romantics who tried to trump Enlightenment anti-supernaturalism and secularism by asserting the immanence of God’s activity in everything. God brings his king dom through the creative-redemptive development of nature, history, diverse cultures, and even the various religions, until all things are united in him. World history is redemptive history. Creation is the diverse and developing cosmic community of creatures in which God dwells. Sin is whatever human activities impede community, restrict freedom, and cause alienation among God’s creatures—all of which alienate us from God. Salvation is the reconciling power of God—focused in Jesus Christ—that opposes and overcomes alienation. All dynamics that promote liberation, reconciliation, and inclusion of individuals in community are redemptive manifestations of God’s coming kingdom. Accordingly, this perspective typically affirms universal salvation, as well as nonChristian religions and ways of life that promote reconciliation and inclusion. It therefore tends to regard the primary gospel mission of the church as improving people’s lives, not winning converts or starting worship groups. 

This general perspective is prominent among mainline academic theologians. It is behind much of the “missional” theology heralded in WARC and the World Council of Churches. It is also the source of the gender, sexual, socio-economic, political, cultural, ecological, and religious liberation theologies that some attribute to the Belhar Confession. Not Kuyper This perspective sounds like Kuyper because it emphasizes the sovereignty of God over everything and calls Christians to “transform” culture and society. The two viewpoints do share some common affirmations. Kuyper was familiar with this theology. He appreciated its emphasis that “every square inch belongs to God” as well as its call to engage the world, and he even borrowed a number of its terms (e.g. “organic,” “sphere,” “antithesis”). 

But Kuyper was evangelical—converted to Christ while already a minister in a Reformed church. As a biblical supernaturalist, he rejected this progressive theology’s “pantheism”—its wholly immanent view of God’s action in the world. He asserted “the antithesis” against its all-inclusive (thesisantithesis-synthesis) view of creation, redemption, and the coming kingdom, insisting on the ultimate opposition between the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this world. Kuyper acknowledged God’s providential rule and “common grace” in historical dynamics of justice and reconciliation apart from saving grace in Jesus Christ. But he did not consider them part of the coming Kingdom.  Yet he (imperfectly) urged Christians to promote justice and reconciliation in church and society. 

Because of the similarities, it is easy to confuse Kuyperian and progressive perspectives. For example, I was taught that H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ transforming culture” represents Kuyper’s view, whereas Niebuhr actually promotes the progressive position. I suspect that many CRCNA and WCRC members are not aware of the differences. For better or worse, “Reformed worldview” has come to include various blends of “Kuyperian” and “progressive.” 


My Conclusion 

The Belhar Confession is theologically ambiguous because it can be read from at least two disparate perspectives. Each interprets its biblical references and doctrinal assertions, including God’s special relation to the poor and oppressed, differently. Neither one can justify itself or refute the other from the text of the Belhar. Original sponsors stand on both sides. Thus the Belhar is not clearly confessional or clearly progressive, but clearly ambiguous. 

If it is theologically ambiguous, then it cannot perform an essential function of a confession—to clarify what the church teaches. The Three Forms are clear on what they address. But the Belhar is not clear even on some doctrines necessary for a confessional Reformed perspective on salvation, racism, justice, and reconciliation in church and society. Clarity is crucial because competing perspectives and ideologies—mostly progressive, a few reactionary—diagnose racism and prescribe remedies that should not be mistaken as Christian or Reformed. 

Nevertheless, the Belhar has major historic importance for its courageous challenge to racism in church and society and its insistence that the gospel requires racial justice and reconciliation. Interpreted confessionally, it rightly bears the powerful doctrinal, motivational, and ecumenical significance it has within and beyond the CRCNA. These are strong reasons for adopting it.


What Should We Do? 

Given these pros and cons, what is the best option? One solution would be to overlook the theological ambiguity, make the Belhar a confession for the sake of its message of reconciliation, and simply assume that it will be interpreted according to the Three Forms. But that could set up a serious problem. If the Belhar has equal confessional authority, then it can be used to reinterpret the Three Forms by applying the “read the past in terms of the present” hermeneutics that is common in progressive circles. That would result in a more ambiguous or progressive notion of confessional orthodoxy than subscription requires in the CRCNA. 

Perhaps then we should make the Belhar a confession and official ly define its doctrine according to the other confessions, as Synod 2009 began to do. But that would admit its ambiguity, deny it the same authority as the other confessions, and snub other views of the Belhar held in the WCRC. That option lacks integrity. 

So perhaps we should affirm its message without giving it any official status. The reasons are familiar. We already have our own statement on racial reconciliation, “God’s Diverse and Unified Family.” We have grown as a multi-ethnic denomination without the Belhar. And we will not become more diverse just because we adopt it. However, affirming the Belhar without official status may not do it justice. 

The best solution therefore is to adopt the Belhar as a contemporary testimony, subject to the doctrine of the Three Forms and framed by Our World Belongs to God, our current contemporary testimony. Then we ought to explain our reasons to the URCSA, RCA, WCRC, and other ecumenical partners. This is a defining moment for the doctrinal and ecumenical identity of the CRCNA. May the Lord give us the grace and wisdom to do his will.


By John Cooper 


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