A Confession

The Christian Reformed Church in North America  (CRCNA) is considering adopting the Belhar Confession as one of its confessions.  The Belhar was written by those in the Reformed Churches of South Africa in the wake of apartheid.  For the CRC, this confession would be in addition to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.  Some are embracing it, others are hesitant, and some are outright opposed.  What is the fuss all about?  Here is a brief thought:

We recently discussed the Belhar at our regional Classis meeting as well as among our own church leadership.  It is striking to me how much opposition I heard at Classis to this being approved as a confession.  You’d think we were discussing a change to the canon here.

As we discussed this as a church community, an interesting comment was made by an older and wiser member.  He noted that the three confessions we already have in large part tell us how to think, or what to believe, whereas the Belhar tells us how to live.  He notes that we are seemingly uncomfortable with the latter, because we are adopting a statement that is going to have some say into how I live day to day.  I think he may be onto something.

And if so, isn’t it somewhat ironic that this is where we find ourselves as a church today?  In the Jewish mindset doing always held a higher place in life than simply thinking (or believing) – in other words, as a text of Scripture is discussed, the main point is: how is this telling me to live?  A Greek or Hellenistic mindset, however, focused on the greatness of the human mind and centered around ideas and how to think.  So when this attitude is applied to studying Scripture, the point was, not so much how to live, but what to believe.

If you read the Gospels, you’ll see that Jesus spends nearly all of his time focusing on how we should live, not on details of doctrine or belief.  This should come as no surprise given his Semitic context and the fact that Jesus was Jewish himself.  As the church detached itself from its Jewish roots, it increasingly adopted a Hellenistic attitude toward faith – hence obscure matters of doctrine moved to the forefront of theological conversation, and filled many tomes by the Middle Ages.  In many ways our three confessions are products of this milieu.  Contrasted with the gospels – which endorse us to live radically as disciples of Jesus in light of the present coming of God’s kingdom – it’s not a stretch to say there is a discontinuity.  Can you honestly imagine Jesus wishing to spend any of his time poring over the Canons of Dort?

How refreshing, then, to find a document which rings of Jesus throughout in its endorsement of justice, of unity amidst diversity, and of living in light of the reality of God’s kingdom.  I say, let’s go for it.


From wikipedia:
According to the Belhar Confession, unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church. Another key theme of the Belhar Confession is the dichotomy of reconciliation and the justice of God. According to the confession, God is the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged, and for this reason the church should stand by people in any form of suffering. It claims that individual, racial and social segregation is sin, and that all forms of segregation always lead to enmity and hatred.

The Belhar Confession has been adopted by the Reformed Church of America (RCA).


An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Banner entitled: Our Discomfort with the Belhar.

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5 thoughts on “A Confession

  1. Some Facebook dialogue on the article:

    Mark Renn: Great article. We’re voting on this in February. I like it. There are a lot of great issues in play in this article.
    01 December at 12:12 · Like

    Rob Toornstra: Bryan, I enjoyed reading your article. However, I think you make a mistaken assumption that seems to undercut much of your premise; you state that the Belhar will tell us how to act in day-to-day life, while the other confessions simply tell us what to think or believe. I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion, since there is much in the HC especially, that spells out particulars of how we ought to live, not least of which being that we are to “do all we can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

    I appreciate your thoughts though, and even though we disagree on this, I am thankful for your engagement in this issue.
    01 December at 14:12 · Like

    Bryan Berghoef: Rob, thanks for pushing back. You’re right, I do sell the other confessions a bit short with my generalization. I wondered who would be the first to call me out on that. 🙂 But in a short article, it’s hard to get more detailed specifics and sometimes generalizations have to suffice. I still think that the general premise holds – that the Reformation era definitively placed a heavier emphasis on orthodoxy rather than on orthopraxy.
    01 December at 15:11 · Like

    Rob Toornstra: Bryan — I always appreciate the graciousness you show in your answers… so maybe you’ll indulge me if I push back again… 🙂 Do you really think that the Reformers placed more emphasis on doctrine than on practice? Calvin’s Geneva was all about putting faith into action in the public square; it was about getting sewer systems and sanitation for the city. It was about applying the faith in the public square, in all areas ofe life — precisely what the Catholic Church was NOT doing.

    I grant, though, that historically (in the last 5-75 years?) some churches haven’t done that very well… but I don’;t think that can be blamed on the REformed tradition.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.
    01 December at 15:49 · Like

    Bryan Berghoef: Rob, heavier emphasis doesn’t mean complete absence of the other… and yes, perhaps it is my own experience of how the Reformed heritage gets transmitted today (or as you say, the last 5-75 years) – it was typically about ‘right answers’, and not as often about ‘what do we do about it’. Often the founders of a movement inspire because of their actions (see Jesus, Calvin, Kuyper), while their followers obsess over ‘getting it right’ and turn it into dogma…

    The Hellenistic/Jewish dichotomy I reference in the article begins much much earlier (obviously). Such as the obsession with nailing down a precise christology and other matters in the early councils, which seem so far removed from what we read about in the gospels/acts (note that many of these councils were also outlawing any connection to anything Jewish). Also note rabbinical writings of a similar time frame which go on and on about behavior, and you’ll find very little about nailing down a precise doctrine of God or ‘the Spirit’, or anything like that. Their emphasis also had its faults of course…

    To the extent that we strive for a balance in these things, the better, and perhaps the Belhar provides some of that.

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  2. Another response to the printed piece:

    RE: Belhar – Good job.

    I enjoyed your piece on the Belhar, although I haven’t quite reached an opinion on it. Your piece made me think this is a bit of a parallel with what I feel in dealing with origins issues.

    I’m an old Ellsworth CRC kid, now a retired geology professor. (My wife and I have a place in Atwood, in a couple of months ago we strolled through the former mental hospital in TC, and stumbled on your church. Maybe we’ll visit some Sunday.) I get the sense that the New Testament is mostly about how to live, and the early chapters of the OT, at least, are about what to believe, but I’m heavily into John Walton and others to figure what to believe as fact, and what the NT folks cited as reality but may have actually been models.

    Thanks for giving me another perspective on a couple of things.

    Ken Van Dellen

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  3. Greeting Rev. Berghoef. I read your blog and the Belhar Confession of which you speak. It sounds very familiar to me. Since you and your congregation are so ecumenically minded I hope you do not mind that my Roman Catholic theological underpinning inform my thinking. This document looks very familiar to me. I grew up in the Archdiocese of Detroit attending St. Aiden’s Parish in Livonia, MI. My priest at the time is now the Archbishop of Seattle Fr. Alex J. Brunett. And I was confirmed in the faith by none other than Bishop Tomas Gumbleton (yes, of “that” fame). Google them. I believe you would count them as comrades.
    Anyway, the reason Belhar looks familiar to me is because….it is! Strikingly so. You guys:) You’ve read a lot of books. I’ve seen the list. I’ve listened respectfully and carefully to your sermons. This is Vatican II for Protestants! Oh my goodness, fellas. Go get the docs. Read them. I did, in their entirety. Once when I was as sophomore in high school and then once more when I was a sophomore in College before I decided to leave the church for a more Biblically-centered faith tradition. I’ve heard, or read, you talking to each to other. I know you are sincere… you really are. But look up just a minute.
    This stuff is not new. This is not “emergent”. This is not a sweeping movement of change in church history. Sure there are ebbs and flows in the tides of “pop cultural” christianity all the time. Those of us who have been around long enough are sea sick from the roller coaster ride of expansion and contraction as old ideas are passed off as new again as yet another generation or another denomination tosses them about as new and radical again. Whether or not the idea is meritorious in and of itself, at least properly acknowledge the historical moorings of these ideas (or “theologies/humanisms” as you may term them) and give credit where credit is due. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, for better or for worse. We must think deeply,research thoroughly, beyond just our immediate point in history and cultural subgroup before we form our world view and then try to mass market it to others.
    Oh, and while you are at it, you might as well also admit that the resulting theology is nothing other than “Liberation Theology” from way back–hmmm, let me see, well, come to think about it, I don’t know when, but it’s been around an awfully long time now. I’ts pretty much the basis of the ancient monastic movement. Which, you know it’s fine to be a Liberation theologian. Lots and lots of people are! You just need to say so. Don’t be ashamed of it. I mean, come on…speak up. That’s what Belhar is all about. That’s what Sojourners is all about. Just let the folks from whom you raise money at the National Association of Evangelicals know where you stand. There may be a few inconsistencies between the two documents. But what do I know…I’m just a mom to 11 kids who stays home, bakes cookies, stood faithfully beside her husband for years in ministry, filled the drinks of students while they talked about God, barbequed all their hot dogs, picked up their trash when they were done and prayed for them by name. Why, I hardly got to say two words to them.

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    1. Hi Lisa-
      Thanks for putting some thought into your response. Appreciate your ability to make connections to other movements in history, and remind us that many things that seem new really aren’t. I would agree with you on much of that, and I certainly don’t presume to be inventing new theology or coming up with things no one has ever thought before, and if I have, it would be somewhat presumptuous. I rarely have a new thought – I mostly just read a lot, and sometimes make some conclusions from that.

      I would say though that there are real shifts happening in theology and the church today (which have deep and sometimes old roots). Within the last two hundred years we have had a much greater respect for and ability to search into the historical context, linguistic nuances, archaeological discoveries and so on which help us understand the text of the Bible better – and that cannot be underestimated nor invented. Prior to the 17/1800’s, almost everything in the Bible was just taken at face value without regard to details of original context. Today, we realize that we are dealing with historical documents written by human beings in certain contexts, politically, religiously, socially, etc, and that there were often stages of development in books in the Bible (more than one author, redactors, editors, etc.) – doesn’t necessarily make it less from God, but it does make it more complex, interesting, and less obvious as to its intent. We have also made discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi documents which have added much to our understanding of first century Jewish and Christian literature. Some of this stuff is actually new (new to us). Christians did not used to take seriously the Jewishness of Jesus, in fact, you could say they went out of their way to minimize that. When you read something from an Eastern, semitic point of view instead of a Western, modern, post-Enlightenment point of view, you can actually come up with very different interpretations of an apparently simple statement. To blow this off as irrelevant or unimportant I think gives little credence to the Bible. It doesn’t take it seriously. Taking it seriously means exploring it to every depth possible, even when it winds up taking us places that challenge our dearly held theological assumptions. Anything less is dishonest (or lazy).

      I am all for efforts to understand and ground the text in its context. Anyone who does the same is of interest to me, regardless of their label. It’s hard, but necessary work, and I try to do the best I can with my limited time and resources.

      To just label something as Emergent or Liberation Theology is easy, and sometimes helpful, but other times not. The Emergent Church (if there is such a thing) is a varied collection of people from all over the theological and ecclesiastical spectrum. Some I really like, others not so much. As for Liberation theology – there certainly is some overlap in current authors I read and in my own thinking as well. My grandfather wrote a book about Liberation Theology in the 70’s.

      As far as the Belhar, it was written by good Reformed people in a serious historical context, and they were not trying to come up with anything new, but rather take seriously the ancient biblical call for justice. Call that Liberation Theology if you want, but the reality is, Jesus was probably the original Liberation Theologian. 🙂

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  4. One response to the printed piece:

    RE: bouquets for Rev Berghoef’s article in Banner

    Please convey my appreciation to Rev Berghoef regarding his Dec 2010 Banner article on the confessions, particularly Jesus’ emphasis on actually _doing_ things, not just thinking thoughts.

    Though not now a CRC member, I read the on-line Banner for some good articles. I have been in ‘conservative’ Reformed churches for the past 20 years, and recently it has dawned on me that the obsession with 17th century confessions written by pre-modern people, is has limited value and
    definitely not relevant to most modern people. If I were in the CRC I would support emphasizing Christianity as a transformed, Jesus-like life, not a check-list of theoretical beliefs (many of which are rather incredible now anyway).

    The Belhar confession seems to do that.

    Michael Rodgers
    (L.A. County, California)

    Like

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