I thank Dr. Cooper for his contribution to Reformed Matters (“Why the Belhar Should Not Be a Confession,” June 2011). But I do not find compelling the seven reasons he cites for denying the Belhar confessional status. Here’s why.
1. Insufficient Content. Dr. Cooper asserts that the Belhar should not be a confession because it does not summarize the Christian faith as our other creeds do. But why should it? Instead of defining creed narrowly to exclude the Belhar at the start, as Dr. Cooper does, why not say that a creed is any statement of the church on significant topics that the church wants to memorialize as a confession? This definition allows us to accept the Belhar as a doctrinal standard within the context of what our existing confessions say about Christian faith.
By adopting the Belhar we can renew covenant and agree publicly to norm our lives by biblical teaching.
Rev. Anton Dooyer of Ohrigstad, South Africa, an original signer of the Belhar Confession, says that the Belhar was written to rescue the gospel from being used by Reformed Christians to support the evil ideology and practice of apartheid. Christians in South Africa were adjusting the gospel to prevailing culture rather than reforming culture by the gospel. Are we in the CRC absolutely sure that we are not acculturating the gospel to the materialism, individualism, and relativism of contemporary culture? By adopting the Belhar as our fourth creed, we can renew covenant and agree publicly to norm our lives by biblical teaching. But about this, in Dr Cooper’s essay, there is not a whisper.
2. Social Gospel/Liberation Theology. The Belhar is 25 years old. Other Reformed denominations with razor-sharp theologians have investigated it thoroughly and voted to receive it as a creed. These include the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa, the South and West Cape Regional Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, and the Reformed Church in America.
Since adopting the Belhar as a creed, none of these denominations has jettisoned its orthodoxy in a rush to endorse social gospel or liberation theology programs.
3. Theological Ambiguity. I find this point, without an example of ambiguity in the Belhar, to be, well, ambiguous. Perhaps Dr. Cooper is referring to this Belhar phrase: “that God is in a special way the God of the poor.” Could this phrase unleash theological mischief? Jesus is unambiguous when he appoints the poor and the marginal as his representatives: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). It seems clear that Jesus has created a special position for them in his kingdom. Why, then, the worry?
4. Confessional Integrity. Have we not been embarrassed by language in our creeds? Consider Q&A 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which excoriates the mass as “condemnable idolatry” or language in the Canons of Dort that calls us to detest the Anabaptists. Integrity has led synod to made decisions to distance ourselves from those inflammatory pronouncements. Will integrity lead us similarly to revise the language of the Belhar? I think not.
5. Redundancy. What connects the documents Dr. Cooper lists is that they are all CRC. By definition, however, creeds bind denominations together. When we adopt the Belhar, we will be joining churches around the world.
6. Precedent-setting. Since the CRC has never adopted a new creed, should we be concerned that accepting the Belhar will unleash a pent-up desire for more creeds on more topics? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course not.
7. Potential Divisiveness. The only church in the CRC to have adopted the Belhar as a fourth confession is First Seattle. In it the Belhar has functioned as a reconciling and healing presence.