Since the Christian Reformed Church’s inception in 1857, we have identified ourselves as a denomination in the Reformed tradition by what we call our Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. At our next annual leadership meeting, Synod 2012, we will consider Synod 2009’s proposal to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession. Many congregations and classes (regional groups of churches) have already spent much time discussing the proposal.
The Belhar is not a lengthy document, only two pages (see crcna.org/belhar). It comes to us from the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa, which adopted it as a fourth confession. Our sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America, granted it confessional status at its 2011 leadership meeting.
The Belhar presents three prominent biblical themes: unity, reconciliation, and justice.
Based on discussions so far in churches and classes, we may anticipate that the discussion at Synod 2012 will center on whether to adopt the Belhar as a confession, whether to accept it as a document similar to our Contemporary Testimony, or whether to receive it as information about a development that has taken place in South Africa but is not relevant in North America.
I’d like to summarize some of the concerns expressed about adopting the Belhar as a confession, as well as some of the thoughts in favor of adopting it.
First the concerns. You may have heard questions about the wisdom of accepting the Belhar as another confession when a declining number of our members are aware of the content of the confessions we already have. So why, people are asking, would we add a fourth confession when the three we already have seem to play a minimal role in our denomination?
The Fall 2010 issue of Calvin Theological Seminary’s Forum publication included five articles about the Belhar Confession. Two seminary professors commended the document for its strengths but expressed serious reservations about adopting it as a confession in the CRC. Professor John Bolt has reservations about the Belhar as a confession because it fails to highlight the biblical insistence on repentance, forgiveness, and faith as germane to reconciliation. Professor John Cooper believes the Belhar is subject to misinterpretation on such an important biblical issue as universalism. In his opinion, the Belhar is too ambiguous on the matter to be granted confessional status. In the June 2011 issue of The Banner, Cooper also stated other reservations about the wisdom of adopting the Belhar as a confession.
The perceived ambiguity of the document has been expressed in other contexts. The concern is that the Belhar is open to misinterpretation on more levels than universalism. Granted that unity is given significant biblical emphasis in Scripture, is the Belhar clear on what unity means for our relationship with brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions? Some insist that a confession be clear on such a major point.
Some ask if the Belhar might undercut the hard work we have already done to arrive at a clear and understandable biblical position about homosexuality. They would prefer that a confessional statement not be open to misunderstanding.
Finally, the matter of justice also seems ambiguous. We agree that justice is a major subject in the Bible. However, it seems to some that a confessional document ought to do more than simply note that Christians are to be just in all they do.
Along with concerns, we can also expect to hear opinions expressed in favor of adopting the Belhar as a confession.
Synod will surely be reminded that the Belhar does not intend to add another doctrinal statement to those we already have. Rather, it is a call to action, a call arising from Scripture as well as from our doctrinal understanding of God's Word. A call to biblical action should be a significant part of our confessional position.
[The Belhar] provides what some claim is the missing link in our current confessions.
The Belhar thus provides what some claim is the missing link in our current confessions. By its call to action, it responds powerfully to the criticism that the church has lost credibility because of its emphasis on biblical doctrine to the neglect of Scripture’s emphasis that faith without deeds is dead. The Reformed Church in South Africa is a case in point. It held to the doctrines set forth in the Three Forms of Unity, while at the same time living in harmony with the evils of apartheid. The authors of the Belhar are convinced that had this document been in place, apartheid would not have been accepted as compatible with Scripture.
The Fall 2010 issue of Calvin Seminary’s Forum also included three articles by seminary professors who favor adopting the Belhar as one of our confessions. Professor Mariano Avila urges the church to walk in the shoes of those who authored the Belhar. They know from experience what it means to be relegated to inferior positions in the name of the Lord.
Avila refers to the Belhar as a “cry from the heart” of a people who suffered great indignity at the hands of Christians. He also points out that the issues of South Africa have just as much relevance in North America. Indeed, we continue to hear cries throughout the world from people who suffer from racism, alienation, and injustice.
Professor Lyle Bierma's article in the Forum notes the Belhar meets all the requirements we expect from a Reformed confession: it is a document we can confess together, it provides valuable biblical truths to be used in our preaching and teaching ministries, it can be a measure of orthodoxy, and it declares what we understand it means to be active in the faith as Reformed Christians.
Professor Ronald Feenstra points out that the Belhar “provides a clear witness to those both inside and outside the church, articulating the gospel message and its implications for authentic Christian faith and life.”
While it may be true that many Christian Reformed Church members know little about the confessions we already have and that we seem to have lost credibility as a church in the Reformed tradition, Synod 2012 will no doubt be urged to realize that the Belhar can restore the authenticity we seem to have lost because it moves the church from looking primarily inward (to its doctrinal position) to outward, toward the kind of action sorely needed today.
The Reformed Church in America’s adoption of the Belhar Confession in 2011 will also factor into the discussion at Synod 2012. While the RCA’s action does not compel us to follow suit, synod will likely take it into serious consideration since our two denominations are developing a stronger relationship.
While some express concerns that the Belhar will undermine certain Reformed theological positions—for example, on homosexuality—we should note that the document insists on a fair and just biblical base for whatever position we take. Since our position on homosexuality is rooted in Scripture, that should not pose a problem. The Belhar simply states that we believers in the Calvinistic tradition are firmly committed to the biblical principles of unity, reconciliation, and justice.
Delegates to Synod 2012 will need our prayerful support as they wrestle with whether to grant the Belhar confessional status. Cogent arguments question the wisdom of Synod 2009’s proposal to do so, but equally moving arguments support it. I look forward to the discussion. Whatever decision synod reaches, I pray it will enhance the ministry of the CRC.
Questions for Discussion
- Hoksbergen lists a number of concerns that have been raised about Synod 2012 adopting the Belhar as a confession. How do you evaluate these concerns? Do you share any of them? Do you have others?
- What reasons does Hoksbergen cite that would favor the adoption of the Belhar as a fourth confession for the Christian Reformed Church? Are these persuasive to you? Do you have others?
- How does the adoption of the Belhar by the Reformed Church in America affect the way in which we should deal with the Belhar? Should that make a difference in what we do with it?
- Synod 2012 has at least one more option other than to give the Belhar full confessional status or to reject it outright: it could decide to adopt the Belhar as a testimony on the same level as Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony, but not give it full confessional standing. Would that be a better option?
- Hoksbergen writes, “The Belhar presents three prominent biblical themes: unity, reconciliation, and justice.” Regardless of whether the CRC adopts the Belhar, do you think we are doing enough as a denomination to address those biblical mandates? Is your congregation doing enough? Are you personally? What does Scripture ask of us?