The Belhar Confession: An Invitation
January 20, 2012
Updated June 28, 2018
9 comments 169 views
The three confessions of the Christian Reformed Church are our foundational identity documents. They each arise out of the context of specific historical instances of either oppression and persecution by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church or controversy within the 17th century Reformed churches of the Netherlands. They are cries for the acceptance of a theological perspective and for the legitimacy of the community which held to that perspective. Each say in their own way: this is our faith, theological framework, and spirituality; based in Scripture, consistent with the ancient creeds, and resonant with our experience steeped in the suffering of our community. At the time our confessions were written, people were being imprisoned, and in some instances even killed, because they adhered to the positions taken in them. No wonder, then, that the Heidelberg Catechism begins by addressing the issue of the security of the community: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” We cherish our confessions because they say what we believe; they tell our story. We spilled blood for them. They define us.
At a recent gathering I heard a Native American (First Nations) CRC leader say, “When I read the Belhar Confession, I read the story of my people.” African-American and Hispanic leaders in the audience affirmed that this was also their experience. The theology and spirituality of the Belhar resonates deeply with the experience of suffering and liberation of these communities in ways that may be difficult for those of us from European backgrounds to fully understand. I heard these brothers and sisters share how they hear in the Belhar what we from Northern European backgrounds hear in our current confessions. The Belhar tells the story of how God liberated them and their people, granting them legitimacy and security.
For colonialized people who have been robbed of their identity by those who stole their land, their language and their cultures and then sought to justify that theft with racial theories and theological reasoning, the issues of Unity, Justice and Reconciliation take on powerful, life-defining dimensions. By using the violence of apartheid in South Africa as a backdrop, the Belhar enables us to explore the centrality of Scripture’s teaching on Unity, Justice and Reconciliation just as the oppressions and controversies of our ancestors' time enable us to explore our current confessions with their theological distinctives.
The Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, and Belhar Confession each invite us to solidarity with the communities whose theological reflection and historical experience brought them into being. Adopting all four of these confessions will enable us to share our histories, our identities, and our faith so that what was yours is now also mine, and what is mine is now also yours. In the end we can all, with added fervency and depth, give our Lord the glory which is His due.
Today the “we” of the CRC is no longer just white, Dutch background people like me. We are determined, with God’s help, to increasingly become a diverse family with all of its richness and complexity. Among other things, this requires us to listen to each other’s stories so that we can become more fully the beloved community together. We are now being invited to learn more about what God is like, what it means to be a Reformed Christian, and what it means to be the church from our brothers and sisters who clearly hear their story told in the Belhar. It is a story of astonishing power and beauty. It is also a story which speaks strongly of sin and pain. In the Belhar, those of us from a Northern European Dutch Reformed background are challenged to recognize that, in the case of the historical background of the Belhar, it was people from our larger Dutch Reformed family who were the oppressors. This factor is one of the most important ways the Belhar differs from our current confessions. In them we Reformed people were the ones being victimized; in the Belhar, some of our larger family of Reformed people were the victimizers. Because of this, the Belhar offers opportunities for the CRC to confess its faith as a diverse family of God, which the other confessions do less intentionally. What happens when those who identify with the oppressed explore the Biblical themes of Unity, Justice and Reconciliation alongside those who are more traditionally identified with their oppressors? Through the agency of the Belhar, the CRC is invited to participate in this powerful work of God. To become a truly diverse family, this exploration is essential. The Belhar enables us to have a conversation that we simply must have.
Is it possible for the various communities that form the CRC to tell each other the truth about the realities of their lives and their faith? Can we get beyond the distortions our violence-filled cultural history has given us? These may seem like odd questions. They arise out of my experience as a missionary in Asia for 18 years. During that time I was impressed by how difficult, and how rare, it was for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, to tell each other the truth. Therefore, genuine relationships between them were not really possible. Even in the church — in some ways especially in the church — I saw the old games of power and abuse being played. Moving back to America I find it is not different here and I doubt if it is significantly different in Canada either. We need the Belhar to help us confront how the lies of abusive power, with its presumed superiority for some and imposed sense of inferiority for others, have warped our identities. None of our current confessions can be as clearly helpful to us to confront this evil as can the Belhar.
All confessions address us in our sin and are meant to affect our behavior. None of them are merely abstract theological doctrines that are understood adequately when divorced from their historical contexts. One of the functions of a confession is to highlight the theological issues central to ecclesiastical communities in times and places of crucial significance for that community. They, thereby, address matters of timeless and universal value. This is what I have heard Native American, Hispanic and African American CRC leaders say the Belhar does for them. The Belhar helps them tell us, their white, European background brothers and sisters, the truth about what it means to be Christians and part of our CRC family. It affirms their personal and cultural value in the CRC and in God’s Kingdom. It helps all of us understand first of all our God, and then also ourselves and each other, without the familiar distortions which have brought separation into our family. By focusing on Unity, Justice and Reconciliation, the Belhar can help us in the CRC lay aside our distorted identities and tell the truth to each other. Saying “no thanks” to the invitation to adopt the Belhar would be, in my mind, missing out on a tremendous opportunity to enable us to be the diverse family God has called us to be.
The CRC is being asked to make room for the stories (theology, spirituality, history and identity) of communities whose historical route to the Reformed faith is more immediately resonant with those of peoples oppressed by the European colonialization of Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America than with those oppressed in Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Are we willing to give their story, as exemplified in the Belhar Confession, equal status to ours as one of the foundational identity documents of our denomination? The alternative, it seems to me, is to communicate that all who belong to the CRC family must identify primarily with the Northern European story of the 16th and 17th centuries because, we say, it is only that story which can be truly normative for our family. That would result in a tremendous loss for us all.
Connect to The Network and add your own question, blog, resource, or job.Add Your Post
Thank you for these well thought out comments. I agree with you that the stories contained in the Belhar need a wider discussion. But to make them part of the church's confession is going a step too far. Sad to say that the CRCNA (in general) has relegated the three forms of unity that we do have, to the back burner. So has the preaching on these documents. The use of the ten commandments and the apotles creed are also on that sloop.
The CRCNA, of which I am a member, as organism is getting ever more socially, rather than missionally, active via its bureaucracy. The excellent work in Home Missions (church plants) World Missions, BTGMI and diaconal work of CRWRC is excellent. The involvement of the CRCNA in Kairos and Centre for Dialogue with the Government (in Canada) is more problematic. My fear is that the Belhar, if elevated to Confessional standard will undermine the missional work of the CRCNA while giving undue (too much) emphasis in the social aspect.
Good comments! If a confession is an historically embedded "story telling," and the CRC is no longer a "North & West Europian story" church, perhaps rather than adopting the story/confession of South Africa, we should be writing our own confession as North American Reformed Christians facing attacks of hedonism, materialism, individualism, naturalism and fundamentalism and in such a document tell our story of striving to be "in but not of" this society.
If we are to adopt the Belhar because we need to include stories others in the Reformed faith globally, then we really should not stop with the Belhar but adopt all such stories/statments from others. But that would not be very helpful. It seems to me, that the call from South Africa to stand with them in their story requires that we respond with our own story in our context based on the same gospel message of reconcilliation and salvation/healing in Christ.
At least the Belhar context is more relevant to the CRC story today than the other three creeds if you compare only on the basis of history. All confessional statements' content has relevance of course as far as it faithfully reflects the teachings of Scripture. But the Belhar is still not our (the CRC's) story.
I wonder if part of the hesitancy in embracing the Belhar as a confession arises out of the fact that, though we share some similar historical situations, the Belhar is not born out of our story but theirs. Our situation is not identical with theirs. Our situation today in North America is also not that of the European 16th & 17th centuries, hense the decline in appropriateness of our present confessions (especially for example, the Canons of Dort, the way it is worded and fails to communicate in today's ecumenical context)
Can we write a new confession for today's CRC, perhaps synthesizing some of the best relevance of the old three and some of the Belhar as well? When you explore other denominational web sites, they often have a somewhat contemporary write up for "what we believe" rather than simply referencing their historical documents. Maybe add a few more articles to the Belgic confession about wealth and power and the selfless calling of discipleship to Jesus or something. And what about re-writing the Canons of Dort to more appropriately place us in the family of denominations rather than simply denounce other parts of the Body of Christ. Just a thought.
Thank you Albert Hamstra, Amen.
Appreciate John's comments. It is exactly such discussions that we are having as individuals that makes my point. Each Sunday I get "fed" by God's word. It impacts my life and how I function in society. I join organizations (political and others) and participate in their "mission and vision". The church should be busy with "Word" proclamation and urging us to get involved. In the CRCNA we have Republicans, NewDemoncrats, Conservitives, Democrats etc. (mixing Americans/Canadians with the names!)
We need Christians in all areas of life and make impacts. I just do not believe the Church, except in extra- ordinary circumstances, should speak on my behalf to goverments. In both Canada and the US we have organizations, specifically created for that purpose, that do that very well.
Our schools (both Christian and Public) need to do a better job in teaching the topics (history) that involve social history. What is going on in Africa (and other places) today with displacements of whites, blacks and minorities is still unfolding.
There is little in this lead post I can agree with.
Our three confessions are simply not stories, but rather confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism reads like, well, a catechism. If you never read the historical footnotes in the Psalter, you'd have no idea about its historical context. It is a catechism obviously designed to teach theological propositions (one per week even).
The Belgic Confession is also a statement of fundamental confession, not a story. Again, I'd challenge anyone to find a person unfamiliar with the Belgic Confession, have him/her read it, and then have him/her explicate the historical context. Read it yourself. It covers theological topics quite systematically, but it too is simply not a story. Now it could be there was also a story at play when de Bres wrote the Belgic Confession, but he didn't write that story when he wrote the Belgic Confession. He may have written a story in another writing, but it wasn't the BC and we didn't adopt any other of his writings as a confession.
Canons of Dordt. Different than the HC and BC, but again certainly not a story. Rather, it is a set of synodical decisions in response to about certain doctrinal teachings, highly "theoretical" ones at that. Again, it happened within a historical context (nothing human does not happen within a historical context), but that doesn't make it a story. If it does, then everything is a story, and if everything is story, isn't not meaningful to identify anything as a story because that would be a given.
I don't even think the Belhar is as much of a story as it is a political statement. Sure, it goes on and on making flowery worded theological statements that are nothing new, but then its gets to its core point, that being the assertion that God is God in a special way to the poor and oppressed. Not only is that statement unbiblical, it's fundamentally political. Liberation theology, including the regular and black versions (Black liberation theology) use that assertion as a cornerstone. Moreover, if one simply observes the subseqent political statements made by those who "gave us" the "gift" of the Belhar, one can see that directly. The sequel to the Belhar Confession is the Accra Confession, already adopted by those who "gave us" the Belhar. The Accra Confession contains the substantially identical cornerstone assertion that declares God to be a special God to the poor and oppressed, but then it continues on beyond the words of the Belhar to make more clear what that means. It lifts up third world countries and condemns first world countries. It ascribes victim status for third world countries, declaring their problems to arise from "empire" powers in first world countries. It condemns "neo-liberal" political/economic theories--yes those same political/economic theories that find their historical origin in Calvinist thinking set in opposition to Roman Catholic theories--and advocates for political centrism. It condemns allowing capital to play a large role in economic dealings, in very much the same way that neo-Marxism (even Marx himself in Das Kapital) does.
Please understand this is not "slippery slope" argument. That is, I'm not saying adopting the Belhar will lead to the Accra. Rather I'm saying those who have asked us to adopt the Belhar have already adopted the Accra. They are saying "do what we did" and what they have done is adopted the Accra and begun working that out in the political/economic world. If we say "yes" to making the Belhar one of our confessions, we will be saying yes to a political/economic perspective. At least that's how those who "gave us" the Belhar will see it.
Also please understand I do not claim that anyone, including anyone in the CRCNA, shouldn't be able to have whatever political/economic perspective he/she may choose to have. Two people can adopt our three forms of unity, and the CRCNA's perspective on Scripture and come to completely different political/economic views. Neither should be excommunicated. What I am saying is that the CRCNA should not itself, as a church institution, adopt a political/economic statement (which the Belhar is), nor even a "story" as one of its confessional statements. If we begin to divide the CRCNA by adopting specific political/economic perspectives, we will begin the process of morphing from an institutional church to a political association. Certainly, it would still make some noises like that of a church, but then so did the Liberation Theology movement embodied by Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Understand too that many churches in North America, including "politically conservative" churches, have been unable to resist the tempation of becoming political, albeit on the other side of the political spectrum. Until perhaps 15 years ago, the CRCNA had largely avoided that temptation--from either side. No more it seems. Our ecumenical organization, the WCRC, is not much more than a political organization, and one aligned with the Belhar and the Accra Confessions.
Adopting "stories" or poltical statements that sound appealing to some may be tempting, even create the appearance of short term gain, but unless the CRCNA remains a church institution, its meaningful role as a highly respected church within the North American community of churches will diminish quickly.
Having taught our Confessions to students for nearly two decades, I would love the opportunity to sit down over a cup of coffee with you and explain why your anlysis of the passages you mentioned from the HC and BC is patently incorrect, however, this particular forum is neither the time or place for that discussion.
Your main argument seems to be that our Confessions were "in fact written in response to a specific set of circumstances." This is of course true, yet it misses Doug's point that though they were written within certain contexts, the topics the Confessions address are not, for the most part, contextually bound. I qualify that statement because all three do make passing references to contemporary issues of their day, and although I agree with their conclusions (both then and now), I would also concede that these references are the weakest elements of the 3 Forms.
Why, then, are we considering a document like the Belhar which is entirely dependent upon the circumstances it was written to adress? Especially when there are so many documented examples of the vague assertations contained in the Belhar leading to completely un-Biblical conclusions when it is removed from that original context!
None of the issues you raised - apartheid, Jim Crow laws, injustices committed both by and against native populations - can be considered contemporary in 2012. The most recent of them came to a spectacular ending nearly 30 years ago.
In reviewing this post and these comments I, for one, rejoice at the fact that the basis for what I believe has absolutely nothing to do with 'our stories'.
Response to John re Organizations. We have think tanks (Cardus, Fraser Institute, CPJ, CD Howe, Discovery Institute) who all deal with economic and social issues. Quoting Doug :
"Two people can adopt our three forms of unity, and the CRCNA's perspective on Scripture and come to completely different political/economic views. Neither should be excommunicated. What I am saying is that the CRCNA should not itself, as a church institution, adopt a political/economic statement (which the Belhar is), nor even a "story" as one of its confessional statements. If we begin to divide the CRCNA by adopting specific political/economic perspectives, we will begin the process of morphing from an institutional church to a political association".
Note the range of thinks tanks that I mentioned. I am sure Christians (including CRC folks) are members and possibly even employees of these organizations. So I say "Amen" to Dougs comments.
Being just an Elder I often search for right words and I find Scripture my guide for Wisdom.
Appreciation and respect is given to ALL who share their views in this discussion.
"It seems to me that there are issues with the Canons, the HC, and the BC which we tend to work around. My point is not that we have to get rid of the the original three, but the original three do not deal adequately with some of today's issues."
There is a process for changin the confessions so as to not have to "work around" them, which process was used to produce the current BC Article 36 that you quote (and complain about) in your post before the post quoted above. The CRC Synod changed Article 36 (the RCA kept the original version) in a way that made it less "political" (good) and more biblical (also good). You seem to cite the current CRCNA Article 36 as an example of a problem with the BC, but I'd respectfully suggest, given your critique, you are not reading it fairly (accurately) at all. In fact, I'd suggest BC Article 36 sets forth (though not completely) a principle of "sphere sovereignty," at least as to government, which is quite biblical. You say Article 36 wouldn't go down well with Canadian or American courts. Actually, I think you are wrong on that. At least in the United States (I'm not Canadian), we have a federal first amendment which, as interpreted and reflected in the state constitution of the various states, is pretty compatible with BC Article 36. (Makes sense: a Calvinist worldview dominated political thinking when the constitution was written).
Why should we give up on refining the original three confessions (if needed) and choose instead to adopt a new "confession" (story?) that has many more difficulties? Why should we adopt a blatently unbiblical confessional statement ("that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged")?
Here's the difference between having confessions that are stories and having confessions that are confessions: if they are stories, it really doesn't make much difference what they say because we only regard them in a way that is largely sentimental; but if they are confessions, it does make a difference what they say because we commit to them as rules for living and as truths to teach to future generations.
I'm not suggesting there is not a role for stories in human life, or even in the church, or even in the institutional church, or even at the denominational level in the institutional church. Nor am I saying there is no room in all those places for sentimentallity. But I am saying, essentially in a Sesame Street kind of way, that 'one of these things is not like the other' and that the denomination ought not adopt a story for a confession, as if they are the same thing. Certainly, as I've suggested before, none of our current current confessions (or creeds for that matter) are stories (although there were stories that could have been and were written and read about the historical context surrounding those confessions/creeds), but the church back then understood that essential but basic Sesame Street truth, and so distinguished between stories and confessions/creeds.
And this is what makes me especially concerned. Are we actually unable to distinguish between confessions and stories? Do we care? Do we no longer wish to be, properly defined, a confessional church? Are we so inflicted with feelings of "white guilt" that we've given up on thinking (as opposed to feeling) about these things? Do we want to only be sentimental? Do we want our 'confessions' to no longer really be confessions?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this John, because I am genuinely perplexed about why the CRCNA, given its history, would even think of going in the direction that adopting the Belhar as a confession takes us.
We love your comments! Thank you for helping us uphold the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.