Belhar Issue of Forum (By CTS)
October 19, 2010
Updated July 10, 2018
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The fall 2010 issue of Forum (published by Calvin Theological Seminary) features several articles on the Belhar Confession. It's available in PDF format and the table of contents is listed below.
Have you read this issue? What did you think?
Forum - Fall 2010
Table of Contents
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Yes, I read them. Here are my responses to the articles.
First: Mariano Avila, Professor of New Testament starts out by saying that "For years the CRCNA has made efforts to become a multi-ethnic church and to promote racial justice."
Indeed it has. And, like Professor Avila, it has assumed that those two phrases - "multi-ethnic church" and "racial justice" - are roughly equivalent terms. They aren't. He then asserts that the Belhar will help us achieve this goal. How? Doesn't say, really. He does say that the Belhar "has made three doctrines of the Gospel a matter of confession: *The unity of the church... *Reconciliation... and *A call to live God's justice..." Maybe he's forgotten about Q&A 54 and 55 in the Heidelberg Catechism, or Articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession which already make the unity of the church a confessional matter, just as vast swaths of them include an affirmation of reconciliation in Christ with both God and Man. The section of the Heidelberg Catechism encompassing the 10 Commandments (Q&A 86-115), along with various elements of the Belgic Confession do a pretty good job of calling us to live God's justice, too. In other words, by his own criteria, the Belhar is entirely superfluous.
He says "The Belhar Confession is a brave and painful expression of faith, a 'cry from the heart' that we will never understand unless we hear it with our hearts." In other words, it's pretty much an emotional document rather than a theological one. In advocating its adoption as a confessional standard, however, they are asking me to accept it as theologically binding - something he acknowledges it is not intended to be.
I'll grant that it was brave in the South African context, particularly in the time it was written and adopted by the South African churches. It is not particularly brave or painful in an American context. If it were, you can bet we would never have taken it up. He then hits us on our prosperity - "As members of a materially rich denomination, sheltered from and alien to the unbearable sufferings of sisters and brothers in the majority of the world..." Really? What does he know of my suffering or lack thereof? You think people with money never suffer? He then goes on to say that if we do not adopt this confession, we will have become, I guess, inhuman since "We will have lost a part of our humanity."
He quotes approvingly a statement by Charles Villa-Vicencio who chastises us in the West for "a few stock ideas derived from the Christian tradition..." that are nothing "...more than a...conscience-saving exercise, while allowing oppression to persist." Yet adopting the Belhar Confession would be, for the CRCNA, exactly that - a few stock pious phrases that allow us to say we've done our part while ignoring the actual problem. It would do much to assuage White Guilt, but nothing to bring racial or ethnic integration and unity.
Lyle Bierma, Professor of Systematic Theology, also argues that the Belhar should be adopted as a Confessional statement on par with the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort. Essentially he is saying that the Belhar does indeed say what we believe (is a Confession), is useful for teaching (catechesis), and a standard of orthodoxy (canon). From what I've read of the Belhar, I can only agree with him whole-heartedly on the middle one, and that does not require its adoption as a confession. Even Professor Bierma acknowledges that there are serious flaws, though he leaves it to others to point them out.
John Bolt, therefore, takes it upon himself to point those flaws out. He says that the Belhar's focus on social, economic, and political spheres as the essence - and means - of reconciliation is at variance with the Gospel claim that reconciliation is a matter of repentance, forgiveness, and faith in the grace of God through Jesus Christ and his one sacrifice on the cross. I concur. Though Professor Bolt does not state it outright, the Belhar is more a document of Liberation Theology than of classical Reformed teaching and rather than building on the work of Guido de Bres, it builds on the work of Gutierrez. This is echoed and expanded by John Cooper, although he allows that it can be read from a non-Liberation Theology perspective, but this very ambiguity renders it useless as a confessional statement since a confessional statement is made "to clarify what the Church teaches." The Belhar, rather than clarifying, confuses.
Ronald Feenstra does not explicitly call for adopting the Belhar as a confessional statement, though it seems clear he leans that way. He does not address the concerns of Cooper and Bolt, but simply loses himself in the anti-racism theme. This is in effect to set up a straw man, one of the most irksome and irritating things Belhar proponents do. In effect, the implication is that if you don't like the Belhar, you must like racism since all right-thinking anti-racists just love this thing. Boil away the polite nuances of Pete Borgdorff's statements and this is the essence of his argument, too.
I do not need to like the Belhar or want it adopted as a binding confessional statement of the church in order to prove my non-racist bona fides. I find the insinuations and (at times) assertions that I do somewhat insulting. If even the Belhar's supporters acknowledge and avow that it is a flawed document, I must ask why my conscience must then be bound to it?
That depends - to be judged without evidence, without reason, on the basis of illegitimate criteria, is offensive. To be judged appropriately, reasonably, with an eye towards disciplining a brother or sister may be painful, but not offensive. Let's see...which does your statement fit?
I daresay, all you know of me is what I have written here. You know nothing of my history, my experience, my relationships, or anything else about me. You know that I state my opinions rather forcefully, and that I do not think the Belhar warrants my assent in the same way that the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort do. On this basis, you would insinuate that the accusation of racism is correct - or am I misreading you? I don't think so.
I thank you for providing a splendid example of the very insinuations I was objecting to in the previous posts.
Then I apologize for misreading you. The question certainly left itself open to such a misreading, however, and you most certainly did insinuate something.
I am not angry.
No, I doubt I persuaded anyone, either. Since support for the Belhar is not fundamentally based in reason, reasoned arguments will not persuade. This is no reason not to make them.
The Belhar is not moot. It is a serious matter to bind another's conscience. Given the Formula of Subscription, adopting the Belhar as a confession would do exactly that. The reasons given so far by those advocating it do not merit such a weighty step.
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