A Final Word (from me at least) on Belhar

A Final Word (from me at least) on Belhar

Some of my friends in at least three Reformed/Presbyterian  denominations are upset with me because of previous my blog postings on the Belhar Confession. In a couple of cases, local ecclesiastical bodies are voting right around now whether to validate national decisions to add Belhar to their books of confessional documents. I have said in the past that I don’t think this is a good idea, for at least three reasons. One is that some folks have seen Belhar, which had its origins in South Africa as an important theological word against apartheid, as now serving the cause of promoting same-sex ordinations and unions. A second is that I do not find Belhar sufficiently explicit in grounding its important message in biblical authority. And the third is that I worry about an ongoing confessional drift in those denominations, and wonder how adding yet another confessional document will mean anything important where there is already widespread ignorance of—and in some cases overt hostility toward—specific teachings in the existing confessional documents.

My concerned friends in both the Reformed and Christian Reformed denominations have set my mind at ease on the first point—they insist that passing Belhar will  be done with the explicit acknowledgement that it will not provide a basis for changing their denominations’ present standards regarding same-sex questions. It would be nice to get that same reassurance from the mainline Presbyterian body in which I am now a member.

While my friends acknowledge some legitimacy to my other two objections, they do not think that those concerns should be used to oppose adoption of the Belhar Confession. While I am not fully convinced by their assurances, I do have to say that I am comforted in knowing that there are defenders of adopting Belhar who share my concerns about biblical fidelity and confessional integrity. No one should take my views as implying that the issue is simply “liberal” versus “conservative.” There are those of us on both sides of the Belhar issue who care deeply about both the confessional drift in the churches and the continuing presence of racism and ethnocentrism. What I worry most about is that this group—however we may differ among ourselves on the question of adopting Belhar—is in a minority.

Adopting Belhar as a new confessional document in North American Reformed and Presbyterian denominations would not be a disaster. What would be worrisome is if this is done without realizing that these denominations are in a confessional crisis, where key doctrines of the Christian faith in general, and Reformed theology in particular, are being openly denied. I am glad that my pro-Belhar friends are assuring me that Belhar will not be used to promote the same-sex cause. I would be even more gratified if they accompany their support of Belhar as a way of calling for new attention in their denominatons to the question of what it means to be faithful to all of the confessional documents.


  1. The second issue, that of grounding the confession in Biblical authority, is the one that intrigues me the most. On the one hand, I want very much to agree with this. Whatever we believe, if we cannot point to a Scriptural antecedent, we shouldn’t be making it a confession of denominational identity.

    On the other hand, I wonder how much “evidence” (not sure if that’s the best word) there needs to be to demonstrate such Scriptural support. Neither the Confession of 1967 nor “A Brief Statement of Faith” (the two most recent confessions in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions) explicitly cite Scripture references within the texts themselves. That’s not to say that they don’t have Scriptural support, of course. Simply that one must work harder to demonstrate it. In the case of Belhar, proponents certainly claim that the statement is “based on Scripture”, but at what point is that debatable? At what point might a Scriptural basis be evident, yet insufficient?

    I don’t pretend to know. Just thoughts on my mind.

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright — March 10, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

  2. We have discovered during our CRC consideration of the Belhar confession that such study often results in a new appreciation for all of our confessions. This is particulary true for younger members, for new members, and especially for those from cultures different from our own.
    All three of our confessions arose out of urgent political, social, and religous issues faced by the church. These issues were addressed as the church leaders prophetically led their constituency to focus on Scripture’s answers. The same is true as we consider Belhar. Belhar consideration has fostered a new understanding and respect for all of the confessions as those unfamiliar with our confessional tradition better understand why it is important for the leaders of the church to give direction – in the case of Belhar regarding the issues of justice, reconciliation and unity in the body of Christ and in the world. Some of us believe strongly that continued Belhar study and application will generate new respect for all of the Reformed confessions.

    Comment by Wendell Verduin — March 10, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

  3. Thank you for your gracious words, Dr. Mouw. I pray that they are heeded.

    Comment by Dave Watson — March 11, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  4. Dr Mouw,

    I echo your concerned friends’ voices that, at least in the CRC, Belhar will not become a “backdoor” for same-sex issues.

    However, I ask you to consider another angle. Most of the newer, thriving congregations in the CRC are more of the emerging or broadly evangelical variety with only occasional lip-service paid to the creeds and confessions. When the Three Forms of Unity were adopted in continental Reformed circles… there was certainly never an intention that they would form a “closed canon” to definitively demarcate doctrinal boundaries for all time. It was probably assumed that new confessions would need to be added as time progressed and new doctrines deemed unorthodox, unbiblical, or un-Reformed came about. The 20th century version of the confession – the evangelical statement of faith – has proven a useful tool for demarcating these lines in light of liberal Protestantism, but has also led to detraction from the historic creeds and confessions. Theoretically these should have been unnecessary in any denomination that affirmed Belgic or Westminster — but by then the confessions had lost their authority in mainline denominations.

    The CRC, somewhat uniquely among evangelical denominations, often shares fairly strong commitments to social justice *and* (for the most part) to its confessions (at least where the confessions haven’t been shelved). For many congregations where the confessions have been shelved or are at risk of being shelved, wouldn’t adopting Belhar breathe new life into the denomination’s approach to and value of the confessions and the catechesis of them? Wouldn’t adopting such a recent document with such strong statements on social justice and racial reconciliation strengthen and renew our commitment to Dort, Heidelberg, and the Belgic by re-emphasizing that the confessions and creeds represent the timeless values dynamically expressed by the denomination? “These express what matters to us, and we teach them to our children.” Enacting Belhar would renew this commitment.

    As a non-ethnically Dutch person raised in and now back in the denomination, I think Belhar represents a fantastic opportunity to celebrate and renew the Dutch Reformed tradition’s culture and gifts — especially that of confessionalism — while owning up to, repenting from, and redeeming its ethno-centrism and past racism.

    Comment by Calvin Chen — March 17, 2010 @ 1:37 am

  5. Hm I suppose in some ways I’m simply restating your final point… but — at least in the CRC — it’s difficult to discuss adopting Belhar *without* discussing the current rule of the Three Forms of Unity and how Belhar would relate to them. I also have trouble foreseeing any of Belhar’s advocates who would want to see it shelved!

    Comment by Calvin Chen — March 17, 2010 @ 1:52 am

  6. I’ve been following your comments and views about the Belhar Confession and your reasons for not supporting to add Belhar to your church’s confessional documents. I am concerned however with your fear that Belhar “provides a basis for changing denominations’ present standards regarding same-sex questions”. Don’t you think that’s axactly what u doing. You pushing your own fear about same sex issues on the back of Belhar… The fact that you mentioned this issue with regards to Belhar serves as confirmation that there’s more to Belhar than only its South African context. I urge you Sir to rethink the place and relevance of confessional documents for the struggles of our times.

    Comment by Hendry Tromp — March 22, 2010 @ 10:02 am