South Africa’s Uniting Reformed Church has been debating same-sex issues, and the black theologian Allan Boesak has spoken strongly in favor of granting full rights in the church to persons who are active in same-sex relationships. Indeed, Boesak is so committed on this issue that when the church’s synod recently voted against the document he had drafted on the subject, he announced that he was resigning from his official positions in the church.
Allan Boesak is an old friend, a great inspiration to me during apartheid days. When I taught courses on social ethics I required my students to read several of the essays in his book Black and Reformed. His open letter to a government official about civil disobedience, reprinted in that collection, is in my view a classic piece of Calvinist political thought.
Boesak was also instrumental in drafting the 1986 Belhar Confession, which I welcomed at the time as an important confessional statement about race relationships. He now appeals to that document in support of his advocacy for gay-lesbian ordination. In a recent insightful blog posting, “The Belhar Confession & God’s Final Revelation,” Violet Larson argues that this is a good reason to question the theological adequacy of the Belhar Confession, precisely because of the use to which it is being put these days by proponents of full inclusion on same-sex topics. I agree with her. While that document spoke forthrightly against the injustices of apartheid, it did not explicitly appeal to biblical authority. That it can now be seen by some of its drafters as capable of being extended to the full inclusion of active gays and lesbians in ministry says something about the weaknesses of Belhar—not as an important prophetic declaration in its original context, but as a statement that can stand on its own as a normative confession.
I still think that Allan Boesak’s 1976 dissertation, a critical study of American black theology, written for his PhD at the Kampen theological faculty in the Netherlands, is a wonderful piece of work. It was published in 1977 by Orbis Books: Farewell to Innocence: A Socio-Ethical Study on Black Theology and Power. There Boesak was firm in his views on biblical authority. Affirming his own commitment to developing genuinely “black theology,” he nonetheless criticized James Cone, for example, for treating “the black situation” and “the black experience” as having revelatory status. While we do have to pay close attention to the cultural context and historical experiences of a given group, he argued, these do not “within themselves have revelational value on a par with Scripture.” For blacks, what such things provide us with, he said, is “the framework within which blacks understand the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. No more, no less” (p. 12).
That is a profound statement. Our cultural contexts are just that—they are contexts within which we receive revelation. They are “no more” than that, but they are also “no less.” This means, said Boesak in Farewell to Innocence, that a genuine Black Theology must be sure “to cultivate self-critical reflection under the Word of God within the situation of blackness” (121)—and the same holds for those who received that Word in other cultural contexts. We need to listen and study carefully what people tell us who have received God’s Word in situations different from our own. And we need to dialogue—even argue—together about whether what we claim to have received is sound theologically.
But always under the authority of Scripture: “Black Theology must ask whether the actions of blacks for gaining their liberation are in accord with the divine will of God, a thing that can only be done if the Word of God retains its critical and fulfilling function vis-a-vis all human activity” (p. 121-122). I can’t imagine that the Allan Boesak of the 1970s would have insisted that sexual activity should simply be treated under the vague rubric of “inclusion for all,” but must also be examined carefully under the authority of the written Word of God.
I am still a fan of the early Allan Boesak!