More on Belhar

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Last spring I posted a piece criticizing the proposed adoption of the Belhar Confession as a confessional document by some Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.  I received a lot of criticism for my position on the subject. And the criticisms came from many good friends who saw my blog posting as a betrayal of sorts.

My critics ought not to have worried about the impact of my comments on the actual votes. Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America moved toward adoption at their synods this past summer, and now the Special Committee on the Belhar Confession of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has announced that they are unanimously in favor of adopting Belhar at next year’s General Assembly.

Let me make it clear that I like the Belhar Confession. I served for several years as chair of the Christian Reformed Church’s Synodical Committee on Race Relations, and expended much energy in opposing apartheid policies, as well as the heretical racist rationales for supporting apartheid offered by several white Dutch Reformed bodies in South Africa. By the time the Belhar Confession appeared in 1986, I was living in California, and actively involved in an Episcopal-sponsored anti-apartheid center in Pasadena.  Belhar spoke for me, and it still does on the issues to which it was addressed at that point in recent history. My appreciation of Belhar was also enhanced by knowing that it was authored primarily by Dirkie Smit, a solid Reformed theologian who was one of my Afrikaner heroes in the anti-apartheid struggle.

So why am I opposed to our—the CRC, RCA, and PC(USA)— adopting Belhar as a confessional document? When I wrote about this earlier I mentioned that Allan Boesak, also one of the gifted anti-apartheid spokespersons in South Africa’s Reformed community, had recently appealed to Belhar in support of including active gays and lesbians in the church’s ministerial ranks. I might also have mentioned that many fear that Belhar will now be used to reinforce an unnuanced anti-Israeli stance.

I think those worries are real. But my critics, many of whom share my views about same-sex issues and Middle East matters, rightly insist that this is no reason to oppose Belhar as such. What we must do, they rightly argue, is to make sure that Belhar is understood as a prophetic word against racial and ethnic discrimination within the Christian community.

Fair enough. A lot of good things can be misused. But I promise to be ready to say “We told you so” if this happens with Belhar.

My real concern about adopting Belhar has to do with the broader issue of the nature of confessional integrity in our Reformed and Presbyterian churches. I think I know all three denominations very well. I was raised in an RCA pastor’s home, and attended two of that denomination’s colleges and one of its seminaries. I was an active member of the CRC for 17 years. And for two decades now I have been similarly active in the PC(USA).

When I was studying at an RCA seminary in the 1960s, one of my more conservative professors explained the differing views on the status of the Reformed “Standards of Unity”—Heidelberg, Belgic, and Dort—in this way. The CRC, he said, takes them very seriously. If you are Christian Reformed you are expected really to believe what is in them. This is why, he observed, that when the CRC decides that something in the confessions is no longer binding—such as the Belgic Confession’s statement that the magistrate has a duty to preserve and protect “true religion”—they go on record as saying so. Some people in the RCA, on the other hand, said the professor, tend to see the book of confessions as a kind of museum. They periodically walk through the museum and say things like: “Yes, they really believed that in the past. I respect them for it. I identify with the community that once said that kind of thing.” He made it clear that he preferred the CRC approach.

I think the professor had it right at the time. But today all three of the aforementioned denominations basically endorse the museum approach. Or it may be a little more like a “Great Books” approach. The documents from the past are all there up on the shelf, and we all acknowledge their importance, but some of us really like James Baldwin and others of us prefer Jane Austen.

I personally endorse the older CRC approach. As someone who officially subscribed, in the CRC, to the Belgic Confession, I publicly dissented, as a matter of conscience, from the article that required me to “detest” the Anabaptists, as well as the Heidelbergers’ harsh verdict on the Catholic mass. I was grateful when the CRC declared that these formulations are no longer binding.

These days it is rather common for people—CRC folks included—who have taken ordination vows publicly to express their disagreements with what I take to be essential Reformed doctrines. Indeed, I am often treated as a curiosity of sorts when I make it clear that I still subscribe to the actual doctrinal content of the Reformed “Great Books”—predestination, individual election, substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, Christ as the only Way.

So, let me put it bluntly. If we—for all practical purposes—don’t care about genuinely subscribing to the actual content of, say, the Belgic or the Westminster confessions, why would we think that adopting Belhar would be in any way binding on the consciences of persons who take ordination vows? When detached from the content of the rest of Reformed thought, many of Belhar’s formulations—as stand-alone theological declarations—are dangerously vague. Belhar deserves confessional status only in a community that takes the rest of its confessions with utmost seriousness.

The most compelling case being made for adopting Belhar is for me the pleas of underrepresented racial-ethnic minority groups in our denominations. They have a right to ask us to declare our firm conviction that racism and ethno-centrism are not only unjust, they are theological heresies. But I fear they are assuming that we are more committed to confessional integrity than we actually are. When all of this debate is over and Belhar—as is very likely—is on the confessional shelf, I hope they will push us hard on whether we really take that whole shelf seriously.

15 Comments »

  1. I think you’re right. I fear adoption of the Belhar will become a cheap anti-racism credential. Thanks for your thoughts. pvk

    Comment by Paul VanderKlay — October 9, 2009 @ 8:51 pm


  2. […] Posted by Russ on October 9, 2009 Richard Mouw on the adoption of the Belhar Confession by the CRC, RCA, and PCUSA: So, let me put it bluntly. If we—for all practical purposes—don’t care about genuinely subscri… […]

    Pingback by Mouw on the Belhar Confession « Tolle, Blogge — October 10, 2009 @ 12:58 am


  3. Dear Dr. Mouw

    Thank you so much for speaking out, again, against the adoption of the Belhar as a Confession in the three denominations you mentioned. I concur with you completely. If others are interested to learn more about the Belhar’s implications, I have posted many news items at belhar.blogspot.com under the comments area under “Are You Buying the Belhar?”. Also, see Viola Larson’s latest: Belhar: four important reasons the PC(U.S.A.) should not adopt the Confession http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2009/09/belhar-four-important-reasons-pcusa.html
    In the Lamb, Dave Watson, Kent, WA (CRC Minister)

    Comment by Dave Watson — October 11, 2009 @ 2:24 pm


  4. Dr. Mouw,

    Thank you for your comments. I think that you are exactly right, and for this reason I, as a Presbyterian who takes our Confessions seriously even is our structure tries not to, think that Belhar will become a dangerous tool to impose a very liberal view of sexual behavior on the church.

    We already have a confession that condemns racism, the Confession of 1967. It also condemns “sexual anarchy.” That is a much better balance than Belhar for our ecclesiastical context.

    Comment by Walter L. Taylor — October 12, 2009 @ 1:03 pm


  5. Thank you Dr. Mouw. I agree with all that you have stated. I have written articles against racism for many years and applauded when South Africa finally let go of its horrible racism. But Belhar will be misused if we do not take our other confessions seriously. And we don’t.

    Comment by Viola Larson — October 12, 2009 @ 3:21 pm


  6. Rich,
    I think I hear what you’re saying: ever since we began to subscribe (in the RCA anyway) to the standards as “historic and faithful witnesses”, we have had something of what you call a museum approach to them. However, I would make two points. First, your argument could be read as an advocacy of ditching all three of the doctrinal standards. (”If we don’t subscribe to the three, why add a fourth” can just as easily be turned into “If we don’t need a fourth, why give any privilege of place to the first three”?) Surely you don’t believe that?
    Second, we tend to act on what we say. Though I wouldn’t say I’m the most patriotic fellow in the land, I do carry with me a kind of allegiance to my country and to its prime symbol, the flag. Why? At least in part because I got up in school every day and said the pledge of allegiance. What I said got ingrained in me; I made a daily commitment.
    Saying the Belhar — confessing it as a congregation –leads us to different sorts of commitments. Where, for example, do the three standards call us to stand alongside the poor, which in my opinion is a key strand throughout the Scriptures, culminating in the One who emptied himself and took the form of a slave? We haven’t DONE it that much at least in part because we haven’t SAID it much.
    The Belhar doesn’t say everything, and in a few matters it is mushy — though I don’t think it’s as mushy as you appear to. (For example, it goes no farther than the three standards in holding up ‘true faith’ as the only standard for church membership.)
    You speak of a ‘confessional shelf.’ I find that many of the young pastors in the RCA are intensely interested in the confessions. I read facebook blogs about colleagues in their 20’s and 30’s preaching TULIP series! And one of the things that the discussion of the Belhar has done is precisely what you advocate: it has prompted a deeper look at what our existing confessions do say.
    In the long run, while I recognize your concern about how much we esteem our confessions, your argument seems a baby/bathwater approach. And unless we are ready to become a non-confessional church like many American born denominations, the argument you raise does not bear sufficient weight to not approve the Belhar.

    Comment by Paul Janssen — October 13, 2009 @ 6:53 am


  7. Great post. I believe strongly that the confessions should hold to the basic doctrines that we believe everyone in our church (at least in leadership) should confess to be true, and be written in such a way to make it clear as to what that is exactly.

    As much as I love the Three Forms of Unity, I think it’s clear that even within them, there are some things that need to be changed. (For instance, the fact that The Heidelberg doesn’t list Lamentations, and ascribes Hebrews to Paul). I know some people say these are small things we don’t need to worry about, but if we’re not careful us in more confessional denominations (such as the URCNA) can fall down this same museum approach. There’s no reason not to change these things. We ought to change them when they are in error, or when they ascribe things that we don’t believe should be binding.

    Comment by Pat — October 14, 2009 @ 2:49 pm


  8. Dear Dr. Mouw,

    Thank you for your reflections on this topic. I am a regular reader and always appreciate your valuable insights into important issues.

    I do have one question on this topic.

    Does not the CRC’s 2006 decision to bracket out portions of HC #80 as no longer confessionally binding suggest that the denomination (taken as a whole, represented by its Synod) is still “going on record” about its beliefs and treating its confessional standards as something more than museum pieces?

    I am a newly ordained minister in the CRC who came into the denomination 7 years ago thankful for a Reformed denomination that was able (in my experience) to avoid both the Scylla of confessional disregard (in which historical confessions are conveniently ignored) and the Charybdis of confessional fundamentalism (in which historical confessions become weapons in the hands of heresy-hunters).

    I take my vows of subscription seriously. I am also thankful for the ways in which the CRC has stated its understanding of that subscription (see the CRC’s Church Order Art. 5 Supplement) and it is my hope and prayer that the CRC might represent a third-way of real, authentic, honest confessional identity for our world today.

    So, rather than simply adding another painting to our collection, I believe our current dialogue about the Belhar is an attempt to truly be a confessional church — really believing what we confess — in the present.

    Comment by Jim Kirk — October 15, 2009 @ 8:25 am


  9. Rich, thank you for your provoking and thoughtful analysis.

    Comment by Carlos Malave — October 17, 2009 @ 7:32 am


  10. The latest issue of the CRC Banner has a guest editorial opposed to Belhar Adoption

    No Need to Adopt Belhar
    http://thebanner.org/magazine/article.cfm?article_id=2331

    by Rev. Paul Hansen

    Rev. Paul Hansen is pastor of First CRC, Hull, Iowa.

    Comment by Dave Watson — October 21, 2009 @ 7:07 am


  11. The latest issue of (RCA) Perspectives has articles both pro- and con- the Belhar.

    Why Not Belhar? http://www.rca.org/Page.aspx?pid=6245
    But We See Jesus … http://www.rca.org/Page.aspx?pid=6246

    Comment by Dave Watson — January 26, 2010 @ 12:32 pm


  12. I have a few questions in response:

    1) It is possible that, instead of the Belhar being a pointless addition to a bunch of statements that bear no weight on the community anymore, that actually its adoption and inclusion into the life of the church might actually spark a revival of the use and understanding of ALL the confessions?

    2) You mention the two options of viewing confessions as either “museums” or as “taking them seriously” (as in, literally?)…. could there also be a THIRD option, that confessions are historic witnesses, i.e., faithful dialogue partners in the development of our thought and practice as a church? (That is actually the language in the RCA’s Book of Church Order.)

    3) You say that you like the Belhar but are afraid that it could be used to promote certain agendas (political or otherwise). It’s my experience in my relatively short time on earth that those with agendas typically don’t need ammunition. However it will be used (which the community will still have the job to interpret), shouldn’t the question truly be, IS the Belhar a faithful witness to scripture, rather than being afraid of how that witness might be used?

    Comment by Josh — March 17, 2010 @ 10:29 am


  13. As of today, the CRC church has not accepted the Belhar as a confession.

    Comment by connie — December 30, 2010 @ 1:32 pm


  14. Rich –
    I share more of your reservations than of your commendations of the Belhar (its South African apartheid context parallels but is not identical with our situation with regard to race).
    Your concerns about the Boesak interpretation as well as the museum approach seem, to me, to be well founded (I have served in both the PCUSA and RCA – and some of best friends are in the CRC – I’ve even had the CRC temptation).
    Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen once published a piece (in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin, I think) in which she expressed her objections to the bit of liberation theology (tip of the iceberg?) in the Belhar – i.e., God’s being on the side of the poor, etc.). She convinced me, at least.
    But all this is moot for me/us in the RCA, since the Belhar has already been adopted (2010), albeit by a surprisingly narrow margin in the classes, even after a blitz by our “powers that be.” Happily, I don’t have to decide whether to subscribe to it (grandfather clause or whatever).

    Comment by Bill Kennedy — January 12, 2011 @ 11:10 am


  15. Rich,

    Lo these many years ago and I didn’t always appreciate by philosophy prof. The articles on the Belhar have been different for me. Thank you for the insights, cautions,& suggestions. I also would prefer to not have to say ‘I told you so’. The Belhar will do some good, but it will do much more destructive work on the landscape. Loren

    Comment by Loren Swier — February 29, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

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