Twenty-Seven Years with the Belhar Confession

I have loved the Belhar Confession for twenty-seven years. I am proud that the Reformed Church in America (RCA) has adopted the Confession as a fourth doctrinal standard. But now we have to live with it and let ourselves be formed by it. Let me give a testimony of my experience of the Belhar and then offer some observations on how the Belhar has been forming the RCA while we considered it and of how it may form us in the future.

TESTIMONY

My exposure to the Belhar Confession began in 1984 when the “Draft Confession of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 1982” appeared in the Reformed Journal. I remember feeling converted. I was sitting in my study in the little Hungarian Reformed Church in South River, New Jersey, and I felt challenged and renewed. It was given a short introduction by Daan Cloete (“Background: A New Confession in South Africa,” Reformed Journal, May, 1984, p. 20). This led me to his book of essays, co-edited with Dirkie Smit, A Moment of Truth: The Confession of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 1982 (WCCC / Eerdmans).

I remember reading these essays and thinking, “Oh, so this is how I can be Reformed.” At the time I was in the middle of an identity crisis on what it meant to be “Reformed.” In my college years I had been inspired by the Kuyperian “neo-Calvinist” vision of a Christian culture in tension with the secular humanist civilization around us.

In 1980 I entered parish ministry in the RCA, in a small Hungarian congregation, with the assumption that a local church should be a school for the development of the Christian world-and-life-view. I decided to shape a Christian culture in my flock by preaching the wonderful “law-words” of God in Exodus through Deuteronomy. But I felt I had to set it up with a series on Genesis. That took a year. My people asked me to mix it up a bit, so I put off Exodus and did a year on the Heidelberg Catechism (much appreciated by my older Hungarians). Then they asked me if I could please preach from the gospels, so I did a year on Luke. In my fourth year I finally got to Exodus, but by then I had been changed by my own preaching as well as by the historical theology I was reading in my graduate studies on my way to a Ph.D.

The interplay of my preaching with my studies, especially reading Luther, called into question my way of being “Reformed.” I realized that the Reformers would have defined being “Reformed” as less about “world-and-life-view” and more about “how we are right with God.” This was confirmed by the Catechism and the Reformation liturgies I was studying. My preaching was influenced by the combination of Luther, the Catechism, and the “rhetorical” school of exegesis, including Kenneth Gros-Louis, Phyllis Tribble, and the great Umberto Cassuto. I came to understand church as a dynamic meeting between a Holy God and a holy people. Who was I to want to reconstitute a Christian culture?

But then, why be Reformed? An advanced and more well-rounded Lutheranism felt less presumptuous and more spiritual, but also vaguely pietistic and lacking any vision. At the same time the Apartheid controversy had cast a shadow on my Reformed identity, knowing as I did that the State President of South Africa was a Kuyperian and that Apartheid had developed out of a Christian world-and-life-view. I suspected that the connection between Kuyperianism and Apartheid was not merely accidental, and that Apartheid was an extreme expression of certain core tendencies of neo-Calvinism, especially in matters of ecclesiology.

And then I was refreshed by the Belhar Confession. Here was a gift so distinctly and unquestionably Reformed, so theological, so biblical, so culturally relevant, so visionary, so eschatological and Trinitarian, that I felt both more deeply grounded in the Reformed tradition and more propelled to God’s future “where righteousness dwells.” I saw right off how rooted it was in the Heidelberg Catechism (it opens with Answer 54), and how it breathed the spirit of the Belgic Confession. I felt the old Reformed emphasis on the Sovereignty of God as the Kingdom of God and the Reign of Christ. The Belhar had answered my identity crisis. “So this is how to be Reformed.”

Soon I became an evangelist for it. I spoke about it at a number of ecumenical gatherings, and then I introduced it in 1985 to the General Synod of the RCA, at Kalamazoo, where I was a first-time delegate. I wanted the RCA to accept it as a new doctrinal standard, but I was advised by Daan Cloete to take a more measured approach, and move that the RCA accept it for study. It was not on synod’s agenda, so I had to move it as a matter of “new business,” with a statement of reasons why the business was so pressing that it be added to the agenda. The motion was as follows:

That the Confession of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 1982, the so-called “Belhar Confession,” joyfully be accepted for study and response by the RCA; that the Dutch Reformed Mission Church be officially requested to advise us on how we might respond to their Confession; that the text of the Confession be distributed to all our church agencies, schools, and pastors; and that a ranking officer of the General Synod of the RCA be delegated to the 1986 Synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and that we invite a fraternal delegate from them in 1986 (Minutes of the General Synod, 1985, pp. 267-8).

My “new business” was graciously allowed by the president of synod and assigned to the Advisory Committee on Theology. The committee reported back and recommended, “To receive…The Confession of 1982…for study and response” and distribute it widely in the RCA, “to request the Dutch Reformed Mission Church to advise the RCA on how to appropriately respond further to their confession,” and to explore the exchange of delegates in 1986. This was adopted.

It was less than I had hoped for but more than any first time delegate (and lone voice) had a right to expect. The eventual outcome was minimal. It was distributed, the Theological Commission gave a report, the Christian Unity Commission took note, and then it went dormant. But the seed was planted. We had established a new relationship with the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (which in 1994 would forge the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa), and that relationship would inevitably put Belhar back on the General Synod’s table in 2000.

In 1985 the time was not yet ripe. The ground was not prepared, and the RCA was not at its “moment of truth.” But it gives me some personal satisfaction that on June 5, 2010, twenty-five years after its name was first mentioned at synod, another synod gave the Belhar Confession its strongest possible endorsement: confessional status. The fact that the Belhar has gone from being unknown to being constitutional in only twenty-five years speaks to its evangelical power.

OBSERVATIONS

To understand how the Belhar Confession was “forming” the RCA even before it was adopted, we have to note the other recommendation on South Africa, which was on the agenda of the 1985 synod and which got more notice. During the “Christian Action” part of agenda, and on the recommendation of the RCA’s Black Council (now the African-American Council), the synod agreed to invite Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress (ANC) to address the 1986 synod at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. This was a big deal, as Oliver Tambo was banned within South Africa. Two things came of this. First, Tambo was ill in 1986, so Alfred Nzo replaced him. Second, Robert Schuller objected to the ANC and refused to allow Nzo to speak at the Crystal Cathedral, so the General Synod, in a show of dignity and resolve, moved one of its sessions to a hotel nearby.

The RCA had been engaged with South Africa all along in terms of traditional ecumenical relations. Then, during the 1980’s, the Black Council began to lead the engagement. The Council had met with Bishop Desmond Tutu and with representatives of the ANC, and it advocated “divestment” and letters of witness to the U.S. and Canadian governments. These were the standard actions done by many denominations and Christian action groups.

At that time the issues of racism and racial separation were regarded as a matter of “Christian action” as opposed to “theology,” and as the special concern of one part of the church, not the whole church. The issue was therefore not at the center of the church but on its edge and not essential to the church. So my first observation is to note that the patient consideration of Belhar forced the RCA to look at these issues as a concern of the whole church, as a matter of theology, and as touching the RCA’s core identity. This is precisely what a confession is supposed to do.

At play here is the Reformed-confessional principle, “In statu confessionis nihil adiaphoron est” (“In a state of confession, nothing is an ‘adiaphoron,’ i.e., indifferent”). I learned this principle from Daan Cloete’s seminal essay in A Moment of Truth. This taught me the ways and means of being “confessional.” The RCA has had to learn this corporately by dealing with the Belhar.

My second observation is that the very consideration of the Belhar has made the RCA more “confessional” on the whole in the following ways: First, we’ve had to consider why we have confessions, what they mean for us, and how they relate to Scripture. Second, we’ve had to learn how to use them, and how to use such terms as “state of confession.” Thirty years ago we never heard such terms, but now we teach them to our seminarians as a matter of course. And third, we’ve had to reconnect with our original standards. The Belhar expands upon the Heidelberg Catechism, while its genre is more like the Belgic. Lyle Bierma of Calvin Seminary told me recently that he regards the Belhar as a huge footnote to Catechism 54, just as I have always told my students to consider the Canons of Dort a huge footnote to Belgic 16. I sense that RCA pastors (at least in the East) have more confidence in our doctrinal standards today than thirty years ago. Belhar is one of the causes of this.

My third observation is that the Belhar, in making the RCA more confessional, has helped us be more theological. I saw this at the General Synod of 2009, which was asked to approve it as a doctrinal standard. The synod was divided into “issue advisory committees” which all considered the proposal. The committees reported back to a team of moderators, of which I was one. We consolidated the responses in order to make a unified report to the plenary. The responses reported many doubts and they suggested that the proposal might fail.

We presented the next morning, and that morning was a high point in my thirty years of attending church assemblies. The General Synod did what it does best: held a serious theological debate. The debate was challenging and impassioned and courteous and respectful. It felt open-minded, with the members of the synod listening to each other. The evidence of this is that despite what we had seen in the earlier responses, the assembly rose to a shared theology it had not had before the debate, and it endorsed the Confession with a majority much stronger than anyone had foreseen.

It was challenging and rewarding because the synod was asked to be theological on matters that previously we had left to ethics or to the category of “Christian Action.” This synod discussed them as doctrine. I believe that this is what synods like to do best.

My fourth observation is about the Belhar’s future formative power and how it will affect what it means to be Reformed. It must affect how we understand the key Reformed doctrine of the Sovereignty of God in connection with the gospel doctrines of the Kingdom of Christ and the Reign of God. I expect the Belhar to strengthen the doctrine of the Kingdom in the RCA. It will nudge us away from that typical Reformed orientation on “creation-fall-redemption” (creation being where righteousness was) toward a more eschatological orientation on “the new heaven and new earth” (where righteousness dwells). It locates the human future in the unity of the Spirit, human justice in divine justification, and human relations in divine reconciliation.

It must affect how we see the mission of the church. It has often been argued that our doctrinal standards lack a sense of mission. I demur. I refer again to Heidelberg 54, which presents an ecclesiology that is nothing if not missional. (“I believe that the Son of God, by his Spirit and his Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”) This the Belhar confirms and expands both as eschatological and as the missio dei for the redemption of the entire human race.

My fifth observation is that, having become more confessional, we shall have to take care in being confessional. Not everything important is confessional, nor should be made a “matter of confession.” Daan Cloete relates how the Barmen Declaration inspired post-war efforts to make nuclear weapons a matter of confession, which did not succeed. The Belhar Confession has also inspired members of the late World Alliance of Reformed Churches to propose the Accra Confession on “Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth.” While everyone agrees that the issues addressed by Accra are critical, the consensus is that Accra, in both form and content, does not to rise to confessional status, but is best regarded as a processus confessionis. Similarly, some members of the RCA have called for a confessional stance on human sexuality, believing that the church is now in “state of confession” on this matter, where “the integrity of the gospel is at stake.” I trust the church to conclude that human sexuality is no more properly confessional than nuclear weapons or the economy and ecology.

Being confessional obliges us to understand the criteria for what is properly confessional. What we make confessional are the actions of God, and not much else. A confession arises only when “the integrity of the gospel is at stake,” and the gospel is quite simply the good news of the actions of God in Jesus Christ. “News” refers to actions and events, not ideas and disciplines. A confession testifies to what we believe, and we believe in nothing other than “the promises of the gospel” which are reported in the actions of God as summarized by the Apostles’ Creed. We don’t believe much of anything about human actions or human behavior or human ethics except that it even the best of it is always fatally corrupt and has value only as our grateful response to God (Heidelberg 62).

The standard is clear in the creeds. The Apostles’ Creed is quite simply a report, not of ideas or principles, but of the actions of God: an eternal act of the Father, the historical actions of the Son, and the on-going activities of the Spirit. What we confess each week is the summarized actions of the Triune God. The Nicene Creed expands this a bit, but notice, only Godward.

The standard is clear in the Belgic Confession. Most of its articles read as narratives of what God has revealed and done. The articles on humanity are manifestly about the church, and how it must be a work of God, and is to be distinguished from that which may call itself “church” but is not a work of God. The standard holds for the Heidelberg Catechism. The triple knowledge is how great our sins and miseries are, what God has done for our deliverance, and our gratitude to God for this deliverance. The first and third frame the second–the actions of God. The standard holds for the Belhar, which, like Barmen, is about the church as the work of God, and how the church may neither back off from the work of God nor allow itself to be hindered from it.

Last February I was at a meeting where I heard a young pastor named Josh Bode say that the Reformed church, by definition, can never take its identity for granted, and must always have its identity open to question. I found this both startling and oddly comforting. Compared to us, the Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and even Methodists have a much easier time with their identity and, according to Bode’s insight, that is as it should be. How could it be otherwise. To be Reformed means never to possess our identity “as our own” but to be identified extra nos, outside ourselves–to be identified by the actions of God, by which we are always comforted and against which we must always question ourselves.

Bode’s insight helped me understand my own Reformed-identity-crisis. If he’s right, and if my standard for confessions is correct, then though one cannot help having a world-and-life-view, nevertheless, to seek a Reformed identity in terms of having a world-and-life-view is a mistake, because it seeks to solidify our identity in something we can possess, and it makes us ideological. But to be properly confessional means to be identified only by the actions of God towards us (and towards the world). It is because, in a salvation sense, we are constituted by the mighty acts of God, that, in an organizational sense, we make constitutional our confessions about the actions of God. What is properly confessional for the Reformed churches are the actions of God, and not much else.

Not all theology is doctrine. Not all worship is liturgy. Not all rules are constitutional. Not all realities are “salvation-realities” (Van Ruler). Not all ordinances are sacraments, not all faith-statements are creeds, and not all good words are the Word of God. Some things in the church belong to good order, some to discipline, and some to confession. A mature church knows the differences. Even a mature church can’t expect to get everything right. I worry that the RCA has gotten a lot wrong over the years (and I’m complicit) but we got this one right. For two decades I worried that we would not, but we did, and we have taken a step forward in both maturity and obedience must now be always the same and gradually different than we have been.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn, New York, and a former moderator of both the Christian Unity Commission and the South Africa Task Force of the Reformed Church in America.