Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Belhar Confession: its many possibilites!

In Sunday's sermon, my pastor, Dr. Don Baird, explained how sometimes words are repeated to emphasize the importance of the subject. He used Jesus’ use of verily, verily, and in Isaiah the seraphims' holy, holy, holy as examples. I also am repeating myself and I do want to emphasize a statement that I have made over and over, "A Confession’s main focus must be confessing Jesus Christ."

Carmen Fowler of the Presbyterian Layman has noted in an article, linked to by CHURCHandWORLD, that several committees “support elevating Belhar to confessional status.” In her report she quotes Cynthia Holder Rich, of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, that “Theologians have used this document to press issues other than race. The overture from Sacramento refers to sexuality issues. You may or may not know that that is part of the international conversation. … This document is about freedom. People of different sexual orientations are not free and so this document could be used to free people.”

Holder Rich gave a presentation on Belhar at the Stony Point Conference, “Confessing when empire trembles: Belhar and Accra Confessions in conversation.” Fowler writes that in referring to that conference Holder Rich stated, “I hope in the context we talk about power rather than strictly border it by the color of people’s skin. Are we able to use this document to … really effectively share power.”

Belhar was a good document meeting the needs of the Churches in South Africa in their quest for ethnic unity in their various churches. But it was and is not a good example of a true confession since it does not focus on confessing Jesus Christ. And that is why such people as Holder Rich, Witherspoon Society’s Eugene TeSelle, [1]one of the original promoters of the confession, Allan Boesak, and the Office of Theology and Worship of the General Assembly Council of the PC (U.S.A.) can so easily attempt to use the confession as a means to achieve their own particular faith goals.

The author of the PCUSA’s study guide for the Belhar Confession writes, “While the impetus for studying the Belhar Confession in the PC (U.S.A.) is racism, Belhar’s strength is that it speaks to more than one form of injustice. By focusing on the unity of the Church, it gives us theological grounding for the ministry of reconciliation amidst all the sins and disputes that divide the Church.”

The author, Eunice T. McGarrahan, goes on to place unity above all concerns, stating “The Church is fractured over ways in which justice should be done, ordination and sexuality, the nature of scripture, and its posture towards the world.” The guide insists that the Church is a poor witness if she does not maintain unity despite these problems.

But no, all Christian discipleship must come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Within the Church ethnic unity is a biblical truth under the Lordship of Christ, as is the authority of Scripture, sexuality or the Church’s “posture toward the world. Without that realization there is no ethnic unity, no obedience to Christ, no foundational truth.

Yet some have insisted that not adopting Belhar because of a few person’s different interpretations of Belhar is unreformed since it is the whole Church that will accept or reject a Confession.[2] There are at least three problems with this view.

The first problem is one I keep returning to. That is that the confession itself is wrong, it does not focus on confessing Jesus Christ. It isn’t that other people would be held higher than the Confession if we listen to their different ideas about what it means and therefore do not adopt it, but rather Belhar invites to its table many different kinds of agendas under the category racism. It asks for its confessors to confess unity grounded in human needs such as justice rather than in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, as I have shown, many of those advocating for Belhar, are, like Holder Rich, advocating for something different or something more than racial unity. If Belhar is adopted it will be adopted on grounds other than what it was intended for in South Africa. And this leads into the third problem.

As I have also shown, a great many of those pushing the denomination to adopt Belhar are both in leadership and believe it is possible to use Belhar for issues other than racism. And since there are no scriptural boundaries connected to this confession such as there are e.g. in Barmen, any issue is possible. The possibilities are, in fact, already multiplying.

One new possibility comes in the statement of Holder Rich. That is the desire that Belhar be used to confront power in the Church. While power and its use is an important concern for any Christian, confessions are not about making everything fair or democratic but about confessing Christ. On the other hand nothing will be fair if Christ is not confessed. Playing the blame game with a confession has all of the earmarks of the beginnings of totalitarianism in the Church.

Arthur Cochrane, author of The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, asks a question, that we all should be asking ourselves:

“Are we on the threshold of a day when the Church knows that its only weapon and defense will be its Confession of Faith? Are we conscious of some great heresy by which our Churches are ‘grievously imperiled’ and some great truth by which we are possessed? Are we prepared to make dogmatic and much more important, ethical decisions as a Church, and for the sake of them to lose our life in order to find it? Are we really ready for the fearful ‘either-or’ decision involved in a Confession of Faith?”

We may very well be-but the Belhar Confession does not qualify as the answer.


Pastor Bob said...

Having read Dr. Mouw's and Rev. Schoon's statements I am left with a question: what does "it did not explicitly appeal to biblical authority" mean? Rev. Schoon seems to think Dr. Mouw meant quote particular passages in Scripture. I don't get the impression that this is what Dr. Mouw means.

Belhar uses Barmen as a model of thesis/antithesis or maybe better thema/anathema. But Barmen not only takes specific passages from Scripture it also uses those passages to develop themes that are already in Scripture. I would argue that one could easily state that human equality (in an ethnic and racial sense or even in a sense as all being created in the image of God) is a significant Biblical theme and a specific appeal to Biblical authority.

I'm not convinced that Belhar does that. Thus the messiness when folks attempt to apply it to other issues. One commentator on Dr. Mouw's blog suggests that it could be applied to the whole question of "social justice" which can mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of different people!

Pastor Bob said...

Oh, and I could also ask if we have reached what Barth called Status Confession(something)?

Viola Larson said...

I don't think Mouw mean't that either. I agree with everything you have said. The theme of racial equality could certainly be argued from Scriptures. When I was writing a paper long ago on a racist group, I noted that,

"Genesis 10:1-32 names most of the nations that developed from the three sons of Noah. Derek Kidner, author of Genesis in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, writes: "Not every nation known to the Old Testament is enrolled here, but enough are present to make the point that mankind is one, for all its diversity, under the one creator. Possibly the seventy names (Lxx 72) influenced our Lord's choice of this apparently symbolic number of emissaries in Luke 10:1."

There is nothing solid to pin things on or under.

So many ideas about what Belhar could be used for our popping up that I could write on this for a long time. I hope I don't need to: )

Viola Larson said...

I think we might be thinking about status confessionus (I had to look that up)but that is something we need to be very careful about. The push for a Confession that can be used for almost any old thing does not seem to me to suggest we are in that state yet. Or we are but Belhar, as I stated is not the answer.

Mary said...

Viola, forgive me for getting stuck so early in your piece, but did you intend the apostrophe in your post's title? The Belhar Confession: It Is Many Possibilities! or TBC: Its Many Possibilities?

Viola Larson said...

Mary, I may have to start sending my posts to you first. My spell check failed me on that one. It suggested the apostrophe, and I believed it. Thanks.

Beloved Spear said...

Given that Belhar does, in fact, repeatedly proclaim Jesus as both Lord and the one true head of the church, I'm not quite sure what in it is egregious...particularly in the context of your recent discussions about the place of Christ Jesus in the context of an orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity.

Confessions are, as you rightly note, intended to profess the Gospel of Christ Jesus. But they are also created to speak that Gospel into a particular context. Nicea spoke to one issue. Barmen spoke to another. Belhar appears to do the same. you find theologically unorthodox in the Belhar Confession? It proclaims Christ, and the Trinity. It uses explicitly scriptural language in appropriate context. And it speaks to racism (which is not a dead issue).

Viola Larson said...

Beloved Spear (I like that name)
However, you need to leave your full name and city/state. As does Mary by the way. I do not find that Belhar repeatedly proclaims Jesus as both Lord and the true head of the Church. Proclamation means that the word in a sense is being preached. That is the center or purpose or focus of the Confession. The Belhar simply states in several places that Jesus is Lord but that is not the central purpose of the Confession. Barmen on the other hand begins by affirming that Jesus Christ as he is known in the scripture is Lord and then it ties all of the other needs to his Lordship.
Also there are statements in this confession that can be used in many different ways because there are no boundaries. But I already wrote that in my postings. I would suggest that you click on the link Belhar that I have provided and read all of the other posting I have written. Of course that is a lot of reading but it might clarify.

Viola Larson
Sacramento, Ca

ZZMike said...

Beloved Spear: "Given that Belhar does, in fact, repeatedly proclaim Jesus as both Lord and the one true head of the church,..."

I don't know about the "repeatedly" part. It does at the end, almost as an afterthought.

Even admitting that Belhar does proclaim Jesus, so do the others - so it adds nothing theologically new.

Nor does it fill any doctrinal vacuum. Are our existing Confessions lacking in something serious enough to warrant addition?

I refer to The Nicene Creed (I include the Creeds with the Confessions), the Apostle's Creed, the Scots Confession, The Second Helvetic Confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Confession of 1967, plus the Catechisms and the Declaration of Barmen.

Belham focuses almost entirely on reconciliation, unity, justice, peace, ...

These are noble words, but have been usurped by today's "liberation theologies" in the name of "social justice". They leave behind the true focus of what a confession should be - as our gracious hostess wrote elsewhere, “A Confession’s main focus must be confessing Jesus Christ."

Finally, this is the part that can lead to the Confession's usurpation by just about any group with an agenda:

"Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel."

We already see the Episcopal church rent asunder by what some see as "forms of injustice" (usually expressed as "I want things my way, and I want then mow!!").

ZZMike said...

Mike Zorn
Santa Ana, CA