Sunday, October 27, 2013

"The Bible and Belhar" a review

Dr. Stephen A. Hayner and Dr. Mark Labberton have written a paper on the Belhar Confession, “The Bible and Belhar.” Both are presidents of theological seminaries; Hayner of Columbia Theological Seminary and Hayner of Fuller Theological Seminary. They both have strong ties to the evangelical side of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). It is hard to disagree with two such prominent gentlemen and scholars, and I do so with (as Kierkegaard might say) much fear and trembling.

 The authors' intentions are seemingly to reconcile Belhar and Bible to make the case that if it is the right time to include Belhar in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions that it is a biblically acceptable confession. That is, that everything in it is founded on Scripture.

 Before addressing that subject I want to tie up what I consider a loose end. The authors intended that their paper should only address the biblical foundations of Belhar, I believe they have left a few other dangling strings.  It is partly about the first quote in their article taken from C.S. Lewis' introduction to Sister Penelope Lawson's translation of St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation.  Lewis speaking of “the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century” finds some solution in the reading of old books. “None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books,” Lewis writes.

He continues, referring to the reading of modern books:
Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they make as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.

 Using the quote and a bit more of it, the authors explain that if an old book helps surely the “Bible as God's inspired Word is certainly many times as strong and important.” And then they explain that any paper such as the Belhar Document which was written in a time of crisis should help also.

 First, the help we are gifted with through the reading of Scripture cannot be equated with the help of “old books.” It is the living word that actually feeds and nourishes our lives. Secondly the Belhar Confession is not old. It therefore could possibly, and I believe it does, aggravate “the error with which we [in the postmodern western world] are dangerously ill.” We simply cannot see it because Belhar is a document which in its context performed a great service to the South African church.

Thirdly, there was a second reason Lewis suggested we should read old books:
But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages 'mere Christianity' turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.

 Lewis goes on to explain that as an atheist, reading so many varying classics, all of which held the odor of Christ, he now understands that those who look-in from the outside—the enemies or naysayers—see “what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity.”

 And so now the Bible and Belhar. (But also what it means to confess Christ.)
The authors choose to point out the “lessons that the Confession of Belhar” “derives from the Scriptures.”

 1.                   The first one has to do with God as creator and humanity created in God's image, which implies the dignity which resides in each member of the human race. They use Gen.1, 9:6 and John 3:16 for this lesson.
2.                  The second lesson is the unity that is meant for all of creation. God intends there to be reconciliation. “Throughout the Old Testament, God's great mission of salvation was to reconcile all people and nations and return them to God's rule of peace (shalom). “Jesus reaffirmed that God's  vision throughout all the Scriptures was that the good news should be preached to all people (Luke 24:45-49; Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:9).”

3.                  The third lesson has to do with God using the church as the means of bringing about reconciliation. The authors see the unity focus of Belhar as theological and found in Christ. It was “to be modeled on very relationship between Jesus and the Father.” Among much other descriptive language the authors write:

“Belhar captures the scope and language of God's great plan for unity, borrowing liberally from the images and teachings found throughout the New Testament, especially from the book of Ephesians. It captures both the spirit and emphasis of the Bible on this great theme. While recognizing that individuals, people groups, and cultures bring differences of many kinds, including gifts to the body of Christ, the church is called to participate in God's plan to bring all things together in Christ. If the unity of God's people is not visibly seen across all possible divisions and within all diversity then the witness of God's people to the watching world is surely compromised. (Italics the authors)
4.                  The fourth lesson is a recognition of sin in the world, but a charge to continue following both the prophets and Jesus in his work of reconciliation. This charge includes feeding the hungry, standing “with the victims of injustice,” and seeking the lost.

 So have Hayner and Labberton truly confirmed the biblical foundations of Belhar? Are their biblical  lessons the same lessons we find in Belhar?

 The first lesson about the Creator creating humanity in His image is certainly a biblical theme. And undoubtedly the writers of the Belhar Confession held that biblical view, but it isn't really within the text of Belhar. (Perhaps implied but certainly not stated) But that isn't a problem; other important confessions such as the Nicene Creed do not emphasize humanity's creation. But what it does imply is that the authors of “Bible and Belhar,” were digging deeper in Scripture than in Belhar.

 The second and third lesson, God's desire for unity and the church's responsibility to demonstrate and participate in that unity are certainly the whole focus of Belhar. But when looking at Belhar one must look at the whole text. The whole text must stand on a biblical foundation; if even one part is false or unbiblical or even leads to a contradiction of Scripture the whole confession will not be helpful as a confession.  Within the Confession there is a statement which does not have a solid biblical foundation:
...we reject any doctrine -which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation.

 All of the other statements in the section which follow this statement under the subtitle “Therefore, we reject any doctrine” are not biblical. There is a natural absolutization of diversity that is biblical and is contained not only in the beginnings of Genesis but also in the words of Jesus:

 “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.

 That biblical statement, including the original text quoted by Jesus, cannot be changed, twisted or have words removed from it. It stands as it is and so leaves the Belhar Confession wanting.

 It is true that in the beginning the authors of Belhar did not intend that the Confession should be used the way some in the PC (U.S.A.) desire to use it. They intended to attack the sin of racial absolutization.  But it is because of its unbiblical insistence that there can be no absolutization of natural diversity that there are problems. And the problem occurred because the aim of a Confession should not be to attack a heresy in any other way but by a full confession of Christ. That is, the time comes when the Church must confess Christ anew in such a way that the church is renewed and brought back to the true word of God.

 The Nicene Creed confesses Christ against the heresy of Arianism not by explaining the heresy of Arianism but by confessing the biblical truth that Jesus Christ Lord was begotten before all worlds, that he is God of God and Light of Light, that he is of one substance with the Father, etc., etc. A confession confesses Christ Jesus. And in doing so affirms biblical truths about Christ.

 The Reformation confessions while very full of all manner of church doctrine, since their heresy involved a whole hierarchical system; nonetheless contain full confessions of Jesus Christ.  For instance The Westminster Confession of Faith speaking of unity links it to Jesus Christ by affirming truths about Christ:
1.All saints being united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory; and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other's gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as to conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man. (Chapter XXV! 6.146)

 The Theological Declaration of Barmen as it stands against allegiance to any other Lord, goes straight to the word and clearly confesses that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Barmen explains that he is “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Barmen states a great deal about Jesus Christ; it truly confesses Christ.

 The fourth lesson about sin in the world and caring for the poor, marginalized and lost while following the prophets and Jesus in this activity is certainly in Belhar and in the Scripture although Belhar carries a whiff of liberation theology in this area, it is certainly biblical in its call. But Belhar which helped the church of South Africa with the racial sin that pervaded their church is not universal in its usefulness. While aimed at racism it is open to misuse because of unhelpful language which is not biblical.

 It should be noted, as C.S. Lewis saw it about contemporary books, Belhar aggravates the error of our day by allowing many to see the biblical insistence of God's plan for marriage between a man and a woman as sin. It allows instead for the blessing of a multiplicity of genders in marriage. But on the other hand we should also note that, as Lewis pointed out, there is also an “immensely formidable unity” within our divisions when seen by an unbelieving world. It is the natural outcome of our being in Christ, united to him by the Holy Spirit. And it is that “mere” Christianity that Lewis understood and clarified so well.


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