The acceptance of the Belhar Confession by the Reformed Church in America, and its consideration by the Christian Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), challenges the church to consider anew the nature of confession itself. More specifically, it raises the issue of the church’s relation to the content of the confession. This is the case not only for Belhar, but in some ways even more pressingly for the other, older confessions.
Put most baldly, are office bearers and church members committed to the formulations contained in the confessions precisely as they are written? Can our understanding of the confession change over time? Just how much wiggle-room is there within a confession?
This is not a new issue. The Reformed Church in America (before it was the RCA, in the nineteenth century) faced just this issue in the controversy that led to the division that brought about the True Dutch Reformed Church. The question then was how tightly must one hold the doctrine of limited atonement? Did Christ die for some or for all? Those who eventually left for the True Dutch Reformed Church held to a strict reading of the Canons of Dort. But for that matter, Dort itself tried to square a theological circle by asserting God’s absolute initiative with human responsibility.
How one relates to the content of the confession emerged again when the RCA changed the declaration that ministers of Word and sacrament must publicly read, assent to and sign. Before it read that the minister believed the “Gospel of the Grace of God in Christ Jesus as revealed in the Holy Scriptures…and as truly set forth in the Standards…” Later ministers would simply declare that “I accept the Standards as historic and faithful…” seeming to grant more room for negotiation and distance from the Standards. Not all have been pleased with this change.
It is not surprising, then, that this issue has evoked a good deal of theological discussion over the last couple centuries. One contributor to the conversation was the Dutch theologian from the middle of the nineteenth century, Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye (1818-1874), who takes up the issue in a number of writings. Here my focus is on a series of lectures given in 1865. (Historians of the Dutch church might note that this happens after the Afscheiding of 1834 but before the Doleantie of 1886. The nature of the “standards” was to be at issue in both of these separation movements, and would color the relation of their American counterparts.)
Chantepie de la Saussaye claimed that the church is both confessional and not confessional at the same time. It is not confessional in a sense that binds the church of the current century to that of the sixteenth century, as though nothing has changed. Nor is it confessional as if the Spirit’s work, when God meets us in the Word, cannot and does not correct earlier doctrinal formulations.
Nor is the church confessional in a sense that confessions form the church. In other words, confessions are not the church’s version of the “social contract,” a human agreement that forms a social body. It is not the case that the church is a human association held together by a shared conviction on a set of doctrinal truths. Moreover, the church is not confessional in what Chantepie de la Saussaye calls a “juridical” manner. The church does not maintain its apostolicity by doctrinal tests of its ministers in particular, purifying itself by clearing out those who do not or cannot agree strictly to the doctrinal formulations as set out by the confessions. Using the confessions as a litmus test to censure those with a more flexible reading is not their purpose. [Chantepie de la Saussaye’s argument is found in volume three of his Verzameld Werk (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1998), 132-135].
On the other hand, the church is confessional in three ways. Confessions are the historical foundation on which the church stands. They are the way or road on which the church walks. And they are the goal to which the church struggles.
It is, first, the historical foundation on which the church stands. The confession is the “birth act of the church.” The church becomes itself as it responds to the God who calls it into being. Confession is one way, a primary way even, that the church offers its response to God, and hence is “born” of God. God speaks, the church answers: that’s the church!
For Reformed churches (and Lutheran churches as well) this happened in the Reformation as the church responded to the living Word with its own words of gratitude, speaking a truth it was compelled to speak. We are the children of the Reformation, and so live in a particular relation to the Word. In that Word, the wonder of justification by grace through faith emerged as the clarion call. With it we lived on the sovereign way of God’s gracious love. For the Reformed this would find its articulation in the doctrine of election, in the presbyterial nature of the church, and in a way of understanding the sacraments as breathed by the Spirit.
Secondly, the confession is the road on which the church walks. The path is a dynamic metaphor, a way of talking about how the church lives as God’s people in the world. Chantepie de la Saussaye identifies that path in part as the relationship between church and the state. In contradistinction from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Believers’ churches, Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession article 36, for example) , understand both the church and the state as servants of God, with neither the state ruling through the church nor the church ruling through the state. The church finds its own way, without the help of the state, building its own independent organization, and does so, Chantepie de la Saussaye argues, as though God’s future has already arrived!
Thirdly, the confession is a guide for the future. The confession places an ideal before the church, an ideal beyond its reach, but that nevertheless must become the very life of the congregation. What is confessed must become the church’s history, the life of the church.
Chantepie de la Saussaye concludes by insisting that it is the church’s vocation to confess, for by so doing it witnesses to society and to the state the truth of God’s sovereign love and God’s gracious way in and with history. This is the truth of history, this is the future God has in store, this is the way God works: through Jesus the Messiah, as the Trinitarian God reconciles a rebellious and sinful world to God’s own self. The church not only is witness to this truth, but is itself constituted by this witness.
This resolutely dynamic view of the church’s relation to the content of the confessions offers a perspective on how the church can live in lively conversation with the confessions that birth it and shape it. As foundation, path, and goal, the confessions then remind us that the church is not the product of human consent to doctrinal agreement. The church rests not on itself, but on God’s action. The confessions acknowledge that the church is on a path toward God’s future, and that in confessing, the church is always caught up in the context of a historical reality. In this way, the Belhar Confession joins the three historic standards, and together they express the church’s grateful hymn of praise of the God whose intentions ever escape our comprehension but which never leave this sinful world in the lurch.