During the 1880’s, Dr. Nicholas Steffens, the first professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, was a strong and vociferous defender of the three Reformed Standards of Unity–the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Steffens argued that loyalty to the Standards must be upheld as a defense against the inroads of the “Mediating theologians” of Germany and the “New Theology” being taught at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Steffens’ loyalty to the three confessions, however, did not dissuade him from criticizing them and the Church Order of Dort for their Erastian understanding of the relationship of church and state.
Steffens’s complaint was that especially the Heidelberg Catechism and the Church Order of Dort had an Erastian perspective. They called on the Reformed Church and its members to be loyal and obedient to the civil authority without adequately recognizing the prophetic right to protest against oppression and injustice.
Erastus was one of the advisors on the committee that supervised the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism under the direction of Frederick II. Question 103 in the Catechism made it clear that subjects must be loyal and obedient even when the ruler was weak or unjust.
What is God’s will for us in the fifth commandment?
That I show honor, love, and loyalty to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I submit myself with proper obedience to all their good teaching and correction; and also that I be patient with their failings, for through them God chooses to rule over us.
The Catechism’s requirement for patience was reinforced by Article 30 in the Church Order of Dort. It stipulated that in the assemblies of the church, “ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted, and that in an ecclesiastical matter.” Question 103 was further reinforced in the Belgic Confession, Article 36, that teaches, “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, the anarchists, and, in general, all those who want to reject the authorities and civil offices and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”
In the century of political and social disorders that followed the outbreak of the Reformation, the three Standards of Unity played an important role in setting forth a Reformed theology based on Romans 13:1-8. They provided room for the civil authorities to act without being dominated by the papal hierarchy. They rejected the anarchical chaos found in some Anabaptist circles. In doing so, however, they neglected the prophetic office of the covenant community that was present in the Old Testament era, beginning with the prophets Nathan and Elijah. They left unrecognized the demonic aspects of the state so prominent in Revelation 12-18.
As a result of the imbalance, the language of the confessions was used in later centuries to insist on patience and obedience to the law in the face of injustice and oppression. The Reformed Church in America General Synod favored support of the African-American Colonization Society while rejecting the abolitionists prior to the Civil War. Our three Standards did not function to oppose the practice of separate Lord’s Tables for blacks and for whites in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Negotiation and cooperation with management was favored in labor relations while strikes were usually opposed even when the mistreatment of the laboring force was recognized. Article 30 (Art. 36 in the 1874 RCA Explanatory Articles) was interpreted to allow the General Synod to have a committee on prevailing sins or public morals that could deal with personal morality, but not a commission on social justice that would advise the church on broader public issues such as international justice or racial discrimination. In South Africa, the perspective of the three Standards favored the call for patience and obedience to authorities who upheld the harsh apartheid policies.
Adoption of the Belhar Confession alongside the three Standards of Unity would rectify this serious imbalance. It would recognize not only the virtues of obedience and patience, but also leave open the possibility of godly impatience with injustice and oppressive policies. It would recognize that civil disobedience can be a Christian virtue in opposition to the enforcement of unjust laws. It would encourage the church to give weight to the message of the Old Testament prophets and Revelation 12-18, as well as to Romans 13 and I Peter 2:13-17.
Adoption of the Belhar Confession would restore the ecumenical and social significance of the Lord’s Supper that is inadequately developed in the three Standards. The three Standards did not function to oppose the practice of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa of having separate Lord’s Tables for blacks and for whites. It was only in 1982 that the World Alliance of Reformed Churches acted to call apartheid policies and separate Lord’s Tables a heresy and a sin. That late recognition of the evil of separate Tables remains a signal that the language of the three Standards is inadequate. The language of the Belhar Confession thus adds an important dimension to what is already there in the intent of the Standards of Unity.
Adoption of the Belhar Confession by North American Reformed churches would mitigate the nationalistic tendencies that are present in so many Reformed denominations. The Reformed tradition needs to incorporate the South African theological experience into its historic European and American confessional stance. Although the Belhar Confession spoke in the first instance to the South African situation, it continues to address attitudes and circumstances that prevail in many forms in every church, including North American Reformed churches. In North America the past is still very much with us, not only in terms of race but also gender, ethnicity, and immigrating populations. As a confession that originated in Africa, Belhar would function in North America as a sign that the Reformed confessional tradition is intercontinental rather than simply European/North American in scope.
Finally, adoption of the Belhar Confession alongside the three Standards of Unity would help to clarify the role of historic confessions in relation to present day needs. Attempts to amend the language of sixteenth century documents to deal with twenty-first century issues usually serve only to create new ambiguities and problems as compromises are made in order to reconcile quite different historical circumstances and theological perspectives. By placing confessional statements of differing eras alongside each other, a greater intergenerational ecumenicity can emerge in which the spiritual experience and urgency of the present is constantly informed, but not overwhelmed by the wisdom of our fathers and mothers.