Thursday, June 26, 2008

Belhar: Good Confession, Bad Constitution

All this week I will be blogging on the Presbyterian General Assembly.

The Theological Issues and Institutions Committee recommended that the Belhar Confession be studied for possible inclusion in the Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession is one of the great anti-apartheid documents in South Africa. It should be read and studied by Reformed Christians.

But it does not belong in the Book of Confessions.

My concern is not with the specific substance of the confession. It makes as much sense to put Belhar in the compendium of great confessions as it does Barmen. They should be understood and honored.

The Book of Confessions is supposed to be the first part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is supposed to be the answer to the question "what do Presbyterians believe?" For ministers and elders, it is supposed to be the legal standard of belief in the church.

Instead, the Book of Confessions has become The Museum of Pretty Words That We Honor Whenever it is Convenient. We don't confess the confessions. We have literally turned them into banners. Their names function as symbols, but their contents are not in any way binding. Indeed, most officers of the church could not even name all the confessions -- go ahead, ask some.

Adding the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions will just add to the erosion of the confessions from working rule to wallpaper.


Rev Dave said...

" 'The Book of Confessions' has become 'The Museum of Pretty Words That We Honor Whenever it is Convenient.'"

Once again, you have nailed it. I wonder what would happen if we actually sat down and tried to write a confession together these days? Or would that be too traumatic, in showing the fracture lines we already know exist yet refuse to acknowledge?

I always feel like a liar when I tell officer candidates that they have to adhere to the 'essential tenets of the reformed faith,' but I can't tell them what those are. Subscriptionism is a dirty word in our denomination; yet I can't help but think it would be better than the "here's a mess of confessions you can cherrypick" approach we have now.

Jon said...

Part of the problem is that there is no reasonable way we could write a confession. Have you noticed that the statements in the BOC get shorter and shorter? C-67 is not lengthy, and conservatives mostly hate it, and the Brief Statement of Faith is pretty brief.

On the other hand, have you read the classical confessions? In many cases they are not things one could accept wholecloth. I find it highly unlikely, Beau, that you could accept Westminster in its entirety. This is not something people just began scrupling in the last century or two--it goes back to the first decades of the PC in the colonies.

I personally don't mind the museum approach. (And it's helped me a lot in interacting with Reformed Christians of other stripes, who use Heidleberg or the 2nd Helvetic.) What I object to is the lack of teaching. We have entirely abandoned intelligent adult ed. It's a rare church that has ever offered anything on the confessions.

PS--I noticed there's another "jon" posting here--if it's hyperlinked it's me, otherwise it's someone else.

Anonymous said...

I'm the "other Jon" :)

Rev Dave, interesting that you mention not being able to tell officer candidates what the "essential tenets" are that they need to adhere to. I used to be a PCUSA Elder in the 90s but I applied to be released from ordained office years ago because I felt I could no longer answer yes to the question, do you adopt the essential tenents as reliable expositions of scripture. The PCUSA no longer has any essential tenets except that which the zeitgeist feels is in fashion at any given time.

Gruntled said...

I would be hard to write a comprehensive confession today. We did, though, write the Brief Statement of Faith. When the draft came out, I said to Mrs. G. that is was (pleasantly) surprisingly orthodox.

And scrupling is indeed an old practice - the Adopting Act only waited until 1729 to articulate the principle because that was the first time we had two presbyteries to rub together.

No confession can serve all. That is why functioning organizations assume that everyone subscribes to the constitutional confession unless they specifically and thoughtfully scruple specific parts of it.

I think the problem is that we have wimped out on judging scruples. That is why no one feels called to do it anymore, and why it is so hard to articulate any essential tenets.

Anonymous said...


Here's a quote that with which I thought you might have some fun. It is from a Cumberland Presbyterian theologian circa 1890.

Creeds are "but a temporary halting place in the march of the mind" (AB Miller, longtime president of Waynesburg College in Pa.)

I don't know the exact context of that quote but it sounds like he might think that a banner on a wall is just the right place for Westminster, et al.

I don't know how widespread this view was among Cumberland Presbyterians. But thousands of them became part of the Northern Church in 1906 Union. If they held that position I supect that they had a bit of an impact on their new church.

Stushie said...

My Sunday School Class have been studying the Belhar Confession for the past four weeks. Read the light of the current homosexual ordination issues, having the Belhar in the Constitution is going to make it harder to theologically oppose this issue.

It's going to be used as a final stepping stone to ordaining practicing gays.

Gruntled said...

Creeds are a temporary halting place. Constitutions are not. When a creed is incorporated into a constitution, it becomes an authoritative standard until and unless it is amended or removed.