An Analysis of the Belhar Confession, Part 2

In this post, I will analyze section 1 and part of section 2. Again, the link to the BC is here.

Section one is fairly unobjectionable, really. One thing struck me as a tad odd: the combination “Word and Spirit.” In most Reformed theology, Word and Spirit are almost assumed to belong together, for the Spirit always operates through the Word. So, there is nothing wrong with this pairing. It is just that when I hear “Word” I always also hear “Spirit.” I was actually expecting “Word and Sacrament.” For the Sacraments are certainly part of what God uses to gather in His saints. This is not really a quibble with the document at this point. But I do think that the Sacraments are important in how God gathers His saints. And this is certainly NOT to say that the Spirit is unimportant.

Section 2, initial statement is really only a restatement of the Apostles Creed and is therefore unobjectionable.

The first bullet paragraph has a problem. I am not comfortable saying that the Gospel strictly includes reconciliation with one another. I think that is a necessary consequence of the Gospel. (In fact it is so necessary that without reconciliation with one another, we are to question whether we are reconciled to God; confer the parable of the unmerciful servant). However, the Gospel itself is reconciliation with God by means of justification by faith alone. This is the Gospel in the strictest sense. One may legitimately broaden the definition of the Gospel to include the Good News concerning the believer’s entire life, although one must be careful to distinguish between the broader, looser meaning, and the stricter, narrower meaning. That clarity is lacking in this first paragraph.

The second bullet paragraph seems to assert a synergy on the question of the unity of the church. This synergy means, in effect, that God and man must work together for the peace and unity of the church. The exact language of the Belhar is “gift and obligation.” They describe church unity as, in effect, both a gift and a goal. To a certain extent, this is correct. The unity of the church is given by the Spirit. It is accomplished through the finished work of Christ. What is not clear is how the Spirit’s work co-exists alongside what man must do. There is no care here to walk the tightrope between antinomianism and legalism. But since the Belhar has defined church unity as part of the Gospel, this becomes a concern. And, as we have already stated, there are two possible ways of using the term “Gospel,” a broader and a narrower. We are not clear as to which way the Belhar is using the term.

The third paragraph I will quote in full, as it is one of the most problematic statements in the Belhar:

that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that
separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which
Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which
threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;

The statement that the unity must become visible is ambiguous. Does this mean an organizational unity, as in the Roman Catholic Church, or does it mean simply that our “getting along” becomes visible? Given that the clarifying result clause specifies that the world may believe, in effect, that Christian really do love each other (and that statement is also questionable: the world will always misunderstand the church), one might assume that more than mere “getting along” is meant here. Now, I am not opposed to greater visible unity in the church. Neither am I opposed to the seeking of it diligently. However, we must not let a drive for greater visible unity hamper the already present invisible unity of the church.

Furthermore, the statement that will cause the most trouble is the final clause. This final clause places unity at a more foundational place in the church than truth. This should not be. Truth and love are equally foundational in the church. As soon as unity becomes more foundational, truth suffers. This clause will be used by homosexual advocacy groups, for instance, to say that homosexuals are part of the church and entitled to church unity, and that kicking them out will be an attack on church unity. One could argue that the South African church already dealt with this problem by forbidding such an interpretation of the Belhar. That does not guarantee that North American church will do the same. One could also argue that the rest of the document limits the threat to racism alone. That may be the case, but it is not forced from this particular paragraph, which has no qualifier whatsoever. In short, this statement is broad enough to drive a truck through it.

An Analysis of the Belhar Confession, Part 1

The Belhar Confession is a document originating in South Africa in the problems surrounding the racism of apartheid. The bulk of the confession has to do with a rejection of racism. Both the RCA and the CRC have this document on the table right now.

It is important to notice, then, that there is much in the Belhar that is commendable. Certainly, racism is a sin. I sincerely hope that those in favor of the Belhar will not accuse detractors of being racists. I have heard from some that this accusation has in fact happened. But Galatians 3:28 is already conclusive on this point of racism, clearly rejecting it. Nevertheless, there are a number of concerns that I have concerning this document.

But first, we must ask this question: what is confession of faith? I understand it to be a summary of the Christian faith. All the confessional documents to which I subscribe are accurate summaries of what the Scripture teaches on the central aspects of the Christian faith. Belhar does not do this. Racial reconciliation is therefore one of the vitally important consequences of the Gospel. However, the Gospel itself is reconciliation between God and man, the New Perspective on Paul notwithstanding. And if racial reconciliation is based on anything other than reconciliation between God and man, then it is a false reconciliation.

The document itself is vague in places. In all honesty, there are places in the document you could drive a truck through in terms of interpreting it. Just as one example, in section 2, under the second paragraph beginning “we believe,” and in the third section, the Belhar says “that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.” So, should the church separate itself from people living in unrepentant sin, as Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 6? This document says that separation of any kind is wrong. One could argue, I suppose, that the context means only racial separation. But that is precisely the point: this document is not clear on this point. The statement is not qualified. Confessions are limiting documents, not broadening documents. They should not be documents that increase possible interpretations. There will be more on that later.

In the extreme emphasis on unity, truth is de-emphasized. I’m not so sure that North American churches even have a proper view of love. If love is not based around the truth of God’s Word, then it is not true love. Neither can one say that God is love more than God is truth, for the same Bible that tells us that God is love also tells us that God is light, and that in Him there is no darkness at all. What I will do in the next several posts is to analyze the several portions of the confession, and why I think it is deficient.

My Friend Jason’s New Book

Is now available at WTS books. Whether you like two kingdoms theology or not, Jason’s book will definitely be a thoughtful and challenging read. Jason emphasizes the pilgrim nature of the Christian life, something that is sometimes eclipsed in other formulations. It is as someone living between the first and second coming of Christ, the already and the not yet, that we make our way, God’s grace enabling to His glory.

Very Interesting Book on Apologetics

Nothing like this has ever been done before, to my knowledge. It is the first of a projected two-volume series that encapsulates original source work in apologetics. The first volume covers up through year 1500.

The Lens of Confessions Revisited

Posted by Bob Mattes

Lane wrote an excellent post Who’s Lens Are You Using? Unfortunately, the comments were hijacked by a Protestant/RCC/Eastern Orthodox debate on authority. OTOH, Federal Visionists took the discussion on their blogs in the direction I would have expected. I thought that I would try to bring the discussion back on point with this post and address the Federal Visionists’ blatant biblicism.

There are two critical points of clarification that I feel need to be made up front, and will address again later in this post. First, in the USA, anyone can believe whatever they want, interpret the Scriptures how ever they wish – and they certainly do. However, you cannot be an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and believe things contrary to the theological standards of that fellowship. That should be self-evident, but seems a difficult concept for some. Second, there is an established process to modify the PCA Standards, and using that process is the honest approach to disagreements with or about the Standards. More on those points later. First on the lens concept.

Lane wrote:

Let’s put it this way: everyone has lenses of some sort when they come to Scripture. No one can interpret Scripture from a completely clean slate.

What could be more obvious? Everything passes through our perceptual, cultural, intellectual, etc., filters. One of the primary things that makes denominations different is the lenses they use for Scriptural interpretation.

Historically, the church has used confessions both as statements of what it believes and as the lens through which Scripture is interpreted, of course illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Orthodox Christian creeds and confessions originate through particular exegeses of the Scriptures, and are always subordinate thereto. There is no shortage of confessions and statements of faith within the Christian denominational family. The PCA adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith along with the catechisms as its lens.

As Lane pointed out, there’s always a danger that the lens could be elevated to the level of Scripture. This is certainly being alleged by some Federal Visionists. But from its beginning, the PCA made it clear that, although the Westminster Standards “contained the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” they are subordinate to Scripture. The BCO defines the PCA’s Constitution thusly:

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word Of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory for Worship; all as adopted by the Church.

There’s no question about where the PCA stands on this issue, and any attempts to say otherwise constitutes a red herring that ignores the plain fact. Yet, this is exactly the tact routinely taken by Federal Visionists.

One FVer accuses Lane of quasi-Roman Catholic theology, a recurring theme from that quarter. Another declares the use of the Standards as a lens Romanism, Presbyterian Style. I had to chuckle reading those posts, wondering if these individuals slept through Seminary. These FV posts display a remarkable ignorance of how confessions have been used in the Christian Church since Peter’s very first one: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Certainly the early creeds – Apostles’, Nicene, etc. – provided lenses through which Scripture was interpreted, especially to counter the heretics of those days who interpreted Scripture to suit their own tastes. The Westminster Confession serves exactly that purpose today – and perhaps that’s the real issue between Federal Visionists and the Confession.

Let’s take a quick look at how the orthodox Reformed have historically viewed the Standards. Robert Shaw, author of An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, summed the issue of the confession as a lens best in 1845:

The Christian Church, as a divine institution, takes the Word of God alone, and the whole Word of God, as her only rule of faith; but she must also frame and promulgate a statement of what she understands the Word of God to teach. This she does, not as arrogating any authority to suppress, change, or amend anything that God’s Word teaches, but in discharge of the various duties which she owes to God, to the world, and to those of her own communion. Since she has been constituted the depository of God’s truth, it is her duty to him to state, in the most distinct and explicit terms, what she understands that truth to mean. In this manner she not only proclaims what God has said, but also appends her seal that God is true. Thus a Confession of Faith is not the very voice of divine truth, but the echo of that voice from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call.

And, since she has been instituted for the purpose of teaching God’s truth to an erring world, her duty to the world requires that she should leave it in no doubt respecting the manner in which she understands the message which she has to deliver. Without doing so the Church would be no teacher, and the world might remain untaught, so far as she was concerned. For when the message had been stated in God’s own words, every hearer must attempt, according to the constitution of his own mind, to form some conception of what these words mean, and his conceptions may be very vague and obscure, or even very erroneous, unless some attempt be made to define, elucidate, and correct them. Nor, indeed, could either the hearers or the teachers know that they understood the truth alike, without mutual statements and explanations with regard to the meaning which they respectively believe it to convey.

Still further, the Church has duty to discharge to those of its own communion. To them she must produce a form of sound words, in order both to promote and confirm their knowledge, and also to guard them against the hazard of being led into errors; and, as they must be regarded as all agreed, with respect to the main outline of the truths which they believe, they are deeply interested in obtaining some security that those who are to become their teachers in future generations shall continue to teach the same divine and saving truths. The members of any Church must know each other’s sentiments—must combine to hold them forth steadily and consistently to the notice of all around them, as witnesses for the same truths; and must do their utmost to secure that the same truths shall be taught by all its ministers, and to all candidates for admission. For all these purposes the formation of a Creed, or Confession of Faith, is imperatively necessary; and thus it appears that a Church cannot adequately discharge its duty to God, to the world, and to its own members, without a Confession of Faith. [my emphasis]

I’ve not seen the Reformed case stated any better. Shaw directly addresses the Federal Visionist complaint. The FV posts cited also ignore the Scriptural exegesis behind the Standards that was done in great detail by the Westminster Divines and their theological predecessors.

Which brings me to the first point I made above. All PCA teaching elders must answer the following question (amongst others) in the affirmative on their  ordination:

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?

So, as I stated earlier, in the USA one can believe as one wishes. One can worship ferrets and sacrifice raisinetes to them. However, one cannot become or remain an elder in the PCA unless one freely affirms that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. The BCO does not say that you can rewrite or reinterpret the Standards to fit the latest theological fad.

Which brings me to point two and my standard challenge to those who use specious arguments to falsely pitting Scripture against the Westminster Standards. The polity of the PCA provides a procedure for making changes the Standards. If, as one prominent Federal Visionist publicly advocated, one wishes to rewrite Chapter 7 of the Confession, then put in an overture to the General Assembly for debate and action. It’s that simple, but it does take a measure of courage.

I’ve made this challenge for the last several years, yet for all the bits expended on Federal Vision blogs, none has stepped forward with a relevant overture. Hmm…

Posted by Bob Mattes

Please Pray for Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church

This doesn’t look good at all. We need to be on our knees before our God, praying that truth and love would kiss each other at the church as they have at the cross of Christ. We also need to pray for other churches that might be experiencing unity problems. All who are involved need prayer. I am praying for the church, praying for Tullian, praying for the two factions that seem to have developed.