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John Calvin
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A Prior Question
A Terrible Irony
An Inherent Problem
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The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is considering whether to include "The Belhar Confession" (or "The Confession of Belhar") in The Book of Confessions.


The current text of The Book of Confessions may be found at this link:


The Book of Confessions


The text of the "The Belhar Confession" may be found at this link:


The Belhar Confession


Would you be so kind as to allow me to ask three questions about this proposal:


(1) Is there not a prior question to be asked and answered?


(2) Is there not a terrible irony involved with the text of the proposal? and


(3) Is there not an inherent problem with the content of the confession?


Please see following.


A Prior Question?

Is there not a prior question to be asked and answered? Before it can be determined whether to add this or any other confession to the book, would it not be necessary to understand and to agree upon what The Book of Confessions is and what purpose or purposes it serves?


The confessions articulate the Christian faith to and for the church, and taken together they form Part I of the constitution of the denomination. This is key. Is there not already a problem with this? Does not having multiple confessions of faith tend toward having no confession of faith at all? The more confessions we have, the less authority any one of them has, and the less authority the whole book has.


The fewer confessions we have, the better known each could be and would be, and the greater is the likelihood of agreement and coherence. Conversely, the more confessions we have, the less well known each could be and would be, and the greater the likelihood of disagreement and dissonance. Does not this fact alone argue against adding anything else to the book?


As an alternative to the current proposal, let me suggest Creeds of the Church: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, edited by John H. Leith (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, x + 736 pp.). It includes scores of Christian creeds and confessions from all around the world and throughout the centuries. Now in its third edition, it continues to sell well year after year. This is the kind of collection in which "The Belhar Confession" could and should be included. Everything in this collection is available for us to study, believe, consult, be guided by, and so forth. But we don't need to put them all in our constitution.


There is a difference between a collection and a constitution. A collection should be comprehensive. A constitution must be coherent. Do we not face a very severe danger that the more we expand the constitution, whatever the merit of any particular addition, the weaker the constitution and the denomination become?


A Terrible Irony?

"The Belhar Confession" is being promoted to be included in The Book of Confessions in order, at least in part, for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be affirming of the faith and voice of another church on the other side of the world. That sounds like a good and wonderful thing, as far as it goes.


But here is the problem. Adopting this confession may not really be so affirming. Consider this footnote to the text:


This inclusive language text was prepared by the . . . Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).


Do you realize what this means? While there is talk of affirming the faith and voice of another church, the reality is that the other church's "Confession of Belhar" has been retranslated so as to meet the ideological predilections of a liberal, western church. At least some if not all the male references to God in the original have been removed so that the more neutered version could pass muster in the Presbyterian Church. Would not adopting this proposal be saying that we concur with Belhar's critique of racism but that we think the people who wrote it do not know how to speak or write properly about God?


Do we really believe that would be affirming of our dear brothers and sisters? Is not this offense--dare I say, this racism--good reason not to approve this proposal? The reality that the church in Africa has now accepted this revision as the English translation of their confession, perhaps in their eagerness for western churches to adopt it, hardly makes it right.

An Inherent Problem?

"The Belhar Confession" portrays the unity of the church which it so rightly and highly advocates as an imperative:


"this unity must become visible," and


"this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active."


Surely such church unity is desirable. But also surely such unity is always a gift and never a human accomplishment or possibility. Does not portraying the unity of the church as an imperative, particularly a divine imperative, create numerous problems? Given a divine imperative for church unity, is not the implication that we can do no other? Is not the implication that we must stay together? Is not the implication that we must agree? Is not the implication that any and all costs for church unity are fully justified? Is not the implication  that any division within or of the church is at best disobedient and at worst schismatic and demonic?


But the very emphasis upon church unity as a divine imperative threatens the continuing existence of the denomination within which we are discussing this. The insistence upon church unity as a divine imperative renders all denominationalism illegitimate. Some would readily admit and embrace that. If, however, all denominationalism were by definition illegitimate, we should quit worrying about the unity of and within the Presbyterian Church, abandon this splinter group altogether, and seek the larger unity of the whole church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we could do no other. The demise of the Presbyterian Church would be a necessary cost to be paid for the greater good.


If, however, there is any remaining legitimacy or appropriateness to denominationalism, to Protestantism, or to the Reformed heritage, any at all--and surely even those within the Presbyterian Church who emphasize unity as a divine imperative must place some such value on this branch of the church, or they would not be pushing so hard to maintain its unity--if there is any remaining legitimacy to Presbyterianism at all, then we should not pretend that church unity is an absolute value. It may be a very high value. But if it were an absolute value, if it were a divine imperative, then denominationalism would be forbidden and all efforts to maintain the existence of the Presbyterian Church, let alone its unity, would be inherently sinful. That is to say, absolute church unity and the Presbyterian Church are mutually exclusive.


Instead of insisting that the unity of the church is a divine imperative, perhaps we should understand the unity of the church as a divine gift. It is something wonderful which God gives to us. Yes, we should pray for it. We should seek it. We should receive it gladly when it comes. We should not stand in its way. We should not work against it. And yet, surely we must realize that the unity of the church is God's work, God's business, God's accomplishment, and God's gift to us. It is not something we can do ourselves. Let me put it this way: any church unity of which we are capable of accomplishing could not possibly satisfy the divine imperative for church unity if, in fact, there were one.


Even Jesus Christ prayed for the unity of the church, as recorded in John 17. We all know this. The point here is that he prayed for it! He did not command it. He did not demand it. He did not assume that his followers would be capable of it. In fact, the urgency of the prayer seems to assume that his followers would be lacking it. Jesus asked his Father to bestow unity upon us as a gift! Yes, of course, this means that church unity is in agreement with the heartfelt desire of our savior. But no, it does not mean that it is simply up to us to do it, to achieve it, to legislate it, to mandate it, or to accomplish it.


Those who push most urgently for the unity of the Presbyterian Church as a divine imperative to be sought at any cost may, in fact, be doing the most to undermine both the desired unity of the church and the church itself.


Please understand: I am in favor of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. And within that larger unity, I am in favor of maintaining the gifts that have been given to us in and through the Reformed heritage and Presbyterianism. I am simply saying that in order to maintain the unity of the Presbyterian Church as a viable part of the larger church, it is inherently, dare I say, "imperative" that we not undermine the legitimacy of the existence of the Presbyterian Church in the very process of seeking to maintain it.


Dr. James C. Goodloe IVGrace and Peace,
Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, Executive Director
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