Category Archives: Confessions
In the February 27 issue of Christian Renewal Doug Barnes, a pastor in the denomination of which I am a member, writes a column addressing readers’ concerns about two kingdoms theology. Barnes declares that the two kingdoms doctrine “currently making waves” is sometimes called the “Radical Two Kingdoms” doctrine because it is so “sweeping” and “vast” in its implications. Clearly this is pretty serious stuff.
Barnes goes on to describe the two kingdoms view as one that divides the world into two spheres, the redemptive kingdom containing the church, and the common kingdom containing “the state and all other social institutions” (there is no eschatological nuance recognized here). In this kingdom, he says, “God reveals his will not by Scripture, but by ‘natural law'” (emphasis added). To drive the “vast” implications home to his readers, he then affirms that two kingdoms theologians believe Scripture is intended for the church but not for “the life of the common kingdom.”
The church has neither the right nor the calling to preach about politics or other matters distinct to life in the common kingdom, according to Two Kingdoms proponents.
Yikes. If what Barnes is saying is true, these two kingdoms people are arguing that God does not reveal his will about anything in the common kingdom in Scripture, and that pastors should therefore never say anything about marriage, the raising of children, relations between masters and slaves, or civil government, the sorts of matters discussed regularly in the New Testament. If what Barnes is saying is true, in other words, the theologians he has in view must be denying the authority of Scripture at best; they are outright heretical at worst. How many of Barnes’s readers come to just this conclusion? Labeling the doctrine “radical” doesn’t exactly set the stage for objective consideration.
Who does Barnes identify as the leaders of this wave, this movement that is so sweeping in its implications? He mentions three names, Michael Horton, R. Scott Clark, and David VanDrunen. VanDrunen is the chief theorist, of course, but Barnes points his readers to the book Kingdoms Apart, which he assures them, has ably addressed VanDrunen’s troubling views (for evidence that this is not remotely the case, see my review of Kingdoms Apart here and here, and VanDrunen’s review here). The most redeeming thing about Barnes’s column is that he points his readers to VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (although he immediately reminds his readers that they should quickly follow up this book by reading Cornel Venema’s critique of it).
Yes, please do go and read VanDrunen’s book. If you do, I hope you note that this is a book that claims to present what Scripture teaches about both of God’s two kingdoms. On its very face, therefore, the book challenges Barnes’s characterization of two kingdoms theology as a view that claims God does not reveal his will about the common kingdom in Scripture. Then, after reading the first five chapters of the book, which lay out biblical theological foundations for the two kingdoms view, note that VanDrunen concludes the book with two chapters, one of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on the church, the other of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on education, vocation, and politics. The latter chapter, by the way, is longer than the former.
In fact, on pages 194-203 VanDrunen goes on to outline what he believes Scripture teaches about politics, and how the church should proclaim these truths while avoiding usurping God’s authority by going beyond them. VanDrunen even concludes the section by declaring that there may be times when pastors need to specifically address particular political controversies or public policies. “Each preacher must wrestle conscientiously with the particular text he is expounding and determine what obligations it undoubtedly places upon his hearers” (203).
It is time for serious Reformed people to step up and demand that whatever concerns people may have about two kingdoms theology, they raise them in a responsible way. If you want to criticize someone, I was always taught, you have to earn the right by showing that you actually understand their views, summarizing those views in terms they themselves would recognize. This has not been happening much lately in certain circles. To be sure, there are important questions worth asking and yes, there are legitimate criticisms of certain versions of two kingdoms theology that need to be made. But this is not the way to do it.
Note that Barnes and others are raising the stakes quite high here. Barnes admits that the “first generation” of two kingdoms proponents are “firmly committed to the confessions” and suggests “that keeps them from working their doctrine out to its logical ends.” Later generations, however, can be expected to follow the doctrine to its obvious conclusions. What then? “If that happens with the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine, I suspect our broader assemblies eventually will need to evaluate how compatible the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine is with our confessions.”
In fact, some confessional watchmen are already doing just that. Interestingly enough, in a ten page essay comparing two kingdoms theology to Belgic Confession Article 36, Mark VanDerMolen, an elder in the same denomination, focuses almost entirely on blog posts and does not even mention the name VanDrunen. He embraces a view of Belgic 36 that takes the footnote found in the 1976 Psalter Hymnal as confessionally binding, a view that would not be widely shared within the denomination. He ends up concluding that Belgic 36 includes three vital claims:
- the Magistrate is subject to both tables of God’s law
- the Magistrate is subject to the authority of God’s Word
- the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ
I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who would dispute the first two points. While it is true that all two kingdoms theologians agree that government should not enforce everything commanded in both tables of God’s law, I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who argues that they magistrates may with impunity disobey them. No two kingdoms theologian thinks, for instance, that magistrates are justified in worshiping false gods or idols, blaspheming God’s name, or teaching false doctrine.
On the third point, VanDerMolen’s phrasing is sloppy. Belgic 36 does not declare that the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ. What it says is the following:
Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word.
As Nelson Kloosterman clarifies on his own blog (where, however, he hosts and seems wholeheartedly to affirm VanDerMolen’s essay),
BC 36 does not require civil rulers to agree with the gospel preached or to engage in divine worship, but to remove every obstacle that could impede these. Nor does BC 36 require civil rulers to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ or to resist every anti-christian power—but to fulfill their calling of obstacle-removal for these purposes to be achieved, presumably by Christians.
Exactly. Civil government is indeed ordained by God to fulfill certain purposes that contribute to the advancement of the kingdom of God, but such advancement is indirect, not direct (Calvin in his commentary on John 18 says it is accidental). And while Kloosterman does not admit it here, this insight comes directly from the two kingdoms theology of which he is so critical. Every Reformed two kingdoms theologian since Calvin has emphasized that civil government may not engage in the ministry of the gospel or the administration of the sacraments because Christ’s spiritual and political kingdoms are distinct and not to be confused. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith does not contest two kingdoms theology. It assumes it.
In his own essay VanDerMolen writes,
Undoubtedly, the manner of the magistrate accomplishing its God-ordained and God-honoring purposes in a pluralistic age lead[s] us into difficult thorny questions. But difficulty in application does not abrogate the principles we confess.
Thank you. That is precisely the premise of the scholars, like VanDrunen and myself, who have actually devoted significant scholarly attention to this problem. We are not questioning the principles we confess. We are trying to work through the “difficult thorny questions” that arise when these principles, as well as the teaching of Scripture in general, are applied to our pluralistic age. Can we get on with that task now?
[Note: For a brief, general introduction to two kingdoms theology, see these essays at Reformation 21:
On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.
Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.
As Evans writes,
There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K. The list goes on and on. Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality. Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.
Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.
Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market. But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.
Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.
Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?
To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,
What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation. To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?
Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.
No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.
In a discussion at the Puritan Board regarding propositions written by Mark VanDerMolen in a comment thread on this blog, a number of people wondered how it can be true that the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given at Mt. Sinai uniquely for God’s covenant people, and yet the moral substance of those commandments remain binding on all human beings in all times and places. As one person wrote, this seems like “doublespeak … [I]s the moral law expressed in 10 commandments binding on all men or not?”
In practice I don’t think most people have any trouble distinguishing between the Ten Commandments as given and the moral substance of those commandments as timeless. After all, the commandments specifically address the covenant people of God (I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt), make promises unique to the covenant people of God (that you may live long in the land the LORD your God has given you), and provide reasons unique to the covenant people of God (for the LORD brought you out of a land of slavery). Such covenant language could not have been transferred to ancient Egyptians or Canaanites any more than it can be transferred to contemporary Tibetan Buddhists or even to American Evangelicals.
Why not? Because the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of a specific legal document, a covenant often referred to by theologians as the Mosaic Covenant and described in the New Testament simply as “the Law.” Neither Jews nor Christians have ever received them simply as a timeless statement of ethical principles, which is why Jews do not view the sabbath law as binding on Gentiles, and why Christians do not hold to the seventh day sabbath. If Christians literally believed that the Decalogue was given to all people in all places as a timeless statement of moral law, we would all be Seventh Day Adventists, seeking the reward for our obedience to our parents by relocating to the land of Israel.
Some Christians do that, of course, but not most of us.
Most of us follow the lead of Christian theologians going back to the middle ages and distinguish between the moral substance of the Law – which we equate with the principle of love, or with natural law – and the covenantally contextual elements of that Law, usually described as the judicial and ceremonial law, which no longer bind us. In addition, we follow the logic of the theologian John Calvin, who distinguished between the rigor and contractual legal force of the law, which no longer binds Christians, and the truth or teaching of the law, which is always profitable for moral instruction.
In taking this approach to the Ten Commandments we follow the Apostle Paul in Romans. Paul argued that Christians are no longer under the Law, having been freed from it and bound to Christ just as a woman whose husband has died is free to marry a new husband. At the same time, he called Christians to love one another, declaring that by doing so they fulfill the moral substance of all the commandments.
Why is this confusing to some Protestants today? It is confusing in part because despite these clear covenantal and theological distinctions, the theologians of the Reformation generally described the moral law as being summarized in the Ten Commandments. Both Luther, Calvin and their followers gave the Ten Commandments a prominent place in their catechisms, which became the core teaching tool (after regular preaching) instilling doctrine into their followers. Eventually various catechisms and confessions presented the Ten Commandments simply as the summary of the moral law. For instance, in response to the question, “What is God’s law?”, the Heidelberg Catechism recites the Ten Commandments. Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith declares that the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments.
Have these documents abandoned the distinction between the Ten Commandments as a contextual covenantal document and the timeless moral law, thus leading to contemporary confusion? In my view they are less than clear on the point, but a careful consideration of each indicates that while the distinction is not clearly stated and articulated, it is nevertheless assumed. This is most obvious for the Heidelberg Catechism, which follows Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession in interpreting the Fourth Commandment (the sabbath law) in terms of an eternal sabbath that calls Christians to spiritual rest and worship, rather than as a call to seventh day sabbath observance, as the Decalogue is actually written. But even the Westminster Confession, which does present the sabbath day principle as binding on Christians, explains that for Christians the day has been changed from the seventh day of the week to the first. Even here, it is clear, it is the moral substance of the commandments that is viewed as binding on all people, not the Decalogue itself as given to Israel.
One might wonder why this question even matters, outside perhaps of debates about the sabbath law. Everyone involved in the discussion agrees that the moral law as presented in the Ten Commandments is binding on all people and all places, and (as far as I can tell) everyone agrees that the elements of the law that were covenantally specific to Israel are not. Nevertheless, given the consternation of some Reformed Christians regarding those who try to explain why this is the case, the point clearly needs clarification. I hope this post has helped to provide just that.
Reformed churches have made the characteristics that distinguish them from one another into idols that divide the church. Although he does not put it in such terms, that, essentially, is Daniel Hyde’s charge in his important recent address at the 38th meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Hyde, the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in California and the author of numerous books, points out that according to the New Testament the whole church is, in fact, one in Christ. He also points out that already during Paul’s life he had to exhort the church to walk in a spirit of peace and unity. In Hyde’s words:
Paul’s exhortation is evidence that we do not do this anywhere near the level to which God demands and desires and that we need. Simul iustus et peccator is a living reality for the church. The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin. That’s why on a bad day I would say that the Reformed churches are hopelessly divided in the spirit of Corinth: “’I follow Paul,’” or ’I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor. 1:12).
“The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin.” I appreciate it that Hyde came out and said what I believe many among us would actually deny. He goes on to speak in terms that should be as challenging to conservative Reformed believers as they are mystifying to the majority of Christians (who have never even heard of these moments in Reformed history, these concepts and practices that are at the core of our self-understanding):
Let me press this deep into your hearts by saying something that I trust shocks you. We are so divided that we cannot have a Synod of Dort or a Westminster Assembly today. Not shocking enough? Here is why I believe this: we are too carnal and insufficiently spiritual for such an assembly. We are too carnal in holding up “distinctives” as virtually inerrant. We revel in famous dates in our respective histories, as if they are a direct line from the apostles through the Reformation to us. We hold up our church polity issues as being passed down from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).
All of this, I might add, in the context of an age in which Reformed believers make up an infinitesimal fraction of the “holy catholic church” in which we profess to believe (NAPARC makes up about 0.18% of the U.S/Canadian population), in which the gospel is routinely misrepresented or ignored in so many of those organizations that call themselves churches, and therefore in which very few of the people who live around us even know what genuine Christianity (i.e., the Gospel) is.
Family Tree of Christian Denominations
(Incomplete, but even so, notice how small the Reformed/Presbyterian wing is)
Back to Hyde:
We are too carnal with so much infighting over preaching. We cluster in our respective corners and raise our flags: biblical-theological, redemptive-historical, grammatical-historical, experiential, evangelistic, fallen-condition focus, and everything in between. We do this as if preaching methodology trumps what we all confess is the first and primary mark of the true church: preaching the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
I do not want to be disrespectful of anyone’s work or concerns, but you do wonder when bright, sincere Christian people devote their energies to writing ruthlessly polemical tracts (or articles or blogs or speeches) against other equally thoughtful, sincere Christian people, on differences that are rarely as crucial or clear as the authors’ seem to imagine. To be sure, it is much easier to devote oneself to solving relatively manageable problems that are relevant to small numbers of people than it is to insert oneself meaningfully (i.e., in such a way that people will listen to you) into efforts and debates that concern millions of people quite different from yourself. And in a sense, of course, it is appropriate to have a sense of vocation about the people and issues within your realm of concern and influence. But that does not explain the tendency to approach these matters in ways that are divisive and destructive. As Hyde writes,
[W]e are insufficiently spiritual. We do not evidence the fruits of the Holy Spirit that reflect the high calling to which we are called (Eph 4:1). Therefore I believe our once legitimate historical, cultural, circumstantial divisions are now a discipline from the Lord upon our movement. Will we fall on our faces together in repentance? Will we arise and with open arms embrace in charity and humility our brothers who differ with us on lesser matters? Can we not follow the example of our forefathers? Are our distinctives and differences any more important than those that existed at the Synod of Dort?
One example should suffice. On the issue of how to express the extent and intent of Christ’s satisfaction, there was diversity. Some said Christ died for the elect—period—and that the ancient sufficiency/efficiency distinction was useless. Others said that this distinction was useful since Christ’s intent was not to save the whole world, however, his death has an infinite and intrinsic value sufficient in extent to save the whole world. And there were even a few who affirmed an even broader sufficiency, saying that Christ died efficiently with intent to save the elect, but that he also died sufficiently for the whole world, with the intention of establishing a conditional covenant of grace such that everyone who believes will be saved. And as you read the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly what you learn is that in virtually every chapter of its Confession, there was a serious and significant debate.
Hyde gives examples from a work by the Reformation historical theologian Richard Muller.
[Muller] chronicles debates of non or sub-confessional issues such as supralapsarian-infralapsarian debates, non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism, the imputation mediate or immediate of Adam’s sin posterity, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, the nature of the keys of the kingdom, the millennial kingdom, the nature of Adam’s reward, the organization of covenant theology, justification from eternity, and elements of Cocceian theology.
If you are an outsider to the Reformed world reading this blog, these issues are precisely the sort of things that often consume Reformed people in their disputes with one another. This is not a list of obscure matters that are irrelevant or that no one should care about. And yet within the confessional unity that Reformed believers once maintained, unanimity on these issues was not required. Even in the age in which the concern for confessional orthodoxy was at its height (and when most people in the countries involved were members of Reformed churches, Reformed theology being a concern of state politics), our Reformed forbears often had a better sense of what issues are genuinely worth dividing over than we do.
This is a lot to think about. Most of Hyde’s essay is not as critical or provocative as the quotations I’ve highlighted here suggest, but the whole is well worth reading. You can find it at the Aquila Report here.
One of my professors at Emory University once claimed when Adolf Hitler became the dictator of Germany and took the country down the path of fascism and national socialism he was giving conservative Christians – specifically Christian Protestants – just what they wanted. Of course, most of us in the room realized that this claim is a massive distortion of history, and a highly inflammatory one at that. But in fact, there is just enough of an element of truth behind the statement to enable someone with an anti-Christian agenda to believe it.
The reality is that the vast majority of German Protestants (4o million people, or two thirds of the nation’s population) were politically conservative and nationalist in their convictions. What that meant in that context was that they were not particularly interested in democracy but were instead looking for a great leader to bring Germany and the German people out of the ashes of the Great War (1914-1918). They loathed communism and tended to view Jews as alien members of society. They wanted to see Germany return to the military glory of the past.
Roman Catholics (20 million people, or one third of the German population) tended to be much more skeptical about the Nazis. The Catholic Church had been persecuted by Bismarck in the early years of the German Empire (the second Reich), and unlike the Lutherans and the Reformed it maintained allegiance to a power outside of Germany, the papacy. The Catholic Church also boasted a massive infrastructure of schools, youth organizations, journals, and political parties, all of which amounted to a state within a state, a serious threat to the all encompassing claims of National Socialism.
But what my professor’s comments failed to acknowledge was that the sort of Protestant Christianity that was susceptible to the Nazi temptation tended to be the more theologically liberal or nominal form. Indeed, even those Christians who loathed what was going on in the “German Christian” (ardently pro-Nazi) movement often avoided association with the Confessing Church (which explicitly rejected totalitarian Nazi claims) because the latter was to a large extent “formed by a piety that veered increasingly towards biblical fundamentalism,” or that required rigid allegiance to Scripture and to orthodox Christian doctrine (Richard J Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 226).
In other words, while virtually all German Christians were politically conservative and therefore susceptible to Nazi ideology, theologically conservative Christians tended to be much more resistant to that ideology by virtue of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching. Theologically liberal Christians, on the other hand, having rejected such orthodoxy as well as the authority of Scripture, had little basis with which to reject a movement that seemed to be so deeply sensitive to the philosophical and social ethos of the day.
To be sure, when push came to shove (or prison, or death) most Protestants supported the Nazi regime regardless of where they fell on the theological spectrum. And prominent liberal theologians like Paul Tillich were just as hostile to the Third Reich as were prominent conservative theologians and pastors like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And the tragic thing is that while the Catholic Church and the Confessing Church rigorously opposed Nazi claims to totalitarian power over their churches and other church-related organizations, neither said much at all in the way of denouncing Nazi policy towards Jews, or to the mentally-handicapped.
In fact, the religious group that the Nazis found more hostile to its goals than any other was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This group alone – committed in its very essence to faithful witness to the point of suffering – seemed immune to the pressure of imprisonment or death.
What is worth noting in the context of contemporary debates about political theology is that the two kingdoms doctrine was used in conflicting ways, both to support allegiance to the Nazi regime and to oppose it. For those inclined to support the regime the two kingdoms doctrine taught that the realm of politics and the state is separate from the realm of the gospel, representing a source of authority and identity distinct from that of Christ and yet binding on the Christian’s allegiance.
For those who opposed the regime, on the other hand, the two kingdoms doctrine functioned in the context of a higher allegiance to the lordship of Christ over all of life. The Barmen Declaration, adopted in 1934 by the Confessing Church, declared, “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” It went on to declare that the church is not “permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”
We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus becoming an organ of the State.
What those Christians and churches who maintained this confession – and their opposition to the Nazi regime – seemed to recognize, in contrast to many of those Christians who supported Hitler, was that the allegiance of Christians and of the church to Christ is preeminent in every area of life, and that therefore the authority of Scripture must always be the ultimate judge in matters of justice, political ideology, or politics. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued so carefully, versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that divide life into distinct realms, one of which is outside the authority of Christ, are denials of the Christ in whom all things exist. To conceive of any action or authority apart from Christ is to conceive of an abstraction.
Christians who held to the two kingdoms doctrine but who lacked this Christocentric perspective had little with which to resist the claims of a state that masterfully channeled the spirit of the times. Given our contemporary debates, that something we need to take seriously.
At its synod last week the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) adopted the Belhar Confession, a statement on the unity, justice, and reconciliation to which the church must witness as part of its fidelity to the gospel. The CRC adopted the statement as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, not as a denominational confession. This story follows close on the heels of the adoption of the Belhar Confession as a denominational confession by the Reformed Church in America (RCA) in 2009, approved by a 2/3 majority of that denomination’s classes last year.
The Belhar Confession was written in 1986 to address the problem of apartheid in South Africa and redress the Reformed Church’s complicity in racial injustice. For obvious reasons, many Reformed and Presbyterian Christians in the United States believe their churches should adopt the confession as well.
Of course, adopting a new confession is a very serious step, and it is one that should not be taken without enormous care. Just because one agrees with a document or believes it to be biblical does not mean that document should automatically be raised to confessional status. And in fact, most people who oppose adopting the Belhar Confession do so not because they disagree with it theologically (though there are some who dismiss it derisively), but because they fear it is theologically inadequate or insufficient.
For instance, Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in the RCA, agrees with virtually everything in the Belhar Confession but nevertheless finds it to be unhelpful in solving or addressing the actual problems that face the contemporary church. DeYoung wrote back in 2009,
Those advocating the adoption of Belhar do not simply want us to affirm an anti-apartheid document. They are passionate about Belhar because of its many perceived implications. The Commission on Christian Action in 2007 lauded Belhar because it spoke to so many issues before them, including the farm bill, Sudanese refugees, the Iraq War, socially screening RCA retirement funds, immigration policy, minimum wage increases, and America’s embargo of Cuba. Others in the RCA have suggested that Belhar applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, global economics, green house gas emissions, abortion, social welfare, and taxation policies. For many in the RCA, Belhar’s talk of justice lends support for almost any cause that can be put in the broad category of “social justice.
He then clarified his concern in a very helpful way:
I’m not opposed in principle to a new confession. But a new confession should clarify some issue that is begging for clarification. While there may be pockets of insensitivity regarding race in our denomination, I don’t see where we are facing anything remotely close to the situation that prompted Belhar in South Africa in the 1980s. We do not honor the anti-apartheid cause by equating our situation to theirs.
Instead of clarifying, Belhar confuses. We are told it will apply to social justice issues, but how? It will speak to our need for unity, but in what way? It will urge reconciliation, but with whom? At this point in the life of our denomination, Belhar looks to me like a wax nose, which is exactly what confessions ought not to be. The right confessional statement settles issues; it doesn’t raise them.
DeYoung points our attention to comments made by Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, who early on endorsed the Belhar Confession but later came to be disillusioned with it. Mouw was close to Allan Boesak, a leading drafter of the document, and noted how Boesak eventually used it to advocate gay and lesbian ordination. Mouw wrote,
Boesak was also instrumental in drafting the 1986 Belhar Confession, which I welcomed at the time as an important confessional statement about race relationships. He now appeals to that document in support of his advocacy for gay-lesbian ordination. In a recent insightful blog posting, “The Belhar Confession & God’s Final Revelation,” Violet Larson argues that this is a good reason to question the theological adequacy of the Belhar Confession, precisely because of the use to which it is being put these days by proponents of full inclusion on same-sex topics. I agree with her. While that document spoke forthrightly against the injustices of apartheid, it did not explicitly appeal to biblical authority. That it can now be seen by some of its drafters as capable of being extended to the full inclusion of active gays and lesbians in ministry says something about the weaknesses of Belhar—not as an important prophetic declaration in its original context, but as a statement that can stand on its own as a normative confession.
Mouw is no reactionary conservative, and his concerns here should be taken seriously. The fact is, the Belhar Confession is tainted both in its origins and in its legacy by the uses to which it has been put. For that reason alone, it may not be advisable for confessional Reformed churches to adopt it.
That said, is the problem really with the document itself? If DeYoung, Mouw, and others can agree with virtually everything the document says, is it possible that the misuses to which it is being put are the result of factors not pertaining to the confession itself? To be sure, in a liberal context the Belhar Confession is easily put to disastrous use. But if it is adopted in the context of strong confessional allegiances to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, or the Westminster Confession, is it really so dangerous or is it more of a corrective?
DeYoung argues that the Belhar Confession’s statement that God is “in a special way the God of the poor, the destitute, and the wronged” cannot be supported from Scripture. He believes that this statement contradicts the Scriptural teaching regarding God’s covenant with his people. But I would argue that DeYoung is reading too much into that statement, and that he is underselling what Scripture says about God’s concern for the poor. It is Luke, after all, who records Jesus’ proclamation Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, and woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:20, 24). It was Jesus who described his calling as requiring him to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). DeYoung has argued in his What is the Mission of the Church? that the material significance of these statements is exaggerated, but I find his insistence on downplaying the implications of the gospel regarding poverty quite troubling. It does not go beyond Scripture to say that God is in a special way the God of the poor and the oppressed.
In fact, if the Belhar Confession (or something like it) is worth adopting in our churches, I would argue that it is precisely for the reason that it challenges conservatives in their reactionary stance on matters of justice. Conservative Christians love to downplay (or ignore) the teachings of Scripture regarding the gospel’s implications for race or poverty. But they are in severe danger of allowing liberal extremes on these issues to curb their own fidelity to the biblical witness. For those who read older theologians like Calvin on these issues, the contrast is quite stark.
I am not saying I support adopting Belhar. I agree that the document is insufficient, particularly insofar as it fails to distinguish between the ethic of the kingdom and life under the cultural mandate in the present evil age, between the witness of Christians to the power of the gospel by the word and Spirit and the task of the state in enforcing basic though limited justice. In our day and age, and in the context of liberal abuses, these distinctions (which basically amount to the two kingdoms doctrine) simply must be made. But confessional Christians who successfully keep their denominations from adopting the Belhar Confession should not pat themselves on the back as if their work is done and as if Jesus is pleased. We have much to do and much to affirm if our churches are to be faithful to the gospel as it pertains to the poor and the oppressed.
We do not tend to be good at this. Our churches do not tend to be filled with many marginalized people. Our gospel is rarely viewed as “good news for the poor.” If something like Belhar reminds us of our calling, perhaps it is just what we need.
[Note: this article has been changed from the original version. The original version incorrectly stated that the CRC would reconsider making the Belhard Confession a denominational confession in 2015.]