Confessions as a way of making explicit cultural faith expressions
What was Apartheid?
I first learned about Apartheid when I was a boy. A South African pastor was a guest in our home. He was in the states to talk about Apartheid as an evil in the church in South Africa. I was old enough to be curious about other cultures so I asked him questions and learned about the practices of separateness.
Apartheid was a political practice. It was a social practice. It was an element of South African culture and it had a theological manifestation in some Reformed South African churches. These churches developed a theology based on their reading of the Bible to justify and promote the practice. Some South African churches that practiced Apartheid were confessionally, culturally and historically close to the Christian Reformed Church. Practices and the theology that supported these practices became a sort of confession for these Apartheid churches. Their practice and theology shaped their reading of the Bible.
Not just a Hermeneutical Conflict
The conservative Dutch Reformed churches that practiced Apartheid believed that their position was not only in alignment with the Bible but also in some ways derived from it. These churches probably had nearly identical, conservative hermeneutical practices as their Christian Reformed relatives in the United States and Canada. “Hermeneutics” are the rules by which Christians scholars believe themselves to be interpreting Scripture. Their hermeneutics didn’t keep them from reading not just a justification for Apartheid in the Bible but also a mandate for it. I would like to say that Apartheid, it’s practice and its theology became a “confession” for those churches and whether or not they formally wrote and subscribed to an Apartheid confession it was a confessional practice.
A confessions did arise out of that struggle. They were having a confessional conversation in dealing with Apartheid. A confession that arose out of it was the Belhar Confession.
There was an effort to have the Christian Reformed Church adopt the Belhar Confession as a confession but it failed. There were a number of reasons why it failed. Part of why it failed I believe was because despite our years of practice surrounding subscription and our current confessions we have not used this framework or tool to govern ourselves and struggles.
I believe that approaching theological conflicts, conflicts of practice, and different ways of understanding the Bible as confessional conversations are a helpful way of processing these disputes. Because the struggle with Apartheid was seen a confessional matter it was able to be processed and out of it arose documents and learnings which could be helpful for other segments of the church.
Confessions and the Bible
We know that we all read the Bible through a certain set of theological and cultural filters. While the text may stay the same what we derive from it differs. How do we talk about this? How do we understand this?
One image that might help us is understanding epigenetics. If we imagine the DNA of Protestant churches to be the text of Scripture, Confessions work as the epigenome to turn on and off elements of that text in the life of the church as it travels through time and cultures.
The Canons of Dordt for example wrestled with the various texts of the Bible that were read to answer the question “Do we contribute to our salvation or does it all come from God?”
This is a complicated question when it comes to the Bible as it is in life. The Canons of Dordt in distinguishing its subscribers from Arminian Christians use the confession to read some Scripture in the light of others and in a sense give certain ones priority. The Canons of Dordt activate some Scripture and understand other passages in the light of those first ones.
We can see similar things happening in other church groups. Some Seventh Day Adventists still practice some Old Testament dietary laws like refraining from eating pork. I know that some very conservative Reformed Calvinists also try to partially comply with Old Testament dietary laws. Many do not. They have a theological understanding which I’m calling a confessional understanding of why Christians no longer need abide by those laws. Christians who eat pork read Jesus’ words in Mark and Paul’s words in Galatians and other passages to de-activate these passages in the Torah that prohibit pork consumption. This is a difference in theology, a difference in practice but one way to understand it is a difference in confession even if their hermeneutic remains the same.
Christians and Manicheans
One of the more interesting books I’m reading is Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions. Accounts of Augustine’s life that I’ve heard often talked about Augustine’s Manichean phase as a pagan phase of his life. Fox asserts that Augustine through that phase considered himself a Christian. This was because Mani and his teachings arose in a Christian context.
At first the teachings of Mani’s Twin were to be kept secret, but they sat awkwardly with life in the Baptist community. Its members lived by rules which prescribed the strictest purity. They respected many biblical laws of the Jews, except for the offering and consumption of meat (they were vegetarians) and the use of fire in their rites (they used water). They practised circumcision and observed the Sabbath, but abstained from sex and washed very frequently for ritual reasons. They ate only the special bread and vegetables which they grew and prepared. They ‘baptized’ each vegetable before they ate it. However, they were not an isolated, local group. In Augustine’s lifetime like-minded Baptists were recognized to be a significant presence in the Holy Land. They persisted long after Mani, spreading into southern Arabia, where they are probably the enigmatic ‘Sabians’ whom Muhammad mentions with esteem in the Koran. 5
The Baptists were not restricted to Jews, but they respected many Jewish laws and revered many apocryphal Jewish texts. It is of the first importance that the recently discovered Greek ‘biography’ has confirmed that Mani was born into a community which was considered Christian, although its practices and many of its beliefs were not those of most Christians in the Latin West.
Fortified by his visions, the young Mani began to challenge the Baptists’ rules in the name of the ‘Saviour’, Jesus Christ. Jesus, he observed, had never taught that repeated washing made the body holy. Mani argued that in the very soil which the Baptists tilled, there was a divine substance, the spiritual Jesus who was imprisoned in it. Here, Mani appealed to Elchesai, a past figure of prophetic authority whom the Baptists honoured and who was also believed to have had a vision of angels. One day, Mani claimed, as Elchesai prepared to plough the earth, it had spoken to him. ‘Why do you make your living from me?’ it asked him. Elchesai wept, kissed it and realized, ‘This is the flesh and blood of my Lord.’ 6 Water had also spoken to him and taught him that he should not pollute it by washing in it. These and other visions ran contrary, Mani realized, to the relentless washing and tilling of the Baptists in his own day. While appealing to Elchesai, a past authority whom they professed to respect, Mani began to look to a new future. Enlightened by his heavenly Twin, he refused to eat the Baptists’ special bread. Inevitably, the Baptists began to interrogate him and tried to discipline him.
In spring 240, when he was aged twenty-four, his Twin appeared to him again and completed the lessons about his origin and parentage, ‘how I was separated from my Father on high and was sent according to His will, what orders and teaching He gave me before I clothed myself with this mortal body, before I fell into error in this loathsome flesh’. 7 Mani learned that his ‘spirit’ had existed long before his earthly birth. His father, Patticius, had merely ‘built the house’ (Mani’s body), but ‘another came and moved into it’ (the Twin). This extreme dualism divided the ‘spirit’ from the ‘loathsome’ body and was certainly taught to the young Augustine in north Africa.
Nowadays, scholars can match many parts of Mani’s teachings to an undergrowth of earlier Jewish and Christian writings, many of which are best known in languages other than Greek in the Christian East. The presence of Christ in the very earth of the material world was not a novel idea in this febrile thought-world, one in which the historical Jesus of the four Gospels had been replaced by a ‘cosmic’ Jesus, a spiritual redeemer in a drama about the universe which extended way beyond Galilee and Judaea.
Fox, Robin Lane. Augustine: Conversions to Confessions (pp. 92-94). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Our knowledge of Mani and the Manicheans has continued to grow as scholars have discovered more texts from them and about them. Their teachings get strangers still yet young Augustine considered himself a Christian and a Manichean. Augustine’s “conversion” Lane will argue was not self-consciously so much to “Christianity” because at the time he still considered himself one as he moved away from the teaching and practices of the Manicheans but to wisdom influenced by Neo-platonism which would shape his future theology.
Most of us reading this would say “this isn’t Christian”. Why? Because of our confession. If we had access to a modern day Manichean we could both appeal to the Bible to justify our beliefs. We might even have similar hermeneutical practices. We would he having a confessional conversation.
Bringing to the Surface Implicit Confessions
We are immersed in numerous implicit confessions. The church has within it numerous competing confessions. Part of the reasons Apartheid as heresy could be exposed, contained and defeated was because it was approached as a confessional conversation. I have no doubt that those who embraced Apartheid considered themselves to be faithful Reformed Christians who had discovered in the Bible and in their experience the truth about God’s design for racial justice. They would have felt justified and edified if Reformed churches around the world had adopted their confession and practice as a way of expressing what they believed was a Christian response to race.
Instead, quite the opposite thing happened. Apartheid as a confession was denounced and abandoned. This wasn’t a purely ecclesiastical struggle. It had its elements in secular politics, in economics, and had versions that had nothing to do with Christianity or the church. The church, however, was able to process this productively as a confessional conversation.
When I use the term “progressive liberationism” I do so to bring an implicit confession to the surface so that we may examine it, talk about it, and have a confessional conversation about it. I believe that there is a way of reading the Bible within this confession. I also believe that as a belief system there are secular expressions of this that while they have their roots in Christendom have little self-conscious awareness of their relationship with Christianity.
Churches in North America, Western Europe and around the world have been struggling with this implicit confession for a while now. It stalked the CRC’s long struggle over Women serving in Church Office. It stalks our conversations about race, about sexual practice and norms, about church discipline. It has deeply impacted and influenced our reading of the Bible and our assumptions about morality in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. Discerning this implicit confession, articulating it and processing it as a community as a confession is probably the only way we can deal with it politically and ecclesiastically in a respectful and practical way.
While I’ve been pushing for this on my little blog I think this needs to be a community endeavor where we come together to try to expose and articulate the elements of this confession, what it gets right, what it gets wrong, how it shapes our reading of Scripture and where it illuminates important themes and truths in Scripture. As I said before I think it is a product of Christianity as well as a product of foundational social and philosophical movements in our history, not unlike Apartheid and Manicheism were in their times and places.
I think dealing with it in this way can help us do the hard work of figuring out how practice in the church and church boundaries can best be negotiated to resolve or live with the political tensions that are dividing denominations today. I don’t see this necessarily as a strategy for avoiding splits, but rather as one where we can try to figure out when and where splits are advisable or avoidable and how.
I am often asked “OK, so you want to see this as a confessional conversation, what does that look like?”
I really don’t know. I think in many ways, whatever you think about the Belhar Confession the CRC botched that attempt to have a confessional conversation. We really don’t know what this looks like or how to go about it. We imagine we should do things via Synodical study committees, which has been our practice, but there are some reasons to believe this isn’t the best approach.
Synod 2013 tried to launch the “Pastoral Guidance” committee following the “shepherding model” seeing the success of the Faith Formation process but I’m not sure we really understand what that looks like for other efforts beyond Faith Formation. There is a lot of skepticism that Synod is the right tool for authoring a new confession.
We should note that the confessions we do formally embrace emerged in different ways. The Belgic Confession is different from that of the Heidelberg Catechism is different from the Canons of Dordt. I suspect that if from our present struggles a formally embraced written confession emerges it might come from a surprising source and perhaps have a new way of development. The process may be messy and it may take a lot of time. We’ve had our Contemporary Testimony for a number of years. I think we are recognizing its value and status as confessional in nature even if we haven’t adopted it as a confession.
Part of the complexity here with our formal Confessions is that they are also ecumenical documents. They are not only intended to govern within the Christian Reformed Church but to guide us and bind us to other denominations. This is part of the conversation too.
When I say we need a confessional conversation I mean that we need to be operating on all of these levels.
- We need to discern the implicit confessions at work in our church and culture
- We need to articulate the active elements of those confessions and how they shape us
- We need to engage how these confessions in the light of our formal confessions
- We need to engage questions of ecclesiastical boundaries and practices in the light of implicit and explicit confessions.
I believe that if we can use confessions as a way by which to have conversations about practice we can talk about the beliefs and practices that are causing conflict within and between us and hopefully find pathways forward that produce more light than heat.