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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel


Or we shall get out the comfy chair

   So what is a confession anyway? Recently in our Presbytery meeting we passed the newest addition to the Presbyterian family (a step in its journey to ratification by the entire church) with a vote of 210 for to 61 against. The required 2/3 majority was for it even amidst debate to the contrary. It's called the Belhar confession, and I'll cover more about it later.

  But why even have a confession? What is it for? In The Book of Confessions we Presbys describe it thus "states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions. In these confessional statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, what it resolves to do. [Book of Order, G-2.0100]" So, really confessions are pretty important documents. The outline not only what the church believes, but what it is saying it will do. I like that, the element of action. The call to work and not just belief. Normally when we say we confess we mean we are confessing to something bad, but in the church language it just means that we are declaring something as true.

Confession... or Confession(s)

We have a few confessions in the book. That was one of the complaints during the vote actually. We have too many confessions. To that end lets look down the list...

  First off we have the Apostle's Creed and the Niceane Creed. Not too many reformed Christians out there who will get away with saying that they don't believe in those two, so lets just accept that we have to have those in there.

  Next we have the Scott's Confession. Now this was drafted by John Knox and his fellows in Scotland when the Scottish Parliament called on them to make a statement of belief for the whole protestant country as they were going to be recognized by England. The Scots Confession sets forth three marks of the true and faithful church: "the true preaching of the Word of God," "the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus," and "ecclesiastical discipline . . . whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished."

"Cleave, serve, worship, trust" are key words in this document. This was created at a very turbulent time and reflects a really amazing trust in God, whose deliverance the Scottish people had felt in a very real way.  And it's by John Knox. Seems central to us as Presbyterians so let's keep that as well.

  After that we have our first Catechism. "That's not a confession!" you might say. And, well, you are right, it's not. But it is a statement of belief in a way, and the Heidelberg Catechism was an instructional peice of the Reformation making peace with the Lutherans. Who thought we were perverting the Lord's Supper. Catechisms are constructed to be taught to children, or as tools of learning to new Christians. They are set up in a Q and A form -- they used to be taught and memorized as late as just one or two generations ago. The Heidelberg Catechism is a biggie in history, so we will that stay as well. 

  Next in line is the Second Helvetic Confession, and no, not the font. When you see Helvetic think Swiss. It's where the redrafted this from the first inception. Now, it is true that this document has severe gender bias. It was written in the 16th century, so the role of women was not on the forefront of their minds. It is in our collection basically because it is historic and central to the Reformed churches defining themselves early on in their history. A lot of people are uncomfortable having it in there actually. Mostly because they ask why should we include something that we don't agree with, and others say, "well, it's historic" and the debate goes around and around. Really, what we need to do is write the Third Helvetic Confession. But, that probably isn't going to happen.

   Our next section comes out of stuff that went down in 1643. The Westminster Confession of Faith is the start of our delving into Calvinism. Which is again one of the places we find ourselves historically as Presbyterians. The English parliament at the time called together a whole slew of people to work out advice on the issues of worship they were having. They met at Westminster Abby (thus the name) and after 5 short years (did i mention it only took Knox 4 days?) they came out with this. 

 We can also cover here the Shorter and Larger Catechism, which again isn't a confession but states belief and came out of the same meeting that created the Westminster meeting, so... they get included. Basically they are the same, or rather the shorter is meant for beginners and the larger is meant for people who really, really, want to study a Catechism. Fun fact: they were trying to write just one, but gave up and split it into two parts. We Presbys USA people accepted them in 1788 after some mods for civil law reasons. 

  Next to last (say it ain't so!) is the Theological Declaration of Barmen. Which I always thought sounded fun, like it was a group of bartenders who came up with it late one night after hours. In reality it was composed in reaction to Nazi Germany in 1934. Among other things it rejects the state's influence on the church and on scripture. Which still can have implications for us today. It was written mainly by Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. By the date we know that this was a dangerous piece to have written. This is the beginning of Hitler's power just a year after he has outlawed all other parties except the Nazis and in the same year as the Night of the Long Knives.  It does an awesome job of saying how Christ is the Lord of the church and how the church's renewal comes only from the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Powerful stuff, so that can stay, right?

  Now for the good stuff... The Confession of 1967. Oh man, written in the heyday of fee love and adventures in Buddhism it's got to be juicy right!? Part of the reason to have a confession is to stay current, and to respond to contemporary events. The 60s were a huge social event, so that deserves a response right? Some of the stuff covered (that came out of a special committee from Princeton, chaired by Edward Dowey, Jr ) went over racial discrimination, that the church is here for reconciliation, that God is against poverty in its many forms, and speak out against sexual anarchy. All pretty awesome things. Oh, and it does try a different route in its language concerning the role of women. Ok, ok, so let's keep that too. I mean, it needs to be said somewhere right?

  Last but not least is the Brief Statement of Faith. Now, I know we are all thinking, what could possibly be left?! This was written after the churches unified, or re-unified depending on how you want to look at it. After the 1983 reunion of the branches it was felt that we needed to just go over some things as a group and maybe reiterate what it was we all believed. Thus the statement. Which is brief only when compared to other texts. Like the Bible itself. 

   So that's it. Not that many, or for bad reasons once you break it down... so let's add another one!!


  What's this new confession all about anyway? It seems that after looking over the other confessions we already have there has to be a real world event, or social change, or something to put forth the need for a new confession. In other words do we really have something new to confess. Let's see what Belhar has to say and perhaps work backwards.

Written in Afrikaans in 1982 it speaks out against racism of any sort and talks largely about unity being a gift and obligation for the church. Moreover it has strong words to say to th effect of not working for unity being a sin, and that we are called to work for God's justice everywhere even if the human laws and authorities might forbid it and punish us for it. Strong stuff. Harkening back to a the time of lions v. Christians. 

  So what are our social events? Are we in a time of fracturing in the church? Is the church silent in matters of justice internationally, or are people ignorant of the voice being provided? Could this confession be used as a teaching tool and jumping off point for members of PCUSA to increase knowledge and even action to seeking unity and justice? If the answer to these questions is yes, then we might have something to seriously consider.

A Do Bee

A lot of critics mention that fact that we have too man confessions, and that another one, such as Belhar is superfluous. Articles have been published asking "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. " Which, is an inane question. In what other realm does this happen. Do several Gospels lessen the authority of any one gospel? Do constitutional amendments negate the power of prior amendments? Of course not. Some folks will do anything to resist change. Some people argue that including a confession that talks about unity is undesirable or that "the implication (of the confession) that any division within or of the church is at best disobedient and at worst schismatic and demonic? The church has always worked against division, so yes, division is disobedient. We know the Church is called to unity from Philippians 2:2, 1 Peter 3:8, Colossians 3:15-17 and elsewhere. We are called to be a unified people. Of course, this doesn't mean that we return to Catholicism, and playing games with rhetoric to imagine such a think is silly. Jesus valued unity, which Paul and Peter saw as command. Jesus speaks of seeking the one to rejoin the flock, the father running as the prodigal returns. The stories of the kingdom are those of unity. As a church, as a denomination, we can only go forward, working for the unity we are charged with in scripture, and professing it in our constitution. To imagine that we would not act to accomplish this unity is cowardice and sloth relying on an imagined "gift from God" to achieve something that we have been charged and called to do.

I would argue that the ratification of this translation comes at an opportune and ordained time. These nay-sayers I would also venture don't have a real understanding about why our confessions exist. They are not supposed to be a "one confession" fits all document that adequately supplies the beliefs  of every person in the entire denomination. Instead they are a practice of understanding and reacting to the world in which the denomination exists. They are also a tool for teaching. This is why the catechisms are included in the Book of Confessions.

The confessions are a way of saying, "here are some of the things we stand for" and our obedience to them is not required. Instead, they are guidelines for our individual and church actions. They are reference tools for things that previous church leaders and saints have come to understand. They are historical documents that catalog the long and incredibly inspiring journey of the church through the ages of persecution and turmoil. In effect they are blips of hope that inspire people so much that they discover they have to write it down for future generations to reflect upon. In effect it is ridiculous to say that adding a confession detracts from the power of the others. We are simply adding to the amazing history that the church is still unfolding. We are creating new calls to action to deal with the current spiritual war in the world. 

No one is expected to memorize every catechism or every word of every confession. But, like scripture, they are there to be read, reflected on, studied and used for the inspiration of our lives. Adding to that for the right reasons is never a bad thing. 

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