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What most people mean by the word “confessional” is a booth in a church where you tell your sins to the priest. Scholars use the word for a political entity that endorses a faith.
For 204,000 people, however, the word “confessional” now means an interpretation of doctrine that has the force of law within the Christian Reformed Church. It may surprise you how novel this meaning is, so it deserves a closer look. As an interested outsider, I will do you the favor.
Romans 10:9 establishes “confessing with your lips that Jesus is Lord” as a positive thing. Your confession is your testimony and your witness. I was twelve when I made my confession before the elders and the congregation. In English we call this “profession” of faith instead of “confession,” but in Dutch the word is the same, “belijdenis.”
For Catholics confession is private and penitential, but for Protestants it’s mostly public. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 testified to the Emperor that the Protestant nobles should be treated as lawful Christians. The Belgic Confession of 1561 witnessed to the true church and testified to the Spanish Crown that Protestants were orthodox. Testimony and witness was the primary purpose of both Confessions. But they also functioned as “Forms of Unity” for binding Protestant churches together and as “rules of faith” for the correction of errors in matters of church discipline.
All three functions go back to the Early Church. The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are first of all liturgical texts, but they are “symbols” of orthodoxy and standards for determining heresies. To the shame of the church, the disputes over Creeds and Confessions led to bloodshed and war. The early struggles of the Protestants settled into a long détente (except for the English Civil War) and Protestant Confessions came mostly to be used as standards for internal unity and discipline.
Their primary purpose was revived in 1934 with the Barmen Declaration in Nazi Germany. It was renewed in 1982 with the Belhar Confession in South Africa. These both were public testimonies and witness, with implications for church unity and discipline. From the South African theologians we learned of matters being identified as “confessional” whenever the integrity of the Gospel is at stake. In the last two decades this use of the word has gained some currency. But I can find no such use of the word during the disputes in Reformation times.
The recent Christian Reformed synod declared that a particular interpretation of one answer in the Heidelberg Catechism was “confessional”– not for public testimony and witness but rather for internal discipline. This particular interpretation should have the force of law within the denomination. This is a novel use of the word, although it can be defended as reasonable.
However, to my mind it’s a wrong use of the word, because the Heidelberg Catechism is not truly a Confession. It was not written for public testimony and witness. How long the Christian Reformed Church has been identifying the Catechism as a “Confession” I don’t know. The Reformed Church in America (RCA) calls the Catechism a “Doctrinal Standard,” which is the older, better term.
The Heidelberg Catechism is a curriculum, not a confession. It originated as the authorized curriculum of the Palatinate, and it was adopted as the authorized curriculum of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Heidelberg Catechism was not designed to be a “rule of faith” or a standard for determining heresy. It is a bit like a friend who is a public school teacher in Cambridge, Ontario. She is required to use the authorized curriculum of the Province. But it’s not a law for her teaching.
As a curriculum the Catechism a heuristic. It packages knowledge and risks accuracy by organizing, estimating, squeezing, and stretching. For example, there’s no way that the fourth commandment has to do with Sunday worship. Nor is the fifth commandment about “all who are set in authority over me.” I could multiply examples. But these are good things for Christians to learn. They are not good things to call “confessional.”
I wonder if the Christian Reformed synods used the Catechism in this way because there was no language in the Belgic Confession that came close enough to the issue of human sexuality. I know that the Canons of Dort have no language close to human sexuality, and it’s a non-issue for the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.
The RCA does not authorize General Synod to make peremptory interpretations of the Standards or the Scriptures. So the RCA’s struggle over human sexuality was fought on the ground of Church Order and amending our Constitution. When this was resisted, the many opponents of local discretion on matters of personal ethics left the denomination.
Church division seems as powerful as church unity. If division and union are a dialectic of nature, then maybe church unity is unnatural. (But so is the Resurrection!) Every testimony, every witness, implies an “against” as much as a “for.” So maybe uniting around Confessions is a wrong approach. But uniting around a communion of bishops is just as fraught with division.
If any of our synods want to risk division by being more “confessional,” then the examples of Barmen and Belhar would suggest that we witness and testify against Christian Nationalism as a perversion of the Gospel and a misuse of the Name of Jesus Christ. It’s not just ethics that are at stake, but the church itself. Such confession would cost us dearly, and we’d have to relearn what it means to be “churches under the cross.”