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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.”

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is Pastor Emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He feeds the finches and drives uber for his grandchildren in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.


  • RZ says:

    Another one of your insightful, constructive frameworks, Daniel. Thank you. The word catechism, it seems to me, aligns closely with curriculum. A curriculum, in order to organize and explain to a broad audience, must estimate, stretch, and squeeze. Your description is very insightful.
    There is strength in our creedal tradition. And there is weakness – in elevating our creeds, intentionally or unintentionally, to an idolatrous
    level. Perhaps it is time for a synodical study committee to examine the intended purpose and scope of the catechism. I suspect most delegates have not given this much thought. That is a weakness.

  • David Hoekema says:

    A perceptive reflection, but you’ve overlooked a key detail. Heidelberg simply condemns “unchastity.” The key to exactly what this means in 21st C N America, according to the report to Synod, is to be found in Zacharias Ursinus’s commentary (published only posthumously) on the document of which he was a principal author. So heresy is now to be defined, in the CRCNA, by the private musings of a 16th C theologian. A bizarre turn in so many ways.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Because that aspect is not what I was writing about. But yes, a bizarre turn, however not that much unlike Presumptive Regeneration (de Veronderstelde Wedergeboorte) of a century ago.

      • Henry Baron says:

        Yes, an interpretation imposed on the Gereformeerde Kerken in 1944 I remember well when my dad was one of a great many removed from church office, when the denomination was splintered, families broken, friends at war with each other, and the faith of many faltered.

  • Carol Van Klompenburg says:

    Wow. Thank you.

  • Pam Adams says:

    I want to comment on your remarks about the Catholic church. I was a Catholic from age 0-17 years old. I went to a Catholic school and we were encouraged to go to confession often. I did almost every Saturday. But I also confessed the Lord as my Savior in a public ceremony in our church when I was an adolescent. I had to read and learn many doctrines before the ceremony. It was very public in that we (others my age) marched into the church for the ceremony in a gown that looked like a graduation gown. It was a bit like the public confession of faith that the Christian Reformed Church does but with more splendor and presence. I just wanted to be accurate.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Thank you Pam. Excellent. I am not one to underestimate Roman Catholic practice. But while what you were doing was certainly confessing, it was understood as Confirmation, and called so, correct?

  • Daniel Bos says:

    Thank you Daniel Meeter.

    I interpret “confess” to mean “say with” or “say the same thing as.”

    So when we confess our SIN, we are saying the same thing about our actions that God says about them–as in Psalm 51
    3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
    4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
    so that you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
    Notice that last line: “so that you are right”! God, we agree with you!

    And when we confess our FAITH, we are saying the same thing about our self, about our identity, as God promised us in our baptism, “I am God’s own child”!

    I remember Leonard Verduin lecturing us Campus Ministers, distressed that making Confession of Faith was changed to PROFESSION of Faith. He asked us to remember what the word “confess” means.

    In CONFESSION OF SIN, We do not tell God about our sins, he already knows more about them than we do; rather, we are agreeing with what he tells us about them. He is right in his verdict.
    In CONFESSION OF FAITH we do not set forth what we have decided to believe, we are not initiating; rather, we are responding to what God has promised us. I accept what you have promised me from my birth and signed and sealed in my baptism, and I promise to continue learning more about you and to try to act like I believe you.”

    • George Bruins says:

      Thank you, Dan.
      In the Catholic sacrament of confession, both the person confessing and the priest receiving the confession are labeled “confessor.” This understanding of confession serves to unite rather than divide, in a way similar to your concept of confession of sin and of faith.

  • Kathryn VanRees says:

    Thanks again, Dan.
    I remember using the phrase “Let us confess our faith. . .” in public worship years ago, and the organist laughingly told me after worship of what she thought was my blunder. I should have said “Let us affirm our faith . . .” in this person’s estimation. Confession was what we did when talking of sin.
    But I knew that I had not blundered.

  • David J Jones says:

    This was really great, Daniel. Thanks so much for writing it and sharing it with us. Wonderful job!

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for this, Daniel.

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