of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
I was confirmed in a Christian Reformed (CRC) church as a teenager. The confirmation itself, which took place during a Sunday service, was the culmination of a few afternoons spent learning about the church’s more nuanced doctrinal beliefs—not “what makes us Christian,” but rather “what makes us a certain kind of Christian.” In this case, what made us “Reformed” came down to three historical documents—the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort. Though only one of them is titled accordingly, all three of these documents are considered “confessions” by the CRC.
While studying these confessions, I noticed that although the very youngest (Dort) was written over four centuries ago, each is still shot through with the spirit of urgency or rebuke with which it was written in the first place. In their time, each of these writings addressed a context where what it meant to be Reformed—or in the author’s mind, authentically Christian—was in question.
The Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism are two sides of the same coin. In different ways, each attempted to inject a thorough explanation of Reformed thought into the noise of the changing theological landscape of Europe—where flashy theological pamphlets were passed around as memes, producing zesty yet shallow faith.
The Canons of Dort, on the other hand, are more or less the minutes of the world’s driest-ever emergency meeting (which was called in order to settle the Arminian controversy). In this case, Calvinists held an urgent conference to settle a dispute that threatened to divide them. Not long after, their incisive theology and harsh rebukes were adopted as confession.
The CRC has not adopted a new confession since those Dutch asses left the pews of Dort in 1619.
Recently, I left the CRC for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The PC (USA) is also a denomination in the Reformed tradition. I’m told we have more confessions (ten of them), and aside from the Heidelberg Catechism, we don’t share any with the CRC. This is simply because Presbyterians have a different heritage than the CRC, being heirs to the faith of those who confessed in Scotland rather than in the mainland low country.
But I can’t say that my decision to become a Presbyterian was based much in my opinion of either church’s confessions. In fact, the reasons for the change were mostly circumstantial. I haven’t lived near a CRC church in a while, I attended a Presbyterian seminary, and the PC (USA) will offer more flexibility in a job search.
And yet, leaving the CRC wasn’t easy. As a lifelong devotee, it felt more or less like leaving a family. But I’m comforted to know the PC (USA) is also Reformed—even if our confessions aren’t the ones that I’m used to—because the readiness to confess seems just as important.
Karl Barth wrote that at the core of a confessional faith is a lone claim—“God speaks.” If this is true, and the voice of God can still compel us to say something truly new to the world, then confession itself requires of us a certain kind of vulnerability to the world in the first place. And so I need to remind myself: any seemingly timeless doctrinal standard was really faith’s urgent response to an emergent situation. Perhaps confession has more to do with vulnerability and emergency than with orthodoxy and tradition.
If Reformed faith is confessional, maybe willingness towards naked uncertainty is one of its hallmarks. This willingness invites us to loosen our grasp on certainty, in the faith that we are being grasped by an Other who suggests courage instead.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. After five years on the East Coast, he now lives in Grand Rapids, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.
There are two much more recent confessions adopted by the CRC: Our World Belongs to God (Synod, 1986) and the Belhar Confession (Synod, 2017).
Good point. However, the CRC created a new category called “contemporary testimonies” specifically for Our World Belongs to God, then also added Belhar to that category, too. The CRC website describes them as “dynamic statements of faith that serve the CRCNA—its congregations and members—and speak to essential matters in a given time period.”
While those documents may be confessions in a sense that I’m describing here, the CRC doesn’t consider them as such.
Thank you so much for reading, Sheryl!
I love context reminders like this. Learning just the littlest bit about early Christian history lately, it’s clarifying for me to see how much of the New Testament books are written so self-consciously too, before anyone’s orthodoxies were established—it “invites us to loosen our grasp on certainty” in the best way. It’s like the apostles are subtweeting each other. It can re-humanize doctrine a little, if it doesn’t just make you cynical. Thanks for this, and I’m bookmarking 16th cen Protestant memes.
In some sense religion really is “God speaks” and then our response to that. Vulnerability will serve well here, as it does in most places. It’s uncomfortable though. Guess that’s why faith matters too. Thanks for the confession.