Recovering Our Confessions
Coming to know and love the RCA's standards
By J. Todd Billings
The time is ripe for the confessions to be rediscovered in the RCA.
As I have taught the Reformed confessions to middle schoolers, adult Sunday school classes, and seminary students, I have repeatedly seen responses of surprise and delight in the riches of our confessions.
As faithful and historic witnesses of the Christian faith, and as tools for instructing believers, the confessions stand as a tremendous—though sadly misunderstood and underused—resource in leading the church into a more biblical, Christ-centered identity.
In this cultural moment in North America, the need has never been greater for the shaping of children and adults through the confessions. There is widespread biblical illiteracy both in and outside of the church, and while many Christians know a set of particular Scripture verses, it's not at all clear to them how the verses fit together; it's more like a potpourri than an integrated story of how God has become known in Christ. This situation is aggravated by a culture which encourages a cafeteria spirituality where you get to pick and choose what's most appealing. Lines from Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling Eat, Pray, Love exemplify this tendency: "You have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding your peace in God."
In contrast to a scattered puzzle of individual Bible verses or a disconnected spirituality that does not find its center in Christ, the Reformed confessions provide an integrated vision of the narrative of Scripture, the gospel made known in Jesus Christ. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism begins with a statement that draws upon numerous Scripture verses, while also giving us a clear sense of the Christ-centered nature of our lives:
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
Drawing deeply upon the historic Christian faith, the confessions cast a biblical and Christ-centered vision that also speaks broadly to the issues of the day.
This raises a few issues on which there are some misunderstandings in the RCA, so I will take a moment to clarify.
First, for the RCA, the confessions are "historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God" in Scripture. They do not undermine our confidence in Scripture, but bolster it by allowing us to read Scripture with Christians in different times and places. The confessions make us attentive to the ways in which the Spirit was active in leading the church's biblical interpretation in ecumenical councils such as Nicaea (affirmed through the Belgic Confession), as well as through biblical renewal in the Reformation and the biblical admonitions responding to the injustices of apartheid South Africa (with the Belhar Confession).
Second, the four RCA confessions are not all intended to serve the same purpose or speak to the same issues. Historically, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) has been approached as "the catechism," the primary teaching document for the church's discipleship. As such, it has a broad coverage of topics, including expositions of typical "catechetical" topics, such as the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Yet its topical coverage is not as broad as the Belgic Confession (1561)—at times known as "the confession of faith"—which has more detailed and technical discussion of some topics that the Heidelberg discusses only very briefly.
In this context—a catechism and a general confession—two other documents later arose: the Canons of Dort (1618-19) and the Belhar Confession (1982). Neither was written as a new statement of faith. The Reformed church already had one—the Belgic Confession. Rather, they were written in response to controversies crucial to the gospel witness, as explanatory supplements to what the Belgic Confession already taught. In this way, while they are just as important as the Heidelberg and the Belgic, their focus is much more specific. (See concept map.)
What difference does this history make? It means that we can't define being Reformed by the "five points of Calvinism" (from the Canons of Dort) or call the Belhar Confession a "new" comprehensive statement of faith—neither was intended as a summary of Reformed identity. Rather, they add to the depth of a wide and expansive Reformed confessional tradition, and they need to be received in that larger context. Dort and Belhar are crucial supplements to Heidelberg and the Belgic, bringing us teaching on the critical topics of grace and assurance, reconciliation and justice, sanctification and discipleship in a fallen world.
The worth of confessions
Our Reformed confessions are worth not only coming to know, but coming to love. The confessions are like theological poetry, and God can use them—in joy, and in crisis—in amazing ways. When I was in the hospital with pneumonia, I was breathing rapidly and could not concentrate on a thought in a continuous way. I needed a reminder of who I was—and to whom I belonged. The words that came to my mouth, again and again, were: "I am not my own…I am not my own…but belong to Jesus Christ…my faithful savior."
Moments like this are magnified through study of the Heidelberg, for this answer of the catechism is reflected with depth and insight throughout the catechism, with its movement through the themes of guilt, grace, and gratitude. For example, question and answer 32 says that I am called a Christian "[b]ecause by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing" by the Spirit, to be one with Jesus Christ, the true prophet, priest, and king. Thus, "I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for eternity."
What could be more vital, missional, and relevant for today than a vision like this from a sixteenth century confession?
When our congregations promise at baptism to "teach the gospel of God's love," why would we not use a confession like the Heidelberg, which beautifully and clearly teaches this gospel?
When deacons and elders vow to be "loyal to the witness" of the RCA, what better way than to lead congregations in discovering the God-given resource of the confessions for growing as disciples of Christ?
To reiterate: our Reformed confessions are worth not only coming to know, but coming to love. The confessions can bolster today's church through celebrating the historic Christian faith and leading us to grow into a more biblical, Christ-centered identity.
J. Todd Billings is associate professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the RCA. He serves on the RCA's Commission on Theology and attends First Reformed Church in Holland.