On the writing of Reformed Confessions

pcanzIn recent times, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand has been engaged in drafting a contemporary, indigenous confession of faith – Kupu Whakapono – with a view to it being accepted as a new subordinate standard. (You can read more about it here and here.) Among other things, the writing of this confession is evidence that while theology by committee is never easy – if not usually downright impossible – miracles still happen. The draft confession reads:

From this land of Aotearoa New Zealand
we confess that we believe in and belong to God
who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We believe in God
the Father of Jesus Christ,
sender of the Holy Spirit;
Creator and Nurturer of all,
Love above all loves,
and Judge of all the earth.

We believe in Jesus Christ our Lord,
truly human and truly divine.
He lived among us full of grace and truth
and suffered death by human hand,
He was raised by God to new life,
setting us free from sin
and bringing to birth God’s new creation.
Now ascended, he calls us to repentance and faith,
and restores us to God and to one another.

We believe in God the Holy Spirit
who makes Christ known,
inspires the Scriptures,
transforms hearts and minds,
gathers us into the community of Christ
and sustains the Church in worship and in mission.

We belong to this triune God
who calls us to become what we are in Christ:
God’s own people, diversely gifted
witnesses to his love in word and in action,
servants of reconciliation,
and stewards of Creation.

Brought together in Christ,
women and men,
young and old,
tangata whenua and tauiwi,
we look forward in hope
to that fullness of life
in which justice and peace will flourish,
the reign of Christ will be complete,
and we shall forever sing praise to the glory of God.

Eberhard BuschIt’s not perfect – there’s no mention of Israel for a start – but its very existence does recall something inherently built in to our DNA as those people of God who identify most strongly with the Reformed branch of the Church Catholic. I was reminded of this afresh recently while reading an essay by Eberhard Busch titled ‘Reformed Identity’ Reformed World 58/4 (2008): 207–218). In this essay, Busch recalls not only that being Reformed entails what he calls ‘the unconditional subordination of [our] own tradition and doctrine to the holy scripture’, and that the Reformed consciously confess that they are members of ‘one, ecumenical church’, but also that the arrangement of the Reformed denominations occurs ‘in the travel of God’s people’. To be Reformed, in other words, means to affirm (as the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia would have it) that we belong ‘to the people of God on the way to the promised end’. It is the taking serious of this on-the-wayness – that the community is a participant in God’s eschatological liveliness – that calls for fresh expressions of the ancient faith. So Busch:

In every shape the Church is only on its way, – following the aim which is determined and brought about by Him alone. Therefore the life of the congregations and their members is essentially a pilgrimage, not fleeting life on earth, and not being obsessed by it. It is like the way of Israel through the desert. It is being on the way, in restlessness, in uneasiness, in fights, in sighs, and in thirst, but always with the motto: let’s go! Calvin indicated this direction: ‘After we have accepted the testimony of the gospel about the free-gracious love of God, we are waiting, till God will show that, what is still hidden below the hope’. For the Confessio Belgica (1561) or the Confessio Scotica (1560) this goal is clearer in the visible appearance of the rule and the realm of Christ, which had already begun when He rose to heaven. And the Heidelberg Catechism formulates that the coming judge is no one else than the already appeared redeemer. Therefore, we walk towards him ‘in all [our] sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head’ … In this context it becomes clear that the Reformed are not so much interested in the possession of a confession, but more in the determination to confess. The Reformed acknowledge – in line with the ancestors – that we do not always have to say and do the same as they said and did. It is possible that we will be asked new questions, to which we will have to give new answers. It is possible that other insights become the focus of attention, inviting us to decide whether we confess or deny Jesus Christ. Certain biblical sentences speak particularly at different times. In 1942 the long forgotten words ‘Salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4:22) began to be heard in the Swiss churches in favour of the Jews. Monopolisation of biblical words is beyond such an experience. The Reformed denomination reminds us that we have to reckon with the Holy Spirit who wants to lead us in all truths. We have to be open to His concrete, new instructions. It is the Spirit, who allows us to think, say and do what is necessary now. The same Spirit urges us to get on the way from our own denomination to what is more than our and all other denominations.

Busch then proceeds to speak about the ‘gratitude of the Reformed Church’, recalling that when the freedom of the Spirit of Jesus in the Gospel does not exist in a denomination, then that denomination becomes inflexible. Busch believes that this danger is no longer a particular issue for the Reformed churches today (I’m not so sure about this), and he cites another danger which is ‘far more of a menace’:

That is the threat of a certain kind of liberalism: the danger that they gamble away the talent of a church, Reformed according to the Word of God, which has been handed over to them for safekeeping and for passing on to their neighbours. It is the danger of selling this talent for a small profit. Maybe they seem to be ‘Reformed’, but they have the title without the ‘Word of God’. That is the danger of wrongly interpreting the formula ‘The Reformed Church is always to be reformed’, so that they think they are Reformed because they are doing their work in a different way than the Reformers. They do not understand the true sense of that formula that we have to turn again and again to the fountain of faith, love, and hope. It is dangerous for the Reformed to store their legacy in a museum, which is visited occasionally, but not used in the daily life. In short, there is the danger that present-day Reformed Christians live in the church, as if it were not true that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore, our ancestors can not really join in our conversation today and are not allowed to have a say in our decisions. There is no space for their questioning whether we still really are Reformed Christians. When we think in this way, an unspiritual arbitrariness will appear in the church.

For the contemporary Reformed who live in Aotearoa New Zealand and who are seeking to carve out what it means to be faithful to God’s good news in Jesus Christ in this land, these words from Professor emeritus Busch are both timely and imperative. It is, after all, Reformation Day.

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