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Neither Calendar nor Clock: Perspectives on the Belhar Confession

by Piet Naudé
Eerdmans, 2010, 255 pages

reviewed by Sheldon Sorge

This book is an indispensable resource for anyone wishing to learn about the history, theology, and significance of the Belhar Confession from a South African perspective.

As the only up-to-date English language book on Belhar, it may be considered essential simply on that account; the good news is that this is truly excellent work.

Naudé opens the book with a commentary on the texts of the Belhar Confession and its Accompanying Letter – not insignificantly, in reverse order. The version of Belhar published by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for consideration by those preparing to vote on its inclusion in its Book of Confessions includes the Accompanying Letter, but only as an appendix. Naudé underscores the insistence of Belhar’s writers that it not be interpreted apart from its authors’ Accompanying Letter clarifying how Belhar should — and should not — be read and applied.

His commentary on Belhar and its Accompanying Letter furnishes an excellent basis of any PC(USA) discussion of Belhar. It sets forth with brilliant clarity Belhar’s fundamental theological claim, that the church’s “unity must become visible so that the world may believe. … Therefore we reject any doctrine which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin.” If the church’s unity is not visible, according to Belhar, it is no unity at all. In other words, this is a confession about the nature of the church, born from within the church, intended as an offering to and for the church. It is not a call to the world, but to the church to be true to its nature.

John Calvin once asked how a visibly divided church can bear authentic witness to the indivisible Triune God? Such a question is as disquieting as incisive in Naudé’s sure hands. He takes us on a journey beginning with explanation of Belhar’s relation to the South African church situation in which it was born, and to earlier statements calling for reform. He proceeds to show how it satisfies theological criteria for “confession,” especially as elucidated by Karl Barth.

Belhar holds that “true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership” in the church — a clear point in the PC(USA) Book of Order, but nowhere found in its Book of Confessions. Naudé argues that Belhar’s significance goes well beyond the matter of race, though we have not yet come close to meeting its challenge on that issue. He contends that Belhar applies to the church everywhere, and extends its claims to all other criteria by which the church invidiously divides its fellowship. Amid an extended discussion on Belhar’s implications for full gender equality, Naudé makes his only reference to an issue that has been on the front burner for the PC(USA), saying almost offhandly that Belhar calls for full and just “peace among different genders and, for that matter, among gay and straight Christians.” For being such a provocateur, we can only give thanks for Piet Naudé and this superb book.

SHELDON SORGE is pastor to presbytery, Pittsburgh (Pa.) Presbytery.