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Yet Another Argument for Taking Confessionalism Seriously…

24 January, 2009

‘Slippery slope’ arguments are sometimes dangerous to make, but it’s always worth looking to the logical end of things to see what the potential results of our positions and decisions might be — in this case, a failure of any real requirement for confessional subscription and defense, subject to legitimate church oversight and discipline. What kinds of things happen if this breaks down? Consider this not-as-extreme-or-rare-as-you-might-think example, in the following article from Ecumenical News International:

Dutch ‘atheist’ pastor urges church to discuss whether God exists

13 January 2009

Utrecht, Netherlands (ENI). A pastor of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands who came to prominence after publishing an “atheist” manifesto has challenged the general synod of his denomination to discuss whether God exists. Many clergy and lay church members would find such a discussion helpful, the Rev. Klaas Hendrikse said on 5 January in an open letter to the church’s general secretary, the Rev. Arjan Plaisier. Hendrikse gained attention with a book published in November 2007, in which he contends that, to believe in “God”, it is not necessary to believe in God’s existence. The Dutch title of the book translates as “Believing in a God who does not exist: Manifesto of an atheist pastor”.

In his letter, Hendrikse recalls a survey conducted by the Dutch ecumenical broadcaster IKON in 2006. This found that one in six clergy of the denominations affiliated to the broadcaster either do not believe in the existence of God or is unsure about this [emphasis added]. By far the largest of the seven affiliated denominations is the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). The pastor wrote his letter in response to a recent article by Plaisier in the official Protestant church magazine, in which the general secretary referred to Hendrikse’s book, and discussed the issue of belief in God.

In the article, Plaisier acknowledged that many people raised as Christians in the Netherlands find it difficult to believe in the existence of a personal God. “Many have difficulty [believing in] God as he was held up to them in their youth. That is the image of a Father in heaven, a God who knows you personally and to whom you pray as a Friend.” Plaisier urged Dutch Protestants to, “come together in the name of Christ. If we are all open, even with our doubts, to talk about God and what it means to believe in him.”

In his response to Plaisier, Hendrikse noted that the Protestant church has traditionally seen itself as a broad denomination. “But when I read you, then it seems that in the PKN there is only room for those who agree with the existing confessions of faith, and who do not go on to ask awkward questions or give any indication of doubts.” Hendrikse has been a minister for more than 20 years in the southwestern town of Middelburg and a nearby village. The two congregations have belonged to the Protestant Church in the Netherlands since it was formed in 2004 as a union of a Lutheran and two Reformed denominations. Hendrikse’s congregations also belong to the Association of Liberal Protestants, a Protestant church interest group.

In his book, Hendrikse tells how his conviction that God does not exist has become stronger. “The non-existence of God is for me not an obstacle but a precondition to believing in God. I am an atheist believer,” Hendrikse states in the book. “God is for me not a being, but a word for what can happen between people. Someone says to you, for example, ‘I will not abandon you’ and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that [relationship] God.”

This is worth careful consideration; it’s doubtful the PKN ever thought they’d see the day, though undoubtedly they’ve had lots of smaller storms brewing for a long time. The point is not so much whether or when this very thing might happen in historically more theologically conservative communions — the point is that if it does happen, what could a functionally non-confessional church really do about it?

(The original article is here; HT: Bess Twiston-Davies)

  1. 24 January, 2009 7:35 pm

    “the point is that if it does happen, what could a functionally non-confessional church really do about it?”


  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    25 January, 2009 10:31 am


    Maybe I should’ve explained myself more. For me, dialog isn’t an option — it should *always* characterize the church, and it should be carried on both with other Christians and everyone else. So this wasn’t intended to be a question along the lines of, ‘Should the wider church engage such a situation through real and mutual dialog’, because I think the answer to that question should always be yes. The question is, ‘What kind of “teeth” does any conclusion which a particular church communion comes to in such a deliberation have, if the church is at least functionally “non-confessional”?’

    In this case, the PNK do profess to hold to certain confessions of faith. They proclaim to one another and the watching world, ‘This is what we believe.’ But if the only thing that’s really the common denominator in a professedly confessional communion such as the PNK is ‘the experience of belief’, no matter how that’s defined (even atheistically!), then there is obviously an extreme disconnect between the form and the content of that communion’s witness — the appearance of unity, and the reality of it.

    In such a situation, what can the communion do about it? They could do nothing, of course, or they could do one of (at least) two things to try to be consistent between their profession and their reality as a communion (both of which would involve constant dialog):

    1) Try to make the confession match the reality, and become not only functionally but also explicitly non-confessional, saying that what unites them is no content to the Christian faith as such but a vague shared experience of belief in ‘God’. Many, many in the communion would be unhappy with this, needless to say.

    2) Try to make the reality match the confession, and become explicitly and functionally confessional, *in accord with what they already confess as a communion together with the historic churches*. But because the church is already functioning in a lot of ways with a disconnect between these two among at least some of their number, this move also would make many very unhappy.

    If 2) is the way to go (which needless to say I would be happier with), then the question is How? Again, in and through and together with dialog, if a church body is functionally non-confessional then there’s no way to implement or ensure any kind of match between form and content — i.e., no church discipline is possible where doctrine is concerned. That’s bad news for a Christian church.

    So that’s all I’m trying to say, hope this clears things up,

  3. 26 January, 2009 2:02 pm


    You gave a very nice response, but I’m sorry to say that it was a waste of your time. When I said “dialogue” I was joking. . Sorry that you misunderstood me and had to write that long comment. I’m sure you had better things to do. What’s worse is that I wasted what I thought was a funny joke; now no one is going to laugh. That really bums me out, man. Next time try to first assertain if someone is trying to be facetious or be serious. Next time I’ll put one of those smiley face thingers to let you know I’m joking.


  4. 27 January, 2009 2:08 am

    The ’emoticons’ are SO important. From now on, I’ll just assume you’re being clever. 😉


  5. 29 January, 2009 3:55 pm

    The thread of comments on this post really hit my chuckle button. All I wanted to comment on was how far we have fallen to be able to actually have an “athiest pastor” in a protestant church.

  6. creedorchaos permalink*
    31 January, 2009 7:57 am


    I think it’s scary and sad to have things like this come out, but I’m not surprised, because they’ve been brewing under the surface for, oh, a century in many circles. Unfortunately, at this point it’s not far fetched at all, really, to have an atheist pastor — I don’t think it’s special pleading when he suggests there are a lot who secretly sympathize with him, at least to some extent. What’s pretty surprising to me is his boldness and the lack of like boldness in the denomination’s response. That’s not to say I envy the denominational leaders who are strongly opposed to these things — how difficult is their position right now!

    And I’m glad readers like you and Steven are here to occasionally remind me in the midst of it all to have…you know…that thing… the ‘perception that detects jocularity’…oh yeah, a sense of humor. 🙂


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