WRF Member Dr. John Ross Discusses What It Means to Be "Reformed"

Reformed Identity in the Eastern Cape

John S. Ross

This paper was written originally at the request of the organisers of the 2009 International Conference  of the Reformed Churches in South Africa (GKSA) at which questions of Reformed identity were shared. I have tried to focus on questions of Reformed identity in the Amathole District of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The paper discusses the nature of Reformed distinctives; the ‘ownership’ of the Reformed confessions by isiXhosa speaking churches; revisits the question of Confessio Africana and argues for a non-confessional and more inclusive approach to Reformed identity.



In the guidelines issued to contributors to this conference there is a recurrence of the possessive adjective, ‘our’, in connection with Reformed identity; the implications of which are intriguingly ambiguous because ‘our’ may imply exclusion or inclusion. 

Margaret Thatcher, who could be extremely divisive, once turned to her adviser, John Whittingdale and asked of someone: "John, are you sure that he's one of us?" For Thatcher, to be ‘one of us’ meant to be one who agreed with her polices right down the line; to be a ‘true blue’ conservative. 

For some, entitlement to use the term ‘Reformed’ is only for those fully committed to the historic Reformed and Presbyterian confessions, particularly the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards. Lutherans and those descended from the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation are not generally considered to share this identity.[1]

On the other hand, ‘our’ may be a badge of inclusion. This is most significantly expressed in The Lord’s Prayer, in which God is ‘our’ Father, a form of address which, even when prayed by the lone Christian, creates an immediate sense of belonging to the Father’s one great family, spanning both time and space. Belief in the common Christian family has huge implications.

Almost forty years ago, as a young missionary working in Nigeria, I was deeply challenged by an old Muslim who asked me what right I had to come from Northern Ireland to confront him with the claims of Christianity, when the Christians in my country hated and murdered each other. What could I say?  How can divided Christianity bring to our troubled world the message of God’s grace and peace, without being tainted by hypocrisy? Only when the people of God work hand in hand to heal and reunite the fragments of a torn and disordered church, will they be able to work together to heal and reunite the fragments of a torn and disordered world. Did not our Saviour remind us that our disunity imperils his credibility? Which is why he prayed: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”



I would like to explore a wider approach to the question of Reformed identity other than adherence to the European confessions.  I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that Churches and institutions currently adhering to the confessions abandon them or slacken the terms by which they subscribe to them. Nor do I want to withhold from any the riches of the Reformation heritage, but what I do want to suggest is the need to recognise, support and encourage those churches of other cultures, languages and histories which do not yet feel a sense of ‘ownership’ of European confessions but, nevertheless, show enthusiasm for the underlying biblical principles. 

This task seems all the more necessary because of the prevalence of a negative construction placed on Calvinism as a theological pillar of colonialism and apartheid. Thabo Mbeki has written:

We see therefore that the methods and practices of primitive accumulation which represented a transitional phase in the development of capital in Europe, assumed permanence in the South African economy and life-style ...legitimised by the use of force and sanctified by a supposedly Calvinist Christianity.[2]

My concern here is not to challenge the accuracy of such historical analysis but to recognise that a negative perception of Calvinism is shared by many Xhosa-speaking Christians, inevitably influencing their attitude to the classic Reformed confessions.

Arguably, the making of confessions is not, strictly speaking, a theological discipline, nor even an apologetic one, but one that is essentially missiological and evangelistic. Philip Schaff argues that the point of departure in creed making is not the decision of a church council, synod or assembly, but the personal confession of the ordinary Christian bearing witness to his faith in Christ:

Faith, like all strong conviction, has a desire to utter itself before others—'Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh;' 'I believe, therefore I confess'... But this confession need not always be written, much less reduced to a logical formula. [3]

A similar conviction is articulated by the compliers of the 1560 Scots Confession, which opens with the words: “Long have we thirsted, dear brethren, to have notified unto the world the sum of that doctrine which we profess.”  This is precisely the point made by Professor Clement Graham:

If we have been right in attributing confession-making in part to the joy of discovery, this is joy which the Christian wishes to become infectious.  The man who has studied the Word of God and compared the Confession of Faith with it makes a happy declaration when he acknowledges it as his own, but his happiness is increased by sharing. [4]


If this is true, it is not hard to see why those of another history, culture and experience might find it difficult to feel a sense of ‘ownership’ of Church confessions that have grown out of a ‘foreign’ religious experience with which they cannot identify. 


Confession writing as an exercise in contextual theological witness bearing entails the articulation and application of the timeless truths of Scripture to the specific theological, cultural and religious circumstances that arise in the history of churches. We will not be surprised, therefore, that where life and culture is different, or asks different questions, the theology, and therefore the creedal statements that emerge, will also be different. The Reformation produced a plethora of such confessions, in which different regional Reformed churches sought to restate the Faith in nuanced terms meaningful to their specific contexts.


The African church, it would seem, has not yet felt motivated by the actualities of its circumstances to attempt the formulation of documentary confessions. Where European confessions have been adopted, a church’s relationship to them may, at best, be second-hand. Sometimes it is little more than an accident of history arising from its relationship with its founding church. At worst, confessions have been imposed on African churches through constitutions drawn up by westerners, and currently required as a basis for continuing support and cooperation. For obvious reasons these constitutions may be tolerated unchallenged by the younger churches, whilst being relegated to a low priority in the struggle for survival. That is not to say, however, that the African church is not a confessing church. Whilst in certain circumstances confessions may be written documents, in others they may take the form of an implicit adherence to a consensual understanding of the Faith.


Over fifty years ago the need for a Confessio Africana, ‘in which the existential situation of the Church is taken into consideration’, was argued.[5]  Since then little has happened. In light of the challenges posed by cultural, theological, political and ethical issues, some might feel that such work is long overdue. But Kwame Bediako cautions us that the adversarial paradigm that has marked out confessional western Christianity has too often resulted in depriving those of other religions of a sympathetic encounter with Christ, “except on the terms of a Christian theology whose categories have been established with little reference to the faiths of others.”[6] He goes on to acknowledge that whilst African Christian thought has yet to produce a ‘confessional’ theology it is because the African Church sees as the primary challenge communicating Christ in a way that will touch fellow Africans most deeply.  Here in South Africa, now that politics are entering the post-struggle era, it is interesting to speculate what this transition might mean for theology.  As John Parratt has remarked, “In its first stage South African Black Theology was primarily concerned with addressing racial inequalities, while the ‘Second Stage’ ...began to explore human liberation from a basis in Marxist social analysis. It is not clear what ‘theology after Mandela’ ...will look like.”[7]


So whilst we wait for the appearance of an authentic Confessio Africana, it might be prudent to consider a wider and more inclusive approach to Reformed identity, other than equating it with adherence to the classical confessions. From my reading of Calvin, I suspect he might have encouraged such an approach himself. We certainly know that his ecumenical sympathies were broad and that he disapproved of any tendency to divide over secondary issues. This broad view of the Church led him to identify an authentic congregation by only two marks: the faithful preaching of the Gospel and the proper administration of the two dominical sacraments.   


It might be helpful to approach this question via B. B. Warfield’s non-confessional definition of the fundamental principle of Calvinism:

Perhaps the simplest statement of it is the best: that it lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing - in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations - is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.[8]

I would like to suggest that in our relationship with younger Churches we should recognise as sharing ‘our’ Reformed identity those who out of loyalty to Scripture adhere to principles such as those defined by Warfield, but who may not articulate them in an existential confession of faith. 

What, I think, makes these landmark themes a suitable basis of interaction is not that General Revelation may bear witness to some of them, nor that their presence in traditional religious systems marks them out as vestigial signs of some prelapsarian primal religion, but that, restated, defined and expounded by Holy Scripture, they are truths that lie at the heart of the Christian Faith.  In other words, Reformed identity, and therefore interactive fellowship, must ultimately rest on a single primary conviction, namely belief in the sole and total authority of Holy Scripture as the Word of God.



1.    The Authority of Scripture.

Warfield says nothing about Scripture in his definition of the fundamental principle of Calvinism, but we cannot ignore his high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible as the Word of God; a position thoroughly consistent with the Westminster Confession’s testimony to the ‘entire perfection’ of Scripture.

It is remarkable that in the face of Higher Criticism, widespread veneration of tradition, and a belief in continuing revelation via charismatic utterance, that confidence in the authority of the Bible has survived almost unscathed in post-missionary Africa. Although there is not always a high standard of biblical knowledge, nor a consistently functioning hermeneutic, the Book is believed in, and if people are convinced that their questions have received an answer from the Bible they go away satisfied.

In a recent discussion, it was the authority of Holy Scripture that emerged as the primary concern for my Liturgics class students at Dumisani Theological Institute, an opinion which is characteristic of the Xhosa speaking congregations from which they come. For them, culturally sensitive preaching must not capitulate to traditional religious beliefs. One, a Methodist, insisted, “I don’t say we must put culture above Scripture but we must embrace culture and Scripture where they meet and if there are any contradictions, the Scripture is the winner.”[9] Another, also a Methodist, wrote: “All in all, the preaching style does not matter, what matters is the preaching of the Gospel ...whether we are Xhosas, Whites, Indians...”[10] A third student emphasised the testimony of Scripture to Jesus Christ; he wrote, “To me, whether it is a European style or a Xhosa preaching style, it should focus on Jesus and him crucified.”[11] Another insisted that it was not enough to believe the Bible to be the Word of God but the text must be understood through a sound hermeneutic: “The Bible must be applied as God intended... Since the Bible was written long ago the preacher must understand...the text, the world and [the] events surrounding the text [as] originally sent.”[12] The importance of commitment to the overriding authority of Scripture was well stated by Goodwin Mtulu, “We are heralds of the King, announcing his will and his coming. In other words, we go out, not to express our own opinions or beliefs...or our culture, our ways, or even our religion. We go out to announce what the King has told us to say.”


2.    An Apprehension of God in His Majesty

Whilst there is generally a strong recognition of the righteousness and justice of the God of Scripture among African Christians, the attribute that dominates African thinking and informs the thinking, praying and praise of the African Church is the power of God. The sovereign omnipotence of God is, of course, a central tenet of Reformed religion.

This belief in the sovereignty of God is linked to the lordship of Christ and finds classic expression in the words of Isaac Williams Wauchope (1852-1917), Xhosa minister, intellectual, writer and political activist. Between March 1891 and March 1892, Wauchope wrote for the isiXhosa language newspaper Imvo zabantsundu (Black Opinion) a series of articles in the form of traditional proverbs.  In one, entitled “Double Agent” he exposes the universal human weaknesses to compromise and the challenging implications of ‘believing in God without reserve.’

[Some] Christians are double agents. What is bad about this situation is that they satisfy neither side... That is why Jesus put it in no uncertain terms when he said, ‘no one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or cling to the first and despise the second.’ Matthew 6: 24.  ...This is what your gospel says, Xhosa people... [13]

This call to live an uncompromising Christian life continues to be sounded in Xhosa congregations today. In the Liturgics assignment already alluded to, students at Dumisani Theological Institute reiterated the need for preaching faithful to the lordship of Christ.  One wrote, “As a preacher you must be careful [how] you criticise [cultural events and rituals]...preach what is in the Bible and interpret the Word in a dignified way... The sermon must not...compromise the Word of God.” [14]

3.    A Realisation of Our Relationship to God.

Warfield speaks of an awareness of sin dislocating humanity’s relationship to God: a ‘poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature.’   

A major problem often encountered in cross-cultural mission is that we cannot take for granted that others share our understanding of sin. Those who have grown up in Western culture whose ethic is constructed around the concepts of law and guilt find it difficult to relate to those who have lived with an ethic in which human relationships and shame are the more powerful factors. The inability to recognise and accommodate these compatible differences has sometimes led to the application of harsh church sanctions, which not only have been resented as unjust but have caused confusion, loss of the unity of the Spirit and the forfeit of further influence.

The avoidance of narrowly denunciatory ministry and the need for humility is of the utmost importance.  J. H. Bavinck quotes Abraham Kuyper to remind us that we share with all whom we encounter, “a common starting point and this is first of all, the sin you both have committed, and, secondly, the grace which saves you and which alone can save him...you are by nature as heathen as he, the sole difference is the grace which has been given you, and that he too can share in.”[15] It is only through such awareness that we can break free from the spirit of superiority and censorious that has marred so much Christian work, not least that which has carried the label ‘Reformed.’.

The incompatibility between a holy God and sinful humanity is well understood in the African context. The point is well made in a moving anecdote from Rev. W. D. Graham, former Free Church of Scotland missionary and the founder of Dimbaza Bible College and Dumisani Theological Institute. He tells of, ‘Sipho’ a murderer, who when in prison took a Dimbaza correspondence course and came to faith in Christ.

One could only be appalled at the crime he had committed. But one could only marvel too at the grace which had come to touch this man’s heart and to bring him to repentance to seek forgiveness in Christ. One day the prison chaplain walked into the Bible School in Dimbaza.  He said, “I thought you would like to know how Sipho died.”  He said he had been with the prisoners early on the morning of their execution (there were three of them).  Their worry was that they had not confessed every sin. The two other men to be executed along with Sipho had also confessed their sins and trusted in Christ.  Then they wanted to sing. So all three went to their deaths singing praise to God for His grace to them, we believe as Christians.[16] 

 The story of Sipho’s attitude to sin, his faith in Jesus Christ, his repentance and renewal by God’s grace, is, in principle, repeated throughout the Africa today. Nor is this desire for forgiveness and reconciliation found only in confessional churches; it is also a central concern in the independent churches, providing a locus for creative interaction and biblical engagement.

4.    A Christian World-View

Jan Christian Smuts in his attempt to liberate the concept of evolution from a purely materialistic framework, first coined the term ‘holism’, and it’s adjective, ‘holistic’.  Today, largely stripped of its original meaning, Smut’s vocabulary has passed into everyday language. It expresses the view that life is an integrated web whose component parts act and react with each other under the constraints of a powerful symbiosis. In Reformed perspective ‘holism’ is both the denial of a matter/spirit dualism and the affirmation of a purposeful creation under the sovereignty of God and that life in its entirety is to be lived Coram Deo, under the eye of God.

Even those with only a cursory knowledge of the African world-view recognise that holism is a widely held presupposition.  This was illustrated when, on World AIDS Day, December 1st, 2008, colleagues and I were invited to hold prayer consultations with workers at the large Da Gama textile factory at Zwelitsha in the Eastern Cape. The idea was to be available to counsel and to pray with those who had either recently tested HIV positive or were already living with that diagnosis. In reality, we were faced with a steady stream of people who had visited the clinic for medical treatment for a wide variety of ailments, but considered the therapy incomplete without asking for God’s blessing.

The danger of de-sacralisation in modern Africa is real and, regrettably, it has often been Christian practitioners who have undermined primal holism. Throughout forty years of missionary experience, I have often been perturbed by the administration of medication in missionary hospitals and clinics without prayer, as if the drugs simply operated in a mechanistic manner, without the blessing of God; something unthinkable in traditional African medicine where efficacy is invariably linked to spiritual dynamics. Likewise, traditional methods of agriculture and husbandry often entail preliminary religious rituals in order seek God’s blessing for health and fertility; this, the Christian development worker may inadvertently subvert by introducing the benefits of modern agricultural science and technology without explicitly seeking God’s intervention.

It must be recognised, however, that a holistic view of life, outside a biblical frame of reference, may express itself either as Animism or Pantheism, or the New-Age philosophy of Gaia, whereby the earth is seen as possessing self-regulatory and healing functions.  Nevertheless, primal holism provides a foundation for a Reformed world-view and it is greatly encouraging when we find it more or less intact, but better still when it is instructed by Scripture. We can be glad that the principle enshrined in the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism - “That man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” – is acknowledged often more in practice than the actual words are known.



Before concluding, I want to mention a serious threat to a Reformed world-view, in the prevalent influence of Enlightenment individualism, expressed as globalised materialism and consumerism and its religious alter-ego the “prosperity gospel”.

I find it acutely embarrassing to speak negatively of consumer choice and material  prosperity, especially to members of an impoverished community aspiring to economic progress, but it is equally hard to remain silent in the face of the damage globalisation is inflicting on such communities. Today, as a result of television viewing families spend less time together and vulnerable children are exposed prematurely to unhelpful value systems, giving them an insatiable thirst for consumer goods. As a result family ties are breaking down, with the traditional extended family system being gradually replaced by nuclear families, or as is often the case, single parent families. 

In Enlightenment thought, the individual stands at the centre of his world. He is the measure of all things, defining truth and reality in his own terms and giving ultimate meaning to his own existence.  Personal ambition is the attainment of political, intellectual, and, above all, economical liberation. The task of government is to facilitate the enjoyment of what the United States Declaration of Independence describes as ‘self-evident’ and ‘inalienable’ rights. [17]  Much praised as it may be as a statement of basic rights and human dignity, the underlying individualistic philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is arguably a denial of one of the core values of the Reformation. Calvin flatly contradicts its egoism:

It is as if ...the saints are gathered into the society of Christ on the principle that whatever benefits God confers upon them, they should in turn share with each other. ...In the very word “communion” there is a wealth of comfort because, while it is determined that whatever the Lord bestows upon his members...belongs to us, our hope is strengthened by all the benefits they receive. [18]

Individualism is also equally distant from traditional African thinking. The idea of shared humanity is popularised in South Africa through the concept of ubuntu, which holds that outside the community there can be no real possibility of achieving our personal potential. One does not need to accept an implicit ancestral theology to find here a common grace anticipation of the sanctorum communio, the fellowship of the saints.  The point can be illustrated by comparing the effects of globalisation on modern Xhosa society:

Stories told by our parents and grandparents reveal that our [Xhosa] nation has been principled with good cultural values [which] are no longer evident. Xhosas... supported and cared for their less fortunate neighbours. No one went to bed on an empty stomach, as is common nowadays. Extended family members cared for orphans, so street kids were non-existent. Nobody was a stranger in those days and a traveller would be called and given something to eat and drink, even allowed to sleep over if it was already dark. But today [these] values have been lost.[19]

It is not a long road to travel from that statement to what we read of the early church:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2.44-47.



In the Amathole region of the Eastern Cape it is not hard to find belief in the basic elements of Warfield’s foundational principle of Calvinism. Nor is it hard to understand why cultural, historical, political and other influences may have disposed Xhosa-speaking Christians to feel little desire whole-heartedly to embrace the classic confessions. Perhaps, for a relatively young church, founded less than two hundred years ago, that is as it should be; after all, it took seventeen hundred years for the emergence of the great European Reformed confessions. Nor let us not forget that the Reformation was, in part, built on the Humanist interest in biblical studies. No true Confessio Africana will emerge unless and until a foundation in biblical studies has been laid. Regrettably, it is precisely that strategic cluster of disciplines that have been identified as the most neglected field of theological education in Africa today.[20]


The nineteenth century Eastern Cape Methodist missionary, William Shaw, once had the delicate task of suggesting to generous and well-meaning English lady supporters of his mission that the clothes they had so lovingly made for his Xhosa converts were not ideal; much better, he said, just to send the cloth. I see in this story something of a parable of the relationship between churches confident of their Reformed identity and the African churches today. If the confessional clothing produced by western church history does not fit with what the African church sees as most appropriate to its needs, surely it is better to invest our time, money and energy in providing the ‘cloth’ of Scriptural understanding that can later be cut to an authentic African pattern. 



[1] Cf. Article 2 of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) Constitution specifies: “The basis of the Conference shall be the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms).” Cf. The World Reformed Fellowship’s broader basis of membership: “...every voting member of the WRF affirms one of the following historic expressions of the Reformed Faith: The Gallican Confession, The Belgic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Thirty-Nine Articles, The Second Helvetic Confession, The Canons of Dort, The Westminster Confession of Faith, the London Confession of 1689, or the Savoy Declaration.”  

[2] Thabo Mbeki, The Historical Injustice at http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/mbeki/pre-1994/sp780219.html; Cf. Bengt Sundkler Bantu Prophets in South Africa (2nd. Ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), p.37.

[3] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), p.3.

[4] Clement J. Graham, “The Westminster Confession of Faith” in Hold Fast Your Confession, ed. Donald Macleod, (Edinburgh: The Knox Press, 1978), p.41.

[5] Most notably the All-African Lutheran Conference, Geneva, 1956, cf. G. C. Oosthuizen, Post-Christianity in Africa (London: C. Hurst and Co., 1968), p.10; Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Seed A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.832.

[6] Kwame Bediako, “‘Whose religion is Christianity?’ Reflections on Opportunities and Challenges in Christian Theological Scholarship: The African Dimension” in ed. Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross Mission in the 21st Century: Exploring the Five marks of Global Mission (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), p.110.

[7] John Parrat, A Reader in African Christian Theology, revised ed., (London: SPCK, 1997), p.ix.

[8] B. B. Warfield, “Calvinism” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge," ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1908), vol. ii. pp. 359-364.

[9] X. Mapapu.

[10] N. Kewuti.

[11] P. Mkupa.

[12] B. P. Katywa.

[13] Isaac Williams Wauchope, Selected Writings - 1874-1916 (Cape Town: Van Reibeeck Society, 2008), p.279. 

[14] E. Neziswa.

[15] J. H. Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1960), p.230.

[16] W. D. Graham, private communication.

[17] The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, 1776.

[18] Calvin, Idem.

[19] F. Mathiso

[20] Parratt, Op. cit., p.144-5.




24 December 2008