Here is my problem with the Angus covenant episode: Christians don’t apologise for heresy. An apology is simply not the appropriate response to heretical theology.

And we should for no moment underestimate this: that the Jew and Afrikaner presents the only two ‘nations’ with whom God has made a covenant is indeed heresy. The problem is not with the ‘only’. You don’t solve this through including more ‘nations’ into this covenant. The problem is with the ethnic delineation of the idea of a covenantal relation, and with how racial ideology is sustained through a Christian believe in the church, or worse in this case, the ‘Afrikaner nation’ taking the place of Israel in the hearts and mind of God.

And it’s not a slip of the tongue. It’s not just a brief hyperbole. Buchan’s ‘Afrikaner nation’ indeed mediates God’s salvation. The good missionary, Buchan obviously believes that God wants to save South Africa. But God’s salvation will come through this covenantal people – the ‘Afrikaner nation’. It is a gathering of this covenantal people that will bring about the salvation of another national group – the mythic ‘South African nation’.

Beyers Naudé addressed the matter in the following words:

The first – and to my mind the strongest – factor in moulding the attitude of the Afrikaner has been his explicable but nevertheless unacceptable identification of his people as “a chosen people” with Israel, the chosen people of God of the Old Testament…

This view of the Afrikaner people as a chosen nation called to a special God-given mission and manifest destiny as ordained by God was born out of a totally wrong interpretation of the Old Testament which led to a distortion of God’s purpose. Afrikaners saw themselves as a chosen people, planted by God in the southernmost part of a vast continent, for the special purpose of bemg the torchbearers of the Gospel to the millions of heathens in dark Africa…

The comparisons between the vicissitudes of the chosen people, Israel, and those of his own nation were so striking and so manifold that he fell prey to the natural temptation of a false identification of himself and his people with that of Israel…

(The African and Race Relations, 1967)

Naudé probably didn’t yet have the theological language to get to the even deeper heart of the problem. In recent years Willie Jennings and Kameron Carter argued these points most forcefully in the two books that came to be called to the “Duke School of Race and Theology”. Whiteness is built on the earlier conviction that the Christianity takes over the place of Israel in the heart and mind of God. But not simply the church, rather, building on and contributing to a Christian theology and white racial anthropology, it is the Christian Europe in particular (and it’s white extension in the colonies) that exists as the people through whom God’s salvation will come. Not Israel, but white Europe.

Making multiple conceptual jumps, in brief: it is not the mere aesthetic of a white Jesus that is at play, but an even deeper white Christ. Christ here is the prototype of whiteness, that towards which all the world should be drawn, represented by those racially marked as white.

Now, Buchan draws on a more particular version of this general white heresy, that being that the Afrikaner has a particular claim to being God’s new covenantal people. Afrikaners were not alone in this, others have made this claim over the centuries as well. But this particular version of the heresy has done immeasurable damage and underpinned immense violence in this part of the world.

So perhaps we must be clear on the problem with Buchan’s apology. First of all, we don’t apologize for heresy. And if this ethnic and racial reading of God’s covenantal work constitutes heresy – and I think we must take that charge seriously, then something different is necessary. I mean, apology is all good, but that’s not really what we do when confronted with our own heretical theologies. In these cases we listen to the One Holy Catholic Church. We search ourselves, discerning how our own heretical understanding of God’s salvation may have pervaded our lives. We repent and grow together with the Church into a more faithful understanding of God.

Secondly, the apology does not actually respond to the problem at all. By adding to his racial reading of covenant that also those who have “given their life to Jesus Christ” are in such a covenantal relation, he seems to strengthen the idea that there are certain ‘nations’ who by virtue of some ethnic-racial identity are in covenantal relation, and then there are also others as individuals added to such a covenant. The response to this heretical covenantal theology requires a conscious rejection of the heresy, but the apology does not seem to venture there.

Lastly, the problem is perhaps not that the statement brought division (oh how many times will Christians believe that this is the main problem with our racism), but rather that the statement reinforces hierarchy. At the heart of whiteness are deeply held convictions of an anthropological hierarchy where that which is white is more firmly positioned close to God, having a higher salvific possibility, and its opposite being firmly lodged outside or at the fringes of God’s work of salvation – and if drawn in then mediated through whiteness.

Both the initial comment and the response seem to fit quite easily with the racial theology underpinning centuries of conquest: that a particular group, racially marked, was divinely called to act as conduit for God’s work of salvation in the southern part of Africa, that faith is in a special way mediated by those ethnically marked, and that God covenantal relations are ethnic and racial choices.

I have no intention of trying to take the moral high ground here. I’m a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and I am quite clear that while my own church may have done a lot of work in trying to live an apology for apartheid, we have not dealt with the charge of heresy brought against us in 1982. We have a long way to go in working through the implications of heresy. But this incident should make it clear to us: our heretical theologies of whiteness remain very much alive, and we cannot shy away from opening up the wound and allowing the painful work of cleaning things out to happen.


I was born in 1984. The year Hans Küng visited South Africa, and delivered his groundbreaking lecture on paradigm shifts in theology at UNISA, which became the foundation of Transforming Mission.

I was two years old at the 1986 General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church when the theological support of Apartheid was ended, and the gays were condemned.

I was 5/6 years old when Nelson Mandela en FW de Klerk was discussing the unity of a new South Africa.

I was 6 or 7 years old when white South Africans voted to end Apartheid, knowing that this will be the end of white government in South Africa.

I was 10 years old when we had the historic 1994 election, that went more smooth than anyone could expect. And I’ve lived through the birth pains of our young democracy, and I’ve seen how people could come together even though they absolutely disagree (think about the amazing story of Pieter Mulder and Jacob Zuma for example).

I was trained theologically while the unity conversations between the Dutch Reformed Church and the Uniting Reformed Church was very tense. And even though we still struggle with it, stories of hope did start to develop.

I was a senior theological student when we approached the gay issue again in 2007. I remember saying boldly that I can see no way in which the church can remain united, since we differ so strongly on this issue. But then Malan Nel made a suggestion at that amazing synod meeting, and the moderators found a way of putting unity above doctrinal and interpretation issues.

When Jim Belcher writes about unity he says:


Is there a way forward? How do we get to the point where both sides can talk about their differences and learn from each other without being accused of heresy? By first agreeing about what binds Christians together. It is that simple. We have to arrive at what John Stott calls the “unity of the gospel.” All unity has a doctrinal aspect. No unity is possible without boundaries of thought and belief around something. There is always a limit to what any group can tolerate without being torn apart.

Deep Church

For Belcher it’s really simple. Agree with the three confessional statements in the pager following the above quote, and you will be allowed to be part of the “new ecumenism”, and not be called a “heretic”. An if you challenge this? Well, he don’t see a way in which unity is possible without these kinds of limits. Even though he has the examples of Jones and Pagitt earlier in the book.

If we were to use Belcher’s definition, we wouldn’t be one denomination any more. But we are.

If my conservative friends in the church used Belcher’s definition, they would have used the word “heresy” much more, but they don’t (at least not my conservative friends, there are some who do like this word).

And we know that Belcher’s “simple” isn’t so simple. Because real church unity, between people who really differ, on issues of race, gender and background. Between people who have a history of one group oppressing the other. Between people who are really divided on economic grounds, require much more than shared confession. It’s not that simple.

Maybe we found a way of putting a braai first, and listening. Knowing that we really disagree, also on “first-tier” stuff (to use Belcher’s language). But to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong (as David Bosch also taught us). Maybe we should listen to our own voices, Nelson Mandela, Desmund Tutu, David Bosch, Piet Meiring, Coenie Burger and others, when it comes to unity. If I listen to this top-seller, then maybe we have some stories of unity to share with the world that they need to hear, even though we are really struggling with unity.


March 4, 2008

I guess networking is one of those postmodern buzz-words, also one of the business buzz-words. “It’s not about who you are, but about who you know”, Afrikaans people would say. In church, we talk about networking to learn, to support, to “network”, work together. In our synod there is a number of networks, old pastors, young pastors, pastors from mega churches, pastors from churches with only one pastor, and a few others. End of last year we started a new network, this one was for young pastors (since the pastors from the “young pastors” network are in their thirties by now), theological students and youth workers.

We had our first meeting last year, a few of us invited those we know to attend. We had a real “postmodern” approach, decentralized, non-hierarchical, you name it. At the first meeting we had some discussions, facilitated by five different people from various age groups at various stages of the conversation, and we decided that we would meet once in six months. At every meeting we would appoint someone to organize the next meeting. The task of this person would then be to arrange a time, about two weeks before the next meeting, where anyone who would like to take part in organizing the next get-together can talk about what would happen.

What we said we would like to happen is networking, getting to know others doing similar things in similar places, learning from each other through conversation, and maybe even sometimes from someone outside the group, but not generally.

I got the task of creating a facebook group for our network, but although quite a number joined, little happened on the group, there wasn’t a lot of conversation on the group, and what did happen, was only because of a small number of people repeatedly taking part.

So, last night we had a second meeting… with the full amount of six people. Not quite what we expected. So we started the conversation about networking again, about what we are doing, about what is working and not. Did we create a fulfillment for a need which didn’t quite exist? Are we only providing people with another thing about which to feel guilty because they don’t attend? Are we only furthering the overly busy programs of people by providing another event?

But I wonder, maybe the problem is that we have spent a lifetime to train people in becoming independent individuals, not in need of anything or anyone? Why would they suddenly take time out to become dependent on others, to talk, to lean on others? Cause networking, mentoring, all these things take time, it ask of us to sometimes come to a standstill, and it only works for people who commit to the discipline of networking and mentoring.

Any thoughts? Anyone with good experiences about networking, about support systems for people in ministry in this day and age?