Monthly Archives: April 2017

Who is in Whose Image?

April 2017 Credo

Many doctrinal debates have taken place within the Christian community, some of them in an atmosphere of intense acrimonious dispute. Some have been settled quite satisfactorily, others continue to simmer, while yet others have been newly sparked.

We shall look at three examples, one that took place long ago and has been settled, one that is more recent and still going on, and a third that is emerging.

The first few centuries of the church were spent in clarifying the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea, the first such ecumenical council, was convened to deal with a heresy associated with Arius who taught that Jesus was a created Son of God, thus a lesser being than God. Arius claimed that “there was once when the Son was not”. Opposing his view was Athanasius and almost all of the bishops gathered in Nicaea. They ruled that Arianism was heretical and came up with the Nicene Creed, stating that Jesus is “very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father…”

The Nicene Creed was further expanded and fixed at the next Council in Constantinople (AD 381), a form that has been used till now. It emphasises that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father”. Another creed, attributed to Athanasius also emphasises the “co-eternality” of the three Persons in the Trinity.

Subsequently, theologians have also clarified the internal relations within the Trinity. How does one deal with the submission and obedience of Jesus to the Father during His earthly life? Though we cannot comprehensively discuss Trinitarian theology here, we can say that theological orthodoxy emphasises both the equality in being of the three Persons as well as the Father as the “primary source” in the Godhead, in that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father while the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and Western Christianity would say, also the Son).

If we fast-forward to the 20th century, we come across another debate, this time about the relationship between men and women, and in particular husbands and wives. On one side are the egalitarians, who insist that in Christ there is no gender distinction in that women and men are equal in being and status (cf. Gal 3:28). On the other hand are the complementarians who hold that while there may be ontological equality, there is a functional hierarchy in that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22). There is a range of views among complementarians, stretching from a light view to one that sees Scripture as forbidding women from assuming leadership or ministry positions in church (cf. 1 Tim 2:11-12; 1 Cor 14:33-35). This debate is still in progress.

Enter a third debate which brings together the two debates mentioned above. In June 2016, a heated debate began among various complementarians, when American Presbyterian pastor Liam Goligher strongly criticised theologians Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware for seriously distorting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. Grudem and Ware, both complementarians, are accused of distorting Trinitarian theology to support their views on gender roles.

Others have since entered the fray from both sides. Grudem, Ware, and their supporters argue that they are holding firmly to the equality of the three Persons of the Trinity, even while subscribing to the eternal functional subordination of the Son. Their opponents accuse them of introducing a neo-Arianism merely to find support for their views of the marital relationship.
While the debate rages on, a few points must be kept in mind.

Firstly, the term “subordination” is not very helpful. Those who use this term are accused of actually proposing “subordinationism” which is just one step away from Arius’ heresy. The biblical word is submission – whether we are talking about how we should relate with one another (Eph 5:21), how a wife should submit to her husband (Eph 5:22; 1 Pet 3:1) or how Jesus submitted to the Father (Matt 26:39; Phil 2:6-8; 1 Pet 2:23).

Subordination gives the idea of a lower status or being, and can be seen as the result of coercion. Submission gives the idea of a choice. Can the fact that Jesus submitted to His Father during His earthly life be then turned into the concept of His eternal subordination (though functional in nature) is the issue that is hotly debated. The problem may be one of using the wrong vocabulary (“eternally begotten” is an excellent phrase) and the need for clear definitions.

The second issue is one of methodology. When we think of and talk about the Trinity, we are dealing with mystery, on which some light has been shed from what God has revealed of Himself in His Word and in Christ.

But we must not forget, as Karl Barth said, that God is also totally other (totaliter aliter). We use metaphors and analogies to describe and understand God – God is our Father, our Shepherd, Master, and so on. We must realise that while human analogies are helpful, they are also limited. We must be careful of pushing analogies (cf. analogia entis) too far and ending up tinkering with the doctrine of God.

An example will help explain this. Some people have difficulty relating to God because their earthly fathers were violently abusive and irresponsible. Consciously or unconsciously, they “do theology” by using an inductive method – constructing God from their own limited experience. Therapy and transformation for them would involve a “deductive method” of doing theology, starting from God, our perfectly loving Father, and then recognising that earthly fathers can be poor models of Him.

When we try to extrapolate onto God the circumstances of our own psychological and social existence, we may end up making God in our image, rather than discovering that we are made in His image – and are being remade into the image of His eternally begotten Son.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

Gender Chaos

April 2017 Pulse

At Brighton College, one of the most prestigious private schools in Britain, gender distinct uniforms have been abolished. This means that the students in the school could choose to wear trousers or a skirt, a blazer or a bolero jacket.

Teachers in some preschools in America are not allowed to call the children “boys and girls” because to do so would promote unhelpful gender stereotypes.

In its 2015 Report, the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee suggests that Britain should adopt the ‘self-declaration’ model that is currently used in Ireland, Argentina, and Denmark. Instead of undergoing sexual reassignment surgery, transgendered people should be allowed to simply declare the sex of their choice by filling a form.

The LGBTQI community has produced a glossary that lists a bewildering number of different expressions of gender and orientations. These include skoliosexual (people who are attracted to transsexual people), genderqueer (people who think of themselves either as pangender or genderless), third gender (people who do not identify with either male or female), and many more.

Gender-neutral language has also been introduced in some circles, where “Ze” replaces “he” and “she” and “Hir” replaces “his” and “hers”.

These are just some of the many examples of the chaos and insanity surrounding gender in modern society.

The traditional binary model that presents men and women as different and that insists that the difference between them is fundamental has been called to question. “There is no way that six billion people can be categorised into two groups”, asserts Dr Jack Dreshner, a member of the American Psychiatric Association.

Indeed the term “binary” is now regarded in some quarters as pejorative and even as carrying the same offense as terms like “racist”, “sexist” and “homophobic”. Gender fluidity – the idea that gender is not fixed but mutable – is now the new orthodoxy, and it is even promoted as a lifestyle choice.

The origins of this new dogma can be traced to the 1970s when postmodern philosophers and feminists argued that gender is not a matter of biological fact but a social construct.

Michel Foucault challenged the essentialism of the Enlightenment view of sexual identity, arguing that it is in fact a social construct that can always be negotiated and redefined.

Judith Butler argues that our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman is very much shaped by the gender scripts that we receive from our culture. And as we perform these scripts, the gender it constructs is somehow etched into our bodies and psyches.

Needless to say, these conceptions of human sexuality and gender are antithetical to the teachings of Scripture, which clearly present the duality of sexes (the binary model) as the Creator’s intention for human beings (Genesis 1:27).

Reflecting on this passage, Karl Barth concludes that “We cannot say man without having to say male or female and also male and female. Man exists in this differentiation, in this duality”. Put differently, the distinction between male and female, their equality before God and their fundamental mutuality are indispensable to our understanding of the meaning of human existence.

In addition, although sexual differentiation cannot be said to only serve the procreative purpose, procreation would not be possible without it.

All this means is that although gender has to do with the complex relationship between biological sex and behaviour, it is in fact not as fluid as the postmodern deconstructionists have made it out to be.

In its document on human sexuality, the Evangelical Free Church of America rightly states that “All of human existence, including sexuality, has been damaged by the fall into sin”.

However, it should be pointed out that the fall has not only resulted in perversions in our sexual desires, habits and behaviour. It has also introduced serious distortions to our understanding of human sexuality and gender that has resulted in the current confusion.

This new orthodoxy concerning gender, therefore, should not be greeted in a cavalier manner as if it is just a benign social experiment or a harmless quirk in culture. The dysfunctions it legitimises and the irrational intolerances it advocates can create an oppressive hegemony, a new tyranny that deprives society of certain rightful freedoms.

It must therefore be challenged and rejected.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? Offering a Fresh Perspective by Questioning the Question

April 2017 Feature

The question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has been asked by many for a long time.

A recent article in Christianity Today notes that this question is ‘a perennial one’, that it was one of the ‘top questions of 2014’, and that the evangelical community and the American population are split over it.[1]

It has received increased attention in recent months following the comments made by Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins who stated on Facebook in December 2015, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Since then, various church leaders and theologians have weighed in on both sides of the debate, adding further to the confusion.

On the one side are those who argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, even though Muslims do not acknowledge the Trinity as Christians do. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is used as a parallel.

As Miroslav Volf argues,

‘For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response?… Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in partly different ways.’[2]

On the other side, Nabeel Qureshi has objected to Volf’s arguments by emphasizing the rejection of the Trinity in the Islamic Tawhid.

He writes, ‘The Trinity is an elaboration of Jewish theology, not a rejection’. By contrast, Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, and the Fatherhood of God, doctrines that are grounded in the pages of the New Testament and firmly established centuries before the advent of Islam. Most of the earliest Christians were Jews, incorporating their encounter with Jesus into their Jewish theology. Nothing of the sort is true of Muhammad, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Islam did not elaborate on the Trinity but rejected and replaced it. Additionally, Volf’s assumption that Jews did not worship something like the Trinity is unsubstantiated. Many Jews held their monotheism in tension with a belief in multiple divine persons. Though the term “Trinity” was coined in the second century, the underlying principles of this doctrine were hammered out on the anvil of pre-Christian Jewish belief. It was not until later, when Jews and Christians parted ways, that Jews insisted on a monadic God. The charge of Christian hypocrisy is anachronistic.’[3]

While Qureshi makes valid criticisms of Volf’s views, there are some problems with his own article. He admits there is a very general sense in which Muslims and Christians worship the same God (‘There is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians both attempt to worship’), yet he goes on to insist that ‘Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.’

Qureshi also says that the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a good question (‘Like all good questions, the answer is more complex than most want’). However, it seems that the root of so much chaos and disunity within the body of Christ concerning this question is that it is a bad question.

Very often, the reason why a question is difficult to answer is because there is something wrong with the question. In this case, the problem is that it is ambiguous. It can have the following different meanings:

(1) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that there is one Supreme Being who created the universe and who revealed to certain persons mentioned in the Old Testament such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and they intend to give glory to this Being’?

(2) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that the one Supreme Being who created the universe is a Trinity (three divine persons within the one being of God), and they intend to give glory to this Being?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ because Muslims deny the doctrine of the Trinity.

This denial does not negate the fact that they (like Christians) recognize that the universe has a Creator and they seek to worship this Creator, unlike those who ‘worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator’ mentioned in Romans 1:25.

To give an analogy: Peter and John are trying to contact the architect of a certain building, but Peter thinks that the architect of the building is James, while John denies that the architect is James but thinks that the architect is Andrew.

Are Peter and John trying to contact the same person? This question is similarly ambiguous, but once we disambiguate it, the answer is simple:

(1) Do Peter and John recognize that the building has an architect, and they intend to contact this architect?

(2) Do Peter and John recognize that the architect is James, and they intend to contact James?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ ; John denies that the architect is James.

So the next time somebody asks you this question, the first thing to do is to ask what he/she means by ‘worship the same God’. Once the question is disambiguated the answer is simple and straightforward. Christians need not be confused or disunited over it.


Notes

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/february/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-same-god-reinstatedochawk.html 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/17/wheaton-professors-suspension-is-about-anti-muslim-bigotry-not-theology/ 

[3] http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god 



Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

 


 

Divine Presence

April 2017 Credo

“Am I a God who is near”, says the Lord, “and not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I do not see him?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

For centuries, theologians of every stripe have unequivocally taught that God is omnipresent, that is, that he is everywhere. This concept of God is grounded in the testimony of Scripture itself, and not the result of philosophical speculation or human imagination.

In Psalm 139: 7, David asks: ‘Where shall I go from your Spirit, or where shall I flee from your presence?’ In 1 Kings 8: 27, we are told that God is so immense that even the ‘heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain’ him. And the passage from Jeremiah quoted above tells us that there is no place – no far-flung corner or deep crevice of this globe – we can go to in order to hide from the divine presence.

But how are we to understand the divine omnipresence? What do we mean when we say that God is everywhere?

Perhaps we should begin by considering how we must not think about God’s presence in the world. That is, we should begin by examining theologically erroneous conceptions of the divine presence that would distort our understanding of God and of his relationship with the world he has created.

The first error is to think of God’s presence as some sort of physical or bodily presence. God’s presence cannot be conceived of in this way simply because God is Spirit – he is immaterial being.

This has led theologians like John Feinberg to underscore the fact that there are ways in which the omnipresent God must be said to be absent from the universe. We must say that God is not physically or bodily present anywhere in space and time.

The second error is to think of God as being ontologically present as each point in space. This is the error of pantheism, which removes the ontological distinction between God and the created order by conflating or confusing the two.

The Christian Faith teaches that God is ontologically other than the world he brought into being. We can therefore speak of God’s presence at or with (or to) each point in space, but never as each point in space.

Furthermore, unlike physical bodies that are bound by space, God is not. Thus, theologians have maintained that physical bodies are in space circumspectively, but God is in space repletively – he fills all of space.

However, we must hasten to point out that to say that God fills all of space is not to suggest that he is contained by it.

When the Fathers of the Church speak about the presence of God, they constantly refer both to God’s immensity and to his infinity. God is immense in the sense that he embraces the whole universe with his being, but he is never encompassed or contained by it.

God is infinite in the sense that he can never be limited by anything. As the great fourth century Doctor of the Church, Hilary of Poitiers, explains: God is ‘infinite for nothing contains him and he contains all things. He is eternally unconditioned by space, for he is illimitable’.

God is at once ontologically present in the whole vast expanse of the universe and also at each point in space. This means that God is present in the totality of his being throughout the creation as well as at each point.

Wherever he is (and he is everywhere), whether in outer space or in a molecule, God is present in the fullness of his being.

Because God is simple being, he cannot be divided in any way. This means that we must not think that one part of God is present on Earth while another part of him is present in Jupiter.

Following this trajectory of thought, some philosophers have asked how the simple God could be present to a composite world. The reply they receive from theologians is that since God is the creator of the universe, the latter is simple to him.

The answers that theologians proffer are premised on a certain understanding of the relationship between divine knowledge and divine action. As Ron Highfield explains: ‘Just as God exhaustively knows his creation by knowing his action, he is fully present to the world because he is fully present in his action’.

‘God can be fully present to every part of creation at the same time’, he adds, ‘because his simple act integrates each “part” perfectly into the whole, so that the part and the whole are not different places’.

Here, Highfield follows Thomas Aquinas who asserts succinctly in the Summa Theologica that ‘God is in all things … as an agent is present to that upon which it acts’.

Much more can be said about the divine presence. But I end this brief article with a passage from John of Damascus’ De Fide Orthodoxa (The Orthodox Faith) that brilliantly summarises this discussion:

God, then, being immaterial and uncircumscribed, has not place. For he is his own place, filling all things and being above all things, and himself maintaining all things … But it must be understood that the Deity is indivisible, being everywhere wholly in his entirety and not divided up part by part like that which has body, but wholly in everything and wholly above everything.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Marriage as Covenant

April 2017 Pulse

One of the most interesting features of modern divorce laws is ‘no-fault divorce’. As the descriptor makes clear, this is a species of divorce where the spouse filing for divorce does not have to demonstrate any fault on the part of the other spouse.

According to an article in FindLaw, ‘All a spouse has to do is give any reason that the state honours for the divorce’. And the reasons usually offered are amorphous and cryptic, such as ‘irreconcilable differences’ or the marriage is undergoing an ‘irreparable breakdown’.

In America, no-fault divorce was first introduced in the state of California in the 1970s. Several states followed suit in the 1980s, including New York, which introduced the law only quite recently, on August 5, 2010.

Singapore, too, has no-fault divorce laws, although the conditions are somewhat more stringent than in other countries.

No-fault divorce is a symptom of the current erosion of the institution of marriage due perhaps to the libertine attitude engendered by the sexual revolution in the 1960s. But it is also the consequence of seeing marriage in terms of a social contract, and no longer as a covenant.

The contractual model of marriage is not only prevalent in secular society. Some Christians have also found this model attractive.

Among the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers, all of whom had a very high regard for marriage as a divine institution, it was John Calvin who emphasised the importance of understanding this union as a covenant.

In many of his writings on this subject, most notably in his sermons, Calvin stressed that marriage is not a human convention subjected to the whims and fancies of society, but a divine institution best understood as a covenant.

In his sermon on Deuteronomy (Deut 5:18), for instance, Calvin stressed that ‘Marriage is called a covenant with God … meaning that God presides over marriages’. He repeated and elaborated on this point in his great sermons on Ephesians: ‘Marriage is not a thing ordained by men. We know that God is the author of it, and that it is solemnized in his name. The Scripture says that it is a holy covenant, and therefore calls it divine’.

How does emphasising the covenant nature of marriage clarify our understanding of the kind of union that it is against modern alternatives?

In the first place, the covenant metaphor stresses that marriage is a union between one man and one woman – in other words, it emphasises marriage’s monogamous nature.

Related to this, the covenant metaphor also stresses the commitment of the two parties in the way in which the contractual model does not. This covenant commitment is clearly expressed in the words of the traditional marriage vow (which can be traced to the 16th century): ‘To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’.

Secondly, understanding marriage as a covenant stresses that God is involved in each marriage – he participates in it. The narrative in the early pages of Genesis, which describes God’s intimate involvement in bringing Adam and Eve together, brings this out rather beautifully.

This means that God did not just institute marriage; he also witnesses and solemnises each marriage. In addition, John Witte points out that ‘God is also the guarantor of the marriage, on whom the couple can call to ensure that the terms of the marital agreement are fulfilled’.

And thirdly, to understand marriage as covenant is to see the union between husband and wife as part of the much larger and profound covenantal relationship between God and his people (indeed, between God and humanity). This means that in the marital union, both the husband and the wife must learn what it means to be faithful to each other from the faithfulness of God to Israel.

As Witte once again pointedly writes: ‘For a husband to wander after another woman – whether a lover, prostitute or concubine – is now not just an act of adultery, but also an act of blasphemy, an insult to the divine example of the covenant marriage that God, the metaphorical husband, offers to each human husband living under God’s covenant’.

To see marriage as a covenant is to acknowledge the graveness of divorce and to share God’s own fundamental disapproval of it (Malachi 2:16). It is to expose ‘no-fault divorce’ for what it truly is: the crass deprecation and even mockery of the institution that God himself had put in place for human happiness and for society’s flourishing.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.