Category Archives: Credo

Being Christ’s Witnesses in a Pluralistic Society

July 2017 Credo

We live in a highly pluralistic society, which encourages the virtue of religious harmony and tolerance. On the other side, we receive the Great Commandment from Christ to “go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20; ESV).

How can Christians obey Christ’s commandment in this contemporary society? Is Christ’s teaching compatible with the ideal of religious harmony?

In order to deal meaningfully with this complex issue, we must understand the nature of Christian witness along with the context of today’s society. Of his missiological principle, Paul wrote, “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

What do Christians have to offer to a pluralistic society? Following Paul, we should answer: pluralistic portrayals of Christ and context-sensitive knowledge of our pluralistic society.

Christians acknowledge the four Gospels with at least four different pictures of Jesus. It is one Jesus with many portrayals. Even among the synoptic Gospels, the Lukan Jesus is not portrayed in precisely the same way as the Markan or the Matthean Jesus, not to mention the Johannine Christology with its own distinctiveness such as the seven great I AM statements, to name but a few.

From historical theology, particularly from the Reformed theological tradition, we have the threefold office of Christ: Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly office. The prophetic office brings true knowledge of God, the priestly true holiness, and the kingly true righteousness and mercy. Proclaiming Jesus in merely his priestly office, albeit very important, is neither adequate nor faithful to the richness of biblical Christology.

Our pluralistic society longs for pluralistic answers. From Christian perspective, we have pluralistic facets of biblical truth.

Now, how should Christians deal with religious pluralism as a fact? From an outside perspective, Christianity is just one among many other religions and therefore, cannot have an absolute claim of truth. “All roads lead to Rome,” they say. However, now we even live in a post-pluralistic society: not only are the roads many, but also the goals are many. Christian goal might not be the same goal of other religions.

The task and calling is greater yet not insurmountable. There are at least two approaches for a post-pluralistic context.

The first is to answer the small/particular questions with Christian particular answers, before uniting the answers into the ultimate answer that is Jesus. The second is to bring the particular questions of life to the ultimate question, which in turn has its ultimate answer in Jesus.

When Jesus revealed himself with the seven great I AM statements, he answered the small particular questions of life with particular answers (I AM the bread of life; the light of the world; the door; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth, and the life; the true vine).

All these particular answers find their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Jesus is always the ultimate answer but Christians need to carefully know the questions and context-sensitively answer them. Jesus is not the bread for the problem of darkness; he is the light. He is not the light for the problem of death but the resurrection and the life.

With regard to the second approach, Christianity believes that all questions of life are rooted in the problem of human fall into sin. All questions can be traced back in the story of Adam’s fall recorded in Genesis. Sin is the arch problem and it has many different dimensions, imitating the many facets of truth.

When we say sin, it includes again not only the dimension related to the priestly office, i.e. the problem of holy – unholy. Sin extends its power to the problem of injustice, elitism, totalitarianism, but also ingratitude, discontentment, self-centeredness, greed, idolatry, etc.

When John the Baptist witnessed Jesus by saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), he was using priestly vocabularies, yet the meaning extends beyond the priestly context.

We might add perhaps one last approach, namely that of postliberal theology.

Stanley Hauerwas bases the authority of the Bible upon the practical function in the life of the Christian community: “Claims about the authority of scripture are in themselves moral claims about the function of scripture for the common life of the church. The scripture’s authority for that life consists in its being used so that it helps to nurture and reform the community’s self-identity as well as the personal character of its members.”

Far from obscuring the Christian identity, Hauerwas context-sensitively locates Christian absolute claim of truth in the living out of the biblical story in the communal life of the church. Therefore, Christian witness is not a matter of being a (individual) Christian witness but (communal) Christian witnesses.

Because of its persuasive character, Christian testimony should be free from the spell of religious fundamentalism. “Witness is non-coercive. It has no power but the convincingness of the truth to which it witnesses,” writes Richard Bauckham.

True Christian witness does believe in a grand biblical story but never oppressive. In this regard, Christians need not to fear the accusation of being threats for religious harmony. God’s love to the world is greater than our fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”


 

Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. He was a part-time lecturer in harpsichord at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.

Initial Evidence?

July 2017 Credo

Reader’s Question: Is speaking in tongues the initial sign that a Christian is baptised in the Holy Spirit?

Pentecostals maintain that the ability to speak in other tongues (Greek: glossolalia) is the initial evidential sign that a believer has received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. According to Pentecostal theology, Spirit baptism is the second work of the Holy Spirit, subsequent to regeneration, that empowers believers to be witnesses for Christ.

The website of the Assemblies of God, UK, states: ‘We believe in the baptism in the Holy Spirit as an enduement of the believer with power for service, the essential, biblical evidence of which is the speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance’.

Pentecostals routinely cite Acts 19:6, which gives an account of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples in Ephesus when Paul laid his hands on them. Upon receiving the Spirit, the Ephesian believers immediately spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Other passages that Pentecostals frequently appeal to for scriptural support of their teaching about initial evidence include Acts 2:4, 8:14-20 and10:44-46.

Before we discuss the hermeneutical and theological issues pertaining to the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence, two important observations are in order.

The first is the fact that not all the passages in Acts that describe the so-called baptism of the Spirit specifically mention tongues-speech as the immediate consequence (See, for example, Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 8:17; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 17:12, 34; 18:8).

Secondly, although many Pentecostals accept tongue-speech as initial evidence of Spirit baptism, some have argued that it is not normative. For example, the NT scholar and AG minister Gordon Fee maintains that while speaking in tongues may be regarded as a valid ‘repeatable’ experience, Pentecostals should not insist that it is normative.

The hermeneutical question is important, and therefore a good place to begin as we examine this doctrine from the biblical standpoint.

How should we read the accounts of the Spirit’s activity in Acts? Should we read them only as descriptions of what took place in the early Church? Or should we read them as offering a paradigm for the Christian life?

Put differently, are these accounts in some definitive sense prescriptive? Or are they merely descriptive?

Many biblical scholars, including I. Howard Marshall and Gordon Fee, maintain that the accounts in Acts are the attempts by their author, Luke, to describe what took place at Pentecost and on the days following that important and pivotal event.

However, although Acts is a historical account of the birth of the Church, Luke’s narrative also seeks to give the read a sense of what God was doing in human history. Put differently, Luke’s historiography has a theological intent and purpose.

The question is: what was that theological intent and purpose? Was it to present a paradigm for the Christian life?

Many biblical scholars, including Gordon Fee, maintain that it was never Luke’s intention to present a paradigm for the Christian life or to teach that Spirit baptism is the work of God subsequent to regeneration.

Fee, for instance, makes his case against the doctrine of subsequence in his article entitled, ‘The Baptism in the Holy Spirit: The Issue of Separability and Subsequence’ published in the Fall 1985 issue of Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.

Luke’s theological emphasis in Acts is to show how Jesus’ promise to his disciples before his ascension (Acts 1:8) is fulfilled as the Church’s witness unfolded as the result of the Spirit’s empowerment.

Turning now to the theological issues surrounding the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence, we should note firstly that Paul’s fundamental emphasis concerning the gifts of the Spirit has to do with their diversity and with the fact that they are distributed according to the sovereign will of God.

Paul emphasized that not every Christian will receive the same gift. ‘If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?’ he asks (1 Corinthians 12:17). Furthermore, his rhetorical question, ‘Do all speak in tongues?’ suggests that even in a Church as spiritually gifted as the Corinthian Church, not every member has the ability to speak in tongues.

In his discussion on the spiritual gifts, there is no evidence that Paul privileged the gift of tongues above the rest. Yet, the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence privileges tongues over the other gifts because it alone is a reliable evidential sign that a believer is baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Finally – and briefly – we have to consider the way in which Pentecostals and some charismatics have understood the expression ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. Reading Acts as presenting a paradigm for the Christian life, they conclude that Spirit baptism refers to a definite work of the Holy Spirit subsequent to regeneration.

As we have already seen, some Pentecostal scholars have argued that this interpretation is untenable. I think they are right in doing so.

According to the testimony of the New Testament, the Spirit that regenerates believers is constantly at work in their lives – leading and guiding them into all truth, sanctifying them and empowering them to be Christ’s witnesses.

The Spirit also grants Christians various gifts for the edification of the Church. To some are given the gift of mercy, to others the gift of tongues. Thus, every Christian is empowered by the Spirit for service, and therefore has a role to play in the Body of Christ.


 

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

 

The Book of Ruth: a Study in Unspectacular Faithfulness

June 2017 Credo

The Book of Ruth begins: ‘In the days when the judges ruled…’. But the events it describes are very different from those described in Judges. Bethlehem, where most of the book is set, seems to have been an oasis of goodness within Israel during this period. People like Naomi and Boaz were good people, faithful Israelites. Ruth can be described as a narrative of ‘unspectacular faithfulness’.

What happens in the book? There are no battles in which God dramatically saves Israel from their enemies (again, contrast Judges). The focus of Ruth is not national but for the most part local (Bethlehem and its citizens). The events described are mainly ordinary, the kind of things that might have happened often in Israel’s history.

Consider the three main characters. In a time of famine Naomi travels with her family from Israel to Moab. Her husband dies there. Her two sons marry Moabite women. Some years later they also die. Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth. When she arrives in Bethlehem, she is filled with a sense of what she has lost, and accuses God publicly (1:20-21)

There’s nothing very unusual in any of this. Clearly Naomi passes through some kind of crisis: in c. 1 her faith seems to be near breaking point; by the end of the book she seems to believe again in the goodness of God (4:14-16). But most of us have experienced such times.

Ruth is a Moabite woman, but she returns to Bethlehem with Naomi. She has drawn close to Naomi during the years they have been together. More than that, Ruth commits herself not only to Naomi, but to Naomi’s God (1:17).

Ruth does much more for Naomi than might have been expected. And yet, people do form strong attachments, and even move to another land because of these attachments. What Ruth does is highly commendable, but not spectacular.

Boaz is presented as a godly man: his first words are ‘The LORD be with you’ (2:4). He is also a responsible landowner: he visits his fields at harvest-time to see how things are going. When he sees Ruth gleaning, he finds out who she is, and encourages her to continue gleaning. He follows Moses’ teaching (cf. Lev. 19:9-10), but goes beyond what Moses taught (2:15-16). He treats Ruth generously because of what he has heard about her (2:11) and because he knows that the God of Israel extends a welcome to all who seek him (2:12).

In all sorts of ways, then, Boaz is a good Israelite, one who knows and lives by Israel’s traditions. But surely he was not the only good man in Israel in those days.

As the story begins, so it continues: three people in different ways ‘go the extra mile’ and bring blessing into each other’s lives. It is a moving story, but there are no spectacular or miraculous happenings, merely fairly ordinary people experiencing a series of fairly ordinary events.

As is well known, the Book of Ruth traces God’s providence in the events related (see, e.g., 1:6; 2:3, 12, 20; 3:10, 13; 4:13). It ends by taking us beyond the lifetimes of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz (4:18-22): what God did in their days, though they could not have known it, led to the birth of David, Israel’s greatest king. (Matthew 1 will take the story further.)

How does the book portray God’s providence? Is it saying that God had to guide events along precisely these lines, that if Ruth had gleaned in a different field, or if Boaz had refused Ruth’s request (3:9), then David would not been born, and God’s purposes of salvation would have been derailed? Surely God is more resilient than that, more resourceful in his dealings with humanity.

We should read the book differently: Naomi, Ruth and Boaz all, in their different ways, believe in the God of Israel and express their faith in the everyday details of their lives; they engage in the normal events of life (sowing, reaping and gleaning; marriage and childbirth), but do so in a way that reflects their commitment to God. These, the Book of Ruth tells us, are the kind of people God can use, whose lives God can take up into his purposes. That seems to be the book’s ‘doctrine of divine providence’.

Christians perhaps do not emphasise enough the importance of faithfulness in the daily, weekly and yearly round. The raw material for faithful living is all around us, in the regular events of our lives. We should not imagine that the real movers and shakers in God’s kingdom are those with high-profile ministries. Nor should we imagine that the only worthwhile ministries are those which take place in church or on ‘the mission field’: God is not so limited.

We should reflect seriously: if we live out our faith in our families, that may bring blessings that will last for generations. If we get involved in our communities, that testimony may bring many into God’s kingdom. If we carry out our jobs or callings honestly and with commitment, that many make the character of our God more visible to our colleagues than a hundred tracts left around the office. If we put our professional skills and other talents at God’s disposal (for politicians, lawyers, city planners, architects, builders, teachers, home-makers and many others have roles as important as pastors, theologians and Bible scholars), then the impact could be immense.

That impact could be apparent in own lifetimes (as it was for Naomi, Ruth, Boaz and even the citizens of Bethlehem); it could also be apparent generations after our lives have come to an end (which is the point that the genealogy of 4:18-22 makes).

All that is required is that we be willing to exercise faith in the ordinary details of our lives, using the talents, circumstances and opportunities which God gives us – that we display the kind of unspectacular faithfulness which runs through the Book of Ruth and makes it such a warm, hopeful and above all practical book.


 

Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.

The Mind That ‘Sees’

June 2017 Credo

This article is written in response to a request by one of the visitors of the Ethos Institute website. It has to do with the Christian’s experience of God. What do Christians mean when they say that they have a personal knowledge and experience of God? What do Christians mean when they say that they sense his presence?

One of the most important, if arguably also the most neglected topics in recent Christian discourse, is what may be described as a ‘Christian theology of religious experience’.

Despite the fact that spiritualities of all sorts – from exercises in mindfulness to New Age mysticism – have been in vogue for some time, Christian theologians generally (and evangelical theologians, in particular) have not given the issue of religious experience the serious theological attention it deserves.

Christians of every denominational stripe and tradition claim to have personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Many Christians have also testified that there were occasions when they were able to sense the presence of God in their lives.

Such assertions are, of course, premised on the Christian understanding of God.

The God who reached out to us in love and grace has invited us into a covenantal relationship with him. He is not an absentee God, distant and aloof. Rather he is Emmanuel, the God who is always with us.

But what do Christians mean when they say that they are able to sense God’s presence? How are we to understand the Christian’s perception and experience of God?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perception as the ‘awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation’. Perception, it adds, is the ‘physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience’.

Based on such definitions, the Christian claim that it is possible to perceive the divine becomes even more baffling, if not incredulous. For, unlike the pagan idols that are made of wood and clay, the God whom Christians worship is spirit, invisible to human eyes (John 1:18). The Creator is not a part of the created order, and therefore cannot be known by sensory perception like the material objects of this world.

But although the Creator of the universe is spirit and therefore cannot be perceived by our creaturely senses and finite minds, he has revealed himself in such a way that makes our knowledge of him possible.

In John 1:18, alluded to earlier, we are told that although no one has seen God, the Son of God has made him known in the incarnation. Put differently, by taking upon himself human flesh and coming as Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Trinity has made the invisible God visible.

Paul could therefore declare in Colossians that the Son ‘is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15). Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, bears witness to the incarnate Son of God through whom the invisible God is known.

Not only did God make himself an object of this world in order to reveal himself to us, he also accommodated his revelation in such a way that we are able to receive and understand it. This notion of ‘divine accommodation’, which was brilliantly developed by the great Reformer John Calvin, helps us to understand the mode that divine revelation has assumed that makes it possible for human beings to know God.

Peter Enns explains: ‘This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place – he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people – he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are’.

The objective basis for your knowledge of God sketched very briefly here is extremely important.

The knowledge of God does not arise subjectively from our inner being, our mind or our soul. Rather, it is objective. We know God because the eternal Son has become a human being, and because the Bible bears witness to him.

However, there is a subjective aspect to our knowledge of God – and this brings us closer to the heart of our topic. Just as the Son of God has made our objective knowledge of the invisible God possible in the incarnation, so the Holy Spirit enables us to subjectively apprehend and appropriate this knowledge by faith.

The early Fathers of the Church often speak of the spiritual senses (sensus spiritualis) that the Holy Spirit awakens in the regenerate soul of the believer, enabling him to perceive spiritual things.

The Spirit forms in the believer a sensorium that makes him receptive to God. The spiritual senses do not work against the natural senses but in concert with them, giving the Christian a greater capacity for God.

As the great Swiss Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, puts it: ‘The spiritual senses are the human range of senses adapted to the riches and the variety of the paths taken by God in his revelation, with the capacity simultaneously to “see his glory”, “hear his word”, “breathe his fragrance”, “taste his sweetness” and “touch his presence”’.

The spiritual senses that Christians are given at regeneration enable them, through the out-workings of divine grace, to ‘sense God’s presence’ and ‘experience him’. They enable the mind that is renewed by the Spirit to ‘see’ a deeper spiritual reality.

Such experiences can come to us during worship and prayer, or as we read the Bible. But we can also experience the presence of God as we perform mundane activities like driving to work or washing the dishes.

At this juncture, I would like to sound a note of caution by highlighting two very important points.

The first is that the relationship between the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the subjective appropriation of that revelation made possible by the Spirit must never be severed from each other. The means that all subjective religious experiences – regardless of how powerful and compelling they may be – must be subjected to Scriptural assessment and critique.

This we learn from Scripture itself. In the wake of false teachings in the Church, the Apostle John writes: ‘Beloved, do not believe any spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world’ (1 John 4:1).

Secondly, although we have been discussing how the individual Christian may know or perceive God, it must be stressed that Christian experience is always ecclesial in nature. That is to say, our personal and individual experiences of God must always be evaluated and guided by the universal Church’s experience of God.

Privileging our subjective religious experiences over the ecclesial is extremely dangerous. It has led many to theological error and spiritual ruin.


 

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

 

Formulaic Christianity

May 2017 Credo

An Amusing Incident in Acts 19

Acts 19:11-20 recounts a somewhat amusing incident which took place in the city of Ephesus in the first century. By God’s grace, the apostle Paul had a powerful ministry in this place, one which involved amazing miracles.

This demonstration of power greatly impressed some of the Jewish exorcists who were working in Ephesus. They wished to tap on this same source of power for their own ministry. So they tried to copy what Paul did, casting out demons “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” (v.13).

On one occasion, this approach backfired dramatically. The evil spirit which the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out was smart enough to discern that these exorcists were using the names of Jesus and Paul in an impersonal and mechanical way. The spirit’s answer to the seven exorcists was quite priceless, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” These seven sons of Sceva were then mauled so severely by the man with the evil spirit that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding (v.15-16).

What was wrong with how these Jewish exorcists treated the Christian faith? They saw Christianity only as a means to get what they wanted—power for their ministry. They discerned that the way to tap on this power was to depend on a formula: Just copy Paul’s actions.

What the exorcists had was a sorcerer’s view of the Christian faith. A sorcerer back in the first century sought to manipulate the various supernatural powers by learning the correct rituals, like chanting the correct words and using the correct paraphernalia. Once they have mastered these rituals, the sorcerers could repeat it as a formula, and the supernatural powers were bound to respond in the expected way.

We are told in Acts 19 that even those who have become Christians were not exempt from the pervasive influence of sorcery. When news about what happened to the seven sons of Sceva spread, Christians who had continued to practice sorcery confessed their wrongdoing and presented their scrolls for burning. The value of the surrendered scrolls was “fifty thousand drachmas” (v.19), which is a few million dollars in today’s terms. This shows how many Christians in one city alone had tried to blend their practice of sorcery with their embrace of the Christian faith.

The Sorcerer’s Perspective is Still Alive

What about us today? A careful observation of the Christian scene in Singapore reveals that very little has changed, and the sorcerer’s appropriation of Christianity is still very much alive amongst us.

Many Christians today want something from God very badly—it might be good health, success in our studies and careers, or the fulfilment of a long-held wish. Like the sorcerers of old, we try to manipulate God into giving us these things.

The only difference is that the things we do to induce God to act are not pagan chants and rituals, but “Christian” activities. So, for example, we might put more money into the offering bag, or devote more time to prayer (sometimes using words or sentences which we think have a special magical power), or try to behave well for the week, all in the hope that God will notice our contribution and fulfil the desires of our hearts.

Some Christian preachers actually encourage such an attitude by teaching that God has promised to reward us many times over for our faithfulness to him (in terms of our monetary offerings and righteous living) with health, wealth and other indicators of worldly success. The net result is a reduction of the Christian faith to a series of formulas: If we do this, God will be obliged to do that, and we can be sure of getting what we want.

Why is this tendency to reduce Christianity to formulas so enduring, that it has persisted from the first century to our era? One reason is that formulas give us a sense of much-needed control amidst the seemingly arbitrary vicissitudes of life. They reassure us that we are still in charge, because we can ensure that life will turn out a certain way if we behave in a certain way. They comfort us by telling us that we have an “inside track” to success, guaranteed by the One who is in perfect control of all things.

The Gospel of Self-Fulfilment vs. the Gospel of Christianity

Upon deeper reflection, however, we discover that such comfort rests on a distinctly non-Christian foundation. It is comfort derived from the assurance of self-fulfilment, and the gospel (or “good news”) of self-fulfilment is very different from the gospel of Christianity. The former exalts the self to the highest place, and subjugates God to a secondary role—as a means to the self-actualisation we seek.

God, moreover, plays this secondary role very well: He is as controllable and predictable as a vending machine. We just have to do the prescribed “thing”, and the desired blessing is bound to be dispensed. This gospel of self-fulfilment is ultimately a sorcerer’s dream come true—we have found a way to manipulate no lesser being than the almighty God himself (who turns out to be not so almighty after all).

The true gospel of Christianity presents an almost diametrically opposite vision: One where we die to our self-centred natures, and then rise again with Christ to a new life in which God takes centre stage. It is not about us anymore—not our self-fulfilment or self-actualisation. It is rather about the fulfilment of God’s will, and we joyfully take our place at the periphery to serve as instruments given the privilege of contributing to this fulfilment.

Paradoxically, it is only when this happens; when we truly die to ourselves and live to serve God, that we find true self-fulfilment. It is true self-fulfilment because we truly fulfil the purposes for which we were created—the worship of God. It is only in this type of self-fulfilment that we find real and enduring joy and peace. Did not Jesus teach that it is only the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake who truly finds it (Matt 16:25)?

One of the most urgent needs for our churches in Singapore today is to rediscover a right relationship with God—one where he is at the centre, and not us. Too many of us gladly take on the label “Christian” and go through with enthusiasm all the prescribed Christian activities. But deep inside, we could well be doing all these with a sorcerer’s motivation.

We badly need a rediscovery of the fear of God. We need, in other words, an experience akin to what the Church in Ephesus went through in the first century. At the close of our narrative in Acts 19, we read of the people of that city being “seized with fear” upon knowing what had happened to the seven sons of Sceva. The result was that “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” (v. 17), and the people repented of their attempts to syncretise sorcery and Christianity. By God’s grace, may such repentance from our formulaic Christianity sweep across our land as well.



Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church. 

God is Love

May 2017 Credo

In 1 John 4:8, we find the briefest but most profound description of God: ‘God is love’. Christian philosophers and theologians have long pointed out that the message that God is love is one that is totally new and unheard of in any culture or religious system. This idea cannot be harmonised with the Absolute of Plato, the Brahma of Hinduism and the Allah of Islam.

This has prompted theologians like Emil Brunner to assert in his Dogmatics that ‘God is love’ ‘is the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language’.

In God’s dealings with Israel recorded in the pages of the OT, God’s love is made manifest again and again in his faithfulness to his chosen people, despite their unfaithfulness towards him.

Thus Brunner could write: ‘God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people springs out of an incomprehensible love, for which the “foolish” love of Hosea for his unfaithful wife is both the most daring parable of the love of God and also one which is chosen by God himself’.

In the NT the love of God is demonstrated supremely in Jesus Christ. The oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John shows the extent of the divine love: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).

It is important to note that God’s love is neither only lavished nor dependent on his creatures. To say that God is love is to underscore the fact that love is what God immutably and eternally is. Put differently, God’s love is not dependent or contingent upon there being creatures for him to love.

This means that in the eternal God there is that mutual self-giving that is love. This reminds us of just how important the doctrine of the Trinity is to our understanding and conception of God. Because the one God is Being-in-communion, the koinonia and mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is in the eternal life of the Trinity a love that is free, total and unconditional.

However, to say that in the triune God there is the mutual self-giving that is love is not to endorse the idea that God loves himself. Theologians like John Frame, for example, understand divine love as ‘God’s self-love’. There are attendant dangers in conceiving of divine love in this way.

Although in human experience, love is somehow always tainted with self-centredness, we must be careful never to project this onto God. To speak of the divine love as ‘God’s self-love’ is to suggest that God is in some sense self-centred. It is to suggest that God’s love is not directed at another, but is instead turned inward towards himself.

Put differently, to speak of the divine love in this way is to already push the Trinity into the background and to conceive of God – however unreflexively and non-deliberately – as a monad.

Thus, Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly asserts in the first volume of his three-volume systematics that we must oppose ‘the statement that God is he who eternally loves himself’. Because the one God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – our understanding of divine love must be understood in light of the eternal relationship of the three persons.

Thus, we should not conceive of God as loving himself eternally. We must say instead, with Pannenberg, that ‘from all eternity the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit loves the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father’.

However, even the concept of the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead in each other (perichoresis) poses some dangers. Perichoresis should not lead us to think that the one loves the other only because he sees himself in the other.

Pannenberg explains: ‘If, however, the one loves self in the other instead of loving the other as other, then love falls short of the full self-giving which is the condition that the one who loves be given self afresh in the responsive love of the one who is loved’.

God is love. This means, as we have seen, that God’s very nature is love. This further means that God loves not because he has to answer to a law outside of himself. As Ron Highfield has put it so profoundly, ‘[God] is completely free and totally himself in his action’.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the God who is love is also holy. The divine love that the Bible refers to is the love of the God who is holy. But in the same way, the holiness about which Scripture speaks is that of the God who is love.

Some theologians are uneasy with placing holiness and love so closely together. This is because holiness suggests distance, while love creates koinonia. Holiness signifies glory and sovereignty, while love has to do with surrender, sacrifice and selflessness.

So great is the perceived contrast between holiness and love that theologians like Jack Cottrell ask: ‘How can God fulfil the requirements of both love and holiness towards sinners at the same time?’ Convinced that this is almost impossible, Cottrell argues that before the fall, the two attributes were in ‘perfect harmony’. But the fall has placed them ‘in a state of tension and opposition’.

But to think of God in this way is to over-anthropomorphize him – it is to impose human limitations on him. Just as nothing outside of God or other than him can determine or direct his love, so no contingent reality can compromise his holiness.

God is eternally and unchangeably holy love. There is no dilemma, no tension in God.



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.

 

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.

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.

A Politically Correct View of Judaism?

March 2017 Credo

Recent years have seen the emergence of strongly Jewish sentiments in some Western Christian circles. The issue is not about whether Judaism should be understood on its own terms (we do that for other religions); what is objectionable is their disregard for a Christian understanding of Israel.

Unlike the dispensationalists of yesteryear whose view of Israel was at least theologically driven (even if mistaken), these modern sentiments are driven more by political correctness expressed in two strategic moves.

One is the refusal to transliterate the tetragrammaton (YHWH) into a pronounceable form. For Jews it may have something to do with their belief in God’s mystery and transcendence: None can see God’s face and live; none can touch God’s ark without provoking him to break out in judgment.

There is also a tradition about not taking the name of the Lord (YHWH) in vain, etc. Ostensibly, this move is made out of respect for Jews. But why now, when the facts have long been known? The political climate has changed especially after the Second World War.

Like many forms of political correctness, there are usually powerful socio-political forces at work. First, the West seems to be burdened with a collective guilt regarding the Holocaust. Any action or speech perceived as anti-Semitic is immediately singled out for harsh censure. When a former president of Iran questioned the existence of the Holocaust, the Western reaction was swift and shrill. Now, anti-Semitism is indeed reprehensible—but so is any form of racism.

Another reason for Western Christians’ acting politically correctly is that the space where they once inhabited and enjoyed considerable influence has shrunk alarmingly. Christians of orthodox persuasion are finding themselves shunned, marginalized and evicted from the public square by an increasingly militant secular elite. But together, Christians and Jews could mount a counter-attack. This is amply illustrated in the influential magazine First Things.

Islam, potentially, could be another friend, but given the current geo-political climate an alliance with Islam would be imprudent. Also, one must not underestimate the influence of the Jewish lobby in America.

But political correctness comes with a high price. To refuse to name God implicitly undermines a central pillar of the Christian faith.

Christians have good reason to call God Yahweh or Jehovah, even if they are not sure what the actual pronunciation of the tetragrammaton is. The basis for Christian boldness is the Incarnation.

The God of Israel has taken on flesh. In Christ, God is revealed in visible and tactile concreteness: “that which we have seen, which we have touched with our hands…” With Christ’s coming, Israel’s God has acquired a face and a name: we behold his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; we dare to call him “Abba, Father.”

Some theologians have suggested that Father is the proper name of God in that the Person so named stands in a unique relationship to Jesus Christ as his one and only Son. If Christians are emboldened by the Holy Spirit to call God “Abba” why should they not dare call Israel’s God by his proper name, Yahweh?

The second strategy is to replace the phrase “Old Testament” with “the Hebrew Bible” or Tanakh. This move may seem like a small concession but it too comes with a price.
The “Old Testament” is, admittedly, a distinctively Christian designation. From the beginning, Christians have always regarded the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New, for it points to and prefigures Jesus Christ.

This understanding is encapsulated in Augustine’s dictum: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet” (The New Testament is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed). It is a relationship of the shadow and the real, of promise and fulfilment.

Understanding their relationship in this way does not imply that the Old is superseded. Some elements in the Old are indeed superseded and no longer necessary, such as the bloody sacrifices, as Hebrews teaches, but it does not mean that the Church replaces Israel as some supersessionists believe.

Israel is our still big brother or, putting it differently, the Church is Israel expanded. The Church is not a gentile church but the new people of God uniting Israel and the nations. It is the natural olive tree (Israel) into which the wild olive branches (gentiles) are grafted.

Some, however, are not content with this New Testament conception of the Church. For them the divine economy has to be so reconceptualized as to give Israel its own distinctive place, making it virtually a separate entity. Here again, I’m not thinking of dispensationalism but certain forms of modern nonsupersessionism. The result is a Christian Bible without a Christological centre.

For Christians the two testaments form a single Bible. This is why the early Christians interpreted the Old Testament typologically as pointing to its fulfillment in Christ. They used the Old Testament in their catechetical instructions for precisely this reason. Ambrose of Milan is a classic example, whose preference for the Old Testament is based on the rationale that just as the Old prepares for the New, it prepares catechumens for baptism into the Body of Christ.

Not to recognize the Old Testament as indeed the Old Testament is an implicit denial of the continuity and development of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. It is tantamount to denying its status as Christian Scripture. The New Testament would make no sense without the Old; on its own the New presents only a truncated story without a real beginning. The New without the Old would produce a distorted Christianity—in fact, another version of the Marcionite heresy.

Christians, especially those in the Majority World, should recognize these moves for what they are: they are not a theologically better way of understanding Jewish-Christian relations but strategies driven by political correctness. Why should Christians in the Majority World bear the guilt of the West? Our battle with secularism can be better fought not just by forging alliance with faithful Jews, but also with the faithful in other religions.



Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).

The Unchanging God

March 2017 Credo

‘They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end’ (Psalm 102:25-26). So writes the Psalmist, as he reflects on the temporal nature of all created things – however excellent – compared to the unchanging permanence of their Creator.

Passages that speak of the unchanging nature of God are scattered throughout the Bible. In Malachi 3:6, the fact of God’s unchanging or immutable nature is categorically declared by the Creator himself: ‘For I, the Lord, do not change …’ And in his epistle, James testifies that ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow or change’ (James 1:17).

The doctrine of divine immutability – that the eternal Creator of the universe does not change because he cannot change – has occupied a central place in the Christian understanding of God since the beginning of Christianity. Divine immutability not only distinguishes the Creator from the created order – which is always in flux and subject to change – it sets him apart from other notions of deity found in the Ancient Near Eastern and the Greco-Roman worlds.

But this concept has not only been misunderstood, it has also been subjected to serious distortions.

Part of the reason why misconceptions of divine immutability had arisen in history of theology is the uncritical incorporation of Hellenistic philosophy into the Christian understanding of God. Such metaphysical adulterations have resulted in a notion of divine immutability that renders God immobile and sterile – for movement, it is argued, suggests change.

This idea of immutability as immobility is further reinforced by certain conceptions of eternality. The Bible clearly depicts the Creator as eternal, without beginning or end. But eternality, according to some philosophical accounts, is equated with timelessness.

This means that the eternal God must be motionless and inactive – for movement suggests sequence, which in turn in some sense implies change. Because of these metaphysical aberrations, to speak of divine immutability is to picture him in an ‘eternally frozen pose’, to use J. I. Packer’s memorable expression.

But this conception of God is totally alien to the Creator and Redeemer that the Bible speaks about, who is actively involved in the affairs of the world, especially those of his people.

In rejecting this erroneous view of divine immutability, and in an attempt to recover something of the biblical testimony of God as dynamic and responsive to his creatures, some modern theologians have swung to the other extreme. They have constructed a God who is so vulnerable to the contingencies of history and who can be so profoundly affected by human actions that even his grand purpose for the world can be thwarted or derailed.

We see this in some versions of process theology and open theism.

Such approaches, however, are distortions because they paint a picture of a God who is not sovereign, all-powerful and wise. In this sense, our conception of divine immutability can give the other divine attributes a different hue.

Any attempt to understand what it means to say that God is immutable or unchanging must avoid the two opposite errors of equating immutability with immobility on the one hand, and of forming a picture of God whose will and purpose are completely malleable, subjected to human actions, on the other.

Furthermore, any attempt to speak of divine immutability must take absolutely seriously the entire counsel of the Word of God. It must resist the temptation of privileging some biblical passages over others, even if it enables us to avoid some theological conundrums.

Thus, for example, in Numbers 23:19 we read: ‘God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind’. But in Ezekiel 16: 42, we have these words: ‘So will I satisfy my wrath on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you. I will be calm and will no more be angry’ – suggesting a change of mind.

Attempts to explain the passages that speak about God changing his mind by describing them as anthropomorphic – as attempts to depict God in human terms – are not always convincing. The question remains: do these passages say something true about God?

How, then, are we to understand what the Bible means by divine immutability? Space allows us to only outline an answer to this question.

To speak of divine immutability is to maintain that God’s being and nature does not undergo any change – it is to say that God is perfect. God does not experience any qualitative change: he neither grows nor diminishes.

Divine immutability also suggests that God’s character is consistent – he is not good today, but evil tomorrow. God is always just, always merciful, always loving. Divine immutability therefore suggests that God is always trustworthy.

And finally, divine immutability points to the fact that God’s purpose and plan for the world that he has created are unchanging. God will accomplish whatever he has purposed to achieve when he brought the world into being.

This understanding of the unchanging nature of God addresses the deficiencies in the concept of immutability that is distorted by Hellenistic philosophy on the one hand, and the view espoused by process theology and open theism on the other.

It corresponds closely to the biblical testimony about an unchanging God who is profoundly and intimately involved in the creation, the loving and faithful God who has made a covenant with his people.



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.