Monthly Archives: March 2015

Beauty Eclipsed

March 2015 Pulse

Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil wrote in her famous work Waiting for God, published posthumously more than 60 years ago: “Today one might think that the white races had almost lost all feeling for the beauty of the world, and that they had taken upon themselves the task of making it disappear from all the continents where they have penetrated with their armies, their trade, and their religion.”

Had Weil lived to witness the savage iconoclasms of this period we have nebulously tagged as ‘postmodern’, she would have been truly appalled. For in this so-called ‘postmodern turn’, where cultural narcissism, a plurality of psychological identities, and radical relativism dominates and corrodes human society, beauty (together with the true and the good) is slowly being eclipsed and forgotten.

This is seen supremely, although not exclusively, in art. The American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, observing the erosion of beauty, wrote in The Abuse of Beauty that “Beauty …disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960s, but from advanced philosophy of art of that decade as well… [It] rarely came up in art periodicals from the 1960s without the deconstructionist snicker.”

The eclipse of beauty is also seen in the church, especially in its worship, music, architecture and art. This is both alarming and sad because beauty has always occupied such a central place in the Christian heritage. In music, for instance, we have such marvellous epiphanies of created beauty in the haunting monody of Gregorian chant, the uncommon splendour of the choral motets of Palestrina, and the majestic cantatas of Handel and Bach.

Beauty so profoundly pervades the Christian tradition simply because the God that Christians worship is beautiful. The glory of God may refer to many things, but it points most significantly to his majestic beauty. Reflecting on the implications of this truth, Richard Viladesu writes in his captivating book, Theology and the Arts: “To say that God is beauty is to affirm God as the horizon of every human experience of the beautiful, in all aspects: intellectual, moral, interpersonal and aesthetic.”

The world that God created is beautiful because it reflects the divine beauty. There is therefore that profound analogy between earthly or created beauty and the beauty of God, its Creator. “The world”, writes the great 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Thus, while the divine beauty transcends all its visible manifestations, God is their source and final cause.

If God is Beauty, then, his self- disclosure must also be beautiful. And if, as Scripture has taught us, God has revealed himself universally in the created order, every experience of beauty is in some sense an encounter of the revelation of God. In all its imperfections, earthly beauty affords us a glimpse – however slight – of the glory of God.

But the beauty of God is seen most supremely in the fullness of his revelation in Jesus Christ. For the incarnate Son is the icon, the image and the form of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Looking at the eternal Son clothed in humanity in the incarnation, John could testify: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) And since Christ is the definitive self-disclosure of God, to see the glory of the Son is to behold the glory of the Father (John 14:8-9).

In addition, there is in every human being an innate sense of beauty, and therefore also an ineffable longing for God. A Christian view of man cannot but affirm this, its great doctrines concerning human fallenness and rebellion notwithstanding. Augustine saw this very clearly when he spoke of the restless human heart that can find its ultimate repose only in God. Pascal also recognised it in his marvellous metaphor of the God-shaped vacuum in every human heart.

Perhaps this is why despite the philistinism of the postmodern culture, beauty has not totally disappeared and still survives in some strands of culture. And perhaps this is also why despite the onslaught of secularism and atheism, more than a third of the global population still believe in the God of the Bible.

Dr Roland Chia

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

How should Christians engage in the public square?

As society becomes increasingly secular, religion is slowly edged towards the periphery of public life and reduced to a private experience without any social implications. The Christian faith is intrinsically opposed to the privatisation of religion because of its claim that the God it worships and professes is the Creator and Lord of the world. The Gospel that Christianity preaches is public truth, which addresses all of reality and which has profound implications to both the private lives of individuals and the public arenas of society. Christians are called to be light and salt of this darkening world (Matt 5:13-14). And although Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ are not of this world, that is, although they embrace a worldview and a set of values that are truly distinct they are nonetheless in the world (John 15:19). In fact, Christians are sent into the world to be authentic and faithful witnesses of their risen Lord (Matt 28:19). Christians therefore stand in solidarity with this world, but at the same time they have been given a prophetic function as they speak and embody the truth of God’s word. Social engagement is therefore not optional for the Christian. It has to do with the very heart of Christian witness.

As Christians get involved in public discourse they must realise that the public square is at once secular and pluralistic with people holding divergent and even contradictory views on a myriad of issues. Christians engaged in public discourse cannot expect their interlocutors to be sympathetic to their views, not to mention embrace them. In a pluralistic society, people shaped by different ideologies, traditions and rationalities approach the same issue with perspectives that are often inimical or antithetical (and sometimes even hostile) to the Christian perspective. Christians who participate in public debates with unrealistically high expectations of what their robust witness can achieve will only be disappointed. This is especially true for those who expect to see results within a short time frame. It took decades for our late (or post) modern society to slide into relativism, and it will take just as long, if not longer for us to dig ourselves out of it and its consequences. Christian engagement in politics and society therefore requires much patience.

Christians engaged in public discourse must also learn the language of such discourse. The language of the pulpit would not be very effective in the secular and religiously and ideologically plural public square. Theologians writing in the area of public theology have long acknowledged the need for Christians to use ‘natural law’ arguments that are accessible and persuasive to all and that appeal to public reason. This does not mean that Christians should abandon their particularist standpoint that is informed and shaped by the Bible and by the tradition of the Church, and begin with common assumptions shared by the majority. Christian responses to social issues must always be guided by Scripture and tradition. But Christians must present their theological perspectives on these issues in a way that is accessible to the wider and often unbelieving public. Thus, although Scripture must always be our guide, we must craft and present our arguments in a way that would resonate with those who do not recognise the authority of the Bible. As Scott Rae and Paul Cox have put it, ‘In this effort at persuasion it is essential that the position taken be identifiably Christian, but the means of persuasion need not and should not be limited to theological and biblical notions’.

Christians engaged in the public square must always be humble and civil. Christians must be humble in their engagement with society because even the most sincere often bring with them their own biases and prejudices. Richard Mouw issued this timely reminder in his essay, ‘The Spirituality for Public Life’: ‘The challenge, then, is to keep reminding ourselves that, at the heart of the Christian message lies the insistence that we are all sinners who are regularly tempted to the arrogance and self-centredness that lead to pretensions beyond the scope of our true grasp of reality’. The exhortation to be humble alerts us to the fact that we sometimes enter into the conversation with a less than adequate understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand. And it also alerts us to the fact that although we may be certain of the teachings of Scripture, we are sometimes less certain of how these teachings ought to be applied in the concrete world of politics. Christian humility in this regard is based on a clear appreciation of our own finitude and sinfulness.

Christians must also engage in public discourse with civility. Christian civility is best described as convicted civility: it is a civility that is not the result of intellectual wooliness or moral laxity, but one which stems from profound and robust convictions. According to the Christian understanding, therefore, civility should never be reduced to superficial irenics or political correctness. For the Christian, civility can never mean compromising our deepest convictions. But if Christian civility demands that we must always speak the truth, it also insists that we must also do so in love, respecting those whom do not share our convictions. Civility does not come easily; it requires much work on our part. Such civility is itself demanded by the Bible, which exhorts Christians to approach everyone with gentleness and reverence, and to strive to live at peace with everyone (1 Pet 3:15-16), even with those with whom we disagree.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in Word@Work (March 2013).

Is The Recent Spate Of Natural Disasters ‘The Signs Of The End’ About Which Jesus Spoke In Matthew 24?

The recent spate of natural disasters and the serious threat of the avian flu pandemic have led some Christians to think that perhaps we are living in the period when the predictions of Jesus in Matthew 24 are being fulfilled. Even the media is beginning to speak of these natural calamities in language reminiscent of the apocalyptic passages of the Bible.

What are we to make of this? Do these disasters indicate that the end of the world is round the corner and that the return of Christ is imminent?

In order to answer these questions, we must clarify what the New Testament means when it speaks about the ‘end times’. By this term, the New Testament refers to the inauguration of the kingdom of God by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Through the first advent of the incarnate Son, the eternal kingdom of God has entered into human history, thereby signaling the beginning of the end. The consummation of the kingdom will be brought about by the parousia or the return of the risen and ascended Lord.

The ‘end times’ that the New Testament speaks about therefore does not refer to the period in history that immediately precedes the return of Christ, as some Christians have mistakenly thought. It is the period between the incarnation and Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The ‘end times’ have lasted for two millennia so far!

When the New Testament speaks of the ‘signs of the end’, it is referring to certain phenomena that will take place during the period that it designates as the ‘end times’. Thus, the signs do not indicate that the parousia is about to take place soon. This is made clear by the fact that some of the signs predicted by Jesus were already evident to his contemporaries. In Matthew 24:34 Jesus says, ‘I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’.

Some scholars interpret this statement as referring not only to the cataclysmic events that Jesus spoke of about but also to the parousia. If this were the case, then Jesus’ prediction was obviously wrong. But careful study of the context shows that ‘all these things’ does not include the return of Christ, but refer only to the events which are delineated in the preceding verses.

The signs therefore point to the fact that the end times have already arrived, although the end itself remains elusive. ‘Such things must happen’, Jesus says, ‘but the end is still to come’ (Matt 24:6b). These signs are therefore just ‘the beginning of birth pangs’ (Matt 24:8).

Jesus does not dismiss the importance of these signs, but in the Olivet Discourse he urges his hearers not to schematize the signs as if they present a kind of calendar of the end times.

Throughout the history of the Christian Church numerous attempts have been made to calculate the exact date of Christ’s return. Each generation of Christians would read the events in their own time as indicating the imminent return of Christ. Well-meaning Christians have forwarded many speculations about the possible identity of the antichrist throughout the Church’s history. Even in our day such speculations have not abated (Bill Gates being the latest candidate!).

Matthew 24:36, however, alerts us to the fact that such speculations are futile: ‘No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’.

We inhabit a world that is changing rapidly, a world that has become very dangerous. The question that we need to ask ourselves is: How then should we live in such a world? Interestingly, this is the question that Matthew 24 and 25 seek to answer. The parables that bring the Matthean version of Jesus’ eschatological discourse to a close have to do with watchful discipleship.

The faithful and wise servant (Matt 24:45-51) will by his watchful obedience prepare himself for the return of the Master. The delay in his Master’s return would not in any way affect his commitment and resolve. The parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13) again drives home the point that Christians must be constantly prepared for the unannounced return of their Lord. And the parable of the talents (Matt 25: 14-30) emphasizes this same point yet again. This parable also stress that Christians should not wait for the end passively, but should immerse themselves in active service by using the talents that God has given to them.

The ‘signs of the end’ in Matthew 24 therefore are not meant to draw Christians into futile speculations. Rather they invite Christians to be prayerful and diligent, and to commit their lives to unflinching obedience and faithful service.

Dr Roland Chia

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

The Sign of the Cross (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans)

The phrase ‘sign of the cross’ refers to various liturgical or devotional acts which trace the two lines intersecting at right angles, indicating symbolically the figure of Jesus’ cross. For evangelical Protestants, whose devotional and liturgical experience does not emphasise the use of gestures, the sign of the cross may appear rather strange and unnecessary. Is it not enough to simply say ‘Our Father’ at the start of our prayer and ‘Amen’ at the end?

As a devotional or liturgical practice, the sign of the cross has a very long history in Christian spirituality. Its origins can be traced to the writings of the theologians in the first five hundred years of the Church’s history.

There are many different ways in which the sign of cross may be made, the most common of which is to trace a large cross from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder. This gesture is often accompanied by the words ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. Sometimes, the believer may trace a little cross, generally using the thumb, on the forehead. In the Roman Catholic Church, believers trace small crosses over their forehead, their lips and their hearts before listening to the Gospel reading. In some Anglican and Lutheran services, the priest or bishop makes the sign of the cross in the air when pronouncing the benediction.

There are different ways in which the fingers can be positioned when making the sign of the cross. Some would trace the cross with their index finger and middle fingers held together. This is meant to symbolise the two natures of Christ – that the incarnate Son is very God and very man. Others would hold the index and the middle fingers together (with the thumb pressing down the last finger) while making the sign of the cross, thus symbolising the Holy Trinity. Sometimes the priest holds his third and fourth fingers down with his thumb while keeping his index and middle fingers straight. This position has the advantage of signifying both the two natures of Christ and the Trinity.

What is the place of such gestures in Christian worship and devotion? Theologians maintain that physical gestures are important in worship and that something is lost if the church has lost sight of them.

Even Protestants who use gestures only very minimally are used to standing, sitting or kneeling in worship. Some also raise their hands in prayers or when singing a hymn. Some L­utherans also genuflect (kneel on one knee) as a gesture of reverence. Ministers in Protestant churches often raise their hands when pronouncing the benediction.

It is the nature of physical movements that they involve the mind as well as the body and thus produce a greater sense of participation. Gestures used at different points in the worship service can produce greater intensity in the act of worship. When these gestures are symbolic, that is, when they point to particular truths, they can inject meaning and value in worship. Of course just as words can be cheap, actions can also be performed mechanically and thoughtlessly. But when used properly and reverently, significant gestures can introduce depth to our worship.

The different postures, for example, could indicate the attitude of the worshipper at different points in worship. Kneeling expresses humility, and is the appropriate posture for prayer, particularly the prayer of confession. Standing brings to expression other attitudes, and therefore may be more appropriate for other acts of worship – singing, prayers of thanksgiving, praise and adoration. Sitting is less expressive and indicates that attention is directed at what someone else is doing. Thus, in most Western churches the congregation sits to listen to the homily or sermon.

The sign of the cross is an important liturgical gesture because the Cross is the central symbol of the Christian Faith. To make the sign of the cross is to recall the salvation that God has made available through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ. The sign of the cross is therefore a reminder of the divine love, which is not only found in a past event, but which continues to abide with us.

The sign of the cross therefore becomes a wonderful daily expression of our relationship with God. It recalls our baptism, for all Christians are baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Tracing the cross on our forehead, heart and shoulders reminds us that we are to love God with our mind, heart, soul and strength – indeed, with every fibre of our being.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (April 2013).

What should be the proper way of understanding the relationship between science and the Christian Faith?

Although significant progress is being made in the interaction between science and Christianity in this century, there remains a residual hostility between them that can be traced to the nineteenth century. When modern science as we know it first appeared in seventeenth century Europe, its encounter with Christianity could be generally described as friendly. Scientists then understood that God had created the world, and see science as the means by which they could examine the handiwork of the Creator. In the eighteenth century, however, there was a gradual rift between the scientific and religious communities. Influenced by Deism, which teaches that God, having created the world, is no longer personally involved with it, scientists maintain that they could study nature without the interference of religious metaphysics. This rift soon developed into open hostility in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the rise secularism.

The hostility between science and Christianity has resulted in the conflict thesis promoted by prominent scientists in the nineteenth century like J. W. Draper in History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A.D. White in A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom. The scientists who hold this view argue quite simply that only science can enable us to understand reality, which according to them is the material world in which we live. But it would be a mistake to think that only scientists are responsible for the rhetoric of conflict and warfare. Theologians who take a literal approach to the interpretation of the Bible also come to this conclusion. The conflict thesis is therefore supported by materialism on the one hand, and biblical literalism on the other.

Some scientists and theologians maintain that it is misguided to speak of the conflict between science and religion because these two spheres of knowledge are totally distinct from each other. Religion, these thinkers claim, asks a totally different set of questions, work on totally different assumptions, and employ a different methodology from science. Science and religion in fact speak two different languages with totally different functions. Science is concerned with objective, public and repeatable data while religion is concerned with aesthetic experiences and the inner life. Science asks the ‘how’ questions, while religion asks the ‘why’ questions. The authority of science is the empirical study of the material world, while religion is dependent on divine revelation. Those who argue for the independence of science and religion wish to safeguard the integrity and autonomy of both.

Both these approaches, however, fail to appreciate fully the complex nature of the relationship between science and religion or theology. The conflict thesis fails to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of reality. And the independence theory, while acknowledging the fact that reality is multi-faceted fails to give an account of how these facets are related to each other. Furthermore, this latter approach will ultimately result in the privatisation of religion, treating it only as subjective experience that has no objective basis whatsoever.

The proper understanding of the relationship between science and the Christian faith is dialogue. Dialogue suggests a more constructive relationship between science and religion than both conflict and independence because it acknowledges the differences as well as similarities between the two. Dialogue requires science and theology to have a clear understanding of their own as well as each other’s presuppositions and methods. This would prevent caricatures that would inhibit fruitful conversations between them. For example, some philosophers have argued that science is objective because its theories are validated by clear-cut criteria and indisputable evidence. Theology or religion, on the other hand, is highly subjective and is based on individual or cultural assumptions. Many philosophers of science and theologians have rightly rejected this simplistic view of both science and theology. They have shown on the one hand that science is theory-laden, and on the other that although theological statements are not amendable to strict empirical testing they can nevertheless be taken to be objective.

There are indeed many areas of possible dialogue between science and theology. One such area is the intelligibility of the cosmos. Physicists and astronomers have long been seeking for a unified theory of the cosmos based on the conviction that the latter is simple, orderly and rationally intelligible. Theologians can account for the intelligibility of the world that scientists assume because they believe that the God who ordered the world is rational. In creating the world, God has given it an independent reality distinct from himself, which implies that the creation has its own integrity. Theologians like Thomas Torrance and John Polkinghorne discuss the intelligibility of the world within the theistic framework thereby bringing science and theology into serious and creative dialogue with each other.

Taking this dialogue seriously implies that consonance between theology and science is to be actively sought. But it also implies that all hasty attempts to achieve a happy but superficial synthesis between the two must be resisted. Failure to arrive at a synthesis, however, should not discourage further dialogue because the dialogical process itself is beneficial for both science and theology. As Pope John Paul II has so insightfully put it, ‘Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish’.

Dr Roland Chia

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

Can politics be separated from religion, according to the Christian perspective?

The separation of religion from politics, resulting in the notion of ‘private religion’, is the outcome of the secularism associated with the 18th century European Enlightenment. Before that time, religion was always a matter for the whole community, and never just for the individual. In addition, religion and culture were always inextricably intertwined with each other in such a way that their separation was inconceivable. If politics is broadly defined as the principles or policies by which a community orders its life, then religion obviously cannot be artificially excised from politics. This is true especially for multi-religious societies like Singapore. Christians generally maintain that religion and politics cannot be separated. This is because according to the Christian faith, there can be no place for any distinction between secular and sacred. The God who created the world must surely be Lord even of the political realm.

To maintain that there can be no separation between religion and politics is not to reject the concept of the secular state or to insist that the Church should not be separated from the state. The two issues are quite different and must not be confused with one another. Although the concept of the secular state is in itself in many ways problematic, it is nonetheless useful in identifying the duties of the state. The secular state is one in which the government is limited to the seculum or temporal realm. It is a state that is free from the control of any institutional religion and therefore independent of the latter. The idea of the secular state therefore denies the government the right to use religion for the accomplishment of political ends, and it denies religion the right to use the government for religious ends. In this way, the secular state is arguably better able to ensure what some scholars have called ‘benevolent neutrality’, where the interests of the members of all the different communities represented in society are taken seriously. As mentioned earlier, although this model raises a number of difficult and important issues and is far from perfect, for reasons I cannot discuss in this short article, Christians can broadly endorse it without fear of too much compromise. I believe that Singapore’s ‘Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act’ of 1992 is broadly inspired by some such concept of the secular state.

A paradox immediately presents itself: How are we to understand the relationship between the secular state and a religious society? Are the two concepts not contradictory? Here we must further sharpen our understanding of the secular state. A secular state is one that is concerned with the seculum or temporal affairs. However, a secular state is not a state that is committed to secularism. That is to say, the secular state does not deny the reality of the non-physical world and it is not hostile to religious belief and practice. The secular state therefore will not attempt to expunge religious discourse from the public square. It recognises the importance of religion in public life, even as it prohibits religion from using the government for religious ends. Although there is a growing minority in Singapore who are committed to excluding religion from public discourse, I believe that this is not the position of the Singapore government. This is clearly evident in the fact that the latter has openly invited different faith communities to participate in debates on important societal issues.

Christians believe that they can make significant contributions to public life, not least by participating in debates on social and political issues. As I have argued elsewhere, this is an aspect of the Christian’s responsibility in society. Christians and the Church therefore may serve a political purpose by playing a prophetic role in public life. Although some Christians have argued that the separation of church and state and the acceptance of the concept of the secular state require the privatisation of religion, I maintain that this is not the case at all. In fact, the contrary is true: the separation of church and state has made possible the genuinely prophetic role of religion because the church, freed from institutional dependence, is no longer subservient to the state in a way that would mute her prophetic voice. The Church is therefore able to be herself – a free and authentic witness for God in society. The separation of Church and state and the concept of the secular state therefore make possible an authentic public religion. They make genuine interaction between Christians and political society a living reality.

Christians contribute to the political life of the society by advancing justice and promoting the common good. But in order to do so, Christians (and the Church) must sometimes question the established order and refuse to endorse or ‘sanctify’ policies and traditions that are not in harmony with God’s will. These are all aspects of the prophetic role of Christians in society. Furthermore, prophetic religion must also reach out to the oppressed, the dispossessed, the disinherited and the discriminated. It must reject the temptation to show favour to any particular socioeconomic class. It must be free from the fetters of any given culture and the prevailing norms and conventions of society. By speaking rationally, truthfully and compassionately to many shared concerns and issues, and by participating respectfully, calmly and patiently in public discourse, Christians can contribute – in small but sometimes surprisingly significant ways – to society. In this way, the Christian community can fulfil its public vocation in the world on behalf of freedom, peace, and justice for all.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (September 2013).

Is there scriptural basis for the doctrine of purgatory?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), ‘All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven’. The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory therefore has to do with ‘final purification of the elect’. Although the doctrine in its present form was formulated at the Councils of Florence (1445) and Trent (1545-1563), its origin is more ancient, and can be traced as far back as the 3rd century A.D.

Purgatory was first mentioned in Christian literature in connection with the North African martyr Perpetua (c.a. 202). While in prison before her execution, Perpetua thought about her brother Dinocrates who had died of cancer at the age of seven. In a dream, Perpetua saw the emaciated and pale figure of her brother in a dark and gloomy place. Moved by the sight of her suffering brother, Perpetua prayed incessantly day and night with sighs and tears for his emancipation. In a subsequent dream, Perpetua saw her brother again. But this time, he was clean, well clothed and playing with other children. When she woke up, she realised that her brother’s punishment had been revoked.

This story became the basis of the idea of purgatory that was developed variously in both the Western and Eastern traditions of the Church. In his Enchiridion, Augustine the fifth century theologian advocated the idea that believers are subjected to purgatorial fire before they are admitted into heaven. For this reason he is sometimes called the ‘father of purgatory’. It was Origen, however, who gave the doctrine its primitive shape when he wrote: ‘If a man departs this life with lighter faults he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials, and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter’. The idea of purgatory is found in the writings of many important patristic theologians like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great.

The main text often appealed to by Catholic theologians as providing the basis for the doctrine is 2 Maccabees 12:43-45: ‘For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin’. Without going into the background, this text, which was composed during the intertestamental period, alludes to prayers offered for the dead. It maintains that such prayers are legitimate because of the resurrection. The passage suggests that such prayers may atone for the sins of the dead and thereby ensure their safe passage into the kingdom of God. Protestants, however, regard 2 Maccabees as apocrypha and thus not part of the canon of Scriptures. The text in question therefore cannot be the authoritative basis for Christian doctrine.

The second text that is often quoted as supporting the doctrine is Matthew 12:32. According to this passage those who speak against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, ‘either in this age or in the age to come’. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) maintains that this passage alludes to purgatory because it suggests that some sins are ‘forgiven in the age to come’. Many Bible scholars, however, have rightly argued that the interpretation forwarded by Gregory is forced. Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere else in the New Testament of sins being forgiven in the afterlife.

The third passage is 1 Corinthians 3. In verse 13, Paul speaks about the fact that on the Day of judgement, the quality of each man’s work will be revealed. In verse 15, we read: ‘If it is burned up, he will be saved, but only as one escaping through fire’. Some Catholic theologians have interpreted this passage as referring to the fires of purgatory. The context, however, suggests otherwise. Here, Paul was referring to the work of the church, particularly that of Christian leaders. He warns that unless their work is built upon the foundation of Christ, it will not survive the test of fire on the Day of Judgement. The passage does not say that believers will pass through the fire of purification. It says that the quality of their work will be tested by fire.

These passages, therefore, do not teach the doctrine of purgatorial purification. The Roman Catholic theologian, Michael Schmaus, has rightly admitted that the doctrine of purgatory is not based on Scripture but rather on the ‘church’s practice of prayer and penance’. Thus, purgatory as a doctrine was weaved into the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church to justify an existing practice. But, as Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann has pointed out, ‘Once this method is followed, there is no possible way of examining particular ecclesiastical and devotional practices for the conformity to scripture and the Gospel’. For this reason, the Reformers of the sixteenth century categorically rejected the doctrine of purgatorial purification as unscriptural. This continues to be the position of Protestantism regarding purgatory. The evangelical theologian Millard Erickson is therefore correct in stating that it is the doctrine of purgatory that ‘distinguishes Catholicism and Protestantism in general’.

Dr Roland Chia

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

What Is Prophecy? And How Can We Discern If It’s From God?

MUCH of the confusion with the practice of prophecy in the contemporary church has to do with a misunderstanding of what the New Testament means by the term. It is not possible to provide a full discussion on prophecy in the limited compass of this article. What I propose to do is to briefly define prophecy and delineate some principles of discernment.

Prophecy in the contemporary church is best described as a report of thoughts and impressions which may have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is important to stress at the outset, therefore, that prophecies by ordinary Christians should never be taken as the ‘infallible word of God’. This means that prophecies should not be placed at par with Scripture. They do not enjoy the same authority and status as God’s revealed Word in Scripture, and those who prophesy are not suddenly elevated to the status of Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Prophecies, then, are nothing more than God-inspired thoughts which, when shared, would benefit a small group or even the whole church.

It is customary in some Christian circles and churches for Christians to preface prophetic utterances with ‘Thus says the Lord’ or ‘Hear the word of the Lord’. This practice is, at the very least, misleading, and should in my opinion be abolished. Instead, Christians who sense that they have been inspired to speak should simply say, ‘I think the Lord is indicating that …’ or ‘I feel that the Lord has impressed upon me to say …’ Such an approach corresponds to the true nature of prophetic utterances, which, as I have pointed out, are merely reports of Spirit-inspired thoughts that might bring edification. Paul broadly describes the purpose of prophetic utterances in the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 14:3 thus: ‘But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort’.

Because prophecies do not enjoy scriptural authority, they should always be tested. In 1 Corinthians 14:29, Paul wrote: ‘Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said’. Prophecies should never be submitted to mindlessly, but should be carefully weighed and evaluated. But who are the ‘others’ who are called to weigh the prophetic utterances? Without detaining the reader with the finer issues of exegesis, I believe that ‘others’ here refer to the entire Christian community. A prophetic message must be carefully weighed by the leaders and members of the Christian community on the basis of God’s revealed Word, the Bible.

About twenty years ago, I remember addressing this topic at a leaders’ retreat. I remember using this illustration to describe our response of prophecy (although I can’t recall the church or the precise content of the talk): responding to prophecy, I said, is like eating curry fish-head – you swallow the meat and spit out the bones! Paul said something similar in the context of judging prophecy in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22: ‘Test everything. Hold on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil’.

Are only certain Christians given the gift of prophecy, or is this ability readily available to all Christians? The New Testament describes prophecy as a gift which God freely gives to some Christians according to his sovereign will. Those who exercise the gift regularly are sometimes called ‘prophets’, although most scholars agree that in the New Testament this designation does not describe a formally recognized office. In principle, then, all Christians have the potential ability to prophesy, although only some Christians are given that actual ability. Thus on the one hand Paul maintains that it is the Spirit who ‘distributes [spiritual gifts] to each one as he wills’, on the other he urges members of his congregation to ‘seek earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’ (1 Cor 14:1; 1 Cor 14:39).

God may, through the gift of prophetic speech, encourage and guide Christians. But Christians must regard prophecy as only one of the many ways in which God guides. Because prophecy does not have the same authority as God’s revealed Word, the Bible, it should not be regarded as the only, or even the primary, source of divine guidance. It would therefore be unwise to make a decision solely on the basis of a prophetic message.

This is especially true in the case of prescriptive prophecies: ‘Leave your job, and serve as a missionary in Bhutan!’ or ‘Marry Mary!’ The Christian may take such prophecies as possible promptings of God’s Spirit; but the wise Christian would remember that this is only one of the many possible ways in which God guides. To repeat, the Christian should never make a decision on the basis of prophecy alone! He should diligently search the Scriptures, prayerfully examine the facts and evaluate the consequences, consult his pastor, elders and matured members of God’s household before making a decision.

Prophecy is God’s gift to the church, an evidence or sign of his abiding presence with his people. God uses the gift of prophecy to edify, encourage and warn his people. Furthermore, the gift of prophecy shows that God relates to us in a personal and intimate way. We should therefore never treat God’s gift of prophecy with contempt (1 Thess 5:20). We should thank God for this wonderful gift, even as we recognize its proper limits.

Dr Roland Chia

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

Preaching Prosperity

In a TIME magazine poll conducted in 2006, 17% of the Christians surveyed claimed that they are part of the prosperity Gospel movement in America. A staggering 61% believes that God wants people, particularly Christians, to be prosperous, while 31% are convinced that if you give generously to God, he will bless you with even more wealth.

It would be a mistake to think that this is the exclusive predilection of affluent Christians in America, saturated by prosperity teaching. In a survey conducted in the African continent in the same year by the Pew Research Centre, 9 out of 10 participants replied ‘Yes’ to the question whether God would make those with enough faith wealthy.

The prosperity gospel movement, as Stephen Hunt saw so clearly in 1998 is ‘one of the fastest growing religious movements on a global scale’.

The movement rose to prominence in America in the 1980s, with well-known personalities like Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Frederick Price, John Avanzini, Jerry Savalle, Morris Cerullo, etc. Prosperity teaching during this period is distinctively more metaphysical as it blended together the theosophical elements of New Thought Metaphysics and pseudo-Christian cults like Religious Science, Christian Science and the Unity School of Christianity with mainstream Christianity.

The cultic influences mostly came from the work of Essek William Kenyon, from whom the modern apostles of the movement like Kenneth Hagin borrowed heavily. The metaphysics is then translated into practical spiritual laws that can be manipulated by anyone to get what he wants. It is this correlation of the ‘spiritual’ laws with the right technique that lies behind the most basic prosperity dogmas like ‘have faith in faith’ and positive confession (‘What I confess, I possess’).

‘Classical’ prosperity teaching of the Hagin-Copeland variety declined after the much-publicised Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert scandals. In recent years, however, prosperity doctrine has resurfaced once again in America, albeit in a different garb.

Its most sensational celebrity is without doubt Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Joel’s father, John Osteen, was a prosperity preacher (and former Baptist) who experimented with a cocktail of Pentecostalism and classical prosperity doctrine in the church he founded in Houston.

When Joel Osteen took over as senior pastor of Lakewood after the death of his father in 1999, church attendance exploded to 44,000, making it the largest church in America. Osteen’s book, Your Best Life Now sold millions of copies and made it to the New York Times’ best-sellers list.

Osteen, who has no theological training, promotes a new ‘less muscular’ version of prosperity teaching (compared to the classical account) with his uncomplicated message of pure positivism. His entire message can be summarised in these words: ‘You were born to win; you were born for greatness, you were created to be a champion in life’.

As the above quotation suggests, Osteen’s ‘gospel’ bears significant and worrying family resemblances to its more ‘New Agey’ predecessor. What seems to be emerging is that this brand of prosperity gospel is just as assuredly self-centred as the Hagin-Copeland version.

‘God wants us to have healthy, positive self-images, to see ourselves as priceless treasures’, Osteen writes. ‘He wants us to feel good about ourselves … God sees you as a champion … he regards you as a strong, courageous, successful, overcoming person’. Put differently, Osteen’s religion asks what God can do for us, instead of what we should do for God and his glory.

This subtle twist introduces serious distortions to our relationship with God because it no longer sees that relationship as an end in itself, but simply as a means to an end. We worship God not because of who he is, but because of what he could do for us. We no longer give out of a grateful heart. We give because the promised return of a hundredfold is simply irresistible. Plainly put, the perverse consequence of prosperity teaching is that worship is morphed into a narcissistic and self-indulgent activity.

But Osteen’s ‘gospel’ is man-centred in yet another way. Although Osteen does speak of God as provider and enabler, much of his exhortations centre on what we can do for ourselves, and how our thinking can change our circumstances. For instance in Your Best Life Now, he writes: ‘If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold these things from you’.

He tells the story of how his mother was healed of cancer by positive confession. And he declares axiomatically that ‘Thoughts determine destiny … If you don’t think your body can be healed, it never will be … When you think positive, excellent thoughts, you will be propelled towards greatness, inevitably bound for increase, promotion, and God’s supernatural blessings’.

All this appears banefully similar to Hagin’s teachings (‘Have faith in faith’) and the old-fashioned positive thinking of the Norman Vincent Peale fame. But all this also means that prosperity doctrine is really about having faith in man (i.e., in oneself), not in God. Charles Farah has poignantly and correctly described prosperity teaching as a form of ‘charismatic humanism’.

Prosperity gospel has led some segments of the Church to descend into the very materialism that it should expose and challenge. By portraying God as the celestial ATM, prosperity teachers have promoted a false gospel that panders to that almost universal insatiable desire for wealth – the poor no doubt wants to be rich, but the rich wants to be even richer!

Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback has hit the nail on the head when he accuses prosperity teachers of promoting an idol: ‘This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?’

In his book on the Health and Wealth Gospel, Gordon Fee describes this teaching as a disease. And the best antidote, according to the New Testament scholar, is ‘a good healthy dose of biblical theology’.

In many ways the prevalence of prosperity teaching alerts us to the serious theological illiteracy among Christians. It therefore challenges the Church to continue to preach, without compromise or dilution, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to form its members according to sound biblical doctrines. For it is only when Christians are deeply grounded in Scripture that they are able to discern truth from error, orthodoxy from heresy.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (July 2013).

Should Christians pray for the dead?

It may surprise some readers of this magazine to learn that the practice of praying for the dead has a very long history in the Christian tradition that can be traced as far back as the third century A.D. The great father of the early church, Tertullian, who has contributed so much to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, wrote in A.D. 211 about the practice of offering prayers and the Eucharist for the deceased on the anniversaries of their deaths. And in the fifth century, Augustine alluded to the practice when he wrote about the common practice of remembering the departed ‘at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ’. The practice is rigorously observed in the Roman Catholic Church, while a number of the ancient liturgies –those in Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Greek – testify to its prevalence in the Eastern Churches. Prayers for the dead are also found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Roman Catholics appeal to 2 Maccabees 12:40-46 as the ‘scriptural’ basis for this practice. This passage tells the story of Judas who discovered among the bodies of the brethren who had perished in the battle against Gorgias the idols of Jamnia, which the Jews were forbidden to worship. Upon this discovery, Judas ‘blessed the just judgement of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden’. He then gathered the people of Israel to pray for forgiveness for the departed brethren who had sinned against God. The passage ends with these words: ‘It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins’. In 2 Maccabees, belief in the resurrection of the dead provides the theological rationale for praying for the dead: ‘For if he [Judas] had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead’ (12:44). Although the Roman Catholic Church considers 2 Maccabees as canonical, the Reformers classify it as an apocrypha and therefore do not accord it with the same authority and status as the other canonical books of the Bible.

The practice of praying for the dead is further undergirded by the doctrine of purgatory, whose origins can also be traced to the second century. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), ‘All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven’. The doctrine of purgatory is alluded to in the writings of the early Church Fathers, including Tertullian. Prayers offered for the souls of the dead in purgatory may shorten the process of purification and hasten their entry into heaven. The Reformers, however, rightly rejected the doctrine because it has no support from the Bible at all. Evangelical theologian Millard Erickson is therefore right to say that the rejection of purgatory is that which ‘distinguishes Catholicism and Protestantism in general’.

The practice of praying for the dead in the Roman Catholic Church led to the marking of All Soul’s Day, the day of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have passed away. All Soul’s Day must not be confused with All Saint’s Day, which precedes it. While All Saint’s Day is purposed for the commemoration of the saints of God, known or unknown, who are already in heaven, All Soul’s Day shifts the focus on the souls that are undergoing purification in purgatory. On All Soul’s Day, the clergy recite the Office of the Dead while the faithful offer prayers and alms for the dead. All Soul’s Day became a universal festival through the influence of Odilo of Cluny in A.D. 998, who commanded the Benedictine Houses in his congregation to observe it annually. The practice soon spread to the other Catholic communities. Today, Catholic Churches all over the world celebrate All Soul’s Day on November 2 (or November 3, if the 2nd is a Sunday). Initially, the Reformers rejected the practice because of its association with the doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead, but a number of Protestant churches today observe it.

The prevalence of the practice of praying for the dead in the Western and Eastern Churches has made it especially difficult to critique it, not to mention reject it. But although the practice has a long and venerable history, there is very little biblical or theological justification for it and must, for this reason, be rejected. As mentioned earlier, for Protestant Christians, 2 Maccabees could not be considered as a canonical text, and therefore does not possess the requisite authority to inspire a doctrine. In similar vein, the doctrine of purgatory must be rejected because it has no scriptural basis whatsoever.

I therefore concur with the Reformer John Calvin who maintained that the practice of praying for the dead is ‘an error’. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote: ‘For over thirteen hundred years it was the approved practice to pray for the deceased. All ancients fell into error; it was something human and therefore what they did must not be imitated’ (3, 5, 10). But the most straightforward rejection of the practice comes from the pen of Martin Luther. In the Small Catechism he wrote: ‘We should pray for ourselves and for all other peoples, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead’. Then citing Hebrews 9:27 Luther continues: ‘Since individuals are judged by God immediately after their death and enter either heaven or hell, there is no reason to pray for them. Those in hell cannot be helped by prayer, and those in heaven have no need of our prayers’.

Dr Roland Chia

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