Monthly Archives: September 2017

Welcoming Worship

September 2017 Pulse

One of the simplest but most profound definitions of Christian worship comes from the pen of the influential Russian Orthodox theologian, Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (1893-1979). “Christian worship,” he wrote, “is the response of men to the Divine call, to the mighty deeds of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”

While worship is “primarily and essentially an act of praise and adoration,” Florovsky explains, it is also “a thankful acknowledgement of God’s embracing Love and redemptive loving-kindness”. Most significantly, the Russian theologian emphasises that because “Christian existence is essentially corporate”, Christian worship must be a communal activity.

This implies that every member of the community of faith must be allowed to participate in the act of praise and adoration that Christians call worship, including people with disabilities.

But as Nancy Eiseland has so starkly pointed out in her book, The Disabled God, the Church’s attitude and response towards the disabled has been ambiguous at best. The Church has often “treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism”. “For many disabled persons the church has been a ‘city on a hill’ – physically inaccessible and socially inhospitable,” she wrote.

If this observation is correct, then perhaps the Church has been subtly persuaded by the myth spun by secular society that the ideal human being is powerful and capable.

As Jean Vanier puts it, “A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.”

Or perhaps the Church’s relationship with the disabled is ambiguous not because Christians belittle them, but rather because we fear them. We fear them because, as Stanley Hauerwas has perceptively pointed out, “they remind us that for all of our pretensions we are as helpless as they are when all is said and done”.

Be that as it may, if the Church is truly the Body of Christ, it must accept as its members believers with disabilities, who, despite their physical or mental impairments, continue to be bearers of God’s image.

The Church must welcome and embrace these “weaker members” and bestow upon them the “greater honour” that they deserve (1 Corinthians 12), by loving them and joyfully celebrating their contributions to its life and witness.

The full acceptance of people with disabilities in the Christian community requires nothing less than a radical change in attitude.

The Church’s welcome of disabled people, therefore, is seen not just in the installation of certain fixtures like ramps for wheelchairs, important though they are. Its welcome is made most evident in the space it creates for people with disabilities to fully participate in its worship and ministry.

Welcoming the disabled does not require the church to design specialised worship services for them, for this could just be a disguised form of segregation. Rather, as Orthodox priest Stephen Plumlee argues, people with disabilities are truly welcomed when they are incorporated “fully in the liturgical activities of the community”.

Able-bodied Christians should never underestimate the extent to which people with disabilities – especially mental disabilities – are able to participate in worship. We are simply unable to fathom how the mysterious operations of divine grace can bring disabled people into intimate communion with God.

But a church that truly welcomes and embraces people with disabilities must also be open to receiving ministry from them, for they too are given gifts with which to build up the Body of Christ.

Most importantly, the presence of people with disabilities can in some ways be prophetic in the sense that it can expose every triumphalism, and every false sense of confidence. In the words of Hauerwas, their presence reminds us of “the insecurity hidden in our false sense of self-possession”.

Taking a slightly different angle, the American National Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the same point thus in its thoughtful 1978 pastoral statement on the handicapped:

“Handicapped people should be gratefully welcomed in the ecclesial community wherein we can benefit from the spiritual gifts, and the self-realisation they share with the rest of us in the Christian community, namely, that ‘we all live in the shadow of the cross’. That shadow reminds us that we are all ‘marginal’ people and hence our need for mutual integration.”

An example close to home is how Wesley Methodist Church encourages families with children with special needs to attend and partake Communion together at their Sunday 5 p.m. Traditional Services, and also have hearing-impaired persons attend their Saturday 5 p.m. and Sunday 9.30 a.m. contemporary worship services. They have also formed an Inclusion Committee with the aim of further integrating persons with special needs in their worship services, small groups, and across the rest of the church.


 

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.

Maker of Heaven and Earth

September 2017 Credo 

The Apostles’ Creed begins with the acclamation: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth.” To believe in God as Creator is to affirm that God is the Lord of the earth and not merely the tribal God of the Christians.

The belief that the Triune God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo) by his word (ex verbum) has long been a key tenet of historic Christian teaching. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made … For he spoke, and it came to be” (Ps. 33:6 & 8; Ps. 104:30). All things were made through Jesus the Word, “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:15-17).

The notion of creatio ex nihilo, though not explicitly stated in the Genesis creation account, is nevertheless consonant with it. “The universe,” we are told, “was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3). The Lord himself asserts “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself” (Isa. 44:24; cf. Acts 17:24; Rev. 4:11).

That creation emerged “out of nothing” at the command of God means that there was no eternal pre-existent matter prior to God bringing forth everything that exists. As theologian Colin Gunton puts it, the Creator is not simply the Potter who works with clay but also the One who brought clay into existence in the first place.

Creation “out of nothing” is in sharp contrast to the ancient Greek belief that matter is eternal rather than created. This notion of the cosmos as self-generated and self-managing is one that surfaces as well in modern atheists like Richard Dawkins. According to them, the origins of the world lay not in the will of a personal transcendent Creator but in the random natural processes of the material world.

While claiming to be speaking scientifically, these atheists’ assertion of a self-caused world is at heart a strident philosophical naturalism that takes as an a priori the impossibility of the existence of God or the reality of the spiritual. Because God cannot exist, He does not exist, and the idea that God created all things is therefore impossible. Such is the tautological ‘logic’ of unbelief!

Christian theology maintains vigorously the distinction between the Creator and His creation without confusion. The world is not merely an extension of God; it has an objective existence distinct from the Creator, though not outside of His control.

This guards against any pantheistic conflation of the two, as in the various forms of religious or philosophical monism in which the world is seen as an emanation of God. Neither does it allow for any divinization of the cosmos, as in the modern green environmentalist veneration of Gaia. To deify the cosmos is to replace the worship of the Creator with reverence for the earth, which is idolatry.

The relationship of creation to the Creator is one of contingency and marked by total dependency. The world owes its origins to God, and it continues to exist only because God sovereignly upholds and sustains it by His Word and the Holy Spirit. In Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17), which points to a Creator-God who is engaged and involved in the running of the universe.

This goes against the deistic notion that the Creator, after bringing the universe into being, maintains an essentially hands-off policy vis-à-vis the universe. Thankfully, God in His mercy sovereignly ensures that all the physical conditions necessary for human life are in place and in full functioning order for the sake of His creation.

In this sense, we may understand the universe not merely as a fait accompli, a once-for-all act, but as one that continues to come into being over time under the superintending hand of God. The early church theologians describe this as a creatio continua, a continuous creation. While creatio ex nihilo underscores God’s transcendent otherness, creatio continua points to God’s immanent presence and work within creation.

Through an act of divine deliberation, God created all things and then upholds and guides it to its intended end. God did not need to create the world. There was no external compulsion that made the creation of humankind and everything else in the universe necessary. He did so freely, as an act of love.

God keeps His own counsel as to why He lovingly and freely created the world in the first place. What we know from Scripture is that creation was meant to glorify God, to declare His power and display His attributes (Ps. 19:1; 33:6-9; Rm. 1:19-20). Creation is as such purposive, and, as shall see below, teleological in the sense of creation finding its destiny in Christ.

This coheres with what we know from the Genesis creation account, that the Creator “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31; cf. 1 Tim. 4:4-5). This strong affirmation of the goodness of the physical cosmos goes against all forms of Gnosticism and Manicheanism that elevate the spiritual at the expense of the bodily and physical.

Christians celebrate the creation goodness of the earth. For this reason, there is impetus for the scientific exploration of the wonders and mysteries of the natural world. At the same time, we acknowledge that humans are created as embodied beings who relate to God spiritually in and through the physicality of their bodily life.

The world today on this side of Eden is not what it is supposed to be. Yet despite the distortive effects of sin, God has not allowed His good intentions for creation to be derailed. In Christ, God has begun the process of reversing the effects of sin on creation and redeeming disobedient humanity. A true doctrine of creation is thus irreducibly Christological. In Christ, fallen creation will be restored and creation’s destiny finally realised.


 

Rev Dr Mark Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC). He teaches hermeneutics, homiletics and other theological subjects at TTC.

Serious Thoughts About Humour

September 2017 Pulse

One of the most distinctive features of being human is the ability of this species to laugh, that is, its ability to create and enjoy humour. This is an ability that other animals – including the primates – do not possess, and any action or reaction that may resemble human laughter in these creatures is simply illusory.

The phenomenon of humour has exercised the minds of philosophers since time immemorial, resulting in the proliferation of different theories.

In Plato’s famous dialogue Philebus, Socrates – Plato’s teacher – takes a negative view of humour by arguing that the real object of laughter is the ‘ridiculous’. The ridiculous in this context is the ignoramus who thinks that he is wise. Thus, as Adrian Bardon puts it, for Socrates ‘laughter results from a feeling of pleasure at seeing others suffer the misfortune of being deluded about their own wisdom’.

This approach to humour – described rather pedestrianly as the superiority theory – is perpetuated by Plato’s student, Aristotle, who in Nicomachean Ethics jettisons all humour except the humour that exposes irrationality. The most celebrated modern proponent of this approach is Thomas Hobbes, who maintains that humour is our amused response to the inferiorities or absurdities of others.

The philosophers who reject this theory of humour – among them, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Søren Kierkegaard – argue that although humour indeed has to do with responding to absurdities, but not that of other people, especially the ignorant. Rather humour is the response to absurdities in ideas and in life experiences that frustrate our intellectual expectations.

Thus Kant could write that ‘laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing’. But perhaps it is Schopenhauer who expresses it best when he states that ‘the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity … All laughter then is occasioned by a paradox’.

Whichever theory we may find to be more convincing, what is clear is that only certain creatures, endowed with certain attributes and capabilities, have the capacity for humour. Only rational creatures that possess consciousness – however one may choose to define or describe it – that are aware not only of their environment, but are also self-aware, have the capacity for humour and the ability to laugh.

As Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks have pointed out, ‘Humour is possible only for agents whose belief systems manifest hierarchical cognitive richness’. This means that only the human being – made to image his Creator – that has the capacity to make sense of itself and of things around it, is capable of humour.

As LaFollette and Shanks explain (with a touch of humour – pun intended!): ‘We recognise that the dullest normal human can see humour which even the most talented bullfrog would miss. The human not only has more beliefs than the bullfrog (if the bullfrog has any beliefs at all); the nature and complexity of those beliefs differ’.

Any belief is complex because it is always embedded in an intricate web of other beliefs. As Donald Davidson explains: ‘I can believe a cloud is passing before the sun, but only because I believe there is a sun, that clouds are made of water vapour, that water can exist in liquid and gaseous form; and so on without end’.

Human beings not only have what philosophers call ‘first-order beliefs’ – beliefs about the world which they inhabit. Human beings also have beliefs about their first-order beliefs, that is, humans are capable of ‘higher-order’ beliefs that give them some predictive powers and the ability to assess the situation in which they find themselves.

Only such beings may be said to possess ‘a sense of humour’, that is, that ability to see their circumstances in a particular way that enables them (and others like them) to laugh at their predicament.

Or as the psychologist and philosopher Raymond Moody explains: ‘A person with a “good sense of humour” is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. He views life from an altered perspective in which he can laugh at, yet remain in contact with and emotionally involved with people and events in a positive way’.

The relationship between language, perception and humour is crucial. Not only is it impossible to severe humour from language (understood, of course, in the broadest possible sense), it in fact directly springs from it. This means that only that linguistic animal, the homo sapien, is capable of humour.

Because humour is dependent on perception and language, it is always relational and irreducibly so. Humour, write LaFolletter and Shanks ‘is inherently relational – no event, person or thing is intrinsically humorous … It depends upon the circumstances, the teller (if there is one), the current belief s of the listeners (or viewers), and the relationship (if any) between the teller and the listener’.

But this also means that humour is always context-dependant, and contingent upon the beliefs of the listener.

Although humour can be said to be an important aspect of our humanity and should therefore be valued, many philosophers have also pointed to its important uses. They argue that humour is often employed as a means of ‘liberation’ from threat and as a coping mechanism.

These philosophers see the value of humour in liberating us from certain pressures and vexations by poking fun and laughing at the very things that are normally viewed as threatening and constrictive. As Norman Holland explains: ‘we can state the disposition the other way around, calling the purpose of laughter not so much as glorifying of the self as the minimizing of the distresses menacing the self’.

In the psychoanalytic tradition, Sigmund Freud saw humour as a kind of defense strategy or coping mechanism. This has led others in the tradition to even describe humour as a ‘courage mechanism’, due to its ability to contend with the unpleasant aspects of reality without denying or ignoring the need to confront them (that is, by being escapist).

As the British philosopher Roger Scruton has put it so eloquently, ‘Laughter helps us to overcome our isolation and fortifies us against despair’.




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.

 

Enchanted by ‘Magic Bullets’?

September 2017 Feature

This brief essay attempts to describe a phenomenon which seems to be fairly widespread in the churches of Singapore. It represents an outsider perspective: I am a British citizen and PR who has lived in Singapore for 18 years. It should be read in that light.

The last fifty years of Singapore’s history have largely been a success story.

Singapore is a small island with almost no natural resources. But over the past few decades, and due in large part to the vision of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and those who worked with him, Singapore has become a major business hub, one of the most prosperous nations of the world. Plans were made, goals were set, decisions were taken – and Singapore underwent an astonishing transformation.

Singapore’s national success seems to have rubbed off on the Singaporean church: Christians here in general expect to succeed, to make progress in their walk with God, and to see their churches grow. There is much to praise in this outlook, much from which churches in the West could learn.

But the question arises: what if the expected success does not materialise? What if the church does not grow and church life seems to stagnate? What happens when Christians feel that they have been spiritually ‘stuck’ for years on end, still troubled by the same sins, with no clear signs of growth? At this point it seems that some Singaporean Christians reach for ‘magic bullets’.

What is a ‘magic bullet’? It can be a prayer, a book, a spiritual practice, a church programme, a new teaching, a particular preacher who is believed to be especially anointed by God. It can be something – anything – that is presented to Christians as a means of bringing about swift transformation in their walk with God. A ‘magic bullet’, in other words, is a spiritual ‘quick fix’.

Readers may remember the Prayer of Jabez. In 1 Chronicles 4:10 we read: ‘Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.’

Fifteen years ago in Singapore that prayer was on everyone’s lips: books were written about it; sermons were preached. Pray this prayer, it was said, and God will bless you and ‘enlarge your border’. But the Prayer of Jabez has gone out of fashion.

More recently, there was the ‘40 Days of Purpose’ programme. A number of churches here committed themselves to that programme a few years back. Maybe there was real growth in those churches as a result. But these days one doesn’t hear so much about the ‘40 Days’.

Think, too, of those books on sale in Christian bookshops, books with a smiling man or woman on the cover, and the implicit message: ‘I’ve made it as a Christian; buy this book and you can be as successful as me (with God’s help)’.

‘End times’ teachings may also fall into this category: teachings which focus on the contemporary fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and whose message is, ‘Keep your eyes on the Middle East!’ Here the ‘quick fix’ element consists in a new perspective which (it is claimed) will thrillingly transform our understanding of what God is doing in the world these days.

For many years now, these and other ‘magic bullets’ have been ricocheting around Singaporean churches. Perhaps pastors should occasionally address this issue. A simple word at the end of a sermon might help many to see things more clearly:

‘Why are you so attracted by “magic bullets”? You feel, perhaps, that you’re not making progress as a Christian, that you’re not coping; that you’ve been stuck in the same place for too long.

‘But are you still reading your Bible? Do you pray, and do you sometimes see answers to your prayers? Do you worship regularly with God’s people? Do you seriously try to live out what you’re taught in church? Do you confess your sins to God, and ask God’s help in overcoming them?

‘Are you a person of integrity? In your workplace do you aim to conduct yourself as a Christian should? Are you faithful to your spouse? Are you loyal to your parents? Are you a good parent yourself? In short, are you trying to live the Christian life?

‘If you can answer those questions “Yes” (knowing that you fall short sometimes), then don’t be too concerned about what you may see as your failure to make progress. Maybe God is better pleased with you than you think.

‘Don’t make spiritual success an idol. Perhaps God wants to keep you in the same place for a while, so that you can learn that spiritual growth comes from Him, and is not something that you can generate by yourself.

‘Or maybe you are making progress without your being aware of it. There may not have been any spectacular changes in your life. But perhaps, as you have sought to remain faithful to God in the daily, weekly and yearly round of your life, your character has been transformed. Perhaps over the years the image of Christ has been taking shape in you, without your being aware of it.’

‘Why not leave the magic bullets for those who hunt vampires? You don’t need them.’

Readers may have gathered that this issue is something of a personal hobby horse. But I have not written this article primarily to ‘get something off my chest’, still less with the aim of offending brothers or sisters in Christ. I write out of a concern that some Christians in Singapore, out of a worthy desire for spiritual growth, are looking for help in the wrong places, and maybe troubling their consciences unnecessarily as the ‘magic bullets’ fail to bring the promised transformation.

I invite my readers to consider whether they agree, wholly or in part, with this ‘outsider’ perspective and, if they do agree, to reflect on what the appropriate response might be.


 

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.

Repentance and Forgiveness

September 2017 Credo

Reader’s Question: Does the Bible teach that Christians should forgive the unrepentant?

Christians are commanded to forgive because they worship the God who forgives. In Matthew 6:15, we read: ‘… if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’.

But are Christians required to forgive those who have wronged them even if the offenders remain unrepentant? What, if any, is the relationship between forgiveness and repentance?

Christians are divided on this issue. Some Christian writers, like R. T. Kendall, believe that forgiveness should be given unconditionally, even to offenders who are not repentant and who continue in their offense.

However, the majority of Christian theologians and spiritual writers maintain that forgiveness should only be extended to offenders who are truly repentant. Based on passages like Ephesians 4:32, where Paul exhorts his readers to forgive ‘one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, they maintain that we should forgive as God forgives (See also Colossians 3:13).

How does God forgive? It is clear in Scripture that God does not forgive the stiff-necked and unrepentant sinner. In fact, the Bible explicitly teaches that only the repentant will receive divine forgiveness and the blessings of salvation (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 3:19).

There are numerous passages in the NT that underscore that forgiveness is premised on repentance. For example, in Luke 17:3 we read these words of Jesus: ‘Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him’.

In this passage, the subjunctive ‘if’ (Greek: ean) sets the condition for forgiveness. This passage therefore clearly teaches that forgiveness should always be conditioned upon repentance.

Matthew 18:15-17 helps us to look at this issue from another angle. Here Jesus gives specific instructions on how to deal with a member of the community (suggested by the descriptor ‘brother’) who has sinned.

Several attempts must be made to convince the person of his sin, but if all these attempts fail and the offender refuses to listen and repent, ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (v 17).

In Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community, ‘Gentile’ denotes ‘heathen’. ‘Tax collector’ is here used as a derogatory term since the Jews despise people in this profession. Commenting on the force of Jesus’ injunction, Donald Hagner writes: ‘Thus the unrepentant offender is not simply put out of the community but categorized as among the worst sort of persons’.

This passage again stresses that forgiveness is only offered to the repentant sinner.

Christians who maintain that forgiveness is not dependent on repentance but must be extended unconditionally to the offender often point to Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Kendall, for instance, argues that Jesus asked God to forgive the people who crucified him without expecting them to first repent of their wrongdoings. Of Jesus’ executioners Kendall writes: ‘There was not only an utter absence of repentance, but also total contempt’.

Jesus’ prayer should not be understood as an anomalous departure from the general biblical principle that forgiveness must be preceded by repentance. As the NT scholar Noval Gledenhuys has shown, Jesus’ prayer demonstrates his ‘earnest longing that his persecutors should be given another chance to repent before otherwise inevitable judgement is executed on their sins!’

Jesus is the very embodiment of that unconditional love that the Bible calls agape, a love that is extended even to one’s enemies. It was this agapic love that compelled Jesus to pray for his torturers and executioners (Cf., Matthew 5:44).

The Dutch NT scholar William Hendricksen paraphrases Jesus’ prayer thus: ‘In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully’.

Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, emulated his Lord when he prayed ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ just before he died at the hands of his persecutors (Acts 7:60).

Jesus’ prayer therefore does not breach the principle that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Rather it shows his magnanimity and willingness to forgive his executioners.

The prayer therefore teaches us that Christians must be always willing to forgive their offenders when they repent. This brings us back to the Lucan passage discussed above. Luke 17:4 reads: ‘and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent”, you must forgive him’. To love with agapic love is to be always willing to forgive.

In doing so, we are imaging our gracious God, who is always willing to forgive us of our sins when we confess them in penitence (1 John 1:9).

However, to offer forgiveness without repentance is to cheapen grace itself, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has perceptively pointed out when he wrote: ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance’. Unconditional forgiveness also devalues the theological and spiritual significance of repentance.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness often argue that if we refuse to forgive the offender unless he repents, we will be weighed down with hatred and mired in bitterness. While this can certainly be true for some people, it is not necessarily the case.

Christians are called to love everyone (even their enemies) unconditionally regardless of whether they express remorse for their wrongdoing. It is possible to love someone in the biblical sense (i.e., with agapic love), with a love that is never resentful (1 Corinthians 13:5), even when an unsettled issue continues to persist.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness have wrongly conflated the command to love others (which is unconditional) and the command to forgive one’s offenders (which is conditional). Or, they have wrongly assumed that to love someone in the biblical sense necessarily requires Christians to automatically and unconditionally forgive their offenders.

The ultimate goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, the healing of relationship. This is just not possible if there is no repentance on the part of the wrongdoer, that is, if the offender denies that he has committed an offense or if he does not show remorse.


 


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.