Monthly Archives: February 2018

‘All Israel Will Be Saved’

February 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: What does Paul mean when he said that ‘All Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26)?

In Romans 11, Paul deals with the salvation of the Gentiles in relation to the mystery of Israel’s election. Using the vivid imagery of tree husbandry, Paul speaks of Gentiles being grafted into the olive tree – a metaphor for Israel – even as the original branches are broken off due to unbelief.

In verse 25, however, Paul issues a caution to the Gentiles, lest they be conceited. The partial hardening that had come upon Israel, he asserts, will persist only until ‘the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’ (verse 25). It is in this way, Paul says in verse 26, that ‘all Israel will be saved’.

Scholars have debated on what Paul could have meant by the phrase ‘all Israel’. Did the Apostle think that every single Jew that had ever lived will in the end be the recipient of divine salvation? Should ‘Israel’ in this passage be understood in terms of ethnicity alone?

In order to understand what Paul meant by ‘Israel’ in 11:26, we need to refer to his statements in 9:6-8. There, the apostle makes it very clear that when he speaks of Israel he has in mind, not simply ethnic Jews, but ethnic Jews who are, in his words, ‘the children of promise’ also (9:8).

Paul makes the important distinction between ethnic Jews and those who have faith in God and his promises when he writes, rather straightforwardly, that ‘not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring’ (9:6b-7).

‘Not all who are of Israel is Israel’. This statement indicates that there is an ethnic Israel and a true Israel. Only the Israelites or Jews who live by faith in the divine promises may be said to belong to the latter. But, he goes on to argue, it is because there is indeed a true Israel that God’s rejection of Israel is not complete – there is a remnant that will be recipients of God’s promised salvation.

This brings us back to 11:25-26. Here, the juxtaposition of ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ and ‘all Israel’ is exegetically significant. Just as the expression ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ does not suggest that all Gentiles will be saved but only those who would put their faith in Christ, so the expression ‘all Israel’ does not refer to all Jews.

Thus, the Reformed theologian Louis Berkhoff is right in stating that ‘“All Israel” is to be understood as a designation not of the whole nation, but of the whole number of the elect out of the ancient covenant people …’

Putting the same point across slightly differently, the New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce maintains that ‘all Israel’ does not mean ‘every Jew without a single exception’, but ‘Israel as a whole’.

‘All Israel’ therefore does not refer to every Jew; it certainly does not refer to the modern secular state of Israel.

The question that must be addressed at this point is: On what basis are the Jews saved? Must Jews put their faith in Jesus Christ in order to be included in God’s kingdom? Or are there two paths to salvation – one for Jews, and another for Gentiles?

Some Christians are of the view that Jews do not need to put their faith in Christ in order to be saved. The covenant that God had made with them, they argue, is an enduring covenant. And as long as they are faithful to it, they will be saved.

In 2002, a group of scholars and theologians issued a statement entitled, ‘A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People’. Signatories include Lutheran theologians like Franklin Sherman and Roman Catholic theologians like Peter Phan.

The Statement insists – against the theology of supersessionism that states that the old covenant must give way to the new – that ‘God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever’.

‘With their recent realisation that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is eternal’, the Statement argues, ‘Christians can now recognise in the Jewish tradition the redemptive power of God at work. If Jews, who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ, are in a saving covenant with God, then Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ’.

What are we to make of this? I think the response to this view is found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans itself.

In Romans 9:1-3, Paul speaks of his ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ of heart over the situation of the Jews who have rejected the Gospel of Christ. So great was his concern over their salvation that Paul writes these moving words: ‘I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh’.

Paul said that he is willing to be cut off from Christ, if that would mean that his ‘kinsmen according to the flesh’ would be saved, that is, that they would put their faith in Christ and be found in him. For Paul (indeed, for the whole of the New Testament) there is only one means to eternal life – faith in Christ.

Addressing a primarily Jewish audience at Solomon’s Portico, the apostle Peter exhorts his hearers to ‘Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all things about which God spoke by the mouth of the prophet like me from your brothers’ (Acts 3:19-20).

Finally, there are some Christians who believe that immediately before or at the second coming of Christ, there will be a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity. Multitudes of Jews will suddenly acknowledge Jesus as Saviour. However, there is nothing in Romans 11 (or elsewhere) that supports this idea or theory.

Indeed, NT scholars like Tom Wright have rejected the idea that there will be a ‘large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’. Instead, Wright argues, ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith’.

Christians are called to bring the Gospel to everyone (Matthew 28:18-20). They are called to proclaim to Jews and non-Jews alike the wonderful Good News that salvation and eternal life can only be found in Jesus Christ.

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.

Migration and Justice

February 2018 Pulse 

Our world is currently facing a displacement crisis at an unprecedented scale.

In 2015 alone, more than 65 million people have been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution, over half of whom are under the age of 18. This tally is greater than the combined population of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

It must be recognised at the outset that forced migration is never a cause for celebration. These refugees, who out of desperation leave their own lands and cultures in the hope of attaining a safe and secure life, often endure untold hardships.

But the migration crisis has also created unique opportunities for people-smugglers vying to get a larger stake in the extremely lucrative sex trade. Additionally, extremist groups like Daesh have also taken advantage of this phenomenon to plant terrorists in unsuspecting host countries.

Countries like Australia have introduced strict measures to deter asylum seekers, and to detain those who arrive illegally at their shores. Over the years, Australia has proliferated detention centres in isolated locations like Baxter, Curtin, and Christmas Island. These detention facilities are so poorly run that Peter Young, the former chief psychiatrist of Australia’s detention centres, described them as “factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder”.

What would a Christian response to the pressing and complex migration crisis look like? What appropriate actions should governments take to ensure that genuine asylum seekers do not become victims of further injustice, humiliation, and suffering?

It must first be acknowledged that there is no consensus among Christians on this difficult and pressing issue.

On one end of the spectrum, there are Christians who advocate an open border policy, urging governments to allow the masses fleeing oppression free entry into their countries. On the other end, Christian restrictionists advocate tighter border control.

The Christian Scriptures offer penetrating insight into the modern migration crisis, even though the geo-political realities of its authors are radically different from ours.

The injunctions in the Old Testament concerning the proper treatment of the alien (i.e. foreigner) and sojourner are grounded in a profound theological anthropology articulated in the very first chapter of Genesis. Regardless of their ethnicity and social status, human beings are deserving of special dignity because they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

 In addition, the instruction to the Israelites to welcome the alien is accompanied by the clear reminder that their ancestors were once displaced people – slaves in Egypt and wanderers in the wilderness.

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Every time Christians read the Gospels, they are reminded that their Saviour and Lord Himself once lived as a refugee in Egypt because His own homeland was not safe (Matthew 2:13-15).

These passages of Scripture, together with the principles of solidarity, compassion, and the hospitality they inspire, shape the Christian moral vision of the human community. It is therefore impossible for Christians to turn a blind eye to asylum seekers.

In addition, Christians of every stripe have always emphasised the preferential option for the poor, which includes the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised.

While these moral principles are clear, the chaos of the modern migration crisis makes their application very challenging indeed.

But if displaced people are to get the justice they deserve, the international community must make every attempt to abide by these principles, even if the policies of individual countries may differ. By the same token, it would be immoral for any country to categorically refuse refugees for whatever reason.

This of course does not mean that countries should open their borders unconditionally and accept every refugee indiscriminately. While host countries should do their level best to receive asylum seekers, they have every right to regulate their borders and control the influx of immigrants.

The realism of the Christian approach to migration is expressed well by the American Bishops’ pastoral statement, Welcoming the Stranger: “While people have the right to move, no country has the duty to receive so many immigrants that its social and economic life is jeopardised.”

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.

Pope Francis and The Lord’s Prayer

February 2018 Credo

Recently, Pope Francis approved the move to change the English translation of a petition in the Lord’s Prayer. The change is made to the sixth petition from ‘Lead us not into temptation’ to ‘Don’t let me fall into temptation’.

Suggesting that the current translation is bad and misleading, the pontiff said: ‘It’s Satan who leads us into temptation … that’s his department’. ‘It is I who fall’, the pope explains further. ‘But it is not he [God] who pushes me into temptation’.

Bad translation might lead to bad theology. In this case, it might urge some to think that it is God who is directly responsible for enticing people to commit sins.

The Pope is surely right to disabuse anyone who is inclined to adopt such a view. God cannot tempt anyone to commit sin. He cannot be the author of evil.

Scripture is unequivocal in this. In James 1:13, we read: ‘Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one’. The reason for this assertion is clear: God, being perfectly good, is incapable of deceit and evil.

However, Scripture also tell us that ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’. Thus, although God does not (and cannot) tempt us, he sometimes does bring us into situations in which we will face temptations.

In fact, there is a sense in which temptations can never be totally avoided.

As Nicholas Ayo has rightly pointed out, ‘… everyday life leads everyone into temptations of one kind or another. All earthly life is a temptation to exaggerated self-love and self-importance without God. Even the right things can be done for the wrong reasons’.

Scholars agree that the Greek here is difficult to translate. It can mean both ‘do not allow us to enter into temptation’ and ‘do not let us yield to temptation’, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly points out. An older translation of this petition renders it as ‘Do not bring us into temptation’.

This has led some theologians to maintain that the second sense is meant in this petition, namely, ‘do not let us yield to temptation’. Read in this way, this is not a petition for God to shield the believer from temptation. Rather this is a plea that God would grant the believer the strength to persevere in temptation (James 1:12), so that he might not yield to or be led ‘into’ temptation – that is, so that he might not sin.

This petition therefore echoes the prayer of the Psalmist: ‘Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in the wicked deeds along with those who are evildoers’ (Psalm 141:4).

This is the way in which a number of Church Fathers have understood this petition. For example, Origen in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer notes that the petition has to do not with the avoidance of all temptation as such, but with the ability to resist and not be overpowered by them.

In the Old Latin text, this petition is rendered ne nos patiaris induci in tentationem, which can be translated as ‘do not suffer us to be led into temptation’. The main thrust of the petition, according to this rendering, is not that we be immunized from temptation, but that God will not allow the temptations that assail us to bring us to ruin.

Both Augustine and Jerome understood the petition in this way, namely, as a plea that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability. This recalls what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10: 13: ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it’.

Assured of God’s presence and protection, the believer who trusts in God in the midst of temptations and trials knows that ‘all things work together for good’ for those who love God and are called to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

In this way, the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is inextricably connected to the next: ‘But deliver us from evil’. Temptation, when yielded to, results in the evil of sin, that willful rebellion against God. Thus, the pleas that we should not be brought ‘into’ temptation and that we might be delivered from evil are of a piece.

The great Cappadocian theologian Gregory of Nyssa could therefore say that ‘temptation and the evil meant one and the same thing’.

Augustine, however, offers a slightly different perspective by arguing that the sixth petition (‘Lead us not into temptation’) has to do with the preservation from evil, while the seventh petition (‘Deliver us from evil’) is a plea for God to rescue us when we are already in the jaws of evil.

However one interprets these petitions, their profound relationship to one another cannot be denied – the one sheds light on the other.

This way of understanding the sixth petition does not in any way diminish the sovereign agency of God, as some have argued. Rather, it underscores the fact that God is in control even of the evil that he does not desire or will, and that he can use the things that are inimical or antithetical to his own intentions to serve his purposes.

So, what should we make of the Pope’s suggested change in the English translation?

The proposal to change ‘Lead us not into temptation’ to ‘Don’t let me fall into temptation’ is, in my view, uncontroversial and not at all theologically problematic.

In fact, one English translation of the Protestant Bible (The Living Translation – first edition, 1996) has nicely captured the essence of the Pope’s interpretation of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer by rendering it as ‘And don’t let us yield to temptation’.

This translation more accurately captures the meaning of the sixth petition, and how the representative theologians of the Church since Origen have understood it.

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.

The Good Life

February 2018 Pulse 

I think it is true to say that every single human being – irrespective of his or her cultural background or worldview – is in pursuit of the good life. But when we probe what exactly is meant by ‘the good life’, we will get radically different answers.

For people who have been nurtured by a culture that has come in the grips of secularism and materialism, the good life is often defined in terms of affluence and prosperity. Put differently, the good life is viewed in terms of enjoying and benefitting from the best goods that modern society can offer.

Eschewing religion, modern secularists and humanists further insist that the good life is not the gift of a benevolent deity, but something which human beings have the power to achieve.

Commenting on the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, B. Ledewitz writes in his book Hallowed Secularism: ‘Traditional religion is seen as no longer adequate for that task but that is because the manifesto sees man as himself responsible for the achievement of the good life, which he has the power to accomplish’.

Ancient philosophers like Aristotle have perceptively pointed out that although people generally spend much time and energy pursuing wealth, success and power, these are ultimately not really the things that they want for themselves.

They strive to acquire these things only because they will give them something that they really want. And this ‘something’, this ultimate good, according to these ancient thinkers is happiness.

The happiness (Greek: eudemonia) that Aristotle – and before him Plato and Socrates – speaks of is not the fleeting and momentary feeling of pleasure that we moderns often associate with the word. Rather, it is a state of being that is at once rich and long lasting.

For Aristotle, such happiness can only be achieved by strenuous and even courageous effort. For some, it will take an entire lifetime. But as Aristotle was well aware, for many it is a goal that will remain distant, for some people are simply not suited to experience happiness in the full sense.

Although the great Christian writer, Augustine, who lived many centuries after Aristotle appreciated the philosopher’s understanding of the good life, his approach differed significantly. This is because Augustine’s vision of the good life was shaped by what the Bible and the Christian tradition have to say about God and our relationship with him.

In fact Augustine goes so far as to argue that no one is able to achieve the good life simply by striving after the goals set by pagan philosophers such as Aristotle. This not only shows the fundamental differences between Augustine’s understanding and approach from that of Aristotle. It also highlights the fact that for the theologian, Aristotle’s approach is ultimately inadequate because it fails to put into the equation an indispensable factor.

That factor is God. For Augustine, the good life is not focused on our aspirations and dreams. Rather it has to do with God and his purpose for our lives. Put differently, while Aristotle’s approach to the good life may be described as anthropocentric, Augustine’s approach is uncompromisingly theocentric.

For Aristotle, the good life is attained bit by bit, piece by piece as we negotiate not just our changing circumstances but also our desires and aspirations. For Augustine, however, the good life has to do foremost with our relationship with God. The good life is only possible and can only be sustained as long as rational creatures continue in this vital relationship.

This means that all our other loves must be understood in light of our prior and complete love for God. This means that our greater love for God must define and determine all our other loves. Our relationships must be disciplined and ordered by our relationship with God.

Augustine warns that even good and noble things can distract us from loving God. Furthermore, for Christians even the virtues that the ancient philosophers (before Augustine) valorise must not be understood in abstraction from our love for God.

‘Temperance is love preserving itself whole and entire for God. Fortitude (courage) is love readily enduring all things for God. Justice is love that serves only God and, for this reason, correctly governs other things that ate subject to a human being’, writes Augustine.

This brings us to the radicalness of the Christian understanding of what it means to live the good life. Because Christian happiness is not based on our circumstances and achievements but on faith in God, it is not easily affected by the storms of life.

The Christian can ‘rejoice in the Lord, always’ (Philiphians 4:4). He or she can ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

The radicalness of the Christian understanding is again presented in the provocative and counterintuitive statements of Jesus in the famous Beatitudes. Here, Jesus turns our understanding of happiness on its head when he declares that the meek, the merciful, the persecuted will be blessed or happy (Greek: makarios).

The good life, the life of blessedness and happiness, has to do not with the goods and comforts we can enjoy. Rather it has to do with the extent to which we, like Jesus, are willing to do the will of God our Father.

Such obedience to God often translates into serving our neighbours, especially those in need. Thus, the Christian understanding of what it means to live the good life is never inward looking and self-serving. Rather a good life is lived with due consideration to the well being of others around us.

This is articulated simply and movingly in a second century document, the Epistle to Diognetus:

But happiness is not to be found in dominating one’s fellows, or in wanting to have more than his weaker brethren, or in possessing riches and riding rough-shod over his inferiors. No one can become an imitator of God like that, for such things are wholly alien to his greatness. But if a man will shoulder another’s burden; if he is ready to supply another’s need from his own abundance; if, by sharing the blessings he has received from God with those who are in want, he himself becomes a good to those who receive his bounty – such a man is indeed an imitator of 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.

Resurgent Religiosity: a Problem or Opportunity?

February 2018 Feature

Concern over a Resurgent Religiosity

Every now and then, we hear persons expressing concern about the rising religiosity in Singapore and throughout the world. These commentators warn us that such a trend presents a significant threat to the peace, harmony and well-being of our society. They long for a strengthening of the secular ethos, which ensures that religious considerations remain effectively excluded from the public square.

This prevalent concern was expressed in a short letter entitled “Challenges in tackling exclusivism and rising religiosity” which appeared in the Straits Times Forum page on 24 Jan 2017. The author, Mr S. Ratnakumar, offered his view that “cultivating national identity, pride and loyalty will remain a challenge if the rising trend of religiosity is not reversed”. For Mr Ratnakumar (and others who share his opinion), we are currently engaged in a zero-sum game: If our devotion to our religious convictions is not watered down, our commitment to the well-being of our nation would be severely compromised.

First Response: Trend is Unlikely to be Reversed

We can make two responses to this position. The first is to say that the hope for the “rising trend of religiosity” to be “reversed” and for the secular ethos to be correspondingly strengthened is a rather forlorn one, given our current climate.

Secularism has its roots in the Western Enlightenment and the age of modernity, which the Enlightenment has spawned. It is based on the philosophical notion that reason is the final arbiter of what is true and good. A government operating according to the dictates of reason and guided by scientific findings (whether discovered through the hard sciences or social sciences) has therefore the right to determine the policies and rules of the nation.

Religions, on the other hand, are viewed by modernity as being involved not with matters of objective reason, but subjective beliefs and opinions. It follows that religions should have no influence over public matters. At best, they should be consigned to the private sphere of an individual’s system of belief.

It is, by now, trite to say that the age of modernity has, in many parts of the world, given way to the postmodern. To many, postmodernity has successfully exposed the myth of the neutrality and objectivity of our appeal to reason. It has shown that the way we reason and interpret our experiences is significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions. It has demonstrated that the boundaries between an “objective” fact established by reason and a “subjective” opinion or belief are not as clear-cut as we previously supposed.

With this dethroning of reason as the final arbiter of truth and morality, the foundations of secularism have been severely undermined. Those who appeal to reason as the basis for their fitness to rule will increasingly face the question, “Whose system of rationality are you relying on?”

This rebellion against the “reason” of the privileged class is exemplified in a comment made by former British minister Michael Gove, a key supporter of the Brexit movement. He was once asked whether there was even one reputable economist who supported the idea of Britain leaving the EU. His reply captured well the mood of the majority, “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

This weakening of secularism has been accompanied, in many places, by a rising religiosity—one which is increasingly dismissive of the boundaries placed upon religion by the age of modernity. This trend is likely to continue, given the continual dispelling of the mystical aura surrounding the “meta-narrative” of secularism, leading to the rise of other ways of conceiving our world and ordering our lives.

Second Response: A Resurgent Religiosity which Secures Public Well-Being  

What should our response be to the trend outlined above? Some will, no doubt, fall into despair and see a future in which our societies and nations inevitably fragment and descend into conflict.

There is, however, some cause for optimism. A resurgent religiosity represents not only a problem, but also an opportunity. Religious beliefs and values can contribute to the public well-being and strengthening of our national cohesion.

The major world religions are not monolithic systems. They have complex bodies of teaching, some of which pull in one direction, and others in another. Inevitably, there will be teachings about the need to exclude or even mistreat those on the outside. But if a religion is truly universal in scope, there will also be imperatives for its members to live in harmony with all human beings, and to respect and bless them, regardless of whether they are followers of that religion or not.

In fact, if one does a “postmodern” digging into the genealogy of the cherished values of secularism (e.g. freedom, justice, equality), we find that they arise out of religious roots. While outwardly rebelling against many aspects of their Christian heritage, the thought leaders of the Enlightenment were also (consciously or otherwise) drawing upon that heritage to advocate what should be true and right.

Religion, therefore, can be a potent force to promote justice and equality for all, as well as freedom and tolerance. The key lies in how the followers of the various religions make sense of the complexity of their faiths and the tensions contained within, in order to determine what truly is at the heart of their belief.

So, while every religion has its extremists who see their faith as mandating them to wreck death and destruction on outsiders, it also has adherents who seek to conceptualise their faith in a way which requires them to respect the rights of others to follow their own paths and to ensure that their interests and well-being are fully protected.

This second group is not made up of the religious “liberals” of a bygone age, who freely jettison key aspects of their belief in order to force their faith to fit into the procrustean bed of modernity. Rather, they are religiously conservative people, who find imperatives and resources within their faith traditions to work for the common good in their religiously diverse societies.

Their efforts represent our hope for the future. They deserve all the support and encouragement we can give them, as they struggle with the extremists in their party for the right to determine what their faith is about.

With the waning influence of secularism, we will probably have to learn to rely less on its norms to promote peace and the common good. The major world religions will have to do more to fill this gap, by providing the motivation, based on their particular teachings, for their followers to be loyal citizens of their countries and contributing members of their societies.

Will the resurgent religiosity of our time turn out to be a problem or opportunity? We pray with all our hearts that it will be a powerful impetus for peace, harmony and the well-being of all in our postmodern age.

Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.