Monthly Archives: July 2018

Back to the Basics

July 2018 Pulse

The last three decades have seen a slew of books on basic Christianity. A simple search on Amazon.com would yield titles like Christianity 101 (1993), Basic Discipleship (1992), and Christianity: The Basics (2014). These books receive their inspiration from their celebrated predecessors, namely, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (1952) and John Stott’s Basic Christianity (1958).

The main purpose of these books – as their titles reveal – is to state as succinctly as possible the fundamentals of the Christian faith and its most essential tenets. Their intended readers are either people who are interested in Christianity but are mystified by the varied accounts, or young Christians who wish to get a handle on the faith they have recently embraced.

These books, therefore, have a significant role to play in the spiritual and theological formation of young believers who wish to acquaint themselves with the doctrinal terrain of Christianity. But the habitual return to the basics may prove enlightening and refreshing even for more mature Christians.

What constitutes the basics of Christianity, its non-negotiable essence, is an important and inescapable question. How does one go about distinguishing the essential bits of the Christian faith that must be ‘canonised’, and the rest that should consequently be regarded as theological opinions that can be subjected to discussion and disagreement?

These questions must be carefully considered. This quest can go disastrously wrong if it is guided by false assumptions and alien canons.

In the early 20th century, a formidable group of German theologians led by the eminent Adolf von Harnack sought to recover what they described as the “essence of Christianity”. They wanted to repristinate a Christianity which, in their minds, had been distorted by Hellenistic philosophy.

To cut a long story short, Harnack and his followers began to peel off the husk of the ‘Hellenised’ theology of the Church in order to recover the kernel, namely, the simple teachings of Jesus Christ and His early followers.

The results of Harnack’s research were presented in a series of lectures in the University of Berlin in 1899 and 1900, and subsequently published as What is Christianity? (Das Wesen des Christentums) in 1901. This book, which is the modern re-statement of the essence of Christianity, became the inspiration for liberal theology in the 20th century.

Rejecting what he considered to be the metaphysical accretions of the historic creeds of the Church, Harnack maintains that the essence of Christianity has to do with the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and the ethic of love.

Harnack’s project is instructive because it shows us how not to look for the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Christianity’s essence cannot be sought by severing Scripture from its authoritative interpreter, the Church. Neither can it be sought by privileging the modern scientific worldview over the theological vision of the Church that was informed and shaped by Scripture itself.

In other words, to understand the essence of the Christian faith, one needs to take with utmost seriousness the very things that Harnack had rejected as farcical and redundant.

One needs to return to the historic ecumenical creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition – for they are, to use Luther’s fine expression, the “ground upon which the Christian Faith is laid”.

In the creeds, wrote Luther, “you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words”.

Basic Christianity, as presented by the creeds, has to do with non-negotiable truths about God and the world that the Word reveals, like the triunity of God, the incarnation of the second person of the Godhead, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the final judgement, and eternal life.

Going back to the basics of the faith should never be regarded as an exercise of simplifying the faith, as some writers seem to suggest. It is never reductionist. Rather, it is an attempt to discern the fullness and wonder of God, who in His revelation remains incomprehensible.

In returning again and again to the essence of the faith, we are brought ever deeper into the boundless and inexhaustible mystery of the One who is Love.


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

A Fitting Salvation

July 2018 Credo

10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering’ (Hebrews 2:10, NIV 1984)

The writer to the Hebrews uses a unique word — ‘fitting’ — to describe the salvation that has been brought to his church congregation (and to us). The Greek word eprepen (‘it was fitting’) covers a certain semantic range, but the meanings all centre on the notion of the suitability or propriety of an action or decision.

So in what way is our salvation, which involves the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his suffering, ‘fitting’?

Here in Hebrews, at least, our salvation is fitting given the theme of identification which runs through this chapter. If Jesus is to be the great forerunner of what humanity was meant to be as God intended (Heb. 2:8–9), then it is fitting that Jesus identifies with humanity. ‘11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family’, Heb. 2:11 reminds us. Of course, as Heb. 2:14–15 goes on to show, Jesus’ identification is not one of capitulation to the same forces of death and the devil that held us in slavery, but it is precisely the opposite: a victory.

The language of fittingness is similarly seen in the great church father Athanasius. In On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius argues for the fittingness of God’s salvation based on the connection between creation and the renewal of creation.

Because it is the Word that brought about creation (including humanity), Athanasius argues that it is entirely fitting that the ‘the renewal of creation [is] the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning’ (§1.4; 4.2–4).

To be sure, the need for renewal is brought about by man’s own fault and rebellion. Having turned away from God who is the supreme being, we are ‘everlastingly bereft … of being’, with death and corruption now as our lot (§4.5). God’s goodness would not allow man to remain in this state of corruption (§6). Thus, the Word of God, which at the beginning made everything out of nothing, should come to bring ‘the corruptible to incorruption’ (§7.4–5).

The above, Athanasius stresses, is a fitting action, because ‘being Word of the Father, … He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father’ (§7.5). And that is what the Word does — takes on a body of similar nature as ours, gives it to death in the place of all as an offering to the Father, in the process undoing the law (involving the ruin of mankind) and turning mankind towards incorruption again (§8.4).

The idea of the fittingness of God’s salvation is picked up again and expounded in Anselm’s classic work, Cur Deus Homo. Anselm differs from Athanasius in framing his discussion around the concept of a debt payment or recompense for sin instead of a renewal of creation. Notwithstanding the difference, he shares with Athanasius the conviction that only a perfect God-man can fittingly undertake the task of salvation.

Cur Deus Homo can be seen as one long substantial answer that Anselm gives to the central question raised by his interlocutor, Boso: ‘Given that God is omnipotent, by what necessity and reason did he assume the lowliness and weakness of human nature in order to restore human nature?’ (I.1)

Anselm’s answer centres on the notion of sin and that which is involved in making recompense for sin. If every rational creature ought to subject his or her will to God, sin is nothing other than the failure to render obedience that one owes to God, resulting in a dishonouring of God (I.11). For God to leave sin unpunished would be to leave sin in an unordered state (I.12, 13). That cannot be the outcome given the character of God.

To further compound the problem, Anselm adds that the recompense must be proportionate to the sin (I.20, 21). This means that even if mankind — were we able to — could honour God by fearing, loving and obeying him, that would count only as repayment to God for what we owed him in the first place if we had not sinned, and not as payment for the debt which we owe for having sinned (I.20). Specifically, this recompense (for having sinned) must be ‘something greater than everything other than God’. Effectively, this translates to the fact that only God can make this recompense (II.6).

The logic culminates in Anselm’s conclusion that it is therefore only fitting that a perfect God-man make this recompense, for it is one that only mankind owes and that only God can make (II.6, 7). That is what Jesus does. By laying down his own life for the honour of God, Jesus — as one of true humanity — pays on behalf of sinful humanity the recompense owed to God. Because there is no sin in Jesus, his death is neither obligated of him nor reckoned as his debt before God (II.11), thus Jesus’ death truly counts as the recompense needed.

To complete the triple A-list of theologians, I mention very briefly Aquinas. Aquinas in the Summa Theologica addresses this question ‘Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?’ at the head of all the questions he treats in considering the incarnation (ST III, q. 1, a. 1). His refreshing answer comes in the form of leveraging on the idea of divine goodness. Since the essence of goodness is to communicate itself to others, so it is fitting that this divine goodness is communicated in the best possible way to the creature; that best possible way being seen in the incarnation.

Taken together, four different perspectives are presented as to why our salvation involving the incarnation and suffering of our Lord is a fitting salvation. That the one who is to be humanity’s forerunner should fully identify with humanity (Hebrews), that the one who created is the one who would renew creation (Athanasius), that only a perfect God-man can pay the debt that mankind owes to God (Anselm), that divine goodness should be communicated to the creature (Aquinas), all provide us fitting reasons to praise our Heavenly Father for his grace bestowed upon us.

O what a fitting salvation!


Rev Dr Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.

Religion and Magic

July 2018 Credo

One of the most fascinating figures in Acts is Simon Magus, who made his appearance in Acts 8, where Luke gives an account of the founding of the church in Samaria. This enigmatic figure so enthralled the ancient world that his name is found even in the Gnostic texts, which tell extravagant and historically dubious tales about him.

According to Luke, when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, ‘he offered them money, saying: “Give me this power also, so that anyone whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’. Apart from the fact that Simon thought that the power of the Spirit could be monetised, and therefore bought and sold, he also believed that it is a force that can be transferred from one person to another.

This has led some to argue that Simon thought that the power the apostles displayed was no different from that of the master sorcerer. The figure of Simon Magus therefore raises questions about the troubling relationship between religion – especially Christianity – and magic.

In their insightful study entitled, Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft Rebecca and Philip Stein define magic as the methods that ‘somehow interface with the supernatural and by which people can bring about particular outcomes’. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes magic as a primitive form of technology.

Although magic is profoundly distinct from religion, the two have sometimes been wedded together in a syncretistic mix, as many sociological and anthropological studies have shown. One clear example is the blending of Christianity and voodoo in Haiti.

Although evangelical Christians in Haiti have condemned this unholy marriage, evangelicalism in the West – especially in America – is not spared from similar toxic miscegenations.

Both Edward Tyler and James Frazer maintain that magic has to do with belief in impersonal forces. As a form of ‘technology’, magic seeks to harness the occult forces and channel them in such a way that the goals of the magician are served.

We find the same idea embedded in the concept of faith promoted by the teachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. Thus, Kenneth Hagin – the alleged founder of this heresy – could instruct his followers to ‘Have faith in your faith’.

Comparing spiritual laws with natural ones, Hagin writes: ‘Just as you get into contact with those natural laws or put them into practice they work for you. Over in the spiritual realm the same thing is true’. This means that faith, for Hagin, has nothing to do with God – it is reduced to a technique that will produce the desired results when properly employed.

Hagin could therefore conclude that with correct use of the technique even unbelievers would get the same results: ‘…I’d see unsaved people getting results. Then it dawned on me what the sinners were doing: they were cooperating with … the law of faith’.

Writing on Wiccan magic, Philip Stein describes how visualizations are often used by practitioners to awaken and concentrate power so that it can be ‘set to effect a particular goal …’

In his 1902 book, The History and Power of Mind (published by Occult Book Concern) Richard Ingalese provides arguably the clearest insight into the power of mental visualization when he writes: ‘If you desire success, social position, any spiritual, mental or physical thing, it can be gained by simply creating and holding the picture in your mind’. ‘The constant or frequent vibration which your thought causes sets the Universal Consciousness surrounding you and your picture into action’, Ingalese explains.

Accompanying the creative energies that come with visualisation is the power of positive confession, a technique used by magicians and Word of Faith proponents alike. This idea is nicely summarised by Essek William Kenyon – whom some regard as the true founder of the Word of Faith movement – who boldly declared: ‘What I confess, I possess’.

In New Thought Metaphysics, both visualisation and positive confession work on the principle of the ‘law of attraction’, which is a form of mental magnetism. Mind-power, according to proponents, is the most potent energy force in the universe, which when properly directed can bring about circumstances and realities that previously did not exist.

When this idea is ‘christened’ by faith teachers like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, the concept of ‘creative faith’ is invented. We are created in the image of the Creator God. Thus, so the argument goes, we too have the power to create by our faith-filled thoughts and words.

The historian of metaphysics Catherine Albanese describes this as mental magic (as opposed to material magic) because it uses vision, imagination, and words believing that external events could be controlled by thoughts and words.

Through the influences of theosophists like Helena Blasvatsky (1831-1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and New Thought advocates like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), such practises have long taken root in esoteric sects and cults like the Swedenborgians and Christian Science.

They have also made their way into heretical movements associated with evangelical-charismatic Christianity in America such as like Latter Rain, Health and Wealth Teaching and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Syncretism is always a real and present danger in Christianity. Paul warned the Colossian Christians about this danger in a letter written almost two millennia ago (Colossians 2:8-14).

That warning has to be taken just as seriously by Christians in the twenty-first century who have to contend with a plethora of diverse and enticing expressions of religiosity and spirituality. A Christian who is not grounded in Scriptures and the fundamental tents of the Church could, like Simon Magus, very easily confuse magic (which has to do with harnessing occult power for selfish ends) with true religion (which has to do with glorifying God through humble obedience to 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.

Liberal Authoritarianism

July 2018 Pulse

In its April 10, 1993 issue The Washington Post reported Dr Ben Carson’s withdrawal as commencement speaker at Johns Hopkins University due to students’ concerns about his view regarding marriage.

In an email to the dean of the medical school, Carson writes: ‘Given all the national media surrounding my statements as to my belief in traditional marriage, I believe it would be in the best interest of the students for me to voluntarily withdraw as your commencement speaker this year’.

More recently, students from Notre Dame University walked out as Vice President Mike Pence gave his commencement speech, while the audience at Bethune-Cookman University booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during her speech.

This has led CNN host Fareed Zakaria to decry the ‘anti-intellectualism’ and intolerance of the left. ‘American universities seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity’, he is reported to have said. ‘Conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely’.

These incidents are but the tip of the iceberg. They point disconcertingly to the hegemony and authoritarianism of modern liberalism, the coercive politics of the left.

Classical liberalism is an intellectual tradition that invests heavily in the two political ideals of equality and liberty. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom philosophers like Roger Scruton have christened as the first and greatest liberal, believed passionately in both these ideals. The same can be said of the liberal manifesto set out by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.

Classical liberals like Rousseau may not have always been successful in giving equal weight to these ‘sacred’ ideals, but they have always scrupulously tried not to favour one at the expense of the other.

With modern liberalism, however, a subtle but significant shift may be discerned. As Scruton points out, ‘the present-day American “liberal” tends to sacrifice liberty for equality when the two conflicts’.

But Scruton has I think put the matter rather too mildly. The truth is that equality has become the central tenet of progressive liberalism, an ideal that trumps freedom. In privileging equality over freedom modern liberalism has not only signalled its ideological departure from the classical expression. It has also inspired a fascistic creed that ridicules the very meaning and essence of liberalism itself.

What, then, is the left’s understanding of equality? Or, as former assistant U.S. Secretary of State Kim R. Holmes puts it even more sharply: ‘What is it about how liberals think of equality that makes them so prone to recommend authoritarian policies to achieve it – confiscatory tax policies, campus speech codes, fining pastors, and the like?’

It appears that the new liberals have favoured a rather skewed concept of equality, one that sanctions and energises its politics of intolerance and coercion. In his book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind (2016) Holmes argues that modern liberals work with the notion of inequality that sees the slightest difference in how certain groups fare in our society as an injustice.

Hence same-sex couples are perceived as victims of unequal treatment (and therefore of injustice) because their unions are not regarded as marriages. A boy suffering from gender dysphoria is seen as a victim of social inequality (and ipso facto of injustice) if the school does not allow him to use the ladies toilet.

In its attempt to actualise its radical egalitarianism in society, the new left believes that it is engaged in nothing short of a political and cultural revolution, and the only way to assure success is to employ aggressive and coercive methods. As Holmes has arrestingly put it, ‘If you want to transform society, as gay activists and even President Obama want to do, then clearly some eggs will have to be broken to make an omelet’.

To be sure, the politics of the new left cannot be said to be a mirror image of the old totalitarianisms. However, as writers like Holmes have pointed out, it is plainly evident that ‘they are willing to dip into the totalitarians’ illiberal tool box’ to achieve their goals.

It goes without saying that leftists are willing to use the powers of the ‘technocratic’ state to push their agendas. In this sense, they display the familial traits of thinkers like Rousseau, who through the mechanism of the social contract, has vested enormous power in the government to ensure that the freedom of citizens are protected, their equality secured and justice is served – regardless the view of the majority.

Modern liberals therefore celebrate state-dictated social engineering programmes like same-sex marriage, affirmative action and open borders – just to name a few.

According to its rhetoric, all these are undertaken in the name of ‘social justice’ and for the sake of the alleged ‘victims’ (defined according to their vision of an egalitarian society). But in reality, these programmes are designed to undermine the kind of social order the left refuses to tolerate.

Christians should be especially wary of the illiberal liberals because they are frequently on the receiving end of much of their intolerance. In his book The Intolerance of Tolerance (2013), D. A. Carson rightly observes that a ‘disproportionate part of the intolerance that masks itself as (the new) tolerance is directed against Christians and Christianity’.

The liberal authoritarians are crusaders against every form of bigotry, except their own.

If bigotry is a negative bias against persons because of their association with a group cast in a negative stereotype, then, as Holmes points out, the ‘progressive liberals have got a problem’. ‘They have developed a bigoted attitude that dare not speak its name – that is, anti-Christianity, or to use a progressive turn of phrase, “Christophobia”’.

Examples of leftist bigotry against Christians are not hard to find.

Christians oppose same-sex marriage because they hold that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But the left insists that Christians reject same-sex marriage because they hate homosexuals. Christians oppose abortion because of their strong view regarding the sanctity of human life. The left, however, accuses them of using pro-life rhetoric to deprive women of their rights.

‘Without the slightest bit of self-awareness, or even irony’, Holmes writes, ‘progressive liberals today regularly make negative stereotypes of Christians that, if they were directed against blacks, would make a white supremacist smile’.

Christians must never be afraid of the authoritarianism of the left or be cowed or paralysed by the venom of its attacks. Christians should stand their ground and continue to courageously speak and embody the truth in obedience to the Word of God.

Christians should take heed of the admonition of Peter to the believers in Asia Minor: ‘… do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence’.

‘Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (1 Peter 3:14-16).



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

A Common Platform

July 2018 Feature

For anyone living in this century, it is evident that one of the contemporary issues facing the world today is that of religious diversity. From the perspective of a Christian, the question of the role of other religions is especially acute given the ultimate claims to truth and salvation that Jesus Christ has made.

However, this phenomenon of multiple religious traditions is not a new one. The books of the Old Testament were written during times when peoples of other faiths surrounded the nation of Israel. The same holds true for the New Testament when Greco-Roman religions proliferated alongside the newly established religion of Christianity.

In some ways, this necessity to learn how to understand other religions is not unique to the Christian faith.  Every major world religion in its history has had to grapple with the existence of the “others” ever since they become conscious of the existence of one another. Each tradition has had to learn to navigate its way through its social, historical and religious contexts.

The contemporary theologian of religions, Harold Netland, has pointed out that it is increasingly important for Christians in the twenty-first century to respond to the changing religious landscape. He asserts it is possible for Christians to be firmly committed to Christ as Lord and be responsible citizens in their own countries. At the same time, he calls for new ways for Christians to respond to the other faiths rather than merely repeating the practices of the past.

As different religions attempt to co-exist, co-operate or even compete with one another for converts, it is crucial that a shared framework or language be found to avoid misunderstandings. This is especially so given there is always some level of incommensurability to religions. Words such as “God” and “salvation” can mean very different things to a Christian or a Buddhist.

The scholar of religion and philosopher, Robert McKim, has proposed that when it comes to determining what he calls “attitudes to and beliefs about others,” it is helpful to note the ranges of positions that one may adopt. He proposed that for any religion, its self-understanding with respect to another tradition can be classified under one of the following categories. That it is:

  1. The only tradition that is any good in the relevant respect
  2. The tradition that is better than other traditions in the relevant respect
  3. A tradition that is as good as other traditions in the relevant respect

These constitute the starting points for what is commonly known in the field of theology of religions as the traditional three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist positions respectively. McKim also argues that this schema is suitable not only for theistic faiths but non-theistic ones too.

If that is so, then by utilizing a common vocabulary of terms and conceptual structure, this may allow the various traditions to participate in a form of dialogue that promotes understanding of the other. While it may not wholly nullify the difficulties to attempt to read another using only its categories, it could represent an initial step towards reducing isolationism and enhancing greater concordance.

The typology proposed above may be used with respect to issues of truth and salvation. It may also be employed concerning other matters, such as the ethical guidance provided in each religion.

While some Christian scholars have argued that the tri-fold typology which was initially proposed by Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa is skewed towards pluralism, subsequent analysis by others have shown it is, in fact, a relatively neutral logical construct that each respective position could claim to be biased in or against its stance.

Also, despite these objections, since its first proposal in the 1960s, the tri-polar schema has continued to play a significant role within Christian theology for scholars to clarify their assertions. In addition, while many other competing proposals have been put forth, none seems to be capable of replacing the traditional proposition, as seen in the recent numerous scholarly articles that continue to argue based on, either explicitly or implicitly, its underlying logical structure.

It is possible that this analytical framework could be one of the tools that the Christian tradition may offer to the broader world of inter-religious understanding, given that it was developed within itself and undergone robust discussion. As an Adjunct Lecturer at the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) for a post-graduate course entitled “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” I have found it serves as a common platform for students from various religious backgrounds to discuss features of their faiths vis-à-vis another as part of the M.Sc program.


 

Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.