Monthly Archives: January 2019

Clarifying Inter-faith Dialogue

January 2019 Pulse

In a recent interview published by The Straits Times, Mohammad Alami Musa, said that faith communities in Singapore ‘are still at the lower level of inter-religious engagement and discussion, unlike America, Canada or Britain, where the level of inter-religious dialogue and communications is advanced’.

The Head of Studies of the Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies added that ‘It is not enough for religious leaders to sit around and have a meal and bring the press in and take a photo of them drinking and eating together. That is good, but we need to go beyond that with regard to dialogue and conversation’.

Given the current global situation in which acts of atrocities and violence are repeatedly committed in the name of religion and where tensions between religious communities are at their tipping points, the call for faith communities to be more concerted in their efforts to foster friendly dialogue and engagement cannot be more urgent.

Christians should not shun such interfaith engagements, but should instead actively participate in them. Indeed, in the past 15 years or so, the National Council of Churches in Singapore has been actively involved in dialogue with other faith communities, especially the Muslim community (mostly through the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura or MUIS).

However, it is extremely important that we have a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of such interfaith conversations. There are a number of approaches to dialogue, proposed by religionists of a certain philosophical or theological persuasion (some of whom are Christians), that we should be quite critical of if we are to take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously.

For the orthodox Christian[1], dialogue cannot be conducted on the basis of the religious and epistemological relativism associated by pluralists like Paul Knitter and Stanley Samartha. For them, dialogue demands that participants regard the truth-claims of their respective religions as tentative, inconclusive, and therefore in principle open to radical revision.

For example, in his book No Other Name? Paul Knitter (a liberal Anglican) insists that ‘dialogue is not possible if any partners enter it with the claim that they possess the final, definitive, irreformable truth’. Based on such a criterion, evangelical Christians would find it quite impossible to participate in dialogue because it would require them to deny that the claim that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ is ‘final, definitive, irreformable truth’.

In the same way, evangelical Christians would be very wary of interfaith dialogue if they were required to follow the rules prescribed by the Indian theologian, Stanley Samartha (Church of South India). In his book Courage to Dialogue, Samartha insists that no religion should claim to have absolute status. ‘A particular religion can claim to be decisive for some people’, he writes, ‘and some people can claim that a particular religion is decisive for them, but no religion is justified in claiming that it is decisive for all’.

For scholars like Knitter and Samartha, the participants of interfaith dialogue are all searching for an ever-greater insight and appreciation of the truth that no particular religion can claim to fully possess. As Knitter puts it, ‘dialogue must be based on the recognition of the possible truth in all religions’. It is only when the truths of the various religions are weaved together into a kind of spiritual and theological tapestry that the Truth (with a capital ‘T’) may be discovered.

For orthodox Christians, interfaith dialogue cannot be understood in this way. Dialogue cannot be seen as a common search for the truth.

This approach to dialogue would require Christians to hold the view that God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is incomplete, that the Christian Faith possesses only some aspects of the truth. According to this approach, Christians must be open to the truths found in other religions that are also necessary for ‘salvation’, however salvation may be conceived in the pluralist view.

Christians cannot accept this approach because we believe that God has revealed himself supremely in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In accordance with Scripture, the inspired Word of God, Christians maintain that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given upon man by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

Does this mean, then, that Christians should not participate in interfaith dialogue, and that such activities are futile? I believe that the Christian who embraces and embodies these truths can still be fruitfully involved in interfaith dialogue, but not on the basis of the assumptions of writers like Knitter and Samartha – and certainly not on their terms.

In 2002, the National Council of Churches published a paper that outlines a Christian theology of religion. In that paper, it also discusses interfaith dialogue and argues that the fundamental purpose of dialogue for the orthodox Christian is to achieve greater understanding of the religious other. Interfaith dialogue or engagement is but an inescapable aspect human sociality, especially in a multi-religious country like Singapore.

‘Understood in this way’, the Council explains, ‘dialogue between members of different religions can be seen to be an aspect of the larger matrix of social intercourse between persons. Dialogue is a “natural” process of interaction, sharing, evaluation, discovery and respect that characterises every conversation between persons’.

The Council added that through dialogue, ‘we seek to discover one another, understand each other, appreciate our differences and develop respect for each other even as we cherish our common aspirations and commitments’. Dialogue can therefore go a long way in breaking down social barriers, exposing and correcting misconceptions, and dispelling prejudices.

Such engagements should therefore be honest and open. It should be conducted with civility and respect. And, as Alami has rightly cautioned in the interview, interfaith engagement should not be limited to specially orchestrated and sanitised gatherings, and characterised by superficial exchange of pleasantries.

Rather it must be enacted in the rough and tumble of everyday life, amidst its energies and messiness (‘dialogue of life’). And interfaith relations must achieve a certain character and depth that would spur different communities to work together for the common good of the society to which they belong (‘dialogue of action’).

The approach of the Council is in harmony with the 1991 document published by the Vatican entitled, Dialogue and Proclamation which states that ‘In the context of religious plurality, dialogue means “all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment”, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom’.

It goes without saying that genuine and robust interfaith engagement requires a profound theology of religions grounded in Scripture and tradition.

It is a theology of religions that clearly and unapologetically affirms the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, while at the same time acknowledging that the various religions contain moments of truth due to general revelation. On the basis of such a theology, Protestant Christians can, together with the theologians of Vatican II, declare that the Church should reject ‘nothing of those things that are true and holy’ (Nostra Aetate 2) found in the religions.

The presence of the ‘things that are true and holy’ in the other religions makes dialogue possible. But more importantly, as the documents of Vatican II also stress, the truth found in the religions ‘is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the gospel’ (Lumen Gentium 16).

This brings us to a very important point in the Christian understanding of interfaith dialogue.

For the Christian, interfaith dialogue can never be seen as an end in itself. Dialogue must always be understood as part and parcel of the Christian community’s mission of bearing witness to the grace and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is an aspect of the ministry of reconciliation that God has given to his people (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).

The evangelical Christian can therefore fully and unreservedly declare with the Roman Catholic Church that ‘Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelising mission’ (Redemptoris Missio, 1990)

Note

[1] In this article, I use ‘orthodox’ and ‘evangelical’ interchangeably to refer to Christians who believe in the primary authority of Scripture as the written word of God, and whose interpretation of the Bible is guided by the Tradition 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.

 

Love Alone? The Problem with Christian Universalism

January 2019 Credo

In the book Love Wins (2011), Rob Bell states that the belief in eternal hell and punishment “is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

In theological discourse, the term Christian universalism can generally be described as a theological school of thought that teaches that all human beings will eventually be saved. Its identifying characteristics include the assertion of universal reconciliation and, along with it, the rejection of eternal torment.

How should Christians view and evaluate the doctrine of universal reconciliation along with the implications it brings?

In order to understand the phenomena of Christian universalism, we must understand certain theological presuppositions that have helped shape this doctrine, namely, the one-sided understanding of divine nature, classical liberalism, and anthropocentric humanism.

Christian universalists tend to emphasize God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy while downplaying the holiness, righteousness, and wrath of the same God. Reviewing Bell’s Love Wins, Kevin DeYoung rightly says that such love “is a love rooted in our modern Western sensibilities more than careful biblical reflection.”

Another central belief of Christian universalism is that God is the loving Parent of all humans. Such belief is not necessarily wrong if by this expression we mean that God has created all humans and provides for his creatures. Yet, Christian universalists believe more than that. They believe that the relationship of all humans with God will eventually be restored.

More than 100 years ago, the German liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack taught that the essence of Christianity should be located in Jesus’s own teaching that can be comprised in the notions of the fatherhood of God and the infinite worth of the human soul. The similarity between Christian universalism and Harnack’s liberalism is striking.

Christian universalists believe that God is always a loving father regardless of one’s faith. The fact that one does not believe in Jesus does not change the universal fatherhood of God and, along with it, the universal childhood of all humans.

The Gospel of John, on the contrary, teaches that all who receive Jesus, who believe in his name, are given “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12; ESV). To be precise, the invitation is indeed universal: it is offered to all humans. Yet, at the same time, it is limited: only those who believe in Jesus’s name are children of God.

Regarding the infinite worth of the human soul, Christian universalists believe that because human beings are created with immortal souls, they will not be destroyed by their Creator. The universalist author J. W. Hanson explained that when the Bible uses the term psuche, it means not only (immortal) soul but that life itself (that is immortal). He concluded that though universalists did not deny the extension of sin’s consequences to the life beyond the grave, they denied that hell is either “a place or condition of punishment in the spirit world” or “a place or condition of suffering after death.”

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus teaches that the worth of the human soul is indeed incomparable to the whole world (cf. Mark 8:36 // Luke 9:25 // Matthew 16:26). Yet, the same Jesus also says, “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words …, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38 // Luke 9:26). The latter verse cannot be interpreted otherwise than the final judgment.

Another universalist author Thomas Wiltmore postulated, “The sentiment by which Universalists are distinguished, is this: that at last every individual of the human race shall become holy and happy.” This stands in diametrical opposition to what Paul rhetorically argued, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory …?” (Rom. 9:22-23).

The center of Christian universalism is the individual human being and his/her happiness. The center of Paul’s teaching is God and his glory. Of course, we believe that God’s passion for his own glory does include the happiness of human beings; yet, if we take the Bible seriously, the latter can never be the center of any sound Christian theology but the consequence of glorifying God.

Christian universalism has an anthropocentric humanism as its basic worldview. In contrast, the Bible teaches a theocentric worldview, even when it includes countless humanistic aspects.

Philosophically perceived, Christian universalism fails to solve the problem of the universal and the particular. Good Christian theological traditions, however, should be able to offer a biblical solution.

We refer to the Canons of Dort, one of the confessional standards for many Reformed churches. On the infinite value of Christ’s death, the Canons teach the universal aspect of the gospel: “The death of God’s Son … is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” (II.3). Therefore, “the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life … ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people” (II.5).

Regarding the particular aspect, the Canons teach that the saving effectiveness of Christ’s death “should work itself out in all the elect, in order that God might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation” (II.8). The gospel has both a universal and a particular aspect: it should be preached to all people; only those who have faith will be led to salvation. Excluding the particular aspect is not faithful to the biblical teaching.

Note also that the Canons emphasize more on the infinite value of Christ’s death rather than the infinite value of the human soul. Only a theocentric theological tradition can fill our eyes with the vision of God and his glory.



Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.

The Internet of Things: Ethical and Social Concerns

January 2019 Pulse 

Imagine that your humble refrigerator is able to replenish your food supply by taking stock of individual items and ordering them directly from the supermarket. And imagine that your smart fridge is able to monitor your diet and purchase only the foods that are good for your health.

Now imagine that the computer in your home is able to track your whereabouts by GPS on your mobile phone. It can turn on the light and air conditioners in your house as you are parking the car, and unlock the front door as you approach it.

Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things (IoT)!

IoT may be described as an integrated ecosystem where there is an increasing cyber-physical-biological interconnectivity, linking devices, systems, data and people. According to Andrew Whitmore et al., ‘The core concept is that everyday objects can be equipped with identifying, sensing, networking and processing capabilities that will allow them to communicate with one another and with other devices and services over the Internet to achieve some useful objective’.

Pundits believe that IoT can increase efficiency, create opportunities and respond to a variety of needs. IoT, it is said, can empower people through technology, and technology through intelligence. Other commentators, reflecting on its potential impact, have gone so far as to argue that IoT must not be seen only as the Internet of ‘things’. It will eventually become the Internet of ‘mind, body and soul’ – the Internet of ‘behaviour’ and even of ‘life’.

The size of the IoT is projected to be immense. Some commentators estimate that by 2020, there will be 20-50 billion things connected as part of IoT, and that 1.7 trillion U.S. Dollars will be invested in these technologies. This has led Tim O’Reilly to predict that ‘This wave of technology has more chances of reimagining swathes of the world than anything we’ve seen before. This is really going to disrupt everything’.

How will this emerging technological phenomenon – which is part and parcel of the Information Revolution – affect society? How will it change the way we live, and the way we relate to one another? What are the ethical concerns surrounding this integration that promises to blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres?

Safety

One of the main issues surrounding IoT is safety. By assembling an ecosystem of integrated sensors, processors and actuators we have in fact created what Adam Henschke has called a ‘network of vulnerability’. An incalculable number of things could happen that would result in serious (in some cases, very serious) consequences.

For example, the Internet connection may slow down at a particular point, suddenly shutting off critical life supporting devices. Or take self-driving cars, which are expected to be a common feature on our roads in the near future. The crashing of an IoT system can result in physical car crashes and loss of lives.

People with criminal intent can also exploit this vulnerability. Henschke describes a hypothetical case where a malicious actor exploits the vulnerability in the phone to manipulate linked devices, like the car. He then locks children in the car on a hot day until ransom is paid.

Privacy

The second issue associated with IoT has to do with privacy. The problem of online privacy has been with us since the beginning of the Internet and Social Media Revolution. But IoT greatly accentuates the problem because it creates such an informationally rich environment that governing it and protecting the privacy of its users will be very challenging, if not impossible.

In addition, IoT is organised in such a way that seemingly innocuous data can carry the personal information of users. As Henschke explains:

‘… what the IoT represents is not just a vast capacity to collect and store information on people, but the capacity for that information to be aggregated, analysed, and communicated to people far beyond those receiving the initial information. This means that increasingly intimate elements of our lives can be revealed by the collection of seemingly innocuous data’.

It is not difficult to see how such data can be misused and exploited.

Security

The third issue is security. The smart devices that are in the market today already pose the challenge of informational security. For example, strangers can easily access the camera in our smart phones remotely. In a similar way, hackers can access personal information in our phones and computers. The security mechanisms that come with these devices often provide inadequate protection.

IoT will predictably sharpen the tension between individual privacy and the use of personal information. Existing privacy laws have shown themselves not only to be difficult to interpret but also challenging to enforce. As IoT technologies become more pervasive and intrusive, privacy protection will become ever more challenging. As Francine Berman and Vinton Cerf put it, ‘personal information will become more valuable to a diverse set of actors that include organizations, individuals, and autonomous systems with the capacity to make decision about you’.

To compound the problem, the information that is variously obtained can be reused. As Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite point out, ‘Information doesn’t wear out. It [can] be endlessly recycled [and] repackaged’. To return to the example of the smart fridge, information about your shopping and eating habits obtained from it can be used to target advertising.

Some have called for an IoT ‘Bill of Rights’ that gives users the basic right to op out or delete data. But even if they have these rights and the know-how to remove the data, they may be able to do so. According to Berman’s and Cerf’s realistic assessment, ‘it may be infeasible or impossible for an individual to control all the data generated about them by IoT systems’.

Informed Consent

Related to the problem of the reusability of data is that of informed consent. According to the principle of informed consent, the source of the information must be informed about who is using that information, where they are using it, and what for. His consent must then be obtained before the information can be used.

But, as Henschke has pointed out, ‘given the range of devices, the networks that arise between devices and the potential for multiple users are so vast that prediction is close to impossible’. And if it is impossible for suppliers of the products and services to predict the full range of the uses of the source’s information, then obtaining the source’s informed consent will also be quite impossible.

Accountability

Another important consideration related to the proliferation of autonomous systems is accountability.

A good example is the autonomous vehicle, which is required to make many decisions without human assistance as it navigates traffic. We may expect automobile companies to take responsibility for faulty engines or brakes. But who should be held accountable when an autonomous vehicle is involved in a serious accident that caused fatalities?

To be sure, this question relates to other kinds of autonomous or semi-autonomous entities, such as robots programmed to function with minimal human supervision or control. But as Berman and Cerf have rightly argued, ‘As systems take on more decisions previously made by humans, it will be increasingly challenging to create a framework for responsibility and accountability’.

Impact on Society

The question about how IoT will impact and change human self-understanding and sociality has not been sufficiently explored thus far. IoT has the potential to reshape human abilities and capacities beyond existing forms of ‘enabling technologies’, and in ways that we are unable to clearly foresee. In IoT, the challenges of the control of technological processes and the ramifications of actions mediated by technology are magnified.

As the European Commission’s (EC) report puts it:

‘In IoT the traditional modern construction of the subject – the subject of knowledge and the moral subject –, still pervading most current ethical and legal concepts, has to confront the complexities of the duty to know in context where knowledge can be limited, as well as the hybridized interactions between subjects and objects, agents and actors (object behaving subject-like)’.

Finally, when IoT becomes pervasive in society, it will introduce a division (a ‘digital divide’) and inequality in society. Those who are knowledgeable and skilled will be empowered to master the new technologies and take advantage of them to the fullest. They are able to choose which technologies they wish to use, protect themselves from abuses and opt-out from certain services and networks. But as the EC report points out: ‘Those who cannot keep the pace with the pervasiveness will progressively become deskilled, disempowered and unknowledgeable’.



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.

What is the Role of Science in a Christian Life?

January 2019 Feature

Carl Sagan once mentioned that “Science is more than a body of knowledge”. In Sagan’s view, science is a way of thinking by humans, a way of sceptically interrogating the Universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

We can think of science as a process through which we arrive at a certain conclusion based on a theoretical framework. In the case of the physical sciences, this process is augmented by the language of mathematics. Specifically, science is fundamentally a process for proposing (a statement, hypothesis or theory), testing and refining ideas (paradigms) for natural occurring phenomena in our universe. Science’s most fundamental value – and probably its most important benefit for mankind – is the idea that knowledge comes from experience, rational thought and emerges from rigorous experimentation.

The Concept of Falsifiability in Science

Statements are only considered scientific statements (such as hypotheses or theories) if they are falsifiable or refutable, i.e. if there is the possibility of showing that the statement is false, by checking the results of experiments. A statement is falsifiable if and only if we can imagine that there is an empirical observation that can “prove” the statement false. For instance, the statement “All swans are black” will be refuted when one can find a swan that is not black.

The concept of falsifiability was first introduced by Karl Popper. He emphasized that the distinguishing mark between the scientific and the unscientific lies in the criterion of falsifiability or refutability. What is not falsifiable is considered unscientific. Additionally, when an un-falsifiable theory is declared to be scientifically true, this is considered pseudoscience. Also Pseudoscience tends to reverse the scientific process by assuming a desired conclusion (i.e. the hypotheses or theories are already believed to be true) and then look for evidence that may support that conclusion (hypothesis or theory) while ignoring (or cherry-picking) evidence and arguments that may contradict the desired conclusion.

For instance, an astrologer could claim that “if you are a Virgo, you will suffer bad luck this week”. However, this statement is too broad to be proven wrong – one could cherry pick evidence of “bad luck”, anything from breaking a plate to getting into a car accident – many instances of “bad luck” could happen over a week. As such, a huge range of events could be taken to support the astrologer’s statement; so it cannot be scientifically true.

There are two more subtle aspects to the concept of falsifiability in science. Let us return to the example of the black swan. What happens if one finds a black swan? Does that prove the statement “All swans are black” is true? Not so, because this person has only verified one case. Similarly, scientific statements (theories) cannot be proved for all instances and they are not final, absolute, everlasting truths that will always remain unrefuted. Even if we generalize from a scientific statement and confer it the status of a “The Law” (e.g. Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation), this “Law” is still not final. It is just that humans have yet to disprove the statement.

The above observations beg another question: if scientific statements are not everlasting truths, then can scientific truth – any objects that do not change – exist at all? What is closest to “truth” is the set of experimental facts and data thrown up by Mother Nature which does not change. However, the conclusions we draw from these data points – which are our scientific theories – are only possible interpretations of a set of data. For instance, Newton’s gravitation law “explain” the experimental facts we observe when masses move at low velocities and in low gravitational fields, but cannot explain the “wobbling” of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. So, we know that Newton’s law cannot be the final truth since it cannot describe the observational data.

A more robust interpretation of the same set of the data, that can explain more, is Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is able to explain all current known facts of the world that Newton’s law is able to, and more (e.g. predict other phenomena). For instance, one additional fact it (Relativity Theory) can explain is that Mercury’s peculiar orbit is due to the significant curvature of space-time as a result of the Sun’s mass.

The notion that science is not absolute truth was reiterated by Max Born (1954 Noble Laureate for the Quantum Theory) who remarked “I believe that ideas such as absolute certitude, absolute exactness, final truth, etc. are figments of the imagination which should not be admissible in any field of science … this loosening of thinking seems to me to be the greatest blessing which modern science has given us.”

The Role of Science in a Christian Life

Now that the main gist of scientific thought has been presented, let us address the question in the title: What is the possible role of science in a Christian life, and how should a Christian regard science, especially in seeking out God’s design for the universe and mankind?

Some Christians might feel that science and Christian faith are incompatible and should be kept separate; unlike the answers offered by faith, science fails to offer the assurance that our knowledge of the universe is final and absolute. This might compel Christians among us to wholly reject the scientific approach, and in doing so, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, as argued in this essay, science should not be thought of as final and absolute. Scientific statements are only ways of thinking at a point of time – approximations of truth which can be falsified but never definitively proven – that could be replaced by better interpretations of data and more accurate experimental observations. As such, we should think of scientific discoveries and theories as complementary (but not as a mechanism offering definitive proof) to the Bible and our Christian lives. Both are mutually supportive approaches to finding out about God’s creation. Science is a human understanding of natural world while the Bible (with the Holy Spirit working through us as we study it) describes supernatural world. There are limits to what science can “prove” (or “attempt to explain”) about the existence of God, and we should acknowledge the possibility that our best scientific theories today still have their limitations.

With this attitude, a Christian need not feel that science and our Christian faith are incompatible or always in conflict. Many people are surprised to find out that physicists in the past and present believe in our God. Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell (of Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism fame) and Lord Kelvin (who played a role in formulating the first and second laws of thermodynamics) were Christians.

Scientific thought has provided the impetus for tremendous human advancement. The approach adopted by science – the Socratic approach of reason and question – is grounded in the Greek historical tradition. However, as Christians, we should not neglect the Hebrew way of thinking espoused by Apostle Paul who encouraged us to trace our Judea-Christian faith to the Hebrew olive root “… have been grafted in among the others to share in the nourishment of the olive root (Romans 11:23).

 How to Approach Scholarship

It is important to note that followers of the Socratic and Hebrew traditions of scholarship have different motivations towards learning about the Universe. While Greeks learned through the powerful method of interrogating facts of nature in order to comprehend, Hebrews interrogated critically and sought knowledge (about nature and the Bible) in order to revere God.

Another difference between the two traditions is in how the Greeks, when conducting inquiries, proceed from man’s knowledge as a starting point. The rational mind seeks to comprehend nature and the ways of God through human knowledge and reason. In contrast, the Hebrew way of acquiring knowledge begins with the belief in God by faith and nature being created by Him. The only true wisdom is knowledge of God; the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). To the Hebrews, man must acknowledge that he can never really know himself, who he is, and his relation to the universe, unless he first learns to revere God and be submissive to God’s sovereign will, just as how Abraham grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God. (Romans 4:20).

Our Christian Response

The scientific process is a creative human activity. As creatures created in the image of a creative God who is infinite in knowledge, it is not surprising that humans possess the ability and motivation to create. This scientific activity in creating new knowledge (and re-creation) will go on indefinitely. Especially for the physical sciences, humans can only claim to construct theories to describe the data from natural phenomena as approximate truths that best explain these phenomena based on a (mathematical) theory.

However, we should note that science and even theological works are still a function of human experiences and cultures at each epoch of time. MIT trained theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krauss asserts that “physics is a human creative intellectual activity, like art and music. Physics has helped forge our cultural experience. I am not sure what will be most influential in the legacy we pass on, but I am sure that it is a grave mistake to ignore the cultural aspect of our scientific tradition”.

They are endeavours which are subject to various human interpretations. Thus no one should claim that he or she has arrived at a “final interpretation”, given our human susceptibility to confirmation bias, fallibility in the form of ambition and overconfidence, serendipitous discoveries and the like. 1 Cor. 13:8 reminds us … where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

There is a saying that “War is too important to be left to the military generals”. Science is also too important to be left to the scientists. Where the careful study of God’s design of the universe is concerned, no one can definitively claim that there is one interpretation of a given text, including the Bible. Thus, the power of science demands great responsibility from us.

To circumvent biases, we need genuine Christian love and fellowship amongst believers to be open to rigorous debate, honest discussion and careful evaluation of arguments and peer challenges. Above all, we should endeavour to build each other up in love. According to Apostle Paul, we all only know in part (1 Cor. 13: 9, 12) and will not possess full knowledge till we meet the Lord.

To sum up, we can only disprove a scientific theory and not prove it as the final, unwavering truth. R. Feynman (Nobel Prize 1965 for Quantum Electrodynamics) reminds us that “… All scientific knowledge is uncertain.” We as practising Christian scientists should therefore be modest and mindful of this attitude as we seek to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6: 8). After all, science can only complement the Bible; all knowledge will eventually pass away and only God’s love is permanent.


Dr Phil Chan supports Christian discipleship in the Cru-Singapore ministry and worships at EL Assembly. He is a high energy particle physics professor, deputy head at NUS physics department and was the Chair for General Education (Provost Office) for the last 6 years.

Procrustean Beds

January 2019 Credo

The great twentieth century Swiss-German theologian, Karl Barth, once said: ‘Show me your Christology and I will tell you who you are’. In this statement, Barth emphasises the profound relationship between one’s Christology and one’s orthodoxy.

If we have a right understanding of who Jesus Christ is, we will also have a sound understanding of what the Christian faith is about. But the reverse is also true.

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been numerous heresies surrounding the person of Jesus Christ. These heresies emerged from Christian soil, and some of them even received life from the pens of Christian bishops and theologians who were trying to make sense of the biblical account.

Although these christological heresies vary to some degree, as we shall see, they seem to stem from one fundamental problem. That problem has to do with the attempt by their proponents to fit the biblical material about Christ into the mould of their preconceived ideas about God and about what it means to be human.

One of the earliest heresies related to the person of Christ is associated with the Jewish-Christian Sect in the second century called the Ebionites, meaning ‘the Poor Ones’. Unable to accept the orthodox conception of the Incarnation, this heretical group insisted that Jesus was just a human being, the biological son of Mary and Joseph.

God chose this humble carpenter from Nazareth to be the Messiah (the Anointed One) because of his exceptional virtue. At Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan by John the Baptist, the Spirit of God descended on him and anointed him for his ministry and mission.

Another early heresy that introduced distortions to the orthodox conception of the person of Christ is Docetism, whose name is taken from the Greek word dokeo, which means ‘to seem’. As its name suggests, Docetism teaches that the humanity of Jesus in the incarnation is not substantially real – the eternal Logos only ‘seemed’ to have taken up human flesh.

This means that the humanity of Christ is only an illusion, an apparition, and a phantasm. But this also means that the suffering and death of Christ are not real – he only appeared or seemed to have died on the cross. Docetism is closely wedded to Gnosticism, a branch of Greek philosophy that advocates a stark metaphysical dualism of spirit and matter.

Ebionitism and Docetism in their very different ways can be said to have committed the same theological error. Both seem to be working with some preconceived notions of Deity and humanity. And when the biblical materials concerning the Incarnation are unable to neatly fit into these conceptual moulds, they are conveniently snipped away and set aside.

For example, both these heresies refused to allow even the possibility that the divine and human natures can co-exist in one person. They pre-emptively rejected the Chalcedonian Definition of 451 that asserted that Christ is ‘very God and very man’. For them, this is simply impossible, like a square circle.

What was their solution? The Ebionites elected to emphasise the humanity of Christ and reject his deity. Jesus Christ was a human being, but who was exceptionally anointed with the Spirit of God to fulfil his mission.

The Docetics, on the other hand, ‘solved’ the conundrum in the exact opposite way: by privileging Christ’s deity over his humanity, thereby effectively rejecting the latter. Thus, the divine Christ only appeared to be human.

With Arianism, we come to a slightly different philosophical or theological issue, although broadly speaking it still has to do with certain preconceptions about deity. Arius was a charismatic preacher in the early decades of the 4th century who was unable to accept the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus.

Arius wanted to jealously protect the monotheism of Christianity, which he mistakenly thought was threatened by the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. But Arius worked with a philosophical – chiefly Platonic – understanding of God as monad. He therefore could not make sense of the orthodox teaching that the one God is tri-personal – Father, Son and the Holy Sprit.

Consequently, Arius demoted the Son to the status of creature, arguing that he was not co-eternal and co-equal with the Father.

If we were to fast-forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, we find European scholars, carried away by the historical-critical method, embarking on quest after quest for the so-called ‘historical Jesus’. From Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1794-1768) to David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) to Albert Schweizter (1975-1965), these scholars tried to reconstruct the figure of Jesus according to their research, guided supremely by the scientific method.

After a brief lacuna, which scholars have somewhat blandly called ‘No Quest’ (1906 to 1953), the search was revived with the New Quest (1953 to the present day) and even the Third Quest (1980 to the present day).

These efforts betray that stubborn unwillingness of modern scholars to accept the Church’s understanding of Jesus Christ. Creating an unbridgeable wedge between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’, they have violently severed reason from faith.

We see the same problem manifesting in a slightly different form in the work of the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann and his programme of demythologisation. Guided by the modern scientific understanding of reality, Bultmann surgically excised supernatural events like miracles by discounting them as myth.

For the same reason, John Hick ‘mythologises’ the Incarnation in the book that he edited, The Myth of God Incarnate (1977). In 1993, Hick changed his language – but not his basic view – in an updated account published as The Myth of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age.

What was the fundamental problem of these ancient and modern thinkers and writers? They have created a metaphysical mould – a certain understanding of God and man – inspired by an alien philosophy or worldview – Platonism or scientific materialism – and tried to fit Christianity into it.

In Greek mythology, a story is told of Procrustes (‘the stretcher’), a bandit who mutilated his victims by either stretching them or cutting their limbs so as to fit them into the size of his iron bed.

The Procrustean bed is a framework constructed by alien philosophical assumptions into which the data of revelation and the teachings of the Christian faith are forced. What fails to fit into that iron bed is simply amputated.

Procrustean beds are dangerous devices. They distort and mutilate the truth. They disfigure the revelation to which Scripture testifies, and mangle the biblical data.

Procrustean beds create heresies.



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.