Author Archives: Florence Kang

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 to 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.

Evolving Marriage?

June 2018 Pulse

In her article entitled ‘The Trouble With Modern Marriage’, published in Psychology Today, Erica B. Slotter echoed the questions asked by many marital researchers: “‘What gives?’ What has changed about the nature of marriage since the 1970s that makes it less appealing to some, less satisfying to others, and generally less stable?”

The signs that marriages are not only less resilient today, but that marriage itself is falling out of favour, are altogether obvious and ominous. These trends are not confined only to the West, but are also mirrored in Asian countries like Singapore. For example, in 2015 there were 7,500 marital dissolutions here, compared to 3,500 in 1990.

But why are we witnessing the collapse of marriage and the family?

Some scholars believe that part of the reason for this is the sexual revolution, a social movement in the 1960s responsible for the liberalisation of moral attitudes towards sex and the eradication of taboos. Its libertine attitude is expressed well by the rockers of Woodstock: “If you are not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

The sexual revolution has unleashed experimental sexual practices and habits such as ‘open marriages’ and ‘public intercourse’, all of which have wide and disconcerting ramifications to familial and social relationships.

Self-styled progressives and liberals, who are promoting novel models of marriage, are simply not perturbed. They often argue that marriage is evolving. But what exactly do they mean by this?

In his book Defending Marriage, Anthony Esolen rightly takes issue with this liberal evolutionary view of marriage and the family. He points out that the inner meaning of the biological metaphor has to do with the unfolding “of ever greater and more powerful potentialities that had lain latent within”.

In other words, to speak of evolution is to suggest that a more complex and sophisticated organism has emerged from something more primordial and basic. “So a seed germinates and develops into a seedling,” Esolen writes, “which then unfolds in trunk and limbs and leaves and becomes a tree.”

Esolen therefore asks if we can really say that marriage and the family have evolved, “in the common sense of the word”. By what criterion, and on what basis do the progressives and liberals make such a claim?

“Is the family, I say, now something mightier than it was, as the tall oak is mightier than the sapling it used to be? Has it not been disintegrating – not evolving, but collapsing?” he asks.

This discussion brings to the surface another issue that Esolen and many Christian commentators have alluded to but which still deserves more attention. It is the view that marriage, like all other forms of social institutions, should change and adapt with the times. It is the view that, just like other social and cultural customs, marriage should morph if it is to remain relevant, and that society can and perhaps should direct this metamorphosis.

The Church can never endorse the evolutionary view of marriage and the family because it believes that they are instituted by God Himself, and are not merely malleable human customs or conventions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws… God himself is the author of marriage”.

Furthermore, marriage as a human vocation cannot be extricated from the nature of humanity itself, for it is “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator”. In other words, marriage is in a profound sense intrinsic to the order of creation itself.

To understand marriage and family in this way is to see just how essential they are for the ordering and flourishing of human society. The Catechism is again very clear on this: “The wellbeing of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.”

This means that the attempt to evolve or ‘update’ marriage and family by replacing the model that God had designed with something avant-garde would have serious and perhaps irreversible long-term consequences to society.



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 Paradox of Discipleship

June 2018 Credo

Luke 14:25-35

An Odd Conclusion …

Sandwiched between two parables (the Parable of the Great Banquet, 14:15-24, and the Parable of the Lost Sheep, 15:1-7) in Luke 14-15 is a passage on the requirements of discipleship (14:25-35).  Within this passage, there are two parables on a tower builder and a king (14:28-32), followed by the third cost of discipleship, the requirement of renunciation of possessions (14:33).  The fact that Luke 14:33 begins with “so then” or “so therefore” (Greek houtos oun) establishes it as the conclusion to the two parables.  At first glance, this conclusion seems at odds with the main thrust of the 2 parables, as we shall soon see.

The structure of Luke 14:25-35 seems straightforward:

  • Setting: Some crowds traveling with Jesus (14:25)
  • A pair of statements on discipleship: One on hating the family, another on cross-bearing (14:26-27)
  • A pair of parables: One on tower building, another on waging war (14:28-32)
  • A third/concluding statement on discipleship: Renunciation of possessions (14:33)
  • A new/concluding development: Warning about saltiness (14:34-35a)
  • A final appeal: Invitation to listen (14:35b)

Focusing our attention on the pair of parables, we find the key emphasis of Jesus’ teaching as the importance of careful assessment before committing to or starting a project; failure to do so would be disastrous.  The tower builder must assess both the cost of building a tower and whether he has the means to complete it before embarking on the project; else he faces the prospect of not only an uncompleted tower but also the shame of ridicule if he fails to finish building the tower.  A king going to wage war against another must also consider his army’s capability, especially in the face of obvious numerical disadvantage, and seek terms of peace if defeat is the foreseeable result; else the consequences would be equally disastrous.

With the emphasis on carefully assessing the cost and one’s resources and capability before committing to a project, the obvious way to conclude the two parables in relation to discipleship would be: “So therefore, think carefully!  Count the cost of discipleship, before you commit yourself to following me!”  Instead Luke 14:33 concludes with a paradoxical third requirement of discipleship: “So then, all of you who do not renounce (literally “bid farewell”) to all your possessions is not able to be my disciple.”  How is giving up one’s possessions in Luke 14:33 related to the theme of careful consideration in 14:28-32?

Or is the conclusion that odd? : Relating Renunciation with Careful Consideration

New Testament scholar, François Bovon, has helpfully identified two ways in which the third requirement of discipleship not only forms an excellent conclusion to the two parables but also as a powerful restatement of the three requirements of discipleship.

Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the author of Luke has sought to demonstrate the harmful power of and false confidence associated with wealth, be it in the beatitudes and the woes (Luke 6:20, 24), in the parable of the rich fool where the Lukan author juxtaposed riches for oneself with riches toward God, and in the passage about worry where he associated seeking God’s kingdom with the relinquishment of wealth (12:31-34).  Here again, the Lukan author records Jesus’ exhortation to potential disciples to renounce their possessions, in other words, wealth, as false securities in order to be able to consider carefully, like the tower builder and the king assessing their resources and capabilities, before deciding whether to commit themselves to be his followers.  Truly, this is such an important decision that failing to do so would lead to disastrous consequences.

Second, the use of the phrase “he is not able” (Greek ou dunatai) to be my disciple, which can also be translated as “he has no power”, throughout the passage (14:26, 27, 33) in association with the requirements for discipleship comes to a powerful conclusion in 14:33 – the power to be Jesus’ disciple requires the relinquishment of power, be it the power of money, of life or of relationships.  Discipleship cannot be simply understood as leaving one’s family, having only one priority, cross-bearing or leaving everything; it is only through the renouncement of power that one receives divine power to be a disciple of Jesus.

A Final Conclusion

Thus, the power to think and consider carefully before committing oneself to discipleship, to the one and only security that comes with following Jesus, requires the giving up of all possessions, the surrendering of all false securities.  The paradoxical nature of discipleship also means that one only receives the divine power to be Jesus’ disciple through the renouncement of power.

Perhaps it is also appropriate for this passage to be located between the Parable of the Great Banquet and the Parable of the Prodigal Son where the unworthy and powerless (the crippled, the blind, the lame and the prodigal son) are the ones who are ready to receive the transforming and powerful gift of God’s grace.



Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church.

 

Theological Liberalism as Heresy

June 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: What is your assessment of liberal theology?

The roots of modern liberal theology can be traced to the great intellectual and cultural movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, in the main it signals man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage, that is, his inability to think without the guidance of another. As Immanuel Kant has so famously put it, the motto of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! (‘Dare to Know’!) – ‘Have courage to use your own understanding’.

In presenting man as the supreme authority, the Enlightenment jettisons all traditional sources of authority, including, of course, the Church and her sacred Scriptures. As Richard Pierard notes, ‘All beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience, and one’s mind must be open to new facts and truth, regardless of where they may originate’.

Accompanying the Enlightenment is a new approach to interpreting the Bible that uses the ‘science’ of historical research called ‘historical criticism’. Liberal Bible scholars and theologians accept the findings of the ‘historical critical school’ that suggest that the biblical texts are not conveyors of divine revelation, but are instead time-bound accounts of the ancient people of Israel and the early Christians.

In the hands of the liberal theologians, the Bible is no longer regarded as God’s infallible Word, inspired by his Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). Instead, the Bible is merely seen as the work of its human authors and editors who belonged to an age centuries removed from ours, and who are in every way limited by their times. The stories in the Bible must be regarded as myths and fables, purposed to inspire piety and morality.

In allowing reason to usurp the authority of the Bible, liberalism has introduced such mutilating distortions to the basic tenets of the Christian faith concerning God, Jesus Christ, salvation, eschatology that what emerges as a result can no longer be said to be orthodox Christianity. In departing so radically from the ‘faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3), theological liberalism must be regarded as heresy.

Take the liberal revisions to the doctrine of God. In his magisterial work, History of Dogma (7 volumes, published between 1894-99), Adolf von Harnack argued that the orthodox Christianity presented in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed is the ‘creation of the Hellenic spirit on the soil of the Gospel’ and therefore a profound aberration of the simple religion of Jesus. The Church, Harnack insists, must re-discover the ‘kernel’ of Christianity by removing the ‘husks’, that is, the forms that it has been given as a result of the metaphysical speculations of her theologians.

Following Harnack, liberal theologians have regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as merely symbolic expressions of the Church’s experience of God, devoid of any ontological truth.

Or take liberalism’s understanding of Christ and salvation. In his book, On Religion, Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), Friedrich D. Schleiermacher – who has been accorded the accolade of being the father of modern (read, liberal) theology – describes Jesus not as the incarnation of God’s Word, but as an archetypal man. Jesus was a man who has achieved perfect ‘God-consciousness’ (that is, total dependence on God). He serves as an example that we all must emulate.

Following Schleiermacher’s lead, the late Anglican theologian John Macquarrie also maintained that Jesus is different from other humans only in degree and not in kind. In other words, for Macquarrie, the incarnation must be understood metaphorically, not literally.

Consequently, Macquarrie’s Jesus is hardly different from what he calls the other ‘saviour figures’ like Krishna, Confucius and Buddha. In his highly influential book, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1990), Macquarrie argues that like Jesus, all these other saviour figures are also ‘mediators of grace’ and ‘emissaries of holy Being’. Like Jesus, they have also ‘given themselves up to the service of a divine reality, who might work in them and through them for the lifting up of all creatures upon earth’.

It should not surprise us that theological liberals have downplayed the seriousness of sin by defining it, not as a depravity that is so comprehensive that if human beings were left to their own devises, they would not be able to rescue themselves from destruction, but as merely a glitch in our relationship with God.

For Schleiermacher, then, ‘redemption’ has to do with a restored relationship with God that can be achieved by emulating Jesus who enjoys pre-eminent God-consciousness and an intimate relationship with God. Schleiermacher – and the liberals who followed him – has very little to say about vicarious atonement, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

The Lutheran theologian Eugene Klug is surely rightly when he asserts that ‘The true horror of liberalism is evident precisely at the point where it denies Christ’s unique role as Saviour of mankind through his vicarious suffering and death for men’s sins’.

Liberal theology wants to present Jesus as a remarkable man, a pious follower of God par excellence – but not as the incarnate Son of God – to the so-called cultural despisers of Christianity. In so doing, they have seriously distorted what Scripture says about him. As Klug is right to point out, ‘The gospels do not consist in pious embellishments of what Jesus’ followers thought about him, fancifully enhanced by miracles and a fabricated report of his resurrection’. Rather, ‘these gospels consist in the revelation of God, recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, for faith’s acceptance’.

Liberalism is the bastardization of the Christian Faith – to borrow the expression by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. It is the mutilation, corruption and perversion of orthodox Christianity.


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.

Caring for the World’s Vulnerable Children and Families

June 2018 Feature

Sarah* and I arrived at the orphanage around the same time, I as a short term volunteer, her as the newest resident.  I assumed that I knew her story.  I assumed she had no father or mother to care for her and that the orphanage was her only option.  I later learned that she had a mother who cried as she left her at the orphanage.  Obviously, I was wrong.

The fact is Sarah’s story is the story of the majority of children living in orphanages today.  On the ground research studies have shown that, depending on the geographical location, anywhere from 50-90% of children living in orphanages have a living parent.  Not an auntie or a grandfather, a living parent.  This article will explore why children are placed in orphanages when they are not, in fact, orphans and the detrimental affects of this reality.  Further, it will discuss why, as Christians, we should care about these vulnerable children and families.  It will end by offering examples of best practices and ways forward to best serve these children and families of God.

The majority of children who live in orphanages today are there because their family is experiencing poverty or other hardships, not because they have no one who loves or wishes to care for them. Parents in this situation are left with an excruciating choice.  Parents can be “pulled” towards placing their children in an orphanage with the promise of meals, education and basic provisions.  Sometimes these provisions are there, other times they are promised but not provided.  Experts in the field note that this “pull factor” of orphanages can often circumvent other options for families in this position.

Research routinely shows that children thrive and grow as God intended when they are in a family.  Of course, this is ideally the child’s biological family – parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles.  However, we live in a broken world.  Sometimes foster families must step up to care for children when it is unsafe or inappropriate for the biological family to do so.  Conversely, research shows that growing up in an orphanage inhibits healthy development in children, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Further, orphanages often end their care when the child turns eighteen leaving them vulnerable and without the continuing support of a community or family.  No orphanage, not even the best and most reputable among them, can replace a family.

As Christians, we should be appalled that any parent has to make a choice between keeping their children at home and placing them in an orphanage.  For those of you who are parents reading this, how would you feel faced with this decision?  All three of the Synoptic Gospels call us to love our neighbor as we love our self (Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).  We could just as easily say that we should also “love our neighbor’s children as we love our own children.”  If faced with a sudden loss of income, an illness, or tragic loss of a spouse, what would you desire for your family and children?  Thankfully, placing one’s children in an orphanage is not the only option available.

It is abundantly clear that Jesus deeply loves and cares for children and those on the margins of society.  James 1:27 is an often quoted verse when it comes to this issue:  “Religion that is pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”  Wouldn’t the best way to look after the orphan in question be to keep them from becoming an “orphan” in the first place?  Wouldn’t the best option for the widow be to keep her family intact and her children at home in her care?

To do this, practitioners in the field who are working with vulnerable children and families refer to a model called the continuum of care.  Essentially, the continuum of care is a line graph that depicts on a scale the most preferred to the least preferred outcome for a vulnerable or separated child.  Put another way, this models seeks to find the best solution by putting the child’s holistic well-being at the center of the conversation.

For example, at the beginning of the continuum of care is usually “family preservation”.  If one can keep a family intact, there is no need for alternative forms of care to come into play.  Family preservation can take many forms, but often includes small business development so that the parents can obtain an income to care for their children, teaching parenting skills, free or reduced-cost child care, etc.  Often, next in the continuum is kinship care.  This means a child is placed with extended family such as a grandparent or aunt/uncle.  At the far end of the continuum of care is large scale residential facilities, as these should be used as a last resort.

Many organizations have their own continuum of care model, and while they each differ slightly, the main idea is the same: to keep children in families whenever it is safe and possible, and to use residential care as a last option.  Volunteers can use this model as a way of evaluating organizations which they choose to support.  For example, they can seek to financially support those organizations working to keep families together.  One example of an organization doing just this is Child’s I operating in Kampala, Uganda.  Child’s I works diligently to reintegrate separated children back into their family.  When this is not possible, they adhere to the continuum of care by recruiting and training local foster families to take in children.

I do not know how Sarah’s story ends.  I returned home after a month of volunteering at the orphanage in Honduras.  However, I know how I hope her story ends.  I hope it ended with Sarah being reunited with her mother.  I hope an organization provided support to her mother so that she could bring her daughter home.  There are a handful of organizations around the world providing this type of support, but more are needed.  There are too many children needlessly placed in orphanages.  As Christians, we should know the real story of the vulnerable children around the world, and the real story is that many of them have loving families who only need a little support to keep their children at home.  The real story is that often orphanages are used as a first option when they should be the last resort.  The real story is that we need to ask ourselves how we want to love our neighbor’s children so that they can experience the love of Christ through us.

*Name changed for privacy


Lyndsay Mathews holds an MA in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary where she researched the importance of family based care in developing countries. She has worked for numerous non-profits and para-church ministries focused on various social issues.

In-Vitro Gametogenesis

June 2018 Pulse

In its May 18, 2017 issue, The Straits Times reported that researchers in Japan have succeeded in creating viable eggs from the skin cells of adult female mice. Using a technique known as in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG), the team led by Professor Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University in Fukouka was able to create eggs ‘outside the mouse’ for the first time.

IVG is used to generate sperm and egg cells in a petri dish from adult or pluripotent cells that are capable of becoming any cell type in the body. This includes embryonic stem cells (in this case, induced pluripotent stem cells or IPS cells) that are found in the blastocyst or zygote. Scientists believe that these cells may have therapeutic potentials, such as treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, scientists are able to derive sperm-like and egg-like cells from murine (mouse) embryonic stem cells (mESCs). It has been reported that a live offspring has been produced after fertilizing natural mouse eggs with sperm-like cells derived from mESCs.

Although progress in humans has been slow, scientists believe that not very far down the road, the success that they have had with mice can be replicated in humans. As Glenn Cohen, Eli Adashi and George Daley state in their paper on IVG: ‘These findings suggest that experimental refinements likely will permit derivation of functional eggs and sperm from [human stem cells] in the not too distant future’.

There are a number of foreseeable applications of IVG.

This technique would enable scientists to study human gametogenesis (that is, the formation of gametes) in vitro as well as diseases of the germline. The technique would also enable scientists to create a vast supply of gametes that can be used either for research or fertility treatment. Finally, it will enable scientists to genetically manipulate the human germline.

As Léa Suruge puts it, IVG has the potential to redefine ‘the notion of what is possible in reproductive and regenerative medicine, as it opens up the possibility of creating human sperm and eggs from induced pluripotent stem cells’.

For example, patients whose reproductive functions have been lost – for instance, because of chemotherapy – could possibly have a child through IVG. Furthermore, when used together with the rapidly advancing genome editing techniques, future scientists and physicians could root out inherited diseases even before fertilization.

However, despite these exciting prospects IVG does present scientists and ethicists with very grave ethical and social concerns. Even the seemingly positive application of IVG may prove deeply vexing for policy makers, ethicists and society.

Take the production of gametes, for instance. As Cohen, et al., have perceptively pointed out, ‘There’s something troubling about an inexhaustible supply of gametes that can be fertilised into an inexhaustible supply of embryos’.

With its potential of creating an almost unlimited supply of eggs or embryos, IVG may raise the sceptre of embryo farming and commercialisation on a scale that is hitherto unprecedented. From the standpoint of Christian ethics, this would result in the unconscionable devaluation of human life.

In addition, because of the ease with which embryos can be created by this method, parents (especially wealthy ones) could opt to generate scores of embryos from which to select the ‘best’ for implantation. ‘IVG could’, write Cohen et al., ‘depending on its ultimate financial cost, greatly increase the number of embryos from which to select, thus exacerbating concerns about parents selecting for their “ideal” future child’.

The ‘rejects’ would either be destroyed or used for research (which would result in their eventual destruction).

When IVG is seen within the framework of the so-called Principal of Procreative Beneficence (PB), the outcome is nothing less that a form of disguised eugenics.

According to Hannah Bourne, Thomas Douglas and Julian Savulescu, PB ‘holds that when a couple plans to have a child, they have significant moral reason to select, of the possible children they could have, the child who is most likely to experience the greatest wellbeing – that is, the most advantaged child, the child with the best chance at the best life’.

Among the ethical objections to PB (and there are many), arguably the most serious is that it creates a eugenics mindset – an ‘arms-race’ as parents iteratively seek to ensure that their child is not placed at a competitive disadvantage.

There are also other serious ethical and social concerns surrounding IVG that must not be ignored. For instance, it could change the meaning of parenting and the received and conventional structure of the family.

IVG could result in ‘single-parent babies’ (not to be confused with single parenting). The cells from a man or a woman could be used to create both sperm and egg that could result in a baby. Such a baby would have only one genetic parent.

Although with the current state of the technology it is unclear whether this will in fact be possible, but if it were possible serious ethical and social implications are not difficult to imagine. Furthermore, it is also not clear if such single-parent babies would have the same health issues that arise from having closely related parents.

IVG would also allow older women to become a parent. Many of these women chose to delay pregnancy in order to pursue their career or find the right partner. Once the technique is perfected, IVG would be a more convenient way to achieve this than social egg freezing, which require the painful and dangerous process of egg procurement.

But there are serious ethical and social implications for women who choose to be mothers in their 40s, 50s and 60s. These issues have to do with the ability of these older mothers to properly nurture their young children and also the burdens their children may be subjected to.

Finally, because IVG enables scientists to generate egg and sperm cells from cells obtained from shed skin flakes, it might be possible for people to become parents without even knowing it. Again this raises serious and profound ethical and social concerns that must not be ignored.

As a ‘frontier biotechnology’, IVG would be accessible only to the wealthy in technologically advanced countries. This would exacerbate the already widening inequality in medicine and healthcare.

It is impossible to put a halt to this developing technology. The therapeutic potentials would spur scientists to pursue this technology to its very limits. Policy makers would be more inclined to introduce rigorous safeguards and protocols rather than imposing a ban or even a moratorium.

But, as experience has repeatedly taught us, international protocols and safeguards, important though they are, are unable to prevent transgressions and abuses that have serious social consequences.



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