Author Archives: Florence Kang

1 Peter 3:18-22: Did Christ Descend into Hell?

May 2019 Credo

A Difficult Passage

1 Peter 3:18-22, filled with textual, grammatical, lexical and theological difficulties is considered as one of the most difficult passages in the NT.  This is evidenced by the great reformer, Martin Luther’s comments: “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament.  I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.” This passage has often been understood as Jesus’ descent into hell in the interim between his crucifixion and resurrection, preaching the gospel to those who did not hear about it.

We shall attempt to understand this passage using the following questions.  Where did Christ go – did he descend into hell?  When did he go – was it after his death and before he resurrection?  To whom did he speak – who were the “spirits in prison”?  What did he say – did Jesus preach the gospel?

Attempting to Understand it

Before wading into the details, two clear points stand out.  First, the link with 3:13-17 by “because also” (Greek hoti kai) in 3:18 indicates that 3:18-22 provides the basis for the assertion in 3:17 that it is better, if God wills it so, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.  Second, Christ’s subjugation of all angels, authorities and powers prove paradoxically that his unjust suffering unto death for doing good was not a defeat but a victory (3:22).  Hence 3:18-22 serves to encourage and buttress its Christian readers amidst oppression and persecution.

First, the “when” question.  3:18-19 states that “Because Christ also …., having been put to death in the flesh, but having been made alive in the spirit; in which also having gone, he proclaimed to the spirits in prison, …”  Among various interpretations proposed for the flesh-spirit contrast, the most reasonable one is to understand it as referring to Christ’s two states of existence: his earthly human life before his death and his glorified resurrected state.  This view is further supported by 3:22 which refers to Christ’s ascension, thus accomplishing the redemptive process: crucifixion (“put to death”) → resurrection (“made alive”) → ascension (“gone into heaven”).  Furthermore, the “in which” (Greek en ho) in 3:19 refers back to “the spirit” in 3:18, i.e. Christ went to proclaim to the spirits in prison in his resurrected state, not in the interim between crucifixion and resurrection.

Turning to the “where” question, we find that “having gone” (Greek poreutheis) indicates that Christ “went”, a more general verb, rather than “descended” (Greek katabaino), a more specific verb, to the “spirits in prison” (3:19).  Furthermore, terms at the time of writing of 1 Peter used to refer to the place of the dead, such as Hades, Tartarus or Sheol were not used to indicate where Christ went.  Instead the term “prison” (Greek phylake), which does not refer to the place of the dead anywhere else in the NT, is used.  Thus, Christ did not descend to hell but went to a place where “the spirits” were imprisoned.  To shed further light on the “where” and the “to whom” and “what” questions, we need to turn to the Jewish traditions found in the pseudonymous book of 1 Enoch.

The Book of 1 Enoch as Background

Genesis 5:21-24 indicate that Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”  In the ancient Jewish tradition, Enoch was a well-known person with an important book supposedly composed by him.  1 Enoch 12:1-2 states that when Enoch was taken, “his works were with the Watchers, and with the holy ones were his days.”  The tradition of the Watchers was an elaboration of Genesis 6:1-4 where “the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them” (6:4).  In Genesis, this story occurs immediately before the Noah story and seems to provide the reason for the flood.

1 Enoch relates a more elaborate story, filling in the gap.  The Watchers were fallen angels who forsook the highest heaven (12:4), lain with human women, and produced children (15:3), referred to as “giants” or “Nephilim” from whose bodies “evil spirits” had gone forth (15:9).  These evil spirits have revealed to people “godless deeds and unrighteousness and sin” (13:2) and will continue to corrupt the earth until the “day of the consummation of the great judgment, when the great age is consummated.”  (16:1)

Enoch agreed to the Watchers’ appeal to intercede with God for themselves and their evil descendants.  But he returned with God’s judgment that the Watchers “will not ascend into heaven for all the ages; and it has been decreed to bind you in bonds in the earth for all the days of eternity.  And that before these things, you will see the destruction of your sons” because they will not obtain their petition concerning themselves or their sons. (14:4-7).  These  “spirits”, from the bodies of the giants, offspring of the Watchers were the cause of human evil that resulted in the flood during the time of Noah, Enoch’s grandson.

Back to the Difficult Passage

With this background, we begin to see that the spirits to whom Christ preached were fallen angels and/or demonic spirits.  Their imprisonment signified God’s restraining power over them.  Christ’s message to them was that the “day of the consummation of the great judgment”, announced during the flood had finally arrived.  Christ’s resurrection signified his victory over all powers of evil; during his ascension he proclaimed his victory and their defeat.  This understanding is further reinforced by the use of “preached/proclaimed” (Greek kerysso) for Christ’s proclamation (3:19); this term has a wider semantic range than the more specific “preached the good news” (Greek euangelizomai).

Different interpretations arose throughout the centuries, such as Christ’s descent into hell, probably due to the disappearance of the book of 1 Enoch after the second century until an Ethiopic copy was found late in the eighteenth century.

In conclusion, Christ, in his resurrected state (when), went to proclaim to the fallen angels or demonic spirits (to whom), who were imprisoned inside the earth (where) that “the day of the consummation of the great judgment,” i.e. their defeat had come upon them (what).  Thus, Christ’s victory over all evil, both spiritual and human would provide great encouragement, not only to Peter’s readers but to many Christians today facing unjust suffering to remain faithful as all evil forces opposing God have been subjected to Christ’s rule and will be vanquished in time to come.


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. 

Dignity, Respect and Speech

May 2019 Pulse

There has been much discussion in recent months in Singapore about deliberate falsehoods (especially the online variety) and hate or offensive speech. Hardly a day passes that The Straits Times does not carry an article or two about these menaces and what the Singapore government is doing to address them in the interest not only of social harmony but also that of national security.

Global concern over the scourge of fake news and hate mongering and the harm they inflict show that words do matter and that what is written, spoken or sung can cause irreparable harm to individuals, groups and even to society as a whole. In the era of deliberate falsehoods and hate speech, we can no longer accept as a truism that well-known idiom: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

The Christian Scriptures has much to say about the power of words, their ability to build up and tear down. For example, in Exodus 20:16 we find this clear injunction: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ Commenting on this verse, Walter Brueggemann notes that the ninth commandment emphasizes that ‘community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.’

Writing to the Christians at Ephesus, the apostle Paul exhorts them to put away all falsehoods and to ‘speak truthfully’ to their neighbour (Ephesians 4:25). Peter echoes Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Christians dispersed in Asia Minor when he writes: ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit’ (1 Peter 3:10).

Christian speech must always exhibit the qualities of civility and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Words must always be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). However, to say that these virtues should govern Christian speech is not to suggest that truth telling should be compromised, or that we should acquiesce to the culture of ‘political correctness’. For political correctness can itself be a form of falsehood, dishonesty and deceit that, in the long run, is harmful to human relationships.

To treat our neighbours with civility and respect is to acknowledge and honour their inherent dignity. It is to recognise that they are created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore valued by their Creator. Although this principle is firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the basic intuition it conveys is not lost to our secular culture.

For example, in a series of articles on hate speech, Jeremy Waldron has convincingly argued that this form of discourse is fundamentally an assault on human dignity. Working with a broadly Kantian account, Waldron insists that ‘dignity is inherent in every human person.’ Furthermore, Waldron believes that dignity does not only have to do with the moral status of an individual but his social and legal status as well, which have ‘to be established, upheld, maintained and vindicated by society.’

Noting that hate speech is mostly directed at minority groups, Waldron argues that it behoves the rest of society to do their best to address the problem so that the dignity of the members of the target group is protected. He maintains that when society takes measures to curb hate speech against a minority group, the members of that group will be assured that their basic dignity and social standing as citizens are valued and respected.

For Waldron, assurance, which he defines as the ‘pervasive, diffuse, ubiquitous, general, sustained, and reliable underpinning of people’s basic dignity and social standing, provided by all for all’, is a public good. Such an assurance is vitally important if members of a society are to live trustingly and peaceably with one another. Waldron explains:

[I]n a well-ordered society, where people are visibly impressed by signs of one another’s commitment to justice, everyone can enjoy a certain assurance as they go about their business. They can feel secure in the rights that justice defines; they can face social interaction without the elemental risks that such social interaction would involve if one could count on others to act justly.

But in order for society to offer such an assurance, every single member must recognise that it is their duty to treat their fellow citizens with dignity and respect. Seen from this perspective, laws against hate speech are not only meant to punish transgressors. They are also purposed to instil in the members of the public their (legal) duty to acknowledge each other’s civic status – as social equals and as bearers of rights – and to treat each other with dignity.

Hate speech violates the dignity of its victims by calling to question or rejecting their status as people that should be treated as equal members of society. As Jonathan Seglow has argued, hate speakers implicitly claim ‘that minorities do not really merit the basic civic entitlements which the majority of citizens enjoy.’ ‘Hate speakers’, he adds, ‘communicate the view that minorities, who are often already vulnerable and marginalised, are not members in full standing of society.’

In denigrating its victims, the hate speaker does not only treat them with profound disrespect, he also assaults their self-respect. Thus, Jonathan Seglow, in agreement with other commentators, has argued that ‘the damage to self-respect which hate speech causes is a direct harm: it sets back individuals’ interests in morally unacceptable ways. As such unless there are strong reason to the contrary, we should treat it as we do other harms.’

The menace of hate speech can be successfully dealt with only when members of a society learn to respect one another and see this not only as their civic and legal duty, but also (and more fundamentally) as their moral obligation. To respect an ‘other’ is to accord him or her with an inviolable dignity as an equal member of the human race. It is to value him or her as a unique human being, who, like the rest of us, is given the privilege to be a bearer of the divine image (Genesis 1:26-28).



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.

All Things To All Men: Being a Christian in a Secular Society

May 2019 Feature

In a world that is increasingly detached from religious belief, it is not easy to be a Christian that inspires faith.  The rise of secularism has placed believers in an increasingly minority position, and sometimes, the pressures of the world can threaten our Christian identity and purpose.

After 2,000 years of church history, it is easy to forget that our faith community was birth in the Roman world of political suspicion and religious persecution.  It was in this context that Paul’s testimony in 1 Cor 9:19-23 gives us some knowledge and useful insights to be a Christian in a secular society.

Paul became “all things to all people” so that by all possible means they may be saved (v22). How can we, too, intentionally seek to win others for Christ in our everyday interactions with the people we meet?

But first, what does it mean to be all things to all men?

It is important not to mistake this as conforming to the world. Christ has sent us to be in the world, but not of it (John 17:16). Paul says in Romans 12:1-3 that Christians should not conform to the patterns of the world, but to be transformed. Hence, Christians are called to create a new culture.

Paul’s strategy was to use his Christian freedom to become the slave of all (v19). It meant to become a servant, to have an attitude of servanthood. It meant putting the needs of others before himself to serve in love, in kindness, for the purpose of the Gospel.

Serve in love and humility

Colossians 3:23 is a good reminder that whatever we do, we do for the Lord and not for man. In the same way, when we serve others, we do it in love, as Christ did on earth. Jesus took the very nature of a servant when He was made into human likeness and came down to earth, ministering the good news to all.

Jesus did not discriminate against those who came to him. He did not judge. In fact, He welcomed the sinners and tax collectors—lowest members of Jewish society—to eat at his table. He healed the sick and the poor, including a leper, who in that time, was stigmatized as unclean. It was clear from Jesus’ attitude and actions that He had a heart for the poor.

Jesus saw individuals, not just their labels. Jesus didn’t let social status or cultural norms dictate His relationships with people. He brought the truth and good news to those who most needed it and were willing to listen. They recognized Jesus as a righteous man, a man of God—the miracles He performed bore witness to that—and they saw His compassion and sincerity.

If Jesus did not judge, who are we to judge those who may be of less status or wealth, or those who may be different than us, whether in culture, race, or religion?

Philippians 2:5 tells us to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus in our relationships with one another.

To be imitators of Christ – the command is simple but not an easy one to follow. But we can start first in our homes, workplaces and then communities. We can do this through meaningful acts of kindness to those around us.

Serve in kindness

Another aspect of “being all things to all men” is to engage others with kindness. Kindness is not simply being “tender-hearted” (Eph 4:32), but it involves having the confidence in our faith to interact with others of a different faith respectfully—as Paul related to the Jews and Greeks—without being threatening or imposing, yet at the same time, without compromising our own faith. It is speaking with empathy so that our words and deeds may reflect the loving-kindness of Christ. Kindness is other-centredness, putting the needs of others before our own.

In the Singapore Kindness Movement’s latest “Be Greater” campaign, we encourage the community to go beyond random acts of kindness, and think of individual and collective characters and values.

We need to acknowledge that every one of us has a responsibility towards building a community, a nation, a world of kindness – a world where people of different faith and beliefs can come together in peace and understanding.

In addition, it aims to act as a call for everyone to be better and greater versions of themselves, no matter which age and social group they belong to. For Christians, this is the transformed life we are called to live, a life greater than ourselves, a life dedicated to Christ.

Serve with purpose

In reading Paul’s testimony, we might ask why has he made himself a slave to all? Why is he becoming “as a Jew” to the Jews? Why did he make himself as a “lawless one” to the lawless, and weak to the weak?

It is important to understand that Paul did not become “all things to all men” to please people or to gain favour with anyone. He did it “to win as many as possible… for the sake of the gospel” (v23). He says this five times. Paul’s purpose was clear.

His ultimate goal was to witness to others the transformed life in Christ—saved by grace through faith—so that God may be glorified in him.

It is not by chance that God has placed us where we are – in a particular job, church, position of influence, and even in our roles as parents, wives, husbands, children. And He has given each of us unique talents and gifts to do the good work he has prepared for us to do (Eph 2:10).

How then, in your sphere of life, can you use your spiritual freedom to serve in love and kindness the way Paul and Jesus did, if by any means you might save some? Unless we are willing to be “all things to all people” and be out in the public sphere engaging all people, we are in danger of losing our preservative and savouring function of salt that remain in the salt shaker.


Dr. William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. He is also a winner of the Active Ager Award (Council of the Third Age) 2011. Prior to taking on this role as General Secretary, he was practising law and managing a psychometric company. Dr Wan also sits on the advisory panel of The Bible Society of Singapore.

Augustine and Christian Education

May 2019 Credo

One of the most important features of Christianity is its emphasis on teaching, or, to put it differently, its didactic character.

Writing to his protégé Titus, Paul exhorts him to ‘teach what accords with sound doctrine’ (Titus 4:1). In similar vein, Paul admonishes another young pastor, Timothy, to ‘follow the pattern of sound words (or sound teaching) … in the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ’ (2 Timothy 1:14).

The Commission that Christ gave to his disciples does not only involve baptising converts in the name of the triune God, but also ‘teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20).

Teaching is central to Christianity because it is a religion that is established on the truth that God has revealed in Jesus Christ, truth concerning the world, the human predicament, and God’s eternal plan for the creation he has brought into being. The Church has always seen teaching as an essential part of her mission to the world.

Christian instruction can come in many forms – preaching, the exposition of the Bible, catechisms, seminars – and it can take place in very different settings – Sunday worship, Sunday schools, Bible study groups, and small groups. But the fundamentals of Christian education remain the same.

What are these fundamental principles? What is Christian education for? And how should it be conducted? We turn to the great bishop and theologian of the fifth century, Augustine, arguably the most eminent Doctor of the Latin Church, for illumination and guidance.

Augustine was a prolific author whose writings have influenced both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. Although we can learn much about Christian education from his vast oeuvre, Augustine’s views on teaching the faith are clearly set out in three important treatises: On Catechising the Uninstructed (De catechizandis rudibus, AD 405), On Christian Doctrine (De doctrina Christiana, AD 397), and On the Teacher (De Magistro, AD 389).

For Augustine, the chief goal of Christian education is to enable the Christian to love God more deeply and, by natural consequence, to demonstrate authentic love towards one’s neighbour. In On Christian Doctrine Augustine puts this across plainly but compellingly: ‘Let it ever be your supreme thought that you must love God and your neighbour: God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself’.

The Christian should never see the mere acquisition of knowledge – even theological and spiritual knowledge – as the chief end of education. The knowledge of God, if it remains only at the cognitive and intellectual level, is, in Augustine’s understanding, deficient and incomplete – it is in fact not even true knowledge. True theological knowledge has to do with the kind of knowing that brings us ever deeper into a transforming relationship with the God whose very nature is love.

Christian education is about the pursuit of the truth which Augustine repeatedly emphasised can ultimately be found only in Jesus Christ, the supreme revelation of God. For Augustine, then, faith is the means by which the Christian appropriates truth concerning God, the world and salvation. True faith has a noetic aspect in that it is creates a faculty that enables the believer to perceive God’s revelation and trustingly accept it to be true.

This, however, does not mean that reason has no role whatsoever to play in our knowledge of God. Augustine presents a profound relationship between faith and reason in his writings premised fundamentally on his theological anthropology, that is, his understanding that God has created man in the divine image as rational beings.

Thus, while human beings come to know God by faith (Credo ut intelligas – I believe in order to understand), there is also a profound sense in which they are able to find God in the truths that they encounter in the world by the use of reason (Intellige ut credas – I understand in order to believe).

This conception of the relationship between faith and reason in our knowledge of God – which privileges the former without in any way denigrating or marginalising the latter – is the basis for Augustine’s understanding of the place the Bible and what may be broadly described as ‘pagan’ literature in the education of the Christian.

There can be no doubt that Augustine recognises the infallible authority of Scriptures in which the doctrines and practices of the Church must be grounded. In his famous letter to Jerome (Letter 82, dated 405), Augustine declares quite categorically that ‘I have yielded this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error’.

However, Augustine emphasises that the Christian’s reading and interpretation of Scripture must always be done under the tutelage of the Church. In On Christian Doctrine, he writes:

As to those who talk vauntingly of Divine Grace, and boast that they understand and can explain Scripture without the aid of such directions as those I now propose to lay down … I would such persons could calm themselves so far as to remember that, however justly they may rejoice in God’s great gift, yet it was from human teachers they themselves learn to read …’

What about the writings of pagans like Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle? Is there a place for them in the education of the Christian that is primarily grounded in Scripture and the authoritative teaching of the Church?

Augustine’s answer to this question is a qualified ‘Yes’.

We recall the fact that before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a philosopher and rhetorician. Following theologians who have written before him – Clement, Origen and Athanasius – Augustine believed that all truths come of God, and that secular or pagan philosophies do contain some nuggets of truth, albeit always commingled with and obfuscated by error.

The Christian, Augustine insists, must take an interest in these truths and excavate them regardless of whether they come from the pen of Plato or Cicero. ‘Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to the Master’, he writes.

But Augustine never tires of stressing that the Christian’s perusal of pagan literature should never be naïve and uncritical; it should always be marked with caution and sound judgement. He writes:

I think that it is well to warn studious and able young men, who fear God and are seeking for happiness in life, not to venture heedlessly upon the pursuit of branches of learning that are in vogue beyond the pale of the Church of Christ, as if these could secure for them the happiness they seek; but soberly and carefully discriminate among them’.

Such judicious sobriety is needed because Christian learning is not to satisfy our intellectual curiosities or carry us on flights of speculation, however titillating they may be.

For Augustine, the purpose of Christian education is spiritual formation, which is here defined as a life of holiness and obedience that flows out of the Christian’s ever-deepening knowledge of and relationship with his Creator.



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.

Words That Offend

May 2019 Pulse

In his recent ministerial statement on hate speech, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam stressed that society must not only condemn hate speech, it must also shun speech that is offensive. This is because if offensive speech is not checked, over time it would create an environment that is ‘conducive for discrimination and eventually violence.’ ‘If we normalise offensive speech,’ the Minister explains, ‘after a while, the tone, texture of public discourse will change. Giving offence to others will become normalised.’

What constitutes offensive speech has been a subject of much discussion and debate. Some commentators have suggested that there are at least two types of offensive speech.

The first type of offensive speech is described as speech that is objectively offensive. An example of objectively offensive speech is telling falsehoods or lies about people that can harm them by damaging their reputation and causing trust in them to erode. This would of course include online falsehoods about a racial or religious group that could generate public animosity against or create suspicion of the group in question.

Objectively offensive speech is in many ways closely related to (although not always synonymous with) hate speech. In some ways, speech of this nature is in most (although by no means all) cases slightly easier to identify and the laws that are already in place in Singapore are, broadly speaking, quite sufficient to deal with them. New laws may be introduced to supplement existing ones by filling the gaps in current legislation.

The second type of offensive speech is speech that is deemed to be subjectively offensive. This is speech that hurt someone’s feelings but otherwise does no real harm to that person. Subjectively offensive speech includes insensitive words or actions that cause displeasure or anger, even outrage.

Speech that may be categorised as subjectively offensive, however, is of a remarkably wide range. At one end of the spectrum, there is the hurtful language that we sometimes use in everyday conversations (including slangs and colloquialisms) or during a heated argument with someone.

For example, we say that this individual is ‘a retard’ or ‘an imbecile’ when venting our frustration at not getting through to him or in expressing our disappointment at him for his unwillingness (or inability) to see things the way we do. These and similar monikers are also sometimes used to mock an ethnic or religious group.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have publications or artwork that are offensive to people who belong to a particular religion or racial group. For example, recently the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed the Info-Communications Media Development of Authority to cancel the concert of metal rock band Watain because the lyrics of their songs are offensive to Christians. The most radical instance of subjectively offensive publication is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that denigrate Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

Although these materials are deemed deeply offensive and hurtful by the respective faith communities, some commentators have argued that they cannot be said to have inflicted actual harm on those communities. Much depends on how narrow or broad is one’s definition of harm. Be that as it may, what is of moment is that between the black-and-white instances of offensive speech lies vast swathes of grey.

And it is here (in this grey territory) that there will be profound disagreement and conflict. There will be debates not only on whether the speech in question is indeed offensive, but also whether it is offensive enough to warrant government intervention or legal action. There will also be disagreements on how the prohibitions of some forms of offensive speech (and the fear of transgressing these prohibitions) could encroach on free speech, and debates on how candid opinions should be distinguished from deliberate slurs. There will be disputes about who gets to decide where the proverbial bright-line, beyond which satire must never be permitted to cross, should be drawn.

But there also lurks the danger that the responses to different instances of offensive speech – by the targeted community or even by the Government – may be seen as being inconsistent and therefore construed as being biased or unfair. In such cases, subjectively offensive speech and the response from the targeted community and by the Government can easily be politicised and exploited by parties with the malicious intention of pitting one group against another. And this may result in more conflict and tension than the offending speech itself, making the situation more complex than it already is.

The Singapore Government has taken a practical approach to handling offensive speech.  In his interview with the press, Mr Shanmugam has explained the approach thus: ‘First, we look at the words, the material – how offensive are they? Second, we look at what is the likely impact of the speech? How would, for example, the community which is target of the offensive speech react?’ Then, there are also security considerations and whether the offense would escalate tensions or deepen existing fault lines.

Mr Shanmugam is right to maintain that it is not only impossible but also undesirable to ban everything. ‘Ban everything that is deemed insulting, offensive by anyone, or allow everything that is insulting, offensive. I have explained why that will eventually lead to trouble. I think Members will see that the absolute approach is undesirable.’

In similar vein, it is perhaps also not desirable to use the law to deal with every instance of offensive speech. Here, the principle of subsidiarity, especially in the way in which it is envisioned by the Christian tradition, can be employed in dealing with certain forms of offensive speech, particularly those that belong to the subjective variety.

Although this principle has been employed by Christians of all stripes, it was Pope Pius XI who articulated it most clearly in his social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (‘On Reconstruction of the Social Order’, 1931):

It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance to the right order to transfer to the larger and higher collective functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help [subsidium] to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.

In a helpful summary, Andrew Murray explains that the principle of solidarity states that while ‘the government should intervene in the affairs of citizens when help is necessary for the individual as well as for the common good … [it] insists that all functions than can be done by individuals or by lower level organisations be left to them.’ ‘The government, therefore, has a subsidiary or helping role in relation to lower organisations or individuals,’ adds Murray.

The origins and the complex applications of the principle of subsidiarity as an approach to social organisation need not detain us. What is of moment is that this principle can and should be applied wherever possible in dealing with subjectively offensive speech.

In addressing this type of offensive speech, the principle of subsidiarity recommends that government intervention should not be the immediate first step. Instead, the different racial or religious communities should be allowed to resolve the issue on their own, through dialogue, mediation and other social and communal avenues and mechanisms.

For example, if a Christian pastor were to make derogatory remarks in public about Muslims or Buddhists that are deeply offensive and hurtful to the Muslim or Buddhist communities, the leaders of those communities should bring this to the attention of the pastor (and perhaps the leaders of the pastor’s church or denomination) and try to resolve the matter amicably and civilly. The same approach should be taken if the offensive speech or action has to do with race.

The distinct advantages of such an approach are many. In addressing offensive speech in this way, the racial or religious communities are able to negotiate conflicts on their own and in the process (it is hoped) grow in sensitivity and respect for each other.

Thus, in contradistinction to what may be described as ‘legalist’ or ‘statist’ approaches, the communal approach to dealing with certain types of offensive speech – inspired by the principle of subsidiarity – can deepen and strengthen the relationships between the ethnic and religious communities which provide the social ballast for a multi-religious and multi-cultural society like Singapore.



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.

An Anatomy of Hate Speech

April 2019 Pulse

On 19 March 2019, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed that there are plans to conduct a ‘proper debate’ in Parliament on issues such as race, religion and hate speech. This announcement came in the wake of the horrific shootings in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which claimed the lives of 50 Muslims. A 28-year-old Australian man, whom media describe as a white supremacist and a member of the ‘Alt-right’, is responsible for the brutal massacres.

Minister Shanmugam states that tough laws must be put in place to tackle and curb hate speech, but rightly emphasises that this must be the work of everyone in society. ‘So, we have been (actively working on), and we have to continue to actively work on, bringing people together. Without that, it will not work. Who is the we? It is all of you. Every community, every group, every religious leader and, of course, the Government. All working together to achieve this.’

Hate speech, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, hate speech – in one form or another – has been used as a tool to legitimise the persecution, discrimination, hatred and murder of select groups of people. Hate speech has been employed especially in war and in times of conflict and unrest.

However, with the advent of the digital media, hate speech can be effectively disseminated and spread to large swathes of the population. Even more insidious is the fact that because digital media has a wide catchment area, hate speech, which is ordinarily reckoned as extreme by most, gets the appearance of being universal. Because of its reach, digital media can ‘normalise’ hate speech and thus extend its damage.

But what is hate speech? On the surface, the answer to this question seems pretty obvious. But the fact is that hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, making legislation against it difficult to implement.

Several regional and international bodies have attempted to provide a comprehensive definition of hate speech. For example, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe defines hate speech as all forms of expression which ‘incite racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance, since they undermine democratic society, cultural cohesion and pluralism’ (Recommendation No. R(97)20).

According to the Report by the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud of Norway, the Norwegian Criminal Code § 135 describes hate speech as speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred, persecution or contempt for someone because of their: (1) national or ethnic origin (including skin colour), or (2) religion or belief, or (3) sexual orientation, or (4) disability.

The Report elaborates that regardless of its motivating reason, hate speech has many common denominators. ‘It is often built on negative stereo-types, prejudice and stigmas, and it effects both individual and group dignity and reputation in society.’ Those who engage in hate speech often use exclusionary rhetoric to play up unfounded fear or contempt for a particular group.

The most extreme types of hate speech are those that would incite violence or hate crime against the group that is despised or discriminated against. ‘In its most extreme form,’ the Report states, ‘hate speech comes in the form of threats, glorification of violence, incitement to violence, death threat rhetoric – and in some cases in combination with violence and murder, i.e., hate crime.’

The many harmful effects of hate speech have also been carefully documented and discussed. Hate speech, which denigrates a targeted group (e.g., Muslims or Jews), also encourages the victimisation of that group. This generates deep anxieties and worries among members of the targeted group, which usually forms the minority of the population. Researchers have also found that hate speech has a contagious effect, and often results in even more hate speech.

Hate speech is an affront to democracy. This is because the people who are victims of prejudice and hate often avoid speaking out for fear of backlash and further harassment. And, in a multi-racial and multi-religious society like Singapore, the polarising effect of hate speech will jeopardise the social cohesion that we have worked so hard to foster.

Christians who are called to love not only their neighbours (Mark 12:31), but also enemies (Matthew 5:44) must of course reject the practice of hate speech because it not only demonises the other, but it also unfairly and damagingly tars the whole group with the same brush. Hate speech therefore violates the dignity of the other and subjects him to unfounded prejudice and unjust discrimination. In other words, hate speech dehumanises its victims.

While hate speech must be roundly rejected as a harmful and pathological way of treating the other, what constitutes hate speech is, as I have alluded to above, difficult to ascertain and identify. Although the definitions cited above may look straightforward and compelling at first glance, closer examination will immediately show that this is not in fact the case.

For example, according to the Norwegian Criminal Code, hate speech is speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred. Barring very extreme cases, what is ‘threatening’ or ‘insulting’ is in fact very subjective and mostly debatable. The definition offered by the Council of Europe that hate speech is that speech which incites racial hatred, xenophobia and intolerance is similarly problematic. This is because speech that is deemed to be inciting such attitudes is quite often subjected to a variety of interpretation. In addition, the context in which such speech is made can clarify as well as obfuscate the matter.

In their paper published by the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, Jóna Aðalheiður Pálmadóttir and Iuliana Kalenikova notes that ‘Hate speech is a complicated concept and there is no internationally accepted definition or understanding of it.’ ‘[A]lthough many countries have passed legislation prohibiting hate speech,’ they add, ‘what is defined as hate speech varies significantly between countries and regions.’

There are those that define hate speech in the narrowest way possible in order not to impose undue restrictions to the freedom of expression. For example, the free speech advocacy group ARTICLE 19 while eschewing hate speech believes that ‘offence should never be a basis for restricting expression, even if it is discriminatory …’ Furthermore, it maintains that direct blasphemy of a particular religion or insulting the religious feelings of a particular faith community should not be considered as ‘hate speech’. For this group, the only kind of speech that must be deemed unlawful is speech that incites violence on a particular individual and group.

But the lack of consensus on what hate speech entails has a more sinister consequence. It allows extremist groups to use the rhetoric of hate speech to silence all forms of criticism or challenges to their ideologies and agendas.

In an article published in this space entitled, ‘Islamophobia Phobia’ (March 2017), I cited the case of the sexual abuse of at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham by Pakistani gangs from 1997 to 2013. The official inquiry revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose not to do anything about it because they were afraid of being accused of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’.

In the hands of extremists ‘hate speech’ can become a powerful political tool to conceal the truth by preventing it from being told. Even appropriate and legitimate public opprobrium or censure of the behavior or agenda of a particular group can be labeled as ‘hate speech’ and condemned as racist, intolerant, or bigoted by that group. Hate speech can force the public to adopt a form of self-censorship (a self-imposed gagging order) that can be detrimental to the security of our society and its members.

Laws against hate speech, which are meant to protect the dignity of certain members of society (especially those belonging to a minority group), may be used by unscrupulous extremists in a way that not only goes against public interest, but also puts the larger society at risk.



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.

Science and Theology as Analogous Research Programmes

April 2019 Credo

Richard Dawkins, the famous British atheist, famously asserts that since science works, it must be true and we must believe what it says. If Christianity clashes with science, so much the worse for Christianity. For this reason, some college students are persuaded to abandon their Christian faith once they conclude that it has been discredited by science.

The perception that science has discredited Christianity is based on two assumptions. First, the results of science are empirically verified and indubitable in contrast to the unverifiable claims of Christianity. Second, Christianity not only lacks explanatory power; it is in conflict with the empirical findings of science. For example, God becomes redundant once evolution explains the origins of species and inflationary cosmology explains the origin of the multiverse. We are reminded of the famous incident when Napoleon Bonaparte questioned Pierre Laplace why his large book on cosmology never mentioned the Creator, to which Laplace retorted, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

However, neither Dawkins nor Laplace should be given the last word. There are other eminent scientists who do not agree that there is conflict between science and Christianity. Furthermore, science itself faces several intractable problems.

First, we note the problem of induction. For example, scientists apply the following process of reasoning when they try to identify a sample of clear liquid in a flask.

Hypothesis: If this liquid is water, it should boil at 100 degree Celsius. [If P then Q]

Experimental result: This liquid boils at 100 degree Celsius. [Q]

Scientific conclusion: This liquid is therefore water. [Therefore, P]

It is apparent that this form of reasoning commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent: [If (1) P then Q, (2) Q, (3) Therefore, P].

Second, science can only produce probabilistic truth claims. That is to say, no amount of repeated testing can generalize a universal truth claim. The prediction that “the sun will rise from the East” has been confirmed to be true billions of times. But this does not guarantee that “the sun will rise from the East” tomorrow. In short, no amount of observation can absolutely confirm a theory.

Third, David Hume has pointed out that science is beset by a serious epistemological problem. He noted that while Newton’s theory of gravity has been successful in explaining motion, in reality we can’t observe the forces themselves. Likewise, while we may conclude that a ball causes another ball to move after they collide, in reality we never observe or experience the forces of the collision. We don’t see the causal interaction between the balls, but we cannot help believing some kind of metaphysical “stuff” causes the interaction. Hume concluded his Treatise of Human Nature with a caution for epistemological modesty for scientists: “We are only acquainted with its [the appearances of objects] effects on the senses, and its power of receiving body. Nothing is more suitable to that philosophy, than a modest scepticism to a certain degree, and a fair confession of ignorance in subjects, that exceed all human capacity.”

Karl Popper seeks to evade the problem of induction by arguing that the method of science is not verification but falsification, that is, it proposes bold conjectures and tries repeatedly to show them false. A theory is scientific if it is able to state in advance what will count as falsifying it. If it is falsified by reliable and reproducible experimental results, that theory must be abandoned.

Popper seems to have proposed a neat solution to ensure that scientists maintain their methodological rigor. However, Thomas Kuhn argues in his classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, that in practice, scientists do not conform to Popper’s stringent requirement. For example, scientists did not abandon Newton’s theory of gravitation when they discovered that the orbit of Uranus deviates from the path predicted by Newtonian mechanics. Instead, they resorted to post hoc explanations by positing that the irregular path of Uranus must be due to gravitational interference by a yet unseen planet further out of the solar system. Their conjecture turned out to be true!

The history of scientific controversies suggests that scientific observation and testing is theory-laden and influenced by background assumptions. Scientific knowledge is not built on indubitable foundations; it is rather held together as a web of theories/beliefs (W.V. Quine). Theories with the strongest supporting evidence are located at the centre while the weaker and contested theories are located at the fringe. The testing of truth claims is carried out in the context of a reigning scientific paradigm – a disciplinary matrix that comprises a comprehensive set of interlocking laws, theories and applications. The paradigm is accepted or rejected as a whole, based on criteria like simplicity, empirical fit and explanatory power.

Imre Lakatos suggests that science is built around a “hard core” of background theories which generates a “research programme” of “auxiliary hypotheses” for the purpose of testing. These “auxiliary hypotheses” may be altered or abandoned in response to their test results. They form a “protective belt” so that the “hard core” is not under pressure to be altered immediately, if not abandoned upon every scientific testing. Nancey Murphy applies Lakatos’ methodology to theology – the “hard core” would be the Trinitarian doctrine of God, his holiness and revelation in Jesus. “Auxiliary hypotheses” may be theoretical like original sin or practical like Jonathan Edward’s tests for valid signs of a work of the Holy Spirit.

The view that science comprises a hierarchy of truth-claims was actually presaged by John Warwick Montgomery in his article “The Theologian’s Craft.” (1966). He took a cue from Charles Peirce who described scientific investigation as a process of “abduction” whereby the scientist starts with a set of observations and then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. The scientist uses his imagination in the abduction process to generate cycles of theory formation and testing in order to devise conceptual gestalts (or patterns of meaning and interpretation) within which data observed in nature is made intelligible.

As mentioned earlier, theological inquiry is analogous to scientific investigation as it specifies which theory (doctrine) forms the core that is immune to immediate testing, and which theories serve as “auxiliary hypotheses” to be tested. The Bible is the repository of irreducible objective historical facts and truths of divine revelation.  The core theory of divine revelation is that Jesus as God incarnate died for the sins of the world and rose again for its justification. The task of the biblical scholar is to discover how the truths of divine revelation were progressively revealed and developed in the Bible. The task of the systematic theologian is to work out the revealed truths discovered by biblical scholars in order to demonstrate their proper relations to the core truth and to construct conceptual gestalts that ‘fit’ the revealed truths in their mutual relations so that they capture the unity and essence of revealed truth.

Both science and theology formulate “auxiliary hypotheses” or “conceptual gestalts” (doctrines) as indirect tests for the veracity of their core theories. The test for scientific theory is whether it explains the observed physical phenomena while the test for doctrine is whether it gives a coherent explanation of the facts of religious experience. The similarities between science and theology extend to cases where truth claims are upheld despite their paradoxical nature. For example, scientists uphold the paradox of the wave-particle theory to explain the contradictory properties of subatomic phenomena while theologians uphold the conceptual gestalt of the Trinity to explain concrete religious experience. In these cases, both the scientists and the theologians are humbly subordinating their theory to match the data at hand.

Michael Polanyi notes that science is not merely an impersonal execution of an abstract algorithm of research. It entails “connoisseurship” that includes transmission of research skills from master to apprentice, the art of problem solving and discovery, and shared commitment to scientific values. Scientific knowledge is not merely objective; it is intensely personal as it requires “conviviality” as scientists are bonded together by shared commitment (faith) to scientific values in their common enterprise. Likewise, theological inquiry is intensely personal. Doctrines are not impersonal construct as they serve as guideposts which set priorities for Christian life. For example, the doctrine of Trinity may appear abstract to the uninitiated, but it touches the prayer life of the theologian.

Scientific theories and doctrines are accepted by the research and interpretative community because of their explanatory power for empirical observation and religious experience. The profound truths uncovered by science and religion should elicit awe and wonder. To quote Immanuel Kant, “Two things fill my mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the reflection dwells on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”



Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.

Towards an Ethos of Responsibility in Southeast Asia

April 2019 Feature

Are member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accountable actors that care and provide for their own peoples and societies?  Do they conduct themselves in ways that reflect a felt sense of obligation toward their neighbours?  In a word, are ASEAN countries hospitable, are they responsible?

The violence perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State by their own government, and the tepid responses of many ASEAN countries toward Myanmar vis-à-vis the resulting refugee crisis, appear to suggest otherwise.  Indeed, the Rohingya crisis, some would say, is but the latest in a long litany of travesties in the region.  They are rendered the more tragic, so critics have contended, because of the apparent refusal by countries to protect not only their own populations, but those of their neighbours, from plights and tribulations whether natural or manmade.

Southeast Asia has long been viewed as a region whose governments jealously guard their national interests and mind their own business, or who are vociferously reminded to do so by aggrieved neighbours who invoke the ASEAN principle of “non-interference,” deploying it as one might a charm to fend off unwanted criticism or intrusion.  The concept of national sovereignty in Southeast Asia is ostensibly understood and upheld by ASEAN countries as the exclusive, enduring and inalienable right of nations to be undisturbed from without.  This view is absolutely consistent with international law.  It becomes a problem, however, when governments repress their own peoples—ironically, the very ones to whom they are or should be accountable—in the belief that they have the right to do as they please.

In the 1990s, developments in regional conflict management in Africa led the Sudanese diplomat and legal scholar Francis Deng and his associates to advance the ground-breaking notion of “sovereignty as responsibility.”  For Deng and friends, sovereignty is not merely about the rights of nations but equally their responsibility to perform the tasks expected of effective governments and to meet the needs of the societies under their care.  In the 2000s, this re-envisioning of sovereignty was further developed by an international commission into “the responsibility to protect,” which the United Nations subsequently adopted and refined into a doctrine regarding the protection of populations from grave harm.  Stressing that nations are obligated to protect populations against which crimes against humanity—such as genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes—are being carried out, the UN took the extraordinary step to sanction the use of “timely and decisive” military intervention by the international community against errant governments guilty of those offences.

Despite endorsing the responsibility to protect at the UN, the ASEAN countries did not back the notion of military intervention.  But while their ambivalence towards the responsibility to protect was not unique, combined with ASEAN’s categorical support for non-interference, the perceptible net effect was that of a region whose self-centred inhabitants cared little for each other.  Global norms may have evolved but the actual conduct of many nation-states is still working to catch up.

Be that as it may, developments in Southeast Asia over the past several years suggest change is afoot.  As a consequence of their growing awareness of and shared concern over the rise of transnational challenges facing the region—natural disasters such as devastating tsunamis and cyclones, viral epidemics like the 2003 SARS crisis, economic shocks like the 1997 financial crisis—the ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners have been developing mechanisms aimed at enhancing their capacities to assist one another and to respond collectively and meaningfully to those challenges.

In the area of disaster relief, they have formed the ASEAN Militaries Ready Group to support humanitarian missions, endorsed standard operating procedures for the utilisation of national assets in humanitarian emergencies under the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), and sought ways to enhance the interoperability of the region’s armed forces when executing those missions.  In the area of economic recovery, they have put in place the Chiang Mai Initiative, a currency reserve pool for relieving ailing economies under duress.  Despite the absence of any legal obligation to assist, ASEAN countries have sought to aid and assist one another, whether on their own or collectively through any of the ASEAN-based regional mechanisms and platforms.

Ultimately, in a region still wedded to the non-interference principle, the onus in times of emergencies rests with the affected countries themselves to invite the help of international organisations and other countries.  However, this logic does not free the others from their obligation to assist.  Both recipient and provider equally share the responsibility to furnish succour, safety and security to affected populations: the recipient through her grant of consent and invitation; the provider through her contributions of aid, assistance and the like.  Indeed, a prospective provider cannot not respond to the prospective recipient because their very identities are predicated upon conditions of sociality rather than of autonomy.  In other words, the fundamental importance of the other to my very being is such that without her and her infinite demand for my hospitality, there can be no ‘I’ or self.  As Zlatan Filipovic has written, “One is a subject only and insofar as one is awakened or ‘sobered up’ to responsibility for the other person.”

The path towards an ethos of responsibility in Southeast Asia is neither simple nor straightforward.  So far, the signs that aspiration is being translated into reality are promising but embryonic.  According to the ethicist Philip Hallie, “Deeds speak the language of the great virtues far better than words do.  Words limp outside the gates of the mystery of compassion for strangers.” Responsibility is as responsibility does, and Southeast Asia would be the better for it.



Dr Tan See Seng is Professor of International Relations at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and concurrently Deputy Director and Head of Research of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. 

Pastoring with the Fathers

April 2019 Credo

In the past three decades, a number of Christian writers have commented on the way in which the role of the minister has morphed in modern evangelical Christianity.

In 1934, William Adams Brown and Mark A. May conducted a major study on clerical roles, the results of which were published in four volumes. In the main, the study identified five major roles of the minister: teacher, preacher, worship leader, pastor and administrator.

About fifty years later, in 1986, another major study was conducted which saw the minister’s roles expand from five to fourteen. What is even more alarming is that for many evangelical churches, technical and managerial competence are deemed to be more important than traditional ministries like preaching, teaching and pastoral care.

In addition, the pastoral ministry is being increasingly professionalised. As David Wells puts it, ‘It is being anchored firmly in the middle class, and the attitudes of those who are themselves professionals or who constantly deal with them are increasingly defining who the minister is’.

As a result, the minister is no longer regarded as a pastor-theologian and spiritual guide. He is now seen as a CEO.

The twin dangers of secularisation and professionalization must be addressed if the biblical and theological vision of the pastoral ministry is to be preserved. How are we to do this?

One way to do this is to return to the authoritative sources of the Christian faith, an approach that the Roman Catholic Church calls ressourcement. In this brief article, I turn to the writings of two of early Christianity’s most illustrious theologians to see what might be gleaned from them that would serve as correctives to the modern distortions of the ministerial office.

The first is Gregory of Nazianzus’ Second Oration (also known as De fuga) that was preached shortly after Easter of 362. And the second is John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood (De sacerdotio), a document that many scholars date between 388 and 390.

These two treatises represent very different genres and were written with very different purposes in mind. De fuga is an apology that was preached before a liturgical assembly, while On the Priesthood is a dialogue between Chrysostom and a friend.

Even a cursory reader of these treatises would be struck by the high view of the office of the priest or the minister they espouse and present. Priests, according to Chrysostom, ‘are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven’. Referring to Matthew 18:18, he argues that priests have been given an authority that ‘God has not even given to angels or archangels’ – the authority to ‘bind and loose’.

The ministers in God’s Church, he adds, are superior even to the Jewish priests. The latter only has the authority to examine a physical body and pronounce it to be free from leprosy. But Christian ministers and priests ‘have authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness – not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away’.

The early theologians’ exalted view of the office of the minister is clearly premised on their understanding of the priesthood as spiritual vocation.

According to Fr Joseph Carola SJ, the early fathers of the Church understood the function of the priestly or pastoral office in terms of the triple munera: the munus regendi, the munus docendi and the munus sanctificandi.

Gregory describes the munus regendi (the duty of pastoral governance) as the ‘art of arts and the science of sciences’. Now, when the fathers speak of governance they do not have in mind the management of the Church in the way we moderns understand it. Rather pastoral governance for them has to do with spiritual healing, with the cure and care of souls.

In a splendid passage in the Second Oration, Gregory describes what the munus regendi entails. ‘The scope of our art’, he writes, ‘is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: that in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host’.

The munus docendi has to do with the teaching responsibilities of the Christian minister. All the fathers of the Church see this sacred duty of expounding the word of God as at once the minister’s highest honour and his greatest responsibility.

According to Gregory, the minister is the teacher of the faith and the defender of the truth. It is by humbly fulfilling this role that the minister truly serves the people of God.

The counsel that these ancient spiritual writers give to Christian ministers has a surprisingly modern ring to it. Chrysostom instructs ministers not to be populist, that is, not to be swayed by the cultural currents of the day or threatened by criticisms, especially those from the ‘outside world’. ‘Let, therefore, the man who undertakes the strain of teaching never give heed to the good opinion of the outside world, not be dejected in soul on account of such persons’, writes the golden-mouth Preacher.

The minister should instead be his own harshest critic, as he measures his ministry against the high standards set by God himself. In his quest to fulfil this great responsibility, the sole aim of the minister must be to please and honour God: ‘For a sufficient consolation in his labours, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to please God’.

Finally, the minister exercises the munus sanctificandi (duty of sanctification), chiefly through the administration of the sacraments. To the minister or the priest is given the authority to ‘bring down the Holy Spirit’, says Chrysostom. The priest ‘makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all’.

Because the work of the minister and priest has to do with administering the sacraments – the means of God’s divine grace – he must apply himself to the pursuit of holiness and godliness. ‘How could I dare to offer to him the external sacrifice, the antitype of the great mysteries, or clothe myself with the garb and name of priest’, writes Gregory, ‘before my hands had been consecrated by holy works … before my ear had been sufficiently opened to the instruction of the Lord’.

This brings me to the most consistent and undoubtedly the most important emphasis of the early Church fathers regarding the Christian ministry, namely, the holiness of the minister. Christian ministry has to do with more than the skills and competence of the minister. It has to do more crucially with the virtuous life of the minister.

As Christopher Beeley puts it in his excellent study of Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘Priestly virtue is … the single most important element of pastoral ministry, above education, eloquence, and social status’. In fact, Gregory explicitly says that ‘to undertake the training of others before being sufficiently trained oneself … seems to me to be excessive folly or excessive rashness’.

Only the minister who is pure in heart will be able to understand the depths of Scripture, ‘rise from letter to spirit’, and penetrate the mysteries of God, writes Gregory. Thus, the Christian minister must continuously train himself in godliness. ‘He should know no limits in goodness or spiritual progress’, insists the Archbishop of Constantinople and theologian, ‘and should dwell upon the loss of what it still beyond him’.

The writings of these ancient theologians contain an uncommon wisdom that every Christian minister in the modern church badly needs, regardless of his ecclesiastical tradition. They provide a compass that would enable those whom God has called to be his servants to navigate the confusing labyrinth that is the modern world, to avoid its insidious trappings, and to be the faithful embodiment of God’s truth which is genuinely counter-cultural and liberating.



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.

Far-Right Extremism

April 2019 Pulse 

On 15 March, terrorist attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, left 50 dead and dozens injured. The attacks were carried out by Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, 28, who was later arrested by police. Describing it as one of New Zealand’s ‘darkest days’ at a press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said that the attack was perpetrated by a suspect with ‘extreme views’ that had no place in the country or the wider world.

Brenton Tarrant is a ‘lone-wolf’ far-right extremist who has no qualms about resorting to violence to achieve his twisted nationalistic ideals. In his online ‘manifesto’ Tarrant admits that he has interacted with many right-wing groups and organisations, but denies being a ‘direct member’ of any. Their profound influence on him is all too evident in these horrific acts.

The Christchurch mosque massacres have highlighted once again the rise of far-right extremism and white supremacism not only in Europe and America, but also in Australia and New Zealand.

Scholars note that right-wing terrorism has been on the rise since the 2000s. The most spectacular instance of this brand of terrorism is the massacre of 77 young people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. Since then, there have been numerous reported cases of right-wing violence: the killing of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, attacks on mosques in London and Quebec and the murder of British MP Jo Cox.

According to research by the Anti-Defamation League, over the last decade 73.3% of all extremist-related fatalities in the US could possibly be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4% were attributed to Islamist extremists.

Definitions

What does the term far-right extremism refer to?

 Scholars warn that the descriptor ‘far-right’ is extremely slippery because it often suggests a wide spectrum of non-mainstream ideologies and attitudes. This ranges from radical, populist and anti-establishment organised parties that are non-violent to clandestine terrorist individuals and groups that see violence as a means of realising their vision of society.

In similar vein, it is notoriously difficult to arrive at a clear definition of far-right extremism. Although the word has been bandied about by politicians, the press and in social media, there is no consensus as to what extremism entails or who gets to define it.

In his book Radical Right, Pippa Norris points out that there are many different labels for far-right political parties and social groups – ‘Far’, ‘extreme’, ‘radical’, ‘new right’, ‘ultra-nationalist’, etc. He suggests that it is best to see these groups as a cluster or family of parties instead of a single category.

Xenophobia

Be that as it may, many scholars agree that far-right extremist groups of whatever stripe may be said to be in some ways opposed to the foundations of liberal democracy. These include ideas about national identity, citizenship and political pluralism well as liberal policies concerning minority groups.

These concerns are intertwined in a profound way in the mind of far-right extremists, especially those who espouse a more militant agenda. One obvious example is how perceived ‘enemies’ are constructed based on the way in which national identity and citizenship are construed by these extremists. When identity and citizenship are primarily, even if not exclusively, defined in purely ethnic (i.e., white supremacist) terms, ethnic minorities are invariably seen as threats.

It is therefore not difficult to see the relationship between far-right extremism and migration. A number of important studies have shown a correlation between the emergence and growth of far-rights groups in Western Europe and the United States and the increase level of migration from Muslim nations and the incidence of Islamic terrorism. Thus, it is not uncommon to find Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes targeted at the Muslim community after a terrorist incident perpetrated by Islamists, even if the attack occurred elsewhere.

Douglas Pratt uses the concept of co-radicalisation to describe this phenomenon. Co-Radicalisation, Pratt explains, is:

… the phenomenon whereby the awareness or presumption by one party that another is fomenting a threatening extremism then precipitates, within the first party, a reactive move in the direction of a like radicalisation even though, paradoxically, the perceived initial extremism of the second party is eschewed and denounced.

Seen in this way, Islamist militancy and far-right extremist violence may be said to serve as catalysts and impetuses for each other, the one group motivating the other to greater acts of violence.

But far-right xenophobia extends beyond the Muslim community. As Sophie Gaston notes, ‘a broader cultural disenfranchisement from particularly white working class communities in parts of Western Europe and the United States has fostered a more focused expression of far-right rhetoric and hate crimes towards more traditional minority targets, such as the Jewish, African American or Roma communities.’

Populism and Extremism

There is also a correlation between the advent of far-right populism, fuelled by the erosion of public trust in institutions, to the rise of right-wing extremism. As Gaston explains: ‘As citizens’ trust in institutions has reached historical lows, the proliferation of a widespread anti-establishment sentiment, propagated by the far-right but also far-left, has goaded appetite for disruptive political forces and “radical” perspectives.’

Consequently, even the more extreme sentiments and attitudes emanating from the far-right crusaders might become less radical sounding and more acceptable to the malcontent general public. Describing this shift, Gaston writes: ‘… it certainly is the case that the proliferation and open visibility of previously “fringe” perspectives on racial superiority, exclusionary language regarding migrant populations, nationalistic rhetoric and ethnically based conceptions of national identity and border policies, are contributing to a more favourable and normalised public environment for far-right extremism that has been the case for decades.’

The internet and social media have been widely and effectively harnessed by far-right populists and extremists as a source of political information and networking tool. Extremists take advantage not only of the ease with which the internet makes the formation of new communities and sharing of ideological material possible, but also the anonymity that it guarantees.

For example, in its 2016 research on far-right activities on Facebook, Demos discovered scores of dedicated pages across four European countries – UK, France, Italy, and Hungary – with hundreds of thousands of posts within the period of two months, contributed by tens of thousands of unique users.

Family Resemblances

Scholars have also noted the striking family resemblances between far-right extremism and Islamist militancy.

Just like their Islamist counterparts, far-right extremists sometimes use religion – in this case, mostly Christianity – to justify their violent acts of terrorism. For example, the members of Christian Identity often claim that their campaign of violence and criminal activities are sanctioned by religion. Sovereign Citizens, a white nationalist group, believes that its doctrines and programmes are inspired and sanctioned by God. And violent anti-abortion extremists in America believe that they are acting in concert with the teachings of the Bible and their online propaganda is often inundated with Scriptural references.

Like the Islamist jihadists, these far-right extremists often use religion to support their own political ideologies and to inspire imagination of some utopian social order that they feel called to bring about. Some employ apocalyptic imageries gleaned from the Book of Revelation to sacralise their political agendas, while others see themselves and their work as the fulfilment of biblical prophecies.

Still others imagine that they are a part of an ancient military order that has been defending Christianity since the time of the Crusades. For example, the Norwegian white nationalist Anders Breivik believes that he stands in continuity with the 12th century Catholic military order called the Knight’s Templar (Order of Solomon’s Temple). In his manifesto, Breivik maintains that Christianity is ‘the only cultural platform that can unite all Europeans, which will be needed in the coming period during the third expulsion of the Muslims.’ Yet he laments that the Church he has in mind ‘does not exist anymore because it has been deconstructed.’

Finally, right-wing extremists and Islamists alike think that their respective communities are being perpetually threatened. For example, Jason Burk notes that ‘For Islamists, the belief that a belligerent west has set on the humiliation and exploitation of the world’s Muslims for the best part of 1,000 years is axiomatic.’

Consequently, both fair-right extremists and Islamists are resolved to resist the ‘tyrannies’ that oppress their respective peoples and communities. The former see the government as their primarily oppressor that must be challenged and fought until their imagined community – often defined by ethnicity or race, as we have seen – is no longer under siege. The latter believe that apostate rulers and regimes should be toppled so that true Islam can flourish.

Conclusion

Needless to say, Christians should have no truck with the extremism and violence of these far-right activists.

The use of Christianity to undergird their ideologies or sanction their (violent) campaigns should be rejected together with their radical politics of difference, ethnocentricity, racism, xenophobia, and their venomous rhetoric of hate and intolerance. The politics of exclusion embodied by these extremists cannot be more antithetical to the command that Jesus gave to his disciples to love not just the neighbour (Mark 12:30-31), but also the enemy (Matthew 5:44).

Let me conclude this article with a word of caution by returning to a point alluded to earlier to underscore its importance in public discourse. It has to do with the word that is often bandied about in various quarters but is notoriously difficult to define, and therefore potentially dangerous. I am referring to that vexingly problematic word ‘extremism’.

What constitutes religious ‘extremism’? Who is the religious extremist? The Oxford Dictionary defines an extremist as ‘a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.’ An attempt to define ‘extremist’ by using the word extreme twice could hardly be described as successful or even helpful.

Be that as it may, arriving at some kind of consensus and clarity about what religious extremism entails cannot be more important in our day. As Jonathan Merritt has rightly observed: ‘In an age of religious terrorism, “extremist” is too damaging a word to be tossed around with such little discretion. When society slaps the E-word on something, it marks it for marginalisation.’

For the secular and uninformed public, certain orthodox religious beliefs and practices may be deemed to be extreme.

For example, in a study conducted in the United States, 60 per cent of Americans would label a person who tries to convert others to their faith as extreme. Forty-two per cent would apply this label to anyone who would ‘quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.’ And a quarter of those who participate in the study would accord that moniker to a teenage girl who is determined to abstain from sex until marriage.

In other words, a conservative Christian who wishes to be obedient to the Bible and a faithful Muslim who seeks to follow the Koran may be deemed as extreme because their worldviews and actions are at odds with what secular and liberal culture consider as the norm.

When religious extremism is not properly defined, a new kind of intolerance emerges that often leads to the exclusion of those whose views and behaviours the majority deems to be anti-social or simply odd. As Merritt put it: ‘Carelessly painting such wide swaths with a caustic descriptor is its own form of intolerance.’ When there is no clarity as to what constitutes religious extremism, the term can be used to condemn, marginalise and alienate.



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.