Author Archives: Florence Kang

“Once Saved Always Saved” and Other Controversies

March 2019 Credo

Question: How can a believer reconcile the doctrine of “Once Saved Always Saved” with Hebrews 6:4-6?

This question raises the important larger issue of how the formation of Christian doctrines and the interpretation of the Bible are related to each other. I hope the person who raised this question will forgive me if I dwell on this issue, instead of answering his or her question specifically. I do this because I am convinced that, if we see the larger picture, many issues of the Christian faith, including the question of whether we are able to lose our salvation, would fall into their proper place.

Many Christians probably hold on to such an understanding of the relationship between Christian doctrines and biblical interpretation: Christians begin by studying the Bible, and then distilling and systematising its teachings, which then constitute the doctrines of the faith. In this rather simplistic account, Christians are assumed to approach the Bible with a tabula rasa (blank slate), and derive all their content and conclusions purely from what the Bible says.

More sophisticated theories of interpretation (and, we might add, our personal experiences) tell us that such a simplistic account of interpretation does not occur in real life. The reader always brings a set of presuppositions with him when he encounters a text, and his interpretation of what the text says is profoundly affected by these presuppositions. This is why, in the history of the Church, the same Bible passage could be interpreted in radically different ways by different groups of Christians, all fervently convinced that their reading is the correct one.

The presuppositions we bring to the text come from a variety of sources, e.g., our cultural backgrounds, our experiences, our personalities and our unique forms of reasoning. For Christians, one important source of presuppositions is our current understanding of the Christian faith (i.e., the set of doctrines we hold). This constitutes an influential framework in and through which we read and understand the Bible.

This does not mean, however, that we are inevitably trapped by our presuppositions when we read the Bible (or any other text). This is because the act of reading, while invariably influenced in profound ways by our presuppositions, also has the power to give us fresh insights. These insights, may, in some cases, strengthen our presuppositions, but may also, in others, challenge or undermine them. Hence, as we are exposed to different texts and different opinions, there is a possibility that we might change our minds and refine or even jettison our current set of presuppositions.

Because of how Protestant Christianity, in her history, has split into numerous different streams, different groups of Protestants are influenced by different theological frameworks when they read the Bible. One major framework is provided by the Reformed movement, which began in Switzerland in the 16th century.

This movement, also called Calvinism, places great emphasis on the sovereignty of God, especially in the process of our salvation. It is God who predestines those who would be saved and those who would not, and such predestination cannot be changed in the slightest by any other factors, including our human decisions. It was within such a scheme that the teaching of “once saved always saved” arose, and it is easy to understand why. Only those who have been predestined would receive salvation, and there is no possibility they could lose this salvation because it rests ultimately on the unchangeable predestining will of God.

An alternative scheme arose as a result of dissent within the Reformed movement itself. A Dutch theologian called Jacob Arminius sought to give a more efficacious role to the human will in our salvation. The counter-movement he started, called Arminianism, eventually came to reject the “once saved always saved” teaching. Because we are free to reject God’s saving grace, even after receiving it, it was possible for Christians to renounce their faith and lose their salvation.

It was both natural and expected that the Calvinists and Arminians would read the Bible according to their respective theological frameworks. These frameworks determine how the two groups deal with texts which, on the surface, are both favourable and unfavourable to their respective positions. The Calvinists, therefore, tend to put emphasis on the passages which seem to suggest the permanence of our salvation (e.g. Jn 10:27-30, Phil 1:6) and interpret the “less convenient” passages in a way consistent with their larger scheme.

So, when it comes to Heb 6:4-6, some Calvinists argue that those whom the passage mentions as being in danger of “falling away” are those who are not true Christians and who have not been saved in the first place. Other Calvinists accept that Heb 6:4-6 was addressed to true Christians, but say that it refers only to a hypothetical situation (true Christians falling away) which would never materialise in reality. Arminians, on the other hand, appeal to a more “straightforward” reading of Heb 6:4-6, and have their own strategies for interpreting the passages traditionally seen as supportive of Calvinism.

How should we Protestants respond to this situation we find ourselves? There are, I would like to suggest, two levels of response we can make. On one level, we can put effort into undertaking a serious study of the key Bible passages in the Calvinist-Arminian debate (including Heb 6:4-6), with the aid of commentaries and scholarly writings. Such study, however, should be undertaken with a clear-headed realisation that our own presuppositions profoundly influence our reading of these passages (and that the same is true for the authors we consult). The aim of such a study is to see if we gain new insights which may either strengthen our present theological beliefs or challenge them.

On another (and I would suggest, more important) level, we should examine the underlying theological frameworks themselves. Besides the specific issue of what the Bible says on whether we are able to lose our salvation, what are the strengths and weaknesses of both the Calvinist and Arminian positions as a whole?

Are there, in fact, alternatives to these two positions, and might these alternatives render moot several of the seemingly important issues in this intra-Protestant debate? Could we, for example, hold the poles of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in a kind of ineffable tension, and avoid the detailed clarity with which both Calvinism and Arminianism have sought to set out their relationship?

This is the approach, for example, of many thinkers in another branch of Christianity called Eastern Orthodoxy. They seek to hold the tension on some of the issues on which Protestant thinkers tend to gravitate to one end or the other. On the specific matter we are discussing, holding the tension might lead us to discover that both the “Calvinist” and “Arminian” Bible passages have their specific pastoral purposes to fulfil, which we can appreciate without having to come to an objective certainty as to which side is definitely correct. Those who need reassurance in trying times might therefore take refuge in the more “Calvinist” passages, while the more “Arminian” passages might be properly directed at those who have become complacent about their faith and taking their status as Christians for granted.

Perhaps one weakness of our Protestant heritage is that theologians in this sector of Christianity have sought to explicate the faith with too much clarity, coming up with massive theological structures which seek to explain clearly the minute details of Christianity and to logically link them to one another. This looks very neat, of course, and there is a certain satisfaction we feel at coming up with a clear and “water-tight” framework.

Such clarity and tidiness, however, might have come at the expense of disavowing valid positions which could also be found in the Bible and our long Christian tradition, just because they do not fit smugly into our beloved structures. We might, in other words, have let go of tensions we should have maintained, even at the expense of clarity and tidiness in our theological systems.

Perhaps, as we take a step back from the minute details of these intra-Protestant debates, we might begin to question whether they are truly crucial to the maintenance and growth of our Christian faith. Perhaps, after seeing the larger picture, it becomes far less pressing and important to adjudicate with certainty as to which side is right on some of the issues they disagree on.



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

Big Data, Ethics and Society

March 2019 Pulse 

We live in an age where we witness a truly unprecedented explosion of data – its collection, sharing and analytics. The phenomenon that came to be known as Big Data has impacted every sector of society – economics, politics, policing, security, science, education, policy, health care, public health, etc – in profound ways.

Although definitions vary, Big Data can refer to (1) the data or information collected, known as datasets, and (2) the process of analysing these ‘big’ datasets. ‘Big’ points either to the quantities and the electronic sizes of the data accumulated (gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, etc) or to the techniques and technologies employed to analyse the data. As Brent Mittelstadt and Luciano Floridi explain, ‘The latter approach defines “big” in procedural rather than quantitative terms, by connecting the size of the dataset to its complexity, understood in terms of computational or human effort necessary for analysis.’

Big Data has to do with the volume, variety and velocity in which information or data is generated, processed, analysed and used.

In today’s world, the volume that data is generated is truly staggering. We are no longer thinking only in terms of terabytes (one million million [12 zeros]).  We are thinking in terms of exabytes (one quintillion, that is, a million raised to the power of five [18 zeros]) and zettabytes (one sextillion, that is, one million raised to the sixth power [21 zeros]). Scientists have estimated that by 2025, the Internet will exceed the brain capacity of the entire human population on planet Earth!

The variety of the data generated is equally mind-blowing. As Kord Davis points out, ‘Performance metrics from in-car monitors, manufacturing floor yield measurements, all manner of healthcare devices, and the growing number of Smart Grid appliances all generate data.’

In addition, because we leave our digital footprints and a trail of personal information whenever we use the Internet, Big Data impinges upon individual lives in unprecedented ways. Eric Freeman and David Gelernter, who coined the term ‘lifestream’, describe this phenomenon thus:

… a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream. The tail of your stream contains documents from the past (starting with your electronic birth certificate). Moving away from the tail and toward the present, your stream contains more recent documents – papers in progress or new electronic mail; other documents (pictures, correspondence, bills, movies, voice mail, software) are stored in between. Moving beyond the present and into the future, the stream contains documents you will need: reminders, calendar items, to-do lists.

The velocity in which we generate, acquire, process and output data has increased exponentially even as the number of sources and the variety of formats grow at an ever-faster pace. According to a report from IBM Marketing Cloud published in 2016, 90% of the data in the world today have been created in the preceding two years alone, at 2.5 quintillion bytes a day!

The ramifications of Big Data on institutions, organisations, businesses, nations and individuals are still unfolding and therefore cannot be fully anticipated at this point in time. More significantly, Big Data forces both stakeholders and society alike to re-conceptualise and recast the familiar social and ethical issues and concerns surrounding information technology. As the Council for Big Data, Ethics and Society points out, ‘Big data’s broad ethical consequences strain the familiar conceptual and infrastructural resources of science and technology ethics.’

What, then, are some of the pressing ethical concerns surrounding Big Data? I list a few in the remaining space of this article.

Privacy and Consent

The issue of privacy is invariably highlighted and discussed in the literature on Big Data ethics. Unlike the past when data collection was limited by human perception and cognition, in the era of Big Data the collection of data by information technologies is now automated and autonomous. The scope of the data has also expanded and grown exponentially over the past two decades. This unique characteristic of the age of Big Data has made privacy and personal safety an even more important and pressing issue.

Alongside the issue of privacy is that of informed consent. Traditional approaches to informed consent, where consent is sought from individuals who participate in a single study, no longer applies. This is because Big Data is designed to reveal unintended and even unexpected connections between data points. ‘Broad’ and ‘blanket’ consent mechanisms (as opposed to single-instance consent) have been suggested, but these are not without their own problems.

Ownership

The next ethical issue has to do with ownership. As the European Economic and Social Committee explains, the issue of ownership ‘revolves around how to consider a user’s data that was produced after processing the original dataset: are they still a user’s data, or do they belong to the company that carried out the analyses? Or to the company that collected the original data?’

The concept of ownership is further complexified by the question of rights. This has led some to speak of two forms of ownership, as the rights to ‘control’ data, and as the rights to ‘benefit from’ data. ‘Control’ ownership suggests that the data subject has the right to restrict undesired uses of the data, while ‘benefit’ ownership refers to his right to utilise Big Data for his personal benefit.

The ownership question has sparked complex debates on ethics, legislation and public policy.

Surveillance and Security

The availability of more data and the advancement of technology has made it possible not only to track an individual, but also to generate insights into his behaviour. The ubiquity of CCTVs, positioning capabilities in mobile devices (GPS), the use of credit and ATM cards for payments and withdrawals all contribute to the surveillance and profiling of individuals.

While the ease of tracking has undoubtedly benefited society in some ways like ensuring public safety and swifter and more efficient police investigation of crimes, they have also come with a cost. The diagonal and non-directional nature of surveillance that takes place across the different levels of society can limit the liberties of members of society in subtle ways.

The second issue is security. In January 2019, The Guardian reported that data breaches in Yahoo in 2017 compromised 3 billion accounts. Other breaches include Marriott International (500 million customers), Linkedln (164 million), Sony’s PlayStation Network (77 million), Uber (57 million) and Ashley Madison (31 million). Institutions in Singapore have also had their fair share of data breaches in recent months, due to the work of malicious hackers or fraudsters.

Social Ramifications

Besides these serious ethical concerns, there are also a number of social ramifications of Big Data that should never be trivialised. One major concern is that Big Data can force a digital divide in society, thereby worsening the inequality that already exists. Digital divide refers to the difficulty that some face in accessing services delivered by new technologies due to their unfamiliarity with them.

Big Data can also lead to the de-humanisation and discrimination of individuals and groups when opinions and perceptions are formed on the basis of their digital identities (information about them obtained from different sources). The Norwegian Data Protection Authority explains that this takes place when ‘we are no longer judged on the basis of our actions, but on the basis of what all the data about us indicates our probable actions may be.’

In other words, Big Data can ‘de-incarnate’ individuals by presenting distorting abstractions and caricatures that feed prejudice, discrimination and even hatred in a process known as the dictatorship of data.

The final question that we must consider is that of epistemology. There is a tendency in both mass media and industry to adopt a disturbingly naïve approach to the ‘facts’ presented by Big Data. They work on the assumption that Big Data is ‘objective’ and that it has the ability to reveal reality without the need for interpretation and critical assessment.

According to this epistemology, data is supposed to be able to ‘speak for themselves’ and the ‘truth is already there, waiting to be discovered’, implying that there is no need for theory or hypothesis. For example, confidence is placed in ‘data-driven science’, whose authority and impeccability are judged by the amount and the compelling quality of data it presents.

This mythological view of Big Data, which, as it were, signals the ‘end of theory’, will have serious consequences if it goes unchallenged.

As we celebrate the promise of Big Data and what it can offer to society, we must also be cognisant of the dangers that lurk in the brave new world of information technology. We must be aware not only of the complex ethical issues such as privacy, ownership and security. We must also be alert to the harmful distortions it introduces to the many things we take for granted such as human identity, dignity, value and relationality, and how they may undermine our 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.

Book Review – Through the Valley: the Art of Living and Leaving Well

March 2019 Feature

This book, as the author himself notes, draws its title from the Twenty-Third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. Appropriately, this slim, readable volume does not merely address fears of ageing or of death. It speaks instead of journeying through the valley to age well and die well.

The author, Dr William Wan, is eminently qualified to write on this topic. He won the Active Ageing Award in 2011, and still serves as the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement – a position he took up at age 64, when many others are beginning to enjoy a laidback retirement. Dr Wan, now in his early 70s, continues to keep 15-hour work days, preaches regularly at different churches, and is a frequent contributor to the Straits Times.  This book was fittingly written while he was on sabbatical for his 70th birthday.

Through the Valley* comprises four sections: ageing well, dying well, being prepared, and a concluding postscript. In all the sections, the reader is led to consider what it means to both live well and leave well.

The first and lengthiest section begins with a scene-setter: Singaporean society is greying. “Successful ageing” must therefore be viewed from various levels, including the individual, the family, the community and the nation. At the individual level, Dr Wan shares, in a manner that is not pushy but matter-of-fact, how his Christian faith and spiritual disciplines provide an important anchor in his own experience of growing old. The author’s reflections are invaluable in demonstrating the importance of spirituality in ageing well, a dimension that is not always elaborated in other literature on ageing.

The book also covers familiar topics such as maintaining one’s mental and emotional health, eating well, proper exercise, remaining engaged and humble through constant learning, and the simple pleasures which come from showing kindness to others, including to caregivers.

Dr Wan presents the concept of being re-fired for work and service even after being retired, and explains how his Bucket List comprises not merely leisure activities but pursuits which are new and somewhat challenging, which push him to remain open to new experiences. These are useful concepts, although some readers may wish for more elaboration on what these might look like for different groups: those who fear premature retirement due to skills obsolescence or workplace ageism, those who cannot afford to stop working due to their financial situation, or those who are already in poor health upon retirement.

The book takes a helpfully nuanced view of nostalgia, showing how it is not merely a negative preoccupation with the past, but can also be both a positive force which sustains self-identity and self-image. The numerous anecdotes, short stories, jokes, and reflections in this section make for a lively yet thought-provoking read.

Part Two on Dying Well begins with an overview of how each of the main religions in Singapore view death and the afterlife. The views of agnostics and atheists are also acknowledged. It remains a fact common to people of all faiths (and none) that death is certain, and can often be sudden. Hence, the author argues, one must make appropriate preparations in order that one might die well.

The book addresses the taboo of speaking about death, which is common in Singaporean society.  While the author acknowledges legitimate fears – of the unknown, of making a faux pas, of being a burden, of not being able to resolve unfinished business – he points out that not speaking can have negative consequences not just for the deceased, but for those who remain behind. Given the inevitability of death, and virtually everyone’s desire for a dignified departure, it is crucial to have honest conversations (what the author calls die-logues) before it is too late.

Dr Wan himself leads the way in shedding the coyness in speaking about death by sharing his own near-death experiences, and by elaborating on his own intended die-logue with close friends. This provides an excellent model for readers who may be struggling to even begin having such conversations.

Part Three, titled “Be Prepared”, begins by introducing the concept of death cleaning (from the Swedish döstädning), which points to the importance of making adequate preparations so as not to leave a mess for others to tidy up.

What does this preparation entail? The book uses an analogy that is familiar to well-travelled Singaporeans. Dying is like emigrating to a different country. In order to make a proper exit, one must have the appropriate immigration papers. These papers include a last will and testament, a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA), an Advance Medical Directive (AMD), an Advanced Care Plan (ACP), and even one’s intentions concerning organ donation or the release of one’s cadaver for medical science. Such documentation, though uncomfortable to consider and converse about, is crucial in sparing one’s loved ones from confusion, contention, or compunction.

At the same time, while the book mentions briefly that an AMD does not allow a doctor to actively hasten the arrival of death, it does not highlight related terminology such as physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, nor explain why these are ethically problematic. Readers should be careful not to confuse suicide with the legitimate and important preparatory documents listed in the book.

The final section titled Postscript is not a mere afterword. Rather, it addresses what happens afterward, that is, after one has passed away.  The audience for this section of the book is primarily the bereaved. The author explains the different stages of grief and the importance of tears in coming to terms with a bereavement. One recalls the traditional Chinese saying男子汉流血不流泪 (“real men shed blood, not tears”), which turns out to be not at all helpful in coping with grief.

And just how does one comfort a person who is grieving? Dr Wan provides many helpful suggestions, gleaned from his years of experience as a pastor and counsellor, concerning what to say, as well as what not to say.

The book closes, not with a conclusion from the author, but with writers of various backgrounds sharing their personal stories about living well and dying well. A fitting end, for no matter one’s creed, class, or skin colour, we will all age, we will all face death. Readers of Through the Valley will certainly be better equipped to face these well. This is a book I will undoubtedly get for my parents as they step into their senior years.

*”Through The Valley: The Art of Living and Leaving Well” by William Wan is available at all good bookstores and at www.stbooks.sg.  


Gilbert Lok is currently pursuing the Master of Divinity at Trinity Theological College. He hopes to serve in the pastoral ministry after he completes his theological studies. Gilbert worships at the Aldersgate Methodist Church.

Bettering Humans

March 2019 Pulse

Since the mid-nineties, doctors in America have been prescribing human growth hormones to healthy children whose projected adult height is in the bottom first percentile – five feet three inches for boys and four feet, eleven inches for girls – in order to make them taller.

For many years, a biotech company based in New Jersey called Memory Pharmaceuticals has been developing memory enhancing drugs or ‘cognitive enhancers’ (sometimes dubbed the ‘Viagra of the brain’) and targeting the 76 million baby-boomers in America who are experiencing age-related memory loss.

These examples are just the tip of a large iceberg of what some philosophers and ethicists have been calling enhancement technologies, arguably the fastest growing and one of the most troubling developments in our biotech age. ‘Enhancement technologies’ is the hypernym that refers to the use of genetics, cybernetics, nanotechnologies, neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, etc., for human enhancement.

Enhancement technologies therefore refer to the use of technology to increase certain physiological or mental attributes that could not be achieved naturally. Height increase and memory enhancement are examples of the goals to which such technologies are directed.

The myriad of ethical and social issues raised by the use of biotechnology for enhancing human capabilities have been well rehearsed in the burgeoning literature of the subject. Many worry that enhancement technologies will exacerbate the injustices that already obtain in current biotechnologies and their applications.

For example, they may worsen social inequality because only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the benefits of these cutting-edge technologies. This could further result in the creation of two classes of humans – the enhanced and the unenhanced – thus further stratifying a society already polarised by racial and economic divides.

One could easily add to the list of social woes that the use of such technologies could bring about – rabid social discriminations, and even eugenics.

Despite these concerns, some advocates and visionaries of human enhancement are not satisfied with merely augmenting and strengthening existing capabilities. Their aim is to use these new technologies to create, where possible, novel human capabilities such as infrared vision.

The vision of these prophets is therefore to so radically transform the human being so as to transcend human nature itself. This, of course, raises profound theological and philosophical questions not only about human nature, but also if there is indeed such a thing as human nature to begin with.

To be sure, many transhumanists do believe in some broad and general sense that the concept of human nature has some utility because it enables us to distinguish the human from an animal or machine. In fact, the very term ‘transhumanism’ suggests that there is a ‘human nature’ that science and technology must now seek to transcend.

However, with the advancement of genetic science and cybernetics what constitutes ‘human nature’ has become so fluid that it defies any dogmatic description.

For example, in editing the genetic material of the germline certain transhuman traits may be introduced and irreversibly transmitted to future generations. For better or for worse, that trait now becomes part of human nature, although there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it. And in advanced cybernetics, the answer to the question where do the machine end and the human being begin might no longer be as straightforward as when computers and machines were external to the human body.

Enhancement technologies also raise the difficult issue of the extent to which we should allow human creativity – our scientific knowledge and technological prowess – to remake what we are. Put differently, they raise the important and pressing question about whether moral limits should be imposed on science and technology, and how such limits should be determined in the first place.

In its paper on human enhancement, the Conference of European Churches states that while human creativity must surely be encouraged, ‘there are eventually limits’. And it is in recognising these limits that we achieve greater sobriety about our scientific and technological endeavours.

The first step in recognising these limits is to acknowledge our own finitude as creatures. ‘The notion of humans as the image of God’, states the Conference, ‘embodies a fundamental distinction. God is eternal and unlimited, but humans are created and finite’.

In addition, we must also acknowledge the limits of our science and what it can or cannot achieve achieve. ‘Not everything is possible for science to solve, human ingenuity to engineer, or medicine to cure’, states the Conference baldly. To recognise these limits is to jettison that triumphalistic view of science called scientism.

The second step is to acknowledge that we are fallen creatures. ‘Our Christian heritage teaches us to be sceptical of romantic notions of unrestrained human improvement and scientific progress, not only because of finitude but also our moral failings … The borderlines between good and evil can be crossed all too easily’.

The quest for human enhancement reveals something profoundly disturbing about the human condition. It points to an innate sense of unease with our own humanness and creatureliness, or, as Helmut Thielicke puts it, our sinful protest against finitude. In seeking to remake ourselves, to defy the finitude in which we are confined, we reveal the depth of our rebellion against the one made us the kind of creatures we are, who sets the limits – our Creator.

Here is where the scientific community can benefit from the wisdom that can be found in the religious traditions, especially Christianity. It helps us to evaluate the human and cultural enterprise of science and technology and those who shape and apply them.

While the technological imperative urges the scientific community to pursue everything that science has made possible, the Christian tradition raises difficult and inconvenient questions.

In doing so, it emphasises the point that if the scientific enterprise is to be conducted profitably, that is, for human flourishing in the most holistic sense, if science is to achieve its proper goals, these questions are unavoidable.

The technological imperative is fixated with the question of what our science and technology are capable of, what they can do. The questions raised by the Christian faith have to do with whether there are immoral and illicit ways to use the powers that our science and technology have placed in our hands.

Christian faith teaches us that morality not only concerns the things that we must do but also the things that we must refuse to do.



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.

That They May Be One

March 2019 Credo 

In what is known as his high-priestly prayer, Jesus asked his Father not only to protect his disciples but to unite them as one: ‘Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one’ (John 17:11). Unity is so central to the being of the Church that the ancient Christian creeds present it as one of her essential attributes (the others being holiness, catholicity and apostolicity).

Yet, the fact that the empirical Church is not united but deeply divided and fragmented is evident to even the most casual observer. For a variety of reasons, the ancient Church split in the Great Schism in the eleventh century into what is now called the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. And in the sixteenth century, the churches of the Reformation broke away from the Roman Church of which they were once a part.

Since that time, the Protestant churches have splintered into many different denominations and groups. Depending on how one defines a denomination, there are now between 20,000 and 30,000 Protestant denominations, each with its own distinct theological hue and organisational structure.

Given this sorry state of affairs, can Christians still declare that we ‘believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ without a tinge of irresolution, not to mention despair? What does it mean to say that the Church of Jesus Christ is one?

The New Testament makes it very clear that the unity of the Church is not premised on the way in which she is organised, her hierarchy of leaders or even her mission in the world. Rather, ecclesial unity is theologically grounded – that is to say, it rests on the nature of God and the Church’s relationship to God.

Writing to a Church marred by schisms, Pauls reminds its members that they have all been baptised into the one body by the one Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:13). Expanding the same insight in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul writes: ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (4:4-6).

This had led theologians in the Patristic era like Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (200-258), to declare that the Church is ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.

This means that the unity of the Church is a gift: it is made possible and actual only by the grace of God. As the Russian Orthodox Church puts it in a document on ecumenical relations: ‘The unity of the Church is above every human and earthly union, for it has been given from above as a perfect and divine gift. The members of the Church are united in Christ like vines, rooted in him and gathered in one eternal and spiritual life’.

However, as Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner points out, ‘Unity, like all other attributes of the church, stands under the tensions that attend the discrepancy between what our faith tells us about the church and what we see actually embodied in its empirical life’.

This means that although Christian unity is a divine gift, it is also at the same time an urgent task. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul emphatically exhorts his readers to strive to guard the unity that they already enjoy by grace: ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (4:3).

But in order for the Church to obey this Pauline injunction she must constantly clarify what Christian unity entails. This is because erroneous or distorted visions of unity can only engender further fragmentations in the Church.

To start with, unity must not be confused with uniformity. Unlike the military, the members of the Church do not adopt the same hairstyle or wear a uniform. A united Church is not one in which all her members look, think and sound alike.

To be sure, the Church across the different denominations can be characterised by common core beliefs (articulated in the Nicene Creed, for example) and practises (prayer, baptism) that are deemed non-negotiable. But, as Everett Fergusson explains, ‘to expect a large degree of uniformity is to deny individuality and uniqueness of personality’.

Christian unity allows for difference and diversity because as the ‘new humanity’ the Church is multi-ethnic and multicultural, made up of people of ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Revelation 7:9). The Church must never see such diversity as reprehensible or as obstacles to Christian unity; rather she should celebrate it as a gift from God.

However, the Church should be acutely aware of the fact that this God-given diversity that could inject so much vitality and richness into ecclesial life could also be the source of divisions, schisms and fragmentation.

Such fractures, caused by what may be described as a toxic form of identity politics, are already evident in the early Church, leading Paul to stress that the Christian’s identity in Christ transcends his social and cultural ‘identities’ without nullifying them. This is what the Apostle tries to underscore when he insists that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ’ (Galatians 328).

Both uniformity and sectarianism are inimical to the nature of the Church. As Philip Hefner clearly and emphatically puts it: ‘A monolithic unity that suppresses or violates the life-giving multiplicities of humanity is as unsatisfactory in the church as the sectarianism that elevates natural interests in a manner blasphemous to the oneness of God’s nature and will’.

This brings me to the concept of ecumenic hospitality. The terms ‘ecumenism’ and ‘ecumenical’ come from the Greek oikoumene, which simply means ‘an inhabited region’. In ecclesiology, the term is used to refer to the whole body of different Christian churches.

Ecumenic hospitality is the attitude that urges us not just to acknowledge the fact that there are Christians belonging to other denominations, but also to embrace them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Ecumenic hospitality is based on the acknowledgement that Christians have much in common with each other because of their faith in the one God revealed in Scripture. Consequently, the differences that do exist among Christians should not be the cause of division in the household of God.

By extending such hospitality to Christians of different denominations and ecclesial traditions, we are not only striving to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). We are also allowing these Christians to challenge and enrich us by the ways in which they have appropriated and lived out the Gospel in their respective traditions, cultures and contexts.



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.

 

Is Jesus God? A Historical Evaluation Concerning the Deity of Christ

February 2019 Credo 

Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most significant and controversial figures of human civilization, and billions of people throughout history have regarded him as divine. But where did this astonishing idea come from? How did a human Jewish preacher come to be regarded as God?

Option #1: Jesus was divinized during the time of Constantine in the fourth century; the New Testament we read today—which claims that Jesus was divine (e.g. John 20:28-29)—have been significantly changed from the originals in the first century.

This view, popularized in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, has long been debunked by scholars. As historian Michael Licona observes, ‘The manuscript support for our present critical Greek text of the New Testament is superior to what we have for any of the ancient literature,’ and that ‘the wealth of manuscripts for the New Testament literature leaves us very few places where uncertainty remains pertaining to the earliest reading or at least the meaning behind it.’ Because of the abundant manuscript evidence, historians are able to ascertain that the New Testament passages which claim that Jesus was divine are essentially the same as those written in the first century.

Option #2: “Divine Christology” began towards the end of the first century, around the time when the Gospel of John was written.

This view is contradicted by the evidences found in the letters by Apostle Paul, which were written in the middle of the first century, and which reflected the beliefs of Christians which were already well-established even earlier. For example, concerning 1 Corinthians 8:6, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham (1998) observes the Jewish conception that YHWH accomplished creation alone (Isaiah 44:24), and while Romans 11:36 refers to God as the Creator of all things, in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul divides it between God and Christ. These observations imply that Paul affirms the doctrine that Christ was ‘truly divine’, i.e. Christ and the Father are both within the being of YHWH. This conclusion is reinforced by a careful study of Philippians 2:6-11, and by evidences of devotional practices and expressions of spiritual desire for Christ found elsewhere in Paul’s epistles.

Option #3: it was Apostle Paul who introduced the idea that Jesus was divine, and thus distorted the real Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was divinized as a result of Greek or Roman polytheistic influences.

These views have been widely rejected by historians. Based on historical evidences of the time, the devout Jews during the Roman-era were very strict in their religious belief about reserving worship only for one God the Creator. Hence, it is unlikely that those devout Jews, such as the earliest Christian leaders including Paul who condemned idolatry (see Romans 1:18-25) and who were willing to sacrifice everything for their belief in God, would be opened to Greek or Roman polytheistic influences to distort their religion.

Even if some of these Jewish Christians did accommodate under polytheistic influences, there would have been strong objections from the more conservative Jewish Christians who would have considered the worship of Christ as blasphemy. Instead they were in widespread agreement concerning the status of Christ. This can be inferred from the fact that Paul’s writings (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, 15:3, 11; Galatians 1:23, 2:7-9) indicate that the gospel of ‘first importance’ concerning Jesus Christ was the common message, belief and identity marker of the earliest Christians, and that Paul acknowledged that he received the gospel from earlier Christians. Moreover, Paul acknowledged the authority of the Jerusalem apostles to validate—or even to invalidate—the gospel he preached (Galatians 2:2). Richard Bauckham summarizes the case against the view that Paul divinized Jesus:

‘Paul did not have sufficient power and influence to invent Christianity. After coming to believe in Jesus the Messiah, Paul was a major Christian missionary, who did much to spread the Christian Gospel, especially among non-Jews, in the areas of modern Turkey and Greece. But there was already a large Christian community in Rome long before Paul visited the capital. Christianity must soon have spread to Egypt and to Mesopotamia, developments with which Paul had no involvement… The centre from which the early Christian movement developed and spread throughout the ancient world was not Paul, but the Jerusalem church, led initially by the twelve apostles and subsequently by James the brother of Jesus. What was common to the whole Christian movement derived from Jerusalem, not from Paul, and Paul himself derived the central message he preached from the Jerusalem apostles.’

The historical evidences therefore indicate that Jesus was already regarded as truly divine by the earliest Christian church in Jerusalem led by the twelve apostles, and this happened because they perceived that Jesus claimed and showed himself to be truly divine (e.g. Matthew 28:19; Mark 14:60-64; Luke 24:50-52; John 20:28-29). Against this view, sceptics have claimed that the Four Gospels in the Bible are unreliable historical sources on Jesus. Many scholars have replied that this claim is based on widespread misconceptions ( http://ehrmanproject.com/ ). In any case, regardless of whether the Four Gospels are reliable, we still need to explain how the earliest Christians came to regard Jesus as truly divine. If Jesus did not claim and show himself to be truly divine by rising from the dead, this would not have happened; the earliest Christian leaders who were devout ancient monotheistic Jews would have regarded Jesus as merely a teacher or a prophet; they would not have come to the widespread agreement that he truly divine. Which they did.

The Jesus of history claimed to be truly divine. He died on the Cross for our sins, and overcame death to show that he is truly divine. He is the only one who can give us eternal and abundant life. As the Scripture says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Jesus says ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10: 10).


Note: The contents of this article is mainly taken from Andrew Loke, The Origins of Divine Christology (Cambridge University Press, 2017). For detailed replies to sceptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman, please refer to that book.



Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is has authored numerous books, including ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

Descent into Barbarity

February 2019 Pulse

Last month, Democrats in New York passed a bill that allowed women to abort their infant for any reason and at any point of pregnancy up to the moment of birth.

‘A standing ovation for abortion?’, writes Ashely McGuire in USA Today. ‘That’s what New York’s Reproductive Health Act got in the Senate chamber when it passed last week. Lawmakers and bystanders stood and applauded a law that legalized abortion all the way up until birth, for any reason.’

This lunacy has spread to the state of Virginia where Democrats there tried to emulate their counterparts in New York by issuing a bill to revise existing abortion laws. On The WTPO’s Ask The Governor, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Governor, in support of the bill, openly made this shocking comment:

So in this particular example, if the mother is in labour, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if this is what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother.

Commenting on the governor’s remarks on the proposed legislation, Ben Shapiro writes in The Daily Wire: ‘This is pure infanticide … This is a statement that a fully-formed infant, born alive, ought to be murdered if the mother says the infant ought to be murdered.’

The Daily Wire reported that the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and nominal Catholic, also advocated for the new legislation following her gubernatorial counterpart in New York. In addition, this new legislation also seeks to repeal current laws against the gruesome practice of partial abortion. As Steve McCann explains, this means that the law would now allow ‘delivering a healthy baby alive then killing it by crushing its skull and suctioning out the brain as it emerges from the womb.’

Alluding to the Wade decision of 1973, Governor Ralph Northam said in a press conference (to applause from the audience) that this new legislation will protect the full autonomy of women. Since Roe v Wade, states across America have been exploring how permissive they can be with their abortion laws.

This new abortion law signals western liberal society’s further descent into barbarity. It exemplifies what Pope John Paul II provocatively described more than twenty years ago as the ‘culture of death’ in his encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). This is a culture that inflicts unconscionable violence on human life and conspires against the weak, the sick and the vulnerable, often in the name of personal autonomy and liberty.

The devaluation of human life has long been given voice by scholars like Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In his controversial book entitled Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (1994), Singer repudiates the view that human life is sacred and that all human lives have equal claims to preservation. His staunch advocacy for the legalization of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia is evident in many of his writings.

Challenging the precepts of traditional morality, Singer replaces them with the ‘new commandments’ that stem from the preference utilitarianism he espouses and promotes. For example, the ‘old commandment’ which says that we must treat all human life as of equal worth is replaced by the new, which insists that the worth of human life varies considerably.

The old precept ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is replaced by Singer’s new dogma that we should bring children into the world only if they are wanted. Note the passive voice in the statement (‘if they are wanted’) that engenders ambiguity: wanted by whom? The mother? The parents? The state?

Christians must roundly and resolutely condemn any legislation that allows an innocent child (whether unborn or born) to be killed ‘for any reason’ and in the name of personal autonomy.

The human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and endowed with inviolable dignity and worth. Scripture categorically prohibits homicide (Exodus 20:13) because human life is sacred. As Pope John Paul II has rightly pointed out, ‘Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual.’

The Church has throughout her history consistently, unequivocally and unreservedly opposed and condemned abortion and infanticide. For example, in the second century document called The Didache, we find this injunction: ‘Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn child.’ Echoing this clear instruction, the great theologian of Latin Christianity, Tertullian, writes:

For us [Christians], murder is once and for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the Mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder.

 In similar vein, the sixteenth century reformer, John Calvin, condemns abortion in the strongest possible terms when he writes: ‘The foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.’

In our time, theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have likewise condemned the killing of innocent children by abortion. ‘Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb,’ writes Bonhoeffer in Ethics, ‘is a violation of the right to life which God has bestowed on this nascent life … And is nothing but murder.’

Edward Scharfenberger, the Catholic bishop of Albany, has written to the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, to express his deep concern about the new law:

Although in your recent State of the State address you [Gov. Cuomo] cited your Catholic faith and said we should ‘stand with Pope Francis,’ your advocacy of extreme abortion legislation is completely contrary to the teachings of our pope and our Church. Once truth is separated from fiction and people come to realise the impact of the bill, they will be shocked to the core. By that time, however, it may be too late to save the countless lives that will be lost or spare countless women lifelong regret.

Christians must join their voices to this venerable chorus to oppose such legislations. They must see abortion and infanticide for what they truly are, namely, the wanton murder of innocent children. Together with Vatical II they must see abortion and infanticide as nothing less than an ‘unspeakable crime.’

The Church can never be passive or silent in the face of such an atrocity. She must protest against and oppose the culture of death, for as Pope John Paul II has again put it so eloquently and powerfully: ‘Every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart.’



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.

Embryo Editing

February 2019 Pulse

On 25 November 2018, the MIT Technology Review reported that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, claimed to have created the first CRISPR-edited babies. In the first of five YouTube videos posted on the same day, He announced that ‘Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago’.

This landmark case has profound ramifications for the ongoing debate among scientists, ethicists and theologians surrounding the ethics of human gene editing.

He and his team worked with couples where the fathers are HIV-positive. Employing a relatively new technology called CRISPR/Cas 9 they deactivated a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos created through in-vitro fertilisation and then implanted them in the mothers. CCR5 is the protein that the HIV viruses use to gain entry into human cells. Its deactivation would therefore theoretically prevent or reduce the risk of infection.

He and his team were not the first scientists to use CRISPR on human embryos. In 2015, Chinese scientists Canquan Zhou and Junjiu Huang used CRISPR to remove the gene that causes the blood disorder known as β-thalassema when it is mutated. And in 2017, Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his team at the Oregon Health and Science University used the same technology to successfully extract a genetic variant from embryos that causes a deadly heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

The difference between the earlier studies and the one conducted by He and his team is that the latter has disabled a normal gene to reduce the risk of a child from getting an infection – they did not remove a defective gene that predisposes an individual to a particular disease. In addition, the infection in question can be prevented by other means, such as safe sex-education or the use of anti-viral drugs.

Scientists have found He’s editing to be incomplete because some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 while others do not. They have also pointed out that CCR5 is not the only protein that transports HIV and that some strains of the virus can enter the cell through another protein called CXCR4. Deactivating CCR5 therefore does not guarantee immunity.

He’s work has resulted in a furore in the scientific community. Ethicists and biomedical watchdogs have condemned the work as ‘monstrous’, ‘unconscionable’ and ‘a grave abuse of human rights’. The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He and his team worked, claimed that it was unaware of the project and immediately launched an investigation. Its preliminary statement described the work as a ‘serious violation of academic ethics and standards’.

This case has once again brought to the surface the serious ethical questions related to genetic research in general and genetic engineering (in this case, gene editing) in particular. It is impossible to address all these issues in the brief compass of this article. I can only provide here a very brief sketch of the moral and ethical issues related to gene editing in a human embryo.

Moral Status of the Embryo

First and foremost, we must clarify the moral status of the human embryo. According to the Christian faith, the human being is a creature made in the image and likeness of his Creator (Genesis 1:26-28) and therefore possesses inviolable dignity and value from its conception. This means that the human embryo must be regarded as a person worthy of our respect and protection. The human embryo therefore must never be treated merely as human tissue that is created in the laboratory, experimented upon and then discarded.

To cause the death of a human embryo in the name of science is to violate the Nuremberg Code (1948), which states that ‘No experiment should be conducted, where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur’. Those who are of the view that gene editing does not violate human dignity fail to take into consideration the fact that in perfecting the technology and technique, thousands of human embryos are routinely subjected to research and subsequently destroyed in laboratories across the world.

Off-Target Results

Gene editing, whether conducted in an adult subject or an embryo, is often accompanied by significant risks, some of which scientists are unable to fully anticipate at this point. For example, there is always the potential of error in editing the gene of an early embryo, which some scientists have described as off-target genetic effects.

As the term suggests, off-target genetic mutations occur when the technology employed hits a DNA sequence that is not its intended target. Because of the nature of gene editing, even minor off-target hits may have major consequences. This is especially the case when the subject is a developing embryo. Such mistakes could result in genetic abnormalities or the onset of disease in the foetus as it develops or during adulthood.

Another possible risk of gene editing in embryos is mosaicism. As a result of the intervention, the embryo may come to possess two different populations of cells (a mosaic of edited and unedited genes) with two distinct genotypes.

Several studies have shown that mosaicism is especially common when the CRISPR/Cas 9 system is used on embryos. Studies have also indicated that mosaicism can result in major phenotypic changes that can adversely affect the health of the child. Some known genetic disorders that are directly attributed to mosaicism include: Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome and Turner syndrome.

Epigenetics

Scientists and ethicists are also concerned about the way in which gene editing in embryos may affect the epigenetic code that controls the thousands of genes within each cell and determines whether they are switched on or off. They believe that editing the gene of an early embryo could result in changes in the epigenetic information that may have adverse consequences on the health and wellbeing of the offspring.

While we have certainly made great strides in bio-medicine and technology, the fact remains that we are only beginning to understand the genetic factors that regulate embryological and foetal development. That is why leading biologists like Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California and David Baltimore, the former president of the California Institute of Technology, are calling for a worldwide moratorium on human genome editing.

Future Generations

Besides inflicting possible harms to the embryo, scientists are also concerned that genome editing in embryos could have adverse consequences for future generations that are difficult to predict at this point in time. This is because the genetic modifications made to a developing embryo can potentially be irreversibly transmitted down the line.

Scientists working on the human genome must take seriously their responsibility for future generations. Mark Frankel and Audrey Chapman have rightly cautioned the scientific community, which often displays ‘too great a readiness to attempt to control the genetic inheritance of our offspring’, to carefully consider the consequences that their work might have on their children’s children.

The theologian Donald Mac-Kay has argued that Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbour (Luke 10) extends even to future generations. And in the context of the present discussion, that love is expressed in the careful evaluation of how our current scientific interventions might benefit or harm our children.

In its instruction on bioethical issues, Dignitatis Personae, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church provides some clear perspectives on the issues we are considering. Dignitatis Personae is clearly in favour of certain forms of gene therapy. For example, it explicitly states that ‘Procedures used in somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit’.

But a bright line is drawn when it comes to genetic modifications on the germline or the early embryo that may have unpredictable consequences for the future generation.

The moral evaluation of germ line cell therapy is different. Whatever genetic modifications are effected on the germ cells of a person will be transmitted to any personal offspring. Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny (emphasis on original).

Much more can be said about this important and complex issue. But I hope that this brief discussion has sufficiently shown that there are profound theological and moral reasons why gene editing in human embryos should not be permitted.



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.

Inter-Religious Dialogue: Compromise of Faith or Expression of Conviction?

February 2019 Feature

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to engage in several inter-faith activities, often as a representative of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). A few well-meaning Christians have privately expressed to me the discomfort they feel: Was I compromising my Christian faith by participating in these activities? This concern stems from a particular perception of inter-religious dialogue, one based on a model promoted, perhaps most prominently, by the philosopher of religion John Hick. Hick teaches that the major world religions all point to the same reality, which the various religions have described using different terms (e.g. “God”, “heaven”, “nirvana”). In the end, “all roads lead to Rome”, and we end up at the same destination, whichever religious path we follow.

Inter-religious dialogue, for Hick, is therefore an exercise which seeks to uncover common features in our various faith traditions, which will help us see more clearly that we are ultimately on the same journey. It is also needful, during such dialogue, to downplay the distinctive teachings of each religion, as these tend to drive a wedge between the various faiths and blind us to the fact that, at the core, we are all identical.

Space does not allow us to engage in a comprehensive critique of Hick’s position. But one thing we can say is that it demonstrates very clearly the arrogance of the modern age. What Hick is effectively telling the followers of the major world religions (many of whom have studied and practised their faith the whole of their lives) is that he understands their faith better than they do. Religious practitioners are severely limited by their religious blinkers, but Hick (the modern philosopher) is somehow able to rise above all of them and see things from a truly transcendent perspective. He is therefore able to reveal the true nature of their religion to them. Hick’s approach exemplifies the myth of modernity: That we can arrive at an absolute and objective truth by utilising supposedly neutral means like human reason or experience.

In many parts of the world, the modern age has given way to the postmodern. While postmodernity has its harmful excesses, it has helpfully exposed the myth of modernity by showing that all human beings (even the modern philosopher) have our own blinkers. The supposedly neutral status of human reason and experience has been undermined, as we realise that we reason and interpret our experiences in ways significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions.

These developments have major implications on how we view inter-religious dialogue. When followers of different religions speak to one another, there is, in a postmodern environment, no longer the pressure to discover that, at the root, we all believe in the same reality. Instead, postmodernity gives space for each religion to assert its uniqueness. We acknowledge that we hold views which cannot, at the end of the day, be reconciled with those of the other faiths.

But this frank acknowledgement of our differences does not spell the end of dialogue. On the contrary, it sets the stage for genuine dialogue to take place. As theologian William Placher observes (in Unapologetic Theology, p. 146): “Once we recognise that we are not all trying to say the same thing, then we can recognise that some of the things that other people are saying seem to be genuine insights which we can appropriate for ourselves…”

Being set free from the strictures of modernity also allows inter-religious dialogue to take on a more pragmatic tenor. We talk to one another to see if there are areas of overlapping concern where we can work together. This kind of cooperation can take place on the level of individual issues, without being encumbered by unrealistic attempts to achieve uniformity in the way we perceive and respond to everything.

In my limited involvement in inter-faith activities here in Singapore, I find this second view of inter-religious dialogue to be the one undergirding our activities. I take as an example the series of “Building Bridges” seminars held in the years 2012-2013, which focussed on the topic of “Religious Tradition and Authority in a Post-modern World”. Representatives from the NCCS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) took turns to share perspectives from their own faith on the topic.

There was no attempt by either side to water-down our beliefs or downplay the significant differences which exist between both faiths. We shared how things appear to us as Christians or Muslims, listened respectfully to the perspectives offered by the other side, and gained valuable insights which helped illumine our own situations. We also identified common areas of concern, like the difficulty faced by both faith traditions in combating the pervasive notion of individualism and the consequent disregard of religious authority.

More than that, these seminars represent a precious opportunity for followers of different religions to meet face to face. Through the process, unhelpful stereotypes were dispelled, trust was built up and friendships were formed. As religious tension and conflict fester in our increasingly polarised world, these achievements should not be underrated.



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

How Did the Church Get Its Bible?

February 2019 Credo

Reader’s Question: How was the canon of Scripture determined and finalised by the Church?

The word ‘canon’ can be traced to the Greek word kanonas, which could mean ‘measuring-rod’, ‘standard’, ‘list’ or ‘index’. The third century theologian, Origen, used ‘canon’ with reference to the Bible’s role as the ‘standard’ or ‘rule of faith’ on the basis of which the Church must assess religious doctrines and practices. It was Athanasius (AD 296-373) who used ‘canon’ to refer to the list of books in the Bible that the Church regarded as God’s revelation and therefore as authoritative.

How the Church arrived at this list and the criteria that guided her in the entire process is an important story that many Christians are unfamiliar with. However, it is also a long and convoluted story that this short article is unable to tell in detail. What is attempted here is only a very brief sketch of this fascinating history.

The Church has, from its inception, accepted the entire canon of the Hebrew Bible comprising thirty-nine books. These books were generally divided into three sections or divisions: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The Law comprises the five books of Moses, and the Prophets included the books of the ‘Former Prophets’ (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), the ‘Major Prophets’ (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel), as well as the ‘Latter Prophets’ (or the ‘Minor’ Prophets). Under the Writings we find the Wisdom Literature (Psalms, Proverbs and Job), the Megillot or the ‘five scrolls’ (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation, Ecclesiastes, Esther) and Histories (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles).

Although there is insufficient evidence to be entirely certain, most scholars are of the view that the order of the books that appear in the Hebrew Bible is the same order which Jesus and his contemporaries were acquainted with. It is also the order that is found in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was completed in the 3rd century BC that Jesus and Paul used.

Thus, the early Church regarded the Hebrew Bible as its authoritative Scripture. But gradually, this body of literature was supplemented by other writings, and, at around the dawn of the second century AD, the terms ‘Old Testament’ (Greek: palaia diatheke) and ‘New Testament’ (Greek: kaine diatheke) were used sporadically to distinguish the two corpuses.

In roughly the same period (i.e., the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd), two collections of Christian writings became evident in the liturgies of the early church and in the writings of her theologians and ministers: the Fourfold Gospels and the Pauline epistles.

By the fourth century, the great historian of the early Church, Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340), was able to provide a comprehensive list of the books used by the Church, which he divided into ‘recognised books’ (Greek: homologoumena) and ‘disputed books’ (Greek: antilegomena).

Among the recognised books are the Gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), 1 Peter, and 1 John. The jury was still out with regard to James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.

But by the time Athanasius (ca. 296-373) became Patriarch of Alexandria, there’s evidence that the Church recognised the entire list of the books in the New Testament that we have them today as authoritative and canonical. In his famous 39th Festal Letter (AD 367), Athanasius provides the following list:

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one: of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

Describing them as ‘canonical writings’, Athanasius maintains that ‘[t]hese are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain, In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these’.

The canonisation process was somewhat complexified by the presence of other texts that jostled to be included. Among them were Gnostic Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth. In addition, the heretic Marcion rejected the canonical status of the Old Testament, and pontificated that only the Gospel of Luke and the epistles of Paul must be regarded as authoritative because they were unblemished by the corruptions of the Judaizers.

The Fathers of the Church categorically rejected the Gnostic Gospels as authoritative, and unapologetically condemned Marcion as a heretic, despite his many followers and formidable influence.

Discussion on the formation of the canon of Scripture will not be complete without addressing – even if very briefly – the canonical status of the Apocrypha (1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and the Epistle of ‘Jeremy’ [Jeremiah]). These books are not found in the Hebrew Bible, and the leaders of official Judaism do not regard them as canonical.

But the early Church’s attitude and reception of these books was at best mixed. The early Greek Fathers of the Church did not recognise these books as canonical but found them beneficial for the edification of the Christian community. With the exception of Jerome, the Latin Fathers generally regarded them as if they were canonical.

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent convened by the Roman Catholic Church officially affirmed the full canonical status of the books of the Apocrypha. The Reformers did not regard them as canonical, but, like the early Greek Fathers, allowed them to be read in Church only ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’.

If we read the long and tedious process of the formation of the canon of Scripture only through the lens of history, we might be led to conclude that the canon is a purely human construction, that it was the Church that made the canon. But it would be a mistake to read this story in this reductive manner.

The story must also be read theologically. So read, the story of the canonisation of Scripture is the story of the work of the same Spirit by whose inspiration and superintendence brought into being this collection of texts that reveal God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Article 5 of the Belgic Confession summarises well the nature of Scripture, and its relationship to the Holy Spirit and the Church:

We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith. And we believe without doubt all things contained in them – not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and because they prove themselves to be from God.



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