Author Archives: Florence Kang

Clarifying Inter-faith Dialogue

January 2019 Pulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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



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

 

Love Alone? The Problem with Christian Universalism

January 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The Internet of Things: Ethical and Social Concerns

January 2019 Pulse 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety

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

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

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

Privacy

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

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

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

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

Security

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

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

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

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

Informed Consent

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

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

Accountability

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

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

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

Impact on Society

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

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

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

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



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

What is the Role of Science in a Christian Life?

January 2019 Feature

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

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

The Concept of Falsifiability in Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Role of Science in a Christian Life

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

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

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

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

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

 How to Approach Scholarship

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

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

Our Christian Response

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Procrustean Beds

January 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procrustean beds create heresies.



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

Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrow)

December 2018 Pulse

In February 2015, Gay Byrne, host of the Irish religious television programme The Meaning of Life, asked militant atheist Stephen Fry what he would say to God if he found himself standing before Him at the Pearly Gates.

Fry replied with his characteristic sting: “Bone cancer in children: what’s that about?” He then proceeded with a lengthy diatribe on how evil must be the God who would so cruelly inflict such terrible suffering on little innocent children.

There is a sense in which Fry may be forgiven for working with that particular understanding of divine agency that informed his view of God. There are, after all, Christian writers who have postulated this concept of divine sovereignty and providence, and have – for example – attributed the tragedy of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to the direct expression of the divine will.

The Orthodox theologian Bentley Hart rightly rejects such views as serious distortions of the biblical portrait of God.

“Such a God,” writes Bentley perceptively in The Doors of the Sea, “at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism.” Such an incoherent view of God, Hart points out, only provides ammunition for critics of the Christian faith (like Fry).

The God whose very nature is love cannot be the direct cause of suffering and evil. Their presence point to the fact that we inhabit a world that has come under the divine curse because of human rebellion and sin – a world that is sorely in need of redemption.

Although God cannot be said to be the author of suffering, He can use the trials and difficulties that we experience to fulfil His own purposes for us (and for the world). This is especially true for the Christian who trusts in God in the midst of the tribulations of life.

In the hands of the sovereign God, suffering can be a pruning tool to excise that which is unholy in our lives – the darkness in our souls that stunts our spiritual growth. In the mysterious outworking of divine grace, suffering removes our reticence and causes us to draw closer to God.

As Pope John Paul II put it in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (Salvific Suffering), for the Christian, “suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognise the divine mercy in this call to repentance.”

I should clarify at this point that suffering in and by itself is never virtuous. Neither is it a sign of holiness and/or means by which we attain greater intimacy with God. As we have seen, suffering, and the evil that gives rise to it, is an antithesis to the purposes of God.

Lent summons us to grateful contemplation of the suffering and death of the Son of God on the cursed tree, for the salvation of sinful humanity and the restoration of the fallen creation, showing that the evil and suffering that plague this world was never part of God’s original intention.

But the Passion of Christ has not only brought redemption to this fallen world, it has also translated all human suffering into a new situation. “In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed”, wrote the late pontiff.

This means that for the Christian, the death and resurrection of our Lord throw salvific light on human suffering in the most penetrating way. Although suffering is an evil that must be resisted, the Christian knows that God can use it to accomplish the good (Romans 8:28).

The resurrection of Christ demonstrates that evil and suffering do not have the last word. For a day will come when suffering will be totally eradicated, when “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4).

Those who live with this hope can declare together with the Apostle Paul that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Thus, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the Christian can walk the via dolorosa (the way of sorrow) with faith, courage, and hope.



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.

Different but Equal

December 2018 Credo

In an article in the 1991 issue of Christianity Today entitled, ‘Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters’, evangelical theologian and leader J. I. Packer wrote: ‘Presbyters are set apart for a role of authoritative pastoral leadership. But this role is for manly men rather than womanly women, according to the creation pattern that redemption restores’.

This view, which subordinates the woman to the man, is underscored by the Reformed evangelical preacher John Piper in a book he edited with theologian Wayne Grudem entitled, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism.

Piper writes: ‘At the heart of matured masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationship’. The converse is also true: ‘at the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships’.

These writers advocate what is sometimes called the ‘hierarchicalist’ view of the relationship between the man and the woman. This view maintains that although God has created men and women equal, he has designed the woman to be subordinated to the man.

Proponents of this view maintain that the subordination of the woman to the man points to the complementary role she is given by God. This view of the male-female relationship may also be described as the traditional view, since it is the view that Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant churches espouse.

In what follows, I will argue that there is strong evidence to suggest that the Bible teaches that men and women are created equal for reciprocal and mutual relationship with each other. One gender is therefore not subordinated to the other. Rather men and women are to mutually support each other in all dimensions of life.

Man and Woman in Creation

We begin by examining the account of the creation of the first humans in Genesis. There, we are told that human beings – male and female – are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). That both the man and the woman are bearers of the divine image suggests that they both have been bestowed with the same dignity and value.

It is important to note that the image of God is also a relational concept. This means that the first human pair images the God who created them by enjoying community with each other.

According to this understanding, the woman was not created by God merely to complement the man. Rather she was created to ‘complete’ the divine image by delivering the man from his isolation. This primal community of the man and the woman reflects the triune God who created them, who is Being-in-Communion.

Although the proponents of the traditional view would agree with this, they argue that the fact that the woman was created from the man indicates that she is subordinated to him. This argument is, of course, fallacious: the context of the narrative has to do not with the hierarchical order of creation but the alleviation of the man’s solitude and loneliness.

In its depiction of the woman as created from the man, the narrative stresses that only the woman is a fit companion for the man. This is beautifully brought out in Genesis’ portrayal of marriage as the joining of the man and the woman in such a way that they become ‘one flesh’ (2:24).

Marriage is the bond between the man and the only creature that is like him (2:23). It is also this profound similarity between male and female that allows the woman to be the man’s ‘helper’.

To describe the woman as the man’s ‘helper’, however, does not mean that she is subordinated to him. Hierarchicalists have used this to substantiate their position. For instance, based on this description John Piper has categorically declared that ‘God teaches us that the woman is a man’s “helper” in the sense of a loyal and suitable assistant in the life of the garden’.

But the term ‘helper’ (Hebrew: ezer) does not necessarily refer to a subordinate. There are seventeen references to God as our helper in the OT. Furthermore, the specific term that Genesis uses for the woman (‘ézrer kenegdô : fit helper) suggests equality, not subordination.

As Semitic specialist David Freedman explains: ‘When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, his intent is that she will be – unlike the animals – “a power (or strength) equal to him”’.

Paul’s Magna Carter

In Galatians 3, Paul reinforces the conclusions we have drawn from the creation narrative in Genesis concerning the equal status of the man and the woman. In what is sometimes described as his ‘Magna Carta of Humanity’, Paul writes: ‘There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28).

In Christ, believers enjoy the same benefits from God, regardless of race, class or gender. These distinctions, to be sure, are not obliterated in Christ. Rather, they no longer serve as the basis for social or functional discrimination.

Hierarchicalists also recognise the implications of Paul’s declaration of equality in Christ. But they argue that this declaration has to do only with the positions of redeemed persons in Christ, not their relationships and functions. They argue that although the woman is equal in status with the man, she is relationally and functionally subordinate to him.

But positional equality cannot be severed from equality in relationships and functions. The former must surely imply the latter.

Christ has brought about not just a change in status, but also a change in relationships. And if this is true for the relationship between Gentile and the Jew, and the slave and the citizen, surely it must also be true for the relationship between the woman and the man.

Reflecting on the implications of this especially in relation to Christian ministry, F. F. Bruce could write:

No more restriction is implied in Paul’s equalising of the status of male and female in Christ than in his equalising of the status of the Jew and Gentile, or of slave and free person. If in ordinary life existence in Christ is manifested openly in church fellowship, then, if a Gentile may exercise spiritual leadership in church as freely as a Jew, or a slave as freely as a citizen, why not a woman as freely as a man.

Women in the Church

There is strong evidence that women were involved in the various ministries of the church in the earliest period of its history. Christian art of the first and second centuries, for example, depicts women baptising, administering the Lord’s Supper, teaching and caring for the congregation.

But the most important evidence of the egalitarian view of the early Church with regard to the participation of women in the ministry is found in the pages of Acts. Luke mentioned the involvement of women in the early expansion of the church in cities such as Jerusalem (Acts 5:14), Samaria (8:12), Philippi (16:13-15), Thessalonica (17:4), Corinth (18:2) and many others. For example, Lydia (Acts 16:40) played a significant role in assisting Paul in the Philippian church.

Significantly, women prophesied and taught in the early church. Acts 21:8-9 describes the four unmarried daughters of Philip who prophesied, suggesting that these women exercised some form of significant leadership at the church in Caesarea. Acts 18 also clearly indicates that Priscilla (together with her husband) was a teacher of the Scriptures who helped to further enlighten the already erudite Apollos about ‘the way of God’ (18:26).

Women were not excluded even from the office of the apostle.

In Romans 16:7, Paul writes: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junias … They were outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was’. The question whether Junias is a man or a woman is a much disputed one among contemporary scholars. But the Fathers of the early church, including Origen and John Chrysostom maintained that Junias was a woman.

The Question of Submission

 The creation narrative, Paul’s Magna Carter for Humanity, and the practice of the early Church provide the framework for understanding male-female relationships. It is within this framework that one should interpret the passages that prohibit women from performing certain ministries.

Thus, scholars have argued that even Paul’s declarative statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 (‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over the man’) must be understood contextually and must not be taken as a timeless imperative. In addition, linguistic studies have shown that here we have a temporary directive, not a permanent rule.

It is also within this framework that we should understand the Pauline concept of submission. Paul maintains that the overarching principle that should govern the human community (especially the Christian community) is mutual submission: ‘Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph 5:21).

Mutual submission demolishes the social hierarchies and discriminations brought about by the Fall by according equal dignity and worth to every human being regardless of ethnic heritage, social status and gender. In the context of marriage, such mutuality is seen in the relationship of reciprocity where the wife willingly submits to her loving and devoted husband.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I must stress that in rejecting sexual hierarchy, I am not rejecting all hierarchy as such.

Society is so ordered that an egalitarianism that knows no supra- and subordinate levels, no authority and obedience is in the end naïve and untenable. In the concrete structures of society, some women may be subordinated to men, as the occasion requires.

But the egalitarianism that is portrayed in Scripture rejects the view that all women must be subject to all men all the time because they are women, in other words, that hierarchy should be based on gender.

It is in this respect that the biblical vision of the male-female relationship is truly counter-cultural. It points to the kind of human community that God had intended in creation, and the eschatological reality that the redemptive and restorative work of Christ has made possible.



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

A Decent Society

December 2018 Pulse

In his erudite and captivating book, Conscience and Its Enemies (2013), Robert George discusses the essential features of a decent society. According to the Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, the three pillars on which a decent society rests are (1) respect for the human person, (2) the institution of the family, and (3) a fair and effective system of government and law.

As a Roman Catholic, George established these foundations of a decent society on the basis of Catholic social doctrine (rooted in the teachings of the Bible and Christian tradition) as well as natural law.

The first pillar has to do with taking seriously the inviolable dignity of every human being. The Bible distinguishes the human creature from the rest of God’s creation by emphasising that it alone is the bearer of the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27).

‘The divine image is present in every man’, declares the Catechism of the Catholic Church. ‘It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons themselves’.

When a society recognises, values and respects the human person, writes George, its institutions ‘and the beliefs and practices of the people, will be such that every member of the human family, irrespective not only of race, sex, or ethnicity but also of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, is treated as a person – that is, as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity’.

A society that fails or refuses to nurture respect for the human person and acknowledge the sanctity of human life will embrace an inhumane utilitarianism that tramples upon the dignity of the individual for the sake of some nebulous ‘greater good’.

The second pillar is the institution of the family. With characteristic perceptiveness and clarity, George writes: ‘The family, based on the marital commitment of husband and wife, is the original and best ministry of health, education and welfare’.

For Pope John Paul II, the family is fashioned in such a way that it reflects the triune God himself. In his Letter to Families (1994), the late pontiff states that ‘the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery’. The family as a ‘communion of persons’ (communio personarum) is grounded in the triune God, who is Being-in-Communion.

So foundational and important are families to society that where they fail to form or where too many break down, writes George, ‘the effective transmission of the virtues of honesty, civility, self-restraint, concern for the welfare of others, justice compassion, and personal responsibility are imperiled’.

The third pillar of a decent society, according to George, is a fair and effective system of government. Based on the biblical revelation of the sinfulness of our fallen humanity, George provides an argument for the need for law and government that is consistent with Scripture (Romans 13) and the Christian tradition.

Law and government are necessary, he writes quite plainly, ‘because none of us is perfectly virtuous all the time, and some people will be deterred from wrongdoing only by the threat of punishment’.

Together with conservatives, past and present – e.g. Edmund Burke (in the 18th century) and Roger Scruton (in ours) – George believes that law and government are meant to protect the safety and morals of society and advance general welfare.

It should be quite obvious to many that we live in the world in which each of these pillars has come under assault – sometimes by totalitarian regimes and their dehumanising ideologies, and sometimes in the name of the ideals of modern liberal democracy, such as autonomy and rights.

In countless clinics across the world, foetuses are being routinely killed because women want to exercise autonomy over their bodies and parents want to exert their rights.

Take, for example, the routine abortion of foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Iceland could boast that no babies with Down are born there. This is not due to the ‘genetic exceptionalism’ of Icelanders, but the policy of prenatal screening and abortion. It is reported that in the United States, 90 percent of babies diagnosed with Down are aborted because genetic counsellors having been pushing this option very hard.

Canada legalised euthanasia in June 2016. Since then, over 1,029 patients have been euthanized. The Canadian Paediatric Society reported that doctors and paediatricians are increasingly asked by parents to euthanize their disabled or dying children or infants. Pro-life doctors who refuse to be party to this are required by law to refer their patients to other doctors who would provide the service.

Abortion and euthanasia are just two of many examples of the assault on the human person that we witness in modern civilised society.

Marriage and family have also been subjected to severe battery in our time.

The growing acceptance and legalisation of same-sex marriage has radically redefined marriage and altered the structure of the family. In fact, such legislations have in effect resulted in the abolition of marriage.

Science and technology have also contributed to the assault on the family. One example is assisted reproductive technologies that ‘create’ a child with the genetic contribution from a third party – through the use of donor gametes.

 Attacks on the family are also not uncommon in the academy, especially in the West.

George explains: ‘The line here is that the family, at least as traditionally constituted and understood, is a patriarchal and exploitative institution that oppresses women and imposes on people forms of sexual restraint that are psychologically damaging and that inhibit free expression of personality’.

The assault on government and law is seen most acutely in the totalitarian governments in modern history. Within regimes like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, all power is located in the particular leader or group that controls everything, from politics to culture. In such regimes, the only form of power is the political.

But the rule of law has come under assault even in democratic countries, not just in totalitarian ones. This happens when ideology is allowed to shape the law, and the rule of law is manipulated and bent according to the ideological whims of the powerful. When this occurs, the rule of law is nothing but the rule of politics.

Christians in different vocations – teachers, doctors, civil servants, politicians, policy-makers, lawyers, judges, etc – must strenuously resist and oppose the forces that would destroy the moral and social fabric of society.

They must do their best to promote the three pillars of a good society – respect for the human person, preservation of the family and a fair and effective system of government and law – and prevent society from coming into the grips of the new barbarism.



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.

Plastic Planet

December 2018 Feature

Snorkelling off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 2016, nature photographer, Justin Hofman,  snapped a picture of a tiny seahorse latching on to a cotton swab, which was to bring to the world’s attention a situation that we have lived with in tacit complicity.  The photograph shared on Instagram was telling of the pervasive and pernicious problem of plastic pollution in our urban contexts, in our cities, in our waterways and in our oceans.

Two recent documentaries that highlight this prevalent plastic problem are Plastic Paradise and A Plastic Ocean.   In a study that was featured in the Guardian, Damian Carrington wrote: “The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants…”  I fear that our part in this plastic problem will affect even more species and will ultimately hurt ourselves.

Plastics have been an indispensable part of modernity and all it takes for you to realise its ubiquity is to consider the machines, utensils, appliances, devices, wardrobe, packaging, et cetera – that you use or come in contact with every single moment.

Yet the history of plastics (as it is applied today) is a rather recent invention, which is about as “far” back as the 1950s!  Yet, as researchers Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law observed,

the growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material. The same properties that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications – durability and resistance to degradation – make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate. Thus, without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.  (emphasis mine)

And to that effect, the June 2018 issue of National Geographic features a pervasive and pernicious problem – plastics and its effect on the natural environment.

My particular interest in this development in mission studies is precipitated by the reticence among Christian academics and pastors in the area of stewardship/creation care as well as our complicity in exacerbating the current crisis.  Consider the imperceptive and prodigal use of plastic/polystyrene in church functions.   It may well be that we have a flawed eschatology, further fuelled by some of our Christian songs – whether it is John Newton’s last stanza of Amazing Grace or Carrie Underwood’s Temporary Home.  Or it is possibly a result of our faulty hermeneutics, where we have misunderstood God’s intention is giving to humanity the ‘exercise of dominion’ (or to subdue) in the creation account in Genesis 1.

Richard Bauckham commenting on Genesis 1 wrote:

Genesis 1 does not authorise an undifferentiated human rule over the rest of creation, even when this is interpreted as stewardship.  It distinguishes between human use of the earth, with its vegetation, for human life and flourishing, a right to be exercised responsibly, and human dominion over the rest of the animate creation.  For which humans have a responsibility to care.

Similarly, Old Testament scholar, Gordon Wenham in summarising the meaning of rule (or dominion), adds:

Because man is created in God’s image, he is king over nature.  He rules the world on God’s behalf.  This is of course no licence for the unbridled exploitation and subjugation of nature. Ancient oriental kings were expected to be devoted to the welfare of their subjects, especially the poorest and weakest members of society (Psalm 72:12-14).  By upholding divine principles of law and justice, rulers promoted peace and prosperity for all their subjects.  Similarly, mankind is here commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king, acting as God’s representative over them and therefore treating them in the same way as God who created them.  Thus animals, though subject to man, are viewed as his companions in 2:18-20…

The Hebrew terms, kavash (subdue) and radah  (rule) in Genesis 1:26-28 carries the meaning that humanity was to exercise a rule over the whole of creation synonymous with that of benevolent kings.  The kings were not to rule for their own interests but rather for the welfare of their subjects.  Furthermore, in contrast to an anthropocentric worldview of the Enlightenment that perceives the superiority of humanity over the rest of creation and that prioritises creation merely for the use of man, Christopher Wright contends that “there is a paradoxical balance between the command in Gen. 1:27 to ‘ … have dominion’ over the rest of creation and the instruction in Gen. 2:15 ‘ … to serve the earth and keep it’.  Dominion through servanthood is humanity’s role, which in itself is an interesting reflection of Christ’s.”

How do we understand our role in God’s creation?  How should Christians react in the face of this plastic problem?

This article is hopefully one that provides an occasion for us to think (and question) that which we hold on to without considering the contexts, the conversations and the consequences.  And I certainly hope that it will challenge our status quo, which is often predicated by costs, convenience and comfort.

And perhaps we should purposefully stop and think about our actions; if not for our sakes, it should be for our children, for our children’s children, for the remaining of God’s creation and ultimately for the glory and purposes for which God created this earth.  We need to remember that “this is my Father’s world!”

Finally, instead of just reduce, reuse and recycle, if possible we should flatly refuse (especially the single-use plastics!).


Dr Andrew Peh is a lecturer in mission at Trinity Theological College. He is also an alumnus of Trinity Theological College as well as E Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also ordained as a diaconal minister with the Chinese Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Singapore.

Resurrection or Hallucination?

December 2018 Credo

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been numerous attempts by her adversaries to debunk the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. It seems that these detractors understood very well – arguably perhaps better than some Christians do – the centrality of Christ’s resurrection in Christianity.

‘If Christ has not been raised’, writes the Apostle Paul, ‘then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection of Jesus is not an optional extra, a concept or claim that can be pushed to the margins of Christianity. It is the truth upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.

The advance of modern science in the 18th and 19th centuries has led to the proliferation of naturalistic theories regarding Jesus’ resurrection. These range from the theory that the body of the dead Jesus was stolen by the disciples (Hermann Reimarus) to the proposition that Jesus did not in fact die but merely fainted or swooned (Friedrich Schleiermacher) and recovered later.

In recent decades the hallucination theory, popularised in the 19th century by David Strauss and Ernest Renan, is witnessing something of a revival.

In The Resurrection of Jesus (1994) Gerd Ludemann commandeered hallucination studies to offer a rehash of David Strauss’ hypothesis, that the appearances of the risen Christ were merely internal psychological events or subjective visions in the minds of the disciples – in a word, hallucinations.

Ludemann maintains that these hallucinatory visions were the result of ‘religious intoxication’ and ‘ecstasy’. They spread to the other disciples and to the five hundred witnesses mentioned by Paul by ‘an incomparable chain reaction’, resulting in ‘mass ecstasy’.

Michael Goulder, in a 1996 essay ‘The Baseless Fabric of a Vision’ adopts a similar approach to Ludemann, arguing that Peter was the first to experience a ‘Jesus hallucination’ due to the anxieties brought about by Holy Week and the shame he felt for denying his Master. Peter’s hallucination subsequently spread to the rest of the disciples.

In his attempt to find analogies of the ‘Jesus hallucination’, Goulder came up with some of the most farcical suggestions: the moving statue of Mary at Knock, the phenomenon of UFOs and the ‘Sasquatch’ (Bigfoot) sightings.

The most recent attempt to revive the hallucination hypothesis comes from the pen of a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and trenchant advocate of atheism, Richard Cevantis Carrier.

‘I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence … is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another’, writes Carrier. ‘In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted, but encouraged’.

Before we examine the differences between hallucinations and the experiences of the disciples of the resurrected Jesus, it may be helpful to consider a broad definition of hallucination. According to the 1996 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana a hallucination is a ‘report of a sensory experience in the absence of an actual external stimulus appropriate to the reported experience’.

Scientific studies show that this phenomenon is very commonly reported among mental patients. People with normal mental health only experience hallucinatory visions when they are suffering from extreme fatigue or grief. People on certain kinds of drugs may also have such experiences.

There are a number of important factors that have led Christian theologians and apologists to rule out the possibility that the early disciples may have experienced hallucinatory visions of their dead master.

The first is the facticity of the empty tomb. No secret was made of the fact that the body of Jesus was placed in a tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin.

If the sceptics thought that the early Christians were merely hallucinating when they claimed to have seen the resurrected Christ, they could easily have exposed their delusion by simply producing the body of Jesus. However, the sceptics simply did not do this (because they could not).

The second factor that rules out the possibility that the sightings of the resurrected Jesus were hallucinations is the number of people involved. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul provides an impressive list of eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus: Cephas, the twelve, the five hundred, and finally Paul himself.

According to the clinical psychologist Gary Collins, ‘Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group … Since hallucinations exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it’.

In addition, the fact that the people who encountered the resurrected Jesus have different mindsets and different frames of mind when the experience took place also works against the hallucination hypothesis.

As the evangelical philosopher Gary Habermas compellingly puts it: ‘The wide variety of times and places when Jesus appeared, along with the different mindsets of the witnesses, is simply a huge obstacle. Men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, by itself provides an insurmountable barrier to hallucinations’.

The bodily nature of the resurrection also militates against the view that it was merely a psychological state or hallucination. All the appearances of the resurrected Jesus were bodily appearances, as opposed to only psychological visions.

The resurrected Jesus ate with his disciples on the seashore (John 21:14-15) and at the home of the two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:28-30). In addition, Thomas touched the wounds of the crucifixion on the body of the resurrected Jesus (John 20:27).

Thus, William Lane Craig insists that ‘There is no trace of nonphysical appearances in the sources, a remarkable fact if all the appearances were really visionary, as some critics would have us believe. That strongly suggests that the appearances were not in fact visions, but actual, bodily appearances’.

Even the duration of the appearances serves as a strong refutation of the hallucination hypothesis. Hallucinations are usually fleeting, occurring not more than a few seconds or minutes at a time.

However, in Acts 1:3, we are told that the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days: ‘He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God’.

Finally, the lives of the disciples who saw, touched and ate with their resurrected Lord were radically transformed. They not only became faithful witnesses of the risen Christ, but they were also willing to suffer persecution and even die for him.

Studies in hallucinations, on the other hand, show that those who experienced them are seldom transformed. This has prompted Habermas to observe: ‘Critics acknowledge that Jesus’ disciples were transformed even to the point of being quite willing to die for their faith … To believe that this quality of conviction came about through false sensory perceptions without anyone rejecting it later is highly problematic’.

The resurrection of Jesus is not a brilliant idea or a powerful myth. It is certainly not a hallucination! It is a historical reality, the non-negotiable essence of the Gospel of salvation (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).



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.