Category Archives: Credo

Miracles

November 2018 Credo

Even the most casual reader of the Gospels will be struck by the many stories of miracles they tell.

On page after page, the Gospel writers describe Jesus cleansing the leper, opening the ears of the deaf, giving sight to the blind and even raising the dead. There are stories of Jesus turning water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread and fish to feed the hungry multitudes and calming the raging storm.

Should Christians today take these stories of miracles seriously? Can Christians who inhabit a world that is so vastly different from the writers of the Gospels – informed and shaped as they are by the scientific worldview – still believe in miracles?

Many have replied these questions with an emphatic ‘No’.

The 19th century Scottish philosopher and essayist, David Hume, is an example of a modern skeptic whose vision of reality is shaped by the natural sciences. Defining miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ or ‘a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity’, Hume argues that it is unreasonable to believe that miracles are possible because they fly in the face our standard notions of how the world works.

Thus, in his celebrated An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume writes: ‘as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws [of nature], the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined’.

The positivists in that century, influenced by the reductionisms of modern science, argued that belief in miracles belonged to a stage of human development in which the dominant vision of reality was shot through with the supernatural. Describing this phase as ‘theological’ these positivist philosophers went on to assert that humankind has now entered a new phase in which knowledge of the world is established on empirical facts obtained by the scientific method, not superstition.

Consequently, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) famously postulated that belief in God and the supernatural are simply objectified (and personified) projections of basic human desires. And Levi Strauss (1808-1874) suggested that the Incarnation and miracles are just mythological images conjured by primitive people.

In his attempt to reconcile Christianity with science F. D. E. Schleiermacher, who is christened as the ‘father of modern theology’, maintains that the only miracle is the act of God in sustaining the world he has created. All other lesser ‘miracles’, according to Schleiermacher, are just extraordinary events that science will eventually be able to explain.

Bewitched by the explanatory power of the natural sciences, many modern thinkers accuse Christians who believe in miracles of fabricating a ‘god of the gaps’. Christians attribute to divine agency the extraordinary phenomena or occurrences for which science has yet to provide satisfactory explanations. But the ‘god of the gaps’ will shrink – and perhaps one day he may even disappear – as science narrows the gap, so to speak, by providing ever more comprehensive accounts of natural phenomenon.

It is crucial to note, however, that the rejection of miracles is based on a certain view of science and a certain power that we have given to it, a power that it does not in fact possess. We have placed our hope in science’s omnicompetence – its ability to penetrate the depths of reality, and its ability to explain everything.

This hope is misplaced. In his book entitled, The Limits of Science Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prize winner (and atheist) offers a sober (and sobering) estimate of science, its possibilities and its limits. ‘That there is indeed a limit upon science’, writes Medawar, ‘is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer’.

Theologian and scientist John Polkinghorne has perceptively pointed out that ‘no one lives as if science is enough’. This means that everyone knows that reality has a depth and breath that science is simply unable to reach. It has a profundity that science simply cannot fathom. Positivists, secularists, and atheists (including the new atheists) would all agree to this, if only they chose to be honest to themselves.

Miracles not only point to those depths inaccessible to science, they point more significantly to the God who is at work in this world.

The New Testament describes miracles as ‘a wonder’ (Gk: teras), an ‘act of power’ (Gk: dunamis) and a ‘sign’ (Gk: semeion). Theologian James Oliver Buswell offers this concise but comprehensive definition of a miracle in the biblical sense. A miracle is (1) an extraordinary event that cannot be explained on the basis of natural laws, (2) an event that causes the observers to conclude that God is at work, and (3) an event that points to a reality much greater than itself.

Even Christians who believe in miracles sometimes miss their true significative purpose. In the Bible, miracles, signs and wonders are never ends in themselves, but point to a greater reality.

Miracles in the Bible signals the presence of the kingdom of God that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, came to inaugurate. In Matthew 12:28, Jesus said: ‘But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’.

In sending the twelve apostles to preach the good news, Jesus instructed them thus: ‘And proclaim as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons’ (Matthew 10:7-8).

Miracles are a sign that the kingdom of God has come into our world through the incarnate Son. They are a pledge and foretaste of the blessings to come when God’s inaugurated kingdom will be fully consummated when the risen and ascended Christ returns.


 

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.

Was Jesus Mistaken?

October 2018 Credo

Jesus’ statements concerning the timing of the consummation of the kingdom of God, recorded in the Gospels, have generated considerable debate among some scholars.

For instance, in Mark 9:1, Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power’.

Another example is found in Matthew. Weaved into his instructions to his disciples, as he sent them off on a preaching mission to Galilee, is this statement: ‘I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (Matthew 10:23).

Yet another example is found in the Olivet Discourse, where after providing a list of the harrowing signs of the end-times, Jesus said: ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’.

Two millennia have passed since these predictions were made. Yet, the kingdom of God has not been consummated, the Son of Man has not returned, and the world continues to be in the grip of sin and evil.

Was Jesus mistaken? Some modern scholars of the Bible certainly thought that he was.

Dale Allison is one such scholar. Echoing a widely accepted view, Allison firmly believes that Jesus’ message was infused with a robust apocalyptic vision.

In Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2010) Allison writes: ‘I wish I could believe that Jesus, as one theologian from the nineteenth century put it, “thrust aside apocalyptic questions, or gave them an ideal turn, and floated them away on the current of spiritual religion”. But I do not’.

Allison argued that Jesus taught an apocalyptic eschatology – in concert with others in the Second Temple period – that envisioned that God would overcome evil, restore Israel, raise the dead, and establish his divine kingdom, within his lifetime.

‘Like the historical Zoroaster’, writes Allison, ‘the historical Jesus foretold a resurrection of the dead, a universal judgement, and a new, idyllic world with evil undone, all coming soon’. The fact that none of these things occurred during his Jesus’ lifetime makes him either a failed or a false prophet, Allison opines.

In some sense, Allison’s view reprises that of Albert Schweitzer in the last century. Schweitzer challenged the liberal view of Jesus as a charismatic rabbi who did nothing more than preach the ethic of God’s kingdom.

In his The Quest of the Historical Jesus Schweitzer famously writes: ‘The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in a historical garb’.

In contrast, Schweitzer’s Jesus – the Jesus he believed the Gospel writers were at pains to portray – bore an urgent message concerning God’s eschatological kingdom. He devoted his whole life to this eschatological vision and hope, in the conviction that he was called not just to be its messenger but also its catalyst.

But Jesus was wrong, according to Schweitzer. The wheel of the world that Jesus tried to set in motion that would lead to the realisation of his eschatological vision turned in a different direction and crushed him.

Here is Schweitzer’s famous account: ‘Jesus lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn … Then it does turn; and crushes him’.

‘The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign’.

How, then, should we interpret the enigmatic sayings of Jesus about the time of the kingdom? Space does not allow us to go into all the exegetical details, but many scholars have not understood them quite in the same ways that Allison and Schweitzer have done.

With regard to Mark 9:1, many scholars are of the view that careful attention must be given to the context if we are not to misconstrue its meaning.

In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ statement is placed just before the account of the transfiguration. This means that expressions like coming of the kingdom in power  (Mark) and the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom (Matthew), understood in context, do not refer to Jesus’ return. Rather, they point to the epiphany of the glory of the Son during the transfiguration.

As William Lane has quite convincingly shown, given the context, ‘Mark understood Jesus’ statement to refer to this moment of transcendent glory conceived as an enthronement and an anticipation of the glory which is to come’.

Schweitzer has argued that Matthew 10:23 refers exclusively to the mission of the first disciples of Jesus. However, more recent scholarship has shown that the periscope of the passage suggests that the mission of future disciples – not just that of the original twelve – is also included. Thus understood, many scholars would agree with G. E. Ladd that Matthew 10:23 ‘says no more than that the mission of Jesus’ disciples to Israel will last until the coming of the Son of Man’.

What about Jesus’ statement in the Olivet Discourse that his generation will witness the things that he had predicted? A careful reading of the passage would show that Jesus’ second coming and the kingdom’s consummation are not included in the list.

The things that Jesus’ generation will witness are merely ‘birth pangs’ (Matthew 24:8) – ‘the beginnings of travail’ – that must take place, but ‘the end is still to come’ (Mark 13:7).

In addition, Jesus repeatedly exhorted his hearers to watch and pray, ‘for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning, lest he find you sleeping’ (Mark 13:35-6).

Considered together, these passages do not indicate the timing of the return of Christ and the consummation of God’s kingdom. They only stress the certainty that these events will occur.

As William Lane has succinctly put it: ‘The time of the appearance of the Son of Man in glory is unknown, but the fact that he will come is certain. The Church is called to live vigilantly in the certainty of that coming’.

When these critical passages are understood properly, the conclusions of scholars like Allison and Schweitzer are untenable, and must therefore be rejected. Jesus is neither a false prophet (Allison) nor a tragic figure who sacrificed his life for his false beliefs (Schweitzer).

Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who came ‘for us and for our salvation’, and whose return will transform this sin-marred world into the new heavens and new earth.



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.

Between Death and Resurrection

October 2018 Credo

One of the most important themes in Christian eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is the intermediate state, that is, the continued existence of the person between his death and final resurrection. But the concept of the intermediate state is also riddled with problems as a result of which many different theories have been proposed.

One of the reasons why it is difficult to conceive of the intermediate state is the dearth of biblical material on this subject. While both the Old and New Testaments do allude to the continued existence of the deceased, they do not supply enough information that would enable us to construct a clear picture. In addition, the incidental way in which the Bible treats this topic has led some Christians to think – mistakenly, in my view – that it does not regard it as important.

While the first reason why the idea of the intermediate state has to do with the Biblical text itself, the second reason is philosophical and theological. There has been a significant shift in both philosophical and theological anthropology from the dualisms of Plato (4 century BC) and Rene Descartes (17th century) to a physicalism that eschews the distinction between body and mind (soul).

According to this understanding, nothing ‘survives’ the biological death of a human being. Put differently, when a human being dies, that human being simply ceases to exist. It is not difficult to see why the concept of the intermediate state, which postulates the continual existence of the human being who is biologically dead, is at odds with this materialist view.

Several theories have been proposed by theologians throughout the history of the church on the intermediate state.

Some of these theories work on the dualism of body and soul that the Bible itself purportedly upholds, and try to speculatively join the dots suggested by the sketchy biblical data. Others, in embracing the modern physicalist view of the human being, effectively dismiss the need to even think about an intermediate state.

One of the more prominent theories about the intermediate state is soul-sleep. Theologians and groups from diverse backgrounds and of different convictions – Luther, the Anabaptists, the Socinians, and the Seventh-Day Adventists – have proposed different versions of this theory.

Martin Luther famously described the intermediate state as ‘a deep and dreamless sleep without consciousness or feeling’. In a 1533 sermon Luther wrote: ‘We are to sleep until he comes and knocks on the grave and says, “Dr Martin, get up”. Then I will arise in a moment and will be eternally happy with him’.

Theologians are quick to point out that this view of the intermediate state presents serious problems and difficulties. While Scripture does use ‘sleep’ to describe death (e.g., John 11:11), surely this expression must not be understood literally. Rather it should be seen as a figure of speech, a euphemism.

Additionally, Scripture seems to depict the intermediate state as a personal and conscious existence. Although the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is not purposed to teach us about the nature of the intermediate state, it is nonetheless a reliable depiction. As Millard Erickson has rightly pointed out, in telling this parable, it is unlikely that Jesus would ‘mislead us on this subject’.

A most curious proposal came from the pen of Lewis Sperry Chafer, who was the president of Dallas Theological Seminary from 1936 to his death in 1952. A dispensationalist theologian, Chafer posited that the dead is given ‘an intermediate body’ while awaiting the resurrection. At the resurrection, they will receive the final spiritual body that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15.

Needless to say, there is no scriptural basis whatsoever for this theory.

A theory that is gaining ascendency is total death. This theory – which aligns itself with the modern physicalist anthropologies alluded above – maintains that nothing survives the physical death of an individual. The proponents of this view are therefore effectively saying that there is no intermediate state.

According to a version of this theory, at the resurrection, God will ‘re-assemble’ this individual who had died in a way that guarantees the identity of that individual. The Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann maintains that God is able to do this because he has in his mind the form (German: Gestalt) of the individual which serves as the basis for his re-constitution of that individual at the resurrection.

The problem with this theory is that it is does not square with the witness of Scripture. For example, if death is the total annihilation of the individual, what could Paul have meant when he suggested that the deceased believer is in the presence of Christ (Philippians 2:3)? How could we make sense of Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief that he will be with him in paradise on the very day of their deaths (Luke 23:43)?

Finally, some scholars have argued that there is no need to envision an intermediate state because the dead will be instantaneously resurrected. W.D. Davies expounded this view in Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (1970).

According to Davies, by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians he had already distanced himself from rabbinic Judaism’s idea of disembodiment at death. ‘[The dead] would on the contrary, be embodied’, writes Davies, ‘and there is no room in Paul’s theology for an intermediate state of the dead’.

Davies has however ignored a large body of Pauline texts which indicates quite clearly that the apostle believed in the disembodied ‘survival’ of the deceased (Phil 3:20-21; 1 Thess 4:16-17; Rom 2:3-16; 1 Cor 4:5).

The evangelical theologian Anthony Hoekema has argued that there are simply too many passages in the NT that point to the intermediate state for the concept to be ignored: Luke 23:42-43; Philippians 1:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. In the same way, there are too many passages that speak of the separation of the soul from the body at death in Scripture for Christians to uncritically embrace a merely physicalist anthropology.

To be sure, the Bible does present a unitary concept of the human being. But it also indicates that at death, this unity is temporarily dissolved due to the separation of body and soul.

In addition, there can be no denying that Scripture teaches that the soul (however one may wish to describe it) continues in personal, conscious existence after the physical death of the individual. It is only at the resurrection that body and soul are brought together once again.

The Bible does speak of an intermediate state between death and resurrection. But the scarcity of biblical material cautions us against being too dogmatic in our conception of the nature of this mode of existence.



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.

Grappling with our Christian and Asian Cultural Identities

September 2018 Credo

Introduction

Should Christians participate in Chinese rites? Can we use Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda (Indian medicine)? Is it wrong for Christians to practise Yoga or Taiji Quan or other Asian martial arts? These are just some of the many questions that Asian Christians ask whenever they grapple with our two-fold identity as Christians and Asians.

These are not easy questions to answer, particularly when most Christians are more familiar with Western culture, science and theology, than with our own cultural heritage. How then should think about the relationship between our faith in Christ and the culture we are brought up in? While it is impossible to address these concerns exhaustively here, there are some theological principles we can work with to navigate these murky waters.

Defining Culture

What is culture? Culture, as Martin E Marty put it, is simply “everything that human beings do with, make of, cultivated or nurtured from nature.” It “comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artefacts, technical processes, and values.” On the most part, this definition covers the whole of human knowledge. I shall, therefore, assume culture and human knowledge as one and the same.

Special versus General Revelation

So how do we evaluate culture? I begin with the observation that the whole of Christian teaching focuses on three poles: the natures of God, humanity and Creation, and their relationships with one another. Specifically, God revealed Himself through His salvation of Israel, and the redemptive work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Both stories have been passed down to us through the teachings of the Bible. Christian tradition commonly regards these teachings as ‘Special Revelation’.

Scriptures, however, also assert that the world we live in has much to teach us about God. This ‘General Revelation’, as it is known among theologians, is assumed in Psalm 19:1, when it says ‘the heavens declare (or communicates) the glory of God’. Romans 1:19 asserts likewise, though negatively, that humans do know much about God’s laws, but refuse to acknowledge them.

Judging from figures like Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17) and Job, who seem to know God well even though they were not Israelites, it appears that one can know some aspects of God and His laws truly if in a limited way. This is also why many ancient cultures, such as the Greek, Roman, and Chinese often expound ethical beliefs that are similar to biblical teachings!

Having said these, it is noteworthy that the Bible is silent about many aspects of human knowledge. For example, how the world was created, the fundamentals of physics and chemistry, medical knowledge, agricultural knowledge, and the like. These belong to neither the rubrics of special nor general revelation. There is, therefore, much room for us to differ here. Christians must be careful not to confuse these ideas with General Revelation (ideas about God and His relationship with Creation) or to reject them simply because they are culturally unfamiliar.

Being Images of God and our Capacity for Knowledge

Scriptures also teach that human beings are fallen images of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This has three implications for us. First and foremost, we are inclined to seek knowledge that is always true, absolute and unchanging, just like God. Second, since we are only images, we can never attain absolute truths. Our knowledge will always be limited and perspectival, shaped by our personal circumstances, training, resources and even cultures. Thirdly, we are also sinful creatures, hindered by our addictions and biasedness. These can mislead or compel us to deny the truth. Is this not why we sometimes refuse to give up our cherished ideas even when proven wrong?

Modes of Knowing

Based on our human experience, we can say more about the nature of human knowledge. Often, much of our knowledge is based on our accumulated experience or empirical evidence. We try something and it works consistently, and we develop a theory or hypothesis to explain why this is the case.

Our empirical studies, however, are often informed by transcendental ideas. These are assumptions that cannot be proven but generally taken for granted to be true, such as ‘for every effect, there is a cause(s)’ or ‘the shortest distance two dots is a straight line’.

The Wesley Quadrilateral & Assessing Culture Ideas

The above concepts are well summarised in the famous Wesley Quadrilateral which teaches that all theological ideas should be evaluated on the basis of (1) biblical teachings; (2) Christian Tradition or theology; (3) reason; and (4) practical experience. Given these different paradigms for understanding human knowledge, how do we go about evaluating a cultural idea? Jackson Wu, in his Saving God’s Face, suggests the following: we should avoid cultural and theological ideas that are unbiblical (Areas F, D and C), affirm those that conform with Scriptural teachings (Areas A and E), and be on the lookout for cultural ideas that may not be addressed by classical theology, but are, nevertheless, compatible with biblical faith (Area B).

 

Implementing the Principles

In practice, how do we apply these principles? Let us consider the Confucian doctrine of filial piety. For the Chinese, it involves a cluster of ideas, including filial piety as a means of abiding by the Heavenly mandate, as respecting our parents, and also the necessity of upholding ancestral rites.

Clearly, the doctrine has many affinities with biblical teachings (Area A) about honouring our parents (Eph 6:1-3; Deut 5:16), and is thus an excellent example of ‘General Revelation’. Furthermore, Chinese reflections on filial piety are intricate and can provide insights on how we can ‘honour our parents’ (Area B) beyond what is taught in Western theology.

Yet, the doctrine is not unproblematic. Some ancestral rites assume the enduring presence of our deceased ancestors and their powers over us. This does not square with biblical teachings (Area C). While Christians should discontinue such practice, much care and creativity is needed to develop substitutional rites to enable us to convey the same underlying ideals of filial piety.


Dr Lai Pak Wah is Vice-Principal and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST), where he teaches courses in church history, cross-cultural apologetics and Christian spirituality. A graduate from BGST (Grad Dip CS) & Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Pak Wah completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in the theology and spirituality of early Christianity.

What About 1 Timothy 2: 11-15?

September 2018 Credo

One of the most significant passages that any exegete or theologian has to grapple with when reflecting on the role of women in the Church is 1 Timothy 2: 11-15. In verse 12, the Apostle, writing to Timothy his young protégé, gave a specific instruction not to permit ‘a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man’, but to ‘remain quiet’.

In addition, Paul uses the Genesis creation account as the bedrock for his injunction: ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’ (vv 13-14). This has led some scholars and theologians to conclude that the Apostle is here issuing a command that prohibits women from teaching in the church and exercising authority that must be applied universally, in every church and in every age. Here we have Paul’s clear teaching of male headship and female submission that is based on the order of creation, gleaned from the very first book of the Bible, they insist.

However, there are a number of scholars and theologians (including the author of this article) who have profound difficulties with this way of reading this text, and the conclusions it suggests. For these scholars, there are compelling reasons to understand this instruction, not as a universal directive, but one that is bound by the particular context of the Ephesian church where Timothy was serving as a pastor.

In the first place, all scholars of the Bible would agree that Paul’s three pastoral epistles – including 1 Timothy – are occasional pieces. This means that they were written because Paul and his associate Timothy wanted to address some issues that have arisen in the Church at Ephesus. Thus, in order to properly understand the epistle, we must have some idea of what occasioned it in the first place.

The society in Ephesus, at the time this epistle was written, was dominated by the worship of the goddess Artemus, whose temple is one of the wonders of the world. Women played such a significant role in Ephesian society that some scholars have argued that their prominence in civic and professional life is unmatched by any other city in the Roman Empire.

In addition, there were the followers of the cult of Isis and the priestesses of Demeter, who stressed that men and women have equal rights and who gave women roles that were traditionally performed only by men. There even were philosophical schools in Ephesus, where women served as respected and influential teachers.

The women in the church at Ephesus, some of whom scholars believe were converts from pagan cults, also wanted to exert their rights to teach and govern, despite their lack of theological and spiritual credentials.

In the church at Ephesus, there were also some false teachers who challenged the authority of Paul and his disciple, Timothy. They preyed on the more vulnerable women in the church (2 Tim 3:1-9), especially those who were struggling with sexual problems (1 Tim 5:6, 11-16), who were weak in their faith (2 Tim 3:6-7), and who perpetrate fables and myths (1 Tim 4:7; 1 Tim 1:3).

Against this background, the main purpose of the Apostle in his letters to Timothy is not to prohibit women from teaching or exercising authority. Rather his main purpose is to protect orthodox teaching (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Tim 2:25; 3:7) from being polluted by heresies perpetrated by people who do not have the requisite theological and spiritual understanding (1 Tim 1:7), especially some of the women in the congregation.

That is why throughout the epistle, the Apostle emphasised again and again the need for good and sound teaching (1 Tim 1:3-11, 18-20; 4:1-7, 16; 6:20-21).

This brings us to Paul’s use of the Genesis account of the Fall to press his point. As mentioned above, some scholars maintain that Paul’s instruction on the role of women must be seen as a universal (as opposed to contextual) directive because it is grounded in Scripture.

However, other scholars have pointed out that Paul’s use of the Genesis story is typological. In other words, for Paul the story of Adam and Eve provides a powerful analogy to what was happening in the Ephesian Church. The women in the Ephesian church reminded Paul of the predicament of Eve in Genesis.

Just as Eve was deceived into believing the serpent, so the women in the Church at Ephesus were deceived into believing the false teachers who used these women to spread their heresies. And just as Eve’s deception resulted in disastrous consequences, so will the deception of the women in the Ephesian church bring harm to the body of Christ.

Thus in alluding to Eve, Paul is not saying that women are more likely to sin or that they are more vulnerable to deception. As Andrew Perriman points out, ‘Rather than claiming that men are less likely to be deceived, Paul chose references from Genesis to illustrate the disastrous consequences of a woman accepting and passing on false teaching’. The main concern of the apostle in this passage is not about the male-female hierarchy as such, but the problem of deception and how it can poison the community of faith.

It is therefore very important that we understand the nature of the prohibition. As Aída Besançon Spencer explains: ‘Paul here is not prohibiting women from preaching nor praying nor having an edifying authority nor pastoring. He is simply prohibiting them from teaching and using their authority in destructive ways’.

‘Consequently’, writes Stanley Grenz, ‘the apostle commanded that these women refrain from teaching and reverently learn from true teachers’.

If this reading of this problematic text is sound, then Paul’s injunction must be seen as a temporary instruction that he gave to Timothy to address a specific problem in the Ephesian church. It cannot be seen as a directive that has universal application to the Church, based on the hierarchical understanding of the relationship between man and woman.

This reading is more consistent with the rest of the NT, where the ministry of women is recognised. Paul elsewhere not only allowed women to pray and prophesy (1 Cor 11:5) but he also commended a number of women who were serving in leadership positions (Romans 16).

It is therefore reasonable to read the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2 as context-specific, that is, as addressing a particular issue in the Ephesian church and not as a permanent rule.



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.

Proverbs: Rulers and Working for Justice

August 2018 Credo

Israel’s kings had a hand in the composition of the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 1:1; 25:1). It is not surprising, then, that some of the sayings in Proverbs relate specifically to rulers.

Proverbs addresses questions which naturally arise for us as Christian citizens: How should we view our rulers and their officials? How can we help them carry out their tasks? How should we respond if they do not?

Some verses in Proverbs tell us that attributes such as wisdom, justice and integrity are what should distinguish a good leader. In Proverbs 8 Lady Wisdom (wisdom personified) states: ‘By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me rulers rule, and nobles, all who govern rightly’ (8:15-16). Other verses develop this theme: ‘It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness’ (16:12; cf. 20:28). But at least one verse reflects an apparently more cynical view: ‘Many seek the favour of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that one gets justice’ (29:26).

Proverbs also speaks about people, those whom rulers govern. One verse makes the simple point that a ruler needs a people (14:28): ‘The glory of a king is a multitude of people; without people a prince is ruined.’ But equally, a people needs a good ruler (28:2): ‘When a land rebels it has many rulers; but with an intelligent ruler there is lasting order.’

Interestingly, while Proverbs 28 and 29 contain some sayings specifically relating to leaders, they contain many more relating to the character of the people, e.g., 28:4: ‘Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law struggle against them.’ See also: 28:5-10, 24-28; 29:6-10. Citizens as well as rulers are responsible for the moral character of a nation.

Proverbs also focuses on those who advise and serve rulers. Some verses depict rulers as seeking out people of skill, integrity and honourable speech: ‘A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favour, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully’ (14:35; cf. 16:13; 22:11, 29). Other sayings note that a leader may be led astray by the wrong sort of advice: ‘If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked’ (29:12; cf. 25:4-5).

A leader should administer justice, punishing the wicked: ‘A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes’ (20:8). Most telling of all are the ‘words of King Lemuel’ (31:1-9), which tell rulers not to focus on the side-benefits of power (concubines and strong drink), but to take seriously the responsibilities of their position: ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy’ (vv. 8-9). Conversely, Proverbs uses telling images to describe the harm done by an unjust ruler: such a person is ‘a beating rain that leaves no food’ (28:3) and ‘a roaring lion or a charging bear’ (28:15; cf. 29:4)

For Proverbs, then, a ruler is an awe-inspiring figure, not lightly to be approached (19:12): ‘A king’s anger is like the growling of a lion, but his favour is like dew on the grass.’ And yet there are times when one needs to confront a leader or an official for the sake of justice, whatever the personal cost (25:26): ‘Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain are the righteous who give way before the wicked.’ If one speaks skilfully and tactfully, the result may be positive (25:14): ‘With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue can break bones.’

To return to the questions posed earlier: how should we view our rulers and their officials? Surely, as people who can do a great deal of good or harm, depending on how they exercise their power. At the very least, we should pray for them (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Again: how can we help our leaders carry out their tasks? If we exercise leadership in any sphere, then let us make our influence count for good. Most of us will never be leaders, but we can still help our leaders indirectly, by making sure that in our personal lives we conduct ourselves justly and righteously. As noted earlier, the character of a leader makes a big difference to the moral quality of a nation, but so, too, does the character of its citizens. Proverbs has much to say about fairness, integrity, justice and straight dealing as these relate to national leaders, but it has much more to say about these qualities as they relate to all of God’s people.

What if our leaders fail to carry out their responsibilities? One response is to vote them out of power. (I write two weeks after the Malaysian general elections.) But what about the years between general elections? Sometimes Christians, whether church leaders or not, may feel themselves called to challenge the governing authorities.

This is not a task for the raw and inexperienced. Those who come before a ruler or official on behalf of others must exhibit many of the virtues and attributes commended throughout Proverbs: they must be people of integrity, who feel a deep concern for the underprivileged; wise and shrewd, knowing how to avoid giving unnecessary offence; able to speak persuasively, knowing how to present a case and how not to be provoked in debate, able to sense when to speak and when to fall silent.

Such men and women may, in God’s providence, be a wholesome influence in the life of the nation. They may bring about significant good for their fellow citizens, particularly the most needy. In this way they may provide a powerful witness to the gospel. Is that not an area where we should long to see the church taking a lead?

I end with a general point: it is high time we studied Proverbs more seriously, because it remains a highly contemporary book, full of practical wisdom that can guide us in our Christian discipleship.



Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.

The Bible and Disability

August 2018 Credo

Secular scholars who write on disability are often critical of religious accounts mostly because of the latter’s allegedly negative approaches. They point out that in Christianity – for example – disability is often associated with sin and divine punishment.

To be sure, there are passages in the Bible that speak of God inflicting disabilities such as blindness as punishment for sin and disobedience. For example, we find in Leviticus clear warnings that disease and disability are some of the dire consequences of idolatry: ‘I will bring upon sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain your life away’ (26: 16).

In similar vein, the Deuteronomist lists insanity and blindness as possible punishment for disobedience: ‘The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness’ (Deuteronomy 28:28-29).

Not only does the Bible associate disability with sin, it even appears to exclude people of disabilities from participating in the worship of God in the temple.

For example, in Leviticus we read: ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand …’ (Leviticus 21: 16-19).

Judith Adams succinctly summarises this passage thus: ‘In the most perfect of places – that is, the temple – in the presence of the most perfect entity – that is, God – only the perfect of persons, someone of unblemished priestly lineage and perfect physical form, may offer up sacrifices (which must also be unblemished)’.

Christian authors like Nancy Eiseland have eschewed traditional interpretations of these passages and advanced a new hermeneutic – in her case, liberationist – in order to make sense of them. To Eiseland, traditional hermeneutics must be rejected because it is in subtle ways complicit in the unjust discrimination and ostracization of people with disabilities.

‘The history of the church’s interaction with the disabled’, she writes rather despairingly in Disabled God, ‘is at best an ambiguous one. Rather than being a structure for empowerment, the church has more often supported the societal structures and attitudes that have treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism’.

However, to focus only on what some passages have to say about disabilities and neglect the others is to fail to appreciate the Bible’s nuanced and complex treatment of the issue.

For example, alongside the passage in Leviticus cited above we have this remarkable injunction: ‘You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 19:14).

The juxtaposition of such passages should give pause to any reader who is inclined to conclude, all too hastily, that the Bible puts disabled people in a negative light or that it encourages their oppression.

The careful reader of the Old Testament cannot fail to notice that in the remarkable passages that speak of the restoration of Israel, the inclusion of people with disabilities are repeatedly (and quite deliberately) mentioned.

An example of such a passage is Jeremiah 31 where God reassures his exiled people that they will return to a restored Jerusalem: ‘Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest part of the earth, among them the blind and the lame’ (v 8).

In similar vein, in Micah we read: ‘In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame … and the lame will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation’ (4:6, 7).

Scripture does not only speak of the inclusion of disabled people, but their healing and restoration as well.

‘In that day’, Isaiah writes, ‘the deaf will hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see’ (29: 18). And again: ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute sing for joy’ (35:5-6).

These passages about restoration and healing in the OT surely anticipate the ministry of Jesus himself, who in inaugurating God’s kingdom healed the sick and people with disabilities. The healing miracles of Jesus are signs of the divine kingdom that will be consummated when Jesus returns, a new heavens and a new earth free from sin, disease and disabilities.

To understand what the Bible has to say about disabilities, one must therefore go beyond the exegesis of individual texts and get a sense of the profound and comprehensive picture it presents – of creation, human beings as bearers of the divine image, the fall and redemption.

Most significantly, we have to glean what the Bible has to say about the eschaton, the consummation of the kingdom of God, the universal resurrection and the transfiguration of this sin-marred world into the new creation.

However, this eschatological vision – found in Scripture and taught by the Church – is seen by some theologians writing on disability not as a testimony of hope but rather as the basis for discrimination. This is truly regrettable.

But this stupendous vision of the things to come is indispensable if we are to achieve a realistic appreciation of the world in which we live.

As Wolfhart Pannenberg has put it: ‘Only in the light of the eschatological consummation is the verdict justified that in the first creation story the Creator pronounced at the end of the sixth day when he had made the first human pair: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Only in the light of the eschatological consummation may this be said of our world as it is in all its confusion and pain’.



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

A Fitting Salvation

July 2018 Credo

10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering’ (Hebrews 2:10, NIV 1984)

The writer to the Hebrews uses a unique word — ‘fitting’ — to describe the salvation that has been brought to his church congregation (and to us). The Greek word eprepen (‘it was fitting’) covers a certain semantic range, but the meanings all centre on the notion of the suitability or propriety of an action or decision.

So in what way is our salvation, which involves the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his suffering, ‘fitting’?

Here in Hebrews, at least, our salvation is fitting given the theme of identification which runs through this chapter. If Jesus is to be the great forerunner of what humanity was meant to be as God intended (Heb. 2:8–9), then it is fitting that Jesus identifies with humanity. ‘11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family’, Heb. 2:11 reminds us. Of course, as Heb. 2:14–15 goes on to show, Jesus’ identification is not one of capitulation to the same forces of death and the devil that held us in slavery, but it is precisely the opposite: a victory.

The language of fittingness is similarly seen in the great church father Athanasius. In On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius argues for the fittingness of God’s salvation based on the connection between creation and the renewal of creation.

Because it is the Word that brought about creation (including humanity), Athanasius argues that it is entirely fitting that the ‘the renewal of creation [is] the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning’ (§1.4; 4.2–4).

To be sure, the need for renewal is brought about by man’s own fault and rebellion. Having turned away from God who is the supreme being, we are ‘everlastingly bereft … of being’, with death and corruption now as our lot (§4.5). God’s goodness would not allow man to remain in this state of corruption (§6). Thus, the Word of God, which at the beginning made everything out of nothing, should come to bring ‘the corruptible to incorruption’ (§7.4–5).

The above, Athanasius stresses, is a fitting action, because ‘being Word of the Father, … He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father’ (§7.5). And that is what the Word does — takes on a body of similar nature as ours, gives it to death in the place of all as an offering to the Father, in the process undoing the law (involving the ruin of mankind) and turning mankind towards incorruption again (§8.4).

The idea of the fittingness of God’s salvation is picked up again and expounded in Anselm’s classic work, Cur Deus Homo. Anselm differs from Athanasius in framing his discussion around the concept of a debt payment or recompense for sin instead of a renewal of creation. Notwithstanding the difference, he shares with Athanasius the conviction that only a perfect God-man can fittingly undertake the task of salvation.

Cur Deus Homo can be seen as one long substantial answer that Anselm gives to the central question raised by his interlocutor, Boso: ‘Given that God is omnipotent, by what necessity and reason did he assume the lowliness and weakness of human nature in order to restore human nature?’ (I.1)

Anselm’s answer centres on the notion of sin and that which is involved in making recompense for sin. If every rational creature ought to subject his or her will to God, sin is nothing other than the failure to render obedience that one owes to God, resulting in a dishonouring of God (I.11). For God to leave sin unpunished would be to leave sin in an unordered state (I.12, 13). That cannot be the outcome given the character of God.

To further compound the problem, Anselm adds that the recompense must be proportionate to the sin (I.20, 21). This means that even if mankind — were we able to — could honour God by fearing, loving and obeying him, that would count only as repayment to God for what we owed him in the first place if we had not sinned, and not as payment for the debt which we owe for having sinned (I.20). Specifically, this recompense (for having sinned) must be ‘something greater than everything other than God’. Effectively, this translates to the fact that only God can make this recompense (II.6).

The logic culminates in Anselm’s conclusion that it is therefore only fitting that a perfect God-man make this recompense, for it is one that only mankind owes and that only God can make (II.6, 7). That is what Jesus does. By laying down his own life for the honour of God, Jesus — as one of true humanity — pays on behalf of sinful humanity the recompense owed to God. Because there is no sin in Jesus, his death is neither obligated of him nor reckoned as his debt before God (II.11), thus Jesus’ death truly counts as the recompense needed.

To complete the triple A-list of theologians, I mention very briefly Aquinas. Aquinas in the Summa Theologica addresses this question ‘Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?’ at the head of all the questions he treats in considering the incarnation (ST III, q. 1, a. 1). His refreshing answer comes in the form of leveraging on the idea of divine goodness. Since the essence of goodness is to communicate itself to others, so it is fitting that this divine goodness is communicated in the best possible way to the creature; that best possible way being seen in the incarnation.

Taken together, four different perspectives are presented as to why our salvation involving the incarnation and suffering of our Lord is a fitting salvation. That the one who is to be humanity’s forerunner should fully identify with humanity (Hebrews), that the one who created is the one who would renew creation (Athanasius), that only a perfect God-man can pay the debt that mankind owes to God (Anselm), that divine goodness should be communicated to the creature (Aquinas), all provide us fitting reasons to praise our Heavenly Father for his grace bestowed upon us.

O what a fitting salvation!


Rev Dr Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.

Religion and Magic

July 2018 Credo

One of the most fascinating figures in Acts is Simon Magus, who made his appearance in Acts 8, where Luke gives an account of the founding of the church in Samaria. This enigmatic figure so enthralled the ancient world that his name is found even in the Gnostic texts, which tell extravagant and historically dubious tales about him.

According to Luke, when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, ‘he offered them money, saying: “Give me this power also, so that anyone whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’. Apart from the fact that Simon thought that the power of the Spirit could be monetised, and therefore bought and sold, he also believed that it is a force that can be transferred from one person to another.

This has led some to argue that Simon thought that the power the apostles displayed was no different from that of the master sorcerer. The figure of Simon Magus therefore raises questions about the troubling relationship between religion – especially Christianity – and magic.

In their insightful study entitled, Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft Rebecca and Philip Stein define magic as the methods that ‘somehow interface with the supernatural and by which people can bring about particular outcomes’. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes magic as a primitive form of technology.

Although magic is profoundly distinct from religion, the two have sometimes been wedded together in a syncretistic mix, as many sociological and anthropological studies have shown. One clear example is the blending of Christianity and voodoo in Haiti.

Although evangelical Christians in Haiti have condemned this unholy marriage, evangelicalism in the West – especially in America – is not spared from similar toxic miscegenations.

Both Edward Tyler and James Frazer maintain that magic has to do with belief in impersonal forces. As a form of ‘technology’, magic seeks to harness the occult forces and channel them in such a way that the goals of the magician are served.

We find the same idea embedded in the concept of faith promoted by the teachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. Thus, Kenneth Hagin – the alleged founder of this heresy – could instruct his followers to ‘Have faith in your faith’.

Comparing spiritual laws with natural ones, Hagin writes: ‘Just as you get into contact with those natural laws or put them into practice they work for you. Over in the spiritual realm the same thing is true’. This means that faith, for Hagin, has nothing to do with God – it is reduced to a technique that will produce the desired results when properly employed.

Hagin could therefore conclude that with correct use of the technique even unbelievers would get the same results: ‘…I’d see unsaved people getting results. Then it dawned on me what the sinners were doing: they were cooperating with … the law of faith’.

Writing on Wiccan magic, Philip Stein describes how visualizations are often used by practitioners to awaken and concentrate power so that it can be ‘set to effect a particular goal …’

In his 1902 book, The History and Power of Mind (published by Occult Book Concern) Richard Ingalese provides arguably the clearest insight into the power of mental visualization when he writes: ‘If you desire success, social position, any spiritual, mental or physical thing, it can be gained by simply creating and holding the picture in your mind’. ‘The constant or frequent vibration which your thought causes sets the Universal Consciousness surrounding you and your picture into action’, Ingalese explains.

Accompanying the creative energies that come with visualisation is the power of positive confession, a technique used by magicians and Word of Faith proponents alike. This idea is nicely summarised by Essek William Kenyon – whom some regard as the true founder of the Word of Faith movement – who boldly declared: ‘What I confess, I possess’.

In New Thought Metaphysics, both visualisation and positive confession work on the principle of the ‘law of attraction’, which is a form of mental magnetism. Mind-power, according to proponents, is the most potent energy force in the universe, which when properly directed can bring about circumstances and realities that previously did not exist.

When this idea is ‘christened’ by faith teachers like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, the concept of ‘creative faith’ is invented. We are created in the image of the Creator God. Thus, so the argument goes, we too have the power to create by our faith-filled thoughts and words.

The historian of metaphysics Catherine Albanese describes this as mental magic (as opposed to material magic) because it uses vision, imagination, and words believing that external events could be controlled by thoughts and words.

Through the influences of theosophists like Helena Blasvatsky (1831-1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and New Thought advocates like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), such practises have long taken root in esoteric sects and cults like the Swedenborgians and Christian Science.

They have also made their way into heretical movements associated with evangelical-charismatic Christianity in America such as like Latter Rain, Health and Wealth Teaching and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Syncretism is always a real and present danger in Christianity. Paul warned the Colossian Christians about this danger in a letter written almost two millennia ago (Colossians 2:8-14).

That warning has to be taken just as seriously by Christians in the twenty-first century who have to contend with a plethora of diverse and enticing expressions of religiosity and spirituality. A Christian who is not grounded in Scriptures and the fundamental tents of the Church could, like Simon Magus, very easily confuse magic (which has to do with harnessing occult power for selfish ends) with true religion (which has to do with glorifying God through humble obedience to Jesus Christ).


 

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

The Paradox of Discipleship

June 2018 Credo

Luke 14:25-35

An Odd Conclusion …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Conclusion

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

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



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