Category Archives: Credo

“Once Saved Always Saved” and Other Controversies

March 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That They May Be One

March 2019 Credo 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

February 2019 Credo 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Did the Church Get Its Bible?

February 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Alone? The Problem with Christian Universalism

January 2019 Credo

In the 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 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

Upon This Rock

November 2018 Credo

At about the middle of the Gospel of Matthew, we find the famous account of the conversation that Jesus had with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16). In that incident, which took place just before his transfiguration, Jesus asked his disciples two questions.

The first question was: ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ The disciples readily supplied Jesus with a list of public opinions about him – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets (16:13-14).

In the second question, Jesus wished to discover the views of his disciples who had accompanied him for several years and had personally witnessed his ministry. There can be no doubt that Jesus had expected a different answer from them.

Peter, impetuous as ever, blurted out the answer: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (16:16). Neither Peter nor the disciples realised that that reply was in fact revelation-enabled. This was only disclosed in Jesus’ response: ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’.

Then, Jesus said these the remarkable words that have become the subject of one of the longest debates in the history of the Church: ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (16:18).

What did Jesus mean by the metaphor of the ‘rock’? Does the rock in this context refer to a person (or indeed to several persons), or does it refer to something else?

The Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that ‘the rock’ refers to Peter himself, whom it regards as the chief apostle, the first among equals. Thus, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 880), we find this unequivocal statement: ‘When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted them in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them’.

The exclusive place of Peter as the head of the Church is also clearly articulated in the Catechism. ‘The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock’ (para 881).

Consequently, it is the Roman pontiff who must be seen as Peter’s successor: ‘The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful’ (para 882).

The view that the Roman Pope is Peter’s successor and the theology of apostolic succession it spawns is uniquely that of the Roman Catholic Church, not shared by the other traditions.

The great 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, categorically rejected the Roman Catholic interpretation and insisted that ‘the rock’ refers not to Peter but to Christ himself.

In his comments on this Matthean passage, Luther insists that the ‘rock’ must refer to a ‘living, spiritual rock’. He therefore concludes: ‘“Church” must be a spiritual, living congregation, yes, living in such fashion that it all lives eternally. So this rock is now the Son of God, Jesus Christ, alone and no one else, [and] concerning whom the Scripture is full, and we Christians know well’.

In his commentary on Matthew 16, John Calvin also rejects the Roman Catholic interpretation. However, Calvin is of the view that ‘the rock’ does refer to Peter, and appears to give more weight to Peter’s apostolic office. But at the most fundamental level, Calvin puts emphasis on the faith of Peter, expressed in his great confession and shared by all who believe.

On the metaphor of the rock, Calvin could therefore write: ‘From this it appears how the name Peter belongs both to Peter and to other believers; that is, founded on the faith of Christ they are fitted in a holy concord into the spiritual building, so that God may dwell in their midst’.

The interpretation of the Reformers can he traced to the early fathers of the Church. Like the Reformers, the Patristic theologians did not interpret the metaphor in line with the Roman Catholic doctrine. Space allows us to consider only two examples, Origen and Augustine.

Origen, the head of a catechetical school in Alexandria in the first half of the third century, was a theologian of enormous intellect. More importantly, his interpretation of Matthew 16:18 became normative for the fathers of the Eastern Church.

Origen maintains that the rock in the Matthean passage does refer to Peter, but not in the Roman Catholic sense. Peter, for Origen, represents all true believers in Christ.

Thus, Origen could write in his commentary on Matthew 16:18: ‘And if we too have said like Peter, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ … we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, “Thou are Peter”, etc’.

Augustine, who is without doubt one of the most important theologians in Latin Christianity, wrote more comments on Matthew 16:18 than any other Church father. Initially, Augustine interpreted the rock as Peter, but soon changed his mind.

For the remainder of his ministry as a theologian and bishop, Augustine maintained that the rock is not Peter but Christ, or Peter’s confession about Christ. Following the fathers of the Church who came before him, Augustine interpreted Matthew 16:18 on the basis of 1 Corinthians 10:4, where Paul explicitly states that ‘the Rock was Christ’.

In contrast to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church promulgated after him, Augustine did not see Peter as occupying a privileged position even though he acknowledged the special honour that Rome enjoys.

Summarising Augustine’s ecclesiology with regard to this issue, Karl Morrison writes: ‘Peter was said to have received the power of the keys, not in his own right, but as a representative of the entire Church. Without contesting Rome’s primacy of honour, St. Augustine held that all the Apostles, and all their successors, the bishops, shared equally in the powers which Christ granted St. Peter’.

Christ is the only foundation of the Church, the rock upon which she is established. As long as the Church remains faithful to Christ, ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against it’, as her Lord had promised (Matthew 16:19).


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.


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.