Category Archives: Credo

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

May 2019 Credo

A Difficult Passage

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

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

Attempting to Understand it

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

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

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

The Book of 1 Enoch as Background

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

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

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

Back to the Difficult Passage

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

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

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


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

Augustine and Christian Education

May 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Science and Theology as Analogous Research Programmes

April 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Pastoring with the Fathers

April 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

“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 ( http://ehrmanproject.com/ ). In any case, regardless of whether the Four Gospels are reliable, we still need to explain how the earliest Christians came to regard Jesus as truly divine. If Jesus did not claim and show himself to be truly divine by rising from the dead, this would not have happened; the earliest Christian leaders who were devout ancient monotheistic Jews would have regarded Jesus as merely a teacher or a prophet; they would not have come to the widespread agreement that he truly divine. Which they did.

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


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



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

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.