Category Archives: Credo

Grappling with our Christian and Asian Cultural Identities

September 2018 Credo

Introduction

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

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

Defining Culture

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

Special versus General Revelation

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

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

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

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

Being Images of God and our Capacity for Knowledge

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

Modes of Knowing

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

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

The Wesley Quadrilateral & Assessing Culture Ideas

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

 

Implementing the Principles

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

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

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


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

What About 1 Timothy 2: 11-15?

September 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Proverbs: Rulers and Working for Justice

August 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The Bible and Disability

August 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

A Fitting Salvation

July 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O what a fitting salvation!


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

Religion and Magic

July 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

The Paradox of Discipleship

June 2018 Credo

Luke 14:25-35

An Odd Conclusion …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Conclusion

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

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



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

 

Theological Liberalism as Heresy

June 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: What is your assessment of liberal theology?

The roots of modern liberal theology can be traced to the great intellectual and cultural movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, in the main it signals man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage, that is, his inability to think without the guidance of another. As Immanuel Kant has so famously put it, the motto of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! (‘Dare to Know’!) – ‘Have courage to use your own understanding’.

In presenting man as the supreme authority, the Enlightenment jettisons all traditional sources of authority, including, of course, the Church and her sacred Scriptures. As Richard Pierard notes, ‘All beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience, and one’s mind must be open to new facts and truth, regardless of where they may originate’.

Accompanying the Enlightenment is a new approach to interpreting the Bible that uses the ‘science’ of historical research called ‘historical criticism’. Liberal Bible scholars and theologians accept the findings of the ‘historical critical school’ that suggest that the biblical texts are not conveyors of divine revelation, but are instead time-bound accounts of the ancient people of Israel and the early Christians.

In the hands of the liberal theologians, the Bible is no longer regarded as God’s infallible Word, inspired by his Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). Instead, the Bible is merely seen as the work of its human authors and editors who belonged to an age centuries removed from ours, and who are in every way limited by their times. The stories in the Bible must be regarded as myths and fables, purposed to inspire piety and morality.

In allowing reason to usurp the authority of the Bible, liberalism has introduced such mutilating distortions to the basic tenets of the Christian faith concerning God, Jesus Christ, salvation, eschatology that what emerges as a result can no longer be said to be orthodox Christianity. In departing so radically from the ‘faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3), theological liberalism must be regarded as heresy.

Take the liberal revisions to the doctrine of God. In his magisterial work, History of Dogma (7 volumes, published between 1894-99), Adolf von Harnack argued that the orthodox Christianity presented in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed is the ‘creation of the Hellenic spirit on the soil of the Gospel’ and therefore a profound aberration of the simple religion of Jesus. The Church, Harnack insists, must re-discover the ‘kernel’ of Christianity by removing the ‘husks’, that is, the forms that it has been given as a result of the metaphysical speculations of her theologians.

Following Harnack, liberal theologians have regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as merely symbolic expressions of the Church’s experience of God, devoid of any ontological truth.

Or take liberalism’s understanding of Christ and salvation. In his book, On Religion, Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), Friedrich D. Schleiermacher – who has been accorded the accolade of being the father of modern (read, liberal) theology – describes Jesus not as the incarnation of God’s Word, but as an archetypal man. Jesus was a man who has achieved perfect ‘God-consciousness’ (that is, total dependence on God). He serves as an example that we all must emulate.

Following Schleiermacher’s lead, the late Anglican theologian John Macquarrie also maintained that Jesus is different from other humans only in degree and not in kind. In other words, for Macquarrie, the incarnation must be understood metaphorically, not literally.

Consequently, Macquarrie’s Jesus is hardly different from what he calls the other ‘saviour figures’ like Krishna, Confucius and Buddha. In his highly influential book, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1990), Macquarrie argues that like Jesus, all these other saviour figures are also ‘mediators of grace’ and ‘emissaries of holy Being’. Like Jesus, they have also ‘given themselves up to the service of a divine reality, who might work in them and through them for the lifting up of all creatures upon earth’.

It should not surprise us that theological liberals have downplayed the seriousness of sin by defining it, not as a depravity that is so comprehensive that if human beings were left to their own devises, they would not be able to rescue themselves from destruction, but as merely a glitch in our relationship with God.

For Schleiermacher, then, ‘redemption’ has to do with a restored relationship with God that can be achieved by emulating Jesus who enjoys pre-eminent God-consciousness and an intimate relationship with God. Schleiermacher – and the liberals who followed him – has very little to say about vicarious atonement, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

The Lutheran theologian Eugene Klug is surely rightly when he asserts that ‘The true horror of liberalism is evident precisely at the point where it denies Christ’s unique role as Saviour of mankind through his vicarious suffering and death for men’s sins’.

Liberal theology wants to present Jesus as a remarkable man, a pious follower of God par excellence – but not as the incarnate Son of God – to the so-called cultural despisers of Christianity. In so doing, they have seriously distorted what Scripture says about him. As Klug is right to point out, ‘The gospels do not consist in pious embellishments of what Jesus’ followers thought about him, fancifully enhanced by miracles and a fabricated report of his resurrection’. Rather, ‘these gospels consist in the revelation of God, recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, for faith’s acceptance’.

Liberalism is the bastardization of the Christian Faith – to borrow the expression by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. It is the mutilation, corruption and perversion of orthodox Christianity.


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.

James and John (Packer and Wesley on Romans 7)

May 2018 Credo

Some time ago, I read a book on the writings of J. I. Packer. It is Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit  by Sam Storms (Crossway, 2015).

Packer is a writer who has influenced me significantly in my growth as a theologian, pastor and Christian. His deep roots in Anglican theology and liturgy, Puritan spiritual theology, and the evangelical emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the necessity to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ have been greatly helpful to the 20th and 21st century church.

His logical consistency as a systematic theologian, godly way of life and the steadiness of views held over a long period with conviction, together with his wide-ranging writings on the many practical issues related to Christian living have been most useful, and ought to be celebrated by us, especially as Packer has now lost his eyesight and is quite old – he turned 90 on 22 July 2016.

My men’s group was richly blessed when we studied his book Rediscovering Holiness some years ago. In our discussions I mentioned Packer’s interpretation of Romans 7 – that it is a description of Paul’s own personal experience as a saint struggling to overcome sinfulness in his quest to be freed from its influence.

This is in line with the view of St Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and so on. Packer’s views are discussed in chapter 6 and in the appendix of Packer on the Christian Life. If you have a copy of Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit, check out the appendix; it also discusses Rom 7.

Packer is a realist emphasising sin’s stubborn stickiness to the soul, that it takes a lifelong battle against it in our hearts to achieve Christlikeness and holiness. Because of his views, he seems to dismiss Wesleyan teaching on Christian perfection. He rightly understands Wesley’s definition of perfection as not including moral perfection or perfection in making decisions or discernment.

For Wesley, perfection has to do with loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbours as ourselves. This is an imperative that Wesley argued can be achieved at any given time by the actions of God’s grace through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

For Wesley, this was a growing and dynamic perfection, in the sense that on the basis of our growing knowledge of God and His ways, and the availability of God’s grace, our love for God can also grow in growing perfection, like the way a balloon can grow as a perfect sphere in different degrees.

Wesley’s take on Romans 7 is contrary to that of Packer’s. He follows the Church Fathers before Augustine, and the Arminian position (Jacob Arminius) that Rom 7 describes the experience of a man before conversion. No doubt, one’s theological position affects one interpretation of such difficult biblical texts. One has to fit one’s interpretation to the overall scheme of one’s theological system.

Packer is a Calvinist while Wesley was an Arminian. Wesley emphasised the need to strive towards Christian perfection and victory over sin by cooperating with the grace of God. There was no place for spiritual laziness, procrastination and defeatism in his view. He thus preached often from 1 John 3:6 to emphasise that the Christian must stop deliberately continuing in sin.

On his part, Packer was wary of Wesleyan holiness movements and Keswick teaching on the higher life, that they offered perfection too easily without taking into account the fierce and lifelong battle with our sinfulness. The danger of spiritual daydreams is that they tend to deny the actual reality. This may be seen in the songs we sing in church which speak about loving God or surrendering to Him in ways that do not reflect reality and make us hypocrites or liars.

So who is right, Wesley or Packer?

How can I as a Wesleyan pastor respond to Packer’s view of Rom 7? I think one way to understand this is to establish some facts. Packer is not one for spiritual sloth, and emphasises the importance of spiritual effort and seriousness in pursuing holiness – hence his problems with Keswick teaching which he considers too quietistic and passive for his liking. Wesley who also considered the Moravians later in his life as too quietistic, would agree with Packer on this count.

At the same time, though Wesley urged Christians to seek perfection because God is perfect (Mt 5:48) and holiness because God is holy (1 Pet 1:16), he was only too aware of how difficult this can be. He himself assessed his own life regularly and found faults. In his own sermons he spoke against the lack of seriousness found among some Methodists, and did not hesitate to expel them temporarily from the Methodist societies until they showed serious repentance.

Thus if you assess both Wesley and Packer you may find that there is greater agreement between them than is superficially noted. We need to recognise that Scripture speaks to all conditions and possibilities.

Where there is easy triumphalism and the stubbornness and the devastating effects of sin is not taken seriously, then we need to turn to Packer’s interpretation of Rom 7, that the fierce struggle with inner sin begins with Christian conversion and is the experience of the saint who learns to hate sin and seeks to be free from it.

Where there is sad defeatism that sin will always have the upper hand and that we will never overcome it, or when this idea turns to inner permission and an excuse to remain in sin, bringing with it spiritual sloth, then we need to turn to Wesley’s emphasis on how we need to grow in Christlikeness and “participate in the divine nature” by making every effort to grow from faith to love (2 Peter 1:3-11).

Notice how we need both correctives, lest we face the danger of pushing either position too far, ending in less than helpful Christian deviations. Both Packer and Wesley will vehemently reject such deviations.

I wonder how Wesley and Packer would meet in heaven. I suspect that they would find much agreement (Packer sharing Wesley’s emphasis on holiness and Wesley sharing Packer’s realism), and that the perceived gap between them would narrow to a thin line across which they can heartily shake their hands in mutual respect and brotherly affection


Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

The Return of Christ

May 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: How should we understand the second coming of Christ?

In the Apostles’ Creed, the Church declares that the risen and ascended Christ will come to ‘judge the living and the dead’. The return of Christ at the end of time to judge the world and to bring the kingdom of God to consummation is clearly taught in Scripture and firmly grounded in the theological and liturgical traditions of the Church.

But Christ’s second coming has also been a subject of much speculation and controversy throughout the history of the Church. Christians of every stripe have discussed the time of Christ’s return as well as the manner of the parousia (Greek for ‘presence’ or ‘arrival’).

Space does not allow us to examine the many passages in the New Testament that refer to the return of the Lord Jesus. But here are a few passages that will hopefully show that this is a major theme in the Gospels as well as in the other books of the NT.

In his great Oliver Discourse, Jesus in discussing the end times speaks of his return thus: ‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory’ (Matthew 24:30).

Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, testifies that ‘The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul assures them that God will ‘also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on that day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:7).

The apostle Paul dealt with this topic in many of his letters (1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 2:1, 8; 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8 and Titus 2:13). And in the rest of the NT, references of the second Advent of Christ can be found in Hebrews 9:28; James 5:7-8; 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28, and of course in Revelation.

Throughout the history of the Church, attempts were made intermittently to predict the date of Christ’s return. One of the most spectacular examples is the medieval theologian and monk, Joachim of Fiore, who asserted in 1190 that the Antichrist had already come. Joachim prophesied that Christ would return before 1205 to begin his millennial rule.

A number of passages in the NT may give the impression that the return of Christ is imminent when their contexts are ignored. For example, Jesus told his apostles as he sent them on their mission that ‘when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (Matthew 10:23).

A superficial reading of this passage suggests that the parousia will take place within the lifetimes of Jesus’ disciples. This passage, however, must be read alongside what Matthew has to say about mission to the Gentiles, which will take place at the end of the age (Matthew 21:43; 24:14).

Seen in this way, the passage in fact urges its readers to look beyond the immediate mission of Jesus’ disciples to that of the Church. As the NT scholar G. D. Ladd has rightly argued, properly understood, Matthew 10:23 ‘says no more than the mission of Jesus’ disciples to Israel will last until the coming of the Son of Man’.

A close reading of the NT would reveal that it scrupulously discourages any speculation about the date and time of the return of Christ. In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus said: ‘But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only’ (Matthew 24:36).

Writing to the Christians at Thessalonica who are disposed to think that the parousia would take place in their lifetimes, Paul stresses that ‘that day will surprise you like a thief’ (1 Thessalonians 5:4). Peter echoes this point when he writes: ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar …’ (2 Peter 3:10).

Just as the timing of Christ’s return is a mystery, so is the manner of the Second Advent. Although the NT employs numerous imageries to depict the return of Christ, it unequivocally teaches that the parousia will be personal and physical. This is clearly indicated in passages such as Acts 1:11 where we are told that Jesus will return in the same manner as he had ascended into heaven.

Matthew also depicts the glorious return of Christ as visible, clear and unmistakable: ‘Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and glory’ (24:30).

In his book Is Jesus Coming Soon? Ralph Martin succinctly summarises the NT testimony concerning the manner of Christ’s return thus: ‘Christ’s coming will be personal, clearly manifest, unmistakable, and visible to all. It will not be hidden or invisibly “spiritual”; this will be the incarnate Son coming, not an invisible working of the Holy Spirit’.

The NT does not address the question how it is possible for Christ’s return to be physical (which means that it is confined to a particular location) and yet be visible to the whole world.

The purpose of the return of Christ is to judge the whole world (‘the living and the dead’, as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds put it) and to bring God’s kingdom to consummation. Concerning this final judgement, the brilliant Roman Catholic theologian of the previous century, Romano Guardini, writes:

Men and things will appear in their true light, as they are, and every deception will vanish. The inner and most hidden nature, both good and evil, will appear plainly, with all trappings stripped away. Every being will attain to what is the truth.



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.