Category Archives: Credo

Love Alone? The Problem with Christian Universalism

January 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procrustean Beds

January 2019 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procrustean beds create heresies.

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

Different but Equal

December 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man and Woman in Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s Magna Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in the Church

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

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

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

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

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

The Question of Submission

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection or Hallucination?

December 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upon This Rock

November 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


November 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Was Jesus Mistaken?

October 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between Death and Resurrection

October 2018 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grappling with our Christian and Asian Cultural Identities

September 2018 Credo


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.