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Should Everyone Study Theology?: Yes and No

August 2017 Credo

It has become unquestioned wisdom these days to advocate that the study of theology at some level should be for every Christian inasmuch as it is practically achievable given her current commitments and stage of life. Whether it be full-time, part-time or occasional studies, Christians are encouraged to give as much of their time to learning about God as possible.

After all, since we have put in so much effort into our own secular studies—especially within an educationally intense system as Singapore’s—shouldn’t we be prepared to do the same and even more when it comes to learning about God?

The advent of the internet has also made theological knowledge much more accessible, either through prescribed courses of self-study or individual on-line modules.

I remember taking a correspondence course many years ago with an American seminary on the history of Western philosophy; the amount of time it took for my assignments to be sent in, marked and returned would simply be unacceptable in our digital age.

Alongside on-line modes of learning, Christians also enroll for classes in seminaries and other organizations. At Trinity Theological College, more and more participants are signing up for our night courses which are open to the Christian layperson. This means that there are people willing to trudge down to our campus after a hard day’s work, to sit and listen to a two-hour lecture till 9.30 pm once a week.

Why would anyone endure such “afflictions” for courses that do not add to their market value? The simple answer is that the pursuit of the knowledge of God is reward itself.

J. I. Packer, one of my former theology lecturers, has asserted that not only is the study of God reward in itself, it is the responsibility of every Christian to do so. Quoting Charles Spurgeon in his book, Knowing God, he writes that, “I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God, the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead” (p. 13).eed, the fact that many Singaporean Christians are committed to learning more about their faith is something every theological educator should take delight in.

In this article, I do not intend to question the basic notion that theological studies of some form is for everyone. However, I do think that in view of the trend discussed above, that there is a need to highlight one particular area that some Christians unwittingly neglect. And that is the fundamental posture of learning theology.

Far too often, lecturers have encountered students who commenced their studies with a similar set of attitudes and values that they had subscribed to for their secular education. They aim for excellence, better results and higher grades.

Not only that, they thoroughly enjoy theological discussions and dissecting the latest scholarly debates, so much so that sometimes we worry if they have forgotten who they are talking about.

Personally, I have found it sometimes necessary to remind my first-year classes that the study of theology is different from any other field of inquiry. For we stand on holy ground when we talk about God, and there must be a certain humility and reverence in our attitude towards the subject since He far surpasses us.

The church father, Gregory of Nazianzus was once asked whether theology is for everyone. His answer, which may come as a surprise to us, was an emphatic No;

Discussion of theology is not for everyone….Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience…It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.

What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually “to be still” in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, “to judge uprightly” in theology.

 (Theological Orations 27.3)

Christopher Beeley, in his book, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God (OUP, 2008) summarizes that for Gregory, while everyone has been called to know God, in reality perhaps only some will attain to this as there are other accompanying criteria, including most important of all, the purification of the Christian (pp. 67-68).

In contemporary terms, this purification refers to a radical change in one’s character and conduct so that one befits the privilege and responsibility of knowing God.

To purify oneself before learning about God is a practice that we seldom hear today, and therefore, Gregory’s words are a timely reminder to us—including educators—to be careful that greater theological literacy does not lead to the danger that Paul warned us about; for “knowledge puffeth up” (1 Cor 8:1).

While writing this article, I was perusing my autographed copy of Packer’s Knowing God, and found that he has included in his handwritten inscription a biblical reference that has been echoed by Gregory – Psalm 46. May we learn to be truly still in order to know that He is God (Ps 46:10).


 

Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.

 

The Gay Gene Re-Visited

December 2016 Pulse 

In 2014 Alan Sanders, a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern University at Evanston, and his team conducted a study of 409 pairs of twin brothers to see if there are some linkages between homosexuality and chromosomal region Xq28.

This study – the largest to be undertaken to date – attempts to validate the results obtained by a study by Dean Hamer and his team of scientists in 1993 at the National Cancer Institute in the United States. Working with only 40 pairs of homosexual brothers, Hamer and his team discovered that 33 pairs (or 83%) had the same sequence of markers in the X chromosome region known as Xq28.

This had led Hamer to conclude that ‘One form of homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through the maternal side and is generally linked to chromosomal region Xq28’.

To their surprise, Sanders and his team – which included J. Michael Bailey, who together with Richard Pillard, conducted the famous twin study – found the same linkages between homosexuality and the chromosomal region Xq28 suggested by the earlier study by Hamer.

Hamer was understandably delighted with the findings of the Sanders study. ‘Twenty years is a long wait for validation’, he is reported to have said, ‘but now it’s clear the original results were right. It’s very nice to see it confirmed’.

However, like the Hamer study in 1993, the Sanders study of 2014 failed to establish conclusively the genetic determinant for homosexual orientation.

Sanders used the same method that Hamer employed twenty years ago in order to replicate Hamer’s study. But this method – known as the linkage method – has been found to be deficient in many ways and it has since been superseded by another method known as genome-wide association (GWA). Sanders himself acknowledged the fact that GWA studies are far more superior to genetic-linkage studies.

Although Sanders was able to confirm the link between homosexuality and the chromosomal region Xq28, the causative or correlative relationship between them is never established, making this finding insignificant. Thus, a number of researchers and scientists such as Neil Risch have pointed out the findings of both the Hamer and Sanders studies are statistically insignificant.

In fact, Sanders himself acknowledged that the findings have not crossed the threshold of significance. He further stated that even though he believes that Xq28 has something to do with homosexuality, a trait as complex as sexual orientation depends on many factors, genetic and nongenetic alike.

Geneticists have long understood that the exact relationship between the genotype and the phenotype is very difficult to establish. The genotype refers to the set of genes in the DNA that is associated with a particular trait, while the phenotype is the actual expression of that trait.

Many geneticists maintain that the relationship between the two is never straightforward and warn against a naïve ‘genetic determinism’ that refuses to recognise the complexities. In fact, many would argue that the genotype typically undermines the phenotype.

With the advance of the field of epigenetics, scientists are beginning to see the importance of the interaction of the genes with their immediate cellular environment as well as the external environment. In addition, intrauterine influences (which includes nongenetic factors) as well as extrauterine influences also play their part.

Life experiences also play a significant role in forging a particular trait, especially one as complicated as sexual preference and behaviour. Experiences that were had in the early stages of one’s personal development are deemed especially important.

As Frances Campaigne of Columbia University puts it: ‘Social experiences throughout life influence gene expression and behaviour, however, early in development these influences have a profound effect’.

The Sanders study has left all these other aspects unexplored and the questions they raise unanswered.

Although science is important in our attempt to understand human sexual preferences and behaviour, for the Christian it cannot have the last word. Thus, even if science is able to discover the genetic basis for homosexual orientation, the Christian cannot on that premise alone conclude that homosexual behaviour is natural and therefore must not be prohibited.

For the Christian, it is the mystery of human sexuality that Scripture reveals that should serve as the basis for sexual behaviour. In our fallen world, supposedly ‘innate’ impulses cannot be indicative of what is natural – that is, what is intended by the Creator – even if the genetic or neurological determinants of these impulses are ascertained.

For the Christian, sexual conduct must be ordered according to the way in which human sexuality has been designed and purposed by the Creator. And according to the Bible, the only legitimate form of sexual activity is between a man and a woman, and the only legitimate context for such activity is the covenant of marriage.

It is in light of God’s design of and purpose for human sexuality that all other forms of sexual behaviour and activity – fornication, adultery, incest, prostitution and bestiality – are not only strictly prohibited, but are also often regarded as abominations.

This means that the meaning of human sexuality is too complex and multifaceted for science to unravel. It has to do not only with biology, but also morality. It has to do not only with impulses and emotions, but also ontology. It has to do not only with the individual, but also and more fundamentally with the ordering of our familial and social lives in a way that is harmonious with God’s design and intention.

In a word, human sexuality is too profound a reality to be left to science alone.


Dr Roland Chia


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.

Unpardonable Sin

What was Jesus referring to when he spoke of the unpardonable sin?

Throughout the history of the Church, Christians of every stripe have wondered about the meaning of Jesus’ statement regarding the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; and Luke 12:10). In Mark, Jesus is recorded as saying: ‘I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin’. Some Christians, like the Welsh preacher Peter Williams in George Borrow’s Lavengro, are worried that they might have committed this sin.

In order to understand what Jesus meant by the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit we must explore the context in which this statement is located in the synoptic Gospels. At the outset, it must be pointed out that Matthew and Mark sets this statement in a similar context, while Luke places it in a different context thereby bringing to this statement a slightly different meaning.

In Mark’s account, the scribes or experts of the law went to Galilee from Jerusalem to assess the miracles of Jesus, particularly his ministry of exorcism. They came to the conclusion that Jesus was himself possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebub, by whose power he was able to dispel demons (Mark 3:22; Cf., Matt 12: 24). In Canaanite culture, Beelzebub was the name of a god, ‘the lord of the high places’, but for the Jews this name refers to the ruler of the abyss, the abode of demons. Jesus pointed out the absurdity of the suggestion that evil would work against itself: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ (Mark 3:23-24; Cf., Matt 12:25-27).

At this point, Jesus made the statement regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Matthew and Mark, therefore, the context suggests that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit has to do with not only the refusal to recognise and acknowledge the work of God but with confusing God’s work with that of Satan. Those who are guilty of this sin have ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency. In rejecting the redemptive work of God, those who commit this sin have, by implication, refused to accept God’s offer of salvation. In this sense, the ‘unpardonable sin’ is also the ‘eternal sin’. In his commentary on this passage in Mark, Robert Guelich writes: ‘One is culpably refusing God’s offer and thus sealing one’s own eternal judgement by committing the sin for which by definition there is no forgiveness’.

Luke places this saying of Jesus in a different context, giving it a slightly different meaning. He does give an account of the charge by the religious leaders that it was through Beelzebub, the prince of demons that Jesus was able to cast out demons (Luke 11:14-26), but this does not provide the context for the statement on the blasphemy of the Spirit. Instead the statement about the sin against the Holy Spirit is sandwiched between Jesus’ warning that whoever disowns him will ‘be disowned before the angels of God’ (12:9) and his assurance that the Spirit will teach his disciples how to reply their inquisitors (12:11). This suggests that the unpardonable sin, for Luke, is the apostasy committed by the persecuted disciple who refuses to receive help from the Spirit.

Put differently, in Matthew and Mark, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has to do with confusing God’s work with demonic activity. In Luke, the unpardonable sin is apostasy – the believer’s repudiation of Jesus as Lord.

Some scholars ask if Peter had committed the unpardonable sin in the Lucan sense when he denied the Lord three times before Jesus’ crucifixion. And what about Paul? Was he also guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the Matthean-Markan sense when he persecuted Christians and even tried to make them blaspheme (See Acts 26:11)? Evidently not! A distinction must be made between a human failure – as in the case of Peter – and the persistent hardening of oneself against God. Peter repented of his failure, and was forgiven and restored by Jesus. As far as Paul was concerned, scholars believed that he acted out of ignorance and unbelief and therefore received mercy. Paul was receptive to the revelation that he received while travelling to Damascus. But if Paul had rejected that revelation and continued to persecute Christians, he would have been guilty of the ‘eternal sin’.

This means that there is always forgiveness for the repentant sinner, even if he has blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. We have this assurance in 1 John 1:9, which states, quite categorically, that God will always forgive the repentant sinner. But if this is the case, why did Jesus say that ‘anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven’ (Luke 12:10)? It is possible that Jesus was referring to the person who has so hardened himself against God that he is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. In other words, the blasphemy against the Spirit is such that one does not repent of it. And because there is no repentance, there can be no forgiveness. This how the sin of blasphemy becomes ‘unpardonable’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today, February 2015.

The State

What should be the Christian perspective on the secular State?

Perhaps the best place to begin one’s reflection on what might be called a Christian theology of the state is Romans 13:1-7. Paul begins with a categorical injunction that ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities’. The reason offered for this bold injunction is equally startling: ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Rom 13:1). The first thing to be said, therefore, about the Christian conception of the state is that the secular state is established by God. This implies that God is sovereign over the state, however powerful the latter may be. Commenting on this passage, C.E.B. Cranfield writes: ‘it is God that sets up (and overthrows) rulers, and … no one actually exercises ruling authority unless God has, at least for the time being, set him up’.

Romans 13 tell us further that God has set up the state for a purpose. The ruler is God’s servant, and the primary purpose of the state is to punish the wrongdoer and to commend those who do the right thing (Rom 13:3-4). Put differently, the state is responsible for creating a legal system that would enable, and indeed encourage human flourishing. Without the state and the justice it is tasked to implement, all forms of creative cultural activities would not be possible. The state is given the right to wield the sword in order to bring about law, order and peace to human society (Rom 13:4). As long as the state carries out its duty in ensuring that justice and peace prevail in human society, it is God’s servant because it is fulfilling the divine will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: ‘The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God’. Romans 13 urge everyone to submit to such a servant state, because in doing so they are submitting to God himself.

Christians have the duty to pray for those in government so that they will fulfil the task that God has given to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that they may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness’. The Swiss German theologian, Karl Barth is surely right when he said that prayer is the Church’s most important service to the state. In praying for the state, the Church hopes that it will always be faithful to the task that God has entrusted to it. In addition, Christians are commanded to submit themselves to the authority of the state that seeks to do the will of God by promoting justice and peace: ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are set by him to punish those who do right’ (1 Peter 2:13-14).  Civil obedience is part of Christian discipleship.

It is, however, absolutely crucial to point out that the Christian’s submission to the state is never unconditional or unqualified. The state, it must be remembered, is a creature that belongs to this world. As such it is a fallen creature. The reading of Romans 13:1-7 must therefore always be accompanied by a ‘nevertheless’. The state that is obedient to the will of God can become the idolatrous state that tries to usurp the place of God. The servant state of Romans 13 can become the totalitarian and demonic state of Revelation13. The injunction for the Church to pray for the state and for rulers serves as a clear warning of this possibility. It is precisely because the state is a fallen creature that can easily lose its way that the Church is asked to pray for it.

How then should Christians respond to the idolatrous and totalitarian state that is no longer concerned for justice and human welfare? Are Christians still required to submit to such a state? The concept of civil disobedience has a long history in the Christian Church dating back to the early martyrs of the early centuries. Civil disobedience is implied by the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that ‘if the emperor order one thing and God another, it is God who is to be obeyed’. The implicit allusion to civil disobedience in this statement is made explicit in a later section in his dogmatic work, Summa Theologiae in which he wrote: ‘when a regime holds its power not by right but by usurpation, or commands what is wrong, subjects have no duty to obey’. When confronted with the demonic state, civil disobedience becomes part of Christian discipleship.

This means that while Christians can indeed be patriotic, their patriotism can never be undiscerning or unqualified. Christians can never chant the mantra, ‘My Country, Right or Wrong!’, which expresses a naïve but dangerous sentimentalism regarding the state. Such idealism is not confined to totalitarian or Marxist accounts, but is found even in modern democracy. The proper attitude of the Christian to the secular state can be best expressed by the concept critical patriotism. As the term suggests critical patriotism implies that while the patriotism of the Christian is authentic and sincere, it is never undiscerning and triumphalistic. It implies that what is right or wrong is not determined by the state, but by a higher power. It further implies that the state is not infallible and thus never above criticism. Critical patriotism is in fact the truest and most earnest form of patriotism because it wishes and hopes that the state would be what it is meant to be, what God intends it to be: the servant state which stands on the side of justice and peace.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (August 2013).

Religion and Violence

June 2015 Pulse

The beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 have not only shocked and outraged the world, but they have also revived the debate about religious violence.

Both President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were determined to stress the distinction between the IS and Islam as a religion. In an address in Parliament, Cameron categorically asserted that the “IS is not Islamic” and that “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”.

In the past 15 years, numerous books have been written on the contentious issue of religion and violence. For example, in When Religion Becomes Evil, published just one year after the horrific events of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001), Charles Kimball argues that “it is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil, perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

Apart from the fact that Kimball does not identify these rival institutions or provide evidence for his claim (perhaps he thought it too trite to require evidence), scholars have also criticised him for naively bracketing religion away from political ideologies. Such separation is artificial and contrived. As Jonathan Smith has rightly put it, “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study … Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy”.

Be that as it may, are there religions that promote violence by their doctrines or attitude towards unbelievers? Many would argue that all religious traditions have at their centre the commitment to peace and non-violence. Konrad Raiser writes that from the religious perspective, violence “is a manifestation of evil and all religions are struggling with the question where this evil comes from and how it can be overcome”.

From the Christian theological perspective, however, because of human sin it is difficult to think of any form of organised human activity or institution that could not be corrupted or perverted.

Take democracy for example. A broad and popular way of describing democracy is a ‘government by the people for the people’. Many people would no doubt maintain that democracy is a good form of government, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom.

Yet democracy not only can go terribly wrong, it can also be dangerous. Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And even though democracy is said to prevent oppressive governments, in Germany and South Africa it produced, for a period, extremely racist societies.

For many Muslims, jihad (a term that is often brandished unexplained by the media) refers fundamentally to striving for moral goodness and justice for society. And although this concept has four meanings, one of which is associated with just war, it does not in principle encourage acquiescence to violence.

However, since the 1970s under the influence of the Egyptian Umar Abd ar-Rahman and the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam, the ideologist for the Hamas movement, this concept has been radicalised by extremist groups, including those associated with Wahhabism. Al Qaeda and IS have commandeered the radical meaning of jihad in promoting their violent campaigns against the West and fellow Muslims who do not embrace their political convictions.

That Islam itself does not promote violence is evidenced by the fact that the Quran does not describe Allah as the ‘lord of war’ but rather as compassionate and merciful, and as the loving one and the forgiver.

Etymologically, islam, which refers to the surrender or submission that human beings must show to Allah, is derived from salam, which means peace – hence the Muslim greeting, “Peace be with you” (Salàm Ualaikum). In fact, in Surah 41:33-35 we read the injunction: “Requisite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.”

Although religious beliefs in themselves are not causes of violence, it is important to note that religion – like ethnicity and language – is a significant marker of identity. And as a marker of identity, religion can be subtly used to fan the flames of social and political conflicts. When religious sentiments are combined with political ideologies in a certain way, even a peaceful religion can be conscripted in the exercise of violence.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.