Tag Archives: Christology

Maker of Heaven and Earth

September 2017 Credo 

The Apostles’ Creed begins with the acclamation: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth.” To believe in God as Creator is to affirm that God is the Lord of the earth and not merely the tribal God of the Christians.

The belief that the Triune God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo) by his word (ex verbum) has long been a key tenet of historic Christian teaching. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made … For he spoke, and it came to be” (Ps. 33:6 & 8; Ps. 104:30). All things were made through Jesus the Word, “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:15-17).

The notion of creatio ex nihilo, though not explicitly stated in the Genesis creation account, is nevertheless consonant with it. “The universe,” we are told, “was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3). The Lord himself asserts “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself” (Isa. 44:24; cf. Acts 17:24; Rev. 4:11).

That creation emerged “out of nothing” at the command of God means that there was no eternal pre-existent matter prior to God bringing forth everything that exists. As theologian Colin Gunton puts it, the Creator is not simply the Potter who works with clay but also the One who brought clay into existence in the first place.

Creation “out of nothing” is in sharp contrast to the ancient Greek belief that matter is eternal rather than created. This notion of the cosmos as self-generated and self-managing is one that surfaces as well in modern atheists like Richard Dawkins. According to them, the origins of the world lay not in the will of a personal transcendent Creator but in the random natural processes of the material world.

While claiming to be speaking scientifically, these atheists’ assertion of a self-caused world is at heart a strident philosophical naturalism that takes as an a priori the impossibility of the existence of God or the reality of the spiritual. Because God cannot exist, He does not exist, and the idea that God created all things is therefore impossible. Such is the tautological ‘logic’ of unbelief!

Christian theology maintains vigorously the distinction between the Creator and His creation without confusion. The world is not merely an extension of God; it has an objective existence distinct from the Creator, though not outside of His control.

This guards against any pantheistic conflation of the two, as in the various forms of religious or philosophical monism in which the world is seen as an emanation of God. Neither does it allow for any divinization of the cosmos, as in the modern green environmentalist veneration of Gaia. To deify the cosmos is to replace the worship of the Creator with reverence for the earth, which is idolatry.

The relationship of creation to the Creator is one of contingency and marked by total dependency. The world owes its origins to God, and it continues to exist only because God sovereignly upholds and sustains it by His Word and the Holy Spirit. In Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17), which points to a Creator-God who is engaged and involved in the running of the universe.

This goes against the deistic notion that the Creator, after bringing the universe into being, maintains an essentially hands-off policy vis-à-vis the universe. Thankfully, God in His mercy sovereignly ensures that all the physical conditions necessary for human life are in place and in full functioning order for the sake of His creation.

In this sense, we may understand the universe not merely as a fait accompli, a once-for-all act, but as one that continues to come into being over time under the superintending hand of God. The early church theologians describe this as a creatio continua, a continuous creation. While creatio ex nihilo underscores God’s transcendent otherness, creatio continua points to God’s immanent presence and work within creation.

Through an act of divine deliberation, God created all things and then upholds and guides it to its intended end. God did not need to create the world. There was no external compulsion that made the creation of humankind and everything else in the universe necessary. He did so freely, as an act of love.

God keeps His own counsel as to why He lovingly and freely created the world in the first place. What we know from Scripture is that creation was meant to glorify God, to declare His power and display His attributes (Ps. 19:1; 33:6-9; Rm. 1:19-20). Creation is as such purposive, and, as shall see below, teleological in the sense of creation finding its destiny in Christ.

This coheres with what we know from the Genesis creation account, that the Creator “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31; cf. 1 Tim. 4:4-5). This strong affirmation of the goodness of the physical cosmos goes against all forms of Gnosticism and Manicheanism that elevate the spiritual at the expense of the bodily and physical.

Christians celebrate the creation goodness of the earth. For this reason, there is impetus for the scientific exploration of the wonders and mysteries of the natural world. At the same time, we acknowledge that humans are created as embodied beings who relate to God spiritually in and through the physicality of their bodily life.

The world today on this side of Eden is not what it is supposed to be. Yet despite the distortive effects of sin, God has not allowed His good intentions for creation to be derailed. In Christ, God has begun the process of reversing the effects of sin on creation and redeeming disobedient humanity. A true doctrine of creation is thus irreducibly Christological. In Christ, fallen creation will be restored and creation’s destiny finally realised.


 

Rev Dr Mark Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC). He teaches hermeneutics, homiletics and other theological subjects at TTC.

Word Made Flesh

August 2017 Credo

Who is Jesus Christ?

This question continues to exercise inquiring minds throughout the centuries, even as the enigmatic figure of the first century Rabbi never ceases to fascinate and capture the human imagination.

This is evidenced in the countless books that were written proposing endless theories about Jesus, not to mention the numerous television documentaries (especially by National Geographic).

The answer that Scripture gives to this question is at once clear and provocative. Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God who ‘was made flesh, and dwelt among us’, declares John in his Gospel (1:14).

The Apostle Paul says that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ (Colossians 1:15). The writer of Hebrews adds: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’, who upholds the universe by his power (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus Christ is the image, reflection and imprint of God because he is God himself. He is the second person of the triune God who has taken up human nature in the incarnation.

Understandably, many people today would reject the truth of the incarnation because it sounds so incredulous to the modern ear. Moderns would have no problems at all with seeing Jesus as an exceptional rabbi, or a nationalistic revolutionary, or even a shaman or mystic.

But even some Christians have found the idea of the incarnation dubious, and questioned if it is altogether necessary for Christianity to continue to perpetuate this claim.

In 1977, the authors of a collection of essays published as The Myth of God Incarnate and edited by the late John Hick controversially called to question the traditional dogma of the incarnation.

In 2005, Hick published The Metaphor of God Incarnate in which he argued that the incarnation must be understood metaphorically and not literally. For Hick, to make the claim that ‘Jesus is the incarnation of God’ is not very different from saying that ‘Winston Churchill incarnated the British will to resist Hitler’.

Liberal Christians like Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church in America reject the incarnation, and insisted that traditional Christology is bankrupt in the modern scientific age.

But the doctrine of the incarnation is not a metaphysical aberration that has somehow infected the early church’s understanding of Jesus Christ, a distortion brought about by Hellenic philosophy. As we have seen, it is clearly found in the New Testament and it has shaped the church’s prayers and liturgy since her inception.

Belief in the incarnation was given creedal form in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (formulated in the First [325] and Second Ecumenical Councils [381]) and the Chalcedonian Creed (451) amidst fierce battles against erroneous concepts of Christ.

In the Nicene Creed, the church maintains that the Jesus who died and rose again is the eternal Son of God, who is of the same essence with God the Father. In the words of the Creed, the incarnate One is ‘the only-begotten Son of God … God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God’.

In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God was ‘made flesh’, as the King James translation has it. Other versions (RSV, NIV, ESV) render it as the ‘Word became flesh’.

It is extremely important that we understand what Scripture means when it speaks of the eternal Word ‘becoming’ human flesh. There are at least two erroneous ways of understanding this ‘becoming’.

The first error is to think that in ‘becoming’ flesh, the eternal Word ‘comes into’ an existing human being, Jesus of Nazareth. To think of the incarnation in this way is to fall into the ancient heresy called ‘adoptionism’ (associated with Paul of Samosata). Adoptionism reduces Jesus to merely another prophet in whom the Word of God dwelt.

The second error is to think that in the incarnation there occurred a transmogrification of the eternal Word (Son) into a human being. According to this understanding, at the incarnation the eternal Word ‘changes into’ the man Jesus.

The early theologians of the church were very careful to stress that the incarnation is not just another version of the ‘mythical transformations’ of the gods that we find in some religions. They insisted that since God cannot be subjected to change, in taking on human flesh the second Person of the Trinity did not become other than himself.

Rather, in the incarnation the eternal Son of God takes up human nature without ever ceasing to be God. To put this in another way, in the incarnation the eternal Son does not ‘change into’ a human being, but he ‘puts on’ human nature.

The early Fathers were fond of using the imagery of Aaron donning his high-priestly robe to depict the incarnation. Just as Aaron remained unchanged after assuming his priestly dress, so the Word or Son does not cease to be God when cloaked in human flesh.

Hence, according to the Chalcedonian Definition the Son of God in the incarnation is very God and very Man. The divine and human natures are united in the second Person of the Trinity ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’.

It is also crucial to note that in the incarnation, the eternal Son plunges into the depths of the human condition by taking upon himself post-lapsarian Adamic flesh, i.e., fallen human nature.

Following Hebrews 2:14, Athanasius (296-373) in his great treatise De Incarnatione maintains that in the incarnation the Son ‘takes a body of our own kind’.

As Thomas Weinandy explains, for Athanasius ‘the humanity assumed by the Word was not some generic immunized, sanitized or quarantined humanity, but a humanity taken from the sinful race of Adam …’

As we have seen, the Chalcedonian Definition postulates that the divine and human natures are united in the person of the incarnate Son without confusion, that is, with their integrity intact.

How are we to even begin to understand this with regard to the acts of Jesus of Nazareth? The theologian William Placher suggests that we think of this great mystery in this way.

Because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he did things that only God can do – he forgave sins, resuscitated the dead, and saved humankind from sin and death. But because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, because he took up our human nature and became a man, he did other things that are associated to being human – he ate and drank, he became tired.

And if we ask who was it that did all these things, the answer is: Jesus Christ.


 

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

Pop Music, Pragmatism, and Christianity

May 2017 Feature

In February 2016, Singapore’s Catholic archbishop Goh urged his fellow Catholics to differentiate “pseudo arts” from “authentic arts that lead us to God.” The criticism was directed toward the “Queen of Pop”, Madonna.

In everyday discourse, the term popular music can generally be described as types of music of lower complexity than art music, having wide appeal, and ready to be enjoyed by large numbers of musically uneducated people rather than only by a certain élite. Its identifying elements can include the use of simple melodic tunes and repeated choruses.

How should Christians view and evaluate pop music along with the culture it spawns?

In order to understand the phenomena of popular art, we must understand a certain philosophical background that has helped these phenomena to flourish, that is, the philosophy of pragmatism.

According to the pragmatist philosopher Dewey, the special function of art lies above all in the enhancement of human immediate experience. The supremacy of the aesthetic is that art can be immediately enjoyed. The final standard in pragmatism is not truth but experience.

Pragmatism criticizes the modern conception of art that has detached art from real life and send it to a separate realm like the concert hall and museum. Instead of associating aesthetic experience with normal processes of living, art has been compartmentalized in an élite realm accessible only for certain people.

Dewey disapproves such elitist tradition and want to bring art back in everydayness. He therefore rejects the dualism of high versus popular culture by insisting on the fundamental continuity instead.

According to pragmatism, the so-called ‘high’ art music performed in the concert halls (and in some traditional churches!) has removed art from human lives. Pragmatist aesthetics therefore privileges art experience over the art object. The way to this enhanced art experience is through popular art.

We can appreciate Dewey’s genuine concern about the elitist tradition. Indeed, the Bible does not advocate elitism but opts for universal inclusion. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” We also appreciate Dewey’s effort to bring art back in everydayness.

However, there are serious difficulties in the pragmatist solution of popular art viewed from the Christian perspective.

First, the immediacy of aesthetic experience as the ultimate goal of art is highly problematic when viewed from biblical perspective. Christianity is not an immediate (read: instant) way of life. There is no easy and convenient truth without a long process of learning and struggling.

If we agree that there is a strong relation between the kind of art that we consume and our spirituality, then one of the dangers of popular music lies precisely in its immediacy and instantness. The unformed life is not worth living. Popular music tends to produce instant (pseudo) spirituality.

Secondly, the strong emphasis on experience at the expense of truth is hardly compatible with the biblical view. Biblically speaking, there is no truly satisfying experience apart from truth.

Popular music cares little for its content since it aims primarily for enhanced experience (of feeling good, for instance). This kind of experience, however, imprisons humans in subtle addiction.

On the contrary, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

The Swiss reformer Zwingli related the idea of Christian freedom and true happiness when he said, “Truth wears a happy face.” Happy experience cannot be separated from truth.

Thirdly, due to its goal to bring music to large numbers of listeners with little or no musical training, popular music frequently, if not always, displays lack of depth and along with it, of deep quality.

Any complex music is suspected of succumbing to the elitist tradition. The absoluteness of simplicity, however, can be considered as a denial of growing and becoming mature seen from the biblical perspective. The celebration of simplicity that avoids the process of growing can easily lead to the celebration of triviality and naïveness.

The Bible, on the contrary, teaches humans to give up childish ways to become an adult and mature (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; Heb. 5:14).

Fourthly, the problem of sharing the complex art and music, the so-called ‘high’ art, is not resolved by replacing them with easy-to-listen music. If that were the case, then there would have been no incarnation. Replacing high Christology with low Christology is never an orthodox evangelical way of settling the problem.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christianity commits to believe in the incarnation of the Most High. Pragmatism teaches us to discard everything high coming from the idealistic realm while replacing it with popular concrete experience.

Christianity celebrates not only the possibility but also the certainty of the Logos that has become flesh. Christianity concurs with pragmatist criticism of Platonic idealism but comes up with different solution.

If we believe in the way of incarnation, then we don’t have to replace the ‘high’ with the ‘low’ but to teach and edify our children and ourselves so that we can grow from childhood to adulthood.

The reformers believed in the power of catechism. Luther translated the Bible into German. Zwingli applied the university method of teaching in his Sunday service expository preaching, that is, chapter by chapter of the Gospel. He did not oversimplify the life of Christ through popular preaching; rather, he edified his congregation in the way theological students were taught at the university.

Catechism is a Christian protest against the pragmatist easy solution that often leads to uneducatedness and ignorance. Calvin famously stated, “We know that where there is no understanding, there is certainly no edification.”

We need not only theological catechism but also catechism on good Christian arts and music. May God help us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.



Rev. Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean of International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta and a part time lecturer at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. He received a doctorate of philosophy in musicology and a doctorate in theology Systematic Theology both from Heidelberg University. He lives in Singapore since 2002 with his Family.