Tag Archives: church

Religious Tolerance and Limited State Bureaucracy

December 2017 Feature Article

Religious tolerance is a tenuous legacy of democracy as state bureaucracy instinctively extends its power to regulate all aspects of the life of its citizens. As such, a moral citizenry needs to be motivated by cogent arguments in order that it may press for institutional safeguards which would prevent state bureaucracy from encroaching on religious freedom. In this regard, John Locke is a towering figure in providing philosophical foundations for a limited state bureaucracy that respects the independence of religious institutions and promotes religious tolerance.

For Locke, man needs protection for his life, liberty and property. It is essential that every man enjoys natural rights to these goods in order that he may serve society. These rights are claimed on the basis of natural law, that is, God’s law prescribed to all men at creation. Since these rights are natural, they are inherent to every individual. As inalienable, they cannot be transferred or forfeited. Locke emphasizes that these rights are pre-political; they are not given by the state, nor can the state take them away.

The necessity for collective protection of private property and adjudication of social conflict requires a ‘social contract’ to form a civil government. Locke emphasizes in his Second Treatise on Civil Government that only state authority, exemplified by the magistrate, had its origins in the social contract. Furthermore, only part of a person’s rights is surrendered to the state in the contract.

The logic of Locke’s argument for a limited state leading to relative political and religious freedom is encapsulated in his classic work, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). The Letter provides a framework for peaceful coexistence in the aftermath of the destructive Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the English Civil War (1642-1651).

Locke was also fully aware of the struggle of the church against the state after the Restoration of the monarchy. Erastianism was then the accepted ideology for the state which wanted control over ecclesiastical matters where the crown controls the cross, and the church is merely a handmaiden of the state.

State bureaucratic control has proven to be destructive for the church when the paternalistic authority of the crown emasculates the power of the clergy and suffocates spiritual initiative from the laity. Furthermore, violence is brought to bear upon any nonconformist or dissenter to royal patronage. They could be fined, have their property seized and even be thrown into prison.

Locke’s Letter was an exercise to defend freedom for the church to manage its internal affairs and to fulfill its spiritual vocation. Since the debate was directed at state religious bureaucracy, Locke naturally argued from premises that were informed by Christian faith. Locke gives four reasons for religious tolerance:

First, Locke challenges traditional alliance between the crown and church where common believers and the clergy submits to the crown with its implicit claim to infallibility. However, this hierarchy is unacceptable to Locke on grounds that if human knowledge remains uncertain, it is wrong for the authorities to enforce fallible truth claims and beliefs. Locke’s caution springs from his awareness that human intellectual capacity and moral discernment is vulnerable to corruption because of vested interests.

Second, Locke argues for toleration as this was the example set by the Apostles. He emphasizes in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love…gathering them [the nations] into His Church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation.”[1]

Religious compulsion enforced through ecclesiastical decrees which are no more than human responses to mediated revelation is inappropriate. Locke looked to public truth arrived at through reason and logic instead of religious authority founded on dogma to provide a secure and sufficient foundation for social order. He argues that the state rightly exercises its authority in protection of life and property, but as a fallible human institution it should refrain from imposing religious beliefs.

Third, Locke appeals for religious toleration for pragmatic reasons. On the one hand, the recent history of England has demonstrated that coercion to compulsory uniformity only leads to social unrest. On the other hand, toleration promotes peace and prosperity.

In a lengthy passage he argues that matters of faith are beyond the authority of the magistrate and that compulsion towards outward conformity only undermines sincerity which is essential for genuine faith, “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.”[2]

Fourth, Locke argues for tolerance based on the rights of conscience. It was evident to him that genuine faith must be sincere. “It is in vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man’s profession. Faith only, and inward sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God.” That is to say, sincerity rather than truth itself is the effective criterion for salvation.

Locke therefore asserts that “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”[3] Locke stresses the state should respect the church as a voluntary society of men “joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God…No member of a religious society can be tied with any other bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal life. A church then is a society of members voluntarily uniting to this end.”[4]

A caveat is here in order – the Lockean argument for freedom of conscience should not be taken as an excuse for unfettered individualism. On the contrary, Locke’s argument for freedom is a premise for responsible freedom that was already an essential element of human relationships before the social contract. Obedience to one’s conscience is not an act of withdrawal from society so much as an act of freedom that empowers the believer to take the initiative to serve society.

As Robert George explains, religious freedom enables members of society to organize and carry out various welfare works, including health and educational services, which effectively limits the scope of government and the power of the state. “Religion provides authority structures and, where it flourishes and is healthy, is among the key institutions of civil society providing a buffer between the individual and the state.”[5]

For Locke, the right to conscience is the right to do what one judges to be one’s obligations to fellowmen in the light of one’s religious commitment.


[1] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 215, 217.

[2] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 218-219.

[3] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 232, 219.

[4] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 220-221.

[5] Robert George, Conscience and its Enemies (ISI Books, 2013), p. 114.


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

Social Science and Its Limits

June 2017 Pulse

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that the government is increasing funding for research in the social sciences and humanities in Singapore by 45 percent.

‘Our region today is a fascinating and fertile ground for study’, he noted, ‘but scholarship has not caught up with its growing importance. We can and must build up this scholarship in the region that can confirm and spur both policy and the initiatives of societal leaders’.

This move by the government surely must be applauded.

The social sciences have indeed gained much prominence in educational institutions and in society at large in recent times. This is mainly – though not exclusively – because of their perceived ability to offer astute analyses and perhaps even insights into many aspects of social life.

Social science is itself a multi-disciplinary venture that covers or incorporates a wide range of subjects, including economics, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, anthropology, and law.

It is because of its incredibly wide scope that many today have put their confidence in social science to solve the world’s biggest and most pressing problems such as inner-city crime, alternative energy sources, and cyber security.

Like all human enterprises, social science is profoundly influenced by the prevailing culture and zeitgeist. It is therefore no surprise that as a fairly recent discipline (in contrast with the humanities, which can be traced to medieval Europe), social science is profoundly shaped by the secularism that pervades our current ethos.

More specifically, social science works with a materialist view of reality that allows within its explanatory matrix only that which can be subjected to empirical verification. Even when it attempts to describe as complex a phenomenon as religion, social science is compelled to employ a reductionist methodology because of the philosophical materialism it espouses.

Thus the celebrated founders of the economic theory of religion, Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge could write with admirable candour that ‘by attempting to explain religious phenomena with reference to actions taken by the supernatural, we assume that religion is a purely human phenomenon, the causes of which are to be found entirely in the natural world’.

This has led theologians like John Milbank to conclude that sociology and social science is synonymous with the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ when it comes to assessing religious accounts of reality. Given the cluster of assumptions upon which the social sciences are based, this is inevitable.

However, the philosophical naturalism that undergirds social science also suggests profound limitations to its assessments of our world and human behavior.

Milbank, for instance, pointed out that social science is unable to understand what it means to say that the Church is a community of faith. It sees the Church as just a huge and complex organization that is no different from other organizations, with its attendant hierarchies, stratifications and internal power struggles.

The Polish scholar Stanislaw Burdzeij may have exaggerated a little when he wrote that ‘For sociologists, church is usually analyzed as an emanation of material interests, to which religious belief is just a cover-up’. But some such assessment of the nature of the Church by social theorists cannot be ruled out given the thoroughgoing secularity of the social sciences.

This gives rise, as some critics have pointed out, to a kind of positivism that, if left unchecked, would result in distorting views of how things really are. The positivism in question has to do with the belief that we have access to facts simply by observation or that we can ‘read’ the world simply by our empirical investigation of it.

Theologian Neil Ormerod has pointed out two serious blind spots of social science, whose vision is blinkered by its scientific method. The first is its inability to penetrate into the problem and reality of evil. And the second has to do with the fact that by ignoring the transcendental character of human life, it fails to give an adequate account of social reality.

Needless to say, not many social theorists would agree with such an analysis.

Be that as it may, I must clarify that I am not arguing here that social science is not an important and valuable enterprise, or that it must not be taken seriously. I believe that it is, and it must.

I am arguing that the sociological imagination alone is not enough if we are to achieve an adequate understanding both of our selves and the world we inhabit. The sociological imagination must be brought into creative conversation with the religious imagination, inspired by the ancient religious traditions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Social science cannot penetrate the enduring meaning of human existence. It cannot provide those necessary values that would serve as the moral ballast for society if it were to flourish in this conflicted world. While social science can offer insights into certain developments that could translate into better policies in service of the common good, it is unable to fully discern the truth about the human condition.

To do that social science must take seriously the religious imagination that the various religious traditions – especially the Judeo-Christian tradition – have inspired.



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.

What Does it Mean to Uphold Sola Scriptura Today

January 2017 Credo

Having celebrated Reformation Sunday some weeks back, I find it appropriate to write on one of the chief slogans that encapsulates the essence of what the Reformation was about—Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). I offer the following theses for our consideration (the reader should be glad to know it is 5 and not 95 theses!)

  1. Sola Scriptura is first and foremost a theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people

A proper grasp of Sola Scriptura, I believe, begins with an assertion of the following theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people.

In turn, this theological claim involves two other key doctrines, that is, our doctrine of God and our doctrine of Scripture.[1] God is seen as the God who desires to communicate, to speak with His people. And Scripture is seen as the text used by God to be the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) to address the people and generate faith and obedience.[2]

This, I submit, is the basic theological claim underlying Sola Scriptura that imbues the slogan with its sense of authority in the first place.

  1. Sola Scriptura is recognizing what God is intending with Scripture within the divine economy of salvation: as a covenant document to draw the church into covenantal relationship with God.

The above notion is verified in three ways.[3]

In terms of its content, Scripture depicts the history of God’s covenantal relations to humankind, including all the divine communicative acts (promises, warnings, commands, consolations etc.) that witness to what God was doing in Christ. In terms of its form, Scripture sets forth the terms and conditions of this very covenantal relationship itself. And in terms of its effect, to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God himself in action, supremely in his making of a covenantal promise to us.[4]

Sola Scriptura reminds us that Scripture alone is sufficient to bring about this covenantal intention of God. Hence, Scripture should rightly be conceived as a divine covenant document before an ecclesial constitution.[5]

  1. Sola Scriptura, more than a principle, is a canonical practice of the church

At its core, Sola Scriptura is best regarded as a practice, specifically, a Spirit-enabled church practice in reading, understanding and using Scripture in the church in a certain way.[6]

In line with a dramatic or theatrical analogy, there are two ways that the church can ‘perform’ the ‘script’ (Scripture). The first, an ecclesial performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community (the church) authors and directs. The second, a divine authorial-centered performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community receives, responds and enacts. Of the two, the latter corresponds to the practice of Sola Scriptura.[7]

In saying this, however, I am not presuming that the church can have an immediate and unmediated access to God’s Word removed from the interpretive context or interpretive tradition she finds herself in. Stated differently, in the language of the famous philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the church’s performance—in this case her reception and response to the canonical script—always occurs out of a tradition or ‘historically-effected horizon’. It is pure naivety to say that one can approach a text ‘a-horizontally’.[8]

Rather, in practicing Sola Scriptura, I mean this: the church’s interpretation and performance is always subject to potential correction from the canon. Practicing Sola Scriptura means not collapsing the text (of Scripture) into the tradition of its interpretation and performance.[9]

In Gadamerian language again: Sola Scriptura refers to the radical alterity of the scriptural texts that confront us as the Word of God.[10] It means respecting the otherness of this other horizon in the dialogue and allowing it to do its work of critique rather than quickly neutralizing it through dissolution within the fusion of horizons.[11]

  1. Sola Scriptura is a spirited-canonical practice of Jesus Christ before that of the church

Granted the above that Sola Scriptura affirms Scripture as canon, then canon itself is ideally first viewed as a performance (by God) before it is viewed as a script designed for further performance (by the church).

This means that it is precisely because Scripture as canon is first and foremost a performance of what God was saying and doing in Jesus Christ that it serves as a normative specification of how the church is to carry on saying and doing in Jesus Christ.[12] In other words, Sola Scriptura is firstly viewing the canonical discourse in itself as an instance of the triune God’s ‘performance’, and then correspondingly as a script that calls for an appropriate and corresponding ecclesial response.[13]

In fact, a deeper examination reveals Jesus Christ himself as the preeminent canonical ‘performer’. Jesus comes and shows to us how the Scriptures should be read: he reads the parts in light of the covenantal whole and the whole in light of the Christological center that he is (Luke 24:44, John 5:39–40).[14]

In this way, Jesus establishes the preeminent canonical practice to be ‘of him’ in the sense that the practice is about him and it is his own practice. Jesus Christ is thus both the material and the formal principle of the canon, its substance and its hermeneutic respectively: ‘substance’ in that the Word inscripturated is about the Word incarnate, and ‘hermeneutic’ in the sense that the Word incarnate teaches us how to read the Word inscripturated.[15]

The final step in the equation is to recognize that in inaugurating this key canonical practice, Jesus also commissions this practice in that the apostles and the church are to interpret Jesus after the way He himself did.[16] The sending of the Spirit is to ensure the efficacy of this specific hermeneutical and canonical practice of Jesus in the church and in her tradition. Tradition, seen in this light, is hence the church faithfully passing on and continuing these canonical acts effected by the Spirit, rather than ‘inventing’ new acts under the name of the Spirit.[17]

  1. Sola Scriptura is finally a declaration of the clarity of Scripture as recognized within the community of faith

To summarize: Sola Scriptura does not negate tradition, but it does allot tradition a secondary role by designating it with a ministerial rather than a magisterial authority. As Kevin Vanhoozer aptly states it: “Tradition plays the role of moon to Scripture’s sun.”[18]

Sola Scriptura proclaims there is a gauge or criterion to measure the faithfulness of tradition, and extending further, even the work of the Spirit in tradition. For Sola Scriptura is ultimately a confession and declaration of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture within the community of faith.

This is a clarity effectuated by the preeminent hermeneutical practice of Jesus himself and continued by the Spirit within the church’s tradition. Concurrently, it is this clarity that enables Scripture to serve as an incessant and simultaneous criterion and check on tradition.

The clarity of Scripture is rightly not independent of tradition or the work of the Spirit, but the clarity of scripture does affirm the otherness of the text in critiquing our interpretation and in shaping tradition such that it is best defined as “loving deference towards the words of Holy Scripture,”[19] and as a “holy attentiveness.”[20]

Ultimately, Scripture, with her clarity, forms, checks and directs the church’s interpretation, and performance. And that, I believe, is what it fundamentally means to uphold Sola Scriptura today.



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

 


Notes

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that what he calls our ‘first theology’, that is, our first principles in doing theology, derives from a correlation of these two doctrines. See his “First Theology: Meditations in a Postmodern Toolshed,” in First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 15–41.

[2] David S. Yeago, “The Bible,” in Knowing The Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 49–93, in particular p. 66, states it memorably: “It is this discourse, what is said in these writings, textually fixed in just this fashion, which the church knows as the ‘divine discourse’ of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis his).

[3] This basic idea forms the main argument of chapter 4 of Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 115–150.

[4] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009).

[5] Vanhoozer, Drama, 133.

[6] Ibid., 32, 153.

[7] Ibid., 165–185.

[8] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Second, Revised Reprinted Edition (London; New York: Continuum, 2006).

[9] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[10] Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2002), 313–314.

[11] Mark L.Y. Chan, Christology From Within And Ahead: Hermeneutics, Contingency and the Quest for Transcontextual Criteria in Christology (Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill, 2000), 145.

[12] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[13] Ibid., 184.

[14] Ibid., 220–224.

[15] Ibid., 195.

[16] Ibid.

[17] As Vanhoozer highlights in Ibid., 194, this should not be taken to mean that the Spirit is subordinated in the midst of this. Instead, there is rightly reciprocity in the Son-Spirit relationship. Jesus enables the Spirit’s coming, but from a Spirit-Christology perspective, the Spirit also empowered Jesus to be who He was and to do what He did. The impetus rather, is to recognise the order and pattern set forth in Scripture, that “the one ministered to by the Spirit during his earthly ministry becomes, in his exalted state, the one whom the Spirit ministers” (emphasis his).

[18] Vanhoozer, Drama, 210.

[19] Yeago, “The Bible,” 69.

[20] John B. Webster, “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew et al., 1st ed., vol. 4, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Milton Keynes; Grand Rapids: Paternoster; Zondervan, 2004), 374.

The Crisis of Biblical Literacy

November 2015 Feature Article

The “crisis of biblical literacy” among Christians is now well known. It has been reported in various journals for over 20 years now. The 17 October 2014 issue of the Christianity Today reports:

Study after study in the last quarter-century has revealed that American Christians increasingly don’t read their Bibles, don’t engage their Bibles, and don’t know their Bibles. It’s obvious: We are living in a post-biblically literate culture.

The situation in Singapore is not much better. To alleviate the problem, several Christian organizations are now taking steps to promote the reading and teaching of Scripture. The Bible Society of Singapore and Project Timothy are two of such organizations here in Singapore.

The problem of biblical literacy is much worse and more complicated than is reported or realized. Reports on biblical literacy usually cites the majority of lay Christians not reading or knowing very little about the content of the Bible. This problem is worse than is realized if we include the many who do read it regularly and who show they know the Bible by their frequent citation of biblical text but who for the most part misread or misinterpret the Bible. These are effectively illiterate. The very low level of biblical literacy is also rampant among those who teach the Bible in Sunday Schools, in Bible Study or fellowship groups and also over the pulpits. It also occurs among the clergy and those who teach others how to teach and preach the Bible.

It may seem odd that those who regularly read the Bible and write messages based on the Bible to preach it or teach it can be considered as biblically illiterate or have a low level of biblical literacy. Is not “literacy” defined as “the ability to read and write”?

Actually it is has been realized for some time now that the standard dictionary’s definition of literacy as “the ability to read and write” is no longer adequate. One cannot assume that just because a person can read and write, he can read and understand all texts correctly and is capable of using what he has read appropriately and effectively.

There is now a realization that literacy must include critical and effective functioning. Critical ability is necessary so that one can differentiate right from wrong interpretations. Effective functioning is necessary so that one can translate the information given and apply it in a way intended by the text. A man who having read a manual on how to repair a television yet does not know how to follow the instructions to repair his television is essentially no different from his child who cannot read it. As far as that manual is concerned, he is effectively illiterate.

There is also the realization that literacy is not something as simple as completing a course of study or passing a series of tests. Literacy is something that can be gained incrementally in a continuum and over a lifelong process. This is especially so when we realize that what is needed to read various texts and various media is not just literacy but multiple literacies. Persons literate in a particular text, such as poetic text or historical prose, may be illiterate in scientific, computational or even legal texts. The ability to interpret one narrative text does not necessarily mean having the competency to interpret other narrative texts. Literacy acquisition must be a lifelong process because linguists, literary experts and biblical scholars are still gaining new useful insights on text processing and interpretation of texts.

The concept of literacy is now better understood and is being redefined. A working definition given by UNESCO is this:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential and to participate fully in their community and wider society. (The Plurality of Literacy and Its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO: 2004)

This expanded understanding of literacy has important implications for those who teach the Bible or who promote biblical literacy. Firstly, it highlights to us the complexity of biblical literacy. It is possible that those reading and teaching the bible in the homes or in churches may be doing so with a very low level of understanding of the biblical text. Secondly, we should help our members have a critical ability to differentiate right from wrong readings of scripture based on sound linguistics and literary principles. Thirdly, we need to help Christians use the biblical texts according to their intended function and be able to differentiate a right application from a wrong application. This requires learning how to identify the intended rhetorical function of various genre, books and passages and also how to do contextualization. Fourthly, we need to realize that just because we have the skill to understand or teach a particular book of the bible, it does not mean we have the skill to understand or teach other books. This calls for a lifelong learning for all; the laity, the clergy and the academicians in the seminaries.

I have mentioned that the problem of biblical literacy is worse than what is reported. Let me highlight four specific problems that mask the low level of biblical literacy prevalent among Christians: The first is the atomistic reading of biblical text; the second is the failure to take seriously the multi-contextual nature of all biblical texts, the third is the use of biblical texts beyond their intended rhetorical function; and finally, the failure to properly recontexualize the message of the Bible when we apply them in different time and context. I shall just elaborate on the first.

Most of the biblical books are intended to be read as a continuous whole. These include the longer books like Judges, Job, Ezekiel, Matthew, Romans, Hebrews and Revelation. Either there is a central plot line that runs right through the book or the different parts of the book are arranged and function together to form a chain of argument. For some books, the continuous whole may mean going beyond one book. For example, Exodus is but part of the plot from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The book of Acts is a sequel to Luke’s Gospel. Those with an eye for holistic reading of the Bible tell us that even the books which were previously thought of as random compilations of unrelated parts such as Psalms, Proverbs or James, are actually organized in certain logical order to function and be read like a book. Finally there are those books which are indeed separate books but they are intended to be read with certain other books as foils or counter foils- such as Joshua is to be read in conjunction with Judges and Ezra with Nehemiah.

So to read in Genesis about Sarah being held captive by Pharaoh and about Jacob and his wives in the crutches of Laban without seeing its connection to the Exodus account of Israel’s captivity (slavery) in Egypt and to Deuteronomy’s anticipation of Israel’s exile foretold, is to miss the larger intended theological message. Similarly, to read the story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel without seeing its connection to the Samaritans and the Gentiles being accepted into the kingdom of God in Acts also misses out an important point of Luke’s Gospel. Reading Psalm 8 as God giving all human beings the right to rule all creation without considering that the adjacent psalms are actually cries of David as king against his enemies and the Davidic Kingship theme in Psalm 1-2 serves as an important frame to read the whole Psalter in the hope of God fulfilling his promise to restore the Davidic kingship is to misread a passage anthropologically when it is intended christologically.

A look at the reading of scripture recorded in the Bible reveals that for the most part they are intended to be read holistically (Exo 24:7, Deut 31:11; Josh 8:34; Neh 8:3; Isa 29:11-12; Jer 36:13; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; Rev 22:18-19). If the books of the Bible are intended to be read holistically, then much of our reading and preaching of the Bible err in its atomistic approach. Reading or preaching one part of the book without considering how it functions within the whole book, may cause us to mistake the tree for the woods. We are not only missing the main theme or the rhetorical function of the book; we misinterpret the passage and read into it some ideas foreign to the book. Drawing application from every short passage instead of deriving application based on the whole book may be akin to attempting to build a house out of one brick or a beam. Sadly, much of our devotional reading of Scripture, the preaching and teaching of the Bible in churches, and the way preaching or teaching of the Bible is taught in seminaries are mostly based on atomistic reading and preaching of biblical text. There is a need to teach the reading and preaching of whole books.

The story in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” strikes a similar vein. The twist at the end of this story highlights to us the need to read in full before making a premature conclusion. Applying a small passage before reading the whole book may lead us to imitate the many “laudable” things the pigs did but only to realize at the end that the author is actually against what the pigs were doing. Christians who do no know how to read text holistically or contextually, can easily be misled to radical extremism and imitate what the pigs do in the “ Animal Farm”.

Dealing with the problem of biblical literacy should now be a matter of public concern. There are at least three reasons why it is so. First, how Christians read their biblical text will affect how we live in the public square: our clothing, our diet, our leisure activities, our ethics and our involvement in social issues. Second, it affects the way we view and relate to others: our neighbours, our government, those of different cultural or economic groups, those of other faiths or ethnicity, and those with differing ethical values. Third, it can affect how others relate to us: positively as people whose view and participation are to be welcome, or negatively, as people whose views are best kept to ourselves and whose participation is to be curtailed.

How Christians read the Bible and even how adherents of other religions read their religious text can no longer be said to be of the concern for the individual or the religious leaders of the various religions. It should be a matter of public concern too.

In today’s world where our education is more focused on reading computer, engineering and financial texts than on literary texts or historical documents, we cannot assume that people know how to read and interpret religious texts which are more akin to literary or historical texts. Well-educated Christians who have a high regard for the Scripture but who have low level of biblical literacy can be misled by others who distort the teachings of the Bible. This is also true for members of other religions. The official stance of Islam in Singapore and that of many Islamic scholars elsewhere is that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the chief characteristic of God in the Quran is mercy. According to these scholars, those who use the Quran to call for radical violence have taken the teachings of the Quran out of context. Yet recently, we read that well-educated Muslims have been radicalized by certain teachings to leave their family and profession to join ISIS in the war.

For this reason some governments now realize it is no longer wise to ignore how various religious communities read their religious texts. Christians in places of influence should not just be concerned with how their fellow Christian read texts; they should also help promote competent contextual reading of literary and religious text to the general public. While we have no right to dictate how people of other religions read and interpret their texts, the way we read and interpret our text holistically and contextually can be a model for others to follow. Christians are supposed to be light of the world; we should also set an example in competent reading of text. It is important to teach proper reading of biblical text not only at home, in church and in the seminaries, but also in the public arena as well.


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David Lang is an Associate Professor at the Singapore Bible College. He teaches Theology, New Testament and Hermeneutics .

The Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


Darius-Lee-202x300

Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.

 


Notes:

[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170

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.

Tongues

What is the purpose of speaking and praying in tongues? Should all Christians speak in tongues?

Although the phenomenon of speaking in tongues is described in only two books in the New Testament – Acts and 1 Corinthians – it has attracted much attention and controversy in the church. No consensus has been reached among Christians from different backgrounds and denominations about its place in the church today, and contradictory and conflicting views continue to persist. On one extreme end of the spectrum is the cessationist view that asserts that tongues, together with the other miraculous gifts described in the New Testament, have ceased at the close of the apostolic age. On the other end, Pentecostals maintain that tongues are a universal gift in the church and that every Christian should speak in tongues.

In his discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul devotes much attention to the gift of tongues. What was Paul referring to when he speaks of the gift of tongues? I think we can describe tongues as the gift of ecstatic speech. As this passage from 1 Corinthians makes clear, the Holy Spirit bestows this gift on some Christians. Unlike the practices of some cults and pagan religions, however, tongues-speech in the Christian church is not a type of somnambulism where the speaker is in a trancelike state.

Commenting on the phenomenon in Volume 4 of his magisterial Church Dogmatics, the Swiss German theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, describes speaking in tongues as ‘an attempt to express the inexpressible in which the tongue rushes past … the notions and concepts necessary to ordinary speech and utters what can be received only as a groan or sigh, thus needing at once interpretation or exposition’. For Barth tongues-speech is not a ‘bizarre stuttering and stammering’, but rather an ecstatic flow of inexpressible joy.

The phenomenon of tongues-speech in the Corinthian church must be distinguished from that described in Acts. The tongues that the disciples spoke at Pentecost were actual foreign languages (xenolalia). Hence Acts 2:8ff states that the bewildered crowd was able to hear the Galileans praise God in their own languages. But the tongues that were spoken by members of the Corinthian church were unintelligible to both speakers (14:14) and hearers (14:16) and required Spirit-enabled interpretation. This phenomenon is arguably similar to that which is found in some contemporary churches.

Tongues can be seen as a type of prayer for Paul says that the person who prays in tongues addresses God (1 Cor 14:2, 14). In 1 Corinthians, Paul asserts that when used in private devotions this gift can edify the believer. He explains further that with interpretation tongues can edify the whole church, and in this sense must be deemed as valuable as prophecy (1 Cor 14:5). Paul therefore urges his readers who have the gift of tongues to also pray for the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). The apostle affirms the gift of tongues and even boasts that he uses this gift more than the Corinthian Christians (14:18). He teaches that the ability to speak in tongues is a gift that the Holy Spirit bestows upon Christians. This gift is to be received with gratitude and exercised for personal edification as well as that of the community of believers.  

Some Christians think that speaking in tongues is a higher form of prayer. Such a view must be rejected. In 14:14-15 Paul emphasizes that praying with the mind (i.e., praying intelligibly with one’s understanding) is just as important as praying in the spirit (i.e., praying ecstatically in tongues). The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 also suggests that some believers in the church at Corinth had elevated the gift of tongues above the other gifts. In this letter, Paul takes great pains to refute this teaching. In verse 28, Paul delineates the various gifts of the Spirit in a hierarchy (indicated by his use of ‘first, second, third’, etc) and places the gift of tongues at the very bottom of the list. Furthermore, Paul rejects the view of some believers in Corinth that only truly spiritual believers could speak in tongues (12:29).

Some Christians (Pentecostals and some charismatics) have associated the ability to speak in tongues with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I hope address this topic in another article. The question that I wish to deal with in the final few sentences of the present article is whether Paul had expected every Christian to speak in tongues. Paul certainly desired that every Corinthian Christian would speak in tongues (14:5). But as the rhetorical questions in 12:29-30 make clear Paul did not expect every Christian to possess this gift. This is perfectly congruent with Paul’s insistence that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are distributed according to the sovereign will of God.

Let me end by underscoring Paul’s closing remarks on this topic found in 1 Corinthians 14:39-40. Because tongues-speech is controversial and problematic, there is a tendency for some to prohibit it altogether. Paul’s response is unequivocal: ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’ (v. 39b). How can the church prohibit what God by his grace wishes to grant? But tongues-speech must be regulated and practiced in a ‘fitting and orderly way’ because God is not a God of disorder (14:33).  In dealing with this controversial practice, Paul counseled propriety, not prohibition.


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 published in The Bible Speaks Today (June 2014).

The Lord’s Supper

Can you please explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? I participate in it month after month but am not sure of its significance.

Most theologians would agree that the institution of the Lord’s Supper goes back to Jesus Christ himself. In all three Synoptic Gospels we have the explicit words of Jesus recorded by the evangelists which inaugurated the practice (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20). There is strong evidence to suggest that the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples was a Passover meal of Jewish tradition, although some scholars have disputed this conclusion.

The oldest document regarding the practice of the Lord’s Supper is found in Paul’s first letter to Corinthians (chapter 11), where he included the narrative that was passed to him through oral tradition. In that passage, Paul also gave some specific instructions as to how the Supper should be conducted, and the proper attitude needed to participate in it. This shows that the practise of the Lord’s Supper in the Christian committee has already been in existence before the writing of the first Gospel, which was probably the Gospel by Mark.

Although Churches across the denominational divide celebrate the Lord’s Supper, there are some significant disagreements between the different traditions regarding the significance and meaning of the practice. For instance, there is a dispute about the way in which Christ is present in the elements of bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper. Some claim that at their consecration the bread and the wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Others maintain that the bread and the wine only represent the body and blood of Christ.

The body of literature that has been produced by the different traditions on the theology of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist is daunting. It is impossible to even begin to discuss some of the finer points of the ongoing theological debate on this subject in the limited space allotted for this essay. What I propose to do (in the remaining space) is to present, in the sketchiest outline, the meaning of the practice. It is hoped that this will help readers to grasp the significance of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the Church and the individual Christian.

The Lord’s Supper is firstly a remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our salvation. The last meal that Jesus had with his disciples before his arrest and execution marks an important point in the history of the world. It marks the point in which God will make his salvation available to his creatures through the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of his incarnate Son.

The bread symbolises the body of Christ that was broken, and the wine symbolises the blood of Christ that was shed for the sins of humanity. The Last Supper therefore anticipates the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The Lord’s Supper serves as a reminder of the deliverance from sin and death that God has brought about through the death of Jesus. In this way, the Supper’s relation with the Jewish Passover Meal is clear. Both have to do with the deliverance of the people of God.

Precisely because the Lord’s Supper celebrates the salvation that is wrought by Christ, it is not just about remembering the past. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we are also celebrating the future. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has opened up a future for us – a future with God. Thus in 1 Corinthians 11:26 Paul says that ‘whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. The Lord’s Supper urges us to look back at the cross so that our vision of the future will be clear. Most rituals of the Supper include this threefold declaration: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’. The Lord’s Supper unites past, present and future. The certainty of the past gives us hope for the future in the present.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not just a memorial; it is also a proclamation. Every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we are telling anew the story of God’s gift of salvation in Christ. Every time we celebrate the Supper we tell his story, the story of the one who became man for us and for our salvation. But by doing so, by telling his story, we are also telling our story, the story of the community of faith. Furthermore, by putting our faith in Jesus, Christians are caught up in his story. Our stories are now profoundly wrapped up in his. This means that his resurrection has become our resurrection, his life our life!

Finally, the Lord’s Supper also has to do with communion. That is why it is sometimes called Holy Communion. In the Lord’s Supper a twofold communion takes place: communion with Christ and communion with the Church. Put differently, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper unites Christians together in Christ. Because in eating the bread and drinking the wine, Christians participate in Christ, Paul could therefore write, ‘Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?’ (1 Cor 15:16)

But in participating in the Lord’s Supper, Christians also participate in the fellowship that is made possible by Christ. Thus the Lord’s Supper is the expression of the intrinsic unity of the members of the Body of Christ, the Church. As Paul has again put it so succinctly, ‘Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (1 Cor 15:17).


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 published in The Bible Speaks Today (April 2014). 

The Sign of the Cross (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans)

The phrase ‘sign of the cross’ refers to various liturgical or devotional acts which trace the two lines intersecting at right angles, indicating symbolically the figure of Jesus’ cross. For evangelical Protestants, whose devotional and liturgical experience does not emphasise the use of gestures, the sign of the cross may appear rather strange and unnecessary. Is it not enough to simply say ‘Our Father’ at the start of our prayer and ‘Amen’ at the end?

As a devotional or liturgical practice, the sign of the cross has a very long history in Christian spirituality. Its origins can be traced to the writings of the theologians in the first five hundred years of the Church’s history.

There are many different ways in which the sign of cross may be made, the most common of which is to trace a large cross from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder. This gesture is often accompanied by the words ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. Sometimes, the believer may trace a little cross, generally using the thumb, on the forehead. In the Roman Catholic Church, believers trace small crosses over their forehead, their lips and their hearts before listening to the Gospel reading. In some Anglican and Lutheran services, the priest or bishop makes the sign of the cross in the air when pronouncing the benediction.

There are different ways in which the fingers can be positioned when making the sign of the cross. Some would trace the cross with their index finger and middle fingers held together. This is meant to symbolise the two natures of Christ – that the incarnate Son is very God and very man. Others would hold the index and the middle fingers together (with the thumb pressing down the last finger) while making the sign of the cross, thus symbolising the Holy Trinity. Sometimes the priest holds his third and fourth fingers down with his thumb while keeping his index and middle fingers straight. This position has the advantage of signifying both the two natures of Christ and the Trinity.

What is the place of such gestures in Christian worship and devotion? Theologians maintain that physical gestures are important in worship and that something is lost if the church has lost sight of them.

Even Protestants who use gestures only very minimally are used to standing, sitting or kneeling in worship. Some also raise their hands in prayers or when singing a hymn. Some L­utherans also genuflect (kneel on one knee) as a gesture of reverence. Ministers in Protestant churches often raise their hands when pronouncing the benediction.

It is the nature of physical movements that they involve the mind as well as the body and thus produce a greater sense of participation. Gestures used at different points in the worship service can produce greater intensity in the act of worship. When these gestures are symbolic, that is, when they point to particular truths, they can inject meaning and value in worship. Of course just as words can be cheap, actions can also be performed mechanically and thoughtlessly. But when used properly and reverently, significant gestures can introduce depth to our worship.

The different postures, for example, could indicate the attitude of the worshipper at different points in worship. Kneeling expresses humility, and is the appropriate posture for prayer, particularly the prayer of confession. Standing brings to expression other attitudes, and therefore may be more appropriate for other acts of worship – singing, prayers of thanksgiving, praise and adoration. Sitting is less expressive and indicates that attention is directed at what someone else is doing. Thus, in most Western churches the congregation sits to listen to the homily or sermon.

The sign of the cross is an important liturgical gesture because the Cross is the central symbol of the Christian Faith. To make the sign of the cross is to recall the salvation that God has made available through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ. The sign of the cross is therefore a reminder of the divine love, which is not only found in a past event, but which continues to abide with us.

The sign of the cross therefore becomes a wonderful daily expression of our relationship with God. It recalls our baptism, for all Christians are baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Tracing the cross on our forehead, heart and shoulders reminds us that we are to love God with our mind, heart, soul and strength – indeed, with every fibre of our being.


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 (April 2013).

What Is Prophecy? And How Can We Discern If It’s From God?

MUCH of the confusion with the practice of prophecy in the contemporary church has to do with a misunderstanding of what the New Testament means by the term. It is not possible to provide a full discussion on prophecy in the limited compass of this article. What I propose to do is to briefly define prophecy and delineate some principles of discernment.

Prophecy in the contemporary church is best described as a report of thoughts and impressions which may have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is important to stress at the outset, therefore, that prophecies by ordinary Christians should never be taken as the ‘infallible word of God’. This means that prophecies should not be placed at par with Scripture. They do not enjoy the same authority and status as God’s revealed Word in Scripture, and those who prophesy are not suddenly elevated to the status of Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Prophecies, then, are nothing more than God-inspired thoughts which, when shared, would benefit a small group or even the whole church.

It is customary in some Christian circles and churches for Christians to preface prophetic utterances with ‘Thus says the Lord’ or ‘Hear the word of the Lord’. This practice is, at the very least, misleading, and should in my opinion be abolished. Instead, Christians who sense that they have been inspired to speak should simply say, ‘I think the Lord is indicating that …’ or ‘I feel that the Lord has impressed upon me to say …’ Such an approach corresponds to the true nature of prophetic utterances, which, as I have pointed out, are merely reports of Spirit-inspired thoughts that might bring edification. Paul broadly describes the purpose of prophetic utterances in the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 14:3 thus: ‘But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort’.

Because prophecies do not enjoy scriptural authority, they should always be tested. In 1 Corinthians 14:29, Paul wrote: ‘Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said’. Prophecies should never be submitted to mindlessly, but should be carefully weighed and evaluated. But who are the ‘others’ who are called to weigh the prophetic utterances? Without detaining the reader with the finer issues of exegesis, I believe that ‘others’ here refer to the entire Christian community. A prophetic message must be carefully weighed by the leaders and members of the Christian community on the basis of God’s revealed Word, the Bible.

About twenty years ago, I remember addressing this topic at a leaders’ retreat. I remember using this illustration to describe our response of prophecy (although I can’t recall the church or the precise content of the talk): responding to prophecy, I said, is like eating curry fish-head – you swallow the meat and spit out the bones! Paul said something similar in the context of judging prophecy in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22: ‘Test everything. Hold on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil’.

Are only certain Christians given the gift of prophecy, or is this ability readily available to all Christians? The New Testament describes prophecy as a gift which God freely gives to some Christians according to his sovereign will. Those who exercise the gift regularly are sometimes called ‘prophets’, although most scholars agree that in the New Testament this designation does not describe a formally recognized office. In principle, then, all Christians have the potential ability to prophesy, although only some Christians are given that actual ability. Thus on the one hand Paul maintains that it is the Spirit who ‘distributes [spiritual gifts] to each one as he wills’, on the other he urges members of his congregation to ‘seek earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’ (1 Cor 14:1; 1 Cor 14:39).

God may, through the gift of prophetic speech, encourage and guide Christians. But Christians must regard prophecy as only one of the many ways in which God guides. Because prophecy does not have the same authority as God’s revealed Word, the Bible, it should not be regarded as the only, or even the primary, source of divine guidance. It would therefore be unwise to make a decision solely on the basis of a prophetic message.

This is especially true in the case of prescriptive prophecies: ‘Leave your job, and serve as a missionary in Bhutan!’ or ‘Marry Mary!’ The Christian may take such prophecies as possible promptings of God’s Spirit; but the wise Christian would remember that this is only one of the many possible ways in which God guides. To repeat, the Christian should never make a decision on the basis of prophecy alone! He should diligently search the Scriptures, prayerfully examine the facts and evaluate the consequences, consult his pastor, elders and matured members of God’s household before making a decision.

Prophecy is God’s gift to the church, an evidence or sign of his abiding presence with his people. God uses the gift of prophecy to edify, encourage and warn his people. Furthermore, the gift of prophecy shows that God relates to us in a personal and intimate way. We should therefore never treat God’s gift of prophecy with contempt (1 Thess 5:20). We should thank God for this wonderful gift, even as we recognize its proper limits.


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 Methodist Message.