Tag Archives: covenant

Divine Genocide?

January 2018 Credo

At a recent Ethos Institute conference on ‘Justice and the Common Good’, a participant asked how Christians should interpret the so-called violent passages of the Old Testament that record Yahweh’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites. One example of these haram (Hebrew for ‘destroy’) passages is Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Atheists have used this and similar passages in the OT to mock Christians and the God they worship. For example, in his book The God Delusion the atheist scientist at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins asserts that ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’.

Some scholars, like Raymond Bradley, Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, even go so far as to extrapolate that the Bible commands Christians to kill innocent human beings. In making this assertion, Bradley is merely echoing the view of the late Christopher Hitchens, who maintained that the barbarism of the Bible is because it was written by ‘crude, uncultured human animals’.

Christians should roundly reject these uninformed and unsophisticated readings of these passages. How, then, should Christians read and interpret passages like Deuteronomy 20?

An Occasional Command

Firstly, we must recognise that there are different types of commands in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. There are commands in the OT that are meant for every human being, not just for the ancient people of Israel. Examples of such universal commands include the prohibition of murder and theft in the Decalogue (Exodus 20: 13, 15). These commands are meant for every person, at all times and in all places. Obeying such commandments would result in the flourishing of human societies.

But there are other commands in the Bible – which scholars describe as occasional commands – that are meant specifically for certain individuals or for the ancient people of Israel. For example, in Genesis 12, we read about the call of Abram: ‘Now the Lord said to Abram: Go from the country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’. This is an occasional divine command in the sense that it was given to Abram alone. No one reading this passage today would conclude that God is calling him or her to leave the Ur of the Chaldeans.

There are also commands that were meant specifically for the ancient people of Israel. A good example is the dietary laws in the Torah. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, we find a series of laws concerning clean and unclean food. Deuteronomy 14 sets the context for these laws in this way: ‘For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all peoples who are on the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abominations’ (vv 2-3). It then provides a list of clean and unclean food.

These dietary laws were given in order to set God’s covenant people apart from the other nations in the Ancient Near East. They are not universal in the sense that they do not apply to all peoples at all times. This is made clear by the fact that Israel was allowed to sell these prohibited foods to the sojourner and foreigner (Deuteronomy 14:21).

The command to ‘destroy’ the Canaanites found in the haram passages of the OT is also an occasional command. This command was given to the ancient people of God, as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. It was confined only to the seven nations that were occupying Canaan, and did not apply to the nations beyond it. In fact, Moses explicitly prohibited Israel from conquering other neighbouring nations (See Deuteronomy 2:4, 9, 19; 23:7).

As Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan have rightly pointed out:

The command to Israel to destroy the Canaanite nations, according to the biblical text, is tied to Israel’s special status as a nation chosen by God to be a treasured possession – a status rooted in his covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs. On the face of it, this is not a general command to all people, Israelite and gentile.

This command therefore cannot be understood as a general command for Israel to exterminate people who belong to other nations. It certainly cannot be interpreted in the way Bradley and Hitchens have suggested, namely, as a divine sanction for Christians to kill innocent people.

Whose Land?

Atheists have routinely accused Israel – and therefore Israel’s God – of injustice because of the divinely sanctioned programme to exterminate or drive out the Canaanites from the land that rightfully belonged to them. However, it should be pointed out that the land of Canaan belonged to Israel, and not to the nations that were occupying it at the time. The title to the land belonged to Israel, and the peoples who have made their home there were illegal occupants.

In Genesis 12, Yahweh called Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go to an unknown land. But in Genesis 17:8 we read: ‘And I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God’. Gordon Wenham notes that ‘this is the first time its title “Canaan” has been used by God, and the description of it as “the land to which you have migrated”’. He adds that the ‘tenure of the land is dependent upon the overarching goal of the covenant: “I shall be their God”’.

Thus, the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, belonged to Israel because it was given to Abraham and to his offspring for ‘an everlasting possession’ as part of God’s covenant. Israel did not steal the land from the seven nations in Canaan. Israel took back the land that was rightfully theirs from its illegal occupants.

The Sins of the Canaanites

It is quite fashionable for atheists like Christopher Hitchens to describe the texts that we have been discussing as accounts of the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites in fulfilment of the divine command. The United Nations Commission of Experts defines ethnic cleansing as ‘rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of a given group from the area’. The expulsion of the Canaanites by the people of Israel cannot be strictly described as ethnic cleansing because time and again the relevant texts stress that it was on spiritual and moral grounds – not ethnic ones – that the command was given.

Consider the following passages:

  1. ‘They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you’ (Exodus 23:33).
  2. ‘You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods’ (Exodus 34:15-16).
  3. ‘You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 20:18).

OT scholars generally agree that it was because God wanted to protect his people from the corrupting influence of the pagan nations with their idolatrous and immoral practices that he sought their displacement.

The abominations practiced in Canaanite idolatry do not only include occult practises like witchcraft and sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) but also cult prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17). But the most reprehensible practice of the Canaanites is child sacrifice. Here are the descriptions of this Canaanite practice:

Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death … And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.

A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as it laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.

Commenting on Exodus 23:33, John Durham notes that in this passage, ‘the singularity of the devotion expected by Yahweh is stressed. Israel is not to covenant with the people of the land’. The Canaanites must be displaced in order to ‘prevent their influencing Israel against Yahweh primarily by the advocacy of their gods: service of these gods, in any manner whatever, would constitute an entrapment of Israel’, he adds. On Deuteronomy 20:18 Duane Christensen writes: ‘The aim of the harsh policy in destroying the Canaanites is to prevent the people of Israel from doing “according to all their abominations”’.

Extermination or Expulsion?

 While there are indeed a number of passages in the OT that describe God commanding the Israelites to ‘kill’ or ‘destroy’ every inhabitant that resided in the land of Canaan, a closer look at the relevant passages (in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Joshua, Judges and Numbers) will lead one to discern a more complex picture. Alongside the commands to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan are the commands to expel them. In fact, many OT scholars maintain that the command to expel the Canaanites is more dominant than the injunction to utterly annihilate them.

In Deuteronomy 7:2 we read: ‘… and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them’. It seems quite clear from this passage that Yahweh has given an explicit command to the Israelites to completely destroy the inhabitants of Canaan.

But in an earlier passage in Deuteronomy, the language of expulsion – not extermination – is used. Thus, In Deuteronomy 4:37-38 we read: ‘And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after then and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you the land for a possession’ (Deuteronomy 4:37-38).

In chapter 6, the language of expulsion is used again: ‘Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord promised’ (vv 18-19).

This is repeated in a number of other passages in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 9:1, the Israelites were told that they were about to ‘cross the Jordan today, to going in and dispossess nations that are mightier than you …’ The text goes on to say that because of the wickedness of the occupants of Canaan, God will ‘thrust them out before you’ (9:4-5).

Again in 18:12, we read that ‘… it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you’. This idea is repeated yet again in 18:14, which says: ‘Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so’.

The juxtaposition of the texts that speak of extermination with those that command expulsion warrants a more nuanced reading of the so-called haram passages.

After carefully examining these passages, Copan and Flannagan came to the conclusion that the ‘text … continually and repeatedly states that the Canaanites will not be exterminated in the sense that the Israelites are to kill every single man, woman, and child in Canaan. Rather, it states they are to be driven out’. ‘[T]he language of “destroy” or “annihilate”’, they added, ‘is typically in the context of gradually driving out the nations – or of nations fleeing from before the battle is joined’.

Rhetorical Hyperbole

Joshua 10 and 11 record the victory of Joshua and his army over the inhabitants of Canaan. On the surface of it, it appears that Joshua took the command to exterminate the Canaanites literally.

Joshua 10:40 records the victory thus: ‘So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel has commanded’. We get the same picture from Joshua 11:21: ‘At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns’.

However, when we turn to Judges, which gives an account of the same conquest, we get a different picture. In Judges 1:21, we are told that the Jebusites were not entirely driven out, not to mention exterminated or destroyed, and that they have even assimilated with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem. But it is Judges 2 that gives us with the clearest contrast to the Joshua passages above:

… I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died … the Lord left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua (vv 21, 23).

The passages in Judges not only show that Joshua had not ‘utterly destroyed all that breathed’, but that he and his army did not even drive all the inhabitants of Canaan out. Furthermore, Judges 2 has Yahweh declare that he ‘will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died’ (v 21).

Just as the commands to exterminate the Canaanites are juxtaposed with the instructions to expel them, so the accounts of total annihilation are juxtaposed with passages that indicate that huge numbers remained even after Joshua’s death. Scholars like Brevard Childs have long noted the tension between the two accounts.

How, then, should we read the haram passages?

Scholars like Copan and Flannagan argue that these passages should be understood as hyperbolic. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘hyperbole’ is ‘an exaggerated statement, not meant to be taken literally’. When we carefully consider all the passages that describe the divine command and the conquest, we are inexorably led to conclude that the language of extermination or annihilation is hyperbolic, and should not be taken literally.

As Copan and Flannagan put it:

Taken together, these points give persuasive reasons for thinking that one should interpret the extermination language in Joshua 1-12 as offering a highly figurative and hyperbolic account of what occurred. It seems sensible to conclude that the language of ‘leaving alive nothing that breathes’, ‘leaving no survivors’, and ‘putting all inhabitants to the sword’ is not meant to be taken literally.

The historian of the Ancient Near East, Lawson Younger, Jr. and Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen have shown that there are profound similarities between the war accounts of other Ancient Near Eastern nations and that of Israel as recorded in Joshua. As was the convention of the day, these texts liberally employed rhetorical hyperbole in their respective conquest accounts.

To say that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is not to suggest that the divine command and the conquest of Joshua are fictitious. Rather, it is simply to acknowledge the fact that they are described in extravagant language. To recognise that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is to acknowledge the specific genre of these passages. Sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics require that the different literary genres in the Bible be judiciously identified and interpreted accordingly.


The New Atheists and other authors have used the haram passages in the OT to argue that the Christian God commanded his people to commit genocide and other atrocities. This is a serious misreading of these passages. It has led to scathing misrepresentations of the Christian Faith and the Bible.

I hope that this brief article will help Christians (and anyone who is genuinely interested) achieve a clearer and more nuanced interpretation of the passages in the Old Testament.

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.

Prayer from the Depths of Despair

November 2017 Credo

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
The wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it,
And is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
And therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
23 They are new every morning;
“Great is your faithfulness,
24 The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I have hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24 (ESV)

These are the first words of prayer (that is, words actually addressed to God), that the Poet of Lamentations has uttered. The word ‘your’ in verse 23 shows he is at last speaking to God – right here in the middle of this chapter which stands in the middle of the whole terrifying book. Verses 22-23 are the only part of Lamentations that most people know, because they generated Thomas Chisholme’s lovely hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness,’ – even if those who sing that hymn are quite unaware of the shocking context in which those words were originally uttered.

For this is the prayer of ‘the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath’ (3:1) – and what affliction, what a rod! Look at verses 1-18. That repeated, accusing word ‘He’ refers to God. Lamentations was written in the immediate aftermath of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-6 BC. That had happened, according to the prophets (and accepted by this book), as God’s judgment for the rebellion and wickedness of the Israelites for generations, in spite of all warnings to turn around and avoid it. And the suffering was incomprehensible – except perhaps by those today caught up in the hell of Syria, or South Sudan, or Yemen, who know only too well what such descriptions mean.

In chapters 1-2, the Poet personifies the city of Jerusalem as Lady Zion, gasping out in the dust for somebody, anybody, – even God if only he would –  to look at her, listen to her, comfort her. She is a woman stripped, gang-raped, beaten, exposed, violated, her children traumatized and dying in the streets. If this is judgment, even if it is deserved, is it not too awful, too cruel? Whatever the moral argument, the suffering and pain is given voice, the tears are allowed to fall, while God remains silent. There is no comfort, but neither is there any rebuke, nor any heartless ‘told you so.’ Suffering is given the dignity of a hearing. Lamentations has been called a bottle for the tears of the world (cf. Ps. 56:8). If it can be called prayer at all, it is the prayer of desperate suffering, of lament, and protest.

Then in chapter 3 the Poet speaks: ‘I am the man…’ His words speak both for himself and for his people. He was there. He had endured what the city suffered, and puts it into searing poetry that pauses at verse 18 with complete loss of hope.

Hope Perishes

Read again through the catalogue of metaphors in verses 1-18. ‘The Man’ has been beaten by a bad shepherd (1-6 are a negative Ps. 23); walled up alone (7-9); hunted, mauled and shot at (10-13); trampled face-down in the dust (14-16). He is left utterly without peace, unable even to recall what happiness felt like (17), and worst of all, with all his hopes gone (18).

Without hope, life is unbearable. Friends in Lebanon tell me of the tragic rate of suicides among women and young girls in the Syrian refugee communities there – for which the prime reason given is, ‘We have lost all hope for any possible future.’

Hope Remembers

All the Man is left with is his memories. But there are two kinds of remembering. There are the bad memories that come unwanted and unbidden, the flash-backs and nightmares of trauma, the tormenting, bitter and poisonous memories that the Man struggles with in verses 19-20. But then comes the intentional remembering of verse 21. This is a deliberate act of will, in which he forces himself to remember what he knows to be true. Literally, he says, ‘This I cause to come back into my mind.’  He chooses to think differently. ‘And therefore I have hope’! What a contrast. Verse 18 ends with all hope gone; verse 21 ends with ‘I have hope.’ What is the ‘This’ that he chooses to remember, that makes such a dramatic difference?

The last word of verse 18 is the name of the LORD – Yahweh, the God of Israel’s history, exodus, covenant and centuries of repeated faithfulness. Yahweh is the God who defined himself as ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Ex. 34:6). If the LORD is still God, then surely this terrible anger and suffering cannot be his last word? You see, once you let the LORD in, even by the back door at the end of verses 1-18, things cannot remain as they are, and that’s what the Man remembers, and turns into prayer.

What he prays is something like this,

‘My life, my hope, my future feel like they have all ended (v. 18),
BUT this is what I remember (v. 21):
Yahweh’s acts of love, they have not finished
For they have not come to an end, his acts of compassion (v. 22 literally).
Indeed, not only have they not ended,
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (v. 23).

The God who had acted in judgment is still the God who will keep his promises to his people and will never abandon his covenant with them, nor his ultimate purposes for the whole world through them. So, with that long-term perspective, the Man decides to wait in hope  (v. 24) … Almost as if he had just remembered Psalm 33:20-22. Maybe he had. It’s another powerful prayer.

Then another shock (for us) in verses 25-27. Each of those verses begins with the Hebrew word for ‘good’. ‘Good…good…good’ he says!  How can somebody who has just described the horrors that God had inflicted in verses 1-18 turn round and say, ‘The LORD is good…’? Yet he does. He affirms it as the bedrock of Israel’s faith, of biblical truth, and of Christian worship. As the Africans say, ‘God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good.’

But, this does not at all deny or lessen the pain of verses 1-18. Nor does it stop him from going back to that pain very soon after – in the second part of chapter 3 and on into chapters 4-5. But if the God who judges or allows suffering is the God who is good, then even God’s wrath cannot be the last word for those who turn to him – as this Poet is urging his people to do. God will have a good purpose ahead. So even if it cannot be imagined at this moment, even in the midst of the unbearable pain, ‘it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD’ (even though ‘quietly’ is hardly the mood of this whole book).

The swings between gut emotion and theological affirmation in Lamentations are vital to its message. Aren’t there times when singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father’ seems hollow, hypocritical and bitter because of the stress and suffering of the moment? And yet other times when it expresses exactly what you do believe and need to affirm?

Hope Explains

We still wonder, though, how the turbulent desperation of verses 1-18 can reach the calm prayers and advice of 22-30. So the Poet obliges with his explanation. Each of verses 31-33 begins, in Hebrew, with the word ‘For.’ He is saying ‘Here’s why…here’s why…here’s why!’ These three verses begin with the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet, right in the middle of the whole book. In the midst of the pain, sin, rebellion, judgment and suffering – here is what we must know.

  • Yes, God may reject his people when they rebel — but not forever (31).
  • Yes, God causes grief when he punishes – but his compassion and love will return (32).
  • Yes, God afflicts (or allows affliction) – but ‘not from his heart’ (literally; 33).

We should not equate God’s anger and God’s love, as if they were equal and opposite eternal characteristics. They are both realities. God’s anger is his reaction against all sin and evil that opposes his love and goodness. But anger does not define God in the way love does. ‘God is love.’ God is not anger – on the contrary, God defined himself as ‘slow to anger,’ and Micah affirms that this is something that makes Yahweh the God of Israel unique – ‘You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy’ (Mic. 7:18-19).

So in his prayer, the Man drops anchor into the bedrock of God’s eternal, unchanging, faithful,  covenant love. That gives him security. But it does not give him release from the suffering. The anchor is down, but the storm still rages and his ship tosses – as chs 4-5 will show. Nevertheless – at the centre of the book and the centre of his faith, God’s eternal love has been affirmed in faith and in prayer. I doubt if the Man could have sung this song just yet, but its truth is close to his experience and testimony:

You are my rock in times of trouble;
You lift me up when I fall down.
All through the storm, your love is the anchor;
My hope is in you alone.


Rev Dr Christopher Wright is the International Ministries Director, Langham Partnership.





Clarity on Sexuality

November 2017 Credo

Without a doubt, human sexuality is one of the most controversial issues that the modern church faces. Insofar as the church is situated within a cultural milieu, it is in some sense influenced and sometimes inadvertently even shaped by society’s strongest sentiments. This is especially true with issues surrounding homosexuality.

Buffeted by unrelenting pressures from all sides, Christians have sometimes come under considerable stress to simply acquiesce to their demands. And recently, a number of conservative Christian thinkers and leaders appear to have buckled under the strain.

For example, in a recent public lecture, Nicholas Wolterstorff shocked those who have always known him to be theologically conservative by expressing his approval for same-sex marriage. ‘I’ve listened to these people’, says Wolterstorff, ‘To their agony. To their feelings of exclusion and oppression. To their longings. To their expressions of love. To their commitments. To their faith. So listening has changed me’.

In an interview conducted by columnist Jonathan Merritt of Religion New Service, Eugene Petersen, the celebrated author of The Message also affirmed same-sex marriage. He told Merritt that the ‘debate about lesbians and gays might be over’ and that he would conduct a same-sex wedding if he were a pastor.

Soon after the interview was published, however, Petersen retracted his statements. ‘To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm the biblical view of everything’, he said in a subsequent statement.

Amidst these episodes of capitulation and flip-flop by some of the most prominent conservative Christian leaders, the Nashville Statement on human sexuality is refreshing, timely and welcomed (https://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/The_Nashville_Statement_Initial_Signatories_List.pdf).

The Statement is uncompromisingly faithful to Scripture, and provides a reliable compass to help the church navigate safely through the fog of confusion about sexuality and gender.

In its preamble, the Statement underscores the fact that Christians in the 21st century inhabit a period of ‘historic transition’. As Western culture drifts from its Judeo-Christian heritage, we witness ‘massive revisions of what it means to be a human being’.

This has brought about radical changes to the way in which we understand human sexuality. ‘It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences’.

The Statement presents a series of affirmations and denials (in 14 articles) concerning human sexuality based on the teachings of Scripture. In the rest of this article, I will briefly highlight some of its most salient points.

The Statement begins by clearly articulating its position concerning marriage (Article 1). Everything that it has to say about human sexuality and sexual relations in subsequent articles is framed by its biblical view of marriage.

The Statement eschews the view that homosexual, polygamous and polyarmorous ‘marriages’ are part and parcel of God’s design. It states categorically that marriage as God had intended it is a ‘covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, husband and wife’.

Against the prevailing secular understanding of marriage as a contract, the Statement insists on the covenantal nature of this union.

Sexual relations between a man and a woman are appropriate only within the covenant of marriage. The Statement clearly affirms ‘chastity outside marriage and fidelity within marriage’, and rejects all forms of sexual immorality, including sexual intercourse outside marriage (Article 2).

The divine institution of marriage is established on the doctrine of creation, especially that creation of human beings as male and female (Articles 3 & 4).

The Statement affirms that God created human beings as male and female as bearers of his image and ‘equal before God as persons’ (Article 3). In addition, sexual distinctions – male and female – are not the tragic results of the fall. Instead, they are ‘divinely ordained’, that is, they ‘reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing’ (Article 4).

God has created humans as sexed beings. Sexual difference – being male or female – is therefore not a social construct, but a biological reality ordained by the loving Creator for human flourishing. This means that human sexuality cannot be re-defined according to the temper of the times, the whims and fancies of the prevailing culture.

Articles 3 & 4 set the stage for the more complex issues surrounding human sexuality. They include the dissonance that some people experience between their biological sex and their self-conception as male and female (Articles 5–8). These articles deal primarily with homosexuality and transgenderism.

Article 5 makes clear that neither physical anomalies (inter-sex?) nor psychological conditions (gender dysphoria) ‘nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male and female’. The Statement rejects the claim that ‘adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption’ (Article 7).

Article 6 maintains that those with sexual disorders are bearers of the divine image and ‘have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers’. Article 8 in turn gives the assurance that people who experience same-sex attraction ‘may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ …’

Sin receives its first mention in Article 9. The authors of the Statement judiciously avoid singling out homosexual acts alone, but include both homosexual and heterosexual immorality in this brief article. ‘We affirm that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality – a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality’.

The remaining four articles of the Statement address a number of different issues. These include attitudes towards homosexual immorality to the efficacy of divine grace in conquering sexual temptations and sins.

Article 10 states that ‘it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism’. Such approval, it notes, can never be seen as a ‘matter of moral indifference’ but rather essentially as a ‘departure from Christian faithfulness and witness’. Article 11 underscores ‘our duty to speak the truth in love at all times’.

Article 12 affirms that the grace of God in Christ has transforming power that enables Christians to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord’. This same grace enables ‘sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions’, states Article 13, and to see the connection between biological sex and one’s self-conception as male and female.

Article 14 is a summary of the Gospel.

Like most documents of this nature, some passages are lacking in clarity and issues that are either left out or given just a cursory mention should be given more attention.

For example, it would be helpful to make clear the distinction between experiencing same-sex attraction and having homosexual sex. It would also be helpful to clarify that while the Bible categorically prohibits homosexual sex, it does not address the issue of sexual orientation.

The issue of sexual orientation, so important in the current debate, is totally omitted by the Statement.

Article 6 appears to be most problematic because of its lack of clarity. Who exactly is the Statement referring to by ‘those born with a physical disorder of sex development’ – the homosexual, transgendered or inter-sex person?

Since inter-sexuality is not mentioned at all, the unfortunate impression is that the Statement affirms the biological basis for homosexuality and transgenderism. But if Article 6 refers to the inter-sex person (which I think it does), it should make this more explicit.

But these minor glitches aside, the Nashville Statement is a clear and robust articulation of the Christian vision of human sexuality. It is thoroughly biblical and in harmony with the orthodox teachings of the Church throughout the centuries.

Since its publication, however, the Nashville Statement has been heavily criticised. This should not surprise us.

Some of the most venomous criticisms come from Christians who appear to have become subservient to the very culture to which they were called to exercise a prophetic witness.

For example, Brian McLaren (of ‘emerging church movement’ fame) scathingly opines that theologically the Statement ‘is based on the same regressive way of reading the Bible that was used to justify slavery, anti-Semitism, apartheid, the suppression of women, the rejection of good science, and the slaughter of native people’.

On the social front, McLaren says, the Statement ‘plays into the same virulent scapegoating that has encouraged the KKK and other white supremacists to take off their sheets’.

Finally, he adds that politically it ‘perfectly serves the purposes of Trumpism by creating a pristine and pure “us” who need to push the dirty “other” to the margins’.

Some Christians may no doubt find such rhetoric compelling. But these sweeping harangues are in fact vacuous and ludicrous. They only show how far some Christians have capitulated to the prevailing culture.


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

The Mind That ‘Sees’

June 2017 Credo

This article is written in response to a request by one of the visitors of the Ethos Institute website. It has to do with the Christian’s experience of God. What do Christians mean when they say that they have a personal knowledge and experience of God? What do Christians mean when they say that they sense his presence?

One of the most important, if arguably also the most neglected topics in recent Christian discourse, is what may be described as a ‘Christian theology of religious experience’.

Despite the fact that spiritualities of all sorts – from exercises in mindfulness to New Age mysticism – have been in vogue for some time, Christian theologians generally (and evangelical theologians, in particular) have not given the issue of religious experience the serious theological attention it deserves.

Christians of every denominational stripe and tradition claim to have personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Many Christians have also testified that there were occasions when they were able to sense the presence of God in their lives.

Such assertions are, of course, premised on the Christian understanding of God.

The God who reached out to us in love and grace has invited us into a covenantal relationship with him. He is not an absentee God, distant and aloof. Rather he is Emmanuel, the God who is always with us.

But what do Christians mean when they say that they are able to sense God’s presence? How are we to understand the Christian’s perception and experience of God?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perception as the ‘awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation’. Perception, it adds, is the ‘physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience’.

Based on such definitions, the Christian claim that it is possible to perceive the divine becomes even more baffling, if not incredulous. For, unlike the pagan idols that are made of wood and clay, the God whom Christians worship is spirit, invisible to human eyes (John 1:18). The Creator is not a part of the created order, and therefore cannot be known by sensory perception like the material objects of this world.

But although the Creator of the universe is spirit and therefore cannot be perceived by our creaturely senses and finite minds, he has revealed himself in such a way that makes our knowledge of him possible.

In John 1:18, alluded to earlier, we are told that although no one has seen God, the Son of God has made him known in the incarnation. Put differently, by taking upon himself human flesh and coming as Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Trinity has made the invisible God visible.

Paul could therefore declare in Colossians that the Son ‘is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15). Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, bears witness to the incarnate Son of God through whom the invisible God is known.

Not only did God make himself an object of this world in order to reveal himself to us, he also accommodated his revelation in such a way that we are able to receive and understand it. This notion of ‘divine accommodation’, which was brilliantly developed by the great Reformer John Calvin, helps us to understand the mode that divine revelation has assumed that makes it possible for human beings to know God.

Peter Enns explains: ‘This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place – he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people – he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are’.

The objective basis for your knowledge of God sketched very briefly here is extremely important.

The knowledge of God does not arise subjectively from our inner being, our mind or our soul. Rather, it is objective. We know God because the eternal Son has become a human being, and because the Bible bears witness to him.

However, there is a subjective aspect to our knowledge of God – and this brings us closer to the heart of our topic. Just as the Son of God has made our objective knowledge of the invisible God possible in the incarnation, so the Holy Spirit enables us to subjectively apprehend and appropriate this knowledge by faith.

The early Fathers of the Church often speak of the spiritual senses (sensus spiritualis) that the Holy Spirit awakens in the regenerate soul of the believer, enabling him to perceive spiritual things.

The Spirit forms in the believer a sensorium that makes him receptive to God. The spiritual senses do not work against the natural senses but in concert with them, giving the Christian a greater capacity for God.

As the great Swiss Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, puts it: ‘The spiritual senses are the human range of senses adapted to the riches and the variety of the paths taken by God in his revelation, with the capacity simultaneously to “see his glory”, “hear his word”, “breathe his fragrance”, “taste his sweetness” and “touch his presence”’.

The spiritual senses that Christians are given at regeneration enable them, through the out-workings of divine grace, to ‘sense God’s presence’ and ‘experience him’. They enable the mind that is renewed by the Spirit to ‘see’ a deeper spiritual reality.

Such experiences can come to us during worship and prayer, or as we read the Bible. But we can also experience the presence of God as we perform mundane activities like driving to work or washing the dishes.

At this juncture, I would like to sound a note of caution by highlighting two very important points.

The first is that the relationship between the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the subjective appropriation of that revelation made possible by the Spirit must never be severed from each other. The means that all subjective religious experiences – regardless of how powerful and compelling they may be – must be subjected to Scriptural assessment and critique.

This we learn from Scripture itself. In the wake of false teachings in the Church, the Apostle John writes: ‘Beloved, do not believe any spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world’ (1 John 4:1).

Secondly, although we have been discussing how the individual Christian may know or perceive God, it must be stressed that Christian experience is always ecclesial in nature. That is to say, our personal and individual experiences of God must always be evaluated and guided by the universal Church’s experience of God.

Privileging our subjective religious experiences over the ecclesial is extremely dangerous. It has led many to theological error and spiritual ruin.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at 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.



[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.