Tag Archives: Doctrine

Back to the Basics

July 2018 Pulse

The last three decades have seen a slew of books on basic Christianity. A simple search on Amazon.com would yield titles like Christianity 101 (1993), Basic Discipleship (1992), and Christianity: The Basics (2014). These books receive their inspiration from their celebrated predecessors, namely, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (1952) and John Stott’s Basic Christianity (1958).

The main purpose of these books – as their titles reveal – is to state as succinctly as possible the fundamentals of the Christian faith and its most essential tenets. Their intended readers are either people who are interested in Christianity but are mystified by the varied accounts, or young Christians who wish to get a handle on the faith they have recently embraced.

These books, therefore, have a significant role to play in the spiritual and theological formation of young believers who wish to acquaint themselves with the doctrinal terrain of Christianity. But the habitual return to the basics may prove enlightening and refreshing even for more mature Christians.

What constitutes the basics of Christianity, its non-negotiable essence, is an important and inescapable question. How does one go about distinguishing the essential bits of the Christian faith that must be ‘canonised’, and the rest that should consequently be regarded as theological opinions that can be subjected to discussion and disagreement?

These questions must be carefully considered. This quest can go disastrously wrong if it is guided by false assumptions and alien canons.

In the early 20th century, a formidable group of German theologians led by the eminent Adolf von Harnack sought to recover what they described as the “essence of Christianity”. They wanted to repristinate a Christianity which, in their minds, had been distorted by Hellenistic philosophy.

To cut a long story short, Harnack and his followers began to peel off the husk of the ‘Hellenised’ theology of the Church in order to recover the kernel, namely, the simple teachings of Jesus Christ and His early followers.

The results of Harnack’s research were presented in a series of lectures in the University of Berlin in 1899 and 1900, and subsequently published as What is Christianity? (Das Wesen des Christentums) in 1901. This book, which is the modern re-statement of the essence of Christianity, became the inspiration for liberal theology in the 20th century.

Rejecting what he considered to be the metaphysical accretions of the historic creeds of the Church, Harnack maintains that the essence of Christianity has to do with the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and the ethic of love.

Harnack’s project is instructive because it shows us how not to look for the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Christianity’s essence cannot be sought by severing Scripture from its authoritative interpreter, the Church. Neither can it be sought by privileging the modern scientific worldview over the theological vision of the Church that was informed and shaped by Scripture itself.

In other words, to understand the essence of the Christian faith, one needs to take with utmost seriousness the very things that Harnack had rejected as farcical and redundant.

One needs to return to the historic ecumenical creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition – for they are, to use Luther’s fine expression, the “ground upon which the Christian Faith is laid”.

In the creeds, wrote Luther, “you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words”.

Basic Christianity, as presented by the creeds, has to do with non-negotiable truths about God and the world that the Word reveals, like the triunity of God, the incarnation of the second person of the Godhead, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the final judgement, and eternal life.

Going back to the basics of the faith should never be regarded as an exercise of simplifying the faith, as some writers seem to suggest. It is never reductionist. Rather, it is an attempt to discern the fullness and wonder of God, who in His revelation remains incomprehensible.

In returning again and again to the essence of the faith, we are brought ever deeper into the boundless and inexhaustible mystery of the One who is Love.


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.

A Common Platform

July 2018 Feature

For anyone living in this century, it is evident that one of the contemporary issues facing the world today is that of religious diversity. From the perspective of a Christian, the question of the role of other religions is especially acute given the ultimate claims to truth and salvation that Jesus Christ has made.

However, this phenomenon of multiple religious traditions is not a new one. The books of the Old Testament were written during times when peoples of other faiths surrounded the nation of Israel. The same holds true for the New Testament when Greco-Roman religions proliferated alongside the newly established religion of Christianity.

In some ways, this necessity to learn how to understand other religions is not unique to the Christian faith.  Every major world religion in its history has had to grapple with the existence of the “others” ever since they become conscious of the existence of one another. Each tradition has had to learn to navigate its way through its social, historical and religious contexts.

The contemporary theologian of religions, Harold Netland, has pointed out that it is increasingly important for Christians in the twenty-first century to respond to the changing religious landscape. He asserts it is possible for Christians to be firmly committed to Christ as Lord and be responsible citizens in their own countries. At the same time, he calls for new ways for Christians to respond to the other faiths rather than merely repeating the practices of the past.

As different religions attempt to co-exist, co-operate or even compete with one another for converts, it is crucial that a shared framework or language be found to avoid misunderstandings. This is especially so given there is always some level of incommensurability to religions. Words such as “God” and “salvation” can mean very different things to a Christian or a Buddhist.

The scholar of religion and philosopher, Robert McKim, has proposed that when it comes to determining what he calls “attitudes to and beliefs about others,” it is helpful to note the ranges of positions that one may adopt. He proposed that for any religion, its self-understanding with respect to another tradition can be classified under one of the following categories. That it is:

  1. The only tradition that is any good in the relevant respect
  2. The tradition that is better than other traditions in the relevant respect
  3. A tradition that is as good as other traditions in the relevant respect

These constitute the starting points for what is commonly known in the field of theology of religions as the traditional three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist positions respectively. McKim also argues that this schema is suitable not only for theistic faiths but non-theistic ones too.

If that is so, then by utilizing a common vocabulary of terms and conceptual structure, this may allow the various traditions to participate in a form of dialogue that promotes understanding of the other. While it may not wholly nullify the difficulties to attempt to read another using only its categories, it could represent an initial step towards reducing isolationism and enhancing greater concordance.

The typology proposed above may be used with respect to issues of truth and salvation. It may also be employed concerning other matters, such as the ethical guidance provided in each religion.

While some Christian scholars have argued that the tri-fold typology which was initially proposed by Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa is skewed towards pluralism, subsequent analysis by others have shown it is, in fact, a relatively neutral logical construct that each respective position could claim to be biased in or against its stance.

Also, despite these objections, since its first proposal in the 1960s, the tri-polar schema has continued to play a significant role within Christian theology for scholars to clarify their assertions. In addition, while many other competing proposals have been put forth, none seems to be capable of replacing the traditional proposition, as seen in the recent numerous scholarly articles that continue to argue based on, either explicitly or implicitly, its underlying logical structure.

It is possible that this analytical framework could be one of the tools that the Christian tradition may offer to the broader world of inter-religious understanding, given that it was developed within itself and undergone robust discussion. As an Adjunct Lecturer at the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) for a post-graduate course entitled “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” I have found it serves as a common platform for students from various religious backgrounds to discuss features of their faiths vis-à-vis another as part of the M.Sc program.


 

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

Theological Liberalism as Heresy

June 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: What is your assessment of liberal theology?

The roots of modern liberal theology can be traced to the great intellectual and cultural movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, in the main it signals man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage, that is, his inability to think without the guidance of another. As Immanuel Kant has so famously put it, the motto of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! (‘Dare to Know’!) – ‘Have courage to use your own understanding’.

In presenting man as the supreme authority, the Enlightenment jettisons all traditional sources of authority, including, of course, the Church and her sacred Scriptures. As Richard Pierard notes, ‘All beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience, and one’s mind must be open to new facts and truth, regardless of where they may originate’.

Accompanying the Enlightenment is a new approach to interpreting the Bible that uses the ‘science’ of historical research called ‘historical criticism’. Liberal Bible scholars and theologians accept the findings of the ‘historical critical school’ that suggest that the biblical texts are not conveyors of divine revelation, but are instead time-bound accounts of the ancient people of Israel and the early Christians.

In the hands of the liberal theologians, the Bible is no longer regarded as God’s infallible Word, inspired by his Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). Instead, the Bible is merely seen as the work of its human authors and editors who belonged to an age centuries removed from ours, and who are in every way limited by their times. The stories in the Bible must be regarded as myths and fables, purposed to inspire piety and morality.

In allowing reason to usurp the authority of the Bible, liberalism has introduced such mutilating distortions to the basic tenets of the Christian faith concerning God, Jesus Christ, salvation, eschatology that what emerges as a result can no longer be said to be orthodox Christianity. In departing so radically from the ‘faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3), theological liberalism must be regarded as heresy.

Take the liberal revisions to the doctrine of God. In his magisterial work, History of Dogma (7 volumes, published between 1894-99), Adolf von Harnack argued that the orthodox Christianity presented in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed is the ‘creation of the Hellenic spirit on the soil of the Gospel’ and therefore a profound aberration of the simple religion of Jesus. The Church, Harnack insists, must re-discover the ‘kernel’ of Christianity by removing the ‘husks’, that is, the forms that it has been given as a result of the metaphysical speculations of her theologians.

Following Harnack, liberal theologians have regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as merely symbolic expressions of the Church’s experience of God, devoid of any ontological truth.

Or take liberalism’s understanding of Christ and salvation. In his book, On Religion, Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), Friedrich D. Schleiermacher – who has been accorded the accolade of being the father of modern (read, liberal) theology – describes Jesus not as the incarnation of God’s Word, but as an archetypal man. Jesus was a man who has achieved perfect ‘God-consciousness’ (that is, total dependence on God). He serves as an example that we all must emulate.

Following Schleiermacher’s lead, the late Anglican theologian John Macquarrie also maintained that Jesus is different from other humans only in degree and not in kind. In other words, for Macquarrie, the incarnation must be understood metaphorically, not literally.

Consequently, Macquarrie’s Jesus is hardly different from what he calls the other ‘saviour figures’ like Krishna, Confucius and Buddha. In his highly influential book, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1990), Macquarrie argues that like Jesus, all these other saviour figures are also ‘mediators of grace’ and ‘emissaries of holy Being’. Like Jesus, they have also ‘given themselves up to the service of a divine reality, who might work in them and through them for the lifting up of all creatures upon earth’.

It should not surprise us that theological liberals have downplayed the seriousness of sin by defining it, not as a depravity that is so comprehensive that if human beings were left to their own devises, they would not be able to rescue themselves from destruction, but as merely a glitch in our relationship with God.

For Schleiermacher, then, ‘redemption’ has to do with a restored relationship with God that can be achieved by emulating Jesus who enjoys pre-eminent God-consciousness and an intimate relationship with God. Schleiermacher – and the liberals who followed him – has very little to say about vicarious atonement, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

The Lutheran theologian Eugene Klug is surely rightly when he asserts that ‘The true horror of liberalism is evident precisely at the point where it denies Christ’s unique role as Saviour of mankind through his vicarious suffering and death for men’s sins’.

Liberal theology wants to present Jesus as a remarkable man, a pious follower of God par excellence – but not as the incarnate Son of God – to the so-called cultural despisers of Christianity. In so doing, they have seriously distorted what Scripture says about him. As Klug is right to point out, ‘The gospels do not consist in pious embellishments of what Jesus’ followers thought about him, fancifully enhanced by miracles and a fabricated report of his resurrection’. Rather, ‘these gospels consist in the revelation of God, recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, for faith’s acceptance’.

Liberalism is the bastardization of the Christian Faith – to borrow the expression by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. It is the mutilation, corruption and perversion of orthodox Christianity.


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 Forgotten Trinity

January 2017 Credo

In 1989, the British Council of Churches published a collection of essays with an interesting and arresting title: The Forgotten Trinity. The authors of these essays – prominent theologians in the UK – lament the neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity by the modern Church.

To be sure, the Trinity is given special mention at strategic points in Christian worship. The Church baptises her new members in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Great Commission set out in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 28:19). And at the end of the service, the minister often blesses the congregation by using the Pauline benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14) with its trinitarian formula.

But beyond these specific rituals and allusions, very little attention is given to the doctrine. By treating the doctrine of the Trinity as little more than a theological appendage, evangelical churches appear to be following in the footsteps of their liberal counterparts.

The doctrine of the Trinity must never be seen as an optional extra.

In his book entitled Wrestling With Angels Rowan Williams writes perceptively that ‘Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what “kind” of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding’.

Thus, far from being a doctrine that should be relegated to the far margins of orthodoxy Christianity, the Trinity must be placed at the very centre. In fact, we may say that it is the article upon which the Church stands or falls in the sense that without it there can be no Christianity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is based on God’s revelation, the divine self-disclosure, and not on the Church’s metaphysical speculations or imaginings.

Together with Israel, the Church professes that there is only one God. The formal form of this profession can be traced to the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares: ‘Hear, O Israel, our God, the Lord is one’.

The monotheism of Israel is further underscored in the Decalogue, especially in the first commandments which says: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:1). This commandment is reinforced by the categorical prohibition and condemnation of idolatry that immediately follows it (Exodus 20:4-6).

The Church has always embraced and defended the monotheistic faith of Israel that is rooted in and shaped by the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

But as the Church reflects on the significance of Christmas and Pentecost, she begins to see that the one God she professes and worships is triune. For at the first Christmas, the eternal Son of the eternal Father (John 1:1-2) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And at Pentecost, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit was poured out to empower the Church to be Christ’s witness in the world (Acts 2).

Thus, through the revelation of God in salvation history, the Church realises that there is no plurality of gods – there is only one God, and all other claimants to deity are imposters and fakes – in a word, idols.

But on the basis of the same revelation, the Church also realises that the one true God is plural, or more precisely, triune.

In the one God, there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are co-equal and co-eternal. Each person is the whole of the divine essence and is therefore fully God. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God.

Yet each person is distinct from the other in the sense that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But because each person is fully God, each person possesses all the divine attributes. As the great fourth century theologian Athanasius has so insightfully put it, everything we say about the Father (that he is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, etc) can be said about the Son, except that the Son is Father.

The concept of God as triune – as Being-in-Communion – is unique to Christianity. And this has led some of the most eminent theologians of the Church like Thomas Aquinas to conclude that knowledge of the triune God is possible only by divine revelation.

The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the Christian concept of God from all human conceptions of deity. It rejects polytheism, so rife in the Greco-Roman world, and insists that there is only one God, not many.

But the doctrine also insists that Christian monotheism must be distinguished from the ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ monotheisms that we find in Islam and some versions of philosophical theism. God cannot be reduced to a simple monad, either of the Platonic or Islamic variety.

Yet, the Christian concept of God brings together the one and the many. The one true God is a relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are of the same essence (Greek: homoousious).

In guarding this precious truth concerning the being of God, the Church has resisted all easy solutions and opposed all metaphysical and philosophical compromises. In the process, she has also exposed and rejected numerous erroneous conceptions of God.

These battles were fought because the Church believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is of primary importance. It is not an optional extra.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something true about God, based on the divine revelation. The doctrine can thus be described as an exact tracing of the being of God.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


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.

Vestiges of the Divine

November 2016 CREDO

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, declares the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘It will flame out, like shining shook foil’. In these words we find an echo of a similar but more ancient attestation found in the Psalter, Israel’s Hymnbook: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaim his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1).

Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, makes the same point when he argues that God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ can be clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1: 20).

Together, they bear witness to the fact that the invisible Creator has left his mark on the universe he has fashioned, and that in the created order there can be found what may be described as traces or vestiges of the divine. The theologians of the Church have described this variously as God’s ‘universal’, ‘general’ or ‘natural’ revelation.

In the modern period, where science is perceived to have almost full monopoly of the truth, the concept of revelation has fallen out of favour. This is because in the hands of modern scientism, the concept of truth itself has undergone a certain metamorphosis. Truth is no longer understood as impressing itself on the knower. Instead, truth is something that is discovered, and consequently controlled by the rational agent.

On such an account of truth, revelation not only appears to be at odds with autonomous reason. It also seem quite unnecessary, since revelation – as philosophers like Fichte argue – only brings to the fore what autonomous reason already knows to be the case.

Christians must reject this view for two reasons. Firstly, it creates too sharp a divide between discovery and revelation, authority and autonomy. And secondly, it in fact makes the concept of revelation in general and God’s revelation in particular redundant.

Concerning the dichotomy between revelation and discovery, can we not say that there is a sense in which modern science itself is dependent on a kind of revelation? Even the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant is of the view that reason must learn from nature. In his famous Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asserts that ‘Reason … must approach nature in order to be taught by it’.

One would do well to take seriously Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s maxim that ‘all Truth is a species of Revelation’.

And with regard to the marginalising of revelation itself, the history of modern theology has shown just how fruitless it was for theologians to follow this trajectory. Think for instance of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) or Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation (1730). Such theologies have led Christians to the murky waters of either deism or liberalism.

Contrary to these modern proposals, the theologians of the Church have always insisted that God has revealed himself universally in the world he has brought into being. So important is this truth that a document of Vatican I anathemises those who deny it.

Thus, its canon on revelation unequivocally states that ‘If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and Lord, cannot be known certainly from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema’.

In addition, the Church has always taught that the created order or the cosmos possesses a certain rationality because it was created by God.

The great Romanian Orthodox theologian of the last century, Dumitru Stăniloae, puts it this way: ‘… the rationality of the cosmos attests to the fact that the cosmos is the product of a rational being, since rationality, as an aspect of a reality which is destined to be known, has no explanation apart from a conscious Reason which knows it from the time it creates it or even before that time, and knows it continually so long as that same Reason preserves its being’.

Furthermore, the cosmos was organised in a way that corresponds to our capacity for knowing. To quote Stăniloae once again: ‘The cosmos – and human nature as intimately connected to the cosmos – are stamped with rationality, while man (God’s creature) is further endowed with a reason capable of knowing consciously the rationality of the cosmos and of his own nature’.

God has created the cosmos and man in this way so that he can reveal himself through both. This means that the cosmos possesses rationality not only because God had created it, but also because God had created it so, in order that it can be a vehicle or medium of his revelation.

Thus, theologians as diverse as Irenaeus in the second century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth could argue that the world points to the existence of God. For example, in his famous cosmological argument for the existence of God Aquinas maintains that the existence of the world presupposes an uncreated Creator.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy between revelation and discovery we noted earlier. To say that the facticity of the created order points to its Creator is not to suggest that the rational observer merely discovers the divine in it. The Spirit of God is constantly at work, making explicit that which is implicit in the creation.

Put differently, the Spirit is at work in revealing the imprints of the Creator found in his handwork. This means that the revelation of God – even his revelation in the creation – can never be reduced to some impersonal reality.

As Bonaventure, the contemporary of Aquinas, has repeatedly reminded us: God is not the disinterested unmoved mover that stands aloof from the world. He is the foundation of self-communicating love, and is therefore always personally and intimately at work in the world he has created. This is true in his revelation as well, both his special revelation in Christ and his general revelation in creation.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large


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.

 

 

Taking Doctrine Seriously

October 2016 CREDO

In the past three decades, a number of Christian writers and theologians have registered their alarm over the worrying decline in doctrinal literacy among Christians today. Theologians such as Alister McGrath and David Wells and historians like Mark Noll have written anxiously about this disturbing erosion of theological astuteness.

The early evangelicals, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, were profoundly concerned that the theology of the Church is firmly established in authority of the Bible. Although they acknowledged that there are cultural, historical and political aspects to the Reformation that must never be dismissed or trivialised, they nonetheless correctly insist that it was primarily about doctrine and theology.

But today’s evangelical churches that trace their roots to Luther, Calvin and Wesley have not taken seriously enough the Reformers’ emphasis on doctrinal and theological rigour and clarity.

In the contemporary church, there appears to be a shift from doctrine to life, from theology to spirituality. This shift itself in many ways reflects the modern malaise, the tendency to dichotomise and even polarise aspects of reality that in fact belong together, like faith and reason.

In similar vein, some modern evangelicals have become suspicious and even dismissive of the tradition of the church, justifying their position by a naïve interpretation of the Reformers’ privileging of Scriptural authority (Latin: sola scriptura). The sophistication of the Reformers’ understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition is often missed when evangelicals resort to simplistic slogans such as ‘Back to the Bible’ or ‘No Creed but the Bible’.

This has not only resulted in an anaemic fundamentalism that refuses to be nourished by the rich theological and spiritual heritage of the church. It has also opened the door to an idiosyncratic subjectivism, and a corrosive relativism and pragmatism, all of which will prove detrimental to the church’s self-understanding and mission.

Christians must take doctrine and theology seriously if they truly believe that God has revealed himself and that what is true about him is contained in the pages of Scripture.

Christians must take doctrine seriously because the Christian Faith is not a woolly collage of attitudes and responses to some vague notions of deity. Neither is it an amorphous and idiosyncratic assemblage of subjective spiritual experiences.

The Christian Faith is based on God’s self-disclosure, first through his dealings with Israel and finally and supremely in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

At the heart of the Christian Faith therefore is not doctrine, but the person of Jesus Christ who is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6). Doctrine develops as the church reflects on the identity, meaning and significance of Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth as her illuminating Guide (John 16:13).

Christian doctrine is therefore firmly and deeply rooted in the testimony of Scripture about the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is the church’s speech about God, an endeavour that can only be undertaken because God has first spoken about himself through Scripture.

Doctrine is therefore not something the church has invented; it is not the result of philosophical speculation or fanciful guesswork about deity. Rather doctrine is the church’s rational response to God’s revelation, a way of speaking about God that is authorised by God himself.

There is a complex and dialectical relationship between Scripture and Christian doctrine. As we have seen, the doctrines of the church must be faithful to the testimony of Scripture, which is the Noma Normans non Normata (Latin: ‘The norm of norms that is not normed’).

But doctrine as the church’s understanding of God in turn provides the framework and substance to guide the Christian’s reading and interpretation of Scripture. Put differently, the individual Christian cannot adequately understand Scripture apart from the tutelage of the church and her doctrines.

The Reformer John Calvin understood very well the essential role of doctrine in helping Christians interpret Scripture correctly. In fact, he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (1454) for this very purpose.

Thus, in the preface of the Institutes Calvin writes: ‘Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added – our Lord having been pleased therein to unfold the infinite treasures of his wisdom – still every person, not intimately acquainted with them, stands in need of some guidance and direction, as to what he ought to look for in them, that he may not wander up and down, but pursue a certain path, and so attain the end to which the Holy Spirit invites him’.

Thus the Institutes together with the Rule of Faith and creeds of the early church provide the hermeneutical and theological framework within which Scripture must be read and understood. In this way, Christian doctrine puts a check on the subjectivism and relativism that is endemic in the way in which some evangelical Christians (and churches) interpret Scripture.

Doctrine is important because it not only protects Christians from error but also from deception. Scripture contains numerous warnings about false teachers who peddle their destructive doctrines.

In Matthew 7:15, Christ warns his disciples to ‘Beware of false prophets’. And in his letter to Timothy, Paul spoke about Christians who will abandon their faith in pursuit of heretical theologies: ‘The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1).

Such warnings demonstrate the importance of sound doctrine.

It is in light of these dangers that Paul exhorted Titus to ‘teach what is in accord with sound doctrine’ (Titus 2:1). The church of today must take this injunction serious not only because the threat of heresies has not abated, but also because in our confused world, the villain has become the hero.

The inimitable G. K. Chesterton, with his characteristic perceptiveness, saw this quite clearly in the middle of the last century. ‘The word “heresy”’ not only means no longer being wrong’, he writes in Heretics, ‘it practically means being clear-headed and courageous’. Thirty years later, the American sociologist Peter Berger confirmed this in his book, The Heretical Imperative (1980) in which he points out that today it is in fact necessary for one to be ‘heretical’.

The need for the contemporary church to take doctrine seriously cannot be overstated. Sound doctrine will build up the people of God. It will enable Christians to be discerning, to be able to tell truth from error. And it will enable them to escape the corrosive acids of heresy that will eventually destroy their faith.

Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.

The Image of the Invisible God

The most unique and radical claim of the Christian Faith is not that God has revealed himself, but that he has done so by becoming a human being.

The incarnation is the most central truth of the Christian Faith. The eternal Son of God took up human flesh and became ‘like his brothers in every respect’ not only to ‘make propitiation for the sins of his people’ (Hebrews 2:17) but also to reveal the very being of the triune God to humankind.

The Bible everywhere speaks of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son now incarnate, as the supreme revelation of God. Thus, the author of Hebrews could write: ‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, who he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Hebrews continues to proclaim the Son as the ‘radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3). Paul, writing to the Christians at Colossae, could declare that the incarnate Son is ‘the image (Greek: ikon) of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). And in John 14:9, Jesus claimed that ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.

In the person of Jesus Christ, the event of God’s self-disclosure occurs fully and supremely. In the life, speech and acts of Jesus are revealed the very character and purposes of God. As Millard Erickson has clearly put it: ‘The pinnacle of God’s acts is to be found in the life of Jesus. His miracles, death and resurrection are redemptive history in its most condensed and concentrated form’.

Only the second person of the triune Godhead, who is with God and is God from all eternity, can reveal God to us. Thus, the consensus of the Patristic theologians that can be traced to Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 125-202): that God can only be known through God.

To be sure, God’s revelation of himself in Christ comes in a mediated form, through the humanity of the incarnate Son. It is important to note that God has not revealed himself in humanity per se, but through the humanity united to Christ, the divine Son (Latin: humanitas Christi). In the incarnation, God has revealed himself through a medium that is not alien to us.

The Reformers recognise that in order for God to reveal himself to human beings he must in some ways accommodate or condescend himself to the ways of human knowing. According to a number of Reformed theologians like David Wright, Timothy George and Edward Dowey, the incarnation is God’s accommodating act par excellence.

But it was the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who articulated this with great insight and eloquence. In a 1966 essay entitled ‘The Theology of the Symbol’ Rahner writes: ‘The Logos, the Son of the Father, is truly, in his humanity as such, the revelatory symbol in which the Father enunciates himself, in this Son, to the world – revelatory, because the symbol renders present what is revealed’.

Using different terminology, the Reformed theologian Karl Barth makes the same point when he maintains that the incarnate Christ is the ‘sacramental reality of [God’s] revelation’, the ‘first sacrament, the foundation of everything that God instituted and used in his revelation as a secondary objectivity before and after the epiphany of Jesus Christ’.

To say that God’s self-disclosure is found supremely in Christ is not to deny his universal revelation in creation. Paul is unequivocal that God has revealed himself in the created order when he writes that the ‘invisible nature’ of the Creator is clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1:20).

Neither does it diminish the way in which God revealed himself in his dealings with Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.

In fact, if Christ is indeed the supreme revelation of God, then in him all the other moments of God’s self-disclosure becomes clearer and more comprehensible. In him all the manifestations of God – past, present and future – are clarified. And in him God’s dealings with Israel becomes more understandable and meaningful.

Christ is the summit of God’s revelation.

It is precisely because in him is to be found ‘all the riches of full assurance of understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery’ (Colossians2: 2-3) that Christ can be said to be the ‘exegesis of God’ (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

In the incarnation of the Son, we also see the profound relationship between revelation and salvation. Insofar as the second person of the Godhead is Word, his incarnation is the revelation of God. But even as he comes as Word to reveal the love of God, he also comes as Son to reconcile us to the Father.

In Jesus Christ we not only come to know God, but we are also brought into communion with him by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

The great Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance explains:

‘In this act of condescension God comes as God the Son and God the Word. He comes as God the Son to enter our rebellious estate in order to effect reconciliation by living out his life of filial obedience where we are disobedient, and he comes as God the Word to enter into our darkness and blindness in order to effect revelation by manifesting the love of God and by achieving from within humanity faithful appropriation of divine revelation’.

Insofar as these are the works of the incarnate Son of God, they must be seen not as two acts but as one act: revelation is part of reconciliation, and reconciliation is part of revelation.

In Jesus Christ is revealed the loving God who saves human beings from sin and death. Thus, we could indeed say (together with Paul) that in the face of Jesus Christ we see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.