Tag Archives: faith

Worship and Witness

April 2018 Pulse

In his first epistle to the Christians of the disapora scattered throughout Asia Minor, the apostle Peter used vivid and powerful imagery drawn from the Old Testament to describe the Church. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), he wrote.

But the set-apart status of the Church cannot be divorced from its awesome responsibility to be the witness of the electing God. Thus Peter added, “… that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).

The Church’s doxology – her praises of the One who brought her into being – is inseparable from her witness, that is, her work of mission and evangelism.

Peter’s simple yet profound statement rejects the dichotomy, so endemic in the sensibilities of some modern Christians, between worship and witness. As a worshipping community, the Church is always also a missional community.

The Dutch theologian J. C. Hoekendijk stressed this vital point more than 50 years ago. “The ‘Church’, he wrote, “exists only in actu, in the execution of the apostolate, i.e., in the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom to the world”.

He added, “A church that knows that she is a function of the apostolate and that her very ground of existence lies in the proclamation of the Kingdom to the world, does not engage in missions, but she herself becomes mission, she becomes the living outreach of God to the world. That is why a church without mission is an absurdity.”

To gather as a body of believers to worship the sovereign God, whose cruciform love is revealed at Calvary, is to bear radical (and sometimes costly) witness to Him.

Think of the courageous Catholics in Krakow when Poland was languishing in the suffocating grip of the communists, who faithfully marked the solemnity of Corpus Christi by a public procession, despite attendant dangers.

By simply being true to its calling, and by courageously conducting worship in the face of opposition, the Polish Church bore prophetic witness to Christ in the dark decades of communist dominance between 1945 and 1989.

Just as the worship of the Church is inseparable from its public witness, so the Church’s engagement in the public arena must also be seen as an expression of its worship.

Think of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, composed by the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, which declared the unrivalled supremacy of Jesus Christ when Germany was under the sinister shadow of the Third Reich.

Barmen states categorically and without compromise that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death”.

In making this claim, Barmen rejects any political figure who masquerades as a god, and exposes as false the sacralising of any political ideology or programme. “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

In witnessing to Jesus Christ, Barmen dismantles and destroys the idols conjured by the prevailing zeitgeist, and points to the true God who alone must be worshipped and honoured.

In the same epistle, Peter urges his readers to be prepared to explain the rationality of their faith and hope, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV).

The Greek word for ‘answer’ is apologia, which in this context means to commend the faith to the wider public and to defend it against its despisers. The fundamental theological assumption behind this injunction is the belief that the Gospel is public truth.

As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon explained, “Our claim is not that this tradition will make sense to anyone or will enable the world to run more smoothly. Our claim is that it just happens to be true. This really is the way God is. This really is the way God’s world is.”

Christian witness can therefore be described as the kind of truth-telling that brings God’s truth not just in the sanctuary but also in the public square.



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.

Mark 16:17-18: A Biblical Mandate for Handling Poisonous Snakes?

December 2017 Credo

The Practice of Snake Handling

The practice of snake handling, especially venomous ones, can be found in some churches as part of their worship service.  Although snake handling has resulted in deaths from snake bites, it is still being practiced as it is perceived by members of such congregations as a test or demonstration of the snake handlers’ faith.  The scriptural passage often cited to support this practice is Mark 16:17-18:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name … they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; … (Mark 16:17-18)

There are two main issues related to such use of this passage: (1) whether 16:9-20 is a latter addition or the original ending of the Gospel of Mark and (2) the interpretation of 16:17-18.

Is 16:9-20 the Original Ending of Mark?

Many English translations such as the ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV and NRSV note that several of the earliest manuscripts of Mark do not contain 16:9-20.  Early prominent Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome either do not show awareness of 16:9-20 or note that 16:9-20 was missing from most of the Greek manuscripts of Mark.[1]  Many early copies of Mark containing 16:9-20 also have notes indicating the passage as a spurious addition.[2]  Thus, the external evidence (manuscripts) does not support 16:9-20 as original.

The use of literary criticism (internal evidence) also reduces the likelihood of 16:9-20 as the original ending of Mark, such as the incongruence between 16:8, describing fearful and fleeing women, and 16:9, which begins by presupposing the resurrected Christ, using a masculine, nominative participle “arising” (Greek anastas) to refer to Jesus with no male antecedent, to Mary Magdalene, who is described like a new character, though she has appeared just prior to this passage (15:40, 47; 16:1).  Other evidence include the use of numerous new words in 16:9-20 that are not found earlier, and themes that seem to contradict earlier themes, such as the prominence of charismatic signs in 16:17-18 in contrast to Jesus’ reticence to them (cf. 8:11-13).[3]

As such, both external and internal evidence point to 16:9-20 as a later addition to the Gospel of Mark.  However, the addition must have occurred quite early, as early as 145 CE in the Epistula Apostolorum 9-10.[4]

As for the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, the more likely possibility is that (1) 16:8 is not the intended/original ending of Mark than (2) it ending at 16:8.  The strongest evidence for the second view is that the earliest manuscripts ended at 16:8.  However, arguments for such a view, i.e. an open-ended ending, are mostly based on modern literary theory, especially reader-response theory, than the nature of ancient texts that usually state a conclusion, rather than suggesting them.[5]  Literary, linguistic and contextual considerations suggest that either the original ending was lost or the author of Mark was killed or interrupted before completing it.[6]

What does 16:17-18 Mean?

Mark 16:17-18 provides a list of signs of power accompanying those who believe, many appearing as miracles in other parts of NT but are here considered as signs of faith.  We will examine two of the signs: the handling of snakes and drinking of deadly poison.

The Greek term for snake used here, ophis, refers to a generic snake, not necessarily a poisonous one, unlike the term echidna, used in Acts 28:3-6 in the account of Paul miraculously surviving a poisonous serpent bite.  Interestingly, ophis is also used in Genesis 3 in the narrative of the temptation of the primeval couple by the snake.  This raises the possibility that the handling of snakes here could refer metaphorically to the overcoming of the curse of the serpent in the new age of salvation.[7]

As for the sign of drinking poison (Greek thanasimos), there are no other references in the NT concerning Christians drinking poison without any harm.  However, there is a reference to the same Greek term for poison used here, thanasimos, towards the end of the first century, by Ignatius in his letter to the Trallians, that is suggestive for understanding 16:17-18.

As evidenced in Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians, there seems to be a heretical cult related to “poison” that was affecting Christian groups.  Ignatius cautions the Trallians against the food of the heretics, mixed like deadly poisons (thanasimos) with honeyed wine (Ign. Trall. 6), in this case referring either literally to poison or metaphorically to heresy.  This raises the possibility of a similar understanding of deadly poison in Mark 16:17-18, which when combined with the prior understanding of ophis as referring to the curse of the serpent, suggests heresy to be the more likely reference.[8]

Conclusion

Thus, the reference to handling snakes and drinking poison in Mark 16:17-18 should be interpreted metaphorically as believers being freed from the curse of the serpent, with reference to Genesis 3, and being protected from heresy, rather than literally as a test or demonstration of faith.  The examination of this passage emphasizes the importance of understanding the meaning of a biblical passage with respect to the socio-cultural-historical context in which it was written to avoid misinterpretation and misapplication of biblical passages. Nevertheless, like the early church whose missionary gospel was attested by miraculous signs (cf. Mark 16:20), our interpretation does not rule out the possibility of such signs of power accompanying Christians in missionary contexts.  Rather than being tests or signs of faith, these signs of power serve to convince non-believers that the Christian God is real and more powerful than local religions, especially where the occult is prevalent.[9]


[1] Mark L. Strauss, Mark, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 728.

[2] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 543.

[3] Strauss, Mark, 729; James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 498–99.

[4] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1985), 168.

[5] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 670–73.

[6] For more details, see Edwards, Mark, 501–3.

[7] Ibid., 506.

[8] Ibid., 506–7.

[9] Ibid., 507.



Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church. 

Religious Tolerance and Limited State Bureaucracy

December 2017 Feature Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

One Vocabulary, Different Universes

November 2017 Feature

It is increasingly common to hear or read words such as “exclusivism”, “inclusivism”, and “pluralism” in public discourse whether it is used by academics, activists or politicians. It is assumed that everyone is on the same page; thus the terms are insufficiently, if not rarely defined. This is not helpful, and in fact problematic for Christians whose traditions and thinkers have been using such words, with well-defined understanding.

In his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, missiologist Timothy Tennent discusses the above terms, setting out the general Christian understanding of the words. Exclusivism is a position taken by conservative and evangelical Christians that stands on three non-negotiables: the absolute and unique authority of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as the decisive hinge of history, and the necessity for repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation.

This position is represented by Henrik Kraemer (The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 1938) and, more recently, Ronald Nash (Is Jesus the Only Savior? 1994), among many others. This is also the position that many Protestant churches in Singapore have taken.

Inclusivism, as a theological perspective, accepts the first two of the three non-negotiables of exclusivism, but not the third. This position has led to the idea of “anonymous Christians” (Karl Rahner), people who belong to other faiths but nevertheless experience salvation in Christ even though they may not know Christ or the Bible, or join the Christian faith.

Pluralism rejects all three non-negotiables of exclusivism. A well-known proponent of this view is John Hick (An Interpretation of Religion, 1989), who argues that all religions provide means of salvation and that Christianity is just one of many viable faiths, and not necessarily the most advanced of them.

It is in the light of this background that Christians have difficulties uncritically accepting public statements made by thought leaders in non-Christian, and especially secular, spaces. The politically correct way of thinking is that exclusivism is bad, inclusivism is good, and pluralism is what we should embrace for a peaceful and harmonious society.

But many questions have to be asked to seek clarifications and for all to try to be on the same page so that we can really engage in dialogue and arrive at mutual understanding. Take, for instance, the term “religious harmony”. I was once asked by a journalist what I thought about it, and I had to ask the journalist how she would define the term. She was at a loss.

I then explained that if “religious harmony” meant a harmony of religions, then I did not think the churches would be in favour of that. However, if the term meant harmonious relationships between people of different faiths seeking to live in peace and mutual understanding, then the churches support it because that is also what the Bible teaches.

There are two kinds of exclusivism; theological and social. This is where confusion and misunderstanding can arise. There is a tendency to confuse both aspects in one single idea, as if to say that those who stand for theological exclusivism (as per exclusivism as defined above) are also for social exclusivism. This cannot be further from the truth.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; Protestant Christians commemorate the clear doctrinal exclusivity expressed in the Reformation mottoes: Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone. This is based on scriptural teachings on the uniqueness of Christ, His life, and the salvation found in Him alone (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Rev 17:14).

But Scripture also teaches social inclusivity. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Mt 22:39; Lk 10:25-37). We are to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18), and help and serve the poor and needy in society (Mt 25:35-36; Jam 1:27). Theological exclusivism does not mean social isolationism but stands together with social outreach and compassionate and missional involvement in society.

So, are Christians exclusivists or inclusivists? Such a question does not recognise the nuances of Christian thought and practice. In reality Christians are theologically exclusive and socially inclusive. To not recognise this is to collapse the ideas to suggest that social inclusivism is the same as theological inclusivism (as defined earlier), and that theological exclusivism is the same as social exclusivism. This will hinder any attempt at actual dialogue and understanding.

This also brings us to the question of whether our society is best defined as pluralistic, as some have argued. The problem is that pluralism, as many Christian thinkers in our midst understand it, is a philosophy. That we live in a diverse society is an observable fact, but to say that we are a pluralistic society is to impose a certain philosophy or underlying perspective.

One is a sociological observation, the other is a religious statement. There is a difference, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin has shown, between plurality and pluralism.

When people of different faiths (including secularists and those who do not profess any faith) engage in discussions, and there is social discourse, our different ideas about words, phrases and terms can become a hindrance to true communication and understanding if they are not sufficiently defined. We may not all agree on the definitions but we must at least understand and appreciate what is meant by words that may have different meanings for different people.

It is not like the language of mathematics, which in most cases transcends culture and society. Russian, Chinese, Italian and Indonesian mathematicians all understand one another when they discuss mathematics (not necessarily other things) because they use a well-defined mathematical vocabulary.

But in general social discourse, our lips may say the same words, but our minds may have different ideas. We may use the same vocabulary (in a superficially understood way), but we may be talking from different universes.

We may not agree on a single vocabulary accepted by all, but we must define and explain what we mean when we use certain words, to reduce misunderstanding and confusion and to promote real engagement.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

 

Is the Reformation Over?

October 2017 Credo

On 30 October last year, Pope Francis visited the cities of Lund and Malmö in southern Sweden for a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the 499th anniversary of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. This event was significant because Pope Francis was only the second pontiff to visit the Scandinavian country that had played such a troubled role in Protestant and Catholic history.

‘With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality of sacred Scripture in the Church’s life’, the Pope said in a joint declaration. ‘We, too, must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness’, he added.

The pope’s visit is seen as the latest step in the slow rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant Churches.

This year, as Protestant churches across the globe – but especially in Europe – celebrate the 500th anniversary of that great theological, intellectual and cultural upheaval in the 16th century that splintered Catholic Europe, some are asking whether the Reformation is over.

Some leaders on both sides of the divide have answered this question in the affirmative, believing that the controversies that erupted five centuries ago have been largely resolved, given the great strides that have been made in the recent history of Protestant-Catholic dialogue.

Others maintain that Protestants and Catholics should set aside their differences and work together in the wake of the profound challenges that Christians face worldwide, namely, secularism and Islamism. Still others are of the view that while the issues that brought about the great schism in the Western church are doubtless still important, they should not be the basis of division today.

However, both viewpoints in their own ways fail to take the fundamental theological debates between the Reformers and the Catholic Church seriously. In fact, such approaches may betray the hidden crisis of Protestant and evangelical churches in the twentieth century, their subjugation to the modern zeitgeist.

But even those who wish to take doctrinal issues seriously have opined that the Reformation is indeed over. They often cite the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church as the sterling example of what the recent ecumenical dialogue between the two churches has been able to achieve.

So important is this biblical doctrine that Luther declared that justification is the article on which the Church stands or falls (iustificatio articulis stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae). If the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church (led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, no less) can issue a joint declaration on this all-important article, the Reformation must be surely over, they reasoned.

This, in fact, is the view of the celebrated evangelical historian, Mark Noll, in his 2005 book (co-authored by Carolyn Nystrom) entitled, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism.

While these scholars may be cheerfully optimistic that the Church has entered a new phase, where old quarrels and disagreements have been resolved or set aside, others are not quite so sanguine. They see the question, ‘Is the Reformation over?’ as a placeholder for a myriad of theological issues that still await resolution.

For them, the most fundamental question is: Has the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council really redressed the profound theological and religious concerns raised by Luther and Calvin?

While the doctrine of justification by faith is certainly important, there are numerous other theological issues raised by the Reformers that must also be addressed adequately. They include the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis the Church, the doctrine of the Church and its sacraments, Mariology, purgatory and papal authority.

These theologians question whether the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which appears to have achieved consensus only on very broad issues, has really succeeded in resolving the centuries-long controversies over the doctrine.

They point out that although the Joint Declaration does signal a more biblical approach to the doctrine, it in fact simply reiterates the position promulgated by the Council of Trent.

They argue that the doctrine of justification cannot be considered in splendid isolation, cut off from the other great theological themes to which it is inextricably related. They further maintain that this doctrine has profound implications for church life, piety and worship.

These are important questions that must not be brushed aside for the sake of a superficial irenics. When they are taken seriously, we are inexorably led to the conclusion that the Reformation is indeed not over.

Even those who think otherwise appear not to be fully convinced of their view. For, as Carl Trueman has argued, if they really believe that the Reformation is over, then they should ‘do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church’.

But if the Reformation is in fact not over, then Catholic-Protestant dialogue must continue in earnest.

There are many excellent examples of such dialogues, the most fruitful of which is arguably the initiative that was started in the early 1990s by Father Richard Neuhaus and Charles Colson called ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ (ECT).

The core affirmation of the ECT statement on ‘The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium’ should set the tone for all such dialogues: ‘All who accept Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have no chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and He has chosen us to be together’.

It is perhaps naïve to think that there can be quick or easy resolutions to centuries-long divisions in the Body of Christ.

But as the theologian and Reformation scholar Timothy George has so poignantly put it, ‘Despite setbacks and unresolved theological differences, evangelicals and Catholics are still called to steadfastness in their witness to Christian unity. We know that such unity is not an end in itself, but is always in the service of the good news of God’s overcoming grace’.


 

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.

Should Everyone Study Theology?: Yes and No

August 2017 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 (Theological Orations 27.3)

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

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

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

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


 

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

 

Reflections on the Galileo Effect- Was the Galileo Affair a Conflict between Science and Religion?

August 2017 Feature

The arrest of Galileo Galilei for proposing a sun-centered model of the universe despite being told not to has been cited as an embarrassing example of the inevitable conflict between the forward-looking nature of science and regressive character of religion.

This article will offer a brief recounting of this episode in order to show the difficulty of drawing simplistic conclusions concerning religion’s conflicting or cooperative relationship with science at the time. It will then mention some lessons the episode can offer us today.

Galileo, who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, made seminal contributions to physics, engineering, and astronomy. With the creation of a superior telescope, his corresponding observations led him to favour the physical reality of a sun-centered Copernican model of the universe, whose mathematical calculations he had already favoured beforehand.

The Catholic Church had previously accepted the Copernican model insofar as it was a useful  predictive mathematical tool that did not otherwise assert that the sun must be at the center of the universe. Instead, the Church and many astronomers accepted the physical reality of an earth-centered model of the universe based on Aristotelian physics.

Aristotelian physics conceived reality as composed of five elements, four of which consist of inferior material which tended to the center of the universe, that is, earth, which was unmoving. The fifth element, quintessence, an incorruptible and unchanging material, was what made the heavenly bodies and determined that they revolve around the earth in perfect circles for eternity.

Galileo’s observations revealed to him, among other things, that the surface of the sun and moon were not perfect, as quintessence would have it; and that Jupiter had four moons, which indicated that the heavenly bodies did not all revolve around the earth.

He published these findings indicating his preference for the Copernican model in 1610 and 1613. This led Holy Office – the office charged with ensuring orthodoxy – to declare the implications of these findings false.

Many scientists disagreed with Galileo as well. They argued that the Copernican model could not yield superior predictions to the earth-centered model partly because both assumed circular rather than elliptical orbits. They also argued, wrongly – because they did not have powerful enough measurement equipment at the time – that stellar parallax, which should be observable if the earth was moving, could not, in fact, be observed.

However, by 1613 and 1615, he had already sent out widely circulated defending the Copernican model on scriptural grounds.

In the letters, he relied heavily on the interpretive principles of the Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine’s concept of “accommodation,” which is the idea that the scriptures have been written to accommodate the mind of the common person, giving priority and clarity to matters pertaining to salvation, not to scientifically robust descriptions of reality.

The verses which had been appealed to in support of the Aristotelian model included Joshua 10.13, Psalm 19.4-6; 93.1; 96.10; 104.5; 119.90; Ecclesiastes 1.5, and I Chronicles 16.30.

Unfortunately, by engaging with scriptural interpretation, he was treading on thin ice. The Church had been embroiled in theological and political conflict with the Protestant Reformers for some time, and had declared at the Council of Trent in 1545-63 that “no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, had held and does hold.”

Thankfully, Pope Urban VIII, who was a long-time admirer of Galileo’s work, told him in 1624 that he could discuss Copernican theory but only as one hypothesis among others. This emboldened Galileo to, rather unwisely, promote Copernican theory by publishing a fictional dialogue between three individuals about cosmology in 1632. And he gave the name Simplicio, which means someone who is simple-minded, to the advocate of the Aristotelian position, a position which the Pope personally favoured.

In other words, Galileo seemed to be accusing the Pope of being simple-minded in an underhanded way. As one might imagine, the Pope did not take this lightly. He was at the time embroiled in the Thirty-Years’ War, had just switched his allegiance from the French to the Spanish and felt that he needed to come down strong on Galileo to show his new allies his authority and decisiveness.

Thus, in 1633, he was summoned to the Holy Office and found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy. He was ordered to publicly recant his Copernican astronomy and be confined to his home in Florence where he remained until his death in 1642.

A century later, the Church began the gradual process of publicly shifting their stance toward Galileo. In 1744, Galileo’s Dialogue was republished with the Church’s approval. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII advanced a view concerning the relationship between the scriptures and science in his encyclical like those in Galileo’s letters. Between 1941 and 46, several academic clergymen occasioned a partial and informal rehabilitation of Galileo in their published work. And in 1979, Pope John Paul II initiated the latest informal rehabilitation of him.

From this brief recounting of the episode, it is apparent that interpreting the affair as a conflict between science and religion would be an over-simplification. To appreciate the complexities involved, the minimum factors, of varying weight, that should be considered include the legitimate disagreement among scientists toward Copernican astronomy, the Reformers’ challenge to the Church’s interpretive authority, Pope Urban VIII’s own political troubles, Galileo’s commitment to the primacy of mathematics over Aristotelian physics, and his unwise jab at the Pope.

What can be learned from this episode? We can learn that the relationship between the scriptures and the deliverances of modern science is not a straightforward one. We can also learn to appreciate the different kinds of literary genres in the scriptures and value their theological import without necessarily committing ourselves to their corresponding literal descriptions of reality.


 

Keith Leong studied Theology and Religion with a focus on science and religion at Durham University and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom from 2013-2016. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore.

Mathematics and Reality

July 2017 Pulse

At a recent Ethos Institute seminar on ‘Science and the Christian Faith’, a participant asked an important question pertaining to the relationship between mathematical models and reality. Mathematicians and philosophers are still debating this contentious issue, and it looks like the jury will be out for some time yet.

I offer these reflections as a theologian and philosopher, and not as a mathematician.

There can be no doubt that mathematics is held in the highest regard in modern society as many believe in its power to unlock the truths of the universe of which we are a part. Mathematics has been triumphantly described as ‘the language of the universe’ because of its ability to depict physical reality with such precision and elegance.

The veneration of mathematics can be traced to the golden age of Greek philosophy. The great Pythagoras could say that ‘All is number’, and Aristotle who came after him could echo his view approvingly by declaring that ‘The principles of mathematics are the principles of all things’.

Closer to our day, Albert Einstein expressed his amazement at the power of mathematics thus: ‘How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?’

Mathematicians and philosophers are drawn to mathematics because of its sheer beauty. Whether it’s the mathematical constant π or Einstein’s famous E=mc2, the sheer elegance of mathematical models and the way in which they help us to make sense of the physical world is at once stunning and attractive.

The presence of beauty in mathematics should urge the Christian to contemplate the beauty of God, the Creator of all that is. As mathematician and theologian Paul Schweitzer, S.J., notes: ‘Just as when the beauty of the lilies of the field, the songs of birds, or the smile of the child overwhelms us, in the contemplation of mathematical beauty a window opens onto eternity and one can sense the holy presence of our loving God’.

Mathematicians and philosophers generally agree that mathematics is in some sense related to the physical world, but how this relationship should be understood is still a matter of considerable debate.

In contrast to the so-called mathematical Platonists who believe that mathematical objects and ideas exist independently from the material world, I hold the view that they are mental abstractions of our perceptions of reality. This means that mathematical concepts are grounded in and therefore dependent on the material world.

The history of mathematics itself bears this out as ‘natural numbers’ emerged very early in human consciousness and systems representing numbers can be traced to very ancient times.

‘The counting of numbers’, writes Schweitzer, ‘… arose at the dawn of human consciousness, to make it possible to number the oxen in a herd, or the number of coins in a purse, or the number of people in a tribe. Thus numbers are abstracted from concrete reality’.

Sophisticated systems like multiplication tables can be traced to the Sumerian civilisation during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. The great Sicilian mathematician, Archimedes, developed a system of numbers that is so sophisticated and precise that it is said that he could calculate the number of grains of sand in the universe! Geometric figures and spaces are also abstractions based on our perceptions and observations of reality concerning spatial relations between objects.

Mathematics, Derek Abbott maintains, is the product of the human imagination that is used to describe or portray reality. Abbott even argues that although the majority of mathematicians claim to hold the Platonist view, they are in fact closet non-Platonists!

But why is the philosophy of mathematics important? It is quite obvious that mathematicians who have very different views about the nature of mathematics could do their work unimpeded.

I think this question is important for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it is important to have a realistic estimate of the power and effectiveness of mathematics. The non-Platonic view, in my opinion, alerts us to the fact that mathematics is a human enterprise and not the ‘miracle’ that some scientists have made it out to be.

Put differently, because perfect mathematical forms do not exist in the physical universe, mathematics is just a mental construct and the models it creates are merely approximations of reality. Seen in this way, mathematics not only has its limits, it is also vulnerable to mistakes and failures.

That said, the precision and effectiveness of mathematics is truly remarkable, prompting Eugene Wigner to write his famous paper entitled, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences’ in 1960. ‘The mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience’, Wigner writes, ‘leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena’.

But lest we get carried away with the perceived omnicompetence of mathematics (which the Platonic approach encourages), we should evaluate its successes more closely.

In response to Wigner’s paper, Abbott wrote a piece entitled, ‘The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics’ which, following the arguments of Richard W. Hamming, highlights some areas of human inquiry where mathematics has had lesser success.

He notes, for example, that mathematics has less success ‘in describing biological systems, and even less in describing economic and social systems’. One possible reason why this is so, Abbott speculates, could be the way in which these systems are adaptive and mutable. ‘Could it be they are harder to model simply because they adapt and change on human time scales, and so the search for useful invariant properties is more challenging?’, he asks.

But the question of timescale and the limits of human perception should also give us pause when considering the successful mathematical models. Abbott adds: ‘Could it be that the inanimate universe itself is no different, but happens to operate on a timescale so large that in our anthropcentrism we see the illusion of invariance?’

The second reason is related to the first. A realistic estimate of mathematics would prevent us from embracing a naïve epistemological exclusivism (scientism) that dangerously neglects or ignores other kinds of truth.

While mathematical models have a remarkable way of portraying reality, they are also deficient in a number of ways. For example, they present a world of quantities without qualities. As the philosopher and poet Raymond Tallis has brilliantly put it: ‘The energy in Einstein’s equation is not warm or bright or noisy, and the matter is not heavy or sticky or obstructive’.

Mathematics has a very important place in our lives. However, we must never take the hyperboles of Pythagoras or Aristotle too seriously.

Instead we must follow Tallis’ wise counsel and never neglect other kinds of truth, especially truths that are ‘rooted in the actual experience of human beings that lie beyond mathematics: situational truths saturated with qualities and feelings and concerns, and differentiations of space and time (‘here’, ‘now’)’.


 

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.

 

Formulaic Christianity

May 2017 Credo

An Amusing Incident in Acts 19

Acts 19:11-20 recounts a somewhat amusing incident which took place in the city of Ephesus in the first century. By God’s grace, the apostle Paul had a powerful ministry in this place, one which involved amazing miracles.

This demonstration of power greatly impressed some of the Jewish exorcists who were working in Ephesus. They wished to tap on this same source of power for their own ministry. So they tried to copy what Paul did, casting out demons “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” (v.13).

On one occasion, this approach backfired dramatically. The evil spirit which the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out was smart enough to discern that these exorcists were using the names of Jesus and Paul in an impersonal and mechanical way. The spirit’s answer to the seven exorcists was quite priceless, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” These seven sons of Sceva were then mauled so severely by the man with the evil spirit that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding (v.15-16).

What was wrong with how these Jewish exorcists treated the Christian faith? They saw Christianity only as a means to get what they wanted—power for their ministry. They discerned that the way to tap on this power was to depend on a formula: Just copy Paul’s actions.

What the exorcists had was a sorcerer’s view of the Christian faith. A sorcerer back in the first century sought to manipulate the various supernatural powers by learning the correct rituals, like chanting the correct words and using the correct paraphernalia. Once they have mastered these rituals, the sorcerers could repeat it as a formula, and the supernatural powers were bound to respond in the expected way.

We are told in Acts 19 that even those who have become Christians were not exempt from the pervasive influence of sorcery. When news about what happened to the seven sons of Sceva spread, Christians who had continued to practice sorcery confessed their wrongdoing and presented their scrolls for burning. The value of the surrendered scrolls was “fifty thousand drachmas” (v.19), which is a few million dollars in today’s terms. This shows how many Christians in one city alone had tried to blend their practice of sorcery with their embrace of the Christian faith.

The Sorcerer’s Perspective is Still Alive

What about us today? A careful observation of the Christian scene in Singapore reveals that very little has changed, and the sorcerer’s appropriation of Christianity is still very much alive amongst us.

Many Christians today want something from God very badly—it might be good health, success in our studies and careers, or the fulfilment of a long-held wish. Like the sorcerers of old, we try to manipulate God into giving us these things.

The only difference is that the things we do to induce God to act are not pagan chants and rituals, but “Christian” activities. So, for example, we might put more money into the offering bag, or devote more time to prayer (sometimes using words or sentences which we think have a special magical power), or try to behave well for the week, all in the hope that God will notice our contribution and fulfil the desires of our hearts.

Some Christian preachers actually encourage such an attitude by teaching that God has promised to reward us many times over for our faithfulness to him (in terms of our monetary offerings and righteous living) with health, wealth and other indicators of worldly success. The net result is a reduction of the Christian faith to a series of formulas: If we do this, God will be obliged to do that, and we can be sure of getting what we want.

Why is this tendency to reduce Christianity to formulas so enduring, that it has persisted from the first century to our era? One reason is that formulas give us a sense of much-needed control amidst the seemingly arbitrary vicissitudes of life. They reassure us that we are still in charge, because we can ensure that life will turn out a certain way if we behave in a certain way. They comfort us by telling us that we have an “inside track” to success, guaranteed by the One who is in perfect control of all things.

The Gospel of Self-Fulfilment vs. the Gospel of Christianity

Upon deeper reflection, however, we discover that such comfort rests on a distinctly non-Christian foundation. It is comfort derived from the assurance of self-fulfilment, and the gospel (or “good news”) of self-fulfilment is very different from the gospel of Christianity. The former exalts the self to the highest place, and subjugates God to a secondary role—as a means to the self-actualisation we seek.

God, moreover, plays this secondary role very well: He is as controllable and predictable as a vending machine. We just have to do the prescribed “thing”, and the desired blessing is bound to be dispensed. This gospel of self-fulfilment is ultimately a sorcerer’s dream come true—we have found a way to manipulate no lesser being than the almighty God himself (who turns out to be not so almighty after all).

The true gospel of Christianity presents an almost diametrically opposite vision: One where we die to our self-centred natures, and then rise again with Christ to a new life in which God takes centre stage. It is not about us anymore—not our self-fulfilment or self-actualisation. It is rather about the fulfilment of God’s will, and we joyfully take our place at the periphery to serve as instruments given the privilege of contributing to this fulfilment.

Paradoxically, it is only when this happens; when we truly die to ourselves and live to serve God, that we find true self-fulfilment. It is true self-fulfilment because we truly fulfil the purposes for which we were created—the worship of God. It is only in this type of self-fulfilment that we find real and enduring joy and peace. Did not Jesus teach that it is only the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake who truly finds it (Matt 16:25)?

One of the most urgent needs for our churches in Singapore today is to rediscover a right relationship with God—one where he is at the centre, and not us. Too many of us gladly take on the label “Christian” and go through with enthusiasm all the prescribed Christian activities. But deep inside, we could well be doing all these with a sorcerer’s motivation.

We badly need a rediscovery of the fear of God. We need, in other words, an experience akin to what the Church in Ephesus went through in the first century. At the close of our narrative in Acts 19, we read of the people of that city being “seized with fear” upon knowing what had happened to the seven sons of Sceva. The result was that “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” (v. 17), and the people repented of their attempts to syncretise sorcery and Christianity. By God’s grace, may such repentance from our formulaic Christianity sweep across our land as well.



Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

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.