Tag Archives: Genre: Bible

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.