Tag Archives: God

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.

 

God is Love

May 2017 Credo

In 1 John 4:8, we find the briefest but most profound description of God: ‘God is love’. Christian philosophers and theologians have long pointed out that the message that God is love is one that is totally new and unheard of in any culture or religious system. This idea cannot be harmonised with the Absolute of Plato, the Brahma of Hinduism and the Allah of Islam.

This has prompted theologians like Emil Brunner to assert in his Dogmatics that ‘God is love’ ‘is the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language’.

In God’s dealings with Israel recorded in the pages of the OT, God’s love is made manifest again and again in his faithfulness to his chosen people, despite their unfaithfulness towards him.

Thus Brunner could write: ‘God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people springs out of an incomprehensible love, for which the “foolish” love of Hosea for his unfaithful wife is both the most daring parable of the love of God and also one which is chosen by God himself’.

In the NT the love of God is demonstrated supremely in Jesus Christ. The oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John shows the extent of the divine love: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).

It is important to note that God’s love is neither only lavished nor dependent on his creatures. To say that God is love is to underscore the fact that love is what God immutably and eternally is. Put differently, God’s love is not dependent or contingent upon there being creatures for him to love.

This means that in the eternal God there is that mutual self-giving that is love. This reminds us of just how important the doctrine of the Trinity is to our understanding and conception of God. Because the one God is Being-in-communion, the koinonia and mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is in the eternal life of the Trinity a love that is free, total and unconditional.

However, to say that in the triune God there is the mutual self-giving that is love is not to endorse the idea that God loves himself. Theologians like John Frame, for example, understand divine love as ‘God’s self-love’. There are attendant dangers in conceiving of divine love in this way.

Although in human experience, love is somehow always tainted with self-centredness, we must be careful never to project this onto God. To speak of the divine love as ‘God’s self-love’ is to suggest that God is in some sense self-centred. It is to suggest that God’s love is not directed at another, but is instead turned inward towards himself.

Put differently, to speak of the divine love in this way is to already push the Trinity into the background and to conceive of God – however unreflexively and non-deliberately – as a monad.

Thus, Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly asserts in the first volume of his three-volume systematics that we must oppose ‘the statement that God is he who eternally loves himself’. Because the one God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – our understanding of divine love must be understood in light of the eternal relationship of the three persons.

Thus, we should not conceive of God as loving himself eternally. We must say instead, with Pannenberg, that ‘from all eternity the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit loves the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father’.

However, even the concept of the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead in each other (perichoresis) poses some dangers. Perichoresis should not lead us to think that the one loves the other only because he sees himself in the other.

Pannenberg explains: ‘If, however, the one loves self in the other instead of loving the other as other, then love falls short of the full self-giving which is the condition that the one who loves be given self afresh in the responsive love of the one who is loved’.

God is love. This means, as we have seen, that God’s very nature is love. This further means that God loves not because he has to answer to a law outside of himself. As Ron Highfield has put it so profoundly, ‘[God] is completely free and totally himself in his action’.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the God who is love is also holy. The divine love that the Bible refers to is the love of the God who is holy. But in the same way, the holiness about which Scripture speaks is that of the God who is love.

Some theologians are uneasy with placing holiness and love so closely together. This is because holiness suggests distance, while love creates koinonia. Holiness signifies glory and sovereignty, while love has to do with surrender, sacrifice and selflessness.

So great is the perceived contrast between holiness and love that theologians like Jack Cottrell ask: ‘How can God fulfil the requirements of both love and holiness towards sinners at the same time?’ Convinced that this is almost impossible, Cottrell argues that before the fall, the two attributes were in ‘perfect harmony’. But the fall has placed them ‘in a state of tension and opposition’.

But to think of God in this way is to over-anthropomorphize him – it is to impose human limitations on him. Just as nothing outside of God or other than him can determine or direct his love, so no contingent reality can compromise his holiness.

God is eternally and unchangeably holy love. There is no dilemma, no tension in God.



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

 

The Human Face

December 2016 Pulse

In August 2015, injured volunteer firefighter Patrick Hardison received a face transplant in a 26-hour surgery performed by plastic surgeon Dr Eduardo Roderiguez and his team, a procedure which cost US$1 million (S$1.36 million). The donor was David Rodenbaugh, who had died in a cycling accident.

The first person to receive a full face transplant was a French woman called Isabelle Dinoire, who sustained multiple severe facial injuries after being mauled by a dog in 2005. Since then, more than 20 patients across the globe have received partial or full face transplants.

Although serious ethical and social issues surround face transplants, they will not be the focus of this article. Instead, the question that will occupy us has to do with the significance and meaning of the human face.

This question is of special currency and relevance in our ‘pornified’ culture in which different parts of the body – often divorced from the face – are de-personalised and perceived hedonistically as mere instruments of pleasure.

Yet, as the authors of the 2004 Royal College of Surgeons report rightly saw, “The face is central to our understanding of our identity. Faces help us understand who we are and where we come from.”

Drawing from the rich theological anthropology of the Old Testament, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could say that the human face is “in and of itself visitation and transcendence”.

By this Levinas means that the face comes into our shared world from beyond it while at the same time always remaining beyond it. It is a presence that cannot be contained, a revelation that is also always shrouded in mystery.

Unlike humans, animals have no concept of the face and are therefore said to be face-blind, that is, they are unable to recognise faces as faces. Some scientists and philosophers tell us that only sophisticated language users (i.e., humans) have this ability.

For humans, then, to see a human face is to see more than just the physical features of another human – nose, eyes, lips, mouth, etc. It is to see something of the whole person. It is to encounter the other as “visitation and transcendence”, to recall Levinas’ extraordinary expression.

My face is the part of my body to which others direct their attention when they wish to engage me because they somehow intuitively know that I am behind my face, so to speak.

As the inimitable British philosopher Roger Scruton has put so memorably: “My face is a boundary, a threshold, the place I appear as the monarch appears on the balcony of the palace.”

Furthermore, although I am present in my face and I speak and look through it at the world (and at other faces), I do not see my own face unless I deliberately choose to by looking in a mirror. In looking at my face in the mirror – and in seeing my self in it – I get the sense of who I am in relation to others, and who they are as others.

Thus, as a symbol of individuality, my face identifies me – Roland Chia – as this particular person, and distinguishes me from others who are not me.

In our fallen world, however, the human face is shrouded with an inherent ambiguity in that it not only reveals, but it also conceals and sometimes even deceives. The face can become a mask that deliberately misdirects by hiding or disguising the true self.

Yet, despite the fact that sin has disfigured the human face, it still has the potential to reflect and reveal the Face of faces, that is, the Face of God, about which the Bible speaks about so frequently and eloquently (see Psalm 13:1; Psalm 17:15; 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Hence, the great medieval theologian Nicholas of Cusa could write: “In all faces is seen the Face of faces, veiled and in a riddle.”

Such is the mystery of man, created as he is in the image and likeness of God, with the capacity to ‘mirror’ his Creator, however faintly and imperfectly.

But most importantly, the Bible tells us that the invisible God has revealed himself supremely and perfectly in a particular human face, that of Jesus of Nazareth. “Whoever has seen me,” declares the incarnate Son, “has seen the Father.” (John 14:9, ESV)


Dr Roland ChiaDr 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. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

Mental Illness: A Christian Perspective

October 2016 Pulse

In an article entitled, ‘Let’s End Stigma of Mental Illness’ published by TODAY online on 1 May 2014, it was reported that one in six people in Singapore suffer from some form of mental illness. ‘It is quite likely’, it states, ‘that patients include our friends, colleagues or family members’.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behaviour that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental function’.

Elaborating on this basic definition, The Mayo Clinic states that ‘[m]ental illness refers to a wide range of mental conditions – disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour’. It adds that ‘Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function’.

Although some forms of mental illness are not reckoned as a disability by the law, there can be no doubt that all forms of mental illness are in some sense disabling.

The TODAY article points out that although mental illness is not uncommon in our society it is ‘still stigmatised by prejudice, ignorance and fear’. It emphatically calls for putting such stigmatisation to a decisive end.

Christians should without qualification echo this call because we believe that all human beings – including those who are suffering from mental illness – are created in the image and likeness of God, and must therefore be valued and respected. To stigmatise or discriminate against people living with mental illness is to violate the dignity that God has given to them as bearers of his image.

However, some Christians may espouse a different view because they locate the divine image in the mental faculty of the human being. Such a view, if taken to its logical conclusion, would deem the mentally ill as possessing a compromised humanity that could no longer reflect the divine image.

This view, however, is unacceptable because it works with a defective understanding of what it means to be human.

In his 1996 address entitled, ‘The Image of God in People with Mental Illness’ Pope John Paul II deals with this issue directly by exposing the reductionism of those who privilege mental abilities in their understanding of the human being. ‘It should be made clear’, he writes, ‘that the whole man, not just his spiritual soul, including his intelligence and free will, but also his body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”’.

Thus, John Paul II states categorically that ‘whoever suffers from mental illness “always” bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being’. This means that ‘he “always” has the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also treated as such’.

The other question that often arises when Christians reflect on mental illness is that of sin. Could mental illness be the consequence of the sin of the person who suffers from it?

Here, it is extremely important to understand the fact that mental illness is often the result of a very complex confluence of factors. These not only have to do with physical and biological factors like brain chemistry and inherited traits. They also include environmental or circumstantial factors such as abuse, trauma, warfare and even poverty.

Instead of attributing mental illness to the sin of the sufferer, Christians should see it as an instance of the brokenness and tragedy of the fallen condition that all of us share. Mental illness is one of the many signs that the world we now inhabit is not the world that God had intended when he created it.

What about the relationship between metal illness and demon possession? Although sometimes the person who is mentally ill may exhibit the same ‘symptoms’ as someone who is suffering from demonic subjugation, the two must never be confused. Here is where the Christian psychiatrist and the discerning pastor or minister must work closely together.

The church must therefore be a place where hospitality is extended to people living with mental illness. It should be a place where the hurtful and ostracising stigmatisation that is prevalent in society of people who are mentally ill is consciously and conscientiously rejected.

Such generous hospitality would address some of the most damaging discriminations and injustices that people suffering from mental illness sometimes have to endure. It would address the alienation that the mentally ill sometimes experience because of social ostracism, an alienation that might lead to a tragic lost of dignity.

The church must be a place where the mentally ill are valued, cared for and loved. It must be a place where the family members and caregivers of people who are living with mental illness can receive support and encouragement. And the church should always be a place where they are constantly reminded of their hope in a loving, faithful and unchanging God.

Finally, Christians must not only minister to people with mental illness or who are in recovery. They must also be open to being ministered to by them.

As a document on mental illness and the church prepared by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has so beautifully put it: ‘The church can be a powerful and welcoming place for people who are in recovery and experiencing healing, as they return to tell their stories of hope. The church can be a locus for proclaiming the good news of healing of body and relationships, not just to people living with mental illness, but from people living with mental illness’.


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.

Returning to Basics on SG50?

December 2015 Feature Article

In her inimitable style as one of Singapore’s leading writers of fiction and non-fiction, Catherine Lim [1] offers articles that might allude to the political mood of a young nation that has almost come of age. In her oft-witty and politically nuanced contributions, interspersed movingly with her own reminiscences, Catherine Lim also shares some of the aspirations and fears of what it is going to be like for the next 50 years for Singapore. One article in particular gives a foreboding scenario of Singapore’s 80th anniversary celebrations set in the alarming context of the China Co-Prosperity Sphere, hence putting to rest any remnant ‘Western’ hegemonic influence.

Nevertheless significant questions remain in my mind about Singapore’s future. What sort of nation do we wish to see, now that we have entered the post Lee Kuan Yew era? What sort of politics should we practise, in view of the nascent but increasingly credible opposition movement? How do we maintain the level of apparent sophistication that has been built up in the short time of practically one generation since the 1960s, with their concomitant high expectations and demands?

I often take heart, as an accidental emigrant who left Singapore in 1986 and having visited the island on countless occasions since, that Lee Kin Mun (otherwise affectionately known as “Mr Brown”) often captures the current political mood of Singapore. From this enduring satirist and lyricist comes the latest song in celebration of SG50, though with a slight sardonic tone about loyalty, and a characteristic refrain:

“We are an island … we’re a city … we’re a nation … just getting started …”

Is Singapore as a young nation really just getting started? Starting from what and where? Are we not deluding ourselves in thinking that we are a first-world country and truly a miracle or exception in a so-called third world context? [2] Should we, as a highly secular and deeply materialistic society, not return to some sort of basics so as to help us reflect critically on our journey? What has the Church to offer in such challenging socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances where our values are intricately shaped?

In his magisterial yet accessible style, Rowan Williams [3] challenges us about our calling as Christian disciples, having already been blessed with the restoration of our humanity through our baptism with Christ. In a real sense, he strongly encourages us to return to basics. Drawing on the important imagery from the Old Testament and more importantly, from the life and ministry of Jesus, how are we to act as Christians in today’s world and how do we engage with its messy reality? For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a three-fold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptised person, the Christian, identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human.

First, what does it mean to be a prophet? Old Testament prophets generally do not just tell about the future; they act and speak to call the people of Israel back to their own essential truth and identity. They act and they speak for the sake of a community’s integrity, its faithfulness as to who it is really meant to be. The prophets were constantly saying to Israel: “Don’t you remember who you are? Don’t you remember what God has called you to be? Here you are, sitting down comfortably with all kinds of inequality, injustice and corruption in your society. Have you completely forgotten what you’re here for?” The prophet spoke truth to power at the heart of the Establishment, and in the New Testament John the Baptist paid with his own life. They were not afraid to rock the boat!

Williams goes on to say that in reflecting the life of Jesus, we who are Christians need to exercise our minds and critical faculty, we need to question and uncomfortably, we need to be prophetic with one another. We need to be constantly reminding one another what we are here for. “What do you see? What’s your vision?” Who are you really accountable to?”

More importantly, the prophetic role of the church cannot be underestimated. We need to continue questioning the assumptions on which our society is currently based. “What’s that for?” “Why do we take that for granted?” So in the wake of the SG50 celebrations, when the euphoria has somewhat subsided, and when the reality sets in with another commuting day in over-crowded MRT trains, might we ask if there’s really no limit to efficiency and productivity in an island city-state with no natural resources? Hence the need for the Church to be extra vigilant and prophetic as it has always been throughout the ages, and dare I say that a truly prophetic church is a truly growing (I do not mean simply numerical growth) church!

Secondly, what does it mean to assume the priestly role? In the Old Testament, a priest is someone (usually a man in those ancient times) who interprets God and humanity to each other. He is someone who builds bridges between God and humanity, especially when that relationship has been wrecked. He is someone, in the very traditional understanding of priesthood, who by offering sacrifice to God (through the Eucharist) re-creates a shattered relationship. We who are baptised Christians are therefore drawn into the ‘priestliness’ of Jesus; we are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and his Spirit. It is a deeply Trinitarian task.

We are in the business of building bridges and we seek to be peacemakers, not trouble makers, living in hope to rebuild situations where there is suspicion and prejudice, lack of respect and integrity, damage and disorder. This naturally includes our environment, Mother Earth, and all our personal and social relationships, as well as our ecumenical and inter-faith encounters. Again, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has died down, when the reality sets in with construction and other projects that need to be completed let alone on time, how might we continue to accommodate the aspirations of the ‘foreign’ worker whose labour and sacrifice has much contributed to Singapore’s success? At a time when many countries have allowed immigration-related issues to ride on populist politics, how might we continue to build bridges between the ‘indigenous’ Singaporean and the ‘other’ in a confined space that appears over-populated? What has the biblical experience of the exile to offer the Church in this regard, bearing in mind the migrant foundations of Singapore society?

Thirdly, how does Christian discipleship bear the hallmark of kingship or royalty? In ancient Israel, the king was someone who spoke for others to God. Though the king also had a sort of priestly role, the king had the freedom to shape the law of the land and the justice of his society. He could make justice a reality or not a reality, though many kings had failed to follow God’s path and went on their own ways. The king, who had power and authority if used rightly and wisely, was meant to uphold the cause of the poor and lowly, and doing justice for the needy. In the process, Williams maintains, the king will know God! By directing and shaping human society in the path of God’s justice, we seek to show in our relationships and engagement with the world something of God’s own freedom, God’s desire for peoples and the nations to heal and to restore.

So, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has finally dissipated, and when the reality once again sets in with the ever urgent need to care for those who have been marginalised by the years of relentless drive towards success, how might the predominantly sleek, affluent and middle-class Singaporean Church address such an injustice? What might we do to reflect truly the justice of God in situations of hidden poverty, the problem of long-term affordability of health and social care, and the viability of old age living in the midst of ever increasing costs of living and almost non-existent welfare benefits, and a fragile nation-state in a sea of geopolitical uncertainties?

Williams aptly summarises the essential basis of our Christian discipleship for the contemporary world:

‘So the [baptised] life of a Christian is a life that gives us the resource and strength to ask awkward but necessary questions of one another and of our world. It is a life that looks towards reconciliation, building bridges, repairing broken relationships. It is a life that looks towards justice and liberty, the liberty to work together to make human life in society some kind of reflection of the wisdom and order and justice of God’.

However, Williams rightly adds a word of caution as to how we should approach this three-fold identity. If we are only prophets, then we fall into the danger of being constantly negative in our dealings with each other and the world; we could in fact fall from being critical into being too cynical. If we are only priestly, then we get too caught up with wanting to achieve reconciliation without the due process of asking the right questions; we want to hurry on to the end of the story and not bother too much with the difficult middle bit, the process of questioning. And, if we are only concerned with kingship and royal freedom and justice, we would be in danger of constantly thinking about control and problem-solving. The Christian disciple, to be whole, needs to embody all three aspects that Jesus himself had embraced in his own life and ministry. The three become integral parts of one life, not just bits of our individual and corporate calling. I much believe that these three aspects of our Christian calling must be further honed through our willing engagement with the messiness of life.

Given that Singapore has always prided itself as a meritocratic and pragmatic society, built on seemingly harmonious but rather tenuous inter-cultural and inter-ethnic relationships, the call is ever more urgent for its Church to be truly prophetic, priestly and bearing the marks of royalty to a young nation-state stepping into an unknown future.


Andy LieAndy Lie (TTC Alumnus, 1986) is of Indonesian Chinese origin but grew up in Singapore from the late 1950s onwards. A long-standing Reader in the Diocese of Newcastle, Church of England, he is currently part-time Ecumenical Officer for the Northern Synod of the United Reformed Church. He and his family have now lived in the UK for almost 30 years. He has experience in inter-faith relations, and has also worked in the health service, and university and voluntary sectors.


Notes:

[1] Catherine Lim, Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore! An exuberant celebration of the nation’s 50th birthday. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014.

[2] “The Singapore Exception: A Special Report.” The Economist, July 18th-24th 2015.

[3] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible Eucharist, Prayer. London: SPCK, 2014. Please see especially Chapter 1, and I am indebted to Williams for the summary of his thoughts in what follows.

The Dignity of Daily Work

Work occupies a significant part of the daily lives of many Singaporeans. According to a recent media report, increasing workplace connectivity and higher expectations are blurring the distinction between personal life and work. The report cites a 2011 Workplace Survey that reveals that 69 per cent of employees in Singapore tune in to work on weekends, when they are out office, and even while on holiday. Technological advancements have led to hyper-connectivity just as keener competition has resulted in higher expectations and unreasonable demands on the part of employers. Thus, 77 per cent employers expect their staff to be available and contactable during emergencies, 45 per cent bring their work along when they go on holiday, and 29 per cent of employees believe that they should be available at all times because they are using a company mobile phone. The survey concluded that employees here have a high level of ‘dedication’, which may be just a polite euphemism for ‘workaholism’.

Daily work matters to the Christian faith. According to the Bible, work is not the baneful consequence of sin but the original intention of God for human beings created in his image. In Genesis, after God had created the first humans he commanded them to be fruitful, to subdue the earth and to rule over it (Genesis 1:28). God placed the first human couple in the garden and immediately put them to work! In their work Adam and Eve were to serve as images of their Creator, a reflection of the God who is incessantly at work. Unlike the gods of Greek and Roman mythologies who absolve themselves from work, preferring to dine on nectar and ambrosia in a heaven of rest and contemplation, the God of the Bible is a consummate worker. After bringing the world into being, God continues to work, sustaining, governing and providing for his creation. Human work is therefore an expression of the divine will, and in carrying out their daily labours to the best of their abilities, human beings not only enter into a unique partnership with their Creator but also glorify him.

It was the primordial fall that turned human work from a blessing into a curse. To be sure, the fall has not altered the divine intention or the status of human work. But this activity, which is originally meant to be a blessing, has turned into a toilsome and burdensome experience. As Genesis 3 indicates, the fall introduces ‘labour pains’ to both the man and the woman – man in manipulating the accursed earth, now filled with ‘thorns and thistles’, and woman in the pains of childbirth. Tainted and corrupted by sin, human work is now shot through with profound contradictions and paradoxes. Work in many ways liberates us and provides us with the many conveniences that we take for granted, from cooking stoves to airplanes. But work also enslaves us, draining our mental and physical powers by its relentlessness. Work both enriches and impoverishes the worker. By working hard, the worker earns more and so becomes richer. But his wealth is often purchased at the price of the monotony and drudgery of work, which often alienates the worker.

Human sin has also introduced aberrations to the way in which we look at daily work. It was Karl Marx more than anyone else who hailed the importance of work for human self-actualisation. According to Marx, it is through work that human beings realise themselves and transform the world. The details of Marx’s philosophy of work and human society are obviously beyond the scope of this brief article. Suffice to say that the Marxist approach presents a serious distortion because it reduces persons to their work, just as it anoints human labour with the spurious power to save. In many respects capitalist economies do not fair much better. In such economies, work has very little to do with self-expression or the common good, being often reduced merely to a means of acquisition. Furthermore, in the capitalist system, someone’s work is almost always owned by and done for the profit of another. Work is deemed valuable only if it is able to generate income. As some theologians have pointed out, in the capitalist economy, ‘work becomes slavery under a new name’. Both Marxist and capitalist approaches to work demean the worker, but in different ways.

The Christian theology of work is radically different from the way in which secular ideologies and attitudes have portrayed it. From the biblical perspective, daily work is a calling, a vocation through which we serve God and glorify him (Ephesians 6:5-8). For the Christian then, both the janitor and the geneticist serve God and neighbour through the work they do. It was the Reformers who helped us to understand this when they argued that pastors, monks, nuns, and popes are no holier than famers, shopkeepers, dairymaids or latrine diggers because they are all serving God through the work that he has called them to do. According to the Christian perspective, therefore, human work can never be secularised. In similar vein, the work that we do is never solely or even primarily for our benefit – the attainment of wealth, power or prestige – but always for the common good. This means that work is always a form of ministry to God and to society. Needless to say, according to this understanding, any human enterprise that does not glorify God and edify human society – from loansharking to human trafficking – must necessarily be excluded as legitimate forms of work.

For the Christian, then, daily work is inextricably bound to worship. Here, it is perhaps important to point out that the Sunday worship should not be seen as a pause at the end of the week. Rather, for Christians worship on Sunday begins the workweek by pervading it with the good news of God’s love and salvation. Worship at the beginning of the week not only hallows the rest of the week, but also significantly transfigures our understanding of daily work. It enables us, firstly, to understand our proper relationship to work. It shows us that although work is important, the purpose human life must not be understood as work without end, but to exist in creative relationship with each other and with God. And secondly, worship helps us to see that our daily work is always a graced activity, infused by divine grace and animated by the Holy Spirit. Finally, Christian worship helps us to understand our work in relation to the work of God. As theologian David Jenson has brilliantly put it, ‘The work that we do is made possible through the work that does not belong to us alone’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in Word@Work, June 2012.

Unpardonable Sin

What was Jesus referring to when he spoke of the unpardonable sin?

Throughout the history of the Church, Christians of every stripe have wondered about the meaning of Jesus’ statement regarding the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; and Luke 12:10). In Mark, Jesus is recorded as saying: ‘I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin’. Some Christians, like the Welsh preacher Peter Williams in George Borrow’s Lavengro, are worried that they might have committed this sin.

In order to understand what Jesus meant by the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit we must explore the context in which this statement is located in the synoptic Gospels. At the outset, it must be pointed out that Matthew and Mark sets this statement in a similar context, while Luke places it in a different context thereby bringing to this statement a slightly different meaning.

In Mark’s account, the scribes or experts of the law went to Galilee from Jerusalem to assess the miracles of Jesus, particularly his ministry of exorcism. They came to the conclusion that Jesus was himself possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebub, by whose power he was able to dispel demons (Mark 3:22; Cf., Matt 12: 24). In Canaanite culture, Beelzebub was the name of a god, ‘the lord of the high places’, but for the Jews this name refers to the ruler of the abyss, the abode of demons. Jesus pointed out the absurdity of the suggestion that evil would work against itself: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ (Mark 3:23-24; Cf., Matt 12:25-27).

At this point, Jesus made the statement regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Matthew and Mark, therefore, the context suggests that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit has to do with not only the refusal to recognise and acknowledge the work of God but with confusing God’s work with that of Satan. Those who are guilty of this sin have ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency. In rejecting the redemptive work of God, those who commit this sin have, by implication, refused to accept God’s offer of salvation. In this sense, the ‘unpardonable sin’ is also the ‘eternal sin’. In his commentary on this passage in Mark, Robert Guelich writes: ‘One is culpably refusing God’s offer and thus sealing one’s own eternal judgement by committing the sin for which by definition there is no forgiveness’.

Luke places this saying of Jesus in a different context, giving it a slightly different meaning. He does give an account of the charge by the religious leaders that it was through Beelzebub, the prince of demons that Jesus was able to cast out demons (Luke 11:14-26), but this does not provide the context for the statement on the blasphemy of the Spirit. Instead the statement about the sin against the Holy Spirit is sandwiched between Jesus’ warning that whoever disowns him will ‘be disowned before the angels of God’ (12:9) and his assurance that the Spirit will teach his disciples how to reply their inquisitors (12:11). This suggests that the unpardonable sin, for Luke, is the apostasy committed by the persecuted disciple who refuses to receive help from the Spirit.

Put differently, in Matthew and Mark, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has to do with confusing God’s work with demonic activity. In Luke, the unpardonable sin is apostasy – the believer’s repudiation of Jesus as Lord.

Some scholars ask if Peter had committed the unpardonable sin in the Lucan sense when he denied the Lord three times before Jesus’ crucifixion. And what about Paul? Was he also guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the Matthean-Markan sense when he persecuted Christians and even tried to make them blaspheme (See Acts 26:11)? Evidently not! A distinction must be made between a human failure – as in the case of Peter – and the persistent hardening of oneself against God. Peter repented of his failure, and was forgiven and restored by Jesus. As far as Paul was concerned, scholars believed that he acted out of ignorance and unbelief and therefore received mercy. Paul was receptive to the revelation that he received while travelling to Damascus. But if Paul had rejected that revelation and continued to persecute Christians, he would have been guilty of the ‘eternal sin’.

This means that there is always forgiveness for the repentant sinner, even if he has blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. We have this assurance in 1 John 1:9, which states, quite categorically, that God will always forgive the repentant sinner. But if this is the case, why did Jesus say that ‘anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven’ (Luke 12:10)? It is possible that Jesus was referring to the person who has so hardened himself against God that he is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. In other words, the blasphemy against the Spirit is such that one does not repent of it. And because there is no repentance, there can be no forgiveness. This how the sin of blasphemy becomes ‘unpardonable’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today, February 2015.

The Wonders of Creation

In the opening chapters of the Bible, the mystery of creation is presented in beautiful poetic language (Genesis 1 and 2). The passages speak of how God brought about this splendidly diverse universe by simply speaking the word of command: God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. These passages point to the almightiness of the Creator who is not dependent on any pre-existing material to fashion the creation, but created it ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo), as early theologians of the Church pointed out. But Genesis is not the only book in the Bible that speaks of God’s marvellous creation. The Psalms contain some of the most eloquent statements about the Creator.

Psalm 19 speaks most beautifully of how the splendours of God’s creation reflect and point to the Creator. The psalm opens with this marvellous declaration: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge’. The psalmist celebrates the majesty, glory and honour of God the Creator as he contemplates His handiwork.

Christian theologians and poets throughout the centuries have insisted that it is possible to get something of a glimpse of the glory and magnificence of the Creator by prayerfully contemplating the created order. The poem of the great 19th century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled, ‘God’s Grandeur’ immediately comes to mind: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed …’ Together with the ancient psalmist, these Christian writers see the vestiges of the glory of God in the beauty of the creation.

But the ability to discern the Creator in the structures of the material world is not confined only to poets, theologians and mystics. Modern physicists and cosmologists are beginning to see that the universe we inhabit has an order that is profoundly, remarkably and delicately balanced. For example, in order for life to exist there must be an abundant supply of carbon, which is formed by the combination of three helium nuclei. But the combination must be so exact that if there is a variation of slightly more than one percent either way, the universe could no longer sustain life. Or take the distance between the sun and the earth. A modification of only two percent of the current distance, scientists say, would result in the total annihilation of life. If the earth is too near to the sun, water would evaporate and the earth will be too barren to sustain life. However, if the earth is too far from the sun, temperatures would plunge to the point that life is no longer possible.

Another important observation that scientists have made has to do with gravity and the amount of matter – i.e., galaxies, diffuse gas, ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ – in the universe. Again, the balance must be just right. This has led some scientists to conclude that there must be an extraordinary imposition of constraints on the initial cosmic energy density in order for a universe like ours to come into being. As British cosmologist and astrophysicist Baron Martin Rees put it: ‘If this ratio were too high relative to a particular “critical” value, the universe would have collapsed long ago; had it been too low, no galaxies or stars would have formed. The initial expansion speed seems to have been finely tuned’. Rees alludes to the anthropic principle, which is made popular by John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s landmark book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle published in 1986. The anthropic principle simply points to the remarkable and extraordinary combination of factors necessary to bring about the universe that we inhabit. Barrow maintains that this remarkable confluence of factors, which he calls ‘nice laws’, would be very difficult to explain without reference to God.

It would be too much to argue that the anthropic principle or the fact that our universe is so magnificently ‘fine-tuned’ serves as proof for the existence of God. There is a sense in which one can never prove (in the way scientists broadly understand the word) or disprove the existence of God. But it would not be outrageous (and here is the apologetic value of this discovery) to say that these scientific observations about the universe suggest that it is not unreasonable to postulate the existence of the Creator. In fact, as some philosophers and theologians have rightly pointed it, to suggest the existence of a Creator is arguably more credible than to suggest speculative theories like the multiverse. But for the believer, these scientific discoveries testify to the wonders of the creation and the ever-greater wonder of its Creator. They enable him to join the psalmist in declaring: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (March 2013).

The Role of Government

In Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, we find the most profound statement in the New Testament on the role of the state or government. The Apostle teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God to establish social order and justice (Romans 13:4-15). This understanding of the role of the governing authorities is undergirded by Paul’s concept of the state as an institution that is established by God. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (13:1).

What is truly remarkable is that Paul could write in this way about the governing authorities despite the fact that he was a subject of a totalitarian state ruled with an iron fist by Caesar, who regarded himself as a demigod. Be that as it may, Romans 13 has become the locus classicus of the Church’s theology of the state. It has led the great Reformers of the sixteenth century to teach that despite its obvious imperfections and even perversions, the state is a manifestation of divine grace, used by God as an instrument to maintain earthly justice and restrain evil.

Of course, the concept of the state and government has evolved radically since the time of the Apostle Paul. In modern democracies the concept of the government and its role is extremely complex and nuanced. This subject was the focus of the Perspective 2013 Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Shangri-la Hotel on 28 January. This flagship conference attracted more than 800 participants, many of whom were academics, civil servants, business people, and civil society advocates. The theme of the conference – Governance – and the fact that it was held only two days after the Workers’ Party won a decisive victory in the Punggol East by-election made it all the more poignant.

Among the distinguished speakers were Professor Chan Heng Chee, the former Ambassador to the United States, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information, and Sylvia Lim, Chairperson of the Workers’ Party. Security was tight as the Guest-of-Honour at the conference was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That the political culture of Singapore is undergoing a transition is made quite evident in the 2011 General Election as well as in the more recent, but no less telling, results of the by-election in Punggol East. Not only are the younger electorate more political aware and vocal, they are also eager to play a more active role in shaping the future of the nation. This, together with the sweeping political and social changes that are taking place in many parts of the world, have resuscitated the old question of the role of the government.

Since independence, the government of Singapore has played a significant role in almost every aspect of the development of the city-state: economics, education, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc. It is through the fore-sight of our founding leaders and the interventionist approach to governance they espoused that a country like Singapore, with zero natural resources and profound constraints, is transformed into what it is today. Put differently, we may say that it is the ‘soft-authoritarianism’ of the government, as Professor Chan puts it in her talk, with its principled pragmatism that were largely responsible for the Republic’s success, against what appeared to be almost insurmountable odds.

But with the emergence of a younger electorate and the changing political and social scenarios, a tectonic shift appears to be taking place and big government may no longer be prized as highly or even deemed as effective as before. Democracy, as Professor Chan has perceptively pointed out, is after all, elastic. This emergent political sensibility is accompanied by the desire for greater citizen involvement, a shift from big government to a participatory form of democracy. This is surely to be welcomed because it would create the requisite  political ambiance for civil society in Singapore to truly flourish. PM Lee himself explicitly encourages this in his 90-minute session that concludes the IPS conference.

But, interestingly, while Singaporeans now want a greater say in national issues, they still think that the government must continue to play a prominent role. This came across quite clearly in the results of the Prisms project conducted by IPS, which sought ‘to engage the people of Singapore to reflect on the different dimensions of governance and to work towards a future they desire’. Whatever one’s concept of the government might be, the latter still has an important role to play in the life of the nation. But the role of the government has to do not only with the economy and the general wellbeing of the citizens, important though they undoubtedly are. It has to do essentially with the establishment and development of a social order that would ensure that justice and equity prevails.

This brings us back to the Apostle’s teaching in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. One of the ways in which the government maintains social order is of course through the Rule of Law. But to speak of social order is surely to presuppose a certain moral standard, no matter how vague and broad that standard may be. Therefore to say that the role and responsibility of the government is to maintain social order based on justice and equity is to suggest that the government should also take a keen interest in the moral integrity of society.

Of course morality cannot be legislated and there are certainly profound differences between law and morality. But there are also significant overlaps in the relationship that should never be hastily dismissed. Although morality is irreducible to law, there is a profound sense in which sound laws are not possible without morality. To some extent as least, the law is based on the moral values that society affirms and which are then translated into rules for the ordering of the common life. Having been so shaped by moral norms, the law in turn provides the ground and possibility for morality. As theologian Helmut Thielicke has put it, ‘For the state, as the majestic organ of the law, makes ordered existence possible, and this means that it makes ethical existence possible by creating its physical presuppositions’.

In this regard, the representative democracy according to which Singapore has elected to fashion its politics is perhaps the best model of governance to achieve the right balance of a strong government and energetic citizen participation. It is also the model which enables the government to resist the slide to a crude ‘majoritarianism’ or a crass moral populism, and exercise significant leadership that will not only ensure the establishment of social order, but also the preservation of the moral integrity of society. And it is precisely in the exercise of such governance that the state becomes by divine providence a faithful servant of God, even if it does not know his name or acknowledge his sovereignty.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Trumpet (TTC).

Discipleship of the Mind

Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment recorded in Luke 10:27: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind. Love your neighbour as yourself’. This Commandment urges believers to love God with their whole being. Believers are commanded to love God not only with their hearts and souls; they must do so also with their minds. As James Sire has pointed out in his provocative book, Habits of the Mind, this means that ‘thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be’. As Christians we are called to think, and to do so as well as we can with our God-given intelligence. When we apply our intellect in this way, we express our love for God and we glorify him.

Some Christians, however, fail to see this. They have adopted an anti-intellectualism, which, at first blush, may even sound pious. After all, was it not the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor 1:18, 25)? Such piety, however, is fallacious. The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing because they approach it with distorted perspectives and from erroneous vantage points. Thus, when Paul speaks of the gospel as ‘folly’, he is being ironic. As Os Guinness has put it so eloquently, ‘Only in relation to a genuine folly foolish enough to pretend it is wise does true wisdom come to be seen and treated as folly’. The gospel, for Paul, is not folly but true wisdom!

Anti-intellectualism is the spiritual corrosion that will cripple the Church and compromise her witness in society. Writing primarily about the subtle but alarming changes in American evangelicalism that took place from the 1970s, theologian David Wells observes the disturbing shifts in emphasis from doctrine to life and from theology to spirituality. Wells laments that evangelical Christians in America have generally ‘lost interest … in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers’. He adds, somewhat despairingly, that ‘it is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people’. It would be a mistake to think that this observation has little to do with Christians in Singapore. A simple survey of the titles on display at some of our Christian bookshops would give a rough but not inaccurate indication of the theological literacy of Christians here. The displacement of theology in the life of the Church brought about by anti-intellectualism will severely weaken the Church.

Anti-intellectualism will also severely compromise Christian witness in society. The Church is commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world and part of this has to do with the Church’s prophetic engagement with society. Christians believe that the Gospel is public truth and as such it is not just relevant to a select group of people. The Christian faith therefore refuses to be privatized and shut off from the public square. A public Gospel therefore requires a public theology. Anti-intellectualism in the Church, however, can prevent Christians from engaging faithfully and meaningfully in public discourse. In fact, anti-intellectualism will severely cripple the Church’s confidence in participating in such engagements. And this will in turn seriously compromise the witness and influence of Christians in the public square.

On the basis of the first of Jesus’ commandments, we must say, quite simply and directly that anti-intellectualism is a sin. In refusing to use the minds that God has given to us as part of our praise to him, we have disobeyed this commandment. We have simply failed to love God fully, with our whole being. Beyond all excuses, evasions and rationalizations, Christians must recognize anti-intellectualism for what it truly is. Only then will Christians be able to address the problem. But even here, an important qualification must be made. In rejecting anti-intellectualism our goal is not academic or intellectual respectability, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. The discipleship of the mind is not about intellectualism (the sin on the other extreme end of the spectrum!) or intellectual snobbery. It is about loving God with our minds by allowing God’s Word to govern our thinking.

The command to love God with our minds, then, presents a two-fold challenge for Christians. In the first place, it emphasizes the importance of the intellect. Put differently and quite simply, the command challenges Christians to think. But more importantly, this command challenges Christians to think Christianly, that is to think theologically, to allow Scripture and the tradition of the Church to inform and shape their thinking. This is what the discipleship of the mind is all about! It is about being so immersed in the worship, life and doctrines of the Church that our perspectives, our worldviews and our values are entirely molded by the Gospel. It is about not conforming to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). It is about developing a habit of mind that sees the world through the lens of the Gospel.

To think Christianly therefore requires the Christian to be grounded in Scripture and in the doctrines of the church. But thinking Christianly does not only mean thinking about Christian topics. It has to do with allowing the Word of God to govern our thoughts on every possible aspect of life – education, career, raising children, politics, medicine, science, the arts, entertainment, leisure. Thinking Christianly therefore engages the whole person in the whole of life. As such, it is more than just an intellectual activity.

In addition, to think Christianly is to conduct our lives in obedience to God. The Christian doctor who knows that the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life would refuse to perform an abortion or euthanize his patient. The Christian politician who understands the biblical demand for justice would oppose policies that would marginalize certain sectors of society. There is a profound relationship between thought and life, thinking and doing, worldview and ethics. The challenge for Christians to think Christianly is therefore always a challenge to radical discipleship. This is because thinking Christianly is always premised on the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in Trumpet (TTC).