Tag Archives: Humanity

A Fitting Salvation

July 2018 Credo

10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering’ (Hebrews 2:10, NIV 1984)

The writer to the Hebrews uses a unique word — ‘fitting’ — to describe the salvation that has been brought to his church congregation (and to us). The Greek word eprepen (‘it was fitting’) covers a certain semantic range, but the meanings all centre on the notion of the suitability or propriety of an action or decision.

So in what way is our salvation, which involves the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his suffering, ‘fitting’?

Here in Hebrews, at least, our salvation is fitting given the theme of identification which runs through this chapter. If Jesus is to be the great forerunner of what humanity was meant to be as God intended (Heb. 2:8–9), then it is fitting that Jesus identifies with humanity. ‘11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family’, Heb. 2:11 reminds us. Of course, as Heb. 2:14–15 goes on to show, Jesus’ identification is not one of capitulation to the same forces of death and the devil that held us in slavery, but it is precisely the opposite: a victory.

The language of fittingness is similarly seen in the great church father Athanasius. In On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius argues for the fittingness of God’s salvation based on the connection between creation and the renewal of creation.

Because it is the Word that brought about creation (including humanity), Athanasius argues that it is entirely fitting that the ‘the renewal of creation [is] the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning’ (§1.4; 4.2–4).

To be sure, the need for renewal is brought about by man’s own fault and rebellion. Having turned away from God who is the supreme being, we are ‘everlastingly bereft … of being’, with death and corruption now as our lot (§4.5). God’s goodness would not allow man to remain in this state of corruption (§6). Thus, the Word of God, which at the beginning made everything out of nothing, should come to bring ‘the corruptible to incorruption’ (§7.4–5).

The above, Athanasius stresses, is a fitting action, because ‘being Word of the Father, … He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father’ (§7.5). And that is what the Word does — takes on a body of similar nature as ours, gives it to death in the place of all as an offering to the Father, in the process undoing the law (involving the ruin of mankind) and turning mankind towards incorruption again (§8.4).

The idea of the fittingness of God’s salvation is picked up again and expounded in Anselm’s classic work, Cur Deus Homo. Anselm differs from Athanasius in framing his discussion around the concept of a debt payment or recompense for sin instead of a renewal of creation. Notwithstanding the difference, he shares with Athanasius the conviction that only a perfect God-man can fittingly undertake the task of salvation.

Cur Deus Homo can be seen as one long substantial answer that Anselm gives to the central question raised by his interlocutor, Boso: ‘Given that God is omnipotent, by what necessity and reason did he assume the lowliness and weakness of human nature in order to restore human nature?’ (I.1)

Anselm’s answer centres on the notion of sin and that which is involved in making recompense for sin. If every rational creature ought to subject his or her will to God, sin is nothing other than the failure to render obedience that one owes to God, resulting in a dishonouring of God (I.11). For God to leave sin unpunished would be to leave sin in an unordered state (I.12, 13). That cannot be the outcome given the character of God.

To further compound the problem, Anselm adds that the recompense must be proportionate to the sin (I.20, 21). This means that even if mankind — were we able to — could honour God by fearing, loving and obeying him, that would count only as repayment to God for what we owed him in the first place if we had not sinned, and not as payment for the debt which we owe for having sinned (I.20). Specifically, this recompense (for having sinned) must be ‘something greater than everything other than God’. Effectively, this translates to the fact that only God can make this recompense (II.6).

The logic culminates in Anselm’s conclusion that it is therefore only fitting that a perfect God-man make this recompense, for it is one that only mankind owes and that only God can make (II.6, 7). That is what Jesus does. By laying down his own life for the honour of God, Jesus — as one of true humanity — pays on behalf of sinful humanity the recompense owed to God. Because there is no sin in Jesus, his death is neither obligated of him nor reckoned as his debt before God (II.11), thus Jesus’ death truly counts as the recompense needed.

To complete the triple A-list of theologians, I mention very briefly Aquinas. Aquinas in the Summa Theologica addresses this question ‘Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?’ at the head of all the questions he treats in considering the incarnation (ST III, q. 1, a. 1). His refreshing answer comes in the form of leveraging on the idea of divine goodness. Since the essence of goodness is to communicate itself to others, so it is fitting that this divine goodness is communicated in the best possible way to the creature; that best possible way being seen in the incarnation.

Taken together, four different perspectives are presented as to why our salvation involving the incarnation and suffering of our Lord is a fitting salvation. That the one who is to be humanity’s forerunner should fully identify with humanity (Hebrews), that the one who created is the one who would renew creation (Athanasius), that only a perfect God-man can pay the debt that mankind owes to God (Anselm), that divine goodness should be communicated to the creature (Aquinas), all provide us fitting reasons to praise our Heavenly Father for his grace bestowed upon us.

O what a fitting salvation!


Rev Dr 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.

Evolving Marriage?

June 2018 Pulse

In her article entitled ‘The Trouble With Modern Marriage’, published in Psychology Today, Erica B. Slotter echoed the questions asked by many marital researchers: “‘What gives?’ What has changed about the nature of marriage since the 1970s that makes it less appealing to some, less satisfying to others, and generally less stable?”

The signs that marriages are not only less resilient today, but that marriage itself is falling out of favour, are altogether obvious and ominous. These trends are not confined only to the West, but are also mirrored in Asian countries like Singapore. For example, in 2015 there were 7,500 marital dissolutions here, compared to 3,500 in 1990.

But why are we witnessing the collapse of marriage and the family?

Some scholars believe that part of the reason for this is the sexual revolution, a social movement in the 1960s responsible for the liberalisation of moral attitudes towards sex and the eradication of taboos. Its libertine attitude is expressed well by the rockers of Woodstock: “If you are not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

The sexual revolution has unleashed experimental sexual practices and habits such as ‘open marriages’ and ‘public intercourse’, all of which have wide and disconcerting ramifications to familial and social relationships.

Self-styled progressives and liberals, who are promoting novel models of marriage, are simply not perturbed. They often argue that marriage is evolving. But what exactly do they mean by this?

In his book Defending Marriage, Anthony Esolen rightly takes issue with this liberal evolutionary view of marriage and the family. He points out that the inner meaning of the biological metaphor has to do with the unfolding “of ever greater and more powerful potentialities that had lain latent within”.

In other words, to speak of evolution is to suggest that a more complex and sophisticated organism has emerged from something more primordial and basic. “So a seed germinates and develops into a seedling,” Esolen writes, “which then unfolds in trunk and limbs and leaves and becomes a tree.”

Esolen therefore asks if we can really say that marriage and the family have evolved, “in the common sense of the word”. By what criterion, and on what basis do the progressives and liberals make such a claim?

“Is the family, I say, now something mightier than it was, as the tall oak is mightier than the sapling it used to be? Has it not been disintegrating – not evolving, but collapsing?” he asks.

This discussion brings to the surface another issue that Esolen and many Christian commentators have alluded to but which still deserves more attention. It is the view that marriage, like all other forms of social institutions, should change and adapt with the times. It is the view that, just like other social and cultural customs, marriage should morph if it is to remain relevant, and that society can and perhaps should direct this metamorphosis.

The Church can never endorse the evolutionary view of marriage and the family because it believes that they are instituted by God Himself, and are not merely malleable human customs or conventions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws… God himself is the author of marriage”.

Furthermore, marriage as a human vocation cannot be extricated from the nature of humanity itself, for it is “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator”. In other words, marriage is in a profound sense intrinsic to the order of creation itself.

To understand marriage and family in this way is to see just how essential they are for the ordering and flourishing of human society. The Catechism is again very clear on this: “The wellbeing of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.”

This means that the attempt to evolve or ‘update’ marriage and family by replacing the model that God had designed with something avant-garde would have serious and perhaps irreversible long-term consequences to society.



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.

Modern Slavery

November 2017 Pulse

Despite the incredible leaps that our species have made in the last couple of centuries, one of the oldest scourges that has accompanied us throughout our history still remains alive and well today: slavery.

In the modern world, slavery is the primary human rights issue that has attracted international attention and aroused global concern. Yet, despite universal condemnation and numerous international efforts, slavery continues to flourish in many parts of the world.

Modern slavery is a complex phenomenon that covers a variety of practices. This includes traditional slavery and slave trades, child prostitution, child labour, human trafficking (for sexual exploitation), children in armed conflict, debt bondage, etc.

A United Nations document entitled, ‘Contemporary Forms of Slavery’ presents the enormity of the problem of modern slavery thus: ‘Slave-like practices may be clandestine. This makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the scale of contemporary slavery, let alone to uncover, punish or eliminate it’.

It adds that ‘[t]he problem is compounded by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Fear and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out’.

A quick glance at slavery across the world would help us to appreciate just how grim the current situation is.

In Albania, 90 percent of girls in rural areas do not attend school because they are afraid of being abducted and sold as sex-slaves. One study estimated that about 80 percent of women traded as prostitutes in Western Europe may be from the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe.

Muslim tribesmen from northern Sudan conduct slave raids on non-Muslim Dinka people in the south, taking with them thousands of women and children. And the United Arab Emirates (UAE) receives a constant supply of women trafficked from the former Soviet Union.

In India, debt slavery is prevalent in certain sectors of society. For example, Dalits are forced to accept loans from their landlords to perform social duties associated with death or marriage.

But as Justin Campbell explains: ‘These loans are designed to be impossible to pay back, and because Dalits are traditionally denied education, they are left with little recourse but to accept the loans and become indebted to their landlords. So just as one’s position in the caste social hierarchy is inherited, so debts are passed from one generation to another’.

Christianity has been woefully slow to condemn slavery. Many Christians have found justification for keeping the practice alive in the way in which certain passages in the Bible are interpreted.

Far from condemning slavery and urging its abolition, the Bible appears to take the practice – so prevalent in the Ancient Near East – for granted as an acceptable social norm. A number of passages from the OT even seem to sanction the buying and selling of slaves, both male and female, by the Israelites.

For example, in Leviticus 25, we read: ‘As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. And you may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property’.

In the NT, we find instructions on how slaves should behave towards their masters and how the latter should treat the former (E.g., 1 Timothy 6:5-6; Ephesians 6:5-6; 1 Peter 2:18-29). But there is no specific injunction for Christians to free their slaves or to oppose this dehumanising practice.

The great theologians of the Church appear to hold the view that slavery is in some sense necessary in the sinful world in which we inhabit. While both Augustine in the fifth century and Aquinas in the thirteenth insisted that slavery should never be understood as part of natural law – that is, as part of God’s intention for human beings – they maintain that it is an appropriate concession in a world crippled by original sin.

It must be stressed, however, that although Christians are slow in condemning slavery, the Gospel that they embrace has forced them to look at slaves very differently. For example, if all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore enjoy equal dignity and value, the Christian cannot look upon slaves as mere property for their masters to do as they wish.

And if in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:27-28), the Christian must no longer treat his believing slave as merely a slave, but as a brother or sister in Christ. Thus, we find in the canon of the NT the remarkable letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, which exhorts him to treat his runaway slave Onesimus ‘no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother’ (Philemon 16).

It was on the basis of the Christian understanding of the dignity and value of the human being that the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th century conducted their campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade and to abolish the chattel slavery in the United States.

Although slavery today is vastly different from previous centuries, modern abolitionists must receive inspiration from their predecessors – Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce, the Grimke sisters, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Candy – and follow in their footsteps in the fight against this ancient crime and in doing so restore the dignity and humanity that slavery has stolen from its victims.


 

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.

 

Lebensunwertes Leben

May 2017 Pulse

In his 1983 article published in Pediatrics, the controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer argues unabashedly that nonhuman animals have greater morally significance than a seriously deformed or disabled human infant.

‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can be considered morally significant’, he writes.

Preferential treatment is extended to the disabled infant, he argues – again quite unapologetically – not because of some intrinsic worth it possesses but simply because it is a member of the species homo sapiens, an approach he obviously disapproves of.

In the second edition of his influential book, Practical Ethics (1993) Singer sees people with severe disabilities quite categorically as having ‘a life not worth living’.

Singer’s cruel utilitarianism chillingly reminds us of the dehumanising eugenics of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s that saw the extermination of certain segments of the population, guided by a similar philosophy – that some human lives can be said to be Lebensunwertes Leben (‘life unworthy of life’).

The killing of disabled people, especially newborns, is a practice that can be traced to antiquity. Despite their indubitable brilliance and enduring influence that can still be discerned in a wide range of topics today – from politics to beauty – the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle never prohibited or even called to question the practice, common in classical antiquity, of killing defective babies by exposure.

The Christian writer Miniculis Felix gives us a stark glimpse of the prevalence of infanticide in Greco-Roman society in Octavius where he writes – in a justifiably condemnatory tone – that ‘newly begotten sons [are] at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or dispatched by the violent death of strangulation …’

In fact, as Darrell Amnundsen has clearly shown, ‘the care of defective newborns simply was not a medical concern in classical antiquity’. Consequently, no law existed in antiquity against the killing of such babies.

The early Christians of course rejected and opposed this practice because according to the Scriptures all human beings without exceptions are created in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:26-27) and must therefore be valued and protected. This includes the young, the old, the vulnerable and the disabled.

The early Christians therefore extended care to the poor, the sick, the marginalised and the disabled in ways that amazed the society of the time. So counter-cultural were they in showing compassion to the people that society had marginalised and rejected that the early Christians were often described as ‘the third race’.

The early Christians would pick up the infants that were left to die on the streets, in drains or in specially designated pits for unwanted children. They would either care for these children as their own or place them in the orphanages they ran.

Thus, unlike the most influential voices of the ancient Greco-Roman world that recommended with impunity the killing of deformed children (Cicero, De Ligibus, 3.8) and the drowning of ‘children who are at birth weakly and abnormal’ (Seneca, De Ira 1.15), Christians roundly condemn such practices as immoral.

Perhaps the clearest Christian voice in antiquity that protested against such inhumanity is that of Lactantius, who in his Divine Institutes writes: ‘Therefore when God forbids killing, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature. Let no one, then, think that it is to be conceded even that newly born children may be done away with, an especially great impiety! God breathes souls into them for life, not for death’.

In the darkest period of the history of modern Europe, a young pastor-theologian spoke with inimitable clarity and unparalleled courage against the evil eugenic projects of the Führer that were responsible for the mutilation and murder of untold numbers of Jews and people with disabilities.

In his unfinished book, Ethics published shortly after his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against the utilitarian principle which demeans human life and violates its God-given dignity: ‘Life created and preserved by God possesses an inherent right, completely independent of social utility … There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable’.

Bonhoeffer warns of what he called ‘the aristocratic philosophy of life which glorified strength and power and violence as the ultimate ideals of humanity’.

This warning, sounded in the last century, has not lost its relevance and urgency in the present. In fact, we may say that in the wake of the current myth of human perfectability inspired by the bewildering advances in bio- medicine and technology, this warning has taken on a pertinence and currency that Bonhoeffer could not have possibly imagined.

While the Christian Faith rejects the morbid glorification of weakness (which unfortunately can be discerned in some recent discussions about disability – but that’s another story!), with its radical concept of the suffering God, it does suggest another way of looking at and understanding weakness that is truly redemptive.

And it is this way of looking at the other that has led Christians like Lactantius in the third century and Bonhoeffer in the twentieth to speak out against the manifest atrocities of their day and to advocate an ethic of love that regards even the most vulnerable and disabled members of their societies as bearers of the divine image, whose lives must be cherished and protected and whose dignity should never be violated.



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.

How a Minority Church Impacted Wider Society

February 2017 Credo

The early church avoided active engagement with Roman politics, where the contestation for power was brutal and political fortune was fickle, brutish and short. The bedraggled religious community was already leading a precarious existence since it lacked political patronage. As such, it would be wise for it to avoid getting entangled with mighty Caesar who would not hesitate to snuff out any potential challenge to his throne. However, political realism did not mean that the church retreated into a cocooned existence in the ghetto. Instead, it sought to serve wider society by building effective social-economic networks for social renewal.

A Social Message of the Power of Love in Action

Lucian (a non-Christian) was impressed by the solidarity among the Christians. He testified that “their original lawgiver has taught them that they were all brethren, one of another . . . They become incredibly alert of anything  . . . that affects their common interests.”

The love of Christians was exceptional in times of plagues and calamities. Eyewitnesses reported that when an epidemic struck, the populace rejected the sick and abandoned unburied corpses in their desperate attempts to avoid infections from a contagious and fatal disease. In contrast, Bishop Dionysius described how Christians “held fast to each other, visited the sick without fear, ministered to them assiduously, and served them for the sake of Christ . . . many did die, after caring for the sick and giving health to others, transplanting the death of others, as it were, into themselves.”

The impact of such selfless service was highlighted by the early Church historian Eusebius. He wrote, “Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their fellow-feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day, some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed); others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city, and gave bread to them all. When it became known, people glorified the Christians’ God, and, convinced by the facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.”

It must be emphasized that for the early church Christian social welfare was not merely an emergency service but an ongoing mission expressing itself in several ways:

First, the church was at the forefront of private charity. In AD 250, the Roman Church distributed alms and supported about 1,500 widows and poor and disabled persons. There was no other equivalent charity in the Roman world.

Second, the church cared for slaves and poor people needing burial. Converted slaves were granted equal dignity and fullest rights in church. Indeed, slaves could become clergymen or even bishops. Christians extended burial services to strangers because they share a common humanity. Undoubtedly, such care comforted grieving relatives and cultivated sympathies for Christianity.

Third, the church provided employment and insisted that every able-bodied person must work. The church formed guilds to provide work for any brother in need. We can only admire its balanced social policy: “For those able to work, provide work; and to those incapable of work, be charitable.”

A Refuge and Haven of Peace in Times of Social Chaos

Roman cities had an average population density equivalent to that found in modern industrial slums. Given the absence of social welfare in Roman society it was no wonder that crime was rampant.

As one contemporary witness testified, “Night fell over the city like a shadow of a great danger, diffused, sinister, and menacing. Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance . . . if the rich had to sally forth, they were accompanied by slaves who carried torches to light and to protect them on their way . . . Juvenal sighs that to go out to supper without having made your will was to expose yourself to reproach of carelessness.”

In contrast, the church was a haven of peace and support amidst urban lawlessness and insecurity. The church provided the essentials of social security and, more importantly, a sense of belonging in a city of strangers.

Neighbourhoods were transformed when neighbours were bound together not only by common rites but by a common way of life. Admittedly, social compassion was not a virtue found exclusively among Christians, but in those days Christians appeared to have practised it more effectively than any other group.

Rodney Stark aptly captures the social impact of early Christianity, “Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems.

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.

To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing service.”

In summary, the church became an institution for social renewal—the new civilizing and cohesive power that could unite and care for the diverse races of the Empire.



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.

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.

 

 

 

Thinking about Disability

In recent years, a number of fine monographs have been published on disability from the Christian perspective. Many of these publications have encouraged deeper and more nuanced reflection on the complex issues associated with our understanding of people with disabilities. They have also helpfully brought to light some prejudices that have subtly shaped certain societal attitudes, norms and conventions. Embedded deeply in our collective consciousness and in our culture is the proclivity to view disability in generally negative terms. Disability is often seen as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘problem’. Consequently, the disabled person is often looked upon as an object of charity. This medical model of disability (about which I have more to say later in this article) is very influential and pervasive in modern society.

Our attitude towards people with disabilities is sometimes tellingly betrayed by language that habitually if unconsciously makes the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We should never dismiss this as just a question of language. Such distinctions reveal the psychological and relational distance between ‘normal’ people (an expression that must be subjected to careful theological analysis and critique) and disabled people, a distance mostly due to the former’s perception of the alien-ness and strangeness of the latter’s condition. Very often our response to a person with disability is not dependant on our understanding of his or her experience. Rather it is based on what psychologists call sympathetic imagination, that is, the uneasy feelings aroused within us as we put ourselves in the place of such people. Again, it is imperative that we should never take this sentiment lightly. Sympathetic imagination arguably may well be that powerful visceral impulsion behind the support for euthanasia, eugenics and abortion.

It is this amorphous and often unarticulated dread of disability that leads certain members of society to stigmatise people with disability. In his classic treatment of the subject entitled, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman explains that a person possesses a stigma if he or she is marked by ‘an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated’. A stigma is something that we project onto the person who does not conform to our ideas of normalcy. As Goffman points out: ‘One can therefore suspect that the role of normal and the role of stigmatized are parts of the same complex, cuts from the same standard cloth’. Once stigmatised, people with disabilities are treated as taboos. Like the stigma, the taboo is also a social construct based on how the dominant group defines nature or the natural. That which does not fit into our concept of the normal is deemed deformed and dysfunctional. And this includes people who are crippled, maimed and diseased. The intellectually challenged – the idiot, retarded and imbecile – must also join their ranks.

One of the reasons why disabled people are perceived so negatively is the prevalence of the medical model of disability. In criticising this model, I am not disparaging the marvellous advances in medicine and biotechnology that have alleviated human suffering, including that of disabled persons. But in reducing disability only to a problem of diagnosis and treatment, the medical model has fostered a narrow and even jaundiced understanding of disabled people. Because of the medical model, disability is often seen as a liability from the standpoint of society. Needless to say, this perspective is so powerful in modern society that many disabled persons see themselves as victims of personal tragedy and as a burden to society. ‘The medical model and its stress on cure and rehabilitation’, writes theologian Thomas Reynolds perceptively, ‘not only fails to address this broader issue, it inadvertently perpetuates processes of disempowerment, exclusion, and isolation, concealing deeper attitudinal, employment-related, educational, and architectural obstacles to genuine inclusion’.

In order for society to reflect more deeply on disability, a more profound vision of what it means to be human and of human sociality is needed. I believe that Scripture and the great theological traditions of the Church can inspire such a vision. The most profound teaching of both Scripture and tradition is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and therefore must be valued, respected and loved. This includes the disabled person, who even in his or her disabilities, mysteriously and beautifully reflects the Creator. On the basis of this theological premise, it follows that the person with disabilities, like every human being, possesses innate, sacred and inviolable rights that must be respected and honoured. At the heart of this Christian teaching is the conviction that no disability, handicap or impairment, however severe and crippling, can rob the disabled person of his or her dignity as a creature made in God’s image.

The disabled, according to the Christian understanding, should never be stigmatised or regarded as taboo. They must never be seen as a liability or as a burden to society. Rather, in a profound sense their presence enables us to discover the deepest meaning of our shared humanity. The disabled opens up to us new vistas of human existence, and avail to us fresh insights into personhood. They point us to the true nobility and dignity of a human being as the privileged bearer of the divine image and thus enable us to get in touch with the essence of our own being. The disabled in some ways also ‘force’ us to acknowledge our own vulnerability and neediness (perhaps that is precisely why we shun them!). They remind us that we too are part of this fallen reality, and thus in need of the promised healing, restoration and salvation in Christ. And they teach us how to wait patiently for God’s salvation. Put simply, in their limitations and suffering, the disabled quietly teach us how to be.

As the community of believers who has experienced the saving and transforming grace of God, the Church should openly and lovingly welcome people of disabilities. She should do so not condescendingly out of pity, but generously, recognising the disabled other as a person whom God loves. Christian hospitality is motivated by the unconditional and generous love of God that Christians have received in abundance in Christ: ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Such hospitality creates a relationship of reciprocity where mutual giving and receiving takes place in the spontaneity of agape love. In welcoming people of disabilities the Church must not only ask what she can do for them. She must also empower the disabled to find their own place in the community and to creatively use their gifts to build up the Body of Christ. And it is in this relationship of mutual love and respect, what the Bible calls koinonia, that both the one who welcomes and the one who is welcomed are transformed by the power of the Spirit.


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 published in Word@Work (March 2014).

It is Finished!

‘It is finished’ is the sixth of the seven words of Christ on the cross. From the late eighteenth century, meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross became a very popular form of devotion. In some churches today, the last words of Jesus are heard in the liturgy of Holy Week, when the passion narrative is read in its entirety. Reflection on the last words of our Lord can be a deeply rewarding experience, for they are pregnant with spiritual and theological meaning.

‘It is finished’ is the cry of our Saviour just before he commends his spirit to the Father. These words must not be understood merely to mean ‘It is over’. They must be taken in the sense of consummatum est – it is consummated, fulfilled and brought to perfection. These words, then, should not be understood as the final cry of someone who has come to the end of a terrible ordeal. Rather it is the assertion that the task that Jesus came to perform is now completed. The work that Jesus set out to do has been accomplished, and brought to perfection. His goal is achieved, and there is nothing else left for him to do!

What was this work that Jesus came to do? He came to offer himself as a complete and perfect sacrifice in order to atone the sins of humanity and make available the salvation of God. The theme of sacrifice and atonement is replete in the New Testament. Paul in Ephesians tells us that ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2). Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the high priests of Israel, the writer of Hebrews asserts: ‘Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (Heb 7:27). And John in his first letter maintains that Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2).

To skeptics the death of Jesus does not signal victory. To them, ‘It is finished’ simply means ‘He is finished’! But for the Christian, ‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle. It is the cry of victory! As Stanley Hauerwas has put it, ‘It is finished’ means that ‘God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit’. Far from being a sign of defeat, the cross points to victory! In this sense, ‘It is finished!’ points beyond the cross to the Resurrection. It brings together Good Friday and Easter.

Nicholas Lash has summed this up eloquently in his book Believing Three Ways in the One God:

Out of the virgin’s womb, Christ is conceived. Out of that world threatening death on Calvary, life is new-born from an empty tomb. Christ’s terror is God’s Word’s human vulnerability. But, it is just this vulnerability, this surrender, absolute relationship, which draws out of darkness finished life, forgiveness of sins.

More, however, must be said. It is finished. But it is not over! It is finished. But time marches on! It is finished. But evil and suffering persist! How are we to make sense of this?

This situation is perhaps best described by the use of an analogy. The victory over sin and death by the death and Resurrection of Christ is like the liberation of an occupied country from Nazi rule towards the end of World War II. To understand the excitement of the liberation, we must imagine what it must be like to live under the shadow of Nazi presence. We must appreciate something of the utter hopelessness of the situation in order to sense its true poignancy. Many in that situation had resigned themselves to the thought that nothing could be done to turn things around.

Then, suddenly, news of a battle fought somewhere far away came to them. Some call it D-Day. And this battle is turning the tide of the war. The war seems to be brought to a new stage, and the enemy is now in disarray. Its back has been broken. Before long the Nazis will be driven out, and occupied Europe will be liberated. This is exhilarating news indeed!

But the Nazis are still present in that occupied country. Thus, in a sense, the situation has not changed at all. But in another sense, the situation has totally changed! The Nazis are defeated, and they will be driven out of that occupied country. The sweet scent of liberation and victory is in the air. This brings about a dramatic change in the psychological climate to the citizens of that occupied country. The whole atmosphere is changed. The gloom is lifted and the citizens of that country could rejoice as if they were free, even though freedom still lies in the future.

It is finished! But it is not over. Evil, suffering and pain still persist in our sin-scarred world. But the horror does not have the last word! At the heart of this horror is hope, because at the heart of the horror is Christ who has declared, ‘It is finished!’

In addition, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are not merely victims of a senseless fate. At the foot of the cross we realize that we are participants of the drama of salvation, for our stories have become part of the story of the One who was crucified. Here at the cross the suffering of all time, the suffering of every human being is gathered to his suffering. The out-stretched arms of Jesus on the cross reach out to embrace, complete and make whole every human moment of horror. All the victims of evil, those who suffer in hospitals and at home, the victims of genocide, rape and murder, the innocent victims of war, and those who are crushed by injustice– their suffering need not be ‘senseless’ if they are caught up by faith in that once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross for which it is said ‘It is finished’.

The cross of Christ does not give us all the answers to the world’s troubles and to ours. But the cross of Christ enables us to face these troubles without any answers because through it God has opened up a way for us to live without answers. In a statement that must surely be enigmatic to some Paul asserts ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1:24). Paul is surely not saying that the suffering of Christ on the cross was insufficient. Rather Paul is saying that he is able to suffer because the work of the cross is finished.

It is finished! But it is not over.

We live in a time between the times. The kingdom of God has begun in Christ, but it will not be consummated and perfected until the end of the world. But the Good News is our Saviour has won that decisive far-off battle on Golgotha. The enemy is defeated! Its back has been broken! Although everything looks pretty much the same, the situation has totally changed. That is why the church throughout the ages could echo the words of Venantius Fortunatius, who in the sixth century wrote:

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the cross, the victor’s trophy, Sound the high triumphal lay:
How, the pains of death enduring, Earth’s Redeemer won the day.


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).

AI and Society

August 2015 Pulse

In the summer of 1956, a group of scientists gathered at the campus of Dartmouth University for a two-month workshop that would launch the modern artificial intelligence (AI) programme. At the end of the workshop, MIT scientists Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and Ray Solomonoff together with six other researchers predicted that ‘Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.’

Since then, research in AI has advanced at a phenomenal pace as computers continue to double their capacity in information-processing power every two years. In 1997, ‘Deep Blue’ amazed the world when it defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It is estimated that computers will have capacities equivalent to the human brain in the near future, around the year 2025.

Some scientists even speculate that it would be possible to create computers with advanced AI, which they call superintelligence. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as any intellect that ‘vastly outperforms the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills.’

Scientists even think that it would one day be possible for superintelligent computers to engage in moral reasoning. Insofar as ethics is a cognitive pursuit, they argue, a machine with superintelligence should be able to solve ethical problems based on available evidence and logic better than their human counterparts.

To be sure, the possibility of creating such machines has led some scientists to express hope that they will help to eradicate some of the most crippling problems in our world.

As Bostrom confidently predicts, ‘It is hard to think of any problem that a superintelligence could not either solve or a least help us to solve. Disease, poverty, environmental destruction, unnecessary suffering of all kinds: these are things that a superintelligence equipped with advanced nanotechnology would be capable of eliminating.’

Others, however, are not so sanguine. In fact, some have argued the exact opposite: that the creation of superintelligent computers would spell destruction for humankind.

‘Within thirty years,’ writes Vernor Vinge in his 1995 book, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, ‘we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. Can the Singularity be avoided? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive? What does survival even mean in a Post-Human Era?’

Both the optimism and fear surrounding AI are, however, misguided.

Superintelligent machines cannot solve the world’s problems like hunger, disease and poverty because these problems are the result of that destructive form of human inwardness called sin. Although superintelligent machines, like most of the science and technology already available can alleviate human suffering, they are unable to eradicate it.

Science and technology, however advanced, cannot bring about a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ – a man-made utopia, where the evils of the world are vanquished and where the deep fractures they inflict are fully healed.

To think that superintelligent machines can do better ethics than humans is to adopt the most naïve and reductionist concept of ethics. Ethics can never be reduced to a puzzle solving exercise.

Ethics has to do with human relationality, with our appropriate and positive response to each other and to the world in which we live. Only the creatures created to be bearers of the divine image are capable of this set of attitudes, judgements and behaviour we call morality or ethics. Ethical discourse and conduct are epiphanies of human transcendence which no machine, however intelligent, can replicate.

The exaggerated fears about superintelligent machines taking over the planet and orchestrating the extinction of the human species are also misplaced. In fact, they can distract us from the real issues surrounding advanced technologies.

These issues are not new. They have been with us since the dawn of modern science and technology. And they have to do not so much with how superintelligent machines can take over the world and destroy their creators. Rather, they have to do with how such technologies can be misused by some to the detriment of others.

As Joanna Bryson and Philip Kime perceptively point out: ‘The real dangers of AI are no different from those of other artifacts in our culture: from factories to advertising, weapons to political systems. The danger of these systems is the potential for misuse, either through carelessness or malevolence, by the people who control them.’

But there is one other aspect of this debate that perhaps is not given the serious attention it warrants. In reflecting on the development of any technology, it is important not only to ask what it can do for us. We must also ask what it can do to us.

As intelligent machines intrude into our lives and take on significant tasks, the way in which they may change how we perceive our own humanity and our relationships simply cannot be ignored.

AI may impact our society in radical and sometimes unwelcomed ways. And we must try to imagine how society should navigate around the changes they bring about by embracing some and by averting others.


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.

Ending The Scourge

Feb 2015 Pulse

Like so many around the world, I too was hoodwinked into believing Somaly Mam’s story. The world-renowned crusader against sex trafficking and slavery almost achieved iconic status with the story of her own sexual abuse when she was a 13-year-old girl in Thloc Chhroy, a typical rural Cambodian village along the banks of the Mekong River.

Her heroic efforts to free and rehabilitate young women from slavery and abuse received support from Hillary Clinton and celebrities like Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon. Mam’s inspiring story led me to write an article entitled “God and the Victim” for a publication of The Bible Society of Singapore two years ago.

Sadly, an article in the May 2014 issue of Newsweek revealed that Mam’s story about her experience as a sex slave was fabricated. While there is a sense in which this disclosure does not detract from the significant achievements of her foundation that   has saved the lives of thousands of girls in Cambodia, it does betray public trust, which is so vital to the work of any non- governmental organisation (NGO).

Next to the illegal drugs trade, human trafficking is the most lucrative form of organised crime that boasts of a complex and truly global network. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, at any one time there are 2.5 million victims of human trafficking, a crime that generates tens of billions of dollars in profit for criminals each year. The US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report (2007) states that approximately 80 per cent of the victims are women and girls, 50 per cent of which are minors.

Louise Shelley, in her excellent study entitled Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, showed that every continent in the world is somehow involved in human smuggling. In Southeast Asia, human trafficking has been a longstanding problem, with poverty and the uninhibited growth of the sex industry as the main causes. Transnational criminals have ingeniously taken advantage of realities such as globalisation, unprecedented migration, and the massive movement of people to create a flourishing business in human smuggling.

The girls and women sold or abducted are often subjected to unconscionable violence and cruelty even before they are sent to the brothels. Many are repeatedly raped and beaten by their exploiters, while others are turned into drug addicts to ensure their total dependence and submission. Even if some of these victims could eventually buy their freedom (a very unlikely prospect) or somehow manage to escape, with almost no education and professional skills, their re-entry to society is at best precarious.

Human trafficking is an offense to human dignity and freedom, and is roundly condemned by Christian leaders across the denominations. In a recent address to international police chiefs, Pope Francis emphatically asserted: “Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.”

In the same vein, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, described human trafficking as “an offence against the created order of equality, an offence against the dignity of humans as called to share in some measure in God’s own creative responsibility, an offence against the interdependence that makes it impossible for any one truly to flourish at the expense of any other person”.

There are hundreds of organisations working tirelessly across the globe to address the problem of human trafficking and rescue its victims. Among them is COATNET (Christian Organisations Against Trafficking NETwork), which consists of 36 affiliates from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox organisations.

But the challenges that these organisations face are enormous, not least because trafficking syndicates constantly change their strategies and modi operandi. Their work is difficult and frustrating also because of the complicity of some governments with these criminal activities.

Be that as it may, no effort must be spared to end this scourge or at least to cripple the criminal networks responsible for perpetrating this evil. However, even as we rescue the victims of human trafficking from slavery and abuse, let us not forget to also rescue the oppressors from the spiritual bondage that has so debased and perverted their humanity.


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 Methodist Message.