Tag Archives: incarnation

Miracles

November 2018 Credo

Even the most casual reader of the Gospels will be struck by the many stories of miracles they tell.

On page after page, the Gospel writers describe Jesus cleansing the leper, opening the ears of the deaf, giving sight to the blind and even raising the dead. There are stories of Jesus turning water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread and fish to feed the hungry multitudes and calming the raging storm.

Should Christians today take these stories of miracles seriously? Can Christians who inhabit a world that is so vastly different from the writers of the Gospels – informed and shaped as they are by the scientific worldview – still believe in miracles?

Many have replied these questions with an emphatic ‘No’.

The 19th century Scottish philosopher and essayist, David Hume, is an example of a modern skeptic whose vision of reality is shaped by the natural sciences. Defining miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ or ‘a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity’, Hume argues that it is unreasonable to believe that miracles are possible because they fly in the face our standard notions of how the world works.

Thus, in his celebrated An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume writes: ‘as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws [of nature], the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined’.

The positivists in that century, influenced by the reductionisms of modern science, argued that belief in miracles belonged to a stage of human development in which the dominant vision of reality was shot through with the supernatural. Describing this phase as ‘theological’ these positivist philosophers went on to assert that humankind has now entered a new phase in which knowledge of the world is established on empirical facts obtained by the scientific method, not superstition.

Consequently, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) famously postulated that belief in God and the supernatural are simply objectified (and personified) projections of basic human desires. And Levi Strauss (1808-1874) suggested that the Incarnation and miracles are just mythological images conjured by primitive people.

In his attempt to reconcile Christianity with science F. D. E. Schleiermacher, who is christened as the ‘father of modern theology’, maintains that the only miracle is the act of God in sustaining the world he has created. All other lesser ‘miracles’, according to Schleiermacher, are just extraordinary events that science will eventually be able to explain.

Bewitched by the explanatory power of the natural sciences, many modern thinkers accuse Christians who believe in miracles of fabricating a ‘god of the gaps’. Christians attribute to divine agency the extraordinary phenomena or occurrences for which science has yet to provide satisfactory explanations. But the ‘god of the gaps’ will shrink – and perhaps one day he may even disappear – as science narrows the gap, so to speak, by providing ever more comprehensive accounts of natural phenomenon.

It is crucial to note, however, that the rejection of miracles is based on a certain view of science and a certain power that we have given to it, a power that it does not in fact possess. We have placed our hope in science’s omnicompetence – its ability to penetrate the depths of reality, and its ability to explain everything.

This hope is misplaced. In his book entitled, The Limits of Science Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prize winner (and atheist) offers a sober (and sobering) estimate of science, its possibilities and its limits. ‘That there is indeed a limit upon science’, writes Medawar, ‘is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer’.

Theologian and scientist John Polkinghorne has perceptively pointed out that ‘no one lives as if science is enough’. This means that everyone knows that reality has a depth and breath that science is simply unable to reach. It has a profundity that science simply cannot fathom. Positivists, secularists, and atheists (including the new atheists) would all agree to this, if only they chose to be honest to themselves.

Miracles not only point to those depths inaccessible to science, they point more significantly to the God who is at work in this world.

The New Testament describes miracles as ‘a wonder’ (Gk: teras), an ‘act of power’ (Gk: dunamis) and a ‘sign’ (Gk: semeion). Theologian James Oliver Buswell offers this concise but comprehensive definition of a miracle in the biblical sense. A miracle is (1) an extraordinary event that cannot be explained on the basis of natural laws, (2) an event that causes the observers to conclude that God is at work, and (3) an event that points to a reality much greater than itself.

Even Christians who believe in miracles sometimes miss their true significative purpose. In the Bible, miracles, signs and wonders are never ends in themselves, but point to a greater reality.

Miracles in the Bible signals the presence of the kingdom of God that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, came to inaugurate. In Matthew 12:28, Jesus said: ‘But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’.

In sending the twelve apostles to preach the good news, Jesus instructed them thus: ‘And proclaim as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons’ (Matthew 10:7-8).

Miracles are a sign that the kingdom of God has come into our world through the incarnate Son. They are a pledge and foretaste of the blessings to come when God’s inaugurated kingdom will be fully consummated when the risen and ascended Christ returns.


 

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.

Ritual Matters

January 2018 Credo

Humans are ritual animals. Their deepest ideas and feelings are not just communicated in words, but more deeply in actions, signs and symbols. In fact, in many Asian societies, it’s mostly actions. Traditional Chinese and Japanese don’t say “I love you” to their wives and children, but they show their love through a variety of ritual actions.

The evangelical emphasis on “word” may actually deprive us of our capacity to express our faith more fully in word and ritual. We have tended to reduce the Christian faith to a set of principles like the “Four Spiritual Laws”.

It is not coincidental that the magisterial Reformers understand Word and Sacrament as constituting the church. John Calvin’s definition is perhaps representative: “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there…a church of God exists.”

The theology underlying this affirmation is the Incarnation. The Logos takes on human flesh. The glory of God is revealed in a way that we could see and touch. Christ in the flesh is the Sacrament of God; through him we can see and touch the God who is otherwise invisible. The Incarnation shows that material and spiritual are not inherently opposed as in Greek dualism, but that the physical can ‘contain’ the spiritual. It is in the context of sacramental theology that we can appreciate the importance of rites.

Sacred rites are not “add-ons”, something extraneous, used for illustrative purposes. This is the way a lot of exclusively word-centered Christians tend to understand rituals. For them, rites are merely visible words or object lessons.

The necessity of rites can be seen in the fact that there is always a gap between concepts and actual practice, not because our practice falls short of our grand theories and concepts, but quite the opposite: our concepts always fall short of actual practice. This is being increasingly recognized even in the practical fields of economics, management and social planning. No matter how well we plan and provide guidelines and procedures to cover as many scenarios as possible, they always fall short of what is actually practiced by people on the ground. Practices are more complex than what planners could anticipate.

Most of us living in housing estates in Singapore are familiar with the meticulous ways the estates are planned. But one thing that these planners seem to have failed time and again is in the layout of footpaths. Residents often don’t use them; instead, they find more efficient ways of getting around by creating their own well-trampled footpaths across lawns and fields. We could say that these residents, in their daily walking ‘rituals’, have instinctively found a better way of getting around that the planners could not foresee. Ordinary people have a kind of practical knowledge that no amount of planning could cover.

In the second half of the 20th century, a number of postmodern philosophers have highlighted the importance of practice. They have shown that there is an irreducible knowledge that comes from embodied practices which cannot come through verbal-rational expressions. Among them, I will highlight the theory of practice by Pierre Bourdieu.

Most of us tend to think that we start with thinking and follow it up with practice. Thus in traditional pedagogy, we often are told that we must first learn the theory and then apply it in practice. But Bourdieu says that practice itself is an irreducible, precognitive form of knowing, not just a consequence of prior thought. We see this, for instance, in the way children are socialized into a community. They begin by practicing speaking before they learn the grammar of speech.

Practice or bodily action and interaction is a way of knowing. Practice forms habits by which we make sense of our world. These acquired habits are formed unconsciously in cooperation with others in community. This is very much like the way the liturgy works. Orthodox Christians understand this truth well by not segregating worshippers according to age groups. Segregation (which is what many Protestant churches are doing as a matter of course) will inevitably result in the failure to socialize their children and youth into the church as a liturgical community.

In short, Bourdieu’s theory of practice implies that we are all liturgical animals. Rites form habits which shape our thought patterns and worldview.

Bourdieu’s theory of practice is especially important in our present world shaped by the IT revolution and the Internet. In the internet world, there are many practices shaping our thought-patterns and worldviews without our even being aware of it.

But the internet world is a jungle. There are the good, useful, even beautiful, but also the ugly, the flippant and the downright evil. All of these are accessible to anyone at their fingertips—literally.

Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith warns us that the seemingly innocent smartphone may be training us ritualistically to “a heretofore-unimagined level of intimacy with machines”. It unconsciously inducts users into the secular story that says “I am in charge,” and in the end they become “more like Milton’s Satan”. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poet had Satan holding a conference in hell and proclaiming: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!”

This is the kind of world that millions are inducted into via the Internet: “We are in control; we have the freedom to choose whatever we want to do, see and hear. What I feel is who I am.”

But the ‘freedom’ of the Internet comes at great cost: First, the new grammar of the Internet has so cut off its devotees from the literary traditions that they are no longer able to read the “great books” that represent the best of our human heritage, including the Bible. Second, with a largely under-developed capacity for face-to-face conversation, they have also lost the ability to engage deeply with others.

Rites do matter. But what kind of rites is the modern church inducting its members into in its segregated “contemporary” worship with its frivolous songs and flaky sermons? If the current generation of church leaders is sowing to the wind, the next generation will reap the whirlwind.


Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).

Word Made Flesh

August 2017 Credo

Who is Jesus Christ?

This question continues to exercise inquiring minds throughout the centuries, even as the enigmatic figure of the first century Rabbi never ceases to fascinate and capture the human imagination.

This is evidenced in the countless books that were written proposing endless theories about Jesus, not to mention the numerous television documentaries (especially by National Geographic).

The answer that Scripture gives to this question is at once clear and provocative. Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God who ‘was made flesh, and dwelt among us’, declares John in his Gospel (1:14).

The Apostle Paul says that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ (Colossians 1:15). The writer of Hebrews adds: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’, who upholds the universe by his power (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus Christ is the image, reflection and imprint of God because he is God himself. He is the second person of the triune God who has taken up human nature in the incarnation.

Understandably, many people today would reject the truth of the incarnation because it sounds so incredulous to the modern ear. Moderns would have no problems at all with seeing Jesus as an exceptional rabbi, or a nationalistic revolutionary, or even a shaman or mystic.

But even some Christians have found the idea of the incarnation dubious, and questioned if it is altogether necessary for Christianity to continue to perpetuate this claim.

In 1977, the authors of a collection of essays published as The Myth of God Incarnate and edited by the late John Hick controversially called to question the traditional dogma of the incarnation.

In 2005, Hick published The Metaphor of God Incarnate in which he argued that the incarnation must be understood metaphorically and not literally. For Hick, to make the claim that ‘Jesus is the incarnation of God’ is not very different from saying that ‘Winston Churchill incarnated the British will to resist Hitler’.

Liberal Christians like Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church in America reject the incarnation, and insisted that traditional Christology is bankrupt in the modern scientific age.

But the doctrine of the incarnation is not a metaphysical aberration that has somehow infected the early church’s understanding of Jesus Christ, a distortion brought about by Hellenic philosophy. As we have seen, it is clearly found in the New Testament and it has shaped the church’s prayers and liturgy since her inception.

Belief in the incarnation was given creedal form in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (formulated in the First [325] and Second Ecumenical Councils [381]) and the Chalcedonian Creed (451) amidst fierce battles against erroneous concepts of Christ.

In the Nicene Creed, the church maintains that the Jesus who died and rose again is the eternal Son of God, who is of the same essence with God the Father. In the words of the Creed, the incarnate One is ‘the only-begotten Son of God … God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God’.

In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God was ‘made flesh’, as the King James translation has it. Other versions (RSV, NIV, ESV) render it as the ‘Word became flesh’.

It is extremely important that we understand what Scripture means when it speaks of the eternal Word ‘becoming’ human flesh. There are at least two erroneous ways of understanding this ‘becoming’.

The first error is to think that in ‘becoming’ flesh, the eternal Word ‘comes into’ an existing human being, Jesus of Nazareth. To think of the incarnation in this way is to fall into the ancient heresy called ‘adoptionism’ (associated with Paul of Samosata). Adoptionism reduces Jesus to merely another prophet in whom the Word of God dwelt.

The second error is to think that in the incarnation there occurred a transmogrification of the eternal Word (Son) into a human being. According to this understanding, at the incarnation the eternal Word ‘changes into’ the man Jesus.

The early theologians of the church were very careful to stress that the incarnation is not just another version of the ‘mythical transformations’ of the gods that we find in some religions. They insisted that since God cannot be subjected to change, in taking on human flesh the second Person of the Trinity did not become other than himself.

Rather, in the incarnation the eternal Son of God takes up human nature without ever ceasing to be God. To put this in another way, in the incarnation the eternal Son does not ‘change into’ a human being, but he ‘puts on’ human nature.

The early Fathers were fond of using the imagery of Aaron donning his high-priestly robe to depict the incarnation. Just as Aaron remained unchanged after assuming his priestly dress, so the Word or Son does not cease to be God when cloaked in human flesh.

Hence, according to the Chalcedonian Definition the Son of God in the incarnation is very God and very Man. The divine and human natures are united in the second Person of the Trinity ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’.

It is also crucial to note that in the incarnation, the eternal Son plunges into the depths of the human condition by taking upon himself post-lapsarian Adamic flesh, i.e., fallen human nature.

Following Hebrews 2:14, Athanasius (296-373) in his great treatise De Incarnatione maintains that in the incarnation the Son ‘takes a body of our own kind’.

As Thomas Weinandy explains, for Athanasius ‘the humanity assumed by the Word was not some generic immunized, sanitized or quarantined humanity, but a humanity taken from the sinful race of Adam …’

As we have seen, the Chalcedonian Definition postulates that the divine and human natures are united in the person of the incarnate Son without confusion, that is, with their integrity intact.

How are we to even begin to understand this with regard to the acts of Jesus of Nazareth? The theologian William Placher suggests that we think of this great mystery in this way.

Because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he did things that only God can do – he forgave sins, resuscitated the dead, and saved humankind from sin and death. But because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, because he took up our human nature and became a man, he did other things that are associated to being human – he ate and drank, he became tired.

And if we ask who was it that did all these things, the answer is: Jesus Christ.


 

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 Mind That ‘Sees’

June 2017 Credo

This article is written in response to a request by one of the visitors of the Ethos Institute website. It has to do with the Christian’s experience of God. What do Christians mean when they say that they have a personal knowledge and experience of God? What do Christians mean when they say that they sense his presence?

One of the most important, if arguably also the most neglected topics in recent Christian discourse, is what may be described as a ‘Christian theology of religious experience’.

Despite the fact that spiritualities of all sorts – from exercises in mindfulness to New Age mysticism – have been in vogue for some time, Christian theologians generally (and evangelical theologians, in particular) have not given the issue of religious experience the serious theological attention it deserves.

Christians of every denominational stripe and tradition claim to have personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Many Christians have also testified that there were occasions when they were able to sense the presence of God in their lives.

Such assertions are, of course, premised on the Christian understanding of God.

The God who reached out to us in love and grace has invited us into a covenantal relationship with him. He is not an absentee God, distant and aloof. Rather he is Emmanuel, the God who is always with us.

But what do Christians mean when they say that they are able to sense God’s presence? How are we to understand the Christian’s perception and experience of God?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perception as the ‘awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation’. Perception, it adds, is the ‘physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience’.

Based on such definitions, the Christian claim that it is possible to perceive the divine becomes even more baffling, if not incredulous. For, unlike the pagan idols that are made of wood and clay, the God whom Christians worship is spirit, invisible to human eyes (John 1:18). The Creator is not a part of the created order, and therefore cannot be known by sensory perception like the material objects of this world.

But although the Creator of the universe is spirit and therefore cannot be perceived by our creaturely senses and finite minds, he has revealed himself in such a way that makes our knowledge of him possible.

In John 1:18, alluded to earlier, we are told that although no one has seen God, the Son of God has made him known in the incarnation. Put differently, by taking upon himself human flesh and coming as Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Trinity has made the invisible God visible.

Paul could therefore declare in Colossians that the Son ‘is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15). Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, bears witness to the incarnate Son of God through whom the invisible God is known.

Not only did God make himself an object of this world in order to reveal himself to us, he also accommodated his revelation in such a way that we are able to receive and understand it. This notion of ‘divine accommodation’, which was brilliantly developed by the great Reformer John Calvin, helps us to understand the mode that divine revelation has assumed that makes it possible for human beings to know God.

Peter Enns explains: ‘This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place – he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people – he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are’.

The objective basis for your knowledge of God sketched very briefly here is extremely important.

The knowledge of God does not arise subjectively from our inner being, our mind or our soul. Rather, it is objective. We know God because the eternal Son has become a human being, and because the Bible bears witness to him.

However, there is a subjective aspect to our knowledge of God – and this brings us closer to the heart of our topic. Just as the Son of God has made our objective knowledge of the invisible God possible in the incarnation, so the Holy Spirit enables us to subjectively apprehend and appropriate this knowledge by faith.

The early Fathers of the Church often speak of the spiritual senses (sensus spiritualis) that the Holy Spirit awakens in the regenerate soul of the believer, enabling him to perceive spiritual things.

The Spirit forms in the believer a sensorium that makes him receptive to God. The spiritual senses do not work against the natural senses but in concert with them, giving the Christian a greater capacity for God.

As the great Swiss Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, puts it: ‘The spiritual senses are the human range of senses adapted to the riches and the variety of the paths taken by God in his revelation, with the capacity simultaneously to “see his glory”, “hear his word”, “breathe his fragrance”, “taste his sweetness” and “touch his presence”’.

The spiritual senses that Christians are given at regeneration enable them, through the out-workings of divine grace, to ‘sense God’s presence’ and ‘experience him’. They enable the mind that is renewed by the Spirit to ‘see’ a deeper spiritual reality.

Such experiences can come to us during worship and prayer, or as we read the Bible. But we can also experience the presence of God as we perform mundane activities like driving to work or washing the dishes.

At this juncture, I would like to sound a note of caution by highlighting two very important points.

The first is that the relationship between the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the subjective appropriation of that revelation made possible by the Spirit must never be severed from each other. The means that all subjective religious experiences – regardless of how powerful and compelling they may be – must be subjected to Scriptural assessment and critique.

This we learn from Scripture itself. In the wake of false teachings in the Church, the Apostle John writes: ‘Beloved, do not believe any spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world’ (1 John 4:1).

Secondly, although we have been discussing how the individual Christian may know or perceive God, it must be stressed that Christian experience is always ecclesial in nature. That is to say, our personal and individual experiences of God must always be evaluated and guided by the universal Church’s experience of God.

Privileging our subjective religious experiences over the ecclesial is extremely dangerous. It has led many to theological error and spiritual ruin.


 

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

 

A Politically Correct View of Judaism?

March 2017 Credo

Recent years have seen the emergence of strongly Jewish sentiments in some Western Christian circles. The issue is not about whether Judaism should be understood on its own terms (we do that for other religions); what is objectionable is their disregard for a Christian understanding of Israel.

Unlike the dispensationalists of yesteryear whose view of Israel was at least theologically driven (even if mistaken), these modern sentiments are driven more by political correctness expressed in two strategic moves.

One is the refusal to transliterate the tetragrammaton (YHWH) into a pronounceable form. For Jews it may have something to do with their belief in God’s mystery and transcendence: None can see God’s face and live; none can touch God’s ark without provoking him to break out in judgment.

There is also a tradition about not taking the name of the Lord (YHWH) in vain, etc. Ostensibly, this move is made out of respect for Jews. But why now, when the facts have long been known? The political climate has changed especially after the Second World War.

Like many forms of political correctness, there are usually powerful socio-political forces at work. First, the West seems to be burdened with a collective guilt regarding the Holocaust. Any action or speech perceived as anti-Semitic is immediately singled out for harsh censure. When a former president of Iran questioned the existence of the Holocaust, the Western reaction was swift and shrill. Now, anti-Semitism is indeed reprehensible—but so is any form of racism.

Another reason for Western Christians’ acting politically correctly is that the space where they once inhabited and enjoyed considerable influence has shrunk alarmingly. Christians of orthodox persuasion are finding themselves shunned, marginalized and evicted from the public square by an increasingly militant secular elite. But together, Christians and Jews could mount a counter-attack. This is amply illustrated in the influential magazine First Things.

Islam, potentially, could be another friend, but given the current geo-political climate an alliance with Islam would be imprudent. Also, one must not underestimate the influence of the Jewish lobby in America.

But political correctness comes with a high price. To refuse to name God implicitly undermines a central pillar of the Christian faith.

Christians have good reason to call God Yahweh or Jehovah, even if they are not sure what the actual pronunciation of the tetragrammaton is. The basis for Christian boldness is the Incarnation.

The God of Israel has taken on flesh. In Christ, God is revealed in visible and tactile concreteness: “that which we have seen, which we have touched with our hands…” With Christ’s coming, Israel’s God has acquired a face and a name: we behold his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; we dare to call him “Abba, Father.”

Some theologians have suggested that Father is the proper name of God in that the Person so named stands in a unique relationship to Jesus Christ as his one and only Son. If Christians are emboldened by the Holy Spirit to call God “Abba” why should they not dare call Israel’s God by his proper name, Yahweh?

The second strategy is to replace the phrase “Old Testament” with “the Hebrew Bible” or Tanakh. This move may seem like a small concession but it too comes with a price.
The “Old Testament” is, admittedly, a distinctively Christian designation. From the beginning, Christians have always regarded the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New, for it points to and prefigures Jesus Christ.

This understanding is encapsulated in Augustine’s dictum: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet” (The New Testament is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed). It is a relationship of the shadow and the real, of promise and fulfilment.

Understanding their relationship in this way does not imply that the Old is superseded. Some elements in the Old are indeed superseded and no longer necessary, such as the bloody sacrifices, as Hebrews teaches, but it does not mean that the Church replaces Israel as some supersessionists believe.

Israel is our still big brother or, putting it differently, the Church is Israel expanded. The Church is not a gentile church but the new people of God uniting Israel and the nations. It is the natural olive tree (Israel) into which the wild olive branches (gentiles) are grafted.

Some, however, are not content with this New Testament conception of the Church. For them the divine economy has to be so reconceptualized as to give Israel its own distinctive place, making it virtually a separate entity. Here again, I’m not thinking of dispensationalism but certain forms of modern nonsupersessionism. The result is a Christian Bible without a Christological centre.

For Christians the two testaments form a single Bible. This is why the early Christians interpreted the Old Testament typologically as pointing to its fulfillment in Christ. They used the Old Testament in their catechetical instructions for precisely this reason. Ambrose of Milan is a classic example, whose preference for the Old Testament is based on the rationale that just as the Old prepares for the New, it prepares catechumens for baptism into the Body of Christ.

Not to recognize the Old Testament as indeed the Old Testament is an implicit denial of the continuity and development of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. It is tantamount to denying its status as Christian Scripture. The New Testament would make no sense without the Old; on its own the New presents only a truncated story without a real beginning. The New without the Old would produce a distorted Christianity—in fact, another version of the Marcionite heresy.

Christians, especially those in the Majority World, should recognize these moves for what they are: they are not a theologically better way of understanding Jewish-Christian relations but strategies driven by political correctness. Why should Christians in the Majority World bear the guilt of the West? Our battle with secularism can be better fought not just by forging alliance with faithful Jews, but also with the faithful in other religions.



Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).

Is the Incarnation Possible?

December 2016 CREDO

Every Christmas Christians celebrate the Incarnation, the metaphysical union between true divinity and true humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ. But is such a union possible?

Throughout the centuries many skeptics have raised doubts by pointing out that being divine entails being omniscient and omnipotent, but the New Testament portrays Jesus as having human properties such as being apparently limited in knowledge (Mark 13:32) and power (John 4:3-6).

Many Christians have responded by saying that the Incarnation is a mystery.

This is true, nevertheless, the inadequacy with simply replying ‘mystery’ is that, since the Christian wants to make meaningful statements by affirming, for example, that the divine nature includes omniscience and that Jesus was apparently limited in knowledge as stated by the Scriptures, he/she must demonstrate what is meant (or what could possibly be meant) by these statements; it is not enough to claim that it is a ‘mystery’ and leave it as that.

Moreover, the Christian must ensure that the explications of these statements do not result in contradictions. The problem with asserting that one can make contradictory statements about Jesus (e.g. ‘Jesus has complete awareness of everything and complete unawareness of everything simultaneously’) is that the person who makes such contradictory statements is not affirming anything about Jesus.

Affirming ‘complete awareness of everything’ and ‘complete unawareness of everything’ simply cancel each other out; it is like writing something and then immediately erasing it, such that one ends up with nothing that is affirmed of Jesus.

Therefore, in order to make meaningful statements about Jesus in accordance with the Scriptures and to rebut the charge of incoherence, it would be helpful if the Christian can suggest a possible model to show how concepts like omniscience and apparent limitation in knowledge can be affirmed of Jesus such that no contradiction results.

One such model is the Divine Preconscious Model (DPM), which is a form of ‘Kryptic model’. The New Testament portrays Christ as having divine powers including the knowledge of all things (e.g. John 16:30, 21:17), but not utilizing them in all situations. His divine powers were largely ‘hidden’ (‘Krypsis’ in Greek) during the Incarnation, and only utilized on certain occasions to reveal his glory (e.g. John 2:1–11).

This is what DPM postulates.

The key insight is that a divine person can refrain from utilizing his omnipotence when he carries out certain activities, such as walking to a town in Samaria. One can therefore suggest that the Son of God did this by the finite strength of his human body instead of utilizing his divine powers, hence he could experience fatigue as portrayed in John 4:3-6.

Likewise knowledge can be understood as a kind of power which one can refrain from utilizing. For example, a person might have knowledge of calculus, even though he might not be consciously thinking about calculus all the time.

This knowledge of calculus can be said to be in his preconscious: when he chooses to utilize this knowledge by directing his attention to it, that is, when he chooses to consciously think about calculus, he can become aware of calculus.

Since having knowledge of a certain thing such as calculus does not require a constant conscious awareness of that thing, the knowledge of all things by a divine Person does not require a constant conscious awareness of all things by him. Thus, it could be the case that a divine Person chose to let his knowledge of all things reside in his divine preconscious at the Incarnation, and he freely chose not to utilize all of the knowledge in his preconscious, so as to consciously experience our human limitations.

Concerning Mark 13:32, it should be noted that the Greek word οἶδεν which is translated as ‘know’ means ‘to have realized, perceived, to know’; this word is often used in the New Testament in a general way, e.g. to know a person, to be able to understand/apprehend/recognize.

Therefore, in view of its semantic range, in this passage oiden (οἶδεν) can be legitimately rendered as ‘aware’. Thus, Mark 13:32 can be read as ‘But of that day or hour no one is aware, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.’

This reading fits the context perfectly: the disciples would be hoping that the Son would reveal to them the day of his coming, but no one can reveal what he/she is not aware.

For our purposes here, it is important to note that such an unawareness of the Son can co-exist with omniscience in the same person because, as noted previously, omniscience does not require a conscious awareness of all the things known. A divine person can use his omnipotence to restrict the scope of his conscious awareness as well as the utilization of his omniscience, and in this state of self-restraint the Son was genuinely unaware of that day; it was not a sham.

Because of his love for us, the Son of God restricted himself, came into the world, suffered for us and gave himself up for us (Galatians 2:20). This Christmas, let us be thankful that ‘The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).


Dr Andrew LokeDr. Andrew Loke (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

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.

 

 

 

Sacred Space

November 2014 Pulse

Almost sixty years ago, the Romanian philosopher Mircea Elaide perceptively noted that certain physical spaces in many traditional religions are regarded as sacred.

However, modernity with its corrosive secularism has robbed us of the sacramental view of reality. The toxic influence of modernity has rendered reality opaque, and has reduced it to a state of utter banality, incapable of either embodying or revealing the sacred.

The modern de-sacralisation of reality is seen acutely in its concept of physical space. Under the conditions of modernity, many evangelical churches have not only lost the sense of sacred space, but may even find such a notion troubling.

Christians must take the concept of sacred space very seriously, especially that space where the worship of God is conducted. This is not only because of the obvious fact that the Church must gather at a certain place for corporate worship.

Christians must also take the notion of sacred space seriously because of the fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith, namely, the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the second Person of the Triune God took up human flesh and entered into our time and space. He became a specific human being (Jesus of Nazareth) who lived in a specific time and place (first century Palestine).

The Incarnation is important for our reflection on space because it shows that space can be the location of divine encounter and therefore the bearer of profound meaning. Space is important because throughout Scripture God and humanity always meet at certain places, whether it be in the desolate wasteland or the splendour of the Temple in Jerusalem.

How space is organised for worship is equally important for the Christian Church.

The interior spaces of traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are usually heavily ornamented.

Worshippers are surrounded with stained glass art, icons, statues, and wall frescoes. Together with the reading of the biblical texts and the sacred music of the Church, these visual images tell the great story of human salvation. Together, they provide the visual and the aural dimensions of Christian worship.

But the use of space is significant even for churches that are not very steeped in liturgical architecture. How the furniture is arranged in those churches point to their theological orientation and emphasis. For instance, the centrality of the pulpit in many Presbyterian churches signifies the importance of preaching in the Reformed tradition.

The significance of all this should never be underestimated because the relationship between the worshipper and the space or environment of worship is complex.

The place of worship provides the believer with what may be best described as an embodied history of devotion. The gathering space is important because it marks the temporal separation of the Christian community from the world outside. The church building is the place where the believer prays, confesses his sins, receives the bread and wine, performs the liturgy and sings his faith. Put differently, it is the place where the Christian worships the true God together with others in the community of faith.

In addition, the accumulative experience of using a particular church building for existentially significant rites of passage – baptisms, weddings, funeral wakes – is truly profound and enduring.

But what about churches that conduct their Sunday worship in commercial buildings of which they do not have exclusive use? To be sure, something important is lost in such arrangements.

However, Christians who have to use such premises can take comfort in the fact the early Church also had to meet at the homes of its members. The Church was not allowed to have properties of her own because Christianity was looked upon with suspicion (religio illicita).

But the Church never had real difficulties with this, thanks to her unique theology of space.  For the Church understands that when she gathers at a certain place for worship – whether it is the cathedral or a cinema hall – that spatial context is no longer ordinary, profane space. It is transformed spiritually into sacred space, kingdom space, because of the holy presence of God.


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.