Tag Archives: Prayer

What is Theology?

July 2016 CREDO

In the ‘Preface’ of his famous work, the Proslogion (English: Discourse on the Existence of God) published in 1078, the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury announces its main theme as ‘faith seeking understanding’ (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum). In doing so, Anselm was following the great fifth century theologian Augustine, whose approach is summed up thus: ‘I believe in order to understand’ (Latin: credo ut intelligam).

Many theologians (especially in the Latin tradition) agree that ‘faith seeking understanding’ is a good definition of theology.

The English word ‘theology’ is a combination of two Greek words: theos which means God, and logos which means speech or thought. Theology is therefore the Church’s speech about God that is faithful to his revelation in Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word), and the Bible (the written Word).

The Church receives God’s self-disclosure in Christ by faith, which itself is a gift made possible by divine grace. Faith may be broadly described as the Church’s trust in the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ.

Faith, however, must not be seen as just a matter of holding certain propositions to be true. It is the commitment of the whole person to the reality of God.

Faith is a human response to God. As my teacher, the late Colin Gunton, puts it: faith is a ‘responsive movement of the heart, responsive to God’s awaking movement into the world in reconciliation’.

But, as Gunton is quick to add, faith is a human response that is always enabled by the Spirit of God: ‘This human response, like all authentic human action, is the gift of the Spirit who enables people to become what they will be by relating them to God the Father through Christ’.

The definition of faith as the Church’s trusting assent to God in his revelation should not lead to the mistake – so common today – of reducing faith to subjective religious experience. Faith therefore must not be seen as a leap in the dark or as blind trust. If faith is the means by which the Church appropriates the objective revelation of God, then it is inextricably bound to knowledge, the knowledge of the living God.

Put simply, faith has to do with knowledge and understanding.

And because faith has to do with the knowledge of God, the Church’s quest to understand what she by faith holds to be true is not at all inimical to the nature of her faith.

The church’s quest for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God in his revelation begins and ends in faith. As Karl Barth has put it, faith is both the terminus a quo (English: ‘point of origin’) and terminus ad quem (English: ‘destination’) of the Church’s thinking about God.

In her quest to understand the truths about God that she has received by faith, the Church employs reason as a tool. Faith and reason are therefore not to be separated like oil and water, and theology is neither a flight from logic nor a denial of human rationality.

Anselm’s understanding of theology puts a check on the modern propensity to put asunder what God himself has joined. Faith and reason are not antithetical to each other. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, faith and reason can work in harmony with each other in the Church’s quest for deeper insights into God’s revealed truths.

As Pope John Paul II has so brilliantly put it in his remarkable encyclical Fides et Ratio (English: ‘Faith and Reason’): ‘Faith and reason are like wings on which the spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’. ‘Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason’, asserts Pope John Paul II, but ‘at the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents’.

It must be remembered that the Proslogion, where Anselm’s definition of theology is found, is a written in a form of a prayer. This fact is pertinent because it disabuses us from thinking that theology is a purely intellectual activity.

Although theology in some respects demands great intellectual energy and scholarly rigour, it is in essence a spiritual activity. Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Greek Orthodox Church is therefore absolutely right in pointing out that in the strict sense of the word theology refers to the contemplation of God himself.

Theology can never be reduced to just an academic pursuit. Prayer and theology must therefore be wedded together.

As the fourth century Christian ascetic Evagrius of Pontus has famously put it, ‘The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays’. And Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Roman Catholic theologian of the last century insists that one can only do theology ‘on one’s knees’.

What is not immediately obvious in Anselm’s famous definition (although it is assumed by Anselm himself) is that theology is always a communal – or better still, an ecclesial – activity. ‘The Church receives the faith theology seeks to understand, forms individuals in it (including theologians), and hands it on to them’, observes Bruce Marshall.

Theology can never be private endeavour or an activity severed from the life of the Church. In his famous essay, The Humanity of God Karl Barth maintains that theology can be carried out only in the context and in the service of the Church:

… theology cannot be carried on in the private lighthouses of some sort of merely personal discoveries and opinions. It can be carried on only in the Church – it can be put to work in all its elements only in the context of the questioning and answering Christian community and in rigorous service of its commission to all men.

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. 



What is the purpose of speaking and praying in tongues? Should all Christians speak in tongues?

Although the phenomenon of speaking in tongues is described in only two books in the New Testament – Acts and 1 Corinthians – it has attracted much attention and controversy in the church. No consensus has been reached among Christians from different backgrounds and denominations about its place in the church today, and contradictory and conflicting views continue to persist. On one extreme end of the spectrum is the cessationist view that asserts that tongues, together with the other miraculous gifts described in the New Testament, have ceased at the close of the apostolic age. On the other end, Pentecostals maintain that tongues are a universal gift in the church and that every Christian should speak in tongues.

In his discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul devotes much attention to the gift of tongues. What was Paul referring to when he speaks of the gift of tongues? I think we can describe tongues as the gift of ecstatic speech. As this passage from 1 Corinthians makes clear, the Holy Spirit bestows this gift on some Christians. Unlike the practices of some cults and pagan religions, however, tongues-speech in the Christian church is not a type of somnambulism where the speaker is in a trancelike state.

Commenting on the phenomenon in Volume 4 of his magisterial Church Dogmatics, the Swiss German theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, describes speaking in tongues as ‘an attempt to express the inexpressible in which the tongue rushes past … the notions and concepts necessary to ordinary speech and utters what can be received only as a groan or sigh, thus needing at once interpretation or exposition’. For Barth tongues-speech is not a ‘bizarre stuttering and stammering’, but rather an ecstatic flow of inexpressible joy.

The phenomenon of tongues-speech in the Corinthian church must be distinguished from that described in Acts. The tongues that the disciples spoke at Pentecost were actual foreign languages (xenolalia). Hence Acts 2:8ff states that the bewildered crowd was able to hear the Galileans praise God in their own languages. But the tongues that were spoken by members of the Corinthian church were unintelligible to both speakers (14:14) and hearers (14:16) and required Spirit-enabled interpretation. This phenomenon is arguably similar to that which is found in some contemporary churches.

Tongues can be seen as a type of prayer for Paul says that the person who prays in tongues addresses God (1 Cor 14:2, 14). In 1 Corinthians, Paul asserts that when used in private devotions this gift can edify the believer. He explains further that with interpretation tongues can edify the whole church, and in this sense must be deemed as valuable as prophecy (1 Cor 14:5). Paul therefore urges his readers who have the gift of tongues to also pray for the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). The apostle affirms the gift of tongues and even boasts that he uses this gift more than the Corinthian Christians (14:18). He teaches that the ability to speak in tongues is a gift that the Holy Spirit bestows upon Christians. This gift is to be received with gratitude and exercised for personal edification as well as that of the community of believers.  

Some Christians think that speaking in tongues is a higher form of prayer. Such a view must be rejected. In 14:14-15 Paul emphasizes that praying with the mind (i.e., praying intelligibly with one’s understanding) is just as important as praying in the spirit (i.e., praying ecstatically in tongues). The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 also suggests that some believers in the church at Corinth had elevated the gift of tongues above the other gifts. In this letter, Paul takes great pains to refute this teaching. In verse 28, Paul delineates the various gifts of the Spirit in a hierarchy (indicated by his use of ‘first, second, third’, etc) and places the gift of tongues at the very bottom of the list. Furthermore, Paul rejects the view of some believers in Corinth that only truly spiritual believers could speak in tongues (12:29).

Some Christians (Pentecostals and some charismatics) have associated the ability to speak in tongues with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I hope address this topic in another article. The question that I wish to deal with in the final few sentences of the present article is whether Paul had expected every Christian to speak in tongues. Paul certainly desired that every Corinthian Christian would speak in tongues (14:5). But as the rhetorical questions in 12:29-30 make clear Paul did not expect every Christian to possess this gift. This is perfectly congruent with Paul’s insistence that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are distributed according to the sovereign will of God.

Let me end by underscoring Paul’s closing remarks on this topic found in 1 Corinthians 14:39-40. Because tongues-speech is controversial and problematic, there is a tendency for some to prohibit it altogether. Paul’s response is unequivocal: ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’ (v. 39b). How can the church prohibit what God by his grace wishes to grant? But tongues-speech must be regulated and practiced in a ‘fitting and orderly way’ because God is not a God of disorder (14:33).  In dealing with this controversial practice, Paul counseled propriety, not prohibition.

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 The Bible Speaks Today (June 2014).

The Sign of the Cross (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans)

The phrase ‘sign of the cross’ refers to various liturgical or devotional acts which trace the two lines intersecting at right angles, indicating symbolically the figure of Jesus’ cross. For evangelical Protestants, whose devotional and liturgical experience does not emphasise the use of gestures, the sign of the cross may appear rather strange and unnecessary. Is it not enough to simply say ‘Our Father’ at the start of our prayer and ‘Amen’ at the end?

As a devotional or liturgical practice, the sign of the cross has a very long history in Christian spirituality. Its origins can be traced to the writings of the theologians in the first five hundred years of the Church’s history.

There are many different ways in which the sign of cross may be made, the most common of which is to trace a large cross from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder. This gesture is often accompanied by the words ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. Sometimes, the believer may trace a little cross, generally using the thumb, on the forehead. In the Roman Catholic Church, believers trace small crosses over their forehead, their lips and their hearts before listening to the Gospel reading. In some Anglican and Lutheran services, the priest or bishop makes the sign of the cross in the air when pronouncing the benediction.

There are different ways in which the fingers can be positioned when making the sign of the cross. Some would trace the cross with their index finger and middle fingers held together. This is meant to symbolise the two natures of Christ – that the incarnate Son is very God and very man. Others would hold the index and the middle fingers together (with the thumb pressing down the last finger) while making the sign of the cross, thus symbolising the Holy Trinity. Sometimes the priest holds his third and fourth fingers down with his thumb while keeping his index and middle fingers straight. This position has the advantage of signifying both the two natures of Christ and the Trinity.

What is the place of such gestures in Christian worship and devotion? Theologians maintain that physical gestures are important in worship and that something is lost if the church has lost sight of them.

Even Protestants who use gestures only very minimally are used to standing, sitting or kneeling in worship. Some also raise their hands in prayers or when singing a hymn. Some L­utherans also genuflect (kneel on one knee) as a gesture of reverence. Ministers in Protestant churches often raise their hands when pronouncing the benediction.

It is the nature of physical movements that they involve the mind as well as the body and thus produce a greater sense of participation. Gestures used at different points in the worship service can produce greater intensity in the act of worship. When these gestures are symbolic, that is, when they point to particular truths, they can inject meaning and value in worship. Of course just as words can be cheap, actions can also be performed mechanically and thoughtlessly. But when used properly and reverently, significant gestures can introduce depth to our worship.

The different postures, for example, could indicate the attitude of the worshipper at different points in worship. Kneeling expresses humility, and is the appropriate posture for prayer, particularly the prayer of confession. Standing brings to expression other attitudes, and therefore may be more appropriate for other acts of worship – singing, prayers of thanksgiving, praise and adoration. Sitting is less expressive and indicates that attention is directed at what someone else is doing. Thus, in most Western churches the congregation sits to listen to the homily or sermon.

The sign of the cross is an important liturgical gesture because the Cross is the central symbol of the Christian Faith. To make the sign of the cross is to recall the salvation that God has made available through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ. The sign of the cross is therefore a reminder of the divine love, which is not only found in a past event, but which continues to abide with us.

The sign of the cross therefore becomes a wonderful daily expression of our relationship with God. It recalls our baptism, for all Christians are baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Tracing the cross on our forehead, heart and shoulders reminds us that we are to love God with our mind, heart, soul and strength – indeed, with every fibre of our being.

Dr Roland Chia

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

Should Christians pray for the dead?

It may surprise some readers of this magazine to learn that the practice of praying for the dead has a very long history in the Christian tradition that can be traced as far back as the third century A.D. The great father of the early church, Tertullian, who has contributed so much to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, wrote in A.D. 211 about the practice of offering prayers and the Eucharist for the deceased on the anniversaries of their deaths. And in the fifth century, Augustine alluded to the practice when he wrote about the common practice of remembering the departed ‘at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ’. The practice is rigorously observed in the Roman Catholic Church, while a number of the ancient liturgies –those in Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Greek – testify to its prevalence in the Eastern Churches. Prayers for the dead are also found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Roman Catholics appeal to 2 Maccabees 12:40-46 as the ‘scriptural’ basis for this practice. This passage tells the story of Judas who discovered among the bodies of the brethren who had perished in the battle against Gorgias the idols of Jamnia, which the Jews were forbidden to worship. Upon this discovery, Judas ‘blessed the just judgement of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden’. He then gathered the people of Israel to pray for forgiveness for the departed brethren who had sinned against God. The passage ends with these words: ‘It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins’. In 2 Maccabees, belief in the resurrection of the dead provides the theological rationale for praying for the dead: ‘For if he [Judas] had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead’ (12:44). Although the Roman Catholic Church considers 2 Maccabees as canonical, the Reformers classify it as an apocrypha and therefore do not accord it with the same authority and status as the other canonical books of the Bible.

The practice of praying for the dead is further undergirded by the doctrine of purgatory, whose origins can also be traced to the second century. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), ‘All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven’. The doctrine of purgatory is alluded to in the writings of the early Church Fathers, including Tertullian. Prayers offered for the souls of the dead in purgatory may shorten the process of purification and hasten their entry into heaven. The Reformers, however, rightly rejected the doctrine because it has no support from the Bible at all. Evangelical theologian Millard Erickson is therefore right to say that the rejection of purgatory is that which ‘distinguishes Catholicism and Protestantism in general’.

The practice of praying for the dead in the Roman Catholic Church led to the marking of All Soul’s Day, the day of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have passed away. All Soul’s Day must not be confused with All Saint’s Day, which precedes it. While All Saint’s Day is purposed for the commemoration of the saints of God, known or unknown, who are already in heaven, All Soul’s Day shifts the focus on the souls that are undergoing purification in purgatory. On All Soul’s Day, the clergy recite the Office of the Dead while the faithful offer prayers and alms for the dead. All Soul’s Day became a universal festival through the influence of Odilo of Cluny in A.D. 998, who commanded the Benedictine Houses in his congregation to observe it annually. The practice soon spread to the other Catholic communities. Today, Catholic Churches all over the world celebrate All Soul’s Day on November 2 (or November 3, if the 2nd is a Sunday). Initially, the Reformers rejected the practice because of its association with the doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead, but a number of Protestant churches today observe it.

The prevalence of the practice of praying for the dead in the Western and Eastern Churches has made it especially difficult to critique it, not to mention reject it. But although the practice has a long and venerable history, there is very little biblical or theological justification for it and must, for this reason, be rejected. As mentioned earlier, for Protestant Christians, 2 Maccabees could not be considered as a canonical text, and therefore does not possess the requisite authority to inspire a doctrine. In similar vein, the doctrine of purgatory must be rejected because it has no scriptural basis whatsoever.

I therefore concur with the Reformer John Calvin who maintained that the practice of praying for the dead is ‘an error’. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote: ‘For over thirteen hundred years it was the approved practice to pray for the deceased. All ancients fell into error; it was something human and therefore what they did must not be imitated’ (3, 5, 10). But the most straightforward rejection of the practice comes from the pen of Martin Luther. In the Small Catechism he wrote: ‘We should pray for ourselves and for all other peoples, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead’. Then citing Hebrews 9:27 Luther continues: ‘Since individuals are judged by God immediately after their death and enter either heaven or hell, there is no reason to pray for them. Those in hell cannot be helped by prayer, and those in heaven have no need of our prayers’.

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.