Tag Archives: protestant

Is the Reformation Over?

October 2017 Credo

On 30 October last year, Pope Francis visited the cities of Lund and Malmö in southern Sweden for a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the 499th anniversary of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. This event was significant because Pope Francis was only the second pontiff to visit the Scandinavian country that had played such a troubled role in Protestant and Catholic history.

‘With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality of sacred Scripture in the Church’s life’, the Pope said in a joint declaration. ‘We, too, must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness’, he added.

The pope’s visit is seen as the latest step in the slow rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant Churches.

This year, as Protestant churches across the globe – but especially in Europe – celebrate the 500th anniversary of that great theological, intellectual and cultural upheaval in the 16th century that splintered Catholic Europe, some are asking whether the Reformation is over.

Some leaders on both sides of the divide have answered this question in the affirmative, believing that the controversies that erupted five centuries ago have been largely resolved, given the great strides that have been made in the recent history of Protestant-Catholic dialogue.

Others maintain that Protestants and Catholics should set aside their differences and work together in the wake of the profound challenges that Christians face worldwide, namely, secularism and Islamism. Still others are of the view that while the issues that brought about the great schism in the Western church are doubtless still important, they should not be the basis of division today.

However, both viewpoints in their own ways fail to take the fundamental theological debates between the Reformers and the Catholic Church seriously. In fact, such approaches may betray the hidden crisis of Protestant and evangelical churches in the twentieth century, their subjugation to the modern zeitgeist.

But even those who wish to take doctrinal issues seriously have opined that the Reformation is indeed over. They often cite the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church as the sterling example of what the recent ecumenical dialogue between the two churches has been able to achieve.

So important is this biblical doctrine that Luther declared that justification is the article on which the Church stands or falls (iustificatio articulis stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae). If the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church (led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, no less) can issue a joint declaration on this all-important article, the Reformation must be surely over, they reasoned.

This, in fact, is the view of the celebrated evangelical historian, Mark Noll, in his 2005 book (co-authored by Carolyn Nystrom) entitled, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism.

While these scholars may be cheerfully optimistic that the Church has entered a new phase, where old quarrels and disagreements have been resolved or set aside, others are not quite so sanguine. They see the question, ‘Is the Reformation over?’ as a placeholder for a myriad of theological issues that still await resolution.

For them, the most fundamental question is: Has the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council really redressed the profound theological and religious concerns raised by Luther and Calvin?

While the doctrine of justification by faith is certainly important, there are numerous other theological issues raised by the Reformers that must also be addressed adequately. They include the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis the Church, the doctrine of the Church and its sacraments, Mariology, purgatory and papal authority.

These theologians question whether the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which appears to have achieved consensus only on very broad issues, has really succeeded in resolving the centuries-long controversies over the doctrine.

They point out that although the Joint Declaration does signal a more biblical approach to the doctrine, it in fact simply reiterates the position promulgated by the Council of Trent.

They argue that the doctrine of justification cannot be considered in splendid isolation, cut off from the other great theological themes to which it is inextricably related. They further maintain that this doctrine has profound implications for church life, piety and worship.

These are important questions that must not be brushed aside for the sake of a superficial irenics. When they are taken seriously, we are inexorably led to the conclusion that the Reformation is indeed not over.

Even those who think otherwise appear not to be fully convinced of their view. For, as Carl Trueman has argued, if they really believe that the Reformation is over, then they should ‘do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church’.

But if the Reformation is in fact not over, then Catholic-Protestant dialogue must continue in earnest.

There are many excellent examples of such dialogues, the most fruitful of which is arguably the initiative that was started in the early 1990s by Father Richard Neuhaus and Charles Colson called ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ (ECT).

The core affirmation of the ECT statement on ‘The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium’ should set the tone for all such dialogues: ‘All who accept Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have no chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and He has chosen us to be together’.

It is perhaps naïve to think that there can be quick or easy resolutions to centuries-long divisions in the Body of Christ.

But as the theologian and Reformation scholar Timothy George has so poignantly put it, ‘Despite setbacks and unresolved theological differences, evangelicals and Catholics are still called to steadfastness in their witness to Christian unity. We know that such unity is not an end in itself, but is always in the service of the good news of God’s overcoming grace’.


 

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.

Divine Transcendence and Immanence

February 2017 Credo

In the Eastern Church, the Trisagon is usually sung before the Prokeimenon of the Gospel and the reading of the Epistle. Known as Ter Sanctus in Western Christianity, this ancient prayer celebrates the holiness and transcendence of God with the familiar words taken from Isaiah 6:3: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts …’

The transcendence of God is everywhere attested to in the Bible. In Psalm 113: 5-6, the psalmist declares: ‘Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?’

And in Isaiah 55, a passage well known to Christians of all stripes, the transcendence of God is depicted in light of his unfathomable ways: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (vv 8-9).

It was belief in the utter transcendence of God that marked out the Israelites from the ancient world, leading them not only to reject all forms of idolatry but also the reverencing of all earthly sovereigns as divine, even at great political and social cost.

To speak of the transcendence of God is to emphasise his absolute uniqueness. As Emil Brunner explains: ‘Transcendence of essence means that God is God alone, and that his “Godhood” is absolutely and irrevocably different from all other forms of being’. Put differently, divine transcendence points to God’s ‘wholly otherness’, his absolute distinction from the creation.

The concept of divine transcendence must always be accompanied by the concept of divine immanence if theology is to achieve a more balanced understanding of the God revealed in Scripture. For the Bible portrays God as the transcendent Creator who is also intimately involved in the world he has sovereignly brought into being.

As Donald Bloesch puts it: ‘If we conceive of God as infinitely other, we must at the same time envisage him as infinitely close. If we picture him as wholly transcendent, we must at the same time allow for the truth that he is radically immanent in the sense of being present with us and for us’.

The immanence of God has to do with his active presence in the whole of creation. Scripture attests to this in various ways. For example, in Jeremiah 23: 24, the Lord declares: ‘Can a man hide himself in secret places to that I cannot see? … Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ The divine immanence signals God’s closest and most intimate relationship with the world, but without ever compromising his transcendental otherness.

To quote Bloesch again: ‘… he is never immanent without being essentially transcendent, just as he does not remain transcendent without making himself for our sakes immanent’.

Understanding the relationship between the divine transcendence and the divine immanence is extremely important if modern theology is to navigate safely across the metaphysical labyrinth and avoid the Charybdis of deism and the Scylla of pantheism.

Deism so emphasises divine transcendence that the god it creates is for the most part an absentee deity, aloof to the affairs of the world. Pantheism, on the other hand, privileges divine immanence in such a way that the distinction between God and the world is erased.

In contemporary theology, it was Karl Barth, the great Swiss German theologian who emphasised the importance of the otherness of God – his utter transcendence – more than any other theologian in his long and bitter battle against the theological liberalism of his day.

Liberalism envisions the divine immanence in such a way that the work of God is often conflated with the historical and political processes. The gap between God and human beings is narrowed and even blurred, and the enterprises fanned by human ideologies and ambition are often confused with the divine purpose.

Such immanentism has made the liberal Protestant churches of Barth’s day susceptible to the Nazi ideology and agenda.

In response, Barth emphasised the infinite and qualitative distinction between God and the world, his utter transcendence. God cannot be gleaned from our observation of the empirical world – hence Barth’s rejection of the natural theology of liberal Christianity. He is only known by revelation, which comes from above.

For Barth, human beings can never succeed in domesticating God or coercing him into endorsing their most ambitious political and social projects. The transcendent God, who is ever immanent in his creation, remains forever sovereign.

Christians worship the God who is at once transcendent and immanent without attempting to unravel this unfathomable mystery. Christians worship the Creator and Sustainer of the universe who dwells in the hearts of human beings (John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 3:16), the God who is exalted but never remote.

As Gregory of Nyssa has declared: ‘God’s transcendent power is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens, or the luster of the stars, or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as in his condescension to our weak nature’.



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 Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


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Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.

 


Notes:

[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170