Tag Archives: Revelation

Our Way is Not to be Discovered in Ourselves, but Offered from Another

July 2017 Feature

I know, O Lord, that the way of humankind is not in themselves,
that it is not in the person who walks to direct their steps. 

Jeremiah 10:23[i]

As a young man, I worked as a foreman on a US National Forest Service fire-crew in the Cascade Mountain Range in Oregon.  The Cascades’ undulating hills and conical peaks are beautiful, but easy to get lost in if you leave the trail and head into the woods.

I discovered this the hard way when I led my crew into the woods to extinguish a small lightning fire in a large dead Cedar about two miles off the main road. Rain and mist from the low canopy of clouds limited our view.

Unable to locate the burning snag, I called in a spotter plane to circle over the tree as a guide. We knew the aircraft would only circle briefly, so when it did appear above the trees we hastily set down our packs and dashed some 300 meters to the smouldering snag.

The rain had done most of our job for us, so I had part of the crew fell the tree and douse its coals while I and three crewman walked back to fetch our packs that contained food but more importantly our compass.

Given that we hadn’t run far, we assumed fetching the packs simple, but thirty minutes in and no packs to be seen, we turned back to the fire.  Yet, we were unable to find the fire. For two hours we searched but to no avail; we were adrift in mists, rolling woods and the gloom of dusk. I had a map, but it was useless without a compass for bearings.

Finally, the mist began to give way and the cloud canopy lifted. In the distance I saw Bachelor Mountain appear on the horizon and with this landmark and the sunlight filtering in I was able to pinpoint our position on the map and thus we were able to make our way back to the fire.

With light came direction and Jeremiah’s prophecy suggests the same. According to the word given to Jeremiah, humans are not designed to make their way by themselves.

Spiritually, vocationally, and relationally, they need guidance and that need is built into our physical and spiritual DNA. Indeed, Biblical Hebrew language reveals our need for guidance.  In ancient Hebrew, the term “in front of” (qedem) is word for “past.” and the word for “behind” (achar) is the root of the term “future” (achareet).

Hence, humans face the past and walk backward into the future and it follows that “the way of adam (humankind) is not in themselves;” humans require another to guide them in their way.  Without orientation, direction, and grace we are fated to wander aimlessly. Both collectively and individually we need another who sees the future gives guidance to on our way.

That guide is given a name by Abraham (Gen 22:14). Abraham names to the one who not only stayed his hand from killing Isaac and provided the sacrifice as “Jehovah Jireh” (KJV) or “The Lord Will Provide” (NIV).

Yet the name “Jehovah Jireh” literally means “Yahweh who sees”. Thus, Abraham honours Yahweh who sees to his need and guides him in his way. Abraham like Jeremiah realizes that his way of is not in himself, it was not in Abraham who walks to direct his own steps.

The implications of this for us are legion as we make our own way in the world, but let me suggest at least three areas it affects us.

First, knowledge that is sound and leads to wisdom requires revelation.  You see without sound guidance the data, research, quantitative and qualitative analysis we gather is of questionable value.

Certainly controlled experiments, statistical analysis, rational decision analyses can produce mountains of data that can be diligently catalogued and refined, yet without wisdom and direction cannot tell us what is its value and how we understand and apply it.

As Stanley Fish has noted:

No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.[ii]

Fish reminds us that research and analysis that leads enables reason and sound engagement insists that it answer normative questions such as “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”  Naturally that requires more than a description of what is, but some insight into what ought to be.

Biblically that requires that knowledge be informed by the one who sees and guides. Thus, sound research should be informed by revelation and even spiritual guidance.

Apart from sound guidance, humankind is prone to organise and use knowledge to pursue what in the long run are personally or collectively destructive and defiling.  Thus, spiritual autonomy affords an intellectual vertigo that is bound to harm more than it heals.

Yet, the spiritual dependency of sound analysis and reason suggest the more profound reality, that knowledge is personal.  Jeremiah’s prophecy assumes another. The act of “directing” transcends a mere rational course of action and contends we need one who is able to direct us a methodology for life.

Jeremiah’s words imply the bond of a traveller and their guide. And because this guidance is personal it is also infers that it is nurtured in a dynamic back and forth.

Thus, rather than a commander and a soldier, it is more like a pair engaged ballroom dance where there the subtle communication of lead and sensitive response make the two dancers one in motion, expression, and essence.

Finally, if my understanding of the passage is correct, this direction is a free gift.  Our need for direction may be universal, yet it is not imposed.

The wanderer is not forced by the guide, nor is the guide under obligation to direct. As a gift it requires that the traveller to accept and follow the direction of the guide, and the guide free to direct as they see fit and according to their will. By design it is a relationship build on trust that the direction given is for the good.

Naturally, this has implications for how we think about grace, action, and good works. When it comes to the relationship between, grace faith and works, a passage many of us have learned by heart is Ephesians 2:8ff

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves—it is the gift of God.  Not by works lest any person boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ for good works. which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The relationship between grace, action, and direction is lost in the English translations of this passage. The verb “to do” peripateō literally means to walk and refers to the direction of one’s life.

Therein lies the deep echo of this passage with the prophecy of Jeremiah. Grace, faith, salvation as well as our work and life interpenetrate one another. Our life work and fulfilment thus rest in our relationship to the one who leads and guides and indeed laid down his life that we might be reunited with him through grace and faith.

Here our nature and calling to be relational, rational, and compassionate beings find its completion and fulfilment. He is our guide as we walk with him.


[i] All bible verses are my translation

[ii] Stanley Fish; “Are there Secular Reasons” New York Times: Opinionator, February 22, 2010 6:00 pm. At http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/ .


Dr Thomas Harvey is Academic Dean at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. He taught theology at Trinity Theological College for many years.


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 Forgotten Trinity

January 2017 Credo

In 1989, the British Council of Churches published a collection of essays with an interesting and arresting title: The Forgotten Trinity. The authors of these essays – prominent theologians in the UK – lament the neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity by the modern Church.

To be sure, the Trinity is given special mention at strategic points in Christian worship. The Church baptises her new members in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Great Commission set out in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 28:19). And at the end of the service, the minister often blesses the congregation by using the Pauline benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14) with its trinitarian formula.

But beyond these specific rituals and allusions, very little attention is given to the doctrine. By treating the doctrine of the Trinity as little more than a theological appendage, evangelical churches appear to be following in the footsteps of their liberal counterparts.

The doctrine of the Trinity must never be seen as an optional extra.

In his book entitled Wrestling With Angels Rowan Williams writes perceptively that ‘Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what “kind” of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding’.

Thus, far from being a doctrine that should be relegated to the far margins of orthodoxy Christianity, the Trinity must be placed at the very centre. In fact, we may say that it is the article upon which the Church stands or falls in the sense that without it there can be no Christianity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is based on God’s revelation, the divine self-disclosure, and not on the Church’s metaphysical speculations or imaginings.

Together with Israel, the Church professes that there is only one God. The formal form of this profession can be traced to the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares: ‘Hear, O Israel, our God, the Lord is one’.

The monotheism of Israel is further underscored in the Decalogue, especially in the first commandments which says: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:1). This commandment is reinforced by the categorical prohibition and condemnation of idolatry that immediately follows it (Exodus 20:4-6).

The Church has always embraced and defended the monotheistic faith of Israel that is rooted in and shaped by the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

But as the Church reflects on the significance of Christmas and Pentecost, she begins to see that the one God she professes and worships is triune. For at the first Christmas, the eternal Son of the eternal Father (John 1:1-2) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And at Pentecost, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit was poured out to empower the Church to be Christ’s witness in the world (Acts 2).

Thus, through the revelation of God in salvation history, the Church realises that there is no plurality of gods – there is only one God, and all other claimants to deity are imposters and fakes – in a word, idols.

But on the basis of the same revelation, the Church also realises that the one true God is plural, or more precisely, triune.

In the one God, there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are co-equal and co-eternal. Each person is the whole of the divine essence and is therefore fully God. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God.

Yet each person is distinct from the other in the sense that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But because each person is fully God, each person possesses all the divine attributes. As the great fourth century theologian Athanasius has so insightfully put it, everything we say about the Father (that he is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, etc) can be said about the Son, except that the Son is Father.

The concept of God as triune – as Being-in-Communion – is unique to Christianity. And this has led some of the most eminent theologians of the Church like Thomas Aquinas to conclude that knowledge of the triune God is possible only by divine revelation.

The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the Christian concept of God from all human conceptions of deity. It rejects polytheism, so rife in the Greco-Roman world, and insists that there is only one God, not many.

But the doctrine also insists that Christian monotheism must be distinguished from the ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ monotheisms that we find in Islam and some versions of philosophical theism. God cannot be reduced to a simple monad, either of the Platonic or Islamic variety.

Yet, the Christian concept of God brings together the one and the many. The one true God is a relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are of the same essence (Greek: homoousious).

In guarding this precious truth concerning the being of God, the Church has resisted all easy solutions and opposed all metaphysical and philosophical compromises. In the process, she has also exposed and rejected numerous erroneous conceptions of God.

These battles were fought because the Church believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is of primary importance. It is not an optional extra.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something true about God, based on the divine revelation. The doctrine can thus be described as an exact tracing of the being of God.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

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

The Human Face

December 2016 Pulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Roland ChiaDr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.


Vestiges of the Divine

November 2016 CREDO

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, declares the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘It will flame out, like shining shook foil’. In these words we find an echo of a similar but more ancient attestation found in the Psalter, Israel’s Hymnbook: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaim his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1).

Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, makes the same point when he argues that God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ can be clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1: 20).

Together, they bear witness to the fact that the invisible Creator has left his mark on the universe he has fashioned, and that in the created order there can be found what may be described as traces or vestiges of the divine. The theologians of the Church have described this variously as God’s ‘universal’, ‘general’ or ‘natural’ revelation.

In the modern period, where science is perceived to have almost full monopoly of the truth, the concept of revelation has fallen out of favour. This is because in the hands of modern scientism, the concept of truth itself has undergone a certain metamorphosis. Truth is no longer understood as impressing itself on the knower. Instead, truth is something that is discovered, and consequently controlled by the rational agent.

On such an account of truth, revelation not only appears to be at odds with autonomous reason. It also seem quite unnecessary, since revelation – as philosophers like Fichte argue – only brings to the fore what autonomous reason already knows to be the case.

Christians must reject this view for two reasons. Firstly, it creates too sharp a divide between discovery and revelation, authority and autonomy. And secondly, it in fact makes the concept of revelation in general and God’s revelation in particular redundant.

Concerning the dichotomy between revelation and discovery, can we not say that there is a sense in which modern science itself is dependent on a kind of revelation? Even the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant is of the view that reason must learn from nature. In his famous Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asserts that ‘Reason … must approach nature in order to be taught by it’.

One would do well to take seriously Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s maxim that ‘all Truth is a species of Revelation’.

And with regard to the marginalising of revelation itself, the history of modern theology has shown just how fruitless it was for theologians to follow this trajectory. Think for instance of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) or Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation (1730). Such theologies have led Christians to the murky waters of either deism or liberalism.

Contrary to these modern proposals, the theologians of the Church have always insisted that God has revealed himself universally in the world he has brought into being. So important is this truth that a document of Vatican I anathemises those who deny it.

Thus, its canon on revelation unequivocally states that ‘If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and Lord, cannot be known certainly from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema’.

In addition, the Church has always taught that the created order or the cosmos possesses a certain rationality because it was created by God.

The great Romanian Orthodox theologian of the last century, Dumitru Stăniloae, puts it this way: ‘… the rationality of the cosmos attests to the fact that the cosmos is the product of a rational being, since rationality, as an aspect of a reality which is destined to be known, has no explanation apart from a conscious Reason which knows it from the time it creates it or even before that time, and knows it continually so long as that same Reason preserves its being’.

Furthermore, the cosmos was organised in a way that corresponds to our capacity for knowing. To quote Stăniloae once again: ‘The cosmos – and human nature as intimately connected to the cosmos – are stamped with rationality, while man (God’s creature) is further endowed with a reason capable of knowing consciously the rationality of the cosmos and of his own nature’.

God has created the cosmos and man in this way so that he can reveal himself through both. This means that the cosmos possesses rationality not only because God had created it, but also because God had created it so, in order that it can be a vehicle or medium of his revelation.

Thus, theologians as diverse as Irenaeus in the second century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth could argue that the world points to the existence of God. For example, in his famous cosmological argument for the existence of God Aquinas maintains that the existence of the world presupposes an uncreated Creator.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy between revelation and discovery we noted earlier. To say that the facticity of the created order points to its Creator is not to suggest that the rational observer merely discovers the divine in it. The Spirit of God is constantly at work, making explicit that which is implicit in the creation.

Put differently, the Spirit is at work in revealing the imprints of the Creator found in his handwork. This means that the revelation of God – even his revelation in the creation – can never be reduced to some impersonal reality.

As Bonaventure, the contemporary of Aquinas, has repeatedly reminded us: God is not the disinterested unmoved mover that stands aloof from the world. He is the foundation of self-communicating love, and is therefore always personally and intimately at work in the world he has created. This is true in his revelation as well, both his special revelation in Christ and his general revelation in creation.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

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



Speaking About God

August 2016 Credo

The Christian faith is premised on the belief that since God has revealed himself, the Church as the recipient of this divine self-disclosure is able to say something true about him. Put differently, Christians believe that their speech about God – in their prayers, worship and sermons – is both objective and true.

This assertion concerning the veracity and truthfulness of the Church’s speech about God has been subjected to attack and ridicule since the Enlightenment, especially in the writings of its more radical spokesmen like the French philosopher and encyclopaedist Baron d’Holbach. In our time, writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – the so-called ‘new atheists’ – have continued this campaign of rubbishing all forms of theological or religious language.

Even the more sympathetic among the modern philosophers have questioned the epistemic significance of much of theological language.

For example, R. M. Hare, writing in the 1960s argues that religious language says nothing objective about reality but only expresses the outlook of the person or community who uses it. While Hare is willing to concede that some theological speech – or bliks as he calls them – may be meaningful, the claims that they make cannot be empirically verified.

Similarly, R. B. Braithwaite argues that religious language does not contain any information about the world, but merely expresses the speaker’s intent. The meaning of a religious claim or assertion, he insists, ‘is given in its use in expressing the asserter’s intention to follow a specified policy of behaviour’.

The Christian understanding of the veracity and truthfulness of the Church’s speech about God is based on the doctrines of creation and revelation.

Christians believe that because God has created the world, the latter can and does reveal or reflect its Creator in some measure and in some significant ways. This means that the world that God has brought into being tells us something about him, just like a work of art or music disclose something about the artist or composer.

This is the general revelation of God in creation.

In addition, as the great Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth has pointed out, in his special revelation in Scripture, God commandeers human words that describe the things of this world in such a way that they are now truly able to speak of him. To put this in another way, in his special revelation God teaches us how we may speak about him by using our words – i.e., human words – to describe his own being and character.

We may therefore say that the Church’s speech about God is authorised by God himself in Scripture.

Both general and special revelation, however, presuppose that human words can be used to speak about God. And this brings us back to fact that God has created the world in such a way that there is a real correspondence between the creation and the Creator.

This of course does not mean that the world is exactly like God, for the Creator is qualitatively different from the creation. However, although creatures can never be said to be exactly like their Creature they do resemble their Creator in some sense.

Thus, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas could assert that ‘Any creature, in so far as it possesses any perfection, represents God and is like him, for he, being simply and universally perfect has pre-existing in himself the perfections of all his creatures’. This means that the things that are said about the creature can also be said about God, its Creator.

A simple concrete illustration would bring clarity to Aquinas’ dense philosophical argument.

For instance, when we say ‘Solomon is wise’, we are attributing wisdom (which is a perfection) to Solomon. According to Aquinas, that perfection – wisdom – can also be attributed to God since the creature resembles the Creator.

However, a further qualification must be made. Although we can say that both God and Solomon are wise – that they both literally possess wisdom – God’s wisdom and that of Solomon are radically different.

And because of this difference, ‘wisdom’ is not used univocally of God and Solomon, although they both possess that perfection. Neither is ‘wisdom’ used unequivocally because that would suggest that God’s wisdom is not only radically different from that of Solomon, but totally so.

But if that were indeed the case, the assertion that ‘God is wise’ would be meaningless to us because we would have no idea what constitutes divine wisdom, what it looks like.

Human wisdom is therefore analogous with divine wisdom. This means that there are similarities as well as profound dissimilarities between the two.

In addition, God alone possesses true wisdom and all creaturely wisdom, however excellent, is always derived from and therefore dependent upon divine wisdom. This means that words used analogously of God and creatures apply primarily to God and only secondarily to creatures.

Analogy therefore helps us to understand how the Church is able to talk about God with human words. As the English theologian of the last century E.L. Mascall puts it: ‘The function of the doctrine of analogy is not to make it possible for us to talk about God in the future but to explain how it is that we have been able to talk about him all along’.

This doctrine of analogy has important implications for the theological language of the Church.

Because words can be used analogously to describe God and creatures, our statements about God do describe his divine nature (e.g., God is really wise). However, because the words we use for creatures are used of God only analogously, they can never adequately speak of him.

To fail to understand the limitations of our language when it is used for God is to be in danger of idolatry – of creating misleading and harmful distortions by reducing God to our concepts.

The doctrines of creation and revelation show that the Christian’s speech about God is not merely an expression of his existential angst or his attempts at self-projection (Feuerbach). The Christian is able to say something objective and true about God’s being and character.

The doctrine of analogy explains how this is done.

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.




Unpardonable Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Roland Chia

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

What Is Prophecy? And How Can We Discern If It’s From God?

MUCH of the confusion with the practice of prophecy in the contemporary church has to do with a misunderstanding of what the New Testament means by the term. It is not possible to provide a full discussion on prophecy in the limited compass of this article. What I propose to do is to briefly define prophecy and delineate some principles of discernment.

Prophecy in the contemporary church is best described as a report of thoughts and impressions which may have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is important to stress at the outset, therefore, that prophecies by ordinary Christians should never be taken as the ‘infallible word of God’. This means that prophecies should not be placed at par with Scripture. They do not enjoy the same authority and status as God’s revealed Word in Scripture, and those who prophesy are not suddenly elevated to the status of Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Prophecies, then, are nothing more than God-inspired thoughts which, when shared, would benefit a small group or even the whole church.

It is customary in some Christian circles and churches for Christians to preface prophetic utterances with ‘Thus says the Lord’ or ‘Hear the word of the Lord’. This practice is, at the very least, misleading, and should in my opinion be abolished. Instead, Christians who sense that they have been inspired to speak should simply say, ‘I think the Lord is indicating that …’ or ‘I feel that the Lord has impressed upon me to say …’ Such an approach corresponds to the true nature of prophetic utterances, which, as I have pointed out, are merely reports of Spirit-inspired thoughts that might bring edification. Paul broadly describes the purpose of prophetic utterances in the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 14:3 thus: ‘But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort’.

Because prophecies do not enjoy scriptural authority, they should always be tested. In 1 Corinthians 14:29, Paul wrote: ‘Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said’. Prophecies should never be submitted to mindlessly, but should be carefully weighed and evaluated. But who are the ‘others’ who are called to weigh the prophetic utterances? Without detaining the reader with the finer issues of exegesis, I believe that ‘others’ here refer to the entire Christian community. A prophetic message must be carefully weighed by the leaders and members of the Christian community on the basis of God’s revealed Word, the Bible.

About twenty years ago, I remember addressing this topic at a leaders’ retreat. I remember using this illustration to describe our response of prophecy (although I can’t recall the church or the precise content of the talk): responding to prophecy, I said, is like eating curry fish-head – you swallow the meat and spit out the bones! Paul said something similar in the context of judging prophecy in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22: ‘Test everything. Hold on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil’.

Are only certain Christians given the gift of prophecy, or is this ability readily available to all Christians? The New Testament describes prophecy as a gift which God freely gives to some Christians according to his sovereign will. Those who exercise the gift regularly are sometimes called ‘prophets’, although most scholars agree that in the New Testament this designation does not describe a formally recognized office. In principle, then, all Christians have the potential ability to prophesy, although only some Christians are given that actual ability. Thus on the one hand Paul maintains that it is the Spirit who ‘distributes [spiritual gifts] to each one as he wills’, on the other he urges members of his congregation to ‘seek earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’ (1 Cor 14:1; 1 Cor 14:39).

God may, through the gift of prophetic speech, encourage and guide Christians. But Christians must regard prophecy as only one of the many ways in which God guides. Because prophecy does not have the same authority as God’s revealed Word, the Bible, it should not be regarded as the only, or even the primary, source of divine guidance. It would therefore be unwise to make a decision solely on the basis of a prophetic message.

This is especially true in the case of prescriptive prophecies: ‘Leave your job, and serve as a missionary in Bhutan!’ or ‘Marry Mary!’ The Christian may take such prophecies as possible promptings of God’s Spirit; but the wise Christian would remember that this is only one of the many possible ways in which God guides. To repeat, the Christian should never make a decision on the basis of prophecy alone! He should diligently search the Scriptures, prayerfully examine the facts and evaluate the consequences, consult his pastor, elders and matured members of God’s household before making a decision.

Prophecy is God’s gift to the church, an evidence or sign of his abiding presence with his people. God uses the gift of prophecy to edify, encourage and warn his people. Furthermore, the gift of prophecy shows that God relates to us in a personal and intimate way. We should therefore never treat God’s gift of prophecy with contempt (1 Thess 5:20). We should thank God for this wonderful gift, even as we recognize its proper limits.

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 originally published in the Methodist Message.

Engaging the Scriptures

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century reminded the church of the primary authority of scripture in the wake of certain practices of the church of the time for which there can be no biblical or theological warrants. By the theological principle ‘scripture alone’ (sola scriptura), the Reformers wanted to reinstate the Bible to its rightful place in the life of the church. As the medium through which God’s revelation is communicated, scripture alone should be the basis on which the theology and practices of the church must be assessed and judged.

It is, however, extremely important that the intentions behind and the meaning of the Reformers’ dictum sola scriptura are not misunderstood. To do so would result in certain troubling developments that could be quite detrimental to the church. One such development, which is already evident in some sectors of the church, is the rampant individualism when it comes to Bible interpretation. The Bible is seen as the believer’s Bible, not the church’s Bible. It is subjected to the subjective and often idiosyncratic interpretations of individuals or groups of individuals. Slogans like ‘Back to the Bible’ and ‘No creed but the Bible’ that betray a serious misunderstanding of the teachings of the Reformers often fan the flames of such individualism.

Once sola scriptura is understood simplistically and erroneously in this way, the Bible could be subjected to endless manipulation, and different and often conflicting interpretations will proliferate. Thus, passages in the Bible could be used to support the erroneous and dangerous theology of the health and wealth ‘gospel’. The Bible can be said to set the agenda for the liberation theology of Latin America or the liberal theology of Europe. Queer and LGBT exegetes can argue that scripture affirms rather than condemns homosexual practices.

From very early in the history of the church, it was recognised that scripture can be variously interpreted and that these different interpretations could vary in alarming degrees. During the formative years of the church, there were many heresies jostling for power and loyalty. Most if not all these heresies that emerged from within the church employed scripture to support their theology, sometimes in very ingenious ways. Irenaeus, the great second century theologian, uses a powerful analogy to describe this. He says in the hands of a skilful artist, individual items of jewels are arranged into the splendid image of a king. But others have used the same set of jewels to form an image of a dog. In other words, in the hands of heretics scripture can be twisted to support an alien metaphysics and an erroneous dogma.

Thus, from very early in its history the church recognises the fact that an authoritative text alone is not enough. Equally important is an authoritative interpretation. The early church therefore formulated the rule of faith (regula fidei) to help Christians interpret the Bible within the bounds of orthodoxy. In his battle against the Gnostics, Irenaeus pointed out the heretical sect’s theology was erroneous because its interpretation and appropriation of the Bible was antithetical to the way in which the universal church understood these texts. Because the Gnostics have rejected the church’s authoritative interpretation of the Bible, they have misinterpreted and misapplied the authoritative text.

Even the magisterial Reformers understood the important role of tradition in the church’s reading of the Bible. In his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed found in the Large Catechism (1529), Luther writes: ‘Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words. In them all wisdom consists – a wisdom which transcends all human wisdom’. At the end of that passage, Luther adds: ‘the Creed brings us full mercy, sanctifies us and makes us acceptable to God’. John Calvin concurs when he writes that the ecumenical creeds of the church contain ‘the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture’. Calvin also wrote the famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic theology to help Christians interpret the Bible correctly.

All this means that the Bible is the book of the church before it is the book of individual Christians. The Protestant Reformation in translating the Bible into the vernacular has placed scripture in the hands of believers. But believers must always read the Bible together with the church. A misunderstanding of the principle of sola scriptura has unfortunately led some Christians to see scripture as an isolated authority that can be read and understood apart from the church. As we have seen, the magisterial Reformers had never intended this dictum to be understood in this way. Sola scriptura is never intended to mean nuda scriptura, ‘naked writings’ dislodged from their proper ecclesial location.

Christian tradition therefore has a fundamental and indispensable role to play in the church’s engagement with scripture. The tradition of the church must not be understood as something novel that is added to the Bible. Rather it must be seen as that which is inspired by the Bible itself. Luther could describe the Apostles’ Creed as containing ‘the whole essence of God’ precisely because the substance of the creed is inextricably bound to the revelation in scripture. Seen in this way, tradition becomes an invaluable aid in the church’s reading, interpretation and application of Scripture. As one theologian has put it, ‘Scripture was the authoritative anchor of tradition’s content, and tradition stood as the primary interpreter of Scripture’.

To underscore the importance of Christian tradition is not to assert that it has equal authority with scripture or that it is a second source of revelation. Rather it is to recognise that reading the Bible is always an ecclesial activity. It is to recognise that the faith of the individual Christian must be shaped by the faith of the church. And it is to acknowledge that it is the faith of the universal church that must serve as the hermeneutical guideline for the reading of scripture. To underscore the importance of tradition is to recognise that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church throughout the ages steadily leading her into all truth. And it is unwise to ignore this crucial work of the Spirit.

As J. I. Packer has poignantly put it:

‘The Spirit has been active in the church from the first, doing his work he was sent to do – guiding God’s people into an understanding of the revealed truth. The history of the church’s labour to understand the Bible forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonouring 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 first published in The Bible Speaks Today (September 2012).

What do Christians mean when they say that the Bible is the Word of God?

Christians from all the traditions of the Church – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – believe that the Bible is the Word of God. That is why in most traditional Churches, the declaration, ‘This is the Word of the Lord’, is made after the lector reads the assigned portion of the Bible in the lectionary. What do Christians mean by this statement? At the most fundamental level, to say that the Bible is the Word of God is to somehow relate it to the revelation of God. Christians believe that God has disclosed himself to man through various ways. Without this revelation, it is impossible for human beings to come to a certain knowledge of God because God is not an object of this world, and is therefore inaccessible to human senses.

Christians believe that God has revealed himself through creation. Just as an artist discloses something of himself through his work of art, so God the Creator reveals himself through the things that he has made. Christians also maintain that God has revealed himself through his acts in human history, particularly through his dealings with the people of Israel. And finally and supremely, God has revealed himself through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Christians believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments faithfully and accurately record these revelations of God. Therefore Scripture in this sense can be said to be revelatory because it bears witness to the revelation of God in Israel and in Jesus Christ. And insofar as the Bible bears witness to the revelation of God, it may be said to be the Word of God.

It must be pointed out that when theologians use this phrase ‘Word of God’ they use it to refer primarily to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. As the eternal Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God. We might say that he is God’s Word in the primary sense. But the phrase ‘Word of God’ is also used to refer to the Bible, albeit in a derivative and secondary sense, because the Bible bears witness to Jesus Christ. This is the teaching of the early Fathers of the Church. It is the understanding of the great Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin. Because the Bible is the Word of God in the secondary and derivative sense, Christians do not worship the Bible – they are not guilty of bibliolatry. Christians worship Christ who as God’s Eternal Word is therefore of one being (Greek: homoousios) with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

When Christians say that the Bible is the Word of God, they maintain that the Bible is not simply a library of the writings of human beings. To be sure, the Bible comprises the writings of men and women of different times and places. But Christians maintain that the Bible cannot be reduced to the works of its human authors. When Christians claim that the Bible is the Word of God, they insist that its formation is inspired and guided by God himself. According to the Christian Faith, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means that the Spirit guided and superintended the work of the human authors of the Bible to produce the resulting work.

Therefore, contrary to the claims of liberal theologians who argue that the Bible consists of merely the religious writings of man, the orthodox teaching is that the Bible was written under the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we read in 2 Timothy 16-17: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’. Space does not allow a fuller discussion of what this inspiration entails. We will have to address this question in another article.

Does this mean that the Bible is inerrant? Before answering this question, we must be clear in our minds about the nature of the books that make up the Bible. The Bible is not a scientific document or a textbook that provides a scientific account of how the world came into being. Some aspects of the debate between (for lack of better terms) ‘evolutionists’ and ‘creationists’ are muddled because both sides fail to appreciate this. In the same way, the Bible is not strictly speaking a history book, although it describes many historical events. The Bible is primarily a book that focuses on God’s dealings with the world. It reveals God’s intentions and purposes for the world and for humankind. Put differently, the Bible is a theological book: it has to do with God and his salvific will for his creation. Through the use of many different literary genres, the Bible describes God’s saving acts in history, and in so doing bears witness to him.

It is only when we understand the true nature of the Bible that we can answer the question regarding its inerrancy. As a book that has to do with God and his will for the creation, the witness of the Bible is not only inerrant but also infallible. Thus, the Bible is not mistaken when it reveals that God is the Creator of the world. Its witness regarding God’s love and the grace, and his unconditional offer of salvation is impeccably true. The Bible does not err when it points to Jesus of Nazareth and bears witness to the fact that he is the incarnate Son of God, the only Saviour of humankind. It is precisely in this sense that the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible is the Word of God because it bears inerrant and infallible witness to the Triune God who has made available the gift of salvation to all who would call on his name.

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 Word@Work (December 2012).