Tag Archives: Scriptures

Reflections on the Galileo Effect- Was the Galileo Affair a Conflict between Science and Religion?

August 2017 Feature

The arrest of Galileo Galilei for proposing a sun-centered model of the universe despite being told not to has been cited as an embarrassing example of the inevitable conflict between the forward-looking nature of science and regressive character of religion.

This article will offer a brief recounting of this episode in order to show the difficulty of drawing simplistic conclusions concerning religion’s conflicting or cooperative relationship with science at the time. It will then mention some lessons the episode can offer us today.

Galileo, who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, made seminal contributions to physics, engineering, and astronomy. With the creation of a superior telescope, his corresponding observations led him to favour the physical reality of a sun-centered Copernican model of the universe, whose mathematical calculations he had already favoured beforehand.

The Catholic Church had previously accepted the Copernican model insofar as it was a useful  predictive mathematical tool that did not otherwise assert that the sun must be at the center of the universe. Instead, the Church and many astronomers accepted the physical reality of an earth-centered model of the universe based on Aristotelian physics.

Aristotelian physics conceived reality as composed of five elements, four of which consist of inferior material which tended to the center of the universe, that is, earth, which was unmoving. The fifth element, quintessence, an incorruptible and unchanging material, was what made the heavenly bodies and determined that they revolve around the earth in perfect circles for eternity.

Galileo’s observations revealed to him, among other things, that the surface of the sun and moon were not perfect, as quintessence would have it; and that Jupiter had four moons, which indicated that the heavenly bodies did not all revolve around the earth.

He published these findings indicating his preference for the Copernican model in 1610 and 1613. This led Holy Office – the office charged with ensuring orthodoxy – to declare the implications of these findings false.

Many scientists disagreed with Galileo as well. They argued that the Copernican model could not yield superior predictions to the earth-centered model partly because both assumed circular rather than elliptical orbits. They also argued, wrongly – because they did not have powerful enough measurement equipment at the time – that stellar parallax, which should be observable if the earth was moving, could not, in fact, be observed.

However, by 1613 and 1615, he had already sent out widely circulated defending the Copernican model on scriptural grounds.

In the letters, he relied heavily on the interpretive principles of the Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine’s concept of “accommodation,” which is the idea that the scriptures have been written to accommodate the mind of the common person, giving priority and clarity to matters pertaining to salvation, not to scientifically robust descriptions of reality.

The verses which had been appealed to in support of the Aristotelian model included Joshua 10.13, Psalm 19.4-6; 93.1; 96.10; 104.5; 119.90; Ecclesiastes 1.5, and I Chronicles 16.30.

Unfortunately, by engaging with scriptural interpretation, he was treading on thin ice. The Church had been embroiled in theological and political conflict with the Protestant Reformers for some time, and had declared at the Council of Trent in 1545-63 that “no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, had held and does hold.”

Thankfully, Pope Urban VIII, who was a long-time admirer of Galileo’s work, told him in 1624 that he could discuss Copernican theory but only as one hypothesis among others. This emboldened Galileo to, rather unwisely, promote Copernican theory by publishing a fictional dialogue between three individuals about cosmology in 1632. And he gave the name Simplicio, which means someone who is simple-minded, to the advocate of the Aristotelian position, a position which the Pope personally favoured.

In other words, Galileo seemed to be accusing the Pope of being simple-minded in an underhanded way. As one might imagine, the Pope did not take this lightly. He was at the time embroiled in the Thirty-Years’ War, had just switched his allegiance from the French to the Spanish and felt that he needed to come down strong on Galileo to show his new allies his authority and decisiveness.

Thus, in 1633, he was summoned to the Holy Office and found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy. He was ordered to publicly recant his Copernican astronomy and be confined to his home in Florence where he remained until his death in 1642.

A century later, the Church began the gradual process of publicly shifting their stance toward Galileo. In 1744, Galileo’s Dialogue was republished with the Church’s approval. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII advanced a view concerning the relationship between the scriptures and science in his encyclical like those in Galileo’s letters. Between 1941 and 46, several academic clergymen occasioned a partial and informal rehabilitation of Galileo in their published work. And in 1979, Pope John Paul II initiated the latest informal rehabilitation of him.

From this brief recounting of the episode, it is apparent that interpreting the affair as a conflict between science and religion would be an over-simplification. To appreciate the complexities involved, the minimum factors, of varying weight, that should be considered include the legitimate disagreement among scientists toward Copernican astronomy, the Reformers’ challenge to the Church’s interpretive authority, Pope Urban VIII’s own political troubles, Galileo’s commitment to the primacy of mathematics over Aristotelian physics, and his unwise jab at the Pope.

What can be learned from this episode? We can learn that the relationship between the scriptures and the deliverances of modern science is not a straightforward one. We can also learn to appreciate the different kinds of literary genres in the scriptures and value their theological import without necessarily committing ourselves to their corresponding literal descriptions of reality.


 

Keith Leong studied Theology and Religion with a focus on science and religion at Durham University and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom from 2013-2016. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore.

What Does it Mean to Uphold Sola Scriptura Today

January 2017 Credo

Having celebrated Reformation Sunday some weeks back, I find it appropriate to write on one of the chief slogans that encapsulates the essence of what the Reformation was about—Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). I offer the following theses for our consideration (the reader should be glad to know it is 5 and not 95 theses!)

  1. Sola Scriptura is first and foremost a theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people

A proper grasp of Sola Scriptura, I believe, begins with an assertion of the following theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people.

In turn, this theological claim involves two other key doctrines, that is, our doctrine of God and our doctrine of Scripture.[1] God is seen as the God who desires to communicate, to speak with His people. And Scripture is seen as the text used by God to be the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) to address the people and generate faith and obedience.[2]

This, I submit, is the basic theological claim underlying Sola Scriptura that imbues the slogan with its sense of authority in the first place.

  1. Sola Scriptura is recognizing what God is intending with Scripture within the divine economy of salvation: as a covenant document to draw the church into covenantal relationship with God.

The above notion is verified in three ways.[3]

In terms of its content, Scripture depicts the history of God’s covenantal relations to humankind, including all the divine communicative acts (promises, warnings, commands, consolations etc.) that witness to what God was doing in Christ. In terms of its form, Scripture sets forth the terms and conditions of this very covenantal relationship itself. And in terms of its effect, to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God himself in action, supremely in his making of a covenantal promise to us.[4]

Sola Scriptura reminds us that Scripture alone is sufficient to bring about this covenantal intention of God. Hence, Scripture should rightly be conceived as a divine covenant document before an ecclesial constitution.[5]

  1. Sola Scriptura, more than a principle, is a canonical practice of the church

At its core, Sola Scriptura is best regarded as a practice, specifically, a Spirit-enabled church practice in reading, understanding and using Scripture in the church in a certain way.[6]

In line with a dramatic or theatrical analogy, there are two ways that the church can ‘perform’ the ‘script’ (Scripture). The first, an ecclesial performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community (the church) authors and directs. The second, a divine authorial-centered performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community receives, responds and enacts. Of the two, the latter corresponds to the practice of Sola Scriptura.[7]

In saying this, however, I am not presuming that the church can have an immediate and unmediated access to God’s Word removed from the interpretive context or interpretive tradition she finds herself in. Stated differently, in the language of the famous philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the church’s performance—in this case her reception and response to the canonical script—always occurs out of a tradition or ‘historically-effected horizon’. It is pure naivety to say that one can approach a text ‘a-horizontally’.[8]

Rather, in practicing Sola Scriptura, I mean this: the church’s interpretation and performance is always subject to potential correction from the canon. Practicing Sola Scriptura means not collapsing the text (of Scripture) into the tradition of its interpretation and performance.[9]

In Gadamerian language again: Sola Scriptura refers to the radical alterity of the scriptural texts that confront us as the Word of God.[10] It means respecting the otherness of this other horizon in the dialogue and allowing it to do its work of critique rather than quickly neutralizing it through dissolution within the fusion of horizons.[11]

  1. Sola Scriptura is a spirited-canonical practice of Jesus Christ before that of the church

Granted the above that Sola Scriptura affirms Scripture as canon, then canon itself is ideally first viewed as a performance (by God) before it is viewed as a script designed for further performance (by the church).

This means that it is precisely because Scripture as canon is first and foremost a performance of what God was saying and doing in Jesus Christ that it serves as a normative specification of how the church is to carry on saying and doing in Jesus Christ.[12] In other words, Sola Scriptura is firstly viewing the canonical discourse in itself as an instance of the triune God’s ‘performance’, and then correspondingly as a script that calls for an appropriate and corresponding ecclesial response.[13]

In fact, a deeper examination reveals Jesus Christ himself as the preeminent canonical ‘performer’. Jesus comes and shows to us how the Scriptures should be read: he reads the parts in light of the covenantal whole and the whole in light of the Christological center that he is (Luke 24:44, John 5:39–40).[14]

In this way, Jesus establishes the preeminent canonical practice to be ‘of him’ in the sense that the practice is about him and it is his own practice. Jesus Christ is thus both the material and the formal principle of the canon, its substance and its hermeneutic respectively: ‘substance’ in that the Word inscripturated is about the Word incarnate, and ‘hermeneutic’ in the sense that the Word incarnate teaches us how to read the Word inscripturated.[15]

The final step in the equation is to recognize that in inaugurating this key canonical practice, Jesus also commissions this practice in that the apostles and the church are to interpret Jesus after the way He himself did.[16] The sending of the Spirit is to ensure the efficacy of this specific hermeneutical and canonical practice of Jesus in the church and in her tradition. Tradition, seen in this light, is hence the church faithfully passing on and continuing these canonical acts effected by the Spirit, rather than ‘inventing’ new acts under the name of the Spirit.[17]

  1. Sola Scriptura is finally a declaration of the clarity of Scripture as recognized within the community of faith

To summarize: Sola Scriptura does not negate tradition, but it does allot tradition a secondary role by designating it with a ministerial rather than a magisterial authority. As Kevin Vanhoozer aptly states it: “Tradition plays the role of moon to Scripture’s sun.”[18]

Sola Scriptura proclaims there is a gauge or criterion to measure the faithfulness of tradition, and extending further, even the work of the Spirit in tradition. For Sola Scriptura is ultimately a confession and declaration of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture within the community of faith.

This is a clarity effectuated by the preeminent hermeneutical practice of Jesus himself and continued by the Spirit within the church’s tradition. Concurrently, it is this clarity that enables Scripture to serve as an incessant and simultaneous criterion and check on tradition.

The clarity of Scripture is rightly not independent of tradition or the work of the Spirit, but the clarity of scripture does affirm the otherness of the text in critiquing our interpretation and in shaping tradition such that it is best defined as “loving deference towards the words of Holy Scripture,”[19] and as a “holy attentiveness.”[20]

Ultimately, Scripture, with her clarity, forms, checks and directs the church’s interpretation, and performance. And that, I believe, is what it fundamentally means to uphold Sola Scriptura today.



Rev. Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.

 


Notes

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that what he calls our ‘first theology’, that is, our first principles in doing theology, derives from a correlation of these two doctrines. See his “First Theology: Meditations in a Postmodern Toolshed,” in First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 15–41.

[2] David S. Yeago, “The Bible,” in Knowing The Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 49–93, in particular p. 66, states it memorably: “It is this discourse, what is said in these writings, textually fixed in just this fashion, which the church knows as the ‘divine discourse’ of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis his).

[3] This basic idea forms the main argument of chapter 4 of Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 115–150.

[4] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009).

[5] Vanhoozer, Drama, 133.

[6] Ibid., 32, 153.

[7] Ibid., 165–185.

[8] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Second, Revised Reprinted Edition (London; New York: Continuum, 2006).

[9] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[10] Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2002), 313–314.

[11] Mark L.Y. Chan, Christology From Within And Ahead: Hermeneutics, Contingency and the Quest for Transcontextual Criteria in Christology (Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill, 2000), 145.

[12] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[13] Ibid., 184.

[14] Ibid., 220–224.

[15] Ibid., 195.

[16] Ibid.

[17] As Vanhoozer highlights in Ibid., 194, this should not be taken to mean that the Spirit is subordinated in the midst of this. Instead, there is rightly reciprocity in the Son-Spirit relationship. Jesus enables the Spirit’s coming, but from a Spirit-Christology perspective, the Spirit also empowered Jesus to be who He was and to do what He did. The impetus rather, is to recognise the order and pattern set forth in Scripture, that “the one ministered to by the Spirit during his earthly ministry becomes, in his exalted state, the one whom the Spirit ministers” (emphasis his).

[18] Vanhoozer, Drama, 210.

[19] Yeago, “The Bible,” 69.

[20] John B. Webster, “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew et al., 1st ed., vol. 4, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Milton Keynes; Grand Rapids: Paternoster; Zondervan, 2004), 374.

The Importance of Tradition

December 2016 CREDO

One of the most important contributions of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation is its clear reminder to the Church concerning the primary authority of Scripture. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – was the battle cry of the great Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the wake of a Church that is so laden with human traditions that the essence of the Gospel was so severely obfuscated that it was no longer in view.

Modern evangelism has in the main sought to be true to the emphasis of the Reformers by stressing the authority of Scripture as the infallible Word of God. However, in doing so some evangelical Christians and churches have consequently adopted a pejorative and dismissive view of tradition, a view which the Reformers neither held nor encouraged.

In his book, The Fabric of Theology Richard Lints argues that in adopting this approach – enunciated in slogans such as ‘No creed but the Bible’ – evangelical Christians have deprived themselves of the rich theological and spiritual heritage and wisdom of the Church. As a result, their understanding of Christian existence is impoverished and, without the tutelage of the Church the Bible is often read, interpreted and applied in subjective and idiosyncratic ways.

This in turn has led to the proliferation of interpretations of the faith, some of which are in conflict with others. When tradition is not taken seriously, writes D.N. Williams, ‘the “centre” that the Reformers were hoping to restore splintered into a multitude of conflicting versions of the faith’.

Evangelical Christians therefore need to rediscover the wisdom of the Reformers.

In stressing the primary authority of the Holy Scriptures, the Reformers were not urging the Church to ignore – much less dismiss – the secondary authority of tradition. If Scripture is the authoritative text for the Church, tradition must serve as its authoritative interpreter.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes thus about the Apostles Creed: ‘Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in a few but comprehensive words’. In the same work, Luther asserts that ‘… the Creed brings us full mercy, sanctified us and make us acceptable to God’.

In similar vein, while John Calvin was highly critical of the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day he acknowledged the authority and value of tradition as the interpreter of Scripture. Thus, he could say that the ancient traditions of the Church seek to expound ‘the real meaning of Scripture’ and he acknowledged that the ecumenical creeds contain ‘the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture’.

The Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Yves Congar, maintains that the nature of the Christian faith itself makes tradition important. The Christian faith, Congar argues, ‘is an inheritance that is both transmitted and received’. As authoritative interpretation, tradition enables the Christian properly understand the authoritative text, the Bible.

To say that the universal Church, whose life and ministry are shaped by Scripture is its authoritative interpreter is to acknowledge that she alone is able to discern the counsel of God it contains, by the help of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is the place where true Christian teaching and true faith can be found. And as Tertullian puts it in his treatise against the Gnostics, ‘ only where the true Christian teaching and faith are evident, will be the true Scriptures, the true interpretations, and all the true Christian traditions be found’.

Perhaps one of the reasons why some evangelicals have difficulties with recognising the role of tradition in Christian theology is because the relationship between the Holy Spirit, the Church and Scripture is not explored in sufficient depth.

The theological significance of the fact that the Spirit who inspires the authors and the texts of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) is the same Spirit who will guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13) must be carefully teased out if we are to have a robust understanding of the nature and role of tradition.

It was J. I. Packer, one of evangelicalism most important theologians, who made this point in his book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God. ‘The Spirit’, writes Packer, ‘has been active in the Church from the first, doing the work he was sent to do –guiding God’s people into an understanding of revealed truth’. ‘The history of the Church’s labour to understand the Bible’, he continues, ‘forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonouring the Holy Spirit’.

The Church of today ministers in a world where great cultural upheavals are evident. Described by some enigmatically as the postmodern condition, our society witnesses an ever-deepening suspicion of received social conventions and traditions.

As the Belgian theologian Lieven Boeve observes, in the culture we call postmodern ‘emancipation from bonds that were once taken for granted and left unquestioned has resulted in a situation in which every human being is given the structurally-subjective task of constructing his or her own personal identity’.

In this postmodern world, the church that takes no interest in being shaped by her rich theological and spiritual traditions will be vulnerable to the seductive lure of the new and the novel. And in preferring discontinuities instead of continuities, such a Church runs the great risk of losing her identity, her uniqueness as God’s people and become indistinguishable from the rest of society.


Dr Roland Chia


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

 

 

The Gay Gene Re-Visited

December 2016 Pulse 

In 2014 Alan Sanders, a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern University at Evanston, and his team conducted a study of 409 pairs of twin brothers to see if there are some linkages between homosexuality and chromosomal region Xq28.

This study – the largest to be undertaken to date – attempts to validate the results obtained by a study by Dean Hamer and his team of scientists in 1993 at the National Cancer Institute in the United States. Working with only 40 pairs of homosexual brothers, Hamer and his team discovered that 33 pairs (or 83%) had the same sequence of markers in the X chromosome region known as Xq28.

This had led Hamer to conclude that ‘One form of homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through the maternal side and is generally linked to chromosomal region Xq28’.

To their surprise, Sanders and his team – which included J. Michael Bailey, who together with Richard Pillard, conducted the famous twin study – found the same linkages between homosexuality and the chromosomal region Xq28 suggested by the earlier study by Hamer.

Hamer was understandably delighted with the findings of the Sanders study. ‘Twenty years is a long wait for validation’, he is reported to have said, ‘but now it’s clear the original results were right. It’s very nice to see it confirmed’.

However, like the Hamer study in 1993, the Sanders study of 2014 failed to establish conclusively the genetic determinant for homosexual orientation.

Sanders used the same method that Hamer employed twenty years ago in order to replicate Hamer’s study. But this method – known as the linkage method – has been found to be deficient in many ways and it has since been superseded by another method known as genome-wide association (GWA). Sanders himself acknowledged the fact that GWA studies are far more superior to genetic-linkage studies.

Although Sanders was able to confirm the link between homosexuality and the chromosomal region Xq28, the causative or correlative relationship between them is never established, making this finding insignificant. Thus, a number of researchers and scientists such as Neil Risch have pointed out the findings of both the Hamer and Sanders studies are statistically insignificant.

In fact, Sanders himself acknowledged that the findings have not crossed the threshold of significance. He further stated that even though he believes that Xq28 has something to do with homosexuality, a trait as complex as sexual orientation depends on many factors, genetic and nongenetic alike.

Geneticists have long understood that the exact relationship between the genotype and the phenotype is very difficult to establish. The genotype refers to the set of genes in the DNA that is associated with a particular trait, while the phenotype is the actual expression of that trait.

Many geneticists maintain that the relationship between the two is never straightforward and warn against a naïve ‘genetic determinism’ that refuses to recognise the complexities. In fact, many would argue that the genotype typically undermines the phenotype.

With the advance of the field of epigenetics, scientists are beginning to see the importance of the interaction of the genes with their immediate cellular environment as well as the external environment. In addition, intrauterine influences (which includes nongenetic factors) as well as extrauterine influences also play their part.

Life experiences also play a significant role in forging a particular trait, especially one as complicated as sexual preference and behaviour. Experiences that were had in the early stages of one’s personal development are deemed especially important.

As Frances Campaigne of Columbia University puts it: ‘Social experiences throughout life influence gene expression and behaviour, however, early in development these influences have a profound effect’.

The Sanders study has left all these other aspects unexplored and the questions they raise unanswered.

Although science is important in our attempt to understand human sexual preferences and behaviour, for the Christian it cannot have the last word. Thus, even if science is able to discover the genetic basis for homosexual orientation, the Christian cannot on that premise alone conclude that homosexual behaviour is natural and therefore must not be prohibited.

For the Christian, it is the mystery of human sexuality that Scripture reveals that should serve as the basis for sexual behaviour. In our fallen world, supposedly ‘innate’ impulses cannot be indicative of what is natural – that is, what is intended by the Creator – even if the genetic or neurological determinants of these impulses are ascertained.

For the Christian, sexual conduct must be ordered according to the way in which human sexuality has been designed and purposed by the Creator. And according to the Bible, the only legitimate form of sexual activity is between a man and a woman, and the only legitimate context for such activity is the covenant of marriage.

It is in light of God’s design of and purpose for human sexuality that all other forms of sexual behaviour and activity – fornication, adultery, incest, prostitution and bestiality – are not only strictly prohibited, but are also often regarded as abominations.

This means that the meaning of human sexuality is too complex and multifaceted for science to unravel. It has to do not only with biology, but also morality. It has to do not only with impulses and emotions, but also ontology. It has to do not only with the individual, but also and more fundamentally with the ordering of our familial and social lives in a way that is harmonious with God’s design and intention.

In a word, human sexuality is too profound a reality to be left to science alone.


Dr Roland Chia


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.

Taking Doctrine Seriously

October 2016 CREDO

In the past three decades, a number of Christian writers and theologians have registered their alarm over the worrying decline in doctrinal literacy among Christians today. Theologians such as Alister McGrath and David Wells and historians like Mark Noll have written anxiously about this disturbing erosion of theological astuteness.

The early evangelicals, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, were profoundly concerned that the theology of the Church is firmly established in authority of the Bible. Although they acknowledged that there are cultural, historical and political aspects to the Reformation that must never be dismissed or trivialised, they nonetheless correctly insist that it was primarily about doctrine and theology.

But today’s evangelical churches that trace their roots to Luther, Calvin and Wesley have not taken seriously enough the Reformers’ emphasis on doctrinal and theological rigour and clarity.

In the contemporary church, there appears to be a shift from doctrine to life, from theology to spirituality. This shift itself in many ways reflects the modern malaise, the tendency to dichotomise and even polarise aspects of reality that in fact belong together, like faith and reason.

In similar vein, some modern evangelicals have become suspicious and even dismissive of the tradition of the church, justifying their position by a naïve interpretation of the Reformers’ privileging of Scriptural authority (Latin: sola scriptura). The sophistication of the Reformers’ understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition is often missed when evangelicals resort to simplistic slogans such as ‘Back to the Bible’ or ‘No Creed but the Bible’.

This has not only resulted in an anaemic fundamentalism that refuses to be nourished by the rich theological and spiritual heritage of the church. It has also opened the door to an idiosyncratic subjectivism, and a corrosive relativism and pragmatism, all of which will prove detrimental to the church’s self-understanding and mission.

Christians must take doctrine and theology seriously if they truly believe that God has revealed himself and that what is true about him is contained in the pages of Scripture.

Christians must take doctrine seriously because the Christian Faith is not a woolly collage of attitudes and responses to some vague notions of deity. Neither is it an amorphous and idiosyncratic assemblage of subjective spiritual experiences.

The Christian Faith is based on God’s self-disclosure, first through his dealings with Israel and finally and supremely in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

At the heart of the Christian Faith therefore is not doctrine, but the person of Jesus Christ who is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6). Doctrine develops as the church reflects on the identity, meaning and significance of Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth as her illuminating Guide (John 16:13).

Christian doctrine is therefore firmly and deeply rooted in the testimony of Scripture about the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is the church’s speech about God, an endeavour that can only be undertaken because God has first spoken about himself through Scripture.

Doctrine is therefore not something the church has invented; it is not the result of philosophical speculation or fanciful guesswork about deity. Rather doctrine is the church’s rational response to God’s revelation, a way of speaking about God that is authorised by God himself.

There is a complex and dialectical relationship between Scripture and Christian doctrine. As we have seen, the doctrines of the church must be faithful to the testimony of Scripture, which is the Noma Normans non Normata (Latin: ‘The norm of norms that is not normed’).

But doctrine as the church’s understanding of God in turn provides the framework and substance to guide the Christian’s reading and interpretation of Scripture. Put differently, the individual Christian cannot adequately understand Scripture apart from the tutelage of the church and her doctrines.

The Reformer John Calvin understood very well the essential role of doctrine in helping Christians interpret Scripture correctly. In fact, he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (1454) for this very purpose.

Thus, in the preface of the Institutes Calvin writes: ‘Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added – our Lord having been pleased therein to unfold the infinite treasures of his wisdom – still every person, not intimately acquainted with them, stands in need of some guidance and direction, as to what he ought to look for in them, that he may not wander up and down, but pursue a certain path, and so attain the end to which the Holy Spirit invites him’.

Thus the Institutes together with the Rule of Faith and creeds of the early church provide the hermeneutical and theological framework within which Scripture must be read and understood. In this way, Christian doctrine puts a check on the subjectivism and relativism that is endemic in the way in which some evangelical Christians (and churches) interpret Scripture.

Doctrine is important because it not only protects Christians from error but also from deception. Scripture contains numerous warnings about false teachers who peddle their destructive doctrines.

In Matthew 7:15, Christ warns his disciples to ‘Beware of false prophets’. And in his letter to Timothy, Paul spoke about Christians who will abandon their faith in pursuit of heretical theologies: ‘The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1).

Such warnings demonstrate the importance of sound doctrine.

It is in light of these dangers that Paul exhorted Titus to ‘teach what is in accord with sound doctrine’ (Titus 2:1). The church of today must take this injunction serious not only because the threat of heresies has not abated, but also because in our confused world, the villain has become the hero.

The inimitable G. K. Chesterton, with his characteristic perceptiveness, saw this quite clearly in the middle of the last century. ‘The word “heresy”’ not only means no longer being wrong’, he writes in Heretics, ‘it practically means being clear-headed and courageous’. Thirty years later, the American sociologist Peter Berger confirmed this in his book, The Heretical Imperative (1980) in which he points out that today it is in fact necessary for one to be ‘heretical’.

The need for the contemporary church to take doctrine seriously cannot be overstated. Sound doctrine will build up the people of God. It will enable Christians to be discerning, to be able to tell truth from error. And it will enable them to escape the corrosive acids of heresy that will eventually destroy their faith.

Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.

Discipleship of the Mind

Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment recorded in Luke 10:27: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind. Love your neighbour as yourself’. This Commandment urges believers to love God with their whole being. Believers are commanded to love God not only with their hearts and souls; they must do so also with their minds. As James Sire has pointed out in his provocative book, Habits of the Mind, this means that ‘thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be’. As Christians we are called to think, and to do so as well as we can with our God-given intelligence. When we apply our intellect in this way, we express our love for God and we glorify him.

Some Christians, however, fail to see this. They have adopted an anti-intellectualism, which, at first blush, may even sound pious. After all, was it not the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor 1:18, 25)? Such piety, however, is fallacious. The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing because they approach it with distorted perspectives and from erroneous vantage points. Thus, when Paul speaks of the gospel as ‘folly’, he is being ironic. As Os Guinness has put it so eloquently, ‘Only in relation to a genuine folly foolish enough to pretend it is wise does true wisdom come to be seen and treated as folly’. The gospel, for Paul, is not folly but true wisdom!

Anti-intellectualism is the spiritual corrosion that will cripple the Church and compromise her witness in society. Writing primarily about the subtle but alarming changes in American evangelicalism that took place from the 1970s, theologian David Wells observes the disturbing shifts in emphasis from doctrine to life and from theology to spirituality. Wells laments that evangelical Christians in America have generally ‘lost interest … in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers’. He adds, somewhat despairingly, that ‘it is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people’. It would be a mistake to think that this observation has little to do with Christians in Singapore. A simple survey of the titles on display at some of our Christian bookshops would give a rough but not inaccurate indication of the theological literacy of Christians here. The displacement of theology in the life of the Church brought about by anti-intellectualism will severely weaken the Church.

Anti-intellectualism will also severely compromise Christian witness in society. The Church is commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world and part of this has to do with the Church’s prophetic engagement with society. Christians believe that the Gospel is public truth and as such it is not just relevant to a select group of people. The Christian faith therefore refuses to be privatized and shut off from the public square. A public Gospel therefore requires a public theology. Anti-intellectualism in the Church, however, can prevent Christians from engaging faithfully and meaningfully in public discourse. In fact, anti-intellectualism will severely cripple the Church’s confidence in participating in such engagements. And this will in turn seriously compromise the witness and influence of Christians in the public square.

On the basis of the first of Jesus’ commandments, we must say, quite simply and directly that anti-intellectualism is a sin. In refusing to use the minds that God has given to us as part of our praise to him, we have disobeyed this commandment. We have simply failed to love God fully, with our whole being. Beyond all excuses, evasions and rationalizations, Christians must recognize anti-intellectualism for what it truly is. Only then will Christians be able to address the problem. But even here, an important qualification must be made. In rejecting anti-intellectualism our goal is not academic or intellectual respectability, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. The discipleship of the mind is not about intellectualism (the sin on the other extreme end of the spectrum!) or intellectual snobbery. It is about loving God with our minds by allowing God’s Word to govern our thinking.

The command to love God with our minds, then, presents a two-fold challenge for Christians. In the first place, it emphasizes the importance of the intellect. Put differently and quite simply, the command challenges Christians to think. But more importantly, this command challenges Christians to think Christianly, that is to think theologically, to allow Scripture and the tradition of the Church to inform and shape their thinking. This is what the discipleship of the mind is all about! It is about being so immersed in the worship, life and doctrines of the Church that our perspectives, our worldviews and our values are entirely molded by the Gospel. It is about not conforming to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). It is about developing a habit of mind that sees the world through the lens of the Gospel.

To think Christianly therefore requires the Christian to be grounded in Scripture and in the doctrines of the church. But thinking Christianly does not only mean thinking about Christian topics. It has to do with allowing the Word of God to govern our thoughts on every possible aspect of life – education, career, raising children, politics, medicine, science, the arts, entertainment, leisure. Thinking Christianly therefore engages the whole person in the whole of life. As such, it is more than just an intellectual activity.

In addition, to think Christianly is to conduct our lives in obedience to God. The Christian doctor who knows that the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life would refuse to perform an abortion or euthanize his patient. The Christian politician who understands the biblical demand for justice would oppose policies that would marginalize certain sectors of society. There is a profound relationship between thought and life, thinking and doing, worldview and ethics. The challenge for Christians to think Christianly is therefore always a challenge to radical discipleship. This is because thinking Christianly is always premised on the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.


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 Trumpet (TTC).

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).