Tag Archives: theology

A Common Platform

July 2018 Feature

For anyone living in this century, it is evident that one of the contemporary issues facing the world today is that of religious diversity. From the perspective of a Christian, the question of the role of other religions is especially acute given the ultimate claims to truth and salvation that Jesus Christ has made.

However, this phenomenon of multiple religious traditions is not a new one. The books of the Old Testament were written during times when peoples of other faiths surrounded the nation of Israel. The same holds true for the New Testament when Greco-Roman religions proliferated alongside the newly established religion of Christianity.

In some ways, this necessity to learn how to understand other religions is not unique to the Christian faith.  Every major world religion in its history has had to grapple with the existence of the “others” ever since they become conscious of the existence of one another. Each tradition has had to learn to navigate its way through its social, historical and religious contexts.

The contemporary theologian of religions, Harold Netland, has pointed out that it is increasingly important for Christians in the twenty-first century to respond to the changing religious landscape. He asserts it is possible for Christians to be firmly committed to Christ as Lord and be responsible citizens in their own countries. At the same time, he calls for new ways for Christians to respond to the other faiths rather than merely repeating the practices of the past.

As different religions attempt to co-exist, co-operate or even compete with one another for converts, it is crucial that a shared framework or language be found to avoid misunderstandings. This is especially so given there is always some level of incommensurability to religions. Words such as “God” and “salvation” can mean very different things to a Christian or a Buddhist.

The scholar of religion and philosopher, Robert McKim, has proposed that when it comes to determining what he calls “attitudes to and beliefs about others,” it is helpful to note the ranges of positions that one may adopt. He proposed that for any religion, its self-understanding with respect to another tradition can be classified under one of the following categories. That it is:

  1. The only tradition that is any good in the relevant respect
  2. The tradition that is better than other traditions in the relevant respect
  3. A tradition that is as good as other traditions in the relevant respect

These constitute the starting points for what is commonly known in the field of theology of religions as the traditional three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist positions respectively. McKim also argues that this schema is suitable not only for theistic faiths but non-theistic ones too.

If that is so, then by utilizing a common vocabulary of terms and conceptual structure, this may allow the various traditions to participate in a form of dialogue that promotes understanding of the other. While it may not wholly nullify the difficulties to attempt to read another using only its categories, it could represent an initial step towards reducing isolationism and enhancing greater concordance.

The typology proposed above may be used with respect to issues of truth and salvation. It may also be employed concerning other matters, such as the ethical guidance provided in each religion.

While some Christian scholars have argued that the tri-fold typology which was initially proposed by Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa is skewed towards pluralism, subsequent analysis by others have shown it is, in fact, a relatively neutral logical construct that each respective position could claim to be biased in or against its stance.

Also, despite these objections, since its first proposal in the 1960s, the tri-polar schema has continued to play a significant role within Christian theology for scholars to clarify their assertions. In addition, while many other competing proposals have been put forth, none seems to be capable of replacing the traditional proposition, as seen in the recent numerous scholarly articles that continue to argue based on, either explicitly or implicitly, its underlying logical structure.

It is possible that this analytical framework could be one of the tools that the Christian tradition may offer to the broader world of inter-religious understanding, given that it was developed within itself and undergone robust discussion. As an Adjunct Lecturer at the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) for a post-graduate course entitled “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” I have found it serves as a common platform for students from various religious backgrounds to discuss features of their faiths vis-à-vis another as part of the M.Sc program.


 

Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.

Should Everyone Study Theology?: Yes and No

August 2017 Credo

It has become unquestioned wisdom these days to advocate that the study of theology at some level should be for every Christian inasmuch as it is practically achievable given her current commitments and stage of life. Whether it be full-time, part-time or occasional studies, Christians are encouraged to give as much of their time to learning about God as possible.

After all, since we have put in so much effort into our own secular studies—especially within an educationally intense system as Singapore’s—shouldn’t we be prepared to do the same and even more when it comes to learning about God?

The advent of the internet has also made theological knowledge much more accessible, either through prescribed courses of self-study or individual on-line modules.

I remember taking a correspondence course many years ago with an American seminary on the history of Western philosophy; the amount of time it took for my assignments to be sent in, marked and returned would simply be unacceptable in our digital age.

Alongside on-line modes of learning, Christians also enroll for classes in seminaries and other organizations. At Trinity Theological College, more and more participants are signing up for our night courses which are open to the Christian layperson. This means that there are people willing to trudge down to our campus after a hard day’s work, to sit and listen to a two-hour lecture till 9.30 pm once a week.

Why would anyone endure such “afflictions” for courses that do not add to their market value? The simple answer is that the pursuit of the knowledge of God is reward itself.

J. I. Packer, one of my former theology lecturers, has asserted that not only is the study of God reward in itself, it is the responsibility of every Christian to do so. Quoting Charles Spurgeon in his book, Knowing God, he writes that, “I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God, the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead” (p. 13).eed, the fact that many Singaporean Christians are committed to learning more about their faith is something every theological educator should take delight in.

In this article, I do not intend to question the basic notion that theological studies of some form is for everyone. However, I do think that in view of the trend discussed above, that there is a need to highlight one particular area that some Christians unwittingly neglect. And that is the fundamental posture of learning theology.

Far too often, lecturers have encountered students who commenced their studies with a similar set of attitudes and values that they had subscribed to for their secular education. They aim for excellence, better results and higher grades.

Not only that, they thoroughly enjoy theological discussions and dissecting the latest scholarly debates, so much so that sometimes we worry if they have forgotten who they are talking about.

Personally, I have found it sometimes necessary to remind my first-year classes that the study of theology is different from any other field of inquiry. For we stand on holy ground when we talk about God, and there must be a certain humility and reverence in our attitude towards the subject since He far surpasses us.

The church father, Gregory of Nazianzus was once asked whether theology is for everyone. His answer, which may come as a surprise to us, was an emphatic No;

Discussion of theology is not for everyone….Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience…It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.

What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually “to be still” in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, “to judge uprightly” in theology.

 (Theological Orations 27.3)

Christopher Beeley, in his book, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God (OUP, 2008) summarizes that for Gregory, while everyone has been called to know God, in reality perhaps only some will attain to this as there are other accompanying criteria, including most important of all, the purification of the Christian (pp. 67-68).

In contemporary terms, this purification refers to a radical change in one’s character and conduct so that one befits the privilege and responsibility of knowing God.

To purify oneself before learning about God is a practice that we seldom hear today, and therefore, Gregory’s words are a timely reminder to us—including educators—to be careful that greater theological literacy does not lead to the danger that Paul warned us about; for “knowledge puffeth up” (1 Cor 8:1).

While writing this article, I was perusing my autographed copy of Packer’s Knowing God, and found that he has included in his handwritten inscription a biblical reference that has been echoed by Gregory – Psalm 46. May we learn to be truly still in order to know that He is God (Ps 46:10).


 

Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.

 

The Mind That ‘Sees’

June 2017 Credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

 

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.

What is Theology?

July 2016 CREDO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dr Roland Chia


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

 

The State

What should be the Christian perspective on the secular State?

Perhaps the best place to begin one’s reflection on what might be called a Christian theology of the state is Romans 13:1-7. Paul begins with a categorical injunction that ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities’. The reason offered for this bold injunction is equally startling: ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Rom 13:1). The first thing to be said, therefore, about the Christian conception of the state is that the secular state is established by God. This implies that God is sovereign over the state, however powerful the latter may be. Commenting on this passage, C.E.B. Cranfield writes: ‘it is God that sets up (and overthrows) rulers, and … no one actually exercises ruling authority unless God has, at least for the time being, set him up’.

Romans 13 tell us further that God has set up the state for a purpose. The ruler is God’s servant, and the primary purpose of the state is to punish the wrongdoer and to commend those who do the right thing (Rom 13:3-4). Put differently, the state is responsible for creating a legal system that would enable, and indeed encourage human flourishing. Without the state and the justice it is tasked to implement, all forms of creative cultural activities would not be possible. The state is given the right to wield the sword in order to bring about law, order and peace to human society (Rom 13:4). As long as the state carries out its duty in ensuring that justice and peace prevail in human society, it is God’s servant because it is fulfilling the divine will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: ‘The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God’. Romans 13 urge everyone to submit to such a servant state, because in doing so they are submitting to God himself.

Christians have the duty to pray for those in government so that they will fulfil the task that God has given to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that they may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness’. The Swiss German theologian, Karl Barth is surely right when he said that prayer is the Church’s most important service to the state. In praying for the state, the Church hopes that it will always be faithful to the task that God has entrusted to it. In addition, Christians are commanded to submit themselves to the authority of the state that seeks to do the will of God by promoting justice and peace: ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are set by him to punish those who do right’ (1 Peter 2:13-14).  Civil obedience is part of Christian discipleship.

It is, however, absolutely crucial to point out that the Christian’s submission to the state is never unconditional or unqualified. The state, it must be remembered, is a creature that belongs to this world. As such it is a fallen creature. The reading of Romans 13:1-7 must therefore always be accompanied by a ‘nevertheless’. The state that is obedient to the will of God can become the idolatrous state that tries to usurp the place of God. The servant state of Romans 13 can become the totalitarian and demonic state of Revelation13. The injunction for the Church to pray for the state and for rulers serves as a clear warning of this possibility. It is precisely because the state is a fallen creature that can easily lose its way that the Church is asked to pray for it.

How then should Christians respond to the idolatrous and totalitarian state that is no longer concerned for justice and human welfare? Are Christians still required to submit to such a state? The concept of civil disobedience has a long history in the Christian Church dating back to the early martyrs of the early centuries. Civil disobedience is implied by the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that ‘if the emperor order one thing and God another, it is God who is to be obeyed’. The implicit allusion to civil disobedience in this statement is made explicit in a later section in his dogmatic work, Summa Theologiae in which he wrote: ‘when a regime holds its power not by right but by usurpation, or commands what is wrong, subjects have no duty to obey’. When confronted with the demonic state, civil disobedience becomes part of Christian discipleship.

This means that while Christians can indeed be patriotic, their patriotism can never be undiscerning or unqualified. Christians can never chant the mantra, ‘My Country, Right or Wrong!’, which expresses a naïve but dangerous sentimentalism regarding the state. Such idealism is not confined to totalitarian or Marxist accounts, but is found even in modern democracy. The proper attitude of the Christian to the secular state can be best expressed by the concept critical patriotism. As the term suggests critical patriotism implies that while the patriotism of the Christian is authentic and sincere, it is never undiscerning and triumphalistic. It implies that what is right or wrong is not determined by the state, but by a higher power. It further implies that the state is not infallible and thus never above criticism. Critical patriotism is in fact the truest and most earnest form of patriotism because it wishes and hopes that the state would be what it is meant to be, what God intends it to be: the servant state which stands on the side of justice and peace.


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 (August 2013).

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).

Celebrating Easter With J. S. Bach

For more than a decade I have made it a point during the holy week to listen to all of the extant Passions of the brilliant Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, and also his magnificent Easter Oratorio on Resurrection Sunday. Not only was Bach a musical genius who brought Baroque music to its zenith, he was also an astute theologian, with a profound grasp of the Lutheran tradition to which he belonged. As the composer and musician in the great Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, Bach was not only steeped in the great musical tradition of the Reformation, he also possessed profound knowledge of the writings of the Reformer Martin Luther and the tenets of the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day. His commitment to the Lutheran tradition is further evidenced by his long friendship with his librettist, Erdmann Neumeister, Leipzig’s most eminent defender of orthodoxy and author of 400 books.

Bach’s familiarity with and creative appropriation of Scripture, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Book of Concord is evident everywhere in the sacred cantatas of the composer. The characteristic JJ (Jesu Juva, ‘Jesus Help’) at the beginning of his scores and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, ‘To God be the Glory’) at the end indicate the profound piety of the composer. Schönberg is surely right in asserting that J. S. Bach is tied with religion in a way that no other composer was.

Bach wrote at a time when the rationalism of the Enlightenment in Europe was tightening its grip on both university and church in Germany, with the goal of expunging from religion all claims and dogmas that fail the test of reason. For instance, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a brilliant contemporary of Bach, challenged the traditional interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross by arguing that ‘it was clearly not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer and to die’. Rather, Jesus’ intention, according to Reimarus, was to build an earthly kingdom and to free his people from the bondage of Roman rule.

When he realized that his bold preaching had offended the authorities and put his life in jeopardy, Jesus began ‘to quiver and to quake’, and tried to hide from sight. When Judas betrayed his hiding place, Jesus, believing that he was a messenger from God, expected God to deliver him from the hands of the authorities. But when deliverance did not occur, the crucified Jesus uttered the bitter and desperate cry recorded in the Gospels, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Remairus concluded that ‘It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated’.

It is therefore not surprising that Reimarus would propose a bizarre theory that challenges the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Christ. The disciples, who had attained fame through the ministry of their rabbi, stole the body of the dead Jesus, hid it and then fabricated a tale of the resurrection and the return of Christ.

Against this sinister distortion of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ, Bach boldly declares that the death of Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is the greatest expression of the love of God. Thus, in the soprano aria in his Matthew’s Passion, ‘In love my Saviour now is dying’, Bach could declare: ‘It is out of love that my Saviour intends to die, / Although of sin and guilt He knows nothing, / So that my soul should not have to bear / Everlasting damnation / And the penalty of divine justice’. Jesus did not recoil when he realised that his ministry had offended the authorities; he did not fear for his life, and tried to escape arrest. Rather Jesus presented himself willingly in obedience to the Father’s will, setting his face towards Jerusalem and Golgotha.

Furthermore, the death of Jesus was not the tragic death of a deluded revolutionary, as Reimarus had argued. Jesus died as one who bore the sins of the world, so that we should not have to bear the ‘everlasting damnation’ and ‘the penalty of divine justice’ that we rightly deserve. Against the revisionist approach of his contemporaries like Reimarus, Bach unwaveringly presented the atonement as satisfaction, thereby aligning himself with the Reformers and the eleventh century theologian, Anselm. As Jaroslav Pelikan has rightly observed, ‘the Anselmian doctrine of redemption as satisfaction rendered through the blood of Christ is a crimson thread that runs through Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew from beginning to end’.

Just as Bach would reach back to the Reformers (especially Luther) and to the medieval theologian, Anselm in his Passion According to Saint Matthew, so he would appeal to the Greek Fathers, chiefly Gregory of Nyssa in his Saint John Passion, which celebrates the great theme of Christus Victor. Bach’s Saint John Passion is infused with this theme, from the choral shouts proclaiming Jesus as ‘Herr’ (‘Lord’) to the transformation of the sixteenth-note figures of the strings to a crescendo, a grand, rising sequence. In the ‘deepest lowliness’ of the incarnation and the cross the lordship, power and glory of the Son of God is made manifest.

Through the cross and resurrection, the incarnate God confronts and defeats his enemies. Musically, Bach uses the turba choruses (i.e., choral pieces that contain the words spoken by the characters in the story) to emphasise the role of Christ’s enemies. These choruses, to use the description of Karl Geiringer, were used with good effect because of their ‘strongly wild, passionate, and disturbing character’. The cross and resurrection signals God’s triumph over the forces of evil, the defeat of the ‘prince of this world’ (John 16:11) and the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4). Like Luther, Bach took the devil very seriously, and would not acquiesce to the demythologized and abstract accounts of evil that is often presented by the rationalists of the Enlightenment.

The definitive victory of God over the forces of evil is emphasized in the words of Jesus, ‘It is finished’, which Bach skilfully sets to a descending line to depict the expiration of the dying Jesus. Even in the midst of presenting the final and definitive victory of God, Bach would not casually and hurriedly bypass the death of Christ. Thus Bach invites us to take time to contemplate fully the ‘bad’ on this Friday that we call ‘good’. The death of Christ is real, and the sorrowful, meditative aria follows appropriately his last words. But this aria is not simply the celebration of the death of a hero. If it were only that, then Reimarus could surely also sing its words with conviction. For Bach, this is the death of the Hero, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Thus, the significance of Jesus’ declaration ‘It is finished’ could only be properly understood in the way Luther explicates it: ‘God’s Lamb has been slaughtered and offered for the world’s sin. The real High Priest has completed the sacrifice. God’s Son has given and sacrificed His body and life as the ransom for sin. Sin is cancelled, God’s wrath assuaged, death conquered, the kingdom of heaven purchased, and heaven is unbarred’. That is why in the second part of the aria, a shout of triumph bursts forth as the B minor adagio turns to a D major allegro and the full orchestra now accompanies the alto soloist as she sings: ‘The hero of Judah triumphs with power / and closes the battle’. The death of Christ has conquered death itself, and the resurrection marks the victory of God, the dawn of a new age.

But it is Bach’s magnificent Easter Oratorio that best captures the victory and joy of the resurrection of Christ. Bach composed music to the lyrics of the famous librettist, Picander, whose poetic paraphrasing follows closely the account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8. Beginning with the instrumental overture which can be divided into two parts – the joy of the resurrection and its melancholy aftermath – Bach masterfully shapes the attitude with which the believer must embrace this glorious truth. After the sinfonia and duet, Bach has Mary Magdalene utter these words in the alto recitative, ‘O cold mind of men! / Where has the love gone, / Which you owe to the Saviour?’ as if directing them to the sceptical rationalists of his day.

It is in the bass recitative towards the end of the Oratorio that Bach unequivocally declares the orthodox faith in the resurrection of Christ through the lips of the evangelist John: ‘We are glad, / That our Jesus lives again, / And our heart, / Just now melted and wavering in sadness, / Forgets its pain / And thinks about songs of joy; / For our Saviour lives again’. The theme of Christus Victor is once again emphasized in the tutti final chorus, which declares that ‘Hell and the devil are overcome; / Their gates are destroyed. / Rejoice, ye redeemed tongues, / So that it is heard in heaven.’

Bach’s Easter Oratorio depicts two responses to the great truth of the resurrection of Christ. There is the exuberant burst of rhythmic energy and the glorious sounds of trumpets which shout ‘hallelujahs’. But Bach knows that there is more than one way to say ‘hallelujah’, and so the Oratorio also invites a more contemplative response as the believer steps back as it were and reflects in overwhelmed amazement at this miracle of miracles. Bach shows that both the flourishes of trumpets and tympani and the somber sinfonia in E minor are appropriate responses to the glorious resurrection of Christ!

  1. S. Bach has through the years taught me many things about what it means to be a Christian and a theologian. He has taught me to be courageous in the face of the shifting sands of culture and the pervasiveness of secularism and scepticism. The truth of the Gospel does not require our defence; it is well capable of standing on its own, and the chief responsibility of the Christian is to bear witness to it with integrity – to tell it as it is. Beneath the architectonic brilliance and complexity of Bach’s music is the unflagging desire of the composer to simply tell it as it is. Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality.

Bach, more than any other composer, has taught me the relationship between worship and theology, between what the Orthodox theologians have termed as the lex orandi (the law of prayer) and the lex credendi (the law of belief). Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality. For the Thomaskantor, liturgy and theology are of a piece. And nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly and powerfully than in his Passions and sacred cantatas which resist the tendency found in Reimarus and others to distinguish the ‘historical Jesus’ from the ‘Christ of Faith’. These lessons are still pertinent for the church today, four centuries removed from that in which the Baroque composer lived and wrote.

May we in this postmodern climate of relativism and despair learn from Bach to tell it as it is – to proclaim humbly and courageously the Gospel of the resurrected Christ, in all its profundity, mystery and wonder!


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 Trumpet (TTC).