Tag Archives: Worship

Christian Worship and the Shortage of Space

August 2018 Feature

Churches in Singapore have to deal with a reality that is unique, compared to many of their counterparts in other countries. Many of the churches here have been built on land that has a leasehold tenure of 30 years (or are located in buildings that have a similar leasehold arrangement). Every 30 years, these churches need to renew their leases to use the space for another 30 years, at the prevailing market rates. The net effect is a financial burden that few churches in other countries have to bear. Based on some estimates, the additional financial commitment  necessary to sustain these leases can take up as much as 20% of a church’s annual budget, considering the typical weekly combined worship attendance of between 1,000 and 1,500 worshippers.

Given such burdens, while churches that are sitting on freehold properties can channel much of their funds to useful ministries, other less fortunate churches are constantly on a fund-raising mode to sustain the use of their facilities. Many churches do so with the hope that, once the lease is renewed, their congregations would continue to grow. This would hopefully lessen the financial burden, per capita, for the next lease renewal. However, that hope is also limited by the fact that the church can only accommodate so many additional members on a Sunday, as far as the physical space is concerned. This is quite a sombre language to use in talking about the ministry of the gospel! But it is a stark reality that many churches in Singapore have to grapple with.

Coupled with this is another trend, which is the growing number of Christians. According to the latest population census report in Singapore (2010), the general population grew at the rate of approximately 2.34% p.a. in the past 10 years. The number of Christian worshippers, however, grew from 588,000 in 2000 to 930,000 in 2010 (as reported in the Straits Times on 23 Feb 2015), an annualised growth rate of 4.7% p.a. That is double the rate of the population increase. While the data on the physical space allocated for religious use in Singapore (especially for use by Christian churches) is not available to the public, it is nonetheless conceivable that the space crunch for churches in Singapore will be increasing in the years to come, based on the trends mentioned here. In other words, Christians in Singapore have a problem at hand.

So, what is the solution? Among other things, the Singapore government is encouraging the development of a new approach to the sharing of space for Christian worship — a hub for multiple churches to use. Quite recently, such a project was announced: a $25m hub was proposed at a location in Jurong. Despite some teething issues in that particular project, such an approach can alleviate the space constraints to some extent. However, one might ask, will that be an adequate measure in the long run, given the trends? How effectively would a project for 3 or 4 churches be a solution for the more than 500 Protestant congregations (according to the Straits Times report mentioned above) that exist in Singapore? A more profound solution, I think, have to come from Christians themselves.

For the past two thousand years, most Christian communities have their worship on Sundays. This goes back all the way to the book of Acts, where it is mentioned that the Christians gathered together on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7). Apparently, it was chosen because our Lord Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, and it is also the first day of creation (Justin Martyr, I Apology, 67). In 1 Cor 16:2, the apostle Paul also indicates that the church gathered on “the first day of the week”.  At about 100 A.D., the Apostolic Father Ignatius also mentioned that the church met on a “Lord’s Day” (Letter to the Magnesians, 9). So, with some minor exceptions, Christians have gathered together on Sundays for worship since the earliest days of the church, as far as we know. However, can some adjustment be made to accommodate the growing number of worshippers in our churches?

Perhaps, in this regard, churches in Singapore should consider holding their worship services on Saturday evenings, in addition to Sundays. This is what some churches are already doing, in order to accommodate the growth in the size of their congregations. If we were to follow the Jewish reckoning of the day, our Lord’s day would have started on a Saturday evening, just as the Jewish Sabbath would have begun from Friday evening. In that way, Christians can still remain faithful to the significance of worshipping the Lord on a Sunday as a church.

As a Presbyterian pastor, I can in fact go one step further to take into consideration what Scripture says with regard to the question of worshipping on a Saturday evening. Regarding the keeping of special days, the Bible says that whether a person considers one day to be sacred, or everyday to be sacred, it is fine as long as he does so to the Lord (Rom 14:6). No one is supposed to make the observance of certain days a legal requirement (Gal 4:9-10), nor should Christians allow anyone to judge them on such a basis (Col 2:16-17).

Admittedly, the original contexts of these biblical injunctions are not whether a church can worship on a day other than Sunday. Nonetheless, I think the overall principle that can be drawn from these passages is that the specific day in which the church gathers is itself not the most crucial issue. In other words, whether Christians come together for their weekly worship on a Saturday evening or a Sunday, there is some room for flexibility. Then again, given the deep significance of Christian worship on a Sunday mentioned earlier (with Saturday evening being an acceptable time-frame according to the Jewish reckoning), I would not venture further to suggest that any day of the week would be acceptable. It is still important, in my view, for the church service to gravitate towards the Lord’s Day (Sunday) itself, which is how Christians have regarded it since the earliest times.

Given the long-term implications of the severe cost of land use in Singapore, it is time for Christians to rethink their use of the available church space. It is not just about using the church premises for running other community services like kindergartens during the week. It is also about allowing the church to accommodate a much larger number of believers. This must first begin with a renewal of our understanding of worship, and a reconsideration of what it means to come together as a congregation to render praise to God as a body of Christ, when we listen to the proclamation of his word. It requires a rethinking of our theology, and a recalibration of our set practices. This is something that the theologians from the West do not need to address, since it is not the situation their churches are facing! If churches in Singapore are able to make adjustments and seriously consider having worship services on Saturday evenings in addition to Sunday, it would contribute significantly towards alleviating our space constraints in the long term.

May the Lord grant us wisdom as we make decisions that would serve the interests of the kingdom of God and remain faithful to his sacred word! Amen.


Rev Dr Leonard Wee is New Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Durham and holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (B.B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.).

Worship and Witness

April 2018 Pulse

In his first epistle to the Christians of the disapora scattered throughout Asia Minor, the apostle Peter used vivid and powerful imagery drawn from the Old Testament to describe the Church. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), he wrote.

But the set-apart status of the Church cannot be divorced from its awesome responsibility to be the witness of the electing God. Thus Peter added, “… that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).

The Church’s doxology – her praises of the One who brought her into being – is inseparable from her witness, that is, her work of mission and evangelism.

Peter’s simple yet profound statement rejects the dichotomy, so endemic in the sensibilities of some modern Christians, between worship and witness. As a worshipping community, the Church is always also a missional community.

The Dutch theologian J. C. Hoekendijk stressed this vital point more than 50 years ago. “The ‘Church’, he wrote, “exists only in actu, in the execution of the apostolate, i.e., in the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom to the world”.

He added, “A church that knows that she is a function of the apostolate and that her very ground of existence lies in the proclamation of the Kingdom to the world, does not engage in missions, but she herself becomes mission, she becomes the living outreach of God to the world. That is why a church without mission is an absurdity.”

To gather as a body of believers to worship the sovereign God, whose cruciform love is revealed at Calvary, is to bear radical (and sometimes costly) witness to Him.

Think of the courageous Catholics in Krakow when Poland was languishing in the suffocating grip of the communists, who faithfully marked the solemnity of Corpus Christi by a public procession, despite attendant dangers.

By simply being true to its calling, and by courageously conducting worship in the face of opposition, the Polish Church bore prophetic witness to Christ in the dark decades of communist dominance between 1945 and 1989.

Just as the worship of the Church is inseparable from its public witness, so the Church’s engagement in the public arena must also be seen as an expression of its worship.

Think of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, composed by the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, which declared the unrivalled supremacy of Jesus Christ when Germany was under the sinister shadow of the Third Reich.

Barmen states categorically and without compromise that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death”.

In making this claim, Barmen rejects any political figure who masquerades as a god, and exposes as false the sacralising of any political ideology or programme. “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

In witnessing to Jesus Christ, Barmen dismantles and destroys the idols conjured by the prevailing zeitgeist, and points to the true God who alone must be worshipped and honoured.

In the same epistle, Peter urges his readers to be prepared to explain the rationality of their faith and hope, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV).

The Greek word for ‘answer’ is apologia, which in this context means to commend the faith to the wider public and to defend it against its despisers. The fundamental theological assumption behind this injunction is the belief that the Gospel is public truth.

As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon explained, “Our claim is not that this tradition will make sense to anyone or will enable the world to run more smoothly. Our claim is that it just happens to be true. This really is the way God is. This really is the way God’s world is.”

Christian witness can therefore be described as the kind of truth-telling that brings God’s truth not just in the sanctuary but also in the public square.



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.

AI and Religion

March 2018 Pulse

Reader’s Question: How would you envision pastoral ministry in an age of robots with Artificial Intelligence.

I would like to broaden the question by examining some of the ways in which AI could impact religion, and the issues and questions this might raise.

In September 2017, The Guardian reported that Anthony Levandowski, the engineer in Silicon Valley behind Google’s Waymo, has founded a new techno-religious pseudo-cult called ‘Way of the Future’, dedicated to the worship of Artificial Intelligence.

According to some sources, the mission of this ‘church’ is ‘to develop and promote the realisation of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society’. In his apocalyptic vision of AI, the autonomous cars guru does not only envision that AI will bring improvements to human lives but that it will one day demand our worship when it acquires ‘godlike’ qualities (e.g., omniscience).

There is little doubt that AI would become more and more ubiquitous in our world as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a neologism coined by Klaus Schwab – marches relentlessly on. From mobile supercomputing to intelligent robots to autonomous weapons, AI is set to impact society in many and varied ways.

Scholars maintain that there are two types of AI. What is mostly used today is narrow or weak AI, designed to perform specific tasks such as internet searches or driving a car. But many researchers hope to create general or strong AI that has the capacity to outperform humans in every single cognitive task – although some have questioned if this is in fact possible.

Authors like Russell Bjork have argued that creating machines with strong AI can potentially have an idolatrous outcome as they might usurp the place of God himself. In her article entitled, ‘Creating in Our Own Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Image of God’ Noreen Herzfeld perceptively points out that ‘If we hope to find in AI that other with whom we can share our being and responsibilities, then we will have created a stand-in for God in our own image’.

Thus, we enter into a dangerous and dehumanising bind: we create machines with superior intelligence and then worship them as our new gods, thereby becoming enslaved by the very things we have fashioned in our own image.

Writers like Cody Volkers have compared this desire to develop strong AI with the creation of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). But this attempt, Volker rightly asserts, will only end in failure and judgement.

‘When humanity grasps for God-like status’, Volker writes, ‘it is condemning itself to God’s curse. This applies for all history, including today in the pursuit of AI. In conspiring to create AI that takes on divine attributes, such as omniscience, the only outcome can be failure – and judgement’.

Another side to this debate about the impact on AI on religion has to do with the possibility of creating robots in the future that display such intelligence and humanlike emotions that they are even regarded as sentient entities.

Robots with weak AI are already in high demand. For example, in 2014 a Japanese company created a companion robot called ‘Pepper’, equipped with weak AI. Pepper went on sale in 2015, and it was reported that within one minute, the initial 1,000 units were sold out.

Companion robots and robots that are designed to take care of the elderly have sparked a discussion in some circles about whether one could envision a day when intelligent robots would replace pastors. Some scientists debate the possibility of not just programming a robot with general rules of ethics, but with specific Christian values as well.

Rev Christopher J. Benek, a Presbyterian pastor and one of the founders of the Christian Transhumanist Association believe that a robot with ‘the passion of a Billy Graham and the justice implications of a Martin Luther King and the theological consideration of an Augustine’ would gain a large following.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Benek mooted the idea of robot preachers that could ‘use the inflection and verbal prowess of a Billy Graham or a Martin Luther King and the compassion of Mother Teresa’. ‘That would allow people’s needs to be met because a lot of times we pastors can’t do that’, he adds.

This discussion brings us to the question of what constitutes personhood. Can a robot with super intelligence and that is able to display humanlike emotions be said to be a person? Or, to put the same question differently, can we say that such robots have souls?

Philosophers who argue that personhood may be said to be present when a set of qualities or capabilities – e.g., reason and emotion – are evident would be inclined to believe that machines displaying them can be said to be persons or possessing personhood.

This view, however, is mistaken. In the first place, intelligent autonomous robots that display human traits are in essence only machines that are programmed in this way.

It would therefore be a mistake to conclude that such a robot could be the bearer of the image of God. Only human beings are created by God to be the kind of creatures that by divine grace can reflect their Creator. Only human beings are created with the capacity to be in fellowship with their Creator and with each other.

Thus, a robot with super intelligence that displays human emotions can utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer (perhaps in 50 languages!), but it cannot pray.

In similar vein, the robot that appears to be able to provide sensitive ‘pastoral’ counsel is in fact unable to establish a real relationship with his counselee, since social robots do not experience emotions (the ‘emotions’ it displays are merely simulacrum of human emotions, not the real thing). And according to John Redstone, the empathy that people have with social robots is nothing but a perceptual illusion.

Put differently, the relationship between a human being and a super-intelligent and autonomous robot will always be an I-It relationship. It can never be an I-Thou relationship.



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.

Welcoming Worship

September 2017 Pulse

One of the simplest but most profound definitions of Christian worship comes from the pen of the influential Russian Orthodox theologian, Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (1893-1979). “Christian worship,” he wrote, “is the response of men to the Divine call, to the mighty deeds of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”

While worship is “primarily and essentially an act of praise and adoration,” Florovsky explains, it is also “a thankful acknowledgement of God’s embracing Love and redemptive loving-kindness”. Most significantly, the Russian theologian emphasises that because “Christian existence is essentially corporate”, Christian worship must be a communal activity.

This implies that every member of the community of faith must be allowed to participate in the act of praise and adoration that Christians call worship, including people with disabilities.

But as Nancy Eiseland has so starkly pointed out in her book, The Disabled God, the Church’s attitude and response towards the disabled has been ambiguous at best. The Church has often “treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism”. “For many disabled persons the church has been a ‘city on a hill’ – physically inaccessible and socially inhospitable,” she wrote.

If this observation is correct, then perhaps the Church has been subtly persuaded by the myth spun by secular society that the ideal human being is powerful and capable.

As Jean Vanier puts it, “A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.”

Or perhaps the Church’s relationship with the disabled is ambiguous not because Christians belittle them, but rather because we fear them. We fear them because, as Stanley Hauerwas has perceptively pointed out, “they remind us that for all of our pretensions we are as helpless as they are when all is said and done”.

Be that as it may, if the Church is truly the Body of Christ, it must accept as its members believers with disabilities, who, despite their physical or mental impairments, continue to be bearers of God’s image.

The Church must welcome and embrace these “weaker members” and bestow upon them the “greater honour” that they deserve (1 Corinthians 12), by loving them and joyfully celebrating their contributions to its life and witness.

The full acceptance of people with disabilities in the Christian community requires nothing less than a radical change in attitude.

The Church’s welcome of disabled people, therefore, is seen not just in the installation of certain fixtures like ramps for wheelchairs, important though they are. Its welcome is made most evident in the space it creates for people with disabilities to fully participate in its worship and ministry.

Welcoming the disabled does not require the church to design specialised worship services for them, for this could just be a disguised form of segregation. Rather, as Orthodox priest Stephen Plumlee argues, people with disabilities are truly welcomed when they are incorporated “fully in the liturgical activities of the community”.

Able-bodied Christians should never underestimate the extent to which people with disabilities – especially mental disabilities – are able to participate in worship. We are simply unable to fathom how the mysterious operations of divine grace can bring disabled people into intimate communion with God.

But a church that truly welcomes and embraces people with disabilities must also be open to receiving ministry from them, for they too are given gifts with which to build up the Body of Christ.

Most importantly, the presence of people with disabilities can in some ways be prophetic in the sense that it can expose every triumphalism, and every false sense of confidence. In the words of Hauerwas, their presence reminds us of “the insecurity hidden in our false sense of self-possession”.

Taking a slightly different angle, the American National Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the same point thus in its thoughtful 1978 pastoral statement on the handicapped:

“Handicapped people should be gratefully welcomed in the ecclesial community wherein we can benefit from the spiritual gifts, and the self-realisation they share with the rest of us in the Christian community, namely, that ‘we all live in the shadow of the cross’. That shadow reminds us that we are all ‘marginal’ people and hence our need for mutual integration.”

An example close to home is how Wesley Methodist Church encourages families with children with special needs to attend and partake Communion together at their Sunday 5 p.m. Traditional Services, and also have hearing-impaired persons attend their Saturday 5 p.m. and Sunday 9.30 a.m. contemporary worship services. They have also formed an Inclusion Committee with the aim of further integrating persons with special needs in their worship services, small groups, and across the rest of the church.


 

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.

Christian Hospitality from ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

June 2017 Feature

Public discourse on issues concerning immigration and foreign workers is often carried out within the framework of “human rights,” “national interests,” and “Asian values,” with religious values having a lesser role in the discussion. While this is understandably the preferred approach in a secular and multicultural society like Singapore, the Christian community must believe it has a point of view that can make a true difference in the problem-solving efforts.

The Christian view does not necessarily contradict these contemporary categories of thinking but it can offer humane perspectives based on an alternative view of people and the world. In this article, I would like to reflect on the question, “Why should we be hospitable to new immigrants or to resident non-citizens?”

I believe the Christian perspective supplies some good answers, and deep theological meaning can be discovered in the normal hospitality that we accord to the foreigner in our midst.

We live in the age of unprecedented human migration. Barring the implementing of regional plans by governments to check or reverse the trend, global mass migrations will continue to characterise present reality. As an instance, in a press release by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, it was reported that in 2013, a third or 30% of marriages in Singapore involved at least one spouse who was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, up from 23% in 2003.[i]  The trend of marriage to foreign spouses will likely continue to rise in Singapore as the city moves toward greater cosmopolitanism.

Churches have to face the reality of rapid social change, and can expect people of an uncommon ethnicity or origin to appear at the church’s doorstep. While most churches emphasize hospitality and kindness towards strangers, and discourage cliquishness, the encouragement to do so is usually based upon the evangelistic motive.

This is certainly more laudable than promoting exclusiveness or exclusion, but we can miss the important truth that the basis for Christian hospitality towards strangers is first derived from the Scriptural understanding of God’s compassion for the vulnerable and the Church’s self-understanding as a pilgrim people.

“Because You Were Foreigners in Egypt”

Charles Van Engen, a professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that while the Old Testament often presents foreigners as enemies of the people of God, it also contains many commands to Israel to care for the foreigners or “strangers” who lived in their midst.[ii]

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. – Ex 23:9, NIV

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. – Lv 19:34, NIV[iii]

The commands given by God through Moses were accompanied by the reason why the Israelites must treat foreigners well and not oppress them: the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt so they knew what it had been like to experience suffering and oppression as foreigners. The Israelites and the foreigners shared a common experience of alienation and suffering, and this bond must be expressed in the dignified treatment of the less powerful group.

Van Engen traced another theological meaning in God’s demand for the Israelites to show compassion – it would serve as a constant reminder to them that they were themselves a people who were pilgrims, sojourners and immigrants in the land. This was to be an integral aspect of their calling as a people even after they entered the Promised Land.

From God’s call to Abram to leave his country and become a sojourner, through to the period of the Exile when God’s people had to learn to live in a place where they did not belong, Israel’s self-understanding continued to be that of a migrant race. This self-perception would carry into the Christian faith as Jewish and Gentile believers grasped the truth that they have inherited not only the privilege of being God’s people but also its pilgrim character.

Jesus and Neighbourliness

Jesus’ approach to the poor and dispossessed in society was built on the Old Testament tradition of mercy and compassion for the disadvantaged. His teachings re-established the spirit of the Old Testament ethic, which had been kept in the practice of the law but not in the sentiments that it was meant to evoke, and superseded it with new and radical applications. He did this particularly through reinstating “neighbourliness” as a supreme way worshipping God (Mt 22:34-40), and by redefining the word “neighbour” (Lk 10:36-37).

By introducing the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ which in the Law is never placed next to the command to love God, Jesus raised its spiritual status to a startling height and intertwined loving one’s neighbor with loving God. In his telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘neighbour’ is no longer understood in terms of geographic, ethnic or cultural proximity. The robbery victim’s ‘neighbour’ is simply ‘the one who had mercy on him.’ Christian neighbourliness therefore consists in loving the neighbour we know as much as we love ourselves, and by showing mercy to the stranger in need we do not yet know, thereby making ourselves a neighbour to him.

Jesus’ teachings shaped how the early church related to pagan society. The same spirit permeated the church leaders’ instructions to their congregations on intra- and inter-church relations (Rom 12:13, 1 Pt 4:9, 1 Tm 3:2, Ti 1:8, 3 Jn 7-9), and relations with the unbelieving world (Heb 13:2, 3). Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian continued in the same vein, exhorting Christians to continue in the practice of love and concern for strangers and foreigners.

Encountering God in the Migrant

In his essay, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Miguel Diaz spoke of how ministering to migrants and understanding the experience of migration helps us as believers to “reconceive the mystery of God.”[iv] Deliberating on the thought of Karl Rahner and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who both wrote about how we encounter the presence and mystery of God in our daily interaction with fellow human beings who may be very different from us, Diaz invites us to see how, in the Incarnation, Jesus could be conceived of as a migrant who crosses the border and experiences all the accompanying dangers of migration in order to bridge his world and ours.

Diaz concluded that “there is something about crossing over and welcoming others (especially alienated others) that mirrors how God crosses over and welcomes us in Jesus Christ. A human community that does not welcome others and their otherness—a human community that rejects and shuns identifying with the suffering of migrating strangers—does not image the mystery of God.”[v]

From ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

Singapore is a nation of immigrants, so it might be something of a surprise to the casual observer that we have not been very hospitable to entrance seekers and migrant workers residing in Singapore. This is not so surprising upon reflection. Hospitality towards others not like us is not part of the social DNA of any society. In Singapore, this has not been helped by the fact that many of our forebears were poor immigrants.

Their first concern was for their own economic survival, not the well-being of society. For them, charity began, and often ended, at home. The cautious immigrant mindset has remained, and is today encouraged by the modern myth of self-achieved success. “Since I earned my wealth and comfort through my own perspiration, why should you not do the same?” How do we practice Christian hospitality in this setting?

We often think of hospitality as something we do, whether it is preparing a meal for friends and relatives or welcoming a visitor in church. Christian hospitality is much more than outward politeness and service.

It begins with self-understanding and the inner life of worship that finds its way into our daily activities. It has to do with recognizing that we are ourselves pilgrims and foreigners who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), and understanding what it feels like to have to make a home far from home. It concerns our readiness to surrender ‘We-Them’ distinctions and to place unfamiliar others in a common space with us under the same appellation – neighbour. It has to do with welcoming others because we are imitating Christ who “crossed over” to welcome us. In more than one sense, we are migrants ministering to migrants.


Notes

[i] Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, “New Measures to Help Prospective Singaporean-Foreigner Couples Better Plan For Their Future,” Press Release, 24 October 2014.

[ii] Charles Van Engen, “Biblical Perspectives on the Role of Immigrants in God’s Mission,” Journal of Latin American Theology 3, no. 2 (2008): 17-19.

[iii] See also Ex 22:21, 23:12; Leviticus 19:33; and Dt 10:19. The presence of these commands is remarkable when one learns that other ancient near eastern legal codes do not have statements of provision or compassion for foreigners.

[iv] Miguel H. Diaz, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Word & World 29, no. 3 (2009): 235.

[v] Ibid., 240.


 

Dr Fong Choon Sam is Dean of Academic Studies and Interim Co-President at Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches in the Missions, Religions, and Research areas.

Formulaic Christianity

May 2017 Credo

An Amusing Incident in Acts 19

Acts 19:11-20 recounts a somewhat amusing incident which took place in the city of Ephesus in the first century. By God’s grace, the apostle Paul had a powerful ministry in this place, one which involved amazing miracles.

This demonstration of power greatly impressed some of the Jewish exorcists who were working in Ephesus. They wished to tap on this same source of power for their own ministry. So they tried to copy what Paul did, casting out demons “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” (v.13).

On one occasion, this approach backfired dramatically. The evil spirit which the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out was smart enough to discern that these exorcists were using the names of Jesus and Paul in an impersonal and mechanical way. The spirit’s answer to the seven exorcists was quite priceless, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” These seven sons of Sceva were then mauled so severely by the man with the evil spirit that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding (v.15-16).

What was wrong with how these Jewish exorcists treated the Christian faith? They saw Christianity only as a means to get what they wanted—power for their ministry. They discerned that the way to tap on this power was to depend on a formula: Just copy Paul’s actions.

What the exorcists had was a sorcerer’s view of the Christian faith. A sorcerer back in the first century sought to manipulate the various supernatural powers by learning the correct rituals, like chanting the correct words and using the correct paraphernalia. Once they have mastered these rituals, the sorcerers could repeat it as a formula, and the supernatural powers were bound to respond in the expected way.

We are told in Acts 19 that even those who have become Christians were not exempt from the pervasive influence of sorcery. When news about what happened to the seven sons of Sceva spread, Christians who had continued to practice sorcery confessed their wrongdoing and presented their scrolls for burning. The value of the surrendered scrolls was “fifty thousand drachmas” (v.19), which is a few million dollars in today’s terms. This shows how many Christians in one city alone had tried to blend their practice of sorcery with their embrace of the Christian faith.

The Sorcerer’s Perspective is Still Alive

What about us today? A careful observation of the Christian scene in Singapore reveals that very little has changed, and the sorcerer’s appropriation of Christianity is still very much alive amongst us.

Many Christians today want something from God very badly—it might be good health, success in our studies and careers, or the fulfilment of a long-held wish. Like the sorcerers of old, we try to manipulate God into giving us these things.

The only difference is that the things we do to induce God to act are not pagan chants and rituals, but “Christian” activities. So, for example, we might put more money into the offering bag, or devote more time to prayer (sometimes using words or sentences which we think have a special magical power), or try to behave well for the week, all in the hope that God will notice our contribution and fulfil the desires of our hearts.

Some Christian preachers actually encourage such an attitude by teaching that God has promised to reward us many times over for our faithfulness to him (in terms of our monetary offerings and righteous living) with health, wealth and other indicators of worldly success. The net result is a reduction of the Christian faith to a series of formulas: If we do this, God will be obliged to do that, and we can be sure of getting what we want.

Why is this tendency to reduce Christianity to formulas so enduring, that it has persisted from the first century to our era? One reason is that formulas give us a sense of much-needed control amidst the seemingly arbitrary vicissitudes of life. They reassure us that we are still in charge, because we can ensure that life will turn out a certain way if we behave in a certain way. They comfort us by telling us that we have an “inside track” to success, guaranteed by the One who is in perfect control of all things.

The Gospel of Self-Fulfilment vs. the Gospel of Christianity

Upon deeper reflection, however, we discover that such comfort rests on a distinctly non-Christian foundation. It is comfort derived from the assurance of self-fulfilment, and the gospel (or “good news”) of self-fulfilment is very different from the gospel of Christianity. The former exalts the self to the highest place, and subjugates God to a secondary role—as a means to the self-actualisation we seek.

God, moreover, plays this secondary role very well: He is as controllable and predictable as a vending machine. We just have to do the prescribed “thing”, and the desired blessing is bound to be dispensed. This gospel of self-fulfilment is ultimately a sorcerer’s dream come true—we have found a way to manipulate no lesser being than the almighty God himself (who turns out to be not so almighty after all).

The true gospel of Christianity presents an almost diametrically opposite vision: One where we die to our self-centred natures, and then rise again with Christ to a new life in which God takes centre stage. It is not about us anymore—not our self-fulfilment or self-actualisation. It is rather about the fulfilment of God’s will, and we joyfully take our place at the periphery to serve as instruments given the privilege of contributing to this fulfilment.

Paradoxically, it is only when this happens; when we truly die to ourselves and live to serve God, that we find true self-fulfilment. It is true self-fulfilment because we truly fulfil the purposes for which we were created—the worship of God. It is only in this type of self-fulfilment that we find real and enduring joy and peace. Did not Jesus teach that it is only the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake who truly finds it (Matt 16:25)?

One of the most urgent needs for our churches in Singapore today is to rediscover a right relationship with God—one where he is at the centre, and not us. Too many of us gladly take on the label “Christian” and go through with enthusiasm all the prescribed Christian activities. But deep inside, we could well be doing all these with a sorcerer’s motivation.

We badly need a rediscovery of the fear of God. We need, in other words, an experience akin to what the Church in Ephesus went through in the first century. At the close of our narrative in Acts 19, we read of the people of that city being “seized with fear” upon knowing what had happened to the seven sons of Sceva. The result was that “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” (v. 17), and the people repented of their attempts to syncretise sorcery and Christianity. By God’s grace, may such repentance from our formulaic Christianity sweep across our land as well.



Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? Offering a Fresh Perspective by Questioning the Question

April 2017 Feature

The question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has been asked by many for a long time.

A recent article in Christianity Today notes that this question is ‘a perennial one’, that it was one of the ‘top questions of 2014’, and that the evangelical community and the American population are split over it.[1]

It has received increased attention in recent months following the comments made by Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins who stated on Facebook in December 2015, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Since then, various church leaders and theologians have weighed in on both sides of the debate, adding further to the confusion.

On the one side are those who argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, even though Muslims do not acknowledge the Trinity as Christians do. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is used as a parallel.

As Miroslav Volf argues,

‘For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response?… Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in partly different ways.’[2]

On the other side, Nabeel Qureshi has objected to Volf’s arguments by emphasizing the rejection of the Trinity in the Islamic Tawhid.

He writes, ‘The Trinity is an elaboration of Jewish theology, not a rejection’. By contrast, Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, and the Fatherhood of God, doctrines that are grounded in the pages of the New Testament and firmly established centuries before the advent of Islam. Most of the earliest Christians were Jews, incorporating their encounter with Jesus into their Jewish theology. Nothing of the sort is true of Muhammad, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Islam did not elaborate on the Trinity but rejected and replaced it. Additionally, Volf’s assumption that Jews did not worship something like the Trinity is unsubstantiated. Many Jews held their monotheism in tension with a belief in multiple divine persons. Though the term “Trinity” was coined in the second century, the underlying principles of this doctrine were hammered out on the anvil of pre-Christian Jewish belief. It was not until later, when Jews and Christians parted ways, that Jews insisted on a monadic God. The charge of Christian hypocrisy is anachronistic.’[3]

While Qureshi makes valid criticisms of Volf’s views, there are some problems with his own article. He admits there is a very general sense in which Muslims and Christians worship the same God (‘There is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians both attempt to worship’), yet he goes on to insist that ‘Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.’

Qureshi also says that the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a good question (‘Like all good questions, the answer is more complex than most want’). However, it seems that the root of so much chaos and disunity within the body of Christ concerning this question is that it is a bad question.

Very often, the reason why a question is difficult to answer is because there is something wrong with the question. In this case, the problem is that it is ambiguous. It can have the following different meanings:

(1) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that there is one Supreme Being who created the universe and who revealed to certain persons mentioned in the Old Testament such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and they intend to give glory to this Being’?

(2) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that the one Supreme Being who created the universe is a Trinity (three divine persons within the one being of God), and they intend to give glory to this Being?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ because Muslims deny the doctrine of the Trinity.

This denial does not negate the fact that they (like Christians) recognize that the universe has a Creator and they seek to worship this Creator, unlike those who ‘worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator’ mentioned in Romans 1:25.

To give an analogy: Peter and John are trying to contact the architect of a certain building, but Peter thinks that the architect of the building is James, while John denies that the architect is James but thinks that the architect is Andrew.

Are Peter and John trying to contact the same person? This question is similarly ambiguous, but once we disambiguate it, the answer is simple:

(1) Do Peter and John recognize that the building has an architect, and they intend to contact this architect?

(2) Do Peter and John recognize that the architect is James, and they intend to contact James?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ ; John denies that the architect is James.

So the next time somebody asks you this question, the first thing to do is to ask what he/she means by ‘worship the same God’. Once the question is disambiguated the answer is simple and straightforward. Christians need not be confused or disunited over it.


Notes

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/february/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-same-god-reinstatedochawk.html 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/17/wheaton-professors-suspension-is-about-anti-muslim-bigotry-not-theology/ 

[3] http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god 



Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

 


 

The Dignity of Daily Work

Work occupies a significant part of the daily lives of many Singaporeans. According to a recent media report, increasing workplace connectivity and higher expectations are blurring the distinction between personal life and work. The report cites a 2011 Workplace Survey that reveals that 69 per cent of employees in Singapore tune in to work on weekends, when they are out office, and even while on holiday. Technological advancements have led to hyper-connectivity just as keener competition has resulted in higher expectations and unreasonable demands on the part of employers. Thus, 77 per cent employers expect their staff to be available and contactable during emergencies, 45 per cent bring their work along when they go on holiday, and 29 per cent of employees believe that they should be available at all times because they are using a company mobile phone. The survey concluded that employees here have a high level of ‘dedication’, which may be just a polite euphemism for ‘workaholism’.

Daily work matters to the Christian faith. According to the Bible, work is not the baneful consequence of sin but the original intention of God for human beings created in his image. In Genesis, after God had created the first humans he commanded them to be fruitful, to subdue the earth and to rule over it (Genesis 1:28). God placed the first human couple in the garden and immediately put them to work! In their work Adam and Eve were to serve as images of their Creator, a reflection of the God who is incessantly at work. Unlike the gods of Greek and Roman mythologies who absolve themselves from work, preferring to dine on nectar and ambrosia in a heaven of rest and contemplation, the God of the Bible is a consummate worker. After bringing the world into being, God continues to work, sustaining, governing and providing for his creation. Human work is therefore an expression of the divine will, and in carrying out their daily labours to the best of their abilities, human beings not only enter into a unique partnership with their Creator but also glorify him.

It was the primordial fall that turned human work from a blessing into a curse. To be sure, the fall has not altered the divine intention or the status of human work. But this activity, which is originally meant to be a blessing, has turned into a toilsome and burdensome experience. As Genesis 3 indicates, the fall introduces ‘labour pains’ to both the man and the woman – man in manipulating the accursed earth, now filled with ‘thorns and thistles’, and woman in the pains of childbirth. Tainted and corrupted by sin, human work is now shot through with profound contradictions and paradoxes. Work in many ways liberates us and provides us with the many conveniences that we take for granted, from cooking stoves to airplanes. But work also enslaves us, draining our mental and physical powers by its relentlessness. Work both enriches and impoverishes the worker. By working hard, the worker earns more and so becomes richer. But his wealth is often purchased at the price of the monotony and drudgery of work, which often alienates the worker.

Human sin has also introduced aberrations to the way in which we look at daily work. It was Karl Marx more than anyone else who hailed the importance of work for human self-actualisation. According to Marx, it is through work that human beings realise themselves and transform the world. The details of Marx’s philosophy of work and human society are obviously beyond the scope of this brief article. Suffice to say that the Marxist approach presents a serious distortion because it reduces persons to their work, just as it anoints human labour with the spurious power to save. In many respects capitalist economies do not fair much better. In such economies, work has very little to do with self-expression or the common good, being often reduced merely to a means of acquisition. Furthermore, in the capitalist system, someone’s work is almost always owned by and done for the profit of another. Work is deemed valuable only if it is able to generate income. As some theologians have pointed out, in the capitalist economy, ‘work becomes slavery under a new name’. Both Marxist and capitalist approaches to work demean the worker, but in different ways.

The Christian theology of work is radically different from the way in which secular ideologies and attitudes have portrayed it. From the biblical perspective, daily work is a calling, a vocation through which we serve God and glorify him (Ephesians 6:5-8). For the Christian then, both the janitor and the geneticist serve God and neighbour through the work they do. It was the Reformers who helped us to understand this when they argued that pastors, monks, nuns, and popes are no holier than famers, shopkeepers, dairymaids or latrine diggers because they are all serving God through the work that he has called them to do. According to the Christian perspective, therefore, human work can never be secularised. In similar vein, the work that we do is never solely or even primarily for our benefit – the attainment of wealth, power or prestige – but always for the common good. This means that work is always a form of ministry to God and to society. Needless to say, according to this understanding, any human enterprise that does not glorify God and edify human society – from loansharking to human trafficking – must necessarily be excluded as legitimate forms of work.

For the Christian, then, daily work is inextricably bound to worship. Here, it is perhaps important to point out that the Sunday worship should not be seen as a pause at the end of the week. Rather, for Christians worship on Sunday begins the workweek by pervading it with the good news of God’s love and salvation. Worship at the beginning of the week not only hallows the rest of the week, but also significantly transfigures our understanding of daily work. It enables us, firstly, to understand our proper relationship to work. It shows us that although work is important, the purpose human life must not be understood as work without end, but to exist in creative relationship with each other and with God. And secondly, worship helps us to see that our daily work is always a graced activity, infused by divine grace and animated by the Holy Spirit. Finally, Christian worship helps us to understand our work in relation to the work of God. As theologian David Jenson has brilliantly put it, ‘The work that we do is made possible through the work that does not belong to us alone’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in Word@Work, June 2012.

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.


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 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).