Thursday, October 30, 2014

SG50 and Christianity's Jubilee

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Singapore will celebrate 50th anniversary next year. The SG50 committee was set up to see through various events and programs to commemorate this important milestone. Many are using the common phrase "golden Jubilee" to mark this anniversary. And of course the word "Jubilee" came from ancient Israel's religious tradition. For this reason, many local Christians see this celebration as the "Jubilee". Some think that the nation has entered into its 50th year since 9 August 2014, and so the Jubilee has started.

The Love Singapore movement describes the Jubilee as a time for "celebration" and "consecration" (see screenshot below). The Global Day of Prayer in Singapore has changed the name for 2015's nation-wide prayer event to Jubilee Day of Prayer. The Anglican Diocese of Singapore calls the faithful to "pray, prepare and posture for a year of Jubilee in both Church and Society."

In view of all these, it's perhaps good for churches to rediscover the concept of Jubilee.

1. Jubilee's Origin
The concept is found in Leviticus 25-27. There are two possible etymological origins for the word 'Jubilee'. The first one is its connection to the Hebrew term yobel, the horn trumpet which was blown to mark the beginning of Jubilee (Lev. 25:9).

The second one is related to the verb y-b-l that means 'lead back, lead forth', which carries the imagery of release and return (Isa. 55:12, Jer. 31:9). Hence, the word yobel was translated into the Greek word aphesis ('liberation') by ancient scholars of the third to first century B.C. to be used in the Septuagint.

This connotation of freedom goes along with Lev. 25:10's main theme of Jubilee as the liberation of the Israelites: "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." Subsequently, the prophet Ezekiel called it the "year of liberty" (46:17). (See the brief discussion in David L. Baker, "The Jubilee and the Millennium: Holy Years in the Bible and Their Relevance Today," Themelios 24.1 [1998]:47.)

2. Jubilee's Purposes
Regardless of its etymological root, it is clear that Jubilee is to be celebrated by proclaiming liberation marked by the sounding of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in every fifty-years cycle (Lev. 25:8-9).

And Jubilee's occurrence on the Day of Atonement is not coincidental but to highlight the other significance of the jubilation: the Israelites will not only be liberated from alienation from their inherited land, but also liberated from their sins and separation from God. This combination of Jubilee on the Day of Atonement points out the overarching motif of the people's restoration to their rightful place before humans and God. As Brian T. Hoch comments,
"[T]he reason the Jubilee begins on Yom Kippur is that both institutions are kindred events of restoration. The primary foci of the restorative activity are: the meeting places with Yahweh (in respect to the Jubilee it is the land; with Yom Kippur, it is the sancta), and his people who are to meet with him."
(Brian Thomas Hoch, "The Year of Jubilee and Old Testament Ethics: A Test Case in Methodology," PhD diss., (Durham University, 2010), 91.)
The prophet Isaiah refers to this "consecrated" year as the "year of the Lord's favour", when liberty is proclaimed and restoration takes place (61:1-9). John Bergsma, in his survey of the history of interpretation of the Jubilee, called this the first messianic re-reading of the Jubilee for it is "associated with a coming "messianic" (anointed) figure, who will proclaim and inaugurate a new age characterized by the freedom and restoration of the jubilee year." (John Sietze Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran: A History of Interpretation [Leiden: Brill, 2007], 202, 203.)

The Jubilee is to be expressed among the Israelites through the following 12 instructions:
I. The Israelites should return to their family property (Lev.25:10, 13).

II. The Israelites are not to sow or reap plantation that grow by itself, or harvest untrimmed vines. They should eat only the produce from the existing crop (Lev. 25:11, 19).

III. The Israelites should not overcharge or undercharge one another---must practice 'fair price' as an expression of their reverence for God (Lev. 25:14-18).

IV. On the year before Jubilee, the sixth year, the Israelites' plantation will produce food enough for the next three years. They are to resume work on their plantation on the eight year (Lev. 25:20-22).

V. No land must be sold permanently as God is the true owner. Hence all sold land must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:23-24).

VI. Israelites who become poor can sell their land, and their relatives should help them to buy back the land. If no relatives can help them, then their land will remained with the buyer until Jubilee (Lev. 25:25-28).

VII. Houses within walled cities can be sold permanently, though the possibility for original owner to buy back the house should remain for the first year after the sale. After that, the house will be owned by the buyer permanently. These houses need not be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:29-30).

VIII. Houses  in villages can be sold, but must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:31).

IX. Levites' permanent possession is the pastureland, which cannot be sold. Their houses, however, can be sold though need to be returned to them during Jubilee (Lev. 25:32-34).

X. Israelites should provide social safety net to the unfortunate Israelites as how they are to treat foreigners. They should lend fellow Israelites money without interest, sell them food at cost price (Lev. 25:35-38).

XI. If poor Israelites sold themselves to their fellow Israelites, they must not be treated as slaves, but as servant. And they and their family should be liberated and be restored to their property during Jubilee (Lev. 25:39-43). The same with Israelites who sold themselves to foreigners (Lev. 25:47-55).

XII. Trade and manage the land fairly by determining the price according to its proximity to the Jubilee (Lev. 27:16-25).
Several times the Israelites were reminded of their obligation to follow these instructions because of their covenantal relationship with God (Lev. 25:17, 36, 38, 43, 54, 26:1-2, 12-13, 44-45). For further discussion on these Leviticus laws about Jubilee, see David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law (Grand Rapids, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 80-97.

From all these, we can draw out two major objectives of the Jubilee. First, Jubilee is about the restoration of the Israelites' socioeconomic life, and hence the whole community's sustainability. The institution of social safety net through property return, workers' liberation, and cessation of field plantation brings about a new start for the less fortunate and narrows the gap between the rich and the poor. 

Secondly, the Jubilee was instituted to have the Israelites put into practice their knowledge that they belong to God, that God is their Lord. "Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 25:17) "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers." (v.23) In other words, Jubilee was given to transform 'theology' into 'ethics', turning the people's knowledge of God into practices that reflect that knowledge.
 
3. Jesus Christ and Jubilee
Although there is no explicit mention of the Jubilee in the New Testament, Jesus quoted the messianic imagery of Isaiah's "year of the Lord's favour" as the overarching motif of his ministry (Isa. 61:1-2; Lk. 4:18-19). He proclaimed the fulfillment of the Jubilee concept through him (Lk. 4:21). He has initiated the true Jubilee. And it is through him, we gain liberation from socioeconomic struggles and eternal separation from God.

His followers (as the spiritual descendants of the Israelites) therefore have the responsibility to carry out the restoration of socioeconomic life and community's sustainability among themselves. Living out this communal life is practicing the acknowledgement that we belong to God. It is the reflection of our covenantal relationship with him. Christians' understanding of Jubilee should always be appropriated through Jesus' ministry.

This is not a call for state communism. It is not meant for everyone, just as the Israelites' Jubilee is not for everyone. It is for the churches. This church-based ethics is how Christian disciples to live in their community.

Therefore, Christian's celebration of the Jubilee is neither a call for cancellation of public debt (à la Jubilee 2000 movement) nor overturn alleged unfair political and economic policy (à la John H. Yoder's proposal). Christopher  R. Bruno has clarified this in his article: ""Jesus is our Jubilee"...But How? The OT Background and Lukan Fulfillment of the Ethics of Jubilee," in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53/1 (2010):81-101.

Rather, Christianity's Jubilee is a call for the faithful to establish and manage the church as a community where believers are liberated from socioeconomic struggles and spiritual alienation from God. Let this messianic Jubilant call as understood through Jesus be a reminder for local churches as the nation celebrates her 50th anniversary.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Jesus in the Old Testament? Westminster Theological Seminary and Douglas Green

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Theologians and biblical scholars have been discussing Westminster Theological Seminary's (WTS) controversial announcement of Douglas Green's retirement in June. The seminary's Board of Trustees found Green's interpretation method is not consistent with the institution. Here is the official statement:
The Board of Trustees regards the particular hermeneutical method of the New Testament use of the Old Testament included in Dr. Green’s response to be inconsistent with the Seminary’s confessional standards.

While Dr. Green respectfully disagrees with this decision of the Board, he acknowledges the governing authority of the Trustees to lead Westminster in fulfilling the institution’s mission as a confessional Reformed seminary.
Basically, Green thinks that the Old Testament (OT) authors didn't have Jesus Christ in mind when composing their document. WTS' position is that Jesus was objectively present, though vague, in the OT authors' mind when they were writing the relevant passages (its faculty G. K. Beale calls this "cognitive peripheral vision").

To be sure, the WTS doesn't condemn Green as heretical, but (as its faculty member Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. wrote) views his approach as "obscuring" and "compromising" the truth.

This has provoked many responses. Brandon Withrow, who did his doctoral study at WTS, commented that the seminary has over the years becoming inward-looking and hence fundamentalist. Tremper Longman III who taught at WTS for 18 years has strongly criticized the seminary's decision: "Westminster Theological Seminary is a toxic environment for the training of future pastors."

Another former student of WTS, William B. Evans, examined the changes of WTS' doctrinal position through its faculty member Vern Poythress' writings. In the past, Poythress' position was "careful and considered". Now, it's ad hoc and closed---as if the shift is made to justify WTS' current doctrinal stand. (To which Green Baggins disagrees.)

Kevin Davis points out that John Calvin himself wouldn't get a job at WTS given the institution's present position. As Calvin wrote concerning Hebrews 2:7's usage of David's Psalm 8:4-6:
I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle [author of Hebrews] to give an accurate exposition of the words. [...] The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.
(John Calvin, Hebrews and 1 & 2 Peter [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994], 22-23.)
The author of Hebrews, as Calvin commented, was not describing what David had in mind.

The World Reformed Fellowship has produced a statement signed by dozens of WTS' former faculty members and alumni in support of Green---in disagreeing with WTS' present position. 

How then should Christians decide which position is right? Did the OT authors had Jesus Christ in their "cognitive peripheral vision" when writing the scripture? If yes, then aren't we assuming too much on what the OT authors knew? I think it is too ambitious, too self-conceited, on our part to claim that we know the OT authors had Jesus in their mind when writing the scripture. No one can know such thing for sure. Saying that we know is making our faith in our cognitive ability an idol.

If no, then how can we claim that the OT foretells the coming of Jesus as the Christ? I think we can. It has to do with our understanding of how scripture's authority works.

The OT foretells Jesus as the Christ because of his own foretelling of his own death and resurrection, and the fact that he did rose from the dead. In other words, the veracity of Jesus' application of the OT passages as referring to himself depends entirely on (1) his prophecies about himself and (2) the fulfillment of them.

If Jesus merely prophesied about himself yet he wasn't raised from the dead according to his own prophecy, then he was just a loony, and according to Deuteronomy 18:21-22, a false prophet. Jesus was raised, and so his application of the OT prophecies about him was vindicated. This means that Jesus didn't override the OT authors' intention. Rather, he was revealing what they didn't know.

This is not special-pleading. When a text becomes authoritative, its intent does not belong entirely to the authors alone. This is how authoritative text works. For example, a country's constitution which was drafted in the 1950s is still being invoked to address a new situation in 2014. Though the drafters of the constitution did not have the 2014's situation in mind, yet their writing carries the authority to speak to 2014's situation as if the latter is implied in the text. And how we know whether there was such implication depends on how history turns out to be. In Jesus' case, he was raised.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Theologian's calling and the context of local theological scene

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My previous post is a reflection based on my two years observation of the context in Singapore (and in lesser degree Malaysia) as a pastoral staff who tries very hard to remain connected with the academic theological scene. Here are three things that I have observed.

1. The High-Calling of 'Pastor-Theologian'
I have met fellow Christian workers who seem to believe that 'pastor-theologian' is achievable. After more than two years of trying to keep myself immerse in pastoral ministry as well as theological academy, I begin to lower down my optimism.

A regular full-time pastoral staff simply doesn't have the bandwith to keep up with academic theology while wholly giving in to pastoral ministry, not to mention the tedious task of bridging the two. The fact that John Piper, Timothy Keller, and Tom Wright cannot do it (in my view), what makes me think that I can?
 
2.The High-Calling of Theologian
For the past two years, I have met a few young people who told me that they want to study theology not because they want to be equipped for pastoral ministry but because they felt being called to serve in the academia or be a theological lecturer. I can very much identify with them because I was like them.

I enrolled into theological college purely out of my interest in theology. I didn't know what will I do after graduation. When I started my theological education, I wasn't ready to go into pastoral ministry nor expecting myself to do so. In my final semester, I talked to a few theologians, including the principal of the college, about my desire to go for further study so that I can be a theologian. Basically, there wasn't such opportunity open at that time. Or perhaps, I wasn't a suitable candidate even if there was.

In retrospect, I realized that it was probably truer that I wasn't a suitable candidate. I didn't know what exactly is the vocation of a theologian. It took me some time to discover that being passionate in reading, thinking, writing, and arguing for certain ideas about God is not a theologian's vocation. Unfortunately, this mistaken idea of a theologian's calling is pervasive due to the widely read kind of popular-level theological literatures which are usually oversimplified polemic crafted in the context of "modernist/postmodernist conservative versus liberal". For an example of a good local theological work, check out Trinity Theological College's theologian Tan Loe-Joo's recent article in the New Blackfriars, which is made freely available for now.

Rather, a theologian's calling is to articulate and express his/her love for God and people through his/her teaching and research topic, academic presentation at theological conferences, and publication in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. This means that when people read your academic paper or sit through your lecture, they don't only learn theological ideas, but also through your work sense your own love for God and people and thus inspired to love God and people. This demands much more than intellectual capability. It is the giving of one's whole self in making one's love for God and people in academically visible ways. It's practising theological-pastoring.

Interacting with academic theology as a pastoral staff has made me more aware of the kind of pastoral care that people need and what kind of academic theological literatures can help them. Many academic theological works out there do not meet much of the need of local regular believers. Certain instinct and judgement can only be gained from pastoral ministry.

Therefore I think that the notion "You are a theologian because you have some ideas about God" is an insult to theological vocation. In the art scene, you are not an artist just because you have a degree or postgraduate degree in the arts. Only the renowned ones are callled artist. This perspective of theologian's high-calling may help young people who aspire to be theological teacher to get a glimpse of what they should actually work towards.

3. Organic Unity of Local Theological Scene
Local theological schools are very different from state-funded secular universities' divinity or religious study faculty in other countries. Theological institutions in Singapore have very intimate link with local churches. I think this is the same with Malaysian ones.

Some denominations and churches only recognize graduates from certain theological school. Therefore funds needed to sustain the schools come mainly from the denominations and affiliated churches. Many of the lecturers are financially supported by their own churches and friends. Hence, theologians in this part of the world need to have very close working relationship and deep level of trust with their own church. 

For this reason,  renegade theologian can hardly find a place here. I know a few people who have completed their theological degree at established theological schools out of their passion for theology and desire to teach theology. Yet they are now too busy with their work (for very practical reason), and hardly able to pursue their ambition further. Even if they manage to get their doctorate, they would have difficulty looking for a teaching post in local theological institutions as they don't have a denomination or church to support them. 

Therefore, the local theological scene is very much a communal enterprise. A theologian discovers his/her vocation within a community, commissioned to study from the community, and then research and teach with the support of the community. #youngpeoplewhoaspiretobetheologians, take note of this.

So my previous post wasn't written with negative experience of serving in church. On the contrary, I've learnt much from the two years as a pastoral staff. My church leaders and colleagues have expanded my theological horizon. The congregation has deepened my appreciation for pastoral care and theology. The post was a reflection of the theological scene here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

I've failed to be a pastor-theologian: Not everyone is a theologian.

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It has been more than two years since I've graduated and started serving as a pastoral staff. With the passion for academic theology and a pastoral job, I aspired to be a 'pastor-theologian'. My senior colleague told me that I should aspire to be like one. John Piper has preached about it. Al Mohler advocates for it. A center is set up to facilitate it. But after trying for two years, I confess that I've failed.

I can't be a pastor-theologian. 

Technically, I'm not a 'pastor' as the local Presbyterian Synod only endows the title to ordained minister. I do all the things a pastor does except presiding over Holy Communion, solemnize marriage, and conduct baptism.

I am not a theologian as I don't follow the idea that "everyone is a theologian". Just because someone has some thoughts about God, that doesn't make him/her a theologian. To paraphrase my friend Khiong, if we don't consider a cashier as mathematician, then we shouldn't consider someone with ideas about divinity a theologian.
 
At times, I think that perhaps we can still use the title 'theologian' with appropriate adjective. For example, we can call lay people who are well-versed in theology as 'lay theologian', or full-time teachers of theology as 'academic theologian' or 'professional theologian', or full-time pastors as 'ecclesial theologian' (which is synonymous to 'pastor-theologian'). However, if so, then should we call cashier 'retail mathematician'? I think not.

So, I cannot agree with the "everyone's a theologian" slogan. A theologian is a Christian disciple whose expertise in theology is expressed through his/her full-time work. He/she spends most of his/her time doing teaching and researching on theology, presenting at academic theological conferences, and publish in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. 

Some may question the insertion of 'ecumenical' as it excludes many academic journals which are supported by denomination and churches. Precisely because they are supported by denomination and churches that these journals are restrictive in academic critique.

Others may say that this would exclude many, if not all, apostolic fathers, church fathers, and reformers from being called 'theologians'. My answer to that is that a vocation changes according to social changes. In the past, there was no 'seminaries' or 'theological colleges' like ours today. In the past, the church and the academy did not relate in the same way today's church relates to the academy. In fact, the 'church' and 'academy' in the past are not like today's church and academy. Even pastoral ministry carries different responsibility in different era. The definition of 'theologian' that I mention here belong specifically to our time and locality, which may change in the future.

Then what about those who teach and research on theology in the academy and at the same time provide pastoral care to local church? I think these are 'theologian-pastors', not 'pastor-theologians'. And these theologian-pastors usually have served as pastors for some years before becoming theologians.

Pastoring is highly demanding. One simply don't have the energy and focus to research into theology after work. Hardly can one write and publish in established academic journals on theology. There are pastors who publish two to five journal articles, but that's all they can manage in their whole career life. It's easier for them to write popular-level Christian living books based on their own pastoring experience. Cases in point: John Piper and Timothy Keller haven't been publishing in academic journals, and Tom Wright resigned from his bishopric to go back to the academy. The former two are pastors, the latter is a  theologian-pastor.

It's not that I haven't been trying. I've been presenting at semi-academic conferences and forums, attending academic seminars, giving talks, helped proof-read theological papers for publication, and reading up academic literature. A friend asked me to consider cleaning up my own paper for publication. A former director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia asked me to kickstart a 'pastor-theologian' movement in local churches. I wanted to continue to do all that, but I'm just tired after the day's work.

This doesn't mean that 'pastor-theologian' is an impossible vocation. There might be people who can do it. What I'm saying here is that I've failed to be one--I'm not one. To come to term with my own limitation, after trying for two years, does clarify my own direction and lighten the burden of attempting to be someone that I can't be.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Book Review: 'The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology' by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently proposed a new political theology that formulates a way for Christians to understand the politics of liberal democracy. As such, the book is not so much on God but the state:  
The subject of political theology is not God but the state. It is not a branch of theology but a species of political theory, namely theological political theory. [...] The task of political theology is to develop a theological account of the state and of its relation to various other realities. (p.112)
The proposal is defined by Wolterstorff's theology of authority. In order to better understand the state, Wolterstorff leads us to examine three things. First, our citizenry experience of the state, particularly its authority; second, Romans 13:1-7; and third, the relationship between church and state.

Wolterstorff points out that our experience of the state comes in two dualities. One duality is political authority's mediation of God's authority; with the former is limited and judged by the latter. The other duality is Christian citizens' experience of political authority (as mediated divine authority) and church authority (as mediated Christ authority). Wolterstorff's proposal aims to explicate these two dualities (p.16).

For this reason, the proposal parts way with two influential interpretations on Christian experience of the state. Wolterstorff spends chapter two critiquing John H. Yoder's failure to observe the difference between power and authority in the state which leads to Yoder's impotent social ethics of "freedom". In chapter three, Wolterstorff highlights Augustine's mistaken "two cities" reading of the state, which wrongly assumes that the imperial administration only governs the pagans and not the members of the church. Therefore, both the Yoderian and Augustinian interpretation of the state overlook the two dualities that Wolterstorff describes.

To understand the two dualities, Wolterstorff differentiates between "positional authority" and "performance-authority". Positional authority is the authority a position or an office exercises. A king can issue a directive regardless of the directive's moral status. It is well within the office-holder's authority to issue. Performance authority is the authority to perform certain action. Such authority requires morality as legitimacy. As Wolterstorff explains:
Sometimes one's authority to do something is the legal authority to do it, the legal right. In other cases ones authority comes along with some social role or position that one has or with some social practice in which one is engaged. But sometimes the right that comes with the authority to do something is the moral right to do that thing. [...] when I speak of someone as having authority to do something, I mean to imply that he has the moral right to do that thing, that he is morally permitted to do it. (p.49, emphasis added)
Then Wolterstorff went on to differentiate two types of power based on its Latin variations. Potentia power is the ability to perform that comes from oneself. Potestas power is the ability to perform that comes from others; hence it is an authorized ability.

These two binaries (positional/performance authority and potentia/potestas power) allow Wolterstorff to build his case to understand governance authority as having "the potestas and the [performance] right to issue directives that are morally binding." (p.62, emphasis added) And I think this is the crux of Wolterstorff's theological account of state's authority: "A condition of having the potestas to issue a binding directive to someone to do something is that it be morally permissible to direct him to do that." (p.63)

Two implications follow. First, binding directive depends on performance authority, not on positional authority. Second, directive is only binding and command our obligation if it is morally permissible. Therefore, a policy is authoritative only if it is issued by one's authorized ability to perform the issuance bases on moral rightness, not on one's position of power.
Whenever I say that someone has the authority to do something, I mean to imply that he has the moral right to do it. One might say that he has the moral authority to do it. (p.78, emphasis original)
In other words, whether a policy is legitimate or not depends on its moral status rather than the sheer act of power. After having established this, Wolterstorff applies it to interpret the locus classicus text on the relation between divine and political authority: Romans 13:1-7. Here is where it gets novel. Here is where Wolterstorff dismantles the popular "two rules" doctrine as articulated by John Calvin's reading of Romans text.

The two rules doctrine, according to Calvin, says that humans are under spiritual and civil rules. In terms of the latter, God provides civil government in our world as his representatives to (1) keep the peace, (2) punish evil doers, and (3) uphold Christian doctrines and the church's position in the society.

Hence, according to Calvin, the government is to be obeyed at all times---the only exception is when it violates the first five rules of the Ten Commandments. Therefore citizens have two obligations to civil government. First honor them for their office. Second, obey them even when they mistreat or wrong us (as long as they do not ask me to break the first five commandments).

Wolterstorff highlights two problems with this position. First, this doctrine does not allow us to exercise love to our neighbor when the only exception to civil obedience is the violation of the first five commandments. (p.74) Second, this position does not allow us to ask for God's deliverance when we are oppressed and unjustly treated by the government. (p.75) And Calvin's mistake lies in not differentiating between "positional authority" and "performance authority". As Wolterstorff writes:
[Calvin] while mainly working with the positional concept of authority, when it came to whether or not we have an obligation to obey the government he thought in terms of performance-authority. (p.80)
By differentiating positional and performance authority, Wolterstorff able to demarcate between legal from moral obligation. Citizens may be legally obligated to obey the magistrates, yet not morally obligated if the policy is not morally right.
In [Romans 13:4-6] Paul clearly teaches that God has authorized government to do certain things, and that when it does what it is divinely authorized to do, we must for that reason "be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience." (p.116)
Wolterstorff's interpretation is clear and very helpful as a guide on how can we relate to the state. It provides a more coherent context to better understand the moral status and the authority of the state and our role as citizens.

With that, Wolterstorff goes on to list six principles that "constitute an expansive charter for the autonomy of the church vis-a-vis the state and for the religious freedom of citizens in general---or to put it from the opposite side, an expansive set of limits on what the state may do with respect to the church, its members, and citizens in general." (p.125) One would have to read the book to find out more, so as not to be impoverished by this brief summary of a new and stimulating political theology.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Essay 3 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Daniel Strange defends 'exclusivism' in his essay 'Exclusivism: 'Indeed Their Rock is Not like Our Rock''. Strange defines exclusivism by its concern with two "central insights":
The first is that God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring salvation into the world and that this salvation is both judgement and mercy to all human beings who are deeply estranged from God. [...] Second, this salvation won by Christ is only available through explicit faith in Christ which comes from hearing the gospel preached..., requiring repentance, baptism and the embracing of a new life in Christ. (p.37)
Strange qualifies that those who affirm exclusivism do not necessarily think that salvation is only given to those who express explicit faith in Christ. Salvation is contingent upon other theological decisions than mere exclusivism. There is a range of exclusivism.

Nonetheless the essay points out that exclusivism is widely recognized as the "dominant theme regarding Christian approaches to other religions" (p.38). Strange gives three reasons showing that the scripture teaches this position. First, the ancient world of biblical authors was religiously pluralistic. This shows that the Judeo-Christian tradition is self-consciously exclusive. Second, it is consistent throughout the scripture that there is only one transcendent and unique God and Jesus is God incarnate. Third, if truth, salvation, and goodness are in God, God's word, and God's community, then anything outside of these boundaries fall short (pp.38-39).

Then Strange proceeds to give a brief historical sketch of the various affirmations of exclusivism since the time of the ancient Israelite to ours. He calls the contemporary form that he holds as 'Reformed Evangelical Presuppositional Exclusivism' (REPE), which affirms that,
[W]hile the triune God has revealed himself through his work in the natural world, in terms of an ultimate religious authority, it is God's totally truthful revelation of himself and his works in divinely inspired [...] Christian Scripture that is the ultimate authority in all metaphysical, epistemological, ethical and soteriological issues, and like all claims to ultimate authority (Enlightenment rationalism included) such a claim is made on the Bible's self-attestation, for to go outside of Scripture for Scripture's justification would be self-referentially incoherent. (p.48)
REPE is Christocentric in that, "It is the person and work of Christ that distinguishes Christianity from all other 'faiths' and gives Christianity its exclusive or particular claims." (p.52) So how do we account for other religions and the good found in them?

Strange points out two reasons. First, God's common grace, though non-salvific, enabled by the Holy Spirit to restrain sins and the consequence of sin in the non-Christians and lead them to do good (p.54). Second, humans' universal religious consciousness when suppressed and substituted by human sinfulness gives rise to idolatry, hence other religions (p.48, 54; based on Cornelius van Til's reading of Romans 1:25). In summary, Strange is saying that, 
[O]utside of Christianity there is damnation, because of the necessity of repentance and faith in the person and work of Christ which has been revealed in the apostolic gospel message, and the claim that God is perfectly just in his condemnation of non-Christians, for no one is ever 'ignorant' of God and their responsibilities before their Creator. All humanity is universally guilty of rejecting the knowledge of God they have been given in revelation and will be judged for this rejection. (p.55)
To Strange, one is either conscientiously for or wilfully go against God. The former leads to Christianity, the latter to other religions or non-religion. There is no place for sincere rejection of Christianity in good conscience because by REPE's principle, a good conscience can never reject God. Any conscience that rejects God is suppressed or distorted by sin.

What if there are people who are really ignorant of God and their responsibilities before their Creator?

Take for instance, devotees of other religions are often sincere. They believe and practice their religion as conscientious as they could, just like Christians. Yes, they may sometimes act contrary to their religion in good or bad way, yet they really desire to follow their faith. Just like Christians too.

On the other hand, if (as REPE argues) non-Christians reject Christianity due to suppressed and distorted conscience, then is the acceptance of Christianity really an act in good conscience? There are people who accepted Christ not because they have studied the scripture and came to an illuminated understanding of the faith. They decided to accept Christ because their prayer for certain physical, material, or existential blessing is answered.

If the acceptance and rejection of God in relation to humans' knowledge of and conscience before him is not as pronounced as Strange perceives it to be, then this ambiguity should make us hesitant to declare who is in and who is out based solely on humans' knowledge and conscience. If so, then Christian truth and salvation is not as exclusive as REPE presents.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Essay 2 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Paul Hedges wrote the second essay in Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008) titled 'A Reflection on Typologies: Negotiating a Fast-Moving Discussion.' The first half of this chapter examines the various typologies or conceptual models that have been used when discussing theology of religions. In the second half, it fine-tunes the classical typology suggested by Alan Race in the 1980s and developed his own 'particularities' model. 

The main typologies that Hedges engages with are:
  1. Alan Race's exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
  2. Perry Schmidt-Leukel's atheism, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
  3. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen's ecclesiocentric, christocentric, and theocentric.
  4. Paul Knitter's replacement, fulfilment, mutuality, and acceptance.
  5. Owen Thomas' truth-falsehood, relativity, essence, development-fulfilment, salvation-history, revelation-sin, and new-departure.
Hedges' own typology is based on Race's. He envisages that a good typology should be descriptive (contrast prescriptive), heuristic (contrast normative), multivalent (contrast defining), and permeable (contrast closed). Therefore he suggests that each category should be in the plural: exclusivisms, inclusivisms, pluralisms, and particularities. 

The particularities model that Hedges proposes takes seriously the uniqueness of each religion and so it can hardly conclude how religions relate among themselves. Particularists reject metanarrative. Objective evaluation various religions cannot be done. These are regarded as unknowable. The particularities position is thought to transcends exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. As Hedges writes,
The orientation of particularity has affinities with exclusivist type approaches, in that it sees each faith as being 'tradition-specific', which is to say, it speaks its own unique language about its own unique goals and purposes. It also has affinities with inclusivisms, in that many particularists allow that the Holy Spirit may be at work in other faiths. It might also move towards some measure of overlap with pluralisms, for a number of particularists hold that other faiths display some purpose within the divine mystery and may hold truths from which Christianity can learn.  However, as defined here, particularity is grounded in post-modernism, and it is this which provides its distinctive character. (p.27)
Hedges explains what he means by 'post-modernism',
Post-modernism relates to the theology of religions by disputing basic (modern) assumptions. One of these is the question of whether all 'religions' are pursuing the same goal, even granting that such a category termed 'religions' exists at all. It also emphasizes the need to respect the religions 'Other', rather than fit other faiths within a grand overarching (Western, rational, controlling) metanarrative.
Without metanarrative, particularities have no common ground that could arbitrate between religions. They strongly affirm the unique particularity of each religion. For this reason, their proponents hold on to "indeterminacy" in how God works through other faiths. The Holy Spirit's function in other religions is unknowable. (p.29)

My critique on this model is that it renders futile the quest for theology of religions. If we assume that we cannot say anything theologically meaningful about other faiths from our own religious tradition, then it follows that any distinctly Christian approach to them is impossible. The attempt for theology of religions is conceptually prohibited at the outset.

Hedges has written chapter 6 to elaborate on the particularists position. Perhaps he will address this concern there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pacifist response to the violence in Iraq---ridiculous

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The situation in Iraq and Syria is not getting better. The "Islamic State" (also variously known as IS, ISIS, ISIL) has declared itself as a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph on 29 June 2014. Afzal Ashraf explains:
Caliph or Khalifa in Arabic, is used in Islamic tradition to connote theological successors to prophets. According to Sunni Muslims, the prophet of Islam had four "Rightly Guided" caliphs; subsequent caliphs were principally political leaders. A myth developed with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, which advocated that to restore Islamic power it was necessary to unite all Muslims under a single caliphate.
IS issued an ultimatum to all Christians in Iraq and Syria on 19 July 2014, either they convert to Islam or pay a heavy tax, or be slaughtered by the sword. Ten of thousands became refugees overnight. Videos of massacres, severed heads, and victims being beheaded are posted and circulated through the internet. Besides committing genocide in the region, IS militants raped, kidnapped and sold their victims as sex slaves. The militant group also threatens and persecutes other Muslims such as the Shiites

IS expresses plan to expand to Southeast Asia. There are locals who aspired to follow IS to set up a Southeast Asia caliphate spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. It is reported that there are self-radicalised Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans who have traveled to Syria to join IS. Hence, this issue is also a huge concern for Southeast Asia.


On 15 August 2014, the United Nations security council blacklists those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to IS.

I'm curious what do Christian pacifists have to say about IS. The leading pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas was interviewed for his view on the situation in the Middle East. Here is his response:
I'm really attracted to the work that Christian Peacemaker Teams do, who go to Hebron and get between Palestinians and Israelis and say, "can we fix you guys a meal?" I mean, that's at least starting to help people discover one another's humanity, and if you don't do that, I think that any kind of long-term solution is quite hopeless.
 Another pacifist wrote,
[W]e are all made in the image of God. Killing is not only iconoclasm, it’s a re-crucifixion of the Incarnate Christ. It’s participation in the same sacred violence and mimetic impulses that killed God.
The pacifists' position is not only unrealistic but counter-theological. Take for example the latter one. The scriptural verse that says humans are valuable because they are made in God's image in relation to killing is Gen. 9:6. And when we read that verse, God himself sets it out that: "Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind."

The pacifists like to think that the infliction of violence on violent humans is destroying God's image bearers. Gen. 9:6 says otherwise. If IS militants are misusing the Islamic scripture and tradition to pursue extremist ideology, the Christian pacifists are doing the same with their own scripture and tradition.

As for Hauerwas, he should gather all his pacifist friends and fly into Iraq to have a meal with the IS militants. Besides eating, they would most probably end up as contributors to IS' series of gruesome videos.

Realistic and theological response would be much more helpful than ideological mumbo-jumbo. Take for instance, Pope Francis' statement
In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor... I underscore the verb 'to stop'. I am not saying 'bomb' or 'make war', but stop him (the aggressor). The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. Stopping the unjust aggressor is legitimate... One single nation cannot judge how he is to be stopped, how an unjust aggressor is to be stopped.
World Council of Churches' appeals to the United Nations: 
The international community recognizes that nations have a responsibility to protect their most vulnerable citizens. When a national government lacks the control necessary to ensure citizens’ rights and wellbeing, the responsibility is taken up by international bodies and their member states. We urge you to marshal all available resources to protect the people of Iraq in this hour.
World Communion of Reformed Churches' statement
We call for those who can to lobby their governments and the United Nations to act to protect those under threat.
Some American academics' and religious leaders' petition:
Therefore we call upon the United States and the international community to do everything necessary to empower local forces fighting ISIS/ISILin Iraq to protect their people. No options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table... Nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Essay 1 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Christianity is one religion among many in the world. Within Christianity itself, there are many different schools, under the main three groups: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Inter-religious and intra-religious diversity are given. Nonetheless, despite the intra-diversity, what is the most appropriate theological account Christianity should have on other religions?

Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008), edited by Alan Race and Paul Hedges, is a good place to start exploring for answer. The book is divided into two parts. First part is on theoretical and methodological issues while the second part on Christian responses to various religions.

Alan Race, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at St. Philip's Centre, begins the book with his essay 'Theology of Religions in Change: Factors in the Shape of a Debate.' One factor is Christians' interest in other religions. Race lists three reasons for such interest.

First, Christians have a mission to reach out to everyone. Hence it is important for Christians to learn how to relate to other religions, whether is there a need to evangelize; if yes why so, if not why not? Second, religious extremism in our time poses a serious threat to everyone. Christians need to discern how should religion, theirs and others', be expressed not as threat but for human flourishing. Third, for the sake of theological truth. If there are other religions around, then how can Christians give an account for them? (pp.5-6)

Then Race moves on to the next factor, which is on the sources for our reflection on other religions. He cautions the use of scriptures and tradition when we theologize about the religious other. Our interpretation and application of the scripture and tradition cannot be the "sole determiner" or "final arbiters" for our theology of religions. (pp.7-8) Race's suggestion here is helpful but left us hanging. If scripture and traditions are not the only determiners of theological judgements on other religions, then what other sources can we draw from to produce a view that is distinctively Christian?

In the next section, Race provides three areas of interest for us to explore in relation to religious plurality. The first area is on how religious plurality shapes the meaning of our understanding of Christian belief. For example, our knowledge of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour needs to be understood vis-a-vis other religions. The second area of interest is in the development of Christianity itself, how can theology be enhanced, without being relativistic, through its interaction with other religions? The third area is in inter-religious dialogue, particularly in the converge or similar ideas found in different religions. (pp.9-11)

Race ends with a call to negotiate between "all the same" and "all different" as a way forward to find a middle path to construct a Christian theology of religions. He points out that this tension is reflected in the New Testament, such as: "Whoever is not against us is for us," (Mark 9:40) and, "Whoever is not with me is against me." (Matt. 12:30)

What I found most provocative in this chapter is the probing question that Race asks: "If Christian theology is a process of reflection on experience---as in the famous Anselmian definition of theology as 'faith seeking understanding'---then we might ask about what constitutes the data of experience.... What level of impact might the data of other religious experiences and convictions have?" (p. 9)

The answer to this question is, I think, the key to an appropriate theological account of every other religion and the reality of religious plurality.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review: 'The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults' by Dev Menon

A friend started his new job recently. He started doing over-time work on the third day onwards. This characterizes much of adult working life nowadays. Work changes us more than we realize. And more importantly, how we engage our work changes who we are.

This is a theme explored in Dev Menon's new book The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults (Singapore: Graceworks, 2014). The book serves as a guide for many of us who are swamped not only by our work but also other commitments such as friends, church, and family. We are frantically keeping many plates spinning at the same time---not a healthy way to live.

Dev reminds us that many plate spinners like to believe they are handling all the plates well, that they are keeping all of them spinning fine. Yet, the fact is that when we are so stretched, few if not all of the plates are about to fall and break. 

We can be physically present a church service or family gathering but we are mentally still working in our office. We may be sitting in a meeting with our clients, yet our mind is going through Bible Study questions for tonight's fellowship in church. He calls this 'Frenetic Plate spinner Syndrome' (p.20). 

As Dev points out, our attempt to live a balanced life is impossible:
The whole concept of simply portioning out time and energy to the various segments of life and trying to do all of them well is completely ridiculous. It almost always leads to stress, pain and unrealistic expectations which are never met, causing a deep sense of inadequacy and guilt for those who try to follow, eventually leading to frustration and anger. (pp.31-32.)
Instead of trying to balance our various commitments, Dev recommends centering. We have to make Jesus Christ the center of our life. "Balance is rubbish. Balance will kill you. What we need to do is to centre our lives on... Jesus." (p.57)

When we make Jesus our center, we will learn the re-look at our priorities. We will learn to focus on what is most important at given juncture in our life. And so we also learn when and what to say 'No' to. 

However, Dev reminds us that centering our lives around Jesus is itself no easy feat. It takes a lot of time, space, and money. And if we are not careful, centering becomes another plate that we spin. Dev's point is that when Jesus becomes the center of which our lives revolves around, then we don't need to spin any plate. We become the plate that Jesus spins---he is the source of our discernment and motivation in all that we do at any given point in life.

This is a helpful advice for young adults, especially those who just started work. For those who are already spinning plates, Dev has included a checklist as epilogue to help us move forward. Plate spinner might want to consider spinning this book. It might be the only plate you need at this moment.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Galileo Affair: Faith versus Reason/Science?

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In the past, I liked to play a Role-Playing-Game (RPG) called Diablo. Like other RPG games, player needs to overcome many opponents. So I had to fight with many characters in the game in order to win.

However, a strange thing about the game is that the characters that I have defeated can never die. They kept coming out again and again. And I had to fight them over many times.

Interestingly, such strange phenomenon also happens in real life. The past week, Vincent Wijeysingha, a local social activist and politician, wrote a Facebook note that criticised the Christian community to the effect that our faith is unreasonable. He pitted our faith against reason or science. And the example he gave was the “Galileo Affair”.

The “Galileo Affair” is the name given to a series of events surrounding the issue between the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century. What happened was that Galileo’s famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, challenged geocentricism (the earth is the centre of the universe), which was the accepted understanding in the academia at that time and of which the RCC followed.

Galileo, in following the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, argued for heliocentrism, that the sun is the centre of the universe. As a result, the RCC took upon itself to interrogate Galileo and had him recant of heliocentrism. As we now know, based on current astronomy, indeed heliocentrism is true. Galileo was right. 

Since then, this affair has been used by many people to criticize not only the RCC but the whole Christian community in general as against reason or science. The latest came from Wijeysingha,
 “…throughout history where science has conflicted with church teachings, the church has strived to stamp out the new knowledge made available by science even to the extent of torturing their discovers. Recall the papacy’s treatment of Galileo who showed that Earth was not the centre of the universe: he was forced under torture to recant and the papacy apologised only 300 years later. […] the evidence of church history is that faith does not transcend reason, it constrains it.”[1]
There is much historical inaccuracy in the statement. First, Galileo was not tortured at all. Richard Blackwell, professor emeritus of philosophy at Saint Louis University, who has published a few academic books on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“Galileo scholars now agree that no torture occurred, nor could it have occurred, given his age and poor health, according to the rules of the Holy Office itself, and Galileo would have known this.”[2]
Likewise, Maurice A. Finocchiaro, an authority on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“In view of the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture.”[3] 
Second, the “Galileo Affair” is not a case of conflict between faith and reason or science. Geocentrism was not only accepted by the Christian community but by most people in the academia of the 17th century. Although there were theologians who pointed out some Bible verses to support the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, yet it was not the case that their appeal was to Scripture alone.

Geocentrism was mentioned by Aristotle in the 3rd century B.C. This notion was developed further by Ptolemy four hundreds years later. Hence, geocentrism is better known as ‘Ptolemaic system’. The academia and churches in the 17th century simply inherited geocentrism as accepted science of the universe.

On the other hand, neither Copernicus nor Galileo were the first to talk about heliocentrism. Aristarchus of Samos has proposed the heliocentric model in 250 A.D., more than 1,200 years before Copernicus and Galileo were born. Heliocentrism was a theory much less accepted than geocentrism back then. Therefore the “Galileo Affair” was not faith against reason or science, but a less-accepted science against a much-accepted science.[4] And the RCC has betted on the wrong side. As how Peter Harrison, the Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, sees it:
“In the case of Galileo, the Catholic Church was not opposing science per se. On the contrary, it was using its considerable authority to endorse what was then the consensus of the scientific community.”[5]
Third, RCC's respond to Galileo's book is not simply a matter of the church hierarchy suppressing individual's scientific inquiry. The internal tension between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the application of the decrees of the Council of Trent, education philosophy and curriculum, and scientific discourse played a huge part that led to the “Galileo Affair”. 

The two Orders were in tense engagement to establish their school of thoughts as the intellectual milieu in RCC. Galileo's proposal heightened the tension and hence was being deemed critically. As Rivka Feldhay, the Professor of History of Science and Ideas at Tel-Aviv University, wrote:
“…the possible limits of Galileo's campaign expressed two cultural orientations of two rival intellectual elites within the church--the Dominicans and the Jesuits--who attempted to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent and were engaged in a struggle over cultural hegemony.”[6]
Despite historical works show the contrary, the “Galileo Affair” keeps coming up as the epitome case that Christians are against reason or science. This falsehood is so entrenched among people for whatever reason that it is irresistible to historical reality. Pretty much like the characters in RPG games that keep coming back despite being defeated many times.


End notes
[1] Vincent Wijeysingha,‘My Reply To Archbishop William Goh,’ Facebook Note, dated 4 July 2014. Emphasis added.

[2] Richard J. Blackwell, Behind The Scenes At Galileo’s Trial: Including the First Translation of Melchior Inchofer’s Tractatuc syllepticus (USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 23.

[3] Maurice A. Finocchiaro, ‘That Galileo Was Imprisoned And Tortured For Advocating Copernicanism,’ in Galileo Goes To Jail: And Other Myths About Science And Religion, ed., Ronald L. Numbers (USA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 78.

[4] See the discussion in chapter 1 of John C. Lennox, Seven Days That Divide The World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (USA: Zondervan, 2011).

[5] Peter Harrison, ‘Introduction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5.

[6] Rivka Feldhay, Galileo and the Church: Political Inquisition or Critical Dialogue? (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 293.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Why did I sign 'A Call For Compassion, Dialogue And Mutual Understanding On LGBTQ Issues'?

Two reasons. First, there has been very public, aggressive and confrontational approach launched by concerned Christians who hold on to the church traditional teaching on sexuality. I share their affirmation on the teaching on sexuality, but I think that orthodox Christians can approach the issue in a more inviting manner, which is my preference.

Second, there are Christians who embrace and celebrate LGBTQ sexuality and wanting churches to move beyond the church's established teaching on sex. This camp likes to portray Christians who differ from them as hopelessly outdated, bigoted and discriminatory. I share their willingness to raise questions and re-examine church's teaching on the issue. I also sympathize with their outreach to the LGBTQ community. Yet, I would like to believe that I am applying the same keenness in raising questions and re-examine position not only on the traditional church's teaching but also extend the same inquiry to the LGBTQ position.

When a friend informed me of the petition 'A Call For Compassion, Dialogue And Mutual Understanding On LGBTQ Issues', and after I read it, I thought that this is exactly what our society needs at this moment: A compassion dialogue for mutual understanding. As taught by David Ford, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, when dealing with religious or cultural disagreement, we need to deepen the quality of disagreement that goes beyond mere disagreement; we ought to be able to appreciate and comprehend the differences from other's point of view.

So even though I don't share Free Community Church's view on Christian faith and sexuality, I stand side-by-side with them in urging all sides to have a compassionate dialogue for mutual understanding.

The report by Trinity Chua in The Independent summarizes my position well.

Here is the petition:

*This statement was backed by 217 individual signatories & 9 organisations at time of press release (22nd June, 2pm)

1. We refer to the Straits Times report on “Religious teacher launches ‘wear white’ online campaign” (20 June 2014). We note with regret that this recent controversy is a sign of a “culture war” that has taken root in Singapore. This will pose a significant challenge in building a harmonious society that thrives on diversity.

2. We, the undersigned, affirm the principles which Singapore rests upon. These principles are found in the Singapore pledge: to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality.

3. No individual or group in a democracy should impinge on others in an unjust manner. Our freedom to fully express ourselves according to our conscience must come with the reciprocal responsibility to accord the same freedom to other people. This holds true even if these others hold beliefs that deeply contradict our own. No individual or group should therefore be vilified, condemned, or subjected to harassment or abuse – physical or otherwise – or suffer any other form of reprisal simply for taking a position, taking part or identifying with a range of LGBTQ issues.

4. We strongly call for the idea of equality as citizens before the law to be upheld. This means that all forms of discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation are incompatible with the progressive value of equality that this nation rests upon. Equal citizenship also entails that majoritarianism (the idea that the majority has a right to impose its views and values on the minority) must be kept in check. A just and harmonious society can only be achieved when the majority does not infringe upon and discriminate against any minority, including sexual minorities.

5. The LGBTQ issue has often been portrayed as a conflict between “religious” versus “secular” values. We are troubled by this false dichotomy. We note that numerous religious leaders and organisations, in Singapore and around the world, have expressed support for LGBTQ equality. Religion is equally capable of upholding and supporting universal values such as democracy, justice and equality. In fact, these values form the ethical structure of many religions, including that of the major religions in Singapore. We urge that these values serve as a bridge when discussing issues on LGBTQ across the religious and non-religious spectrum. We call for enlightened religious leaders to make a stand in upholding these values in public discourse.

6. We are concerned about the continuous dehumanizing portrayals of members of the LGBTQ community. They have been subjected to a range of abuses, from discrimination and ostracisation, to verbal and physical attacks. Lately, a worrying trend has emerged on social media with voices calling for gays and lesbians to be targeted for public shaming and harassment. Such extreme views can only emerge from a deeply homophobic atmosphere where homosexuality is pathologised as a “disease” to be cured or exterminated. There is a need, therefore, to increase public awareness on the plight of the LGBTQ community and their lived realities, as well as greater public education on issues pertaining to homosexuality.

7. With these considerations in mind, we call for greater dialogues across all spectrums of views, with the common goal of achieving greater understanding and tolerance. The basis for such dialogues should lie in compassion and knowledge, rather than ignorance, hatred and prejudice. We believe that only through such dialogues can we overcome bigotry and ignorance, and forge a harmonious society that respects and upholds the dignity of every human being. For religionists, we call for these values to be manifested when responding to LGBTQ issues. Religion, after all, is a wellspring for compassion, justice and wisdom for all humankind, and we would do well to strive for such aspirations.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Trinity Theological College 64th Graduation

This photo of John Stott's 1978 visit to Trinity Theological College (TTC) is taken from the college's fiftieth anniversary book Lux Mundi: Our Heritage, Our Future (Singapore: Armour Publishing, 1999), 52. Since then, Stott had been visiting the college and developed high regard for its ministry. Here's what he wrote 21 years later, after the first visit:
"I have greatly enjoyed my visits to Trinity Theological College over the years, and have appreciated the warm welcome I have invariably received. I have watched with great thankfulness the college's gifted faculty's growing influence throughout Southeast Asia, and its developing links with the churches of mainland China. I specially admire Trinity's vision to develop a theology which is at one and the same time biblical (rooted in Christ and in Scripture), historical (respectful of tradition and of the development of doctrine), contextual (incarnated in Asian cultures), spiritual (producing godly alumni), practical (training pastors in expositor preaching), missiological (promoting the integrated witness of the church) and doxological (concerned above all else for the greater glory of God)." (Ibid, 134.)
I didn't know that the "pope" of the evangelicals had such a close relationship with the college. This is in stark contrast with some complaints from certain quarter that TTC is a theologically risky place. Well, that's probably because thinking and talking about God are themselves risky. To do theology is to risk because theologizing is to love God. And the thing about love is that it makes us vulnerable. As C. S. Lewis writes, 
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell." (The Four Loves [USA, New York: Harcourt, 1960], 169.)
Next Saturday will be TTC's 64th Graduation Service, where students will be conferred their well-deserved diploma. May the new phase of their life and ministry bring them into a deeper loving communion with God. If God so will, let there be among them "John Stott" who will lead our churches to brace the future.

As for the college, I pray that it will continue to grow in its depth in theological research and width in missiological endeavor. Lux Mundi.

Friday, May 09, 2014

A Response to UiTM’s Seminar Presenters

We rarely see the word ‘Christology’ on news portal. It’s an academic term referring to the scholarly study of Jesus. This word is most often found in seminary libraries. It is also not a word that the Christian clergy often uses in preaching. Yet, ‘Christology’ was in the limelight of several news websites this week—thanks to a Christianity-bashing seminar held at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM).

Besides warning the audience of the threat of “Christianisation”, as if it was some kind of social disease, the speakers at the seminar alleged that Christians have understood Jesus wrongly. Contrary to churches’ teaching, “Jesus is only a human slave to Allah,” and “The Christian gospel is a fake gospel.” One speaker then concluded, “Every Jesus follower should enter Islam, if not it would be a betrayal to Jesus” (Melissa Chi, ‘Gospels are ‘fake’ as Jesus was ‘human slave to Allah’, don claims,’ and ‘In UiTM, lecturer gives 10 reasons why Christians should be Muslim,’ MalayMailOnline, May 6, 2014).

No doubt, the main difference between Islam and Christianity lie in their respective understanding of Jesus. As the speakers have noted, the two religions disagree over ‘Christology’. And since this word has made its public appearance in a university and local news portals, presented only from Muslim understanding, a perspective from a Christian is necessary.

For two millennium, churches have been teaching that Jesus is God-Man—which means he is 100% God, 100% man (somewhat like one of Malaysians’ favourite drinks, kopi cham— 100% coffee, 100% tea.). So Christians fully agree with Muslims that Jesus is a human. Yet Christians also affirm that He is God. It was this teaching that Jesus is God-Man which gave rise to the idea of ‘Trinity’.
Christians believe that Jesus is God-Man because this is how the four testimonies (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the Bible describe him. These testimonies have been in existence for more than 500 years before the emergence of Islam.

The earliest surviving evidence of these testimonies are the papyrus fragments known as P52, P90 and P104, which are currently being kept in England’s John Rylands University Library and Sackler Library respectively. All three are dated to the first half of the second century; that is around 100 to 150 A.D., which is about 400 years before Prophet Muhammad was born.

Although the four testimonies describe Jesus as God-Man in their own unique way, there are several themes that overlap. I’ll highlight just 3. They are the (1) things that Jesus says, (2) things that Jesus does, and (3) self-identity that Jesus has.

Things Jesus say
When Jesus says that he forgives sins, the people who hear him find it offensive. The reason for the offence is because there is a general understanding that only God can forgive sins, it’s the exclusive power of God. No mere human can do that, it’s a prerogative belonging to no one else except God. Therefore, when Jesus’ contemporaries hear him forgiving sins, they burst out, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21)
 
As Michael Bird, an Australian theologian writes, “The offense that Jesus’ words provoke is by his presumption to speak with a divine prerogative. Clearly Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness in such a context was tantamount to assuming the authority to forgive on God’s behalf.” (How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature, Zondervan 2014, 58.)

I understand that most Muslims also affirm that no one can forgive sins except Allah. Hence it may be difficult for them to accept that these early testimonies narrate about Jesus forgiving sins. This must be blasphemous to them as much as it was to the people around Jesus. And precisely because it was blasphemous it showed that Jesus, though a human, did actually claim to be God. If he did not, there would be nothing blasphemous.

Things Jesus do
One of the most astounding things that Jesus did was his choosing of the twelve disciples (Mark 3:14). It was a significant symbolic act to re-constitute God’s people, represented by the twelve tribes of Israel. The Jews in Jesus’ time were expecting God to come and regroup them in that way. Yet, Jesus did it.

What does this tell us? That Jesus was delusional, thinking that he was God? That’s exactly what Jesus’ own family thought. When they saw Jesus re-constituting God’s people, they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). This goes on to show that Jesus’ own family recognises that he acts as if he is God.

As Tan Kim Huat, a New Testament scholar comments, “Jesus’ action in calling the Twelve is then seen as significant in that a new creative act [...] is being performed. Moreover, the number Twelve recalls the concept of the formation of the nation and also its reconstitution [...]. Israel’s prophets proclaimed that in the last days God would act powerfully to save and reconstitute the nation (Isaiah 49:6; Ezekiel 45:8; cf. Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30).” (Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, Asia Theological Association 2011, 80-81.) And Jesus came and did what only God would do.
 
Self-identity Jesus has
Besides saying and doing things only God could say and do, Jesus goes so far as to accept the one thing only God can accept: worship. The early testimonies about Jesus tell us that he accepted homage which were reserved only for God.

Jesus teaches, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Luke 4:8). Jesus is not nonchalant with regards to worship. He knows that his fellow human beings should only worship God. Yet he allows his disciples to worship him (Luke 24:52). This is a strong evidence that Jesus thinks that he is God.

Conclusion
What I have written above is an extract from a more detailed treatment of this subject (you can read it here if interested). Nevertheless, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that Christians’ understanding of Jesus is not without basis. It’s rooted in these early testimonies. And according to them, Jesus speaks as if he is God, acts as if he is God, and perceives himself as God. Therefore, Christians came to think that Jesus is God-Man.

As one testimony records, “In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God. […] The Word became a human being and lived here with us. We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us. […] The Law was given by Moses, but Jesus Christ brought us undeserved kindness and truth. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is truly God and is closest to the Father, has shown us what God is like. (John 1:1, 14, 17-18, Contemporary English Version). This is Christianity’s Christology.

My Muslim friends would question the historicity of these early testimonies in preference for their own sources. These testimonies predate Islam by 500 years. So in terms of historical reliability, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are much closer to the time of Jesus than of other sources.
 
A side note: If Christianity’s understanding of the Trinity as “one God in three persons” is true, then Jesus as God the Son being sent by God the Father does not deny the fact that Jesus is God-Man nor contradicts the belief in one God. It’s only problematic to those who are unable to comprehend what the Trinity means.

This article was originally published on New Mandala website, 9 May 2014.