Saturday, January 30, 2010

Visited the faculty colloquium

Yesterday I attended the Faculty Colloquium for the first time. Seeing more than a dozen of theologians and biblical scholars discussing over an impasse issue is intriguing and provocative as well as exciting.

Telford Work presented his thesis on 'theological interpretation' that acknowledges narrative theology while limiting its scope on one hand while suggesting that the broadening of our perception of traditional hermeneutics (eg. Reformed's Covenant Theology, Lutheran's Theology of the Cross, etc) is a way forward.

Tan Kim Huat shared a very provoking thought that Revelation 1.8 seems to suggest that God wants to be defined or identified as a narrative by revealing the God-self as one "who is, and who was, and who is to come". (I grasp my breath at that point!) If God wants to be recognized propositionally, it is preferable to be known as the one "who is, and who was, and who will". By revealing the God-self as "who is to come", God invoke for the God-self a participatory mode.

This is similar with Moltmann's panentheism. Coincidentally, during the session, Simon Chan critiqued Moltmann's panentheistic view. Given that his remark was brief, I get the sense that it has not deal with the fact that narrative theology is fundamentally narrative epistemology. (As N.T. Wright has laid out in his version of critical realism)

Roland Chia on the other hand made a good point that the content of a belief affects also the hermeneutic. He also mentioned that the creeds and canonical belief of the early church serve more as a boundary marker rather than an exhaustive theology.

Maggie Low was wondering if an overarching theme can still be recovered in the study of the Old Testament theology. Yoo Kiang gave a sharp critique on Work's emphasis to broaden our perception of the great traditions by invoking Wittgenstein's limit of human thought through the limitation of language. I like Yoo Kiang's critique but I think he didn't lay it out as forceful as it can actually be.

Work proposed that we go back to the pre-modern Fathers or even the authors of the New Testament to learn hermeneutic from them. But how is this possible to reach back into the great tradition as a way forward in 'theological hermeneutics' given that the multiple different horizons (go further than Thiselton's TWO horizons) between the horizon of the ancient text, the horizon of the ancients' interpretors of the horizon of the ancient text, AND the horizon of our interpretation of the horizon of the ancients' interpretors on the horizon of the ancient text standing in the way?

Simply put, we have:
(1) Ancient text from its own world.

(2) Ancient interpretors of the ancient text who are from a different world than the world of the text.

(3) Modern interpretors like you and me who are in a world different from the ancient interpretors as well as from the ancient text.
There is a gap between us and the ancient interpretors' world (Gap 1). There is a gap between the ancient interpretors' world with the world of the ancient text (Gap 2). And there is also a gap between us and the world of the ancient text (Gap 3). Work is asking us to assume the world of the ancient interpretors to interpret the Bible without addressing how can these 3 gaps be epistemologically bridged in the first place. This is a huge problem to Work's proposal.

On the other hand, narrative epistemology does not need to face this multiple-horizons and gaps. But the danger, as the presenter and some participants of the colloquium have pointed out, emerges when narrative epistemology gain a life of its own: Hermeneutic assumed ontology.

My question on this point would be why is this a danger? If our immediate experiencing and knowing of reality is through narrative, could it be that reality itself is really a narrative where existence itself is a story? What if we turn the rule around: It is because reality is story, therefore it makes so much sense that our immediate experience and knowledge of it is best represented through narrative: Ontology ensures hermeneutic.

After the colloquium ended, I overheard Mark Chan engaging Work with Gadamer's hermeneutic, but my mind had had enough for the day and couldn't stay on anymore.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Luther spoke in King James' English?

I have just finished watching Luther, the 2003 production. The movie started with Luther praying in modern day English. Then he conducted his first mass in Latin. Then he quoted from the King James Version Bible "Thou art...." while studying for his Doctorate in Theology. And throughout the movie, every characters in the movie refer to the German language as their everyday language.

More than just a movie about Luther's life, it is a snippet into the producers' attempt to re-enact Babel through the movie. A historically confusing piece of historical work. (Talking about postmodernism's influence over our generation?)

I very much prefer a Luther movie in Latin and German, perhaps a little bit of Spanish. Not minding a bit should I need to read the English subtitles throughout the show. Or they should just make film it in contemporary English, like the 300 and Braveheart.

That is much better than having all the anachronism flashes through a movie depicting a historical person. Not being historical in making an historical epic is of course calling its own historical credibility into question.

Luther took his doctorate in the early 1500s while King James Version Bible came out only in 1611. It is chronologically wrong that Luther quoted from the KJV Bible.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to read Psalm 13?

One of the quiz question in today's class is to determine the genre of Psalm 13. Maggie Low, our Old Testament lecturer, said that it is a "Lament" psalm, period. The psalmist was mourning over his own struggle with grief, sorrow, and or possibly regret.

I don't think so. Let's look at Psalm 13 from the English Standard Version:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him,"
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
I sensed anger in the psalm. It is not a mourn of lament. It is an expression of resentment. Why so?

It is obvious from verse 1 - 2 that the psalmist has God's promise to deliver him from his problems in his mind. Unless this is so, it does not make sense for the psalmist to harbor expectation for God to help him. And it is not a vague expectation. The psalmist has specific expectation, that is his God will rescue him from his enemies. Such specific expectation can not exist in the psalmist's mind unless this particular clause in his relationship with his God is assumed.

Would you expect your friend to come to your house for dinner unless she has promised to do so? If she has promised to come but did not turn up, you have all the reason to be angry and write a psalm. But if your friend did not promise you that she will come, then you should not feel angry if she did not turn up simply for the fact that there is no such expectation (unless you are a sociopath). And without expectation, there is no reason to be angry, not to mention to write an angry psalm.

This said, yet I did not make the case that this means that Psalm 13 is an angry psalm. The psalmist can, well, lament too given his unfulfilled expectation. But this is the point: We cannot determine the category of this psalm as a "Lament". It can also be an angry psalm. Maggie misses this point. I think she is following the textbook where this psalm is identified as a lament. (Tremper Longman III & Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd Edition (USA: Zondervan, 2006), p.248)

The textbook also states that Lament psalm composed of seven basic elements: (1) Invocation, (2) Plea to God for help, (3) Complaints, (4) Confession of sin or an assertion of innocence, (5) Curse of enemies, (6) Confidence in God's response, and (7) Hymn or blessing. But not many psalms are composed like this (p.248) In other words, this is not a strict category.

But why there is no such category as 'Angry' psalm? The textbook lists only: Kingship, wisdom, Remembrance, Confidence, Thanksgiving, Lament, and Hymn (p.246-252)

Some might say that the psalmist cannot be angry with God because verse 5-6 show his trust in God. But these two verses can well be the psalmist's indirect speech act that demands God to act. That means the angry psalmist is indirectly demanding God to act fast and act NOW given that God was not doing God's part in the relationship.

After becoming the President of the United States for more than one year now, Obama has disappointed some of his supporters. Yet Americans can say to their president that they still and will continue to trust him and celebrate his office, so he has to act fast and act now.

Of course I didn't bring this up in the class as I had not formulated this at that time. Yet to force an uncertain category to the psalms and demand the students to swallow this dubiety is not helping us to learn, not least to think.

If my case makes sense, then there should be a category of 'Angry' psalm. The textbook is just a platform to help us to learn and think, not to box us into categories which the textbook itself confesses ignorance.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Two Johns and spiritual formation

Edward T. Oakes' review of Stephen Tomkins' biography on John Wesley,

"After nearly marrying twice (and leaving both women feeling jilted), Wesley eventually married Molly Vazeille, a widow of French Huguenot descent with four children of her own. The marriage was not happy—indeed, the spouses proved scarcely able to tolerate each other. When Wesley, at a Methodist conference in Bristol, got word that his wife was dangerously ill, he headed back to their London home. Arriving at their apartment at the ungodly hour of one o’clock the following morning, he discovered that her fever had abated—and he turned around and headed back to Bristol an hour later.

When Wesley suspected his wife of reading his private mail, he had his desk outfitted with a secret compartment in which to hide his sensitive papers from her. These presumably must have included portions of his famous Journal, for in one bitter letter to her he explained that his indictment of her character was incomplete because he did not have his journal with him at the moment: “I have therefore only my memory to depend on; and that is not very retentive of evil.” No surprise, then, that he did not attend her funeral, and of her own legacy of five thousand pounds (holdings from her first husband, a wealthy merchant), she bequeathed to him only a ring."

Timothy Tow on John Sung,

"Sung studied from 1920-1926, earning a Ph.D. in Chemistry, along with many academic awards. However, at the height of human glory, he was cast down with melancholy at the words of Jesus, 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' (Mark 8:36). At this time, he was visited by a Methodist pastor who suggested he attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

At Union Seminary, Sung was bombarded with liberal theology. His favorite teacher was Harry Emerson Fosdick, later minister of New York's famed Riverside Church. His faith crumbled to the ground. In a sermon he preached in later years, he lamented the deadening effect of modernistic teaching, punning the word 'seminary' with the word 'cemetery.' Concluding that if God was dead and Christ was not risen, there was no purpose in Christianity, he turned to Taoism, Buddhism, and to the Koran.

The more he searched for the truth in these false religions, the more confused and desperate he became. For forty days and nights, Sung endured an intense struggle between truth and error and between the Spirit of God and the spirit of Satan. On the fortieth night which was February 10, 1927, Sung reached the point where he no longer desired to live. Nevertheless, he persevered in prayer and in the confession of his sins.

As the clock struck midnight, he was suddenly overwhelmed by a vision of the crucified Christ standing before him. In a compassionate voice, the Lord comforted him, 'My son, your sins are forgiven! Your name is now changed to John.' When the vision receded, John felt a wonderful relief in the sudden rolling away of his sin-burden.

His spiritual eyes opened, he went straight to his favorite teacher, Fosdick, and declared: 'You are of the devil. You made me lose my faith!' For denouncing sin in high places, he was sent to a mental asylum where he was confined for 193 days.

The mental hospital was God's appointed seminary for Sung...he read his Bible through repeatedly. Henceforth, he would read no other book... Upon his release, he threw all his degrees and academic awards into the ocean on his voyage back to China in order to make sure he would not be attracted again by the glitters of this world."

Here we have two Johns who had lived rather interesting lives. Both are great men of their movement in that time, but 'greatness' is always applies only to those who share the same aspiration with them. These Johns are usually held as heroes by frontal missionaries. But their stature is less influential and aspiring to those who sympathize with Abraham Kuyper, "In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, 'That is mine!'" However when we come to talk about 'spiritual formation', how should we make of them?

If spirituality is only confined strictly to the amount of prayer hours, Bible reading/memorizing, evangelism, and a bit of work in elevating social injustice, then there are much to be learned from the two Johns with much limitation in each areas.

I think John Wesley was more than a mere missionary. He was also a workaholic who neglected and mistreated his family. (Does "anyone who does not love his wife brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen" of 1 John 4.20 apply here?) Wesley's life was not too dissimilar from William Carey. John Sung on the other hand was delusional and someone who could not make sense of the intellectual dimension of Christianity. So it is not too stretching to liken Sung to a fundamentalist who thinks the world is flat and the sun moves around the earth.

So I do not see how one can extract from them a model for spiritual awakening as an example for Christians to follow. One such feat was pulled by Dr. Yu Chin Cheak, the Dean of Students at Trinity Theological College. I guess we can, in the same way, learn about spirituality from the Sadducees of Jesus' time. It is wrong-headed to start with in the first place. And the most frightening part for a student at TTC is when such feat is being applied into all the students' spiritual formation program! Is TTC venturing to raise up a generation of workaholics or delusional churchmen/women, or both?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thinking through the web

This Newsweek article summarizes the opinion of 109 philosophers, neurobiologists, and other scholars answered, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?"

I find the summary skewed on the subject it is talking about: human's relation with the internet. The article misses the fact that most of us are still illiterate when it comes to relating to the web. We have all sorts of agenda to cultivate a relationship, or even to care to start one, with the internet. Businessmen/women use the internet to earn more money; Unmarried people use it to find their partner; Friends jump into it to keep in touch with each other, etc.

Now here is what the article lacks. The article wants to find out 'how the internet changes the way we think?', but this pursue does not address the more important question: How can we think through the internet?

The former question places human in the passive position where we are mere uncritical consumers that take in whatever hyperlink we happen to click. Hence the question it addresses is very limited and partial in scope. The latter question which I raised places human in the active position where we are consciously relating to the web.

The other day during my family group session in Trinity Theological College, Roland Chia shared with us his thoughts on the blogging phenomena. He has trivial view on bloggers or blog-readers for spending so much time blogging and reading blogs. He rhetorically asked us, "Would you spend time to read Pannenberg or blogs?"

It is undeniable that Roland has a good point to make, but I think he made that point by assuming human's relation to the web as passive (the view probably shared by Sharon Begley, the author of the Newsweek's article).

On my part, the internet provides not only the platform for the flow of information but also the space to develop thoughts. The web is the medium for our invisible thought to come into being. An obvious example is 'blogging'.

Blogging is basically writing. And the act of writing itself is making concrete the invisible thoughts floating in our mind (those who are familiar with philosophy of language would know that this is the representational school of thought). And most of the time humans interact with each others' thoughts through words. This shows that the best binding way to vivify human's thoughts is through written words (a practical example is 'contracts'). With this in mind, blogging is simply an exercise of vivifying one's thoughts; to put a more phenomenological tone to it, blogging is a process of thinking that vivifies thoughts by relating to the web. The internet, therefore, becomes the ground for the formation and development of thoughts. And this is especially so when one blogs on the naked web, making it available to be critiqued by, interacted with, and benefited to other bloggers and blog-readers. (Private blogs are of course a different issue)

Besides, the matter of clicking whichever hyperlinks to acquire whichever information is not a problem as this happens all the time in library as well. It is a matter of how one assesses one's sources. Here again, I hope you may see the contrast between the Newsweek's passive view on human and the contrasting active view on human which I highlighted.

We have no doubt that a blogger can blog about anything under the sun. So it is very much depend on how the blogger blogs. In other words, our thinking process is not passive and should not be left to be so. Romans 12.1-2, "be transformed by the renewal of your mind", stands over the passive view on human's thought development. (Newsweek itself wants you to be what you read from them). Instead of viewing ourselves as the undiscerning consumer who gorges at everything appear on our computer screen, we can educate ourselves to build our thinking through the web. It is not so much an issue of what you blog, but how you blog. In the same way, our current state of information technology is not so much the web relates us to itself, but how we relate to the web ourself.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

An example of local prosperity teaching 8

(Daily Devotion dated 17 January 2010 from Joseph Prince. The material changes everyday on the site. This copy is referred for personal and non-commercial use. The definition of 'prosperity teaching' is here.)

"God is more eager to prosper you than you are willing to be prospered! In fact, He is so keen for you to enjoy His prosperity that in His mind, giving you a multiplication of wealth and assets is a settled matter...

My friend, expect prosperity in your life because you are already rich in Christ. Jesus took your place of poverty at the cross — “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) In Him, you are poor no more.

So stop looking at the lack in your natural resources. Look to the cross and say, “Yes, Christ has made me rich. It is a matter of time before I will see His prosperity in my life!”"

Monday, January 18, 2010

4 introductory books on St. Paul

I have read these four introductory texts on Paul. All are different in strength and weaknesses. Here's the summary.

Simply noted, N. T. Wright's Paul: Fresh Perspectives and What St. Paul Really Said provide a sketch on Paul's worldview and thoughts. Hence compared with the rest, these two books try to unveil Paul's structure of thoughts. Reading Wright's works gave me the sense of not only learning new things about Paul but also learning how to learn new things by myself. If you plan to read only one, then just get Paul: Fresh Perspectives. This is a more developed book which main point is identical with What St. Paul Really Said yet goes beyond it.

Paul Barnett's Paul: Missionary of Jesus mainly is an exercise on historical construction over Paul's life. The work explores Paul's relation with his teacher Gamaliel, his missing years in the Arabia, and his relation with the other apostles as well as the historical Jesus. Contrast Wright, Barnett sees Paul belonging to the Hellel school of thoughts, following Gamaliel (p.49). To Barnett, Paul is rather tender and tame. To Wright, Paul belonged to the Shammaite school which was zealous to overthrow the socio-political oppressors of that time.

Anthony Thiselton's The Living Paul is an elementary work compared to Wright's and Barnett's. Thiselton provides brief survey over contentious issues concerning contemporary interpretation of Paul. He covers topics like women leadership in the church, the language of atonement, postmodernism, etc. Lucid in its points. The best book among the four as an introductory text on Paul. Due to its brevity, it is inevitable to get a sense of 'proof-texting' in this book.

Guy Prentiss Waters' starting point on St. Paul is already wrong

Ligon Duncan, President of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, said that Waters' Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul is, perhaps, the best single book-length introduction and critique of the New Perspective on Paul.

I doubt Duncan's remark. In the section 'Old Testament versus Second Temple Literature' (p.156-157), Waters wrote that N. T. Wright does not differentiate the Old Testament from the apocrypha and other noncanonical literature while constructing Paul's worldview. Therefore Wright "does not do justice to those distinctions that Paul himself employed to speak of this literature. Paul accorded authority (and that of Scripture) only to the books of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3.16). There is no indication that he regarded noncanonical books as having any comparable or intrinsic authority." (p.157)

A couple of problems here. First and most fundamental problem is that 2 Tim. 3.16 does not tell us which the range of literature that Paul considered authoritative. To identify the Protestant list of Old Testament books as Paul's canon list is anachronistic. A damnable heresy in historical studies.

Second, how does one determine which literatures did Paul seen as authoritative? Waters did not explain this. Does the fact that Paul cited or alluded from certain sources would simply means that Paul considered them authoritative? If that is the case, then Paul must have thought Menander's play Thais ("Bad company corrupts good morals" in 1 Cor 15.33) and Cleanthes of Assos ("For we are indeed his offspring" in Acts 17.28) authoritative and as his scripture.

Both Menander and Cleanthes of Assos dated back 4th and 3rd century BC respectively. Besides these two works, Craig Evans has helpfully provided a list of quoted, alluded, and parallel sources found in the New Testament which many of these are not from the Old Testament. (Craig A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies [US: Hendrickson, 2005], p.342-409).

Of course the fact that Paul quoted from these sources does not by itself means that Paul considered them authoritative. But this certainly blurs the scope of Paul's canon list. Unless Waters provides us the criteria on how to separate which sources Paul considered authoritative, he does not do justice on Wright, not to mention on Paul himself. Here we have two reasons to question Waters' starting point which is not only problematic but wrong.

Previously we have Fesko with his claims that his work engages Wright's view, which we currently know it is not. Now we have Waters whose work is considered by the President of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals as one of the best critique on the New Perspective of Paul, which we presently know has a problematic and wrong starting point. And both books are published by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing. If these two books are considered the best works by them and their cohort that engage Pauline studies, then I doubt I would want to get another one on this subject from them.

I have developed the impression that the main disagreement that the so-called Reformed and Evangelical groups have with contemporary Pauline studies is not so much on interpreting Paul's letters but at a more fundamental level which governs the interpretation: the approaches (which and what criteria?) to find out the past.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Does St Paul know anything about the historical Jesus?

That's the question that causes numerous sleepless nights for New Testament scholars like Kar Yong and Tony. Many have attempted to answer this question with technical journal articles and comprehensive section in monographs on St. Paul. And none has given the most lucid, succinct, and nonetheless witty answer as the prominent Charles H. Dodd:

"...when Paul met Peter (Galatians 1.18), "We may presume they did not spend all their time talking about the weather."
(C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments [UK: Hodder & Stoughon, 1936], 26, as quoted in Anthony Thiselton, The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle and his Thought [UK: SPCK, 2009], 21)

P/S: I'm wondering why only Malaysian scholars (Anthony Loke, Kar Yong, Kam Weng, Tony, etc) maintain blogs?

An example of local prosperity teaching 7

(Daily Devotion dated 15 January 2010 from Joseph Prince. The material changes everyday on the site. This copy is referred for personal and non-commercial use. The definition of 'prosperity teaching' is here.)

"God also wants you to know that His favor in your life can be increased. You can experience more of His favor from day to day. How? The Bible tells us in 2 Peter 1:2 that God’s grace (or favor) is multiplied to us “in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord”. The more you behold Jesus and His love for you, the more you believe and confess that God’s favor is on you, the more you will see His favor work for you.

So if you are a doctor, you will find patients favoring you and you will have more patients than you can handle. If you are a businessman, you will find people just wanting to do business with you because they like you and feel good about you. Then, you will have more business than you can handle and you will need to plan for expansion!

When the favor of God shines on your church, you will find its premises too small for the people who queue up week after week to attend the services! So when people wonder and ask, “What is happening here?” you can tell them, “It is the favor of God multiplied all over us!” And it is all undeserved, unearned and unmerited!"

An example of local prosperity teaching 6

(Daily Devotion dated 13 January 2010 from Joseph Prince. The material changes everyday on the site. This copy is referred for personal and non-commercial use. The definition of 'prosperity teaching' is here.)

"You don’t have to wait until a church leader or friend prays for you. Every time your faith is strengthened as you hear the Word, release it through your mouth to receive your miracle, for God’s Word is out to prosper you!"

Friday, January 15, 2010

N. T. Wright's Paul and J. V. Fesko's N. T. Wright

All this while I have been reluctant to read stuff on St. Paul because one of the main player in the contemporary study is still in the progress of preparing his magnum opus on the subject. He is none other than N.T. Wright.

But in this semester, we will be discussing Paul very much in the New Testament class, and our lecturer Tony has recommended Wright's works. So I cannot wait any longer.

Therefore I sat myself down and finish reading 3 introductory texts on Paul in the past 6 days. I spent about 4 days with my piecemeal time over the weekend to read Paul Barnett's second volume of his trilogy After Jesus, Paul: Missionary of Jesus, 1 day each to read Wright's 1997's What St. Paul really Said and 2005's Paul: Fresh Perspectives. After that, I have some glimpses what's the recent fuzz over this subject about.

Then I picked up J. V. Fesko's 2008's Justification as the author states that the book "explore and interact primarily with the writings of N. T. Wright, as his work has been the most influential in the Reformed community." (p.3) I thought this is the best latest work that not only deal with Wright's work but also lays out the Reformed understanding on justification, as the book's subtitle ensures "Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine".

Fesko starts by describing "the classic Reformed doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone; justification is based upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is the sole ground and basis for the believer's declaration of righteousness both in the present and at the final judgment." (p.4)

Fesko's description is of course in direct confrontation with Wright's view: "If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfer his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant." (1997, p.98)

When Fesko discusses the language of imputation of Christ's righteousness, he states that imputation is a language of systematic theology and so not found in the Bible, like the word 'Trinity'. "Systematic theology typically requires terms that are theological constructs, terms often drawn from Scripture but given a more precise meaning to express the doctrines of the Bible." (p.154) It is on this point where, I think, Fesko failed to engage Wright.

For Fesko, 'imputation' is the best doctrinal term that carries the meaning of 'justification'. Hence the meaning of a doctrine is carried in a propositional one-for-one and straight-to-the-point way. The gist of each proposition found in the Bible (for eg. 'righteousness of God') can be better understood by translating it into another proposition which best expresses the not-so-clear proposition.

For Wright, doctrines are "portable narratives." (N.T. Wright, Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture, in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible, Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance, ed., p. 59-71) Doctrinal statements like the ancient creeds are terms that act like a semantic suitcase that packed the multi-faceted stories in the Bible to be carried from place to place so that they can be easily unpacked and explored further. The meaning of a doctrine is not the multi-faceted stories in the same way a suitcase is not what it is carrying within it. Hence doctrines are not proposition but carrier of stories.

From this observation, I think Fesko is not engaging Wright's thoughts after all despite his own claim to do that. Both started from different grounds in approaching the relation between scripture and theology. One may feel cheated by what Fesko wrote on page 3 about he interacting and exploring Wright's view. What Fesko does is simply dismissing Wright's view by saying that Wright has committed categorical mistakes. And Fesko does that by comparing his own category with Wright's category, and brushes off the latter's without explaining why his own category is better. No real engagement at all.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Now only they are talking about inter-faith/religious initiative

When Najib unveiled the 2010 Budget last year, I have already pointed out to a few friends that there is no allocation of funds for inter-faith or inter-religious initiative. This is a serious deficiency. However when Steven and I prepared a theological critique on the budget, this point was not included in the piece. Here's what I had previously proposed in November last year:

Prime Minister Najib emphasizes the 1Malaysia concept as a nation with multiple cultures and ethnic groups since his enthronement to the parliament; hence it is rather surprising that no budget is allocated to develop interfaith or inter-cultural relation among the rakyat. It is apparent that the multicultural setting in Malaysia is taken for granted by the Prime Minister’s office.

The government while under the rule of Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, was clearly against such communal effort when he arbitrarily and abruptly cancelled the significant Sixth Building Bridges inter-faith conference in May 2007, two weeks before the event. That move betrays the government’s apathy over the socio-cultural setting of the rakyat. Keep neglecting the real diversity among the people. The budget shows us that there will not be much difference in the current government’s stance over the rakyat’s cultural sentiment.

And now, after several attacks on local churches, the government finally willing to talk about inter-faith initiative. Malaysia as a supra-secular state should have funds allocated for these matters. Failing to do so betrays a fatal misunderstanding of the fabric of Malaysia's social and political landscape. Without serious undertaking for the development of inter-faith relation, the UMNO-BN has forfeited its sovereignty over such rich and diverse society.

UMNO-BN government proposed to hold closed door inter-faith dialog led by Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (IKIM). The organization is chaired by Tun Abdullah Badawi, the disgraced former Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The 2010 budget betrays the ignorance of UMNO-BN over (1) the fabric of the social reality of Malaysia, and (2) the essential place played by inter-faith dynamic in such social reality. Coupled with previous under-handled cases over inter-faith dynamic and from Badawi's previous mishandling of the Sixth Building Bridges inter-faith conference in May 2007, I have serious doubt that there will be any good coming out from these proposals. They just simply lack not merely the sight but also the mind to take on such issues.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Secular & non-secular polity vis-a-vis inter-religious relation

Singapore is a state where the government emphasizes clear separation of religious influence from the polity of the state. The government recognizes the important role of religion in the society and hence prioritizes religious harmony among its citizens with diverse religious background. Such harmony is desirable by the state not so much due to the nature of each religions but of their followers that make up a significant amount of the population. In other words, religion is important only because religious people encompasses the majority in the country.

However when there is a clash between religion and the state, the state has the upper hand to rule over the religion. For example in 1972 the government de-registered and banned Jehovah Witness because the religion forbids their members to carry gun, a practice required by the government for all male Singaporeans. Although the religious group is banned, the government does not actively pursue and detain the followers. For a more comprehensive report, please read the International Religious Freedom Report 2006 from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State.

Such political framework does not only assume but also necessitate a clear demarcation between the citizen from his/her religious worldview. A questionable attempt at dissolving that which cannot be demarcated so casually in the first place.

With such socio-political background, the National Council of Churches of Singapore provides relatively comprehensive guidelines for their members in matters pertaining to inter-faith relation. One of the matters the council dealt with concern this question, "In what circumstances can Christians give or receive funds from other religious organisations?" The council asserts that Christians can be involved in inter-religious monetary giving or receiving with this qualification:

"Christians, however, should not give to funds that directly promote the cause of other religions (e.g. building of temples or places of worship). This is because such giving is contrary to the Great Commission which calls Christians to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19-20).

Thus, for example, Christians may contribute towards a fund that assists poor families to send their children to school, but not towards a fund to send those children to a religious school."

The secular socio-polity in Singapore has mold the major voice of Christianity in the country to demarcates religious exclusivity (hence threat) in a certain pattern. That pattern is seen by the drawing of line in inter-religious co-orperation: Inter-religious activities for the welfare of the society as a whole is recognized and permitted as long as there is no direct contribution to the immediate growth of the other religion. "Love the person but not his deed" may in this case better translates to "love the person but not his belief." This Christianized proverb goes well with the political framework that assumes and necessitates the shady clear demarcation between the citizen from his/her religious worldview.

Yet we have to ask if that really is the case and what does the welfare of the society 'as a whole' look like?

Across the causeway, there is Malaysia, a country where religious influence permeates every layer of the society. Religion is not recognized by the state simply because the majority of the people are religious. The nature of religion is believed to be intricately intertwined not only in the personhood of each citizens but also in the state as well as the welfare of the society. That is why the first article of Malaysia's Rukun Negara ("National Principle") is 'Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan' ("Belief in God").

The fact that the National Principle does not list 'Kepercayaan Kepada Allah' ("Belief in Allah") indicates a supra-secular polity that is religiously inclusive. (I term it 'supra-secular' and not 'post-secular' because Malaysia has never been a secular state as compared to countries that find secular polity a status quo like Singapore, or those that are not settled with the status quo like England and the U.S.A.) The citizen's religious belief is not only recognized but assumed by the state. The state's polity is grounded on this assumption and hence religious influence over the matters of the state is common.

Therefore it is remarkable comparing the inter-religious relation of the secular polity in Singapore with the supra-secular polity in Malaysia. While the Christians in Singapore do not contribute to the development of other religion's religious causes, the Muslims in Malaysia are now contributing directly to the immediate growth of the other religion.

This is seen when Muslims are donating and encouraging other Muslims to donate money to repair Metro Tabernacle Church that was vandalized in the midst of the 'Allah' controversy. These Muslims are demonstrating to the rest of the nation that they concern less with the exclusiveness (hence threat) of other religious community, and at the same time making an inter-religious political vision for the welfare of the society as a whole.

This seemingly positive inter-religious relation does not come out from vacuum. It depends on the assumption of personhood that underlies the state's polity as well as the socio-political condition of the nation. The current state of affair in Malaysia, as a supra-secular state, offers the tensed world a trans-exclusive approach to inter-religious issue. This trans-exclusive relation affirms the exclusivity of each religion while offering a more inclusive welfare for the society which is more holistic than that provided by secular polity. Much to be thought through and learned from what have happened since 31st December 2009 when the high count came out with the ruling. There is a tidal pessimism sweeping among local and diasporic Malaysians, and across the country, under the current sub-performing UMNO-BN, yet "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet." (Judges 14.14)

Friday, January 08, 2010

What does the attack on 4 churches in Malaysia tell us?

1) The Culprit

Christians in Malaysia have been using 'Allah' for centuries. UMNO-BN's Home Ministry banned that practice. Christians appealed. The high court rules it legal for Christian to CONTINUE that practice. UMNO-BN appeals against High Court's decision, trying to look like champion for Muslims despite Muslim scholars say otherwise. Now four churches are attacked. UMNO-BN is still okay with today's protest that supports their appeal. They didn't stop this afternoon protest in the same manner they stopped 1st August 2009 protest.

When asked if the UMNO-BN should be blamed for these attacks, Najib angrily said no. But who else are responsible for all these social calamities?

PAS has condemned these attacks and had conceded with the high court based on their religion that non-Muslims can use the word 'Allah'. Dr. Mohd. Asri Zainul Abidin, an influential Islamic scholar, said likewise. Generally, Muslims have no problem with it.

Again, the word 'Allah' is historically and semantically valid as a reference to the one God by non-Muslims.

In the first place, if the UMNO-BN Home Ministry did not ban Christians from practicing their constituted religious rights, there was no case for Herald to bring to court. When the court ruled in accordance to the constitution, UMNO-BN appealed against the ruling. And now we have four churches being attacked. (We don't know how many more to come) So who's the culprit?

It is right for Zaid Ibrahim to condemned UMNO-BN as the one responsible.

2) Theological community's response?

Here, I'm referring to theological students like myself. Sivin Kit, Anthony Loke, Kar Yong, Kam Weng, Alex Tang, and others at Micah Mandate have rightly responded. But they are up there. I am wondering about my peers, those who are down here.

When Home Ministry banned us from using 'Allah', no theological students make noises. When Prime Minister's department appealed against the high court ruling, no theological students make noises. Now four churches being attacked, still there is no theological students make noises? Perhaps other theological students are busy reading the Bible or praying, so cannot make any noises.

But here is the peculiar thing. When I say the inerrancy of the Bible is irrelevant, almost every theological students ranging from Arminian to Reformed, from Cessasionist to Charismatics, from Bible-Presbyterian to Anabaptist suddenly stop praying and start shouting at me.

I'm not asking for theological students to be concern because I'm a Malaysian but because I'm a Christian. And it seems to me that most theological students regardless of nationality have skewed priority hence oblique perspective on current affairs and Christians' response to them.

Last year September, when typhoon Ketsana hit Vietnam, there were calls for prayer and status updates around Facebook among theological students. When four churches being attacked in the past 24 hours, only me along with others, who are not theological students, circulating concern and prayers over Facebook. The Ketsana typhoon is a natural disaster which none of us can do anything about it. Attacks on churches is a social ailment that all of us can do something over it.

Andreas said that this could be that the other theological students respond to such issues in the actual world and not in the cyber world. And I said that if they don't respond in the cyber world, what makes you think they even care to respond in the actual world?

3) In the midst of political traps

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan said that the Internal Security Act will be used to "ensure national security." The people of Malaysia has demonstrated that we don't want ISA last year August! Musa seems to want to make use of this recent tragedy as a justification to uphold the ISA.

If we have independent royal commissions set up to investigate the reported suspicious deeds done by UMNO-BN, no ISA is needed because national security is not threatened. So we don't need ISA to ensure national security. We need empowered and constitutional independent royal commissions and Malaysian people working together in nation's policing, not ISA.

We don't know what other kind of tricks and traps will UMNO-BN rolls out in respond to current situation. We just have to beware and try to look through their proposals and agenda. Get angry but stay calm. Don't retaliate with violence but condemn the responsible culprit. Pray with the anticipation to work for peace without uttering words absent of intended action that reflects the cross in view.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

An example of local prosperity teaching 5

(Daily Devotion dated 7 January 2010 from Joseph Prince. The material changes everyday on the site. This copy is referred for personal and non-commercial use. The definition of 'prosperity teaching' is here.)

"Each time you hear the gospel of Christ, you are hearing God’s good news for you. And the Bible tells us that the gospel of Christ — the good news that God wants all men to hear — is the very power of God for your salvation, not just from hell, but also from illnesses, financial lack, harm, a failing marriage — every aspect of your life that needs saving!

You may say, “Pastor Prince, I’ve heard the gospel of Christ, but it seems like I am one of those whom the power of God has missed.” My friend, when you hear the gospel of Christ, do you really believe it? You cannot just understand it in your mind. You must know and believe the good news in your heart, and then you will see that it is the power of God for your salvation...

There is nothing left for you to do to earn God’s blessings for your life. You only need to hear and believe the all-encompassing saving power of the gospel of Christ to heal you of diseases, preserve you from danger, prosper your finances and bring well-being to your family." (Bold original, italics added)

Monday, January 04, 2010

Reaction caused by ignorance

After the Malaysia's high court announced that 'Allah' is not exclusive to Muslim's disposal, 250 UMNO Youth members who supposedly are Muslims protested in front of the high court in Penang by shouting "seditious obscenities".

Previously I've posted that, "only those who are affected are legally, semantically, and historically ignorant people. Simply put, only stupid people will be affected by the court's decision."

Marina Mahathir, daughter of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, similarly thought that those who are affected by the court's ruling are "idiots."

More informed Muslims like Nik Aziz, the spiritual leader of PAS, has no problem with non-Muslims using the word 'Allah'.

Yet there is this Amidi Abdul Manan, deputy president of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM), who said that "according to the National Fatwa Council the word “Allah” was exclusive to the Islamic religion alone." I didn't know that the National Fatwa Council is as ignorant and falls into Marina Mahathir's category of idiots. The council humiliates Islam's intellectual tradition and Muslims' intelligence.

And there is also this Nasharudin Mat Isa, deputy president of PAS, who remarked that, "The court decision is not only against the Constitution but it also goes against our faith, and this cannot be accepted." Nasharudin was humiliating his spiritual leader Nik Aziz, Islam, and the Muslims! Islamic faith is not that historically and semantically ignorant as he implied! He should cultivate more respect for his spiritual leader, his own faith, and his Muslim brothers and sisters.

On the other hand Najib, the prime minister, lied outrightly, "I don’t want to heat up the matter, the government knows the feelings of the Muslims, let us find the best solution." (Italic added)

Two issues here. First he took the opportunity to paint a picture that his government as one that champions Muslims' position. But the real situation is that only some Muslims who are ignorant of the country's constitution, the historical and semantical issues behind the word 'Allah' that are so affected neurotically by it. Seems that when Najib made such a false statement, he was implying that all Muslims are stupid and ignorant over these issues.

Second, given the fact that legally, historically, and semantically 'Allah' is not exclusive to Islam, Najib was really saying that his government is one that sympathizes with legal, historical, and semantical ignorance. In other words, his government sympathizes with stupidity. And through the process, Najib's administration is making Muslims in the country less and less educated and incapable to think critically; contradicting the great intellectual tradition of Islam.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

An example of local prosperity teaching 4

(Daily Devotion dated 7 June 2009 from Joseph Prince. The material changes everyday on the site. This copy is referred for personal and non-commercial use. The definition of 'prosperity teaching' is here.)

"“But Pastor Prince, when I look at my life, there are times when I am up and there are times when I am down. Yet, the Bible says that I will be above only. I don’t understand this.”

What you are going through is only temporal. Keep believing that you are above only and not beneath, even when you have hit rock bottom. It is God who always causes you to triumph in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:14) You cannot cause yourself to triumph. Only God can and He has promised in His Word that you will be the head and not the tail, above only and not beneath. So believe His Word in spite of your circumstances and expect to see victory!" (Bold original, italics added)

Friday, January 01, 2010

Legally, semantically, and historically 'Allah' is not exclusively belong to Islam

The high court in Malaysia has announced that it is legal for Christians to use the word 'Allah' in their religion.
"Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that Islam is the official religion of the country but taken together with Articles 11 and 12, protects the rights of the minorities to be free to practice and be educated in their respective religions."
Semantically, as Ng Kam Weng has pointed out, 'Allah' is not a personal name of the deity of the Islamic faith.

Historically, (thanks to Kam Weng again) there are evidents that 'Allah' was used even before Islam came into history.

UMNO-BN's members such as Datuk Tajuddin Abdul Rahman said that the high court ruling "would not solve anything but only ignite racial and religious tension." But those who are affected are legally, semantically, and historically ignorant people. Simply put, only stupid people will be affected by the court's decision. And only stupider people would justify that the court has made a mistake based on this tension which has its origin in stupidity. The court has to act intelligently based on the constitution and not bow its knees to stupidity, Datuk Tajuddin. If someone feels threatened by stupidity, please feel free. It's just unfortunate that someone in the legally and historically appointed government feels this way.

An example of local prosperity teaching 3

(Daily Devotion dated 28 Dec 2009 from Kong Hee. The definition of 'prosperity teaching' is here.)

"Tithing is returning to God a tenth of all that He has given to us. It is a test of our faithfulness and it qualifies us to be a steward of God. To withhold the tithe is therefore robbing that which belongs to God. As such, Malachi 3:9 says that you are therefore “cursed with a curse.” A thief is cursed and can never see the blessings and the abundance of God...

Have you been a faithful tither? Have you fulfilled all the promises that you made to God? If you have not, then make a decision today to be a faithful tither and a promisekeeper. It may cost you something, but the reward far outweighs the sacrifice. Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”" (Italics added)

Where do I usually seat in class?

I chose that far end corner for two reasons: (1) I'm tall so I don't want to block others who are seating behind me, and (2) I like to rest my head on the wall while listening to lectures.

An example of local prosperity teaching 2

(One of the Daily Devotion from Joseph Prince. The material changes everyday on the site. This copy is referred for personal and non-commercial use. The definition of 'prosperity teaching' is here.)

"Maybe you are faced with overwhelming odds today. Jesus promises, “It is finished!” You are not going to be delivered because you have already been delivered. You are not going to be healed because you are already the healed! God healed you 2,000 years ago! Isaiah 53:5 declares, “By His stripes you are healed!” You are already pregnant with healing. Keep resting in His finished work and it will manifest!" (Italics added)

Some intelligent thoughts on 'prosperity teaching'

Social Science Research Council's Immanent Frame's website reported a recent article that links the prosperity teachings in American churches as one of the contributing factors in current economic crisis. The article "exposes concrete examples of banks teaming up with prosperity preachers to convert believers into subprime loan customers."

The interesting part is that the website also interviewed some intellectuals for their thoughts on the article. I've pasted only those portions that are related to prosperity teachings here (with emphasis added). Generally all deem the health and wealth teachings negatively. And I think they are right.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Professor Emeritus, Claremont School of Theology:
"There is much in the Bible that connects the right relation with God to prosperity, long life, and many descendants. The idea that virtue pays is not a monopoly of the biblical tradition, but it certainly gets support there, and participants in the tradition can exploit such “good news” and have done so. This has paid off for the exploiters especially well in the context of American capitalism. The general idea, so prevalent in our society, that our system rewards intelligence, discipline, and hard work, has been religiously transformed and amplified by the prosperity gospel. No doubt this contributes to the consumerism that in turn makes living beyond one’s means acceptable.

There is another tradition in the Bible that the “prophetic” one, that condemns this idea. In this tradition the reason for faith in God is not that this will lead to personal prosperity but that God loves us despite our unworthiness and calls us to love God and, therefore, the whole of creation. We serve our neighbors not because this is good policy but because our neighbors, and that is everyone, are beloved of God. This message is not popular, and some of the prophets were killed for their pains. Jesus stood in this tradition and died on a cross. He condemned the quest for wealth in no uncertain terms.
Some Christians who condemn the quest for prosperity in this life have emphasized otherworldly rewards for virtue. But Jesus taught that the basileia theou (the “Kingdom,” or “Commonwealth,” of God on earth) is worth our sacrifice whatever happens to us here or beyond). Jesus’s true followers are those who out of love seek the common good here and now.

Many of them do find joy and personal fulfillment in such a life, but they seek first the Commonwealth of God."

Harvey Cox, Research Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School:
"Neither Joel Osteen nor T.D. Jakes invented the prosperity gospel, but they have gravely distorted it. Still, they are half right. It is vital to tell people that God does not will them to be jobless, lacking health insurance, and unable to make mortgage payments while the banking elites pocket millions of dollars in bonuses. But the mortal sin of these preachers is to teach their people that if they are poor, it is their own fault for not praying or tithing ardently enough.

But to change the rotten system that creates such lopsided injustice something more is needed. The prosperity gospel should take the next step. Only when I see Osteen and Jakes leading demonstrations outside the doors of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, will I believe that they have gotten hold of the real gospel and not the counterfeit version they now pander."

Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology, University of New Hampshire:
"...the notion that God will reward the faith-filled with material riches has always struck me as particularly pernicious pseudo-theology. The Bible is certainly a document open to many diverse interpretations and there is ambiguity in several of its passages. Yet there is little equivocation in its core message that the good life is not one defined by material acquisition and ostentatious consumption but by purposeful acts motivated by generosity and concern for others.

The Sermon on the Mount is supposed to make Christians focus on loving their neighbor, not their Mercedes Benz."

D. Stephen Long, Professor of Systematic Theology, Marquette University:
"God does seek the plight of the poor to be alleviated. But the gospel of prosperity distorts this teaching, bringing it into alliance with a heretical doctrine of providence where God’s providence no longer works by holding goods in common, but as Adam Smith taught, by each looking only to his own interest."

Sarah Posner, Associate Editor, Religion Dispatches:
"That’s not to say that prosperity hucksters aren’t just as driven by avarice as the bankstas; just because they puff up their claims with Scripture instead of spreadsheets doesn’t make them any less complicit in leading the gullible on a path to financial ruin.

And that’s also not to say that prosperity hucksters would not have found another way to squeeze blood out of the turnip that is many of their followers’ nest eggs, had they not convinced them that God would make sure they could make the balloon payments. The annals of investigative journalism are filled with the sad tales of personal financial crashes because—prosperity hucksters would claim—victims didn’t have enough faith.

The hucksters may not be the sole cause of this crash, but they’re surely responsible for plenty of personal crashes long before sub-prime mortgage brokers began preaching their own kind of prosperity gospel."

James K.A. Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College:
"...prosperity preachers are easy targets for blame—and they certainly deserve that. But what about the sort of low-grade, soft-sell gospel of prosperity that is part of “mainstream” evangelicalism?...While mainstream megapastors aren’t promising Bentleys for faith, they generally extol a vision of the “good life” that has 4 bedrooms and a 3-car garage, with an SUV in the drive...This is why evangelicals have been so easily assimilated to the American ideal of economic growth and personal prosperity...In other words, while Osteen and his ilk might be denounced by evangelicals, I do wonder if his gospel of prosperity differs by degree, rather than in kind."