Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The New Testament has its limits?

Paul Trebilco from University of Otago lectured on "Global and Local in the New Testament and Earliest Christianity" last week at Trinity Theological College. The lecture was moderated by Professor Trebilco's student, TTC's very own New Testament Lecturer Tony Siew. You can find the summary of the lecture at Christian Post.

The lecture coincides, in topic, with one the the courses that I am taking this semester: Mission in a Globalized World. The class teaches on global issues facing most of the current human race now.

Overall, Professor Trebilco highlights the world wide outreach of Christianity in the first generation of Christian history. He listed Romans 1.8, Colossians 1.5-6, 1 Peter 5.9 and 1 Timothy 3.16 as evidents that Christianity was a global phenomenon even in its nascent stage just because these passages bear phrases like "throughout the world" and "in the whole world".

In his note, it is stated in the conclusion, "[T]he dialectic between world-wide connectedness and the local is one of the key dynamics of earliest Christianity." (Emphasis original, p.3)

I find this disagreeable. It is obvious that these New Testament authors were either employing exaggerated expression to make their point or they were simply writing out of ignorant. Or both.

Christianity did not reach the Malaya peninsula or Japan or the Polynesia until several centuries later. To claim Christianity as a global phenomenon is stretching a far bit. At most, one can claim that Christianity was spread to the known world to the New Testament authors at that time. Definitely not a global event.

On a upside, Professor Trebilco mentioned a significant point on the social interaction among Christians and between Christians and non-Christians in earliest Christianity. Humans regardless of ethnicity were thought to be equal before God and hence was so taught among the first Christians.

In his notes, "[P]eople with no ethnic connections seeing themselves as belonging together." (Emphasis original, p.3) A truth that needs to be passed around and down.

During the Question & Answer session, I expressed my gratitude to the speaker before raising two questions to seek his opinion. The first one has to do with economics, while the second with social-politics:

1) Any suggestion for us to understand today's competitive nature in the market in light of the social interaction among the early Christians? For eg. Let's say a Christian set up an e-commerce website like Amazon.com to sell Christian books. And the business of local Christian bookshops run by local Christians are severely affected to the extent that they need to close down. So how should we understand this competitive nature among Christians?

2) How do we understand our current reality of nation-states? For eg. The Trinity Theological College's community consists of people from different countries. Let's say in the near future, after all of us have graduated, a regional war occur for some reasons. And some of us here are enlisted to serve in the military to defend our own nation. So should TTC students start shooting each other at warzone at that time?

Professor Trebilco remarked that question 1 is too complicated and he has no suggestion for it. However he highlighted that the early Christians were overwhelmed by compassion that some, like the Macedonians, who were already facing financial difficulty still gave donation to other Christians who were in need.

"Out of the most severe trial, [the Macedonians'] overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints." (2 Corinthians 8.1-4, emphasis added.)

This example set by these early Christians put many of us modern followers of Christ to embarrassment. Worse still, there are Christians who preach the health and wealth gospel which totally disregard the example lived by their early predecessors.

Professor Trebilco suggested that there is a strong case for pacifism throughout the New Testament. I think that if that is the case, then that will have significant implication for local Singaporean and Malaysian Christians who serve in the army whether through the National Service obligation or voluntary sign-on.

After the lecture, one of my collegemates remarked that my questions are trick questions. I shared with him that they are not. I have always been thinking that the New Testament is not a book that answers many of our contemporary affairs. And Professor Trebilco agreed with that. He humbly admitted that he is just a New Testament scholar, implying that his expertise is rather confined. He is right and nothing wrong with that. Yet he could be wrong too. Perhaps the New Testament has something to say about the competitive nature in a globalized world. Just that Professor Trebilco has no time or interest to examine that aspect.

Anyway, I would like to think that we are connected to each other on equal standing before God despite the fact that resources are scarce and competition is inevitable. And it is precisely on equal standing before God that competition takes place, for competition presumes equal standing. That's why 100 meters sprint has all the contenders start at the same mark.

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