Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some unexpectedly-important books I read in 2011, and two unexpected projects



This list betrays my interests and the fields that I am less incompetent at. Each of these informs and forms my spiritual life in this past one year. 

This list is what it is because I wanted to learn about some controversial events in the past (the crusades and Constantine's relationship with the 4th century Church), to be inspired (F.F. Bruce's life), to explore uncharted horizons (contemporary's Pentecostal theology, John Damascene's Byzantine theology, and Islamic theology), to get some sense of what the local theological scene is like (Malaysian and Singaporean authors), and to deepen my understanding on philosophical/public/political theology.

Among them, I thought Oliver O' Donovan's and Philip Goodchild's most difficult to read. Reading them is like choking on ice-cream. Tasty, but choked!

Some of the things I didn't expect from the list:


  • I didn't expect Simon Chan's treatment on Pentecostal Ecclesiology has so much important thing to say to other Protestant tradition. Low-Church congregants have so much to learn from the book, particularly about the doctrinal status and perception of the Church!
  • I didn't expect money is laden with so much theology. Philip Goodchild's book basically unpacks the theological aspects of money, exposing the dogmatic conditions for the materialization of money.
  • I didn't expect Emperor Constantine can be sympathized by present Christians since he has been  popularly smudged by the believing community in general. Peter Leithart shows that he can.
  • I didn't expect a Regius Professor (Nigel Biggar) can write so remarkably clear and comprehensible.


Besides reading these books, completing course assignments and Field Education internship through the year, I had the opportunity to work with others on two unexpected projects. 

The first one is with Yale Centre for Faith and Culture's Pathway for Mutual Respect's upcoming literature. Norani, the organization's Asia Project Director, invited each of us to contribute two short essays (350 words) on Muslim-Christian issues. I vaguely have an idea how the final product would be like, as I was told it wouldn't be out so soon. 

The second one is a book project on Christian political responsibility in Malaysia. The hardcopies just came out from the press last week. It is titled as 'The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian political engagement in Malaysia today'. Here's how the book looks like:


When this project was first conceived, I didn't thought that it would be a hardcopy book. Nevertheless, Soo-Inn and Bernice from Graceworks believed in it and carried the project through. This book contains contribution from six of us who share the same mission in this area. Our hope for this project is to provide some clarification on the ambiguous relationship between Christian discipleship and the challenging situations facing the country at the present moment. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Advent and its political theology



"In the Christ-event we found the elements of God's rule: an act of power, an act of judgment and the gift of possession. But these elements are presented in the narrative account of a decisive act, an act in which God's rule was mediated and his people reconstituted in Christ. We are told of the Advent of the one in whom the possession was vested, the conflict that his coming evoked and the vindication that he received at God's hand. To speak of God's rule from this point on must mean more than to assert divine sovereignty, or even divine intervention, in general terms. It means recounting this narrative and drawing the conclusions implied in it. And so we face the task of tracing its chief moments. We cannot discuss the question of 'secular' government, the question from which Western political theology has too often been content to start, unless we approach it historically, from a Christology that has been displayed in narrative form as Gospel."
(Oliver O' Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996], p.133)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Race-based ideology and Islam: The Malaysian enigma

Published on the New Mandala: New perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia website, dated 5 December 2011.

In the recent United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) general assembly, the “Prime Minister and Umno President Datuk Seri Najib Razak launched a Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap” as a gesture to inform the Malay community that his political party will continue to advance the Malay agenda.[1]

UMNO’s Deputy President Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin further affirmed this race-based ideology by saying that “it is vital” to protect “Malay political power.”[2] He justified such ideology by painting the picture that the interest of the Malay race, given its demography in the country, dictates the well being of the whole nation. “[W]hen we talk about Malay interest it does not mean we are racist because the largest group in the Malaysian society whether you like it or not is still Malays, Bumiputeras and Muslims.”[3]

Seeing ‘Malays’, ‘Bumiputeras’, and ‘Muslims’ being juxtaposed next to each other certainly stirs up curiosity as to what actually has the third group (Muslims) to do with the other two:
Does Islam teach race-based ideology or race-favouritism? Is it true that Islam requires the advancement of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay Supremacy)?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sin and its contextual nature: Plagiarism as case study


Moral objectivity enables the pronouncement of good and evil. The reality of sin subsists under this objectivity. If there is no such thing as 'what is supposed to be', then there can be no such thing as 'not what is supposed to be'. The acknowledgibility of the latter presumes the former. 

However, when it comes to discerning what is sinful (or not) is complicated due to sin's relational nature. The sinful-ness of an act depends on whether that act relates destructively, that is whether it goes against or uphold the greatest commandments stated in Matthew 22:37-40. What is supposed to be is to relate to God and neighbors in love. What is not supposed to be is to relate to the two otherwise.

This is the moral objectivity taught by, though not confined to, the Christian tradition. The context of which sin is realized and understood is the objectivity of this dual-love. In other words, sin emerges through context. We call an act sinful when the act impoverishes according to the demand of the context. 

Therefore what is not considered sinful in the past is considered sinful in the present. And what is considered sinful now may be considered not so in the future. It depends on the context whether an act contradicts or conforms with the greatest commandments. An example that we may look at is plagiarism, "the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work, as by not crediting the author." (Dictionary.com)

Is plagiarism always a sin? Or, is it only a sin when it contradicts the objectivity of dual-love?

In my time at theological college, I have come across cases where students are forfeited when plagiarism is found in their work. Some are expelled after being caught plagiarizing repetitively. We are taught in the first week of the course that plagiarism is not tolerated.

In more serious cases, reputation and career are jeopardized due to the guilt of plagiarism. One of them was Timothy S. Goeglein, the former Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison from 2001 to 2008. It is reported at News Sentinel  that there are at least 27 counts of plagiarism committed by Goeglein.

Earlier this month, Christianity Today did an interview with Goeglein. He remarked that he is a "serious Christian" belonging to the Lutheran tradition. However, he remorsefully confessed that he has committed plagiarism out of "pride and vanity". If anything, this confession testifies to Martin Luther's radical understanding of Christian personhood, which was spelled out five centuries ago in these four words: simul justus et peccator. Literally it means simultaneously a righteous and sinful person.

Back to the question, is plagiarism a sin at all time and places? Is it not the case that plagiarism is wrong only in societies where writing is capitalized as a way to make a living through the publishing industry, which assumes high literacy rate in the society?

The Church Fathers copied each others' works, and many times they don't give citation of who they copied from. Their world is one where writing does not generate money, or at least not in the scale of today's postindustrial world, because publishing technology wasn't available and literacy rate was not high.

Take for example John Damascene, who is known as the last of the Church Fathers. He copied the entire summary of Epiphanius of Salamis' Panarion without giving credit to him. This led an authority on the Damascene, Andrew Louth, to write of John: "By modern standards, with our high evaluation of originality and the 'right of the author', John was scarcely an author at all: he was simply a skilful plagiarist." (St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology [USA: Oxford University Press, 2002; paperback, 2004], p.24.)

However, John did made clear in the first pages of his Fountain of Knowledge that, "I shall say nothing of my own, but collect together into one the fruits of the labours of the most eminent of teachers and make a compendium." Yet, which eminent teachers, John did not name.

As such, what is sinful with plagiarism in the postindustrial context is that it encourages a culture that subverts the process of money-making of the industry. And by that, it prevents people (in this case, authors and publishers) from earning a living. Simply put, it potentially threatens the livelihood of these people. And such threat can hardly be dismissed as contradicting the love for our neighbors.

If this is the case, then isn't plagiarism only against the neighbors, and hence technically not against the dual-love stated in the greatest commandments?

To this, another John has these to say: "For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. [...] Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister." (1 John 4:20-21) The duality of the dual-love mutually assertive and derivative. Doing one is to do the other; deny one is to deny the other.

If it follows that sin emerges through the dual-love context, this post may have fulfill its duty to shed some light in the understanding on the objectivity of morality in relation to context.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mohd. Asri Zainul Abidin on Allah's punishment on apostasy



Interesting short dialog between Nik Nor Zafirah (Zaffyaffendi)  and Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin (Dr MAZA), Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at University Science Malaysia who is a former Mufti of the state of Perlis, Malaysia, sparked by article I wrote on New Mandala website.

You can read the dialog in Malay at the right column of the snippet above. Otherwise, here is the English translation (emphasis added): 

Zaffyaffendi: Dr MAZA, need your opinion on the apostasy article and how valid is it? 
Dr MAZA: Yes, I agree that that is the opinion of some scholars. 
Zaffyaffendi: Then, does that means apostasy from Islam is allowed without punishment if it does not threaten or belittle Islam? 
Dr MAZA: That is the view of some scholars. 
Zaffyaffendi: Yes, I understand. But the view of scholars is misguided at times too. So does this opinion contradict Allah's law? 
Dr MAZA: Allah never mentioned any particular punishment on that.

Following that, Zaffyaffendi twitted:


Saturday, October 29, 2011

'He Still Heals' by Craig S. Keener


Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary who produced one of the best commentary on John's Gospel, wrote the following article to whet our appetite for his upcoming book on the subject. This piece is dated to the time before Keener moved from Palmer Theological Seminary to Asbury (see his biography at the bottom of the article), which occurred in July 2011:

(This article is originally published at charismamag.com.)

He Still Heals
Craig S. Keener

When Thérèse was 2 years old, she cried to her mother that a snake had bitten her. By the time Antoinette Malombé reached her daughter, little Thérèse had already stopped breathing.

Antoinette lived in a remote region of Republic of Congo in central Africa where medical resources weren’t immediately available. Strapping her child to her back, she started running to a village where a family friend, evangelist Coco Moïse, was staying. When he prayed for Thérèse, she began breathing again. By the next day she was fine.

This account was reported to me directly by Antoinette. When I spoke more with her about it, I asked how long Thérèse had gone without breathing. She paused and thought about the distance she had to traverse to reach the evangelist’s village and said it took her about three hours.

The human brain suffers irreparable damage after only six minutes without oxygen, even if the person can be artificially revived. Thérèse had gone close to 180 minutes without taking a breath. Yet she suffered no brain damage—as she herself can attest to today, many years later. Thérèse recently completed seminary.

I am married to her younger sister, Médine Moussounga Keener, and Antoinette is my mother-in-law. Though not meaning to question my relatives’ account of Thérèse’s healing, I nonetheless checked with Moïse, just to be sure, and he confirmed the story as I had heard it.

A miracle? Certainly. A supernatural event isolated to rural Africa? Hardly.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

人生funny不funny?


人生本來是 happy,
辛辛苦苦去 study,
找到公作不 easy,
老板说我又 lazy,
到头还是没 money,
不如早点去 marry,
快点生一个 baby,
早上给她吃 roti,
晚上给她吃 curry,
Baby长大变 naughty,
让我每天很 angry,
慢慢我近 seventy,
到了明年就 mati,
一眼已经 history,
你说 funny不 funny?

(现在我在 library,
静静在读 theology.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lim Ka-Tong lectures on critical contextualization as reflected through the life and ministry of John Sung


Yesterday morning Lim, whose biography on John Sung is published recently, gave a crash course on contextualization to us who are taking the course on 'Theology of Mission'. He highlighted many of the cultural issues that missionary face. Prior to stopping by Singapore, he was in Malaysia visiting many of those who have directly and indirectly transformed by Sung's ministry in the late 1930s. Lim was like the walking Google of the late legendary preacher; The most knowledgeable person on Sung that I have come across.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: 'The Life and Ministry of John Sung' by Lim Ka-Tong

This book is probably the most detailed study on John Sung available so far. The author, Lim Ka-Tong, has helpfully condensed his 502-pages doctoral thesis submitted to Asbury Theological Seminary in 2009 into this important guide into the life of one of the most well known preachers of 20th century southeast Asia. 

The book is structured into 7 parts, 37 chapters, 1 introduction and 1 conclusion. Within each chapter, Lim further categorized the content into sub-chapters. This makes the book tremendously easy to read! 

Lim introduces this biography not simply as a story about a person but "a fruitful venue for theologizing" in a "quest for an authentic Asian Christian theology." (p.xiv) The biography in enriching the "cultural worldview of Chinese Christianity, and its effect on the intellectual and affective realm will make truth tangible and real." (p.xviii)

Part 1 of the book describes the historical setting of Sung's world by briefly jotting down the socio-political situation, the condition of Chinese Churches, and the theological controversy in the early 20th century. Lim highlights the love-hate relationship the Chinese in China had towards foreigners. 

On one hand, the locals "embraced Western learning and scientific knowledge wholeheartedly" yet on another hand, "deeply resentful of the West". (p.6) The missionary activities and local Churches are caught in this ironic relation. The anti-Christian movement is chronologically distinguished into 3 different waves which took place from 1920 to 1927. It is very interesting that Lim attributed the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who traveled and lectured "extensively" in China between 1919 to 1921, as one of the causes of the anti-Christian movement in China.

During those years, the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" was not confined only in America. The Bible Union of China is formed as a response to the threats of theological liberalism. Lim pointed to the exchange between Browell Gage and D. E. Hoster as evident of this controversy. The former wrote an article titled 'Why I Cannot Join the Bible Union' in January 1921 issue of The Chinese Recorder. The latter, who was then the director of the China Inland Mission, responded with an article titled 'Why I Have Joined the Bible Union of China' in July 1921. As the result of theological liberalism, the missionary activities are significantly affected.

In Part 2, the book traces Sung's early years from his birth to his release from the Bloomingdale Asylum. Lim patiently recollects Sung's academic pursuit in America, his active involvement in the "Social Gospel", and his various struggles which resulted his admission into asylum. This section has proved to be my favorite in the book, for I am especially interested to learn more about Sung's experience and encounter in that time.

Sung picked up English language, toiled tirelessly to finance his undergraduate study, actively promoted interracial bonding during the segregation period, and received his Ph.D in Chemistry from the Ohio State University at the age of 24. However, it was also within this period that Sung unconsciously adopted scientism and naturalism. Hence as he went further into his studies, he was not able to relate his academic pursuit with the Christian faith he has brought up with. His enrollment into Union Theological Seminary in New York did not help the problem he faced. This struggle has prolonged and caused him to fell into depression.

After his "breakthrough" from the depression in one evening, Sung spent the following week confronting fellow students and professors at the seminary, scolding and pleading them to repent. (p.66) The seminary thought that it would be to Sung's good to have him admitted into Bloomingdale Asylum. The seminary generously paid for Sung's 6-months treatment at the hospital.

Lim used Chapter 11 to assess Sung's mental illness. The hospital record shows that Sung was diagnosed with "Dementia praecox" (schizophrenia) but Lim argued that Sung remained sane throughout his stay at Bloomingdale. (p.69-72) In my view, Lim could be more careful in explaining Sung's predicament. This lack has resulted in a mistaken view on Sung's status as "an icon of Chinese Evangelicalism" (Chapter 36), which shall be pointed out below after my reconstruction of Sung's trouble.

As I see it, Sung's problem originated in his inability to relate his academic pursuit with his Christian religion. We know that Sung enjoyed the intellectual engagement with science (p.56-57) although the subject does not provide him the spiritual fulfillment he used to experience through his faith (as epitomized in his reminiscence of the encounter with 14-years-old evangelist Uldine Mabelle Utley, p.61-63). To Sung, science and Christianity is mutually contradictory (the so-called 'conflict thesis'). After all, it was this intense conflict between two desires (the 'scientist Sung' and 'preacher Sung') that threw him into depression.  (p.52-64)

The "breakthrough" that Sung experienced can therefore be understood as an event when Sung has decided to abandon his intellectual engagement entirely for the sake of spiritual fulfillment. Hence, contra Lim, Bloomingdale may be correct to diagnosed Sung as schizophrenic. Therefore Lim's view that "Sung was normal during his whole stay at hospital" (p.70) deserves re-examination.  Due to this, Lim wrongly interprets Sung's derogatory reference (written on his second day at the asylum) to the "Spirit of Christ" as "dog" as evident of Sung being Americanized. (p.72) If I am correct in my assessment, this reference is the manifestation of Sung's schizophrenia; He loved and hated the unresolvable conflicting position he found himself in.

To be clear, Sung has already decided which personality he wanted to be before being admitted into Bloomingdale. His stay there would be the period for him to adapt to his decided personality as the preacher Sung, and the asylum's assessment on him was a reflection of this process of adaptation.

If this is true, then Lim's view of Sung as "an icon of Chinese Evangelicalism" for reasons like he affirms the Bible "as the Word of God" as a "scientist" is mistaken. We have to understand that the 'scientist Sung' is already gone when Sung decided to be 'preacher Sung'. Lim may have overlooked this as he himself has recorded Sung's own testimony said in 1938, "[As] a scientist, I believed in natural laws and did not believe in the existence of God. I was against the teaching of the Bible. There's no heaven, and there's no hell." (p.57, emphasis added) Therefore we have to reckon that Sung's famed status as a Ph.D holder in Chemistry, which is one main reason for his popularity, is not representative of the preacher Sung. The scientist Sung is not the preacher Sung; the two personalities are mutual contradicting to Sung himself.

Part 3 to 7 of the book records the life and ministry of the preacher Sung. These chapters contain fascinating accounts of Sung's evangelistic, healing, and Bible-teaching ministries. There are recorded numbers of conversion from a few to the thousands through Sung's rallies. Lim also mentioned Sung's negligence of his family, his bad working relationship with colleagues like Andrew Gih, his encounter with Pentecostalism and theology of the Holy Spirit, his constant scolding of other preachers, his medical condition that led to his death, and his struggles with pride--trying to prove himself as better preacher than others. Despite Sung's flaws, it is amazing to learn of his passionate outreach that spanned across not only China but also almost all parts of southeast Asia. Bear in mind that all those travelings happened in the 1930s!

The conclusion is Lim's constructive sketch of what we can learn from the life and ministry of Sung. Lim explored and developed various theological themes based on the biographical data he provided. One of the many insights that I find helpful is Lim's distinguishing between "Encountering the Power" from "Power Encounter" drawn from Sung's teaching. The former focuses on the process and the fruit of the Spirit, while the latter on the event and the gift of the Spirit. It prompts me to ask what should a present Christian ministry look for? May be Sung himself has asked this numerous times. And the answer to this question could be the very reason that led Sung to work through his life and ministry in the way that he did.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

'The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty' by Abdullah Saeed

(This article is originally published at First Things website for the November 2011 issue [H/T: Andreas Pilipus].)

The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty
A close reading of the Qur’an and the Prophet leads to supporting religious tolerance.
Abdullah Saeed

The words of the Qur’an and hadith contain rich resources for supporting the democratic order. If Muslims are to embrace modernity, including life in a pluralistic, democratic society, without abandoning their faith, they must take up the argument for religious liberty that is embedded in their history and that stands at the center of their most sacred texts.

Although the broad thrust of the Qur’an and hadith supports religious liberty, many parts of these texts can be, and traditionally have been, interpreted as denying it. One example is a qur’anic verse that deals with the question of the jizyah, a tax on non-Muslims: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Q 9:29). The Prophet reportedly sometimes demands the death penalty for apostasy, the most obvious example of this being the hadith “Whoever changes his religion, kill him” (Bukhari, Sahih, 9, 84, hadith 57).

These problematic texts are outweighed by the bulk of the texts and instruction provided by the two most important authorities in Islam, the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s actual practice. Both are remarkably supportive of the idea of individual and personal religious freedom.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Freeman J. Dyson on the mystery of the origin of life


Freeman J. Dyson, Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Physics and Astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study's School of Natural Sciences, acknowledges the mystery of the origin of life in the face of all the fancy claims postulated by scientists (H/T: Uncommon Descent):
"The origin of life is the deepest mystery in the whole of science. Many books and learned papers have been written about it, but it remains a mystery. There is an enormous gap between the simplest living cell and the most complicated naturally occurring mixture of nonliving chemicals. We have no idea when and how and where this gap was crossed. We only know that it was crossed somehow, either on Earth or on Mars or in some other place from which the ancestors of life on Earth might have come."
(Freeman J. Dyson, A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe [USA: University of Virginia Press, 2010], p. 104. Emphasis added.)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Church should be above politics?

Should it? Or, should we find out what do we mean by 'above' politics? In the sense the Church is floating and so passing by all matters political, untouched and untainted by them?

The Church concerns only with God and what God has done, is doing, and will do with his people. In this sense, there are indeed areas that the Church bypasses without needing to give any regard, for eg. the vague scenario whether should you eat cabbage or broccoli at the hawker's center tomorrow. Hence the question is not whether should the Church float above politics, but is politics included in what God has done, is doing, and will do with his people?

As citizens of a nation-state and people who confesses allegiance to God and his Christ, the Church is inevitably overlapped by anything non-Church that are located within the shared national border and policy. This overlap means that the politics of the non-Church may occasionally spill over into the Church, and vice versa. So, if politics affects the Church, then the Church cannot help but to engage it. In other words, the Church should not float above politics.

One may object by saying that anything political is dirty and therefore the Church should not have anything to do with it. But isn't the Church itself dirty, filled with weed? (Matthew 13:24-30) So should we then ask the stupid question, should then the Church floats above itself? Or should we pretend that the Church consists of utopian human beings who have no qualm giving up their parking lot to other Church members during Sunday service?

If politics is part and parcel of the Church, and if national politics and the Church mutually affects each other, then in order to do Church, we have to do politics. And here lies a fundamental question to ask: What does it mean for the Church to do politics?

From that one question springs other questions: Does doing politics mean having the parliament filled with Church people? Does it mean legislating laws based on obligations that are meant only for the people of God? Does it mean 'Christendom'? If it is, then what is 'Christendom'?

There are of course many other questions that we can ask. However, the point of this post is simply to point out that the Church does not and should not be above politics. In any case, the Church is called to be precisely what it is not: the light and salt in a world that overbears upon the people of God.

A recent example of how this is played out is Rowan Williams' meeting with Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe.
"The Archbishop of Canterbury is using his moral authority to persuade Mugabe to desist and repent. He denounces the injustices and demands change. It may not work, of course, but merely by visiting the land and speaking out, he manifests humanitarian conviction and moral fibre. He shames our politicians and eclipses other church leaders as he confronts face-to-face that which is largely ignored by the African Union, the British Government, the US, the EU and the UN."
(Cranmer blog: The Archbishop of Canterbury shames our politicians, dated 11 October 2011, http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.com/2011/10/archbishop-of-canterbury-shames-our.html [accessed 16 October 2011], emphasis added).

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A historico-theological approach to understand the significance of 'homoousios' to theology proper


There is a popular rumor about the Church Fathers, such as Athanasius, having imported foreign categories into theology proper. It charges that Christianity's understanding of Jesus Christ since the fourth century is deeply infiltrated by paganistic Greek philosophy.

The famous case is none other than the word homoousios' (Greek: 'of the same substance'), which is seen as a dubious theological imposition on the earliest Christians' historical experience of God and Jesus, to which has since distorted the (trinitarian) idea of divinity in the consciousness of the Church. To inquire into this matter, we may look back into the uncompromising dispute between Arius and Athanasius.

The Alexandrian presbyter Arius and his followers (Arians) challenged one of the most sacred conviction among the Christians in the fourth century. They proposed that Christ is not God but simply a pristine being created by God. Hence the Son does not exist eternally.

The main person who was more than able to engage the Arians was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria at that time. He insisted that the Son exists eternally along God and shares the same divine nature. Although Athanasius is not the one who introduces the term homoousios to the world, he is the best known defender of it in that century.

Hence if homoousios is an invalid theological construct, we would have Athanasius to blame. But we have to ask whether is this the case?

Those of the view that the Bishop is responsible to corrupting Christianity's theology proper often do not realize what was at stake in the Arian controversy. Alasdair Heron has helpfully elaborated that the main contention in the dispute is due to the different paradigm held by Arius and Athanasius. To quote Heron extensively,

The origins of the Arian conception of God lay in the tradition of philosophical theology which had begun with Xenophanes. This took as axiomatic an absolute distinction between God and the world, which was closely bound up with equally radical disjunctions between the mind and the body, and between the intelligible and the sensible realms. Thus the being of God, while in one sense seen as totally separate from non-divine being, is yet implicitly conceived of as being epistemologically accessible to the mind whose vision is clarified and refined. Through self-knowledge lies the path to knowledge of God, and the being of God may be grasped and spoken in terms drawn from the mind's self-analysis, and then further qualified to take account of the difference even between the mind and God. [...] Athanasius does not entirely reject this sort of approach: it has a part to play in his theology, as in most Christian theology before and since. What he does insist on, however, is that this avenue to knowledge of God must be controlled by the fact that God himself has made himself known in Christ, and that it is with Christ as God that genuine knowledge of God must begin. Arius on the other hand never reaches the point where he can admit that Christ is God: his thought is wholly shaped by these other influences, and his epistemological starting-point is thus at the opposite pole from Athanasius.
(Alasdair I. C. Heron, 'Homoousios with the Father,' in The Incarnation: Ecumenical Studies in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed A. D. 381, ed. Thomas F. Torrance [UK: Handsel Press, 1981], pp.70-71. H/T: Leow Theng Huat.)

The Arians' paradigm is traced back to Xenophanes, while Athanasius' back to "the fact that God himself has made himself known in Christ". To understand Athanasius's point further, we may juxtapose it with the historical findings of Larry Hurtado,

To judge by NT writings, Jesus was not reverenced at the expense of God, but instead as the unique agent and expression of God (e.g., as God’s “Image,” “Son”), and in obedience to the one God, who has designated Jesus as the “Kyrios” to whom this robust cultic reverence is to be given.

In the historical context, it is a novel development: professing the “one God” of Israel and yet also including as rightful (even required) recipient of devotion a distinguishable, second figure. The NT evidences, not dreams of some future time when a messianic figure may be reverenced (as, e.g., in the “Similtudes” of 1 Enoch), but instead a real and dramatic re-formulation of regular devotional practice in historically identifiable circles of early Christians. Given the special significance attached to worship practice, the programmatic inclusion of Jesus as co-recipient/recipient of their devotion is remarkable.

Of course, these first Christians insisted that they remained true to the “monotheistic” stance inherited from the ancient Jewish tradition. But, judging by the actual way that they practiced their worship and larger devotional life, theirs was a distinguishable form of “monotheistic” practice involving the programmatic inclusion of Jesus along with God. (Emphasis added)

With this juxtaposition, we see that the theological term homoousios is not a distortion, but rather the approximated term that is considered to be the most appropriate constructed description of the earliest Christians' knowledge of God and Jesus.

It seems clear that Athanasius is well aware that homoousios is not a foreign imposition forced into the theology proper of the Church. In contrast to the Arians, who were too ready to perceive God and Jesus through Xenophanes' philosophy, Athanasius understood well the 'novelty' of the earliest Christians' encounter with God and Jesus. The employment of homoousious is therefore used as a restrictive category that prevents the perception of God from being corrupted by foreign ideology. And precisely because of its preventive function, the category enables Athanasius to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son as how it was encountered by the earliest believers. To him, the theological notion that Jesus shares the same divine nature as God is not something he pulled out from the air but a responsible exercise of historico-theological construction. Instead of being the epitome of the invasion of Greek philosophy on theology, homoousios is the necessary category to avoid precisely that during the fourth century.

Monday, September 26, 2011

3 things: Which upset you the most?


From Tony Campolo, one of my favorite preachers:
"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."
(Christianity Today website: Ted Olsen, The Positive Prophet, dated 1 January 2003, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/january/1.32.html [accessed 26 September 2011]. H/T: Dante Lum.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Malaysia is a political theology: A deliberation on promise and doctrine

Malaysia is a political theology... Look at our National Pledge and Principles (taken from The Malaysia Government's Official Portal: Rukunegara, http://www.malaysia.gov.my/EN/Main/MsianGov/GovRukunegara/Pages/GovRukunegara.aspx [accessed 22 September 2011]):

Our Nation, Malaysia is dedicated to: Achieving a greater unity for all her people; maintaining a democratic way of life; creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably distributed; ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural tradition, and building a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology.

We, the people of Malaysia, pledge our united efforts to attain these ends, guided by these principles:
  • Belief in God
  • Loyalty to King and Country
  • Upholding the Constitution
  • Sovereignty of the Law, and
  • Good Behaviour and Morality

Malaysia continue to exists through these pledges and principles which are fundamentally ideologies containing hopes and imagination.

As an entity that is spoken into being, Malaysia is a speech, a word, a logos. Its creatureliness lies in the verbalization of promises and doctrines.

As logos of promise and doctrine, all creativity, non-creativity, productivity and non-productivity within this nation are extensions of itself, realities created in its own images of pledge and principles. Malaysia is political theology is a claimant of this basic national experience.

If Malaysia is a speech, its society is the sensibility of that speech. What is understood from a speech is by the grasping of its sensibleness. The ability to make sense presumes congruence. And congruence is predisposed to negotiation. And negotiation subsists by contradiction. And at the core of contradiction is politics.

Therefore to do Malaysia is to make sense of the promises and doctrines of the nation. To deliberate the doing is to engage in the politics of pledge and principles. If the national pledge is principled on the belief in God, then doing Malaysia is doing theology. And doing theology is doing Malaysian politics.

If Malaysia is political theology that is spoken into being, is it not also the creature of promise and doctrine; is it not a creation of divine speech?

If the Malaysian society is the sensibility of its political theology, is it not also the possibility and confirmation of congruence, negotiation and contradiction of the logos; are not its creativity, non-creativity, productivity and non-productivity extensions of its pledge and principles? 

If the answer is 'yes' to these two questions, then the Malaysian social realities are politico-theological imaginary shaped by promises and doctrines. That makes the social activity or movement in the country the deliberation of orthodoxy; what promises and which doctrines?

The Christian's first contribution can then be the grasping of this basic national experience. That Malaysia is a political theology. The next question is of course, what then makes up the Malaysian promises and doctrines, and how can the Christian heritage deliberate along this process of making up?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hurtado-ian perspective on Trinitarian and Christological controversies

Some thoughts on the relationship between theology and biblical studies:

(Larry) Hurtado-ian perspective concerns over the peculiar historical phenomena where a group of monotheistic Jewish people pay homage to a human person along with their devotion to one God.

To read historical theology particularly the 3rd and 4th theological controversies over God through the Hurtado-ian lens is to see these debates as the various Christian communities' articulation of the earliest Christians' experience of Jesus Christ.

What these Church Fathers were doing through the ecumenical councils is to adjudicate the best theological judgment over the historical devotion exemplified by their religious ancestors.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Divided scholarship among the Christian populace

The moment I finished reading Tim Grass' fine biography of F. F. Bruce, I thought to myself how wonderful it would be if someone writes a biography of contemporary biblical scholars like Larry Hurtado and James D. G. Dunn?

These scholars are highly regarded in the academia while only relatively known among the wider Christian community. I remember recommending a local scholar as the speaker to an upcoming conference to my planning committee, and none of them have heard about him. I have to admit my surprise. The committee members are all my senior and have been around the Christian circles for decades yet they have no idea who the scholar is.

After I put down Grass' book, I googled to find out if there are other biographies about biblical scholars of previous or our generation. Found a few autobiographies. Then I chanced upon John Stackhouse' brief recollection of Hurtado's life leading up to his appointment at the University of Edinburgh. They were colleagues at the University of Manitoba.

I did not know that Hurtado was born in America. I always have the impression that he is from UK.

Stackhouse mentioned something very interesting:

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Marriage, divorce and re-marriage of the same divorced couple: Ancient Israelite and present Singaporean practices



I. Ancient practices
In the times when Deuteronomy was first read, marital status is legitimatised, sustained, and recognized by the religious-communal system which consists of but not limited to (1) the married couple’s praxis according to YHWH’s ordinance[1], (2) the theological emphasis on marriage as covenant,[2] (3) the accountability by immediate family members that uphold the marriage (which is presumed by the practice of ‘Levirate marriage’[3]), and (4) the governance of marriage through the theological concept of ‘holiness and defilement’[4] ruled by a group of elders.[5] The civil and legal affairs of the community are grounded in their religion. Within this system, marital matters are part of the community’s corporate worship and the individual’s relationship with God. [6] This is the common assumption in the ancient world. Therefore inter-religious marriages are not encouraged nor allowed in general because to marry to someone of a different religion entails participation in the other person’s religion (Deuteronomy 7:3-4, 1 Kings 11:7-10, Ezra 9:1-2, 10:2-3, 10-11 and Malachi 2:11).[7] For that, the ancient Israelites’ marriage contract, ‘ketubah,’[8] is the manifestation of the religious meaning in practical terms.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why prayer life is important for preachers?

Prayer is important in the life of a preacher because it is a summary, really, of the vocation of being a preacher. For a preacher, to pray is an immersion of the person’s life into the sea of conviction that the great impossible has happened.

The notion that the transcendent God, who is perfect and self-sufficient in every way, would take interest, not to mention the bloody trouble, to invite the preacher and the congregation to share in the divine life through Christ is simply an impossible thought. In our daily experience, we interact with others and invest in them only to seal some of our own lack, be it in the form of emotion, psyche, finance or physic. The sense of being absolutely self-sufficient is a state far removed from our grasp. We don’t relate with others without in some way the relation benefits us.

God being entirely satisfying by his nature doesn’t need to relate to us. Our experience, which is perennially surrounded by the effort to overcome our lacks, doesn’t give us the ability or the framework to understand the rationale that God would literally desire us to death. Either by experience or rational, the cross and the resurrection remain unimaginable. Unless of course that that is really the case.

Therefore prayer, more than fostering, is to serve as the ground that nourishes the preacher to be a preacher. It substantiates rather than supplements the calling of the preacher to proclaim the impossible.

Prayer, regardless of its audibility, stays as the amplification of the impossibility that heaven and earth have been reconnected. Hence a fervent prayer life of the preacher is like the resonance that vibrates so strong that the preacher’s presence itself testifies to how God’s kingdom has come upon our earthly city by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In this way, rather than as an address to God, prayer is God’s address to us. It is via prayer that the preacher hears anew the story that he takes as the message to which his life proclaims for the rest of its allotted time. Cultivating a habitual prayer life can then be likened to amplifying the unimaginable message of God’s desire for us. The resounding reaches first to the preacher’s own being as a preacher, continuously nurturing him into a worthy messenger who is immersed in the factuality of divine love. From the preacher’s life, the resonance bounces off itself reaching unto the ear of the hearers. This is why prayer is important to a preacher’s life.

After writing the above to hand-in as an assignment, I think I've come to agree with what is written. Now enjoy this video:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sketching as faith seeking understanding: A reflection on drawing Rowan Williams


I sketched this last night as a break from my routine reading. Three reasons why this sketch.

First, I was curious whether I still able to sketch after haven't been doing it for many years. Second, I'm finding ways to reconnect the whatever little artistic skill that I have with the theology that I'm learning. Third, I always thought of drawing some theologians.

I took a photo and posted it on Facebook as a backup copy in case the hardcopy is lost.

A friend, Andy Lie, who is currently located in England, saw it and wrote, "You have somewhat restored the humanity into RDW compared with some of the caricatures in the British press."

Restored the humanity into RDW (Rowan Douglas Williams)? How so? All I wanted to do was to sketch.

Upon further thoughts, my friend who being in England is more sensitive to the media portrayal of Williams than I am. Therefore, it could be that this sketch though does not bear any restoring significance to me is seen by him with wider connotation and deeper meaning.

One can simply google through the various comical portraits of Williams in the British media and notice how each carries certain caricature. One can tell what is the press trying to say about it's impression of the person from the way the person is portrayed, not only through words, but also through their drawings and photos. The portraits represent in some sense the producer's attachment to the object.

Here is a reflection by Roland Chia that makes the point:

"[The] arts can be said to be that human activity which, by engaging with the materiality of the world, illumines in various media something about the world's depth and reality. Ther arts, therefore, can be said to be a way of knowing, a way of being and a way of doing. They represent knowledge of reality by reflecting on the meaning of the way things are: the world's being and becoming. Art is an activity because it is also a response to perceptions of reality. In this way, the arts, like everything else about human culture, cannot be understood in abstraction but must be located in a historical, cultural and social milieu."
(Roland Chia, 'Artistic Makings and Meanings: Contours of a Theology of the Arts,' in Sights and Sounds: A Christian Response to the Creative Arts and Media, ed. Robert M. Solomon and Lim K. Tham [Singapore: Genesis Books, 2006], p.9)

One may call Andy's reading of the sketch a 'dimensional disobedience'. This disobedience is not negative. It is disobedience, nonetheless, because the sketch does not carry the dimension perceived by the observer (Andy) when it is produced by the artist (me). In Williams' own words:

"The degree to which art is 'obedient'---not dependent on an artist's decisions or tastes---is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland. [...] The artist does not exhaust the significance of his or her labour, but creates an object, a schema of perceptible data, that will have about it the same excess as the phenomena that stimulated the production in the first place. Art moves from and into a depth in the perceptible world that is contained neither in routine perception nor in the artist's conscious or unconscious purposes."
(Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love [UK: Continuum Books, 2005], p.147, 149-150.)

When I was sketching this piece, I found my hand being moved by various self-directed insistences and concerns: the face has to be thinner, needs more shadow at the bottom of the nose, the coat needs to be sketched in another direction to prevent the dwarfing of the body, and... the beard.

The most wearisome of all was that I would end up drawing Karl Marx.

There is always risk and fear throughout the process. For one, the pressures and insistences that moved the pencil in the best envisioning did not actually provide any glimpse of how the product would look like in the end. All that I had at that moment is solely the desire to see how would the finished work be, and the imagination that is driven by this desire.

Therefore to sketch is always to risk deviant representation of the object. With a few careless strokes, Rowan Williams becomes Karl Marx.

Monday, August 08, 2011

What's up with a group of Dutch Christians and Richard Hays and arts?

It has been a while I has not written a What's up? post that highlights and comments on news that came to my attention. Here is a new one.

It is reported by BBC a group of Dutch people who identify themselves as Christians yet does not believe that God exists. Here's how one of the leaders describes their idea of God:

"When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that's where it can happen. God is not a being at all... it's a word for experience, or human experience."

I think those who lived through the 60s, 70s, and 80s would be familiar with such 'God-is-dead' theology. It's nothing new, hence I puzzled over the news report to call this phenomenon 'new Christianity'. The media-giant BBC has amnesia?

Those Dutch clergymen featured in the news seem to have no idea that Don Cupitt and his cohort have tried this decades earlier. For that, I wouldn't expect them to have read Rowan Williams' critique on Cupitt.

Recently Richard Hays, one of the foremost New Testament expert of our time, writes on the relation between Christians and the arts. Here is the portion that I am intrigued by:

"How does the architecture of the buildings in which we live and work shape us? How do iTunes and Netflix tell us stories about who we are and what we should desire? How does the diction of advertising stunt our capacity to speak kindly and truthfully to one another? If theological education focuses only on ideas and fails to reflect on their artistic milieu, we will be quite literally tone-deaf or insensible to major elements of human experience, and we will fail to perceive ways in which the gospel may challenge and transform us."

Hays highlights something we often miss: the aesthetically pleasant things or beings around us tell stories. It tells us who we are and what we are becoming. Have we ever wonder why do we attracted to something and not other things? For that, possibly our preference for which visual and audio stimulant says more about us and our deep-held beliefs than the creed we profess.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Book Review: 'The Enduring Word: The Authority and Reliability of the Bible' by Robert M. Solomon

This book is written to educate the general Christian population in order to help them deal with the issues raised by popular works by scholars in textual criticism, particularly Bart Ehrman.

Solomon in this work tries to cover all the major pertinent concerns surrounding the Bible such as the theology of scripture, the canonical process, the textual variants, and translation. With his gifted writing style, Solomon makes these topics easily accessible to those who have no exposure to them previously.

That is the strength of the work. It is a popular-level work meant to counter popular-level challenges.

When dealing with the theology of scripture, the author summarizes the various approaches to understanding the nature of the scripture. (Chapter 2)

Scripture is understood as the result of special revelation, that is the process proceeded from God's keenness to "make Himself known---He is keen to reveal His thoughts and purposes" directly to humans (p.20-21). The scripture is an inspired book which means it is "the unique inspired book in the world, in which God revealed Himself to humankind." (p.24)

Following Rene Pache, Solomon asserts that the "Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but is itself the Word of God." (p.24. Emphasis original) Yet there is a difference between the scripture and Jesus Christ who is also recognized as the Word of God. Therefore the bible should not be worshiped in the same way as Christ.

There are several theologies of scripture that Solomon rejects. First, the 'Spiritual Principles Theory', which teaches that only the spiritual principles in the Bible is inspired. 2 Peter 1:20 is quoted by Solomon to show that "All Scripture is inspired". (p.25. Emphasis original.)

The second rejected theology is the mechanical 'Dictation Theory' that affirms that the authors of the scripture are merely recorder of God's words and have no input of their own. Solomon thinks that inspiration is a "more complex and dynamic process than God merely dictating words to the writers," where the "human individuality" is involved. (p.25-26)

Solomon thinks that the most satisfactory theory to think about inspiration is one that he calls "Verbal-Plenary Inspiration" that affirms all scripture to be inspired dynamically. He thinks that this theory is confined only to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and is "not generally extended to the transmission (copying) and translation of those original autographs which are now not available to us." (p.29)

Besides inspiration, Solomon also stresses the theology of illumination that says that the Holy Spirit helps readers of the Bible to understand what they read, and the theology of inerrancy that teaches that "the original manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew were error-free and totally trustworthy." (p.30)

On top of that, Solomon seals his theology of scripture in divine providence to preserve the Biblical texts:

"Because of the nature of divine inspiration, the autographs or original manuscripts written in Hebrew (and Aramaic in a few places) and Greek cannot be with error. This protection against any error cannot be said of copies of the originals and translated versions. However, divine providence is still at work in the process of transmission and translation." (p.31)

Moving onto Chapter 3, Solomon turns his attention to the canonical process by laying a confessional statement that the Protestant canon is closed by referring to Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18-19. (p.38) Though his appeal to these two verses are anachronistic yet he can hardly be faulted since his appeal is on confessional ground. Nonetheless I think Solomon is assuming too much in this chapter. Three examples to show what I mean.

First, on page 41, Solomon writes:

"Jesus declared, "'Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:44-45). We have already seen how the Hebrew Bible was divided into three major sections---the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (the key book being Psalms). Jesus, in referring to all three major sections of the Hebrew Bible, gave further confirmation of the canon of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). This confirmation comes from none other than the Lord Himself."

There is an assumption in the above quote that (1) the word "Psalms" in Luke 24.44-45 refers to the "Writings" category of the Hebrew Bible, and (2) the Hebrew Bible was divided into three major sections---the Law, the Prophets and the Writings---in the time of Jesus.

Craig A. Evans provides several reasons why these two assumptions are doubtful:

(a) 4QMMT, a letter from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, seems to list 4 categories of the Hebrew canon: 'Book of Moses', 'books of the Prophets', 'book of David', and 'chronicles of every generation'.

The category 'book of David', since it is separated from the 'chronicles of every generation', could well refers only to the Psalms and not the 'Writings' as Solomon assumes (as per the quote above and his list of the 'Writings' on page 38). Therefore we cannot be certain if there was a clear three division of the Hebrew Bible as Solomon assumes.

(b) Due to (1) the close correlation of the Psalms to the Prophets as seen in Dead Sea Scrolls, (2) that David is seen as a prophet (Acts 1.16, 2.30, 4.25), and (3) Psalms is recognized as prophecy (Acts 1.20), the phrase "the Prophets and the Psalms" in Luke 24.44 may best be read as one category.

The reading of this verse should be something like this: "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets (including the Psalms)."
(See Craig A. Evans, 'The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers' in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders [USA: Hendrickson, 2001], p.185-195)

Second, on page 44, Solomon writes:

"Jesus and the apostles, though they quote extensively from the canonical Old Testament books, never refer to the Apocrypha. Also, the New Testament writers, in quoting verses from the Septuagint, never used the Apocrypha."

Yet when we turn to Jude 14-15, we find parallels in 1 Enoch 1.9 and 60.8. Then we have early Church authorities like Athenagoras of Athens, Irenaeus of Gaul, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian of Carthage who recognize 1 Enoch as canonical, if not almost with the same status as the Old Testament. (See James C. Vanderkam, '1 Enoch, Enochic Motifs, and Enoch in Early Christian Literature,' in The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity, ed. James C. Vanderkam and William Adler [Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Comp. B. V., 1996], p.35-60.)

Although it is debatable whether did Jude actually refer to 1 Enoch or a tradition he received, the point is that Solomon is assuming too much that this issue is settled.

Third, we find on page 45:

"When it came to the Apocrypha, [Jerome] clearly differentiated between the Old Testament canonical books as authoritative in the canonical sense, and the Apocrypha as books that were not canonical but which had some spiritual value. [Solomon went on to cite Jerome's 'Preface to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs']"

Solomon's selective usage of Jerome's work misrepresents Jerome's position. There are three letters that are dated to be written later than 'Preface to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs' show us another side of Jerome.

In these letters, passages from the Apocrypha are quoted side-by-side with Old Testament canonical works as if they bear similar authority:

At least that is what Solomon says: 'wisdom is the gray hair unto men’ [Wisdom 4:9]. Moses too in choosing the seventy elders is told to take those whom he knows to be elders indeed, and to select them not for their years but for their discretion [Numbers 11:16]? And, as a boy, Daniel judges old men and in the flower of youth condemns the incontinence of age [Story of Susannah 55-59].
(Letter to Paulinus.)

I would cite the words of the psalmist: 'the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,’ [Psalm 51:17] and those of Ezekiel 'I prefer the repentance of a sinner rather than his death,’ [Ezekiel 18:23] and those of Baruch, 'Arise, arise, O Jerusalem,’ [Baruch 5:5] and many other proclamations made by the trumpets of the prophets.
(Letter to Oceanus.)

Does not the scripture [Sirach 13.2] say: 'Burden not thyself above thy power'...
(Letter to Eustochium.)

A five-points summary regarding the issue of Apocrypha is given on page 48. Although this book is not entirely about canonization, yet the discussion of these issues could be handled with more care.

The next two chapters are detailing the manuscript record of the Old and New Testaments. We are introduced to the various oldest copies of surviving manuscripts and their implication to the confidence to trust that the current biblical texts in our hand are reliably transmitted.

After that, Solomon dedicated a chapter discussing issues surrounding problematic texts like the ending of Mark's gospel and John 7.53-8.11, which apparently are not found in earliest manuscripts. In tackling these problems, Solomon relies heavily on the work of Bruce Metzger, who was the teacher of Bart Ehrman.

Next, the book describes and compares the different version of Bible widely used at the present. Solomon helpfully summarizes the translation philosophy of each version and provides a chart to guide readers to understand the differences between each version. (p.164)

The final chapter carries on what is being discussed in Chapter 2. After expressing his appreciation for the works that have been done and still doing in the field of textual criticism (p.172-173), Solomon raised three important theological aspects of scripture to the Christian community: (1) The Bible ought to be read, (2) the scripture is accessible and can be understood even after a long process of transmission and translation, and (3) God's Word is to be obeyed.

Overall, this is a remarkably easy-to-read book which lives up to its intended purpose. The author has also provided a Glossary section at the end of the book to facilitate readers with technical terms that are used in the book. This book can be used as a brief introduction for catechism in Churches. It is a good prelude on the extensive issues surrounding the Bible.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review: 'From Christ to Social Practice' by Ng Kam Weng

This book is originally the doctoral dissertation of Ng Kam Weng, the present Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Malaysia, submitted to the University of Cambridge, under the supervision of Stephen Sykes who was then the Regius Professor of Divinity there.

The whole title of the book 'From Christ to Social Practice: Christological Foundations for Social Practice in the Theologies of Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann' is already quite informative to the reader of what to expect.

The dissertation was done in the late 1980s and published in 1996 by Alliance Bible Seminary, Hong Kong. It is a research into the theology of three significant theologians, namely Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann.

Ng explores the social ethics produced by these three theologians from three different social conditions. He is interested to see how each's theological response to their social challenges is connected to their Christology. The purpose of this is to identify "theological resources [of these past theologians] relevant to a contemporary ethical problem." (p.6)

Ng expounds each theologian's social ethics within their overall Christological framework and so it is impossible to highlight all the important theological insights contained in the book. Therefore this review focuses only on Ng's appreciation and critique of their social ethics.

Ng sees Ritschl's social ethics as 'Social Influence' theory where Christians' obedience to Christ "will extend Christ's spiritual influence to and transform all social conditions." (p.38) That's why to Ritschl, Christian social practice should pervade social institutions as the "social shape of the kingdom [of God] is not totally dichotomised from nor discontinuous with existing forms of institutions." (p.39)

However, this does not mean Ritschl simply identifies the kingdom of God with the best social order and culture. He left this part without explanation. Ng critiques Ritschl's social ethics to be individualistic and has departed from his earlier insistence on communal effort for social engagement. (p.44) This weakness is rooted in Ritschl's "defective christology" that is devoid of "ontological, societal or cosmic significance." (p.48)

On Barth's social ethics, Ng points to a remarkable statement drawn from Church Dogmatics volume 3 on the theological nature of ethics:

"...ethical theory is not meant to provide man with a programme the implementation of which would be his life's goal. Nor is it meant to present man with principles to be interpreted, applied, and put into practice... Ethics exists to remind man of his confrontation with God, who is the light illuminating all his actions and before whom men must act responsibly." (p.63)

To Barth, ethics is when we place our life story within the context of the narrative of Jesus Christ by participating in the community founded by Christ. The community is more than just fellowship of believers,

"As a christocratic brotherhood, it consists of ordered relationships, implying the need for form, order and law having exemplary significance for the world. [This does not imply that] the community of Christ should impose its order over wider society. It does not pretend to be an exact fulfillment of the eschatological kingdom so much as a provisional representation. It is not a direct portrayal of God's design for human society. It is only a human society moving like all others to the eschatological manifestation of the kindgom. [...] The church exists as a paradigm community which demonstrates God's reconciliation within world history. [...] Jesus did not sanctify himself for his own sake nor for the sake of a little flock of believers but for all humanity. Neither is his community to exist for itself. His community exists to represent provisionally, but with certainty, the great alteration of the human situation secures in Jesus Christ." (p.107 - 108)

Ng's critique on Barth is that his social theology may contain the "dangerous tendency of losing touch with existing social realities." (p.196) That is to say that though the general framework provided by Barth is affirming and illuminating yet it remains to be demonstrated how this affects the challenges that the society is facing.

In addition, Ng discusses Barth's notorious rejection of natural theology and concludes that Barth does not entirely diminish the prospect of learning from social theories. For instance, Ng demonstrates that Barth accepts "descriptive anthropology" but rejects "speculative anthropology." (p.92)

For Moltmann, Ng points out his call for the church to "mediate the freedom of faith into the realm of social reality by creating in the realm of social reality practices that are "correspondences", "reflections" and "images" of the kingdom of God. It is true that the church is only an anticipation of the kingdom but precisely for that reason it has the task of representing the kingdom to wider society." (p.166)

Moltmann's social ethics can be broadly understood in the following quote Ng picked up from Richard Bauckham, an authority on Moltmann:

"The Church is paras pro toto: a preliminary and fragmentary part of the coming whole (the universal kingdom), and so representative of the whole for the sake of the rest of the world whose future the whole is. Consequently, the Church can only prove itself as an anticipation of the coming kingdom 'through intervention and self-giving for the future of others'." (p.167. Italics original.)

We see Barth's influence here on Moltmann. Ng appreciates and acknowledges Moltmann's effort in carrying Barth's social ethics further by grounding it in social realities, for example in dialogue with social theories. However, for that, and the way how it was carried out, Moltmann's position is seen by Ng to be "riddled with contradictions." (p.204)

Moltmann's drawing of a dialectical relationship between the Church and the society is perceived by Ng to have fell into a confusing category. If the Church is in a dialectical relationship with the society, that means the Church is opened to be influenced by social forces. For this, Ng concludes that "Moltmann's social practice remains arbitrary in that he failed to demonstrate that his specific social policies are the logical outcome of a dialogue between 'Barthian' insights and social theory." (p.205)

Now, we turn to Ng's own Christological social ethics.

One of the major questions that Ng tried to solve is in the book is which Christological framework should inform the Church's social practice?

On one hand, Ng rejects the type of practice that simply imitates the historical deeds of Jesus,

"[Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino] have chosen to focus on the significance of the historical activities of Jesus for social practice rather than the Christ in the christological dogma. Undoubtedly, it is easier to make a direct appeal to the historical Jesus rather than the Christ of the dogmas to underpin the social practice of the church. But the question arises whether in any theology which ignored the Christ of the dogmas one would not be left with a christological framework that is too restrictive. One advantage of the decision to focus the enquiry upon Ritschl, Barth and Moltmann is that the christological framework offered by these writers provides an ostensibly more comprehensive context for the grounding of the social practice of the church." (p.5. Emphasis added.)

While on another hand, Ng seems to affirm what he views as too restrictive,

"The person of Christ and his work has always functioned as an inspiration and often the primary model for christian action. Our focus on Christ gives us the advantage of dealing with a historical personality rather than an abstract concept [of Christ?]. This is certainly consistent with our claim that theological ethical resources are better appropriated through exemplification." (p.7. Emphasis added.)

I'm here reading Ng's phrase "Christ of dogmas" in the former quotation as identical with "abstract concept" in the latter. I may be identifying too much due to my lack of grasp over the categories that Ng employed. Nonetheless, if it is true that Ng wants to differentiate the "historical Jesus" from the "Christ of dogmas", as seen in the two quotations above, the interchangeable referencing appears to muddle the differentiation.

(The only instance he clarified his usage of the phrase "historical Jesus" is to differentiate it [not from the "Christ of dogmas", but] from "historian's Jesus". By the former, Ng means "Jesus in his life and existence in historical Palestine while the latter refers to the portrait of Jesus constructed from the application of historical criticism based on historical sources such as found in the New Testament." [p.22, n.30])

The interchangeable referencing of the phrases is noticed again in the following quotation:

"To be sure, the significance of Jesus remains as the past example, the prototype or model for social practice. But his significance must not be reduced to his past activities. For the Christian, the significance of Jesus must also be eschatological in that the future of the risen one determines the future of the church. The significance of Jesus for his disciples is that he enables them to take responsibility for and to redirect their own history. This requires that Christians follow Jesus' "attitude" to life and history rather than any specific social programs." (p.198. Emphasis added.)

It seems from the above quotation there is no differentiation between "historical Jesus" (with his past activities) from "Christ of dogmas" (whose future determines the Church's future). Ng notes that the Jesus with historical activities is also the risen Christ whose future determines the future of the Church. If this is true, then it is curious how Ng rejects and affirms social practice that is derived from the historical deeds of Jesus.

Nonetheless it is probably the case that Ng's Christology goes beyond the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of dogma. Yet, it remains to be seen how such distinction distances itself from Ng's condemnation of the "direct appeal to the historical Jesus rather than the Christ of the dogmas to underpin the social practice of the church."

One theme that keeps appearing in Ng's thesis is his insistence on relating theology and social theory (foreshadowing John Milbank's theology as social theory project and present works on relating theology with continental philosophy?). Here are few instances:

"[The] challenge today is to meet the need for a contemporary theological ethic and practice that interacts more extensively with insights from social theory." (p.132)

"[Christian] social practice is not to be established solely on philosophical or theological insights. Rather, it is to be a result of a conversation and collaboration between theology and social theory." (p.193)

"[It] could be claimed that theology must take seriously the social phenomenon if christological social practice is to succeed in relating itself to concrete social realities." (p.197)

Ng concerns to ground Christology, particularly the reality of the historical Jesus and the resurrection, as the Church's engagement in the social reality of the day. And to achieve this, one must connect theology and social theories.

Overall, Ng's work is a compact treatise on three great strands of theological social ethics that provides good summary of each one, coupled with valid critiques. At the concluding section, Ng ends by directing our attention to the significance of worship in Christian's social engagement, a sight that Christians cannot afford to lose:

"[Worship] is necessary to ensure that christian practice be not reduced to its utilitarian value. It must be humbly admitted that many of the goals for social transformation are not longer uniquely christian since there are also other social movements which share the same social goals today. Indeed, such are the connections between church and civil society that Christians may offer themselves as agents in transforming social practice under pressure from these other social groups, for no better reason than to demonstrate the 'relevance' of Christianity for society. At the same time, it is precisely because the goals of social action groups are similar that Christians often have to justify their actions on the same grounds as these other social movements. As such, Christians must be alert to the possibility that in trying to be relevant they may allow others to determine their values and priorities. It is therefore important that the christian social activist be sustained by a worship which highlights a God who has engaged in a history that is both his and ours, but a history of which he is lord and we are not. This vital insight must be preserved if the Christian is to be spared from attempting any self-justification. For it is precisely because the social activist takes himself too seriously that he yields to the temptation of claiming finality and absolute authority, with the consequence that many revolutionary changes degenerate into reigns of terror and counter-terror. Christian worship frees the Christian from falling into a utilitarian vision of human existence. Religion as the source of transcendence is the authority which reminds society that the worth and dignity of human beings are not exhaustively defined by their social role." (p.210)