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.