Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When we ask, "Is it fair?"...


A friend recently wrote about his encounter with the demand of a theodicy (emphasis added):
Just this morning, I met a friend in court and we chat up. She told me about a case she is handling. It's a fatal accident case. The victim was a 19 year old lady. She was, needlessly to say, at the prime of her youth. She was a smart girl and the only child of a family who loved her dearly. She was a pillion rider in a motor car accident.

The facts seemed sketchy but what is clear is that the motorcar, which collided into the bike she was on, was driven by a drunk driver.  And this is the truly sad part. Embrace yourself.

The young lady had in her bag a little dog. Upon collision, the helmet, the lady and the dog were flung off at all directions. As the lady was lying motionless on the road, the dog struggled back to her to be by her side. I guess her dog was the last living thing she saw before she departed. She left behind her inconsolable parents and a loyal dog.

My friend told me she went to the victim's house (her parents just bought her a house) and cried when her parents told her that they had to give away the dog because they couldn't take it.  And this is the part of my letter that is relevant. Before we departed, my friend turned to me and asked pointblank, "Is it fair?" Before I could answer her, she'd left.
Reading through this reminds me of what Theng Huat Leow wrote about theodicy, that whenever we encounter such disheartening situation, we shall turn our sight to the cross. For it is through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that God himself asked the question, "Is it fair?"

Whatever we may make of our response to this question, we should not forget that God himself is confronted by this question when his son was dying on the cross. 

Yet it was also from the cross that God answered that question. For the cross is "God’s own engagement in theodicy." (Theng Huat Leow, The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth: A "Crucial" Justification of the Ways of God to Man [USA: Pickwick, 2011], p.35. Emphasis added.)

The cross shows us that "God leads from the front, bearing the brunt of the fight against sin and undergoing the greatest of all suffering for the sake of the cause." (p.154, ibid) It assures us that "God identifies with our suffering, in terms of both solidarity and empathy..." (p.167, ibid)

This means that God is confronted by the question "Is it fair?" not as a bystander, like the lady that my friend talked to. God is not someone who observes the suffering of others and then asked for a theodicy. The cross shows us that God asked that question precisely because he himself was the victim of evil and suffering. 

To be sure, the cross is also the victory of God over evil and suffering. The event is the answer to the question posed by itself. In the words of N. T. Wright:
The Gospels thus tell the story, unique in the world’s great literature, religious theories, and philosophies: the story of the creator God taking responsibility for what’s happened to creation, bearing the weight of its problems on his own shoulders. [The] nations of the world got together to pronounce sentence on God for all the evils in the world, only to realize with a shock that God had already served his sentence. The tidal wave of evil crashed over the head of God himself. The spear went into his side like a plane crashing into a great building. God has been there. He has taken the weight of the world’s evil on his own shoulders. This is not an explanation. It is not a philosophical conclusion. It is an event in which, as we gaze on in horror, we may perhaps glimpse God’s presence in the deepest darkness of our world, God’s strange unlooked-for victory over the evil of our world; and then, and only then, may glimpse also God’s vocation to us to work with him on the new solution to the new problem of evil.
(N. T. Wright, 'God, 9/11, the Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil,' in Response vol. 28, no. 2, 2005. Emphasis added.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Different models of theological education in an age of globalization

Last Saturday I attended a seminar by Richard Pratt, Jr., the founder and President of Third Millenium Ministries, on theological education in the present era of globalization.

Here is the summary of the talk:
1) The present theological education (especially in America) is all about data transference within an institution, be it divinity school, theological college or seminary. This data transference process is the transferring of data from books to lecturers, and then from lecturers to students. Then students become lecturers, and the cycle perpetuates itself. So people who want theological education need to pay these institutions to get into this cycle. Pratt called this the "scarcity" economic model, which means that data are being made scarce so that anyone who wants it need to pay a lot for it. This model makes theological education a sort of luxury products. Besides, international students in America institutions often do not go back to their country to serve after they have graduated.

Many people in the west enrolled into theological studies not so much to be pastors or missionaries, but to be lecturers. There is no practical exposure or practical application of what they can do with their knowledge. It's all about getting into the luxury business of data transference. He shared with us that when he was full Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, there were 6 (or 7?) colleagues who wished that he would go away soon. Hence, there are many theological students who do not have pastoral concern (for e.g. providing pastoral care to grieving family, drug addicts, etc) in the course of their 3 to 4 years of theological education. This is the problem resulted from the scarcity model.

2) Studies have shown us that data transference is much more effective via multimedia (videos, pictures, interactive platform, etc) than the scarcity model.

3) Therefore if theological education is about data transference, then we should adopt the "ubiquity" economic model, which means that theological education should be made very affordable, if not free, so that people have access to it without much hindrance. This is possible through the internet. The Third Millenium Ministries is an example of this model. The ministry provides free theological education in local languages to anyone with access to the internet. Hence anyone who is already doing practical ministry can get theological education for free and in their own pace and place.

4) Local theological institutions can work with Third Millenium Ministries by using their multimedia products in their courses. It is free of charge. And these institutions can accredit their own diplomas and degrees.
Most of what he shared is neatly summarized in the promotional video at Third Millenium Ministries.

I'm heartened to learn about Pratt's view on theological education and his work at Third Millenium Ministries. However, I don't share his choice of description for theological education.

I think there are more than the two economic models ("scarcity" v.s. "ubiquity") used by Pratt to describe theological education. These two models share the same presupposition that theological education is nothing but data transference. Therefore it is all about how to manage such transference in the most effective and efficient way with the present technology.

If theological study is nothing but data transference, then I agree with Pratt that his preferred economic model is suited as the better facilitator for such transference. Theological education is not nothing but data transference.

By assuming that it is and build an enterprise that is based on this mistaken presupposition only perpetuates the problem (i.e. theological education is a luxury business of data transference that has no real pastoral exposure and concern). Providing free theological education may make this business less luxurious, yet the perception that it is a business of data transference with no pastoral aspect to it still persists.

There is another economic model to theological education that I've witnessed in my three years study at Trinity Theological College (TTC). It is a "ecclesial" model. The college is a united initiative by the four mainline Protestant churches in Singapore (Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Lutheran). 

As the college does not receive any financial support from the government, each denomination participates in governing and contributing to the college. There are individuals in the Christian community that also support the college. This keeps the education fee minimal, only 30% of the actual costs.

Though it is governed by four local denominations, yet it is open for anyone to enrolled into the college. Christians from other denominations or other countries also enjoy the heavily subsidized fees. Locals who want to study at TTC are usually required to be recommended by their own churches. And the curriculum is constantly being evaluated and changed to conform to its mission:
to develop in students a mature understanding of the historic and biblical faith that is grounded in the reflective study of Scripture and critical engagement with the life and ministry of the church through an academically rigorous, spiritually and vocationally formative curriculum that reflects a variety of church traditions from an Asian perspective.
Theological education is not mere transference of data but exhortation. If I may use an analogy, studying at TTC is like attending a 3-year-long Sunday service in all its glorious trinitarian and multi-faceted liturgy. It is like participating in a community that attends to the Eucharistic table where people are exhorted to continue worshipping and serving God and God's people.

Of course, the limitation of this model is that it is not ubiquous. Yet, that is the whole point of Sunday service, where people would gather together physically to be exhorted as the body of Christ for the service of God and people. Such gathering cannot be mediated via the internet and multimedia. Sunday service is not merely about data transference. Neither should theological education be.

It is within this context of exhortation that there are so much more that arose from theological education. Among other things, I've seen one dying old man in a hospital, attended two funeral wakes, and met and served a group of drug addicts while being a full-time student at TTC. For these, I think the ecclesial model has much to offer. 

Globalization does bring a lot of changes. Yet somethings can't be changed. Important business meetings are still best dealt through face-to-face rapport. Besides, why would Pratt travelled so many hours from America all the way to Singapore to give a 2 hours seminar on learning through multimedia and the internet when the organizer can simply screen a recording of his talk or hold a live-telecast?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The shape of the public sphere in our societies: Egalitarian ideals and religion

Photo of the Cathedral of Monreale by Philipp Klinger.
(Updated on 2 June 2012 - Inclusion of Rowan Williams' speech)
(Updated on 25 June 2012 - Inclusion of Wang Gungwu's writing)

The post-colonial sociopolitical life of Malaysia and Singapore has largely being discussed without reference to its historical inheritance as well as to many of its current appeal to egalitarian concepts.

The locals in both countries have been invoking notions such as 'human rights', 'democracy', 'individual liberty', 'equality' and other utopian abstracts for various advocacy under the rubric of justice.

Take the debate on fetal abortion for example, both sides of the debate claim justice on their side. The proponents demand rights for women; justice is when choices are given, hence 'pro-choice'. While the opponents demand rights for the unborn; justice is when life is respected, hence 'pro-life'.

Given that each person is, as Nicholas Wolterstorff said, "profoundly historical creature" in as much as each society, the question that I think is missing from these invocations is 'How did these ideals emerge?'

Many may think that these are given, or they somehow dropped from the sky. Nothing can be more delusional.

If none of us live in a historical vacuum, and all these ideals precede our experience, prevail over arbitrariness, and attract our conscience, then it should be natural for us to be curious over this question. Unless of course you think that history has no place for cause and effect.

Many others have asked this question. One of them is one of the world's most influential sociologists and philosophers Jürgen Habermas. Here's his answer:
Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.
(Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions [USA: Polity Press, 2006], pp.150-151. Emphasis added.)
Habermas' view is not novel to the Christian community as theologians and church historians are aware of this historical development all this while. For instance, in one of Rowan Williams' speech at England's House of Lords:
When people speak as though religion were automatically a problem in our public life, nationally and internationally, this often reflects a plain lack of historical and cultural awareness. Usually through no fault of their own, a generation of administrators and local officials has grown up with little or no sense of how our political and legal history in this country has become what it is as a direct result of a long conversation with the Jewish and Christian intellectual world, with the ethics and the theology of the human responsibility characteristic of that world.
(Rowan Williams, House of Lords debate on role and contribution of faith communities, 29 May 2012. Emphasis added.)
To be sure, even if these ideals are translated from the Judeo-Christian theology, it is still largely unjustified to say that Malaysia and Singapore have similarly experienced through this translation process like the northern west. As Richard Madsen recognized:
Through colonialism or through anti-colonial and revolutionary movements that sought national autonomy, wealth, and power by building strong, bureaucratically organized governments modeled on those from the West, [Asian] national political leaders imposed centralized states upon [Asian] societies that had not undergone the North Atlantic world’s path to modernity.
(Emphasis added)
Wang Gungwu, the Chairman of East Asian Institute of National University of Singapore, expounded further:
...the different colonial powers, British, Dutch, French and American, introduced varying polities of state-building and each had particular notions of what a nation meant. In this way, they diversified the conditions for nation-building even further. In addition, the metropolitan power introduced new demographic and technological ingredients into their colonies, and also their respective national templates that reflected their own historical experiences and stages of development at home in Europe and the new world of North America. Under the circumstances, attempts to find common ground for Southeast Asian new nations were limited to broad generalizations about overcoming colonialism and building nation-states on more or less Western models.
(Wang Gungwu, 'Contemporary and National History: A Double Challenge,' in Nation-Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories, ed. Wang Gungwu [Singapore: ISEAS, 2005], p.3)

The modernizing leaders of Asia also had to build their new nations under the shadow of the Cold War. Given the anti-colonial backgrounds that they had all experienced, and the need to argue for self-determination through the exercise of democratic rights, there was no alternative but to do so in the framework of a world of nation-states as represented in the United Nations Organization.

"These leaders were aware that the concept of nation-states was alien to Asia. The forms had been evolved in Europe but, even in Europe, there was a great deal of variety. The new Asian states after 1945 did not, of course, haev to copy any of them. But they did seem to have taken them as guides, if not as exact models. [...] They were more likely to look to the successful examples of nation-states like Britain, United States, France, Netherlands, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states.
(Wang Gungwu, 'Nation and Heritage,' in Nation-Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories, ed. Wang Gungwu [Singapore: ISEAS, 2005], pp.251-252)

...the [Southeast Asia] nationalist leaders have taken Western nation-state models as the highest form of what they wanted to achieve after their colonial leaders left. In a strange way, almost all of them first wanted to re-create what made colonial powers powerful in the first place. While the Indonesians looked at the Dutch experience, the classic models were the nation-states of Britain and France.
(Ibid, p.268)

In other words, even though Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore have skipped the translation process, yet on conceptual level, these ideals are adopted. To ignore this conceptual heritage is to dehistoricize them.

By doing so, we are deforming these ideals into abstraction. And if abstraction, it then becomes "idle postmodern talk"; ideals can then mean anything to anyone. Hence, the two opposite sides of any public issue can appeal to the same ideals, such as justice to support their case.

This makes me wonder whether is it therefore more beneficial for all parties involve in the deliberation of public life in both Malaysia and Singapore to pay attention to the conceptual inheritance as the way to move forward?

I think it is, for only when we recognize the heritage of the ideals that we invoke, we may better grasp what are we actually invoking. This means that sociopolitical discourse needs to go back to Judeo-Christian theology if for no other reason than it is the tradition from which our beloved sociopolitical ideals emerged. As Williams emphasized:
A failure to acknowledge [historical development of contemporary ideals] leads to the dangerous assumption that our political and legal settlement needs no argument in its defence because it is obvious to all right-thinking people. But if we are to sustain our legacy of dignity before the law, participative government, and hospitality towards minorities, we had better be aware of just how and why our ancestors developed such a political ethic and what depth of thought and imagination is needed to keep it alive.
(Rowan Williams, House of Lords debate on role and contribution of faith communities, 29 May 2012.)
If so, then this is attuned to what the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London said:
It thus seems both theoretically productive and politically salient to stick to Judeo-Christian logic.
(Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? [USA: Verso, 2001], p.107. Emphasis added.)
What do you think? Is this giving too much credit to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and since this is politically incorrect in our multi-cultural/religious societies therefore we should ignore it even if it is true?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Should religions be removed from the public sphere?


This picture is powerful. If there is no religion, the World Trade Center's twin towers will still be around. But there are two questions we need to ask. 

First, is religion really the cause, or something else? In other words, did the terrorists flew the planes into the towers merely because their religion commanded them to do that, or there were other factors  that drove the terrorists to understand their religion in the way they have understood it?

Second, even if religion is the cause, should the society get rid of it from its public life? Let's assume for the sake of argument that there were no other factors affecting the terrorists' understanding of their religion besides the inherent destructive character of the religion. Does this mean that, therefore, religions must be excluded from the society's public life? Is this really the solution?

Professor Christoph Stückelberger, the founder and Executive Director of Globethics.net, recently alerted politicians not to banish religions from the public sphere just because they appeared as a source of conflict. 

"If you exclude religion, you don't solve the problem, you just postpone it," said Stückelberger. "Often it comes back in violent and fundamentalist ways, so it is better to integrate it now."

This was what John Gray has written in his book:
Those who demand that religion be exorcized from politics think this can be achieved by excluding traditional faiths from public institutions; but secular creeds are formed from religious concepts, and the suppressing religion does not mean it ceases to control thinking and behaviour. Like repressed sexual desire, faith returns, often in grotesque forms, to govern the lives of those who deny it.
(John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia [UK: Penguin, 2007], p.190.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

John N. Gray comparing Christianity and secular humanism (again)


In his recent conversation with Rowan Williams, the Emeritus Professor of European Thought of London School of Economics and Political Science John Gray reiterated his stand as a non-Christian that Christianity is more compelling than secular humanism:
I'm a skeptic, and in some sense, even a rationalist. But precisely because of that, I find the Christian narrative of the resurrection more compelling than the prevailing secular humanist narrative of humanity slowly ascending to a higher civilization. And the reason for that is that within the Christian narrative there is an explicit acknowledgement of the element of the miraculous. Whereas in the secular humanist narrative, the idea is that human will become more rational, that is they decide whether in that understanding of rationality that will really be desirable. But they become more rational in the sense that slowly to a higher order of civilization. Using that very kind of reason, I think you should quite quickly concluded that that is not going to happen. So in the sense of a hope, it seems to me that the hope embodied in the story, such as this story of the resurrection, a more profound hope than a thin secular idealism which is embodied in the notion of progress.
(Cathedral Conversations - Archbishop Rowan and John Gray on Belief and Belonging, http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2493/cathedral-conversations-archbishop-rowan-and-john-gray-on-belief-and-belonging, 6 April 2012.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Private sin becomes collective force


When we begin to think that our private individual's sin does not matter to the wider part of the creation, here's James Galloway's wake-up call to us:
...moral evil, which arose initially from the wrong exercise of human free will, can subsequently: ...[develop] into a power in society which influences modes of thought and habits of life, and leaves its impress on institutions. Hence sin comes to function as a collective force, maintaining itself from generation to generaation, and offering a constant resistance to the progress of the good. Proteus-like it takes new forms in the course of the struggle with advancing culture.
(Quoted in Theng Huat Leow, The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth: A 'Crucial' Justification of the Ways of God to Man [USA: Pickwick, 2011], p.21. Emphasis added.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review: 'The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth' by Theng Huat Leow

This book is revised from Leow’s doctoral thesis submitted to the University of St. Andrews, U. K. In this work, Leow examined what Peter Taylor Forsyth (henceforth ‘PTF’) thought about the relationship between God and the reality of evil and suffering in our world. The term ‘theodicy’ simply means any concept that attempts to answer the question, ‘If God is all-good, almighty and all-loving, why is there so much evil and suffering in this world?’

To understand the theodicy of PTF, Leow directed us to PTF’s view that God is not an abstract supreme law-giver but a ‘personal God most supremely characterised by holiness’, whose nature is reflected in the ‘moral order of the world.’ (p.10) Therefore morality cannot exist without God. To PTF, ‘the moral as the real.’ For this reason, our conscience as the ‘sense of responsibility’ is fundamentally the most realistic aspect of our nature as creature created by God. 'The ‘conscience within the [human] conscience’ is, in fact, ‘the conscience of God himself,’ judging us and requiring us to attain to his righteousness.' (p.14)

PTF came to this conclusion about God and human nature from his meditation on the crucifixion of the Son of God. What we know about the relationship between God and the evil and suffering in this world can only be known through the cross. ‘There is no theodicy for the world except in a theology of the Cross.’ (p.31)

Hence, the answer to the question, ‘If God is all-good, almighty and all-loving, why is there so much evil and suffering in this world?’ lies in what happened through the cross. To PTF, what happened there was God ‘showing himself to be righteous and good in spite of the existence of evil in our world.’ It is through the crucifixion of Christ that God vindicated his holiness in the face of evil and suffering. In other words, the cross is ‘God’s own engagement in theodicy.’ (p.35)   

The first thing that we learned from the cross is that it served to reconcile human being with God. The cross shows us that the divine purpose for humans is to participate in God’s holiness ‘by entering into a state of union with God.’ (p.61) 

The second lesson that we picked up from the cross is that in order for reconciliation between God and sinners to take place, judgment has to come. ‘This was why he sent Christ to perform his representative role of bearing the judgement of sin on our behalf.’ (p.84) Judgement is the ‘mode of relation which God adopts in order to lead free wills in his direction without violating their integrity. (p.85)

Thirdly, the cross shows us that the greatest evil and suffering is bore by God himself. God thought it worthwhile to endure through this greatest of all evil so that human beings are enabled to fulfil their purpose. ‘God leads from the front, bearing the brunt of the fight against sin and undergoing the greatest of all suffering for the sake of the cause.’ (p.154) 

For these reasons, ‘God identifies with our suffering, in terms of both solidarity and empathy, [for the] defeat of sin, the establishment of God’s holiness in actuality and the moving of the world towards a blessed eschaton where suffering will be abolished.’ (p.167, emphasis original)

Leow knew that any theodicy that lacked the explanation for the origin of evil would be incomplete. Hence, he spent two chapters dealing with this issue. He pointed out PTF’s view that ‘faith’ is only possible when there is freedom to choose. With such freedom, evil though is not necessary is nevertheless inevitable. Therefore it is not that God allows evil and suffering, but they are inevitable in a world where morality is nothing less than ‘the right exercise of the will.’ (p.199) 

However, the inevitability of evil does not override God’s sovereignty. God knew that ‘he possessed the resources within himself to overcome sin and bring about an even “more perfect” end with the destruction of sin.’ (p.206)

In order to treat theodicy, Leow has given us an overall exposition of PTF’s theology throughout the book. This makes one realizes that the difficult task to explain the problem of evil and suffering covers various subjects within theology. One cannot deal with theodicy unless one also engages theology proper, theological anthropology, theology of revelation, eschatology, and etc. For its purpose, Leow’s book demonstrates this intra-disciplinary engagement very well.

There are four areas that I find particularly interesting and beneficial: First, Leow’s treatment of PTF’s notion of ‘moral as the real’, where creation is defined by holiness; second, Leow’s dealing with PTF’s understanding of the evolution of creation through the theology of the cross (which he called ‘crucial evolution’); thirdly, Christ was ‘made sin’ on the cross (2 Cor 5:21) by assuming the status of anti-God; and fourthly how PTF appropriated and differentiated from Hegel.

This review cannot do justice to all the issues brought up in Leow's book. One just have to read it to find out.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Witchcraft, authority, medieval church and secular government

In the box: Roasted human foetuses covered with gold leaf.
Witch hunts were neither small in scope nor implemented by a few aberrant individuals; the persecution of witches was the official policy of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches. The Church invented the crime of witchcraft, established the process by which to prosecute it, and then insisted that witches be prosecuted. After much of society had rejected witchcraft as a delusion, some of the last to insist upon the validity of witchcraft were among the clergy. Under the pretext of first heresy and then witchcraft, anyone could be disposed of who questioned authority or the Christian view of the world.
(The Witch Hunts: The End of Magic and Miracles 1450-1750 C.E.)
There is a charge against the church for its heinous past in witch-hunting. To them, black magic and witchcraft are crime created by the church to secure its sociopolitical power. For those who agree with such accusation, I wonder what would they think of this modern "witch-hunt"?
Six human foetuses which had been roasted and covered in gold leaf as part of a black magic ritual have been seized from a British citizen in Bangkok...
(Thai police arrest Brit with foetuses for black magic, Yahoonews, 18 May 2012.)
I'm not justifying the church's deeds in the past, if indeed they were done with evil intention. Rather, I'm intrigued by our modern authorities' as well as journalists' response toward black-magic, seeing similarity in their disagreement with witchcraft with that of the medieval church.

If the modern people are prosecuting modern black magic for whatever reason, why then should they not see that the medieval church may share their similar concern?

But, what do you think? Should those involved in black magic, such as the one reported above, be arrested and prosecuted? 

If yes, then you may be sharing the same concern of the medieval authorities.

For those who accuse the medieval church for criminalising witchcraft in order to secure its influence, shouldn't they also similarly accuse contemporary authorities for prosecuting black magic? 

Unless of course that these accusers chose to believe that the medieval church lusted after power, while contemporary secular authority is merely pursuing social peace and stability. 

I wonder whether can anyone really so naively hold on to the belief that sociopolitical authority, be it medieval church or secular government, is either merely lusting after power at one time, while at other time, merely pursuing social stability? Are not lusting after power and pursuing social stability two sides of the same coin? I mean, can anyone pursue social stability without also asserting one's influence in the society? I don't think so.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

John Calvin's idea of bishop, archbishop and patriach in theory and practice

John Calvin's chair at St. Pierre Cathedral, Geneva, Switzerland

Presbyterians distinguish their denominational identity through a polity which centralizes authority to the council of elders or presbyters. It is widely believed that this form of church polity is conceptualized by John Calvin himself and instituted by John Knox in the founding of the Church of Scotland. Today's practice of Board of Directors in the corporate world is a secular counterpart of this polity.

Nevertheless, we shall not confuse the presence choice of polity with the practice of John Calvin's own church governance. Calvin recognized the validity of the offices of archbishop and patriach (which are above bishop or presbyter) though with hesitation to endorse the prevalence of these offices. He emphasized the rarity of such offices and the limitation of their authority:
As to the fact, that each province had an archbishop among the bishops, and, moreover, that, in the Council of Nice, patriachs were appointed to be superior to archbishops, in order and dignity, this was designed for the preservation of discipline, although, in treating of the subject here, it ought not to be omitted, that the practice was very rare. The chief reason for which these orders were instituted was, that if anything occurred in any church which could not well be explicated by a few, it might be referred to a provincial synod. If the magnitude or difficulty of the case demanded a larger discussion, patriachs were employed along with synods, and from them there was no appeal except to a general council. To the government thus constituted some gave the name of hierarchy---a name, in my opinion, improper, certainly one not used by Scripture. For the Holy Spirit designed to provide that no one should dream of primacy or domination in regard to the government of the church. But if, disregarding the term, we look to the thing, we shall find that the ancient bishops had no wish to frame a form of church government different from that which God has prescribed in his word.
(Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Four, Chapter 4.4 in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [USA: Hendrickson, revised edition, 2008], p.712. Emphasis added.)
Calvin' reluctance to thoroughly affirm the hierarchical status of bishop, archbishop and patriach is understandable as he was battling against the Roman Catholic polity at that time (as Chapter 5 to 8 of his Institutes, Book Four, indicate). This was what Calvin wrote in theory. In practice, Calvin's church governance is much subtle. His role as the patriach of Geneva was evident. As Ronald Wallace wrote:
Amongst his own fellow-bishops in Geneva Calvin himself moderated, as a kind of permanent president, at their common meetings. There is on record the report of a conversation in which Beza affirmed that “Mr Calvin who had rejected episcopacy was in fact bishop of Geneva, and that a little before his death he had proposed to Mr Beza to make him his successor, but that the latter had refused the offer.” Beza not only refused the offer, but after actually being forced to hold the office of permanent moderator for sixteen years after Calvin’s death, he became responsible for instituting a rotation of moderators. A letter from Beza to John Knox in 1572 reveals an intense hatred of anything in Church government savouring of episcopacy, and it is to him, rather than to Calvin, that we can trace the abhorrence of even the idea of a bishop which has been found among Presbyterians.
(Ronald Wallace, Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation [USA: Baker House, 1988], p.143. Emphasis added).
It is known by his contemporary that Calvin's bishopric among his fellow-bishops was higher in hierarchical standing. Calvin was no mere 'bishop' (a.k.a. elder or presbyter), but a sort of patriach in his own right.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Living Word Conference 2012


The Living Word Conference is a bi-annual event jointly organised by the Diocese of Singapore and The Bible Society of Singapore. It seeks to equip those who serve as preachers and teachers of the Word. It has two components, Day Conference & Evening Public Sessions.

Dates: 18-20 July, 2012

Main Speaker: Dr Tan Kim Huat

Workshop Trainers: Dr Philip Satterthwaite and Rev Dr Maggie Low

Venue: St James' Church at No 1, Leedon Road (Nearest MRT is Holland Village on Circle Line)
Day Conference 19 - 20 July 2012 (9 am - 5 pm, Thu - Fri)
Morning Sessions: Jesus and the Old Testament by Dr Tan Kim Huat
Workshop 1: Preaching from OT Narratives by Dr Philip Satterthwaite
Workshop 2: Preaching from the Psalms by Revd Dr Maggie Low
Registration required. Sessions cost $35, which including tea refreshments and lunch.
Public Evening Sessions 18 - 20 July 2012 (8 pm, Wed - Fri)
Hope in Turbulent Times: Expositions from Romans 5 - 8 by Dr Tan Kim Huat
These public sessions are free and a free-will offering will be taken.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The dire condition of Muslim army veterans in Malaysia



The video shows a group of Muslim army veterans who intruded the privacy of Ambiga and threatened her. They mockingly showed their buttock at her as a group, and shouted slogans supporting UMNO-BN and Prime Minister Najib.

When Ambiga offered 100Plus drink to the mob, the leader said:
Kita ini orang Melayu orang Islam kita minum air suam. Ini air kita tada minum. Kita pun ada law, you ada law, kita pun ada law.

[Translation: We are Muslim, Islamic people, we drink only warm water. We don't drink 100Plus. Just as you have law to follow, we too have our law to follow.]
I didn't know that Islam allows Muslims to drink only warm water and forbids them to drink 100Plus. So is it true that Islam teaches this? Or the army veteran was just talking cock? If the latter, then the Islamic authority in the country should take action against him for misrepresenting Islam. Unless Islam is fine with any Tom, Dick, and Harry to misrepresent Islam.

Then the mob's leader continued to say that he as a Malay cannot converse in English. Yet he repeatedly used English words in his speech (English words highlighted in red):
Saya ini orang Melayu cakap Melayu. Saya tak tau cakap bahasa Inggeris, so ini saya nak hadiah sama you ya untuk hadiah masa depan you ya, you serah kepada Anwar Ibrahim ya, okay? Saya bagi amaran sekali lagi, kami bekas tentera akan bertindak jika kamu melakukan satu lagi masalah untuk merosakan nama baik negara. You kena ingat, saya... you lawyer, I beri amaran. I beri amaran kepada you jangan buat lagi masalah kepada negara. Kami adalah perjuang negara yang tempuh di dalam hutan mencari keamanan negara dan kami tidak mau lagi negara ini menjadi hulu hara di atas perbuatan you, okay?

[Translation: I'm a Malay, I speak Malay. I don't know English. So this is my present for you to pass it to Anwar in the future, okay? Let me warn you, that we, the ex-soldiers, will take action if you tarnish the good name of this country again. Remember that I've given you a warning, lawyer. Don't create trouble for this country again. We were soldiers who fought in the jungle for the peace of this country, and we don't want you to jeopardize this peace, okay?]
This army veteran claimed that he cared very much for Malaysia's reputation. 

I wonder why didn't he and his mob go to the Prime Minister Najib's house to threaten him when it was exposed that Najib's administration paid £17 mllions to make a documentary which implicated the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and so tarnished the image of the country around the world?

I also wonder why didn't the army veteran and his mob threaten the UMNO-BN government when it was found out that the government embarassed the country's reputation by censoring BBC's coverage of the recent BERSIH event through Astro?

The army veteran was talking cock on this too?

So our Malaysian army veterans under UMNO-BN are good at two things: First, intrude the privacy of citizens and theaten them; and second, talk cock about Islam and patriotism?

And they can get away from it without any consequence.  

"But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:24)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Walter Wink's passing, non-violent resistance and its fans

It's reported that Walter Wink has passed away. He is a very influential New Testament scholar who has a whole generation of scholars following his works. 

Besides the evaluation of the pincipalities and powers in the Scriptures, his other most important work is the development of a pacifist position generally known as 'creative non-violent resistance'.

Honestly, I don't have much regard for the latter work of Wink because it has no substance. Wink's position of creative non-violent resistance is plucked out from thin air. In Singapore's idiom, his work is full of smoke. 

There is no evident to support his reading of Matthew 5:30 ("anyone slaps your right cheek, turn to him your left") to mean creative non-violent resistance. I've written about this previously. 

And I'm amazed that there is a generation of writers (for e.g. David Garland, Glen H. Stassen, David P. Gushee and even N.T. Wright!) who follow Wink's interpretation despite there is no supporting evident for it. These are not any writers, but learned people with Ph.D degree in Biblical Studies!

An example of biblical scholarship that is built on smoke.

However, this does not mean that I'm not inspired by Wink at all. I do. But not in how he justifies his 'creative non-violent resistance.'

Monday, May 07, 2012

2 events on Christianity and science

This entire week is packed with graduation activities, so I'll miss these 2 events:

1) Christianity and Science

8 May, Tuesday.
8pm – 9:30pm.
Prayer Halls A-B, St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore.

Speaker: Dr Roland Chia, Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College.
 
2) Evolution and Creation

Saturday, May 05, 2012

'Election' and 'Inerrancy', briefly

The past two weeks were very stressful as I was completing all the final essays, exam and Field Education assessment. In the midst of the busyness, a friend asked me about my stand on two issues which I have not discussed on this blog for a while. 

"What is your understanding of election and biblical inerrancy?"


Here's what I think.

Regarding 'election', I personally do not emphasize on either Prelapsarian or Postlapsarian view. I prefer to understand election through God's dealing with Israel. That is, God elected Israel to be His agent in the world to bring the world back to Him. In God's election, Christ came and re-defined Israel to include Gentiles. Now, the re-defined Israel has to carry out the job to bring the world back to God.

If pushed to a corner, I would say that I affirm God's sovereignty to the extent that it encompasses the determination of every single event in history. And yet on the other hand, I have (paradoxically) no choice but to affirm also free-will. 

I have tried to approach the tension between predestination and free-will in a fresh way through the categories of 'ontology' and 'epistemology'. It may or may not be helpful. Personally, I find that approach uphold the tension in a fair manner while paving the path for unity between different denominations.

Regarding 'inerrancy', I think it really is about its formulation. As with all doctrinal formulation, inerrancy came out from a particular concern, that is to uphold the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. 

For someone who already is convicted that the Scriptures is highly trustworthy, then the inerrancy formulation (like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) is irrelevant to that person. For someone who does not think that Scriptures are trustworthy to begin with, then it is futile to ask the person to affirm inerrancy.

If, again, pushed to the corner, I would say that historical studies is neither static nor uncontrolled, nor can be separated from dogmatic studies. Therefore, I can only approach the Scriptures as 'canon', an essential document of the Church for the Church, through the economy of the Trinity. Hence by definition the canon is authoritative in the Church regardless whether we can definitely and objectively be certain that the historical data in the Scriptures are either correct or false in a Cartesian manner.

Hope this is helpful.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Bible and the Ballot: Interview 3: Isn't prayer enough?

In view of the upcoming Malaysia's general election, Graceworks has conducted an interview with all the contributors of The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian Political Engagement in Malaysia Today. Here is the third round.

Question 3: Shouldn't we pray instead of going out into the streets?

Rama:
I don't think it's an either/or decision, but a matter of doing both. Mobilizing people is important in order to get those in power to listen. Protests were used to end slavery. Protests were also used to gain equal rights for blacks in the USA. In Malaysia, protests gained the freedom of the EO6 who were maliciously and immorally treated. Protests initiated reform of the electoral system, and have brought near the elimination of the Internal Security Act. Many of us were praying before, during and after the protests. 

 
Christopher:
I agree that the first step is on our knees but then I don't recall any verse in the Bible that says we should stay on our knees. Consider Daniel and Esther – they went on their knees and then they got up and did something. Do we not need the Daniels and Esthers of today? I can think of no better example than Bishop Desmond Tutu in his quest to end apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps God has called you to be such a person.


Sivin:
My Lord did both ... So did Paul ... And the list adds on throughout church history. It's not an either/or, but rather a both/and answer. But I think more than a both/and answer, it's about timing. What is critical now has implications for the immediate and long-term future of Malaysia. It's less about a textbook answer and more of “what is a timely answer”. The book aims to show that a timely answer includes both humble prayerful “kneeling” and public, principled “walking”.


Alwyn:
I think it’s a false dichotomy. Just like studying books and getting working experience: being a professional is not about choosing one or the other. It is both. So with the “battle” of politics, it is prayer and engagement, devotion and activism, personal ethics and corporate contribution.


Joshua:
It depends on what one means by “out there in the streets”. What if Christians pray on their knees “out there in the streets”?

But I think the question raises a dichotomy between praying for the welfare of the society and doing something (other than praying) that contributes to that welfare. I would say that both ends of the dichotomy are ontologically connected. The reality of prayer is dependent on the reality of the “doing something”, and vice versa.

Let’s say I am crossing a railway track and my right foot gets stuck between the tracks. A train is fast approaching me. The captain of the train sees me and immediately applies the brakes. But the inertia is so forceful that the train is still dashing towards me at a high speed. I see the train coming, and I pray. While praying, I try to free my foot from the tracks. The nearer the train, the harder I pray, and the faster I try to free my foot.

In this scenario, my prayer is as real as my attempt to free my jammed foot. The seriousness of my prayer can be seen through the seriousness of my attempt to free my foot. And the seriousness of my attempt to free my foot can be seen through the seriousness of my prayer.

Prayer has to be a real concern and not nonsensical babble. We pray because we are concerned. We will address the issue if the concern is real. So praying and addressing the issue reflects the seriousness of both. Thus whether we really mean what we pray about depends on whether are we doing something that shows that we mean it.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Ambivalence in Barth's theology?

In this (final) semester, I wrote an essay exploring whether was Karl Barth's theology a 'political theology'? This question may seem obvious to many, yet what follows is a teaser to its ambivalence:
 
In the late 1950s a German Methodist bishop, visiting a class at Garrett Theological Seminary, was asked what had been Karl Barth's major contributions to the European churches. The bishop's first answer surprised no one: Barth had helped the European churches to rediscover the Bible. But his second answer — that Barth had done more than anyone else to recall the European churches to their social and political responsibility — amazed the class...

The students immediately challenged the bishop by trotting out all the familiar American stereotypes of Barth. His theology was so "eschatological" that it had no relevance to worldly matters like politics. He so emphasized the ultimate sinfulness of all men before God that he was unable to do justice to the relative differences between men or political systems. For Barth, salvation consisted only of being forgiven by God; it gave no power to live a new life, and thus man could have no hope for improvement in either individual or social affairs. The bishop listened in growing astonishment. In the end he shook his head in bafflement. "You cannot be talking about Karl Barth," he said.
(William Hordern, 'Barth as Political Thinker,' in Christian Century, 26 March 1969.)

That's the ambivalent impression of Barth's contemporaries on him when he was still alive. So, what do you think? Was Barth a political theologian?