Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Hell" is Valley of Hinnom, so Jesus is back already?

Benjamin Corey's post on Jesus' reference of hell as the Valley of Hinnom is being circulated widely on social media. He rightly points out that the word "Gehenna" which is usually translated as "hell" is a reference to the valley. 

What's wrong with Corey's post is his conclusion that Jesus' warning to his hearers in Matthew 24 is a reference to the impending destruction of the temple in 70 A.D (with emphasis added):
At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus explicitly sets the stage for the coming destruction, warning them that even the temple will be destroyed (“not one stone will remain on another, it will all be thrown down.” V. 2) Jesus goes so far as to even tell them what the signs of the coming judgment (the end of the “age”) would look like: wars, rumors of wars, famine, earthquakes, etc. As Jesus describes this “great tribulation” with horrible persecution, he advises them that if they want to escape death at the hands of the Romans, they would need to flee to the hillsides when they see the “signs of the times” (verse 16).

This actual event and the fulfillment of Jesus’ warning came in AD70 when Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem along with her temple. Presumably, those who heeded Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24 of fleeing to the hillside would have survived the advancing destruction of the Roman army… but those who didn’t?

Well, those folks were killed. And guess what we know actually happened to their bodies? They were burned in… “hell”, just outside of Jerusalem– exactly as Jesus had warned. This makes the teachings of Jesus very practical when considering the historical and grammatical context: those who listened to him would live, and those who didn’t would end up burned in the Valley of Hinnom. While we don’t know for sure, it is highly likely that some/many of the people in the audience when Jesus warned “how will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?” actually ended up dead and burned in Gehenna by the Romans.

You probably didn’t hear any of this in Sunday School, but that’s what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell, at least on a historical level (not accounting for symbolism or dual fulfillment).
Corey argues that Jesus was referring to an event that will soon take place, and so the reference of Gehenna points to the cremation of those who didn't heed his warning. I find this an inconsistent reading of Matthew 24.

When we read the whole of Matthew 24, we would see how Corey has wrongly concluded that Jesus was referring to the imminent destruction of the temple.
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you...

29 Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:3, 29-30. Emphasis added.)
The whole point of Jesus' reply is to answer his disciples' inquiry about his glorious return. If Jesus' warning refers to the temple destruction in 70 A.D., then he would have return at that time, as per his own foresight.

The only way for Corey to go around this is to insert a "gap" between verse 29 and 30. Yet this hermeneutical move is perhaps too convenient. When the verses agree with one's proposal, there is no gap. When the verses disagree, suddenly we should find a gap there.

Well, historically, there is no record of Jesus appearing after the temple's destruction in 70 A.D. So on historical basis, we can deduce that Jesus had something else in mind in his warning. Gehenna as the Valley of Hinnom doesn't lead to the conclusion that Jesus was referring to the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24.

Of course, there is a way to go around this. Corey could say that Jesus has returned, but it wasn't recorded anywhere in the ancient world. But I don't think he and those who agree with him want to take this route.

To sum up, we can agree that Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom. However, we have to recognize that Jesus uses it as a vivid imagery of his days as illustration of a horror. And Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 may or may not link to his reference of Gehenna in the previous chapter. Jesus could be envisioning the hypocrites' upcoming cremation at Hinnom Valley in chapter 23, while talking about the afterlife condition of weeping and gnashing of teeth for hypocrites (24:50, 25:30), which may be his reference of eternal punishment (25:46).

Or, Jesus was using Gehenna as a symbol for the afterlife condition. Whichever it may be, the reading of Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 as reference to the 70 A.D. temple destruction can hardly be sustained.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Faith, reason, and feminist movement: Letter to Boo Su-Lyn

Dear Su-Lyn,

Your sharing about your own faith journey (Why I left the faith, The Malay Mail Online, 7 November 2014) is very much appreciated and I trust that it has helped you to make better sense of this mysterious journey we call life.

I noted at least 6 impressions you have developed about Christianity in your sharing: (1) Believing in God gives no satisfactory explanation for suffering and death, (2) immorality in the Old Testament doesn't make sense, (3) church's teaching on sexual purity is guilt-tripping and seems harmful to the public, (4) we can live without God, (5) atheist has the freedom to think, and (6) the Bible is anti-women. And you mentioned that your biggest relief for leaving the faith is that you don't have to reconcile your idea of women's rights with the sexist notions in Christianity. 

I would like to share some thoughts on these 6 impressions which may or may not be of interest to you. Nonetheless, it's at least a platform to initiate some conversations on the faith with you.

1. Believing in God gives no satisfactory explanation for suffering and death [therefore it is not rational to believe?]
I learned that the existence of suffering, death, and evil is a major stumbling block to Christians. Often believers cannot give a good account for their existence and the hurt that come with them. 

All my grandparents have died, except my maternal grandpa. One day, he will die too. The same goes for my parents, my wife, and my good friends. And eventually each of us will face our own death. So if there is a good and able God, why would such thing be allowed?

As you have mentioned, some think these bad things happen because they are in God's will and his higher ways. Frankly, I don't know. What I do know is that this ignorance has little to say about whether the belief in God is rational or not. 

If you ask me to elaborate, I don't think I'm able to. But Alvin Plantinga seems to have a good way of explaining:
"[A Christian] might want very badly to know why God permits evil in general or some particular evil---the death or suffering of someone close to him, or perhaps his own suffering... [S]uppose that the [Christian] admits he just doesn't know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have a good reason for permitting evil, the [Christian] would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the [Christian] doesn't know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the [Christian], but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God."
(Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974], 10.)
He also wrote that we don't really know many things in life yet we have no problem believing in them:
"The [Christian] believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn't know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? Take an analogy. I believe that there is connection of some sort between Paul's deciding to mow the lawn and the complex group of bodily movements involved in so doing. But what connection, exactly? Does his decision cause these bodily movements? If so, how? [...] Exactly  what is the relation between his deciding to mow the lawn---which decision does not seem to be a bodily event at all---and his actually doing so? No one, I suspect, knows the answer to these questions. But does it follow that it is irrational or unreasonable to believe that this decision has something to do with that series of motions? Surely not. In the same way the [Christian's] not knowing why God permits evil does not by itself show that he is irrational in thinking that God does indeed have a reason."
(Ibid, 11. Emphasis original.)
I don't know why I (or anyone for that matter) must die. I don't like not knowing. Yet one cannot reasonably conclude from there that therefore the belief in God is irrational. 

In the same way one cannot reasonably conclude that it is irrational to believe that you are reading this right now solely because he/she cannot explain how your decision to read this has caused your eyes and mind to process (agree or disagree) with what is written here.

That said, death is not the end in Christianity. There will be future resurrection. Hence, death though painful to many, is situated within the context of Jesus' victory over it. Death has been conquered.

"The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 15:56-57)

2. Immorality in the Old Testament doesn't make sense.
Indeed, the immorality in the Old Testament is senseless. Immorality whether those recorded in the Old Testament or reported in today's newspapers doesn't make sense. I don't understand how ISIS militants are able to inflict atrocity on another human being.

Neither can I comprehend how the anti-Christianity Fete de la Raison (Festival of Reason) championed by Jacques Hébert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, and Antoine-Francois Momoro to celebrate "reason", "philosophy", and "truth" could be part of the 'Reign of Terror' that massacred tens of thousands of people, including celebrated feminist activist Olympe de Gouges.  

I remember someone who once taught me that there is a difference between 'descriptive' and 'prescriptive' statement. When we read the Old Testament (or any military history for that matter), we should learn to discern what is descriptive (recorded events that do not instruct us to act) and prescriptive (recorded events that instruct us to act).

To give a New Testament example, Jesus' teaching on loving our neighbors is a clear instruction which is prescriptive. But his walking on water is not an instruction to his followers to walk on water. He didn't instruct them to do that (even Simon Peter's once-off experience was requested by Simon himself and not commanded by Jesus, Matt. 14:28-29).

Recognizing the difference between 'descriptive' and 'prescriptive' would help us to discern stories like Lot's offering of his daughters to be gang-raped is a recorded event which does not instruct us to act. It was merely an event that took place.

Come to think of it, the Old Testament doesn't sugar-coat immorality that humans are capable of. It is not a history written by victors. It doesn't shy away from recording the failure of Israel's most authoritative prophet (Moses' impatience and faithlessness) and most celebrated king (David's adultery, abuse of power, and murder). It captures the worst of humanity as it is. Realism in its starkness.

3.  Church's teaching on sexual purity is guilt-tripping and seems harmful to the public
I have problem with this too! In fact I have problems with the church's teaching on many other things such as the command not to be greedy, covetous, non-forgiving, etc, and the instructions that we must love and help everyone (including those who hurt us), and look after orphans and widows in their distress.

Failing to do all these at all times make me feel that I'm always inadequate, always in the lack, always sub-Christian. Suck big time... 

I think that's what Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin." (Rom. 3:20)

Yet I also remember that Christianity doesn't stop at guilt. Rather, it points to redemption through Jesus Christ. As Paul himself reflected, "[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Rom. 3:23-24)

This is not to say that therefore people can go on sinning (Paul himself thought of this too in Rom. 6:1-4). Neither am I saying that churches are exploiting guilt to point out the importance of redemption.

All I'm saying is this: If Christianity is about God redeeming the whole creation from sin and corruption through Jesus, then it would be deviant for churches to deny this or to teach something else.

4. We can live without God.
Again, I think you are right on this. Many people have been living without any reference to God their whole life. And they do fine. More on this below.

5. Atheist has the freedom to think.
Definitely atheists have the freedom to think. Anyone without mental impairment has such freedom regardless whether they are religious or not. Yet in our modern world, much of what we take for granted does not come from atheists' thinking. Rather, they are the progeny of people who believe in God.

Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton are not atheist but their thought laid a foundation for modern scientific thinking (see John Losee, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science [UK: Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2001], 63-85).

John Locke is not an atheist but his articulation of humans' relationship with each other under God gives rise to the notion of equality and rights. "Many also express admiration for John Locke's seventeenth-century works as a major source for modern democratic theory, seemingly without the slightest awareness that Locke explicitly based his entire thesis on Christian doctrines concerning moral equality." (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success [USA: Random House, 2005], 76.) As John Dunn elaborates,
"Jesus Christ (and Saint Paul) may not appear in person in the text of [Locke's book] Two Treatises but their presence can hardly be missed when we come upon the normative creaturely equality of all men in virtue of their shared species-membership... In seventeenth-century England, if the gospel could only be forgotten (which it pretty readily was), there were no problems at all about justifying inequality... (As for giving reasons, our social structure will do that for us.) At the biological level the axiom of equality is whole inert socially, and in pre-industrial Western civilization it could hardly be a conclusion of sociological reason. Far from being extrinsic, the theology was the sole possible significant locus for equality."
(John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the Two Treatises of Government [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969], p.99-100. Emphasis added. See also Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke's Political Thought [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002].)
In fact, the notion of natural rights is grounded in medieval Christian discussion:
"The idea of natural rights grew up---perhaps could only have grown up in the first place---in a religious culture that supplemented rational argumentation about human nature with a faith in which humans were seen as children of a caring God."
(Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001], 343.)
Luc Ferry, an atheist, likewise recognizes Christianity as the ideological impetus which gave rise to modern democracy:
"In direct contradiction [to Greek philosophy], Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity---an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance... At times hostile to the Church, the French Revolution---and, to some extent, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man---owes to Christianity an essential part of its egalitarian message."
(Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe [USA: HarperCollins, 2010], 72, 74.)
Adam Smith is not an atheist but his thinking provides the seed for modern economics (see Paul Oslington, ed., Adam Smith as Theologian [USA: Routledge, 2011]). Max Weber famously pointed out in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that it was Christians' thinking and lifestyle that greatly influenced capitalism.

Ideas such as modern scientific method, egalitarian democratic principles, and economics are forged from the religious concepts derived from Christian scripture and tradition.

This does not mean belief in God has consistently champion equality and human rights. I'm merely saying that the genealogical account for these concepts is one that traces its root to Christian thinking, not one that emerges from atheistic ground.

In fact, it is from the Christians' thought that feminist movement came about, which leads to my next point.

6. The Bible is anti-women [the idea of women's rights doesn't go along well with the sexist notions in Christianity].
No denial that Christians have over the centuries used the Bible to suppress women's rights. This is historical record that no one can dismiss. So I share your disgust over men who exploit the scriptural passages to subdue women.

However, I also know that there is another side to the history of the feminist movement: It was Christianity that enabled concepts such as equality and women emancipation to emerge.

Take for instance the first wave of feminism. It was Mary Wollstonecraft's book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 that initiated modern feminist movement (see Valerie Sanders, 'First Wave Feminism', in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism, ed. Sarah Gamble [UK: Routledge, 2006], 15-24). In it, Wollstonecraft calls women to cooperate with God if they are to be freed from "tyranny of man":
"In treating... of the manners of women, let us, disregarding sensual arguments, trace what we should endeavor to make them in order to cooperate...with the Supreme Being." (Quoted in Barbara Taylor, 'The religious foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism,' in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 99.) 
At one point, Wollstonecraft boldly asserts, "I build my belief on the perfection of God." This theological conviction contributes significantly to her point on women's rational capability. As Daniel Schierenbeck comments, "This assertion allows Wollstonecraft to build her argument for the improvement of women's rational understanding..." (Daniel Schierenbeck, 'Reason and Romance: Rethinking Romantic-Era Fiction Through Jane West's The Advantages of Education,' in Enlightening Romanticism, Romancing the Enlightenment: British Novels from 1750 to 1832, ed. Miriam L. Wallace [UK: Ashgate, 2009], 75).

To Wollstonecraft, women deserve education because of their ability to attain truth about God. So wrote Natalie Taylor: "Wollstonecraft argues there are innate principles of truth. Not only does she encourage her readers to contemplate God, but she argues that human beings can attain divine wisdom." (Natalie Fuehrer Taylor, The Rights of Woman as Chimera: The Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft [UK: Routledge, 2007], 89.)

Barbary Taylor summarizes Wollstonecraft's principal mission in this way: "[T]o liberate women from masculine tyranny not in order that they should become free-floating agents, stripped of all obligatory ties, but in order to bind them more closely to their God." (Barbara Taylor, 'The religious foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism,' in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 116.)

Many women similarly inspired by their belief in God emerged to champion gender equality: Olympe de Gouges, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Hays, the women in the Quakers movement, etc (see the essays in section 7 of Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor, Women, Gender and Enlightenment [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005], 410-518).

Christian activism for women emancipation is not confined to Europe alone. Take modern China as example. It was the Christian missionaries who spearheaded the campaign to abolish foot-binding and so led to the liberation of thousands of Chinese women from this torturous centuries-old social norm. As Kwame Anthony Appiah chronicled:
"The Chinese knew foot-binding produced suffering and debility. Foot-binding was done to young girls, crushing the four smaller toes under the sole and compressing the rear of the anklebone. After months and years the pain diminished, but walking was usually difficult... Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do.

"The movement that eventually turned the Chinese around began with Christian missionaries in the 1860s. In 1875, the Rev. John Macgowan of the London Missionary Society, who had campaigned for some 15 years against foot-binding, called a meeting of Christian women in Xiamen. He asked them to sign a pledge to abandon foot-binding. Nine women did. Eventually women joined the Quit-Footbinding Society in larger numbers, pledging not to bind the feet of their daughters and some choosing to undergo the often painful process of unbinding themselves. Then they were joined, in 1894, by the Unbound Foot Association, which the Confucian scholar and reformist leader Kang Youwei helped found. It eventually had more than 10,000 members."
Rev. Mcgowan's conviction to abolish foot-binding is deeply rooted in his faith. As he remarked,
"We became more and more convinced that mere human argument had no power to solve it [footbinding]. What was needed was a Divine force to master and control it, and that force was the Lord Jesus Christ. With Him alone lay the great secret of the solution of a problem that neither sage nor saint had ever been able to unravel."
(Quoted in He Qi, 'The Changing Other: Footbinding, China, and the West, 1300-1911,' [Master's thesis, National University of Singapore, 2012], 45.)
In summarizing the impact of Christianity to women's emancipation in China, Fan Hong writes,
"The origin and development of the Chinese women's emancipation movement cannot be understood without first placing it in the context of the changing image of the female body, and this fundamental change in Chinese culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cannot be understood itself without an examination of the influence of the Christian missionaries and their powerful impact on Chinese women's physical education and education."

"It was Christian missionaries, rather than radical critics, who effectively challenged traditional Chinese culture and created the opportunity for women to free themselves, first physically and then mentally."

"In 1895 ten influential Christian women of different nationalities formed a natural-foot society and, in order to request support from Empress Dowager Cixi, drew up a memorial to which 'nearly all foreign ladies in the Far East added their names'. The memorial is believed to have eventually reached the Palan, and it is said that the Empress Dowager finally issued the Anti-footbinding Edict of 1902 'after sustained pressure from foreign women of various nationalities'."
(Fan Hong, Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women's Bodies in Modern China [UK: Frank Cass, 1997], 43, 50, 57. Emphasis added. For other sources, see Kathryn Sikkink, 'Historical Precursors to Modern Campaigns for Women's Human Rights: Campaigns Against Footbinding and Female Circumcision,' in Women's Human Rights: The International and Comparative Law Casebook, ed. Susan Deller Ross [USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008], 482-486 and Alison R. Drucker, 'The Influence of Western Women on the Anti-Footbinding Movement 1840-1911,' Historical Reflections 8.3 [1981]:179-199.)
Women in modern India likewise achieved liberation from sati (widow-burning) due to Christian missionary efforts. In Clare Midgley's account,
"Between 13 February 1829 and 29 March 1830 a total of 15 separate groups of women from around England sent petitions to Parliament calling on it to abolish sati... This step into direct engagement with parliamentary politics was taken not by women who identified as political radicals or supporters of the 'rights of women', but rather by women associated with the evangelical missionary movement. The petitions formed part of a broader campaign against sati that was linked to garnering female support for the foreign missionary enterprise and also led to English women being drawn into organising the dispatch of the first single women to India to provide Christian education for Indian girls and women."
(Clare Midgley, Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790-1865 [UK: Routledge, 2007], 65. Emphasis added.)
In India itself, the missionary William Carey initiated the campaign against sati.
"The Serampore Christian missionaries, headed by William Carey, had started a movement for the abolition of sati in 1799... He prepared a statistical record of widow burning and having witnessed a horrible scene of widow burning was able to present a vivid description of it... In 1802 Carey conducted an inquiry into the practice of sati and gave his recommendations for its abolition. He organized open discussions on the subject and arranged a debate in 1803 at Fort William College."

"The efforts of the Christian missionaries to eradicate social evils in India though did not always achieve immediate success, yet these helped to popularize an ideology that was conducive to the growth of humanitarianism in India."
(B. S. Chandrababu and L. Thilagavathi, Woman: Her History and Her Struggle for Emancipation [India: Bharathi Puthakalayam, 2009], 325, 327. For details, see chapter 10 of Arvind Sharma, Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays [India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988], 57-65.)
In Singapore, there are local Christians who spearhead initiatives to help marginalized women. Two of them are pastor Andrew and his wife Grace Choo. Both of them founded AG Home in 1998 to help troubled teenage girls. Some of them are pregnant and don't know where to turn to. AG Home accepts them and help them to get back on their feet.

In Malaysia, when my very good friend Steven Sim started to get involved in politics, he made gender equality one of his top priorities. Under his leadership, the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) became the first local government that has a gender responsive budgeting (GRB) policy. Now that he is a Member of Parliament, he continues to exert his influence to bring about a more egalitarian society (his writings can be read here, here, and here).

When I ask him what inspires his activism for gender equality, without hesitation he replies that it is the "Jewish prophetic tradition" mirrored through the life of Jesus Christ. In particular, the passage of Micah 6:8, "[W]hat does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Here is someone whose advocacy for equality is based on the Christian tradition.

Yes, the Bible has been used to suppress women. Yet there are two sides to the relationship between the Bible and women in history. As M. Christine Green reckons, "When it comes to the rights of women, Christianity is rife with dualities of subordination and liberation, equality and difference, sacrifice and virtue, creation and redemption." (M. Christine Green, 'Christianity and the rights of women,' in Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction, ed. John Witte, Jr. and Frank S. Alexander [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010], 303.)

Despite this ambivalence, history tells us that the modern feminist movement that upholds gender equality (which you identify with), abolished foot-binding and sati, and promoting humanitarianism around the world is conceived not in an atheistic lab but the womb of Christian discourse. Hence, I think your focus on the Bible being "anti-women" is skewed, not fair to history in all its sides.

Let's go back...
Now, let's go back to the notion that we can live without God. Many women in the past have lived through oppressive patriarchy, torturous social norms such as foot-binding and sati without emancipation. And as history testifies, once God came into the picture, their lives changed. These women discovered their dignity, they are regarded equally. Their emancipation is the result of Christianity working through the faithful in the contingency of history.

Can they live without God? Of course, they can. But I suspect they very much prefer that God came into the picture than not even if they themselves don't personally believe in the faith.

When I started writing, I didn't foresee this letter to be so lengthy. It shows how weighty your reflection is!

Anyway, I don't know if you will read this. If you do, I would like to say that I don't see this letter as the last word on anything. Rather, it's my attempt to join you in exercising our freedom to think.

Best regards,
Joshua Woo

Thursday, October 30, 2014

SG50 and Christianity's Jubilee
Singapore will celebrate 50th anniversary next year. The SG50 committee was set up to see through various events and programs to commemorate this important milestone. Many are using the common phrase "golden Jubilee" to mark this anniversary. And of course the word "Jubilee" came from ancient Israel's religious tradition. For this reason, many local Christians see this celebration as the "Jubilee". Some think that the nation has entered into its 50th year since 9 August 2014, and so the Jubilee has started.

The Love Singapore movement describes the Jubilee as a time for "celebration" and "consecration" (see screenshot below). The Global Day of Prayer in Singapore has changed the name for 2015's nation-wide prayer event to Jubilee Day of Prayer. The Anglican Diocese of Singapore calls the faithful to "pray, prepare and posture for a year of Jubilee in both Church and Society."

In view of all these, it's perhaps good for churches to rediscover the concept of Jubilee.

1. Jubilee's Origin
The concept is found in Leviticus 25-27. There are two possible etymological origins for the word 'Jubilee'. The first one is its connection to the Hebrew term yobel, the horn trumpet which was blown to mark the beginning of Jubilee (Lev. 25:9). 

The second one is related to the verb y-b-l that means 'lead back, lead forth', which carries the imagery of release and return (Isa. 55:12, Jer. 31:9). Hence, the word yobel was translated into the Greek word aphesis ('liberation') by ancient scholars of the third to first century B.C. to be used in the Septuagint.

This connotation of freedom goes along with Lev. 25:10's main theme of Jubilee as the liberation of the Israelites: "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." Subsequently, the prophet Ezekiel called it the "year of liberty" (46:17). (See the brief discussion in David L. Baker, "The Jubilee and the Millennium: Holy Years in the Bible and Their Relevance Today," Themelios 24.1 [1998]:47.)

Additionally, Jeffrey Fager points out that the background for Jubilee is the ancient socioeconomic system of land tenuring. The Jubilee carries "moral imperative toward its economically vulnerable members." Hence the proclaimed liberty is to free the vulnerable members in the Israelite society from alienation from their land. (Jeffrey A. Fager, Land Tenure and the Biblical Jubilee: Uncovering Hebrew Ethics through the Sociology of Knowledge [Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993], 122.)

2. Jubilee's Purposes
Regardless of its etymological root, it is clear that Jubilee is to be celebrated by proclaiming liberation marked by the sounding of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in every fifty-years cycle (Lev. 25:8-9).

And Jubilee's occurrence on the Day of Atonement is not coincidental but to highlight the other significance of the jubilation: the Israelites will not only be liberated from alienation from their inherited land, but also liberated from their sins and separation from God. This combination of Jubilee and the Day of Atonement points out the overarching motif of the people's restoration to their rightful place before humans and God. As Brian T. Hoch comments,
"[T]he reason the Jubilee begins on Yom Kippur is that both institutions are kindred events of restoration. The primary foci of the restorative activity are: the meeting places with Yahweh (in respect to the Jubilee it is the land; with Yom Kippur, it is the sancta), and his people who are to meet with him."
(Brian Thomas Hoch, "The Year of Jubilee and Old Testament Ethics: A Test Case in Methodology," PhD diss., (Durham University, 2010), 91.)
The prophet Isaiah refers to this "consecrated" year as the "year of the Lord's favour", when liberty is proclaimed and restoration takes place (61:1-9). John Bergsma, in his survey of the history of interpretation of the Jubilee, called this the first messianic re-reading of the Jubilee for it is "associated with a coming "messianic" (anointed) figure, who will proclaim and inaugurate a new age characterized by the freedom and restoration of the jubilee year." (John Sietze Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran: A History of Interpretation [Leiden: Brill, 2007], 202, 203.)

The Jubilee is to be expressed among the Israelites through the following 12 instructions:
I. The Israelites should return to their family property (Lev.25:10, 13).

II. The Israelites are not to sow or reap plantation that grow by itself, or harvest untrimmed vines. They should eat only the produce from the existing crop (Lev. 25:11, 19).

III. The Israelites should not overcharge or undercharge one another---must practice 'fair price' as an expression of their reverence for God (Lev. 25:14-18).

IV. On the year before Jubilee, the sixth year, the Israelites' plantation will produce food enough for the next three years. They are to resume work on their plantation on the eight year (Lev. 25:20-22).

V. No land must be sold permanently as God is the true owner. Hence all sold land must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:23-24).

VI. Israelites who become poor can sell their land, and their relatives should help them to buy back the land. If no relatives can help them, then their land will remained with the buyer until Jubilee (Lev. 25:25-28).

VII. Houses within walled cities can be sold permanently, though the possibility for original owner to buy back the house should remain for the first year after the sale. After that, the house will be owned by the buyer permanently. These houses need not be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:29-30).

VIII. Houses  in villages can be sold, but must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:31).

IX. Levites' permanent possession is the pastureland, which cannot be sold. Their houses, however, can be sold though need to be returned to them during Jubilee (Lev. 25:32-34).

X. Israelites should provide social safety net to the unfortunate Israelites as how they are to treat foreigners. They should lend fellow Israelites money without interest, sell them food at cost price (Lev. 25:35-38).

XI. If poor Israelites sold themselves to their fellow Israelites, they must not be treated as slaves, but as servant. And they and their family should be liberated and be restored to their property during Jubilee (Lev. 25:39-43). The same with Israelites who sold themselves to foreigners (Lev. 25:47-55).

XII. Trade and manage the land fairly by determining the price according to its proximity to the Jubilee (Lev. 27:16-25).
Several times the Israelites were reminded of their obligation to follow these instructions because of their covenantal relationship with God (Lev. 25:17, 36, 38, 43, 54, 26:1-2, 12-13, 44-45). Bergsma helpfully explains the reason why Jubilee falls on the Day of Atonement (his preferred term "Day of Purgation") and its connection to the above listed instructions:
"[T]here is nothing arbitrary about the proclamation of the jubilee on yom kippur; on the contrary, there may be the most intimate conceptual relationship between the purgation of the temple and the restoration of social justice in Israel. [...] Inasmuch as the renewal or reassertion of a (divine or human) king’s rule was associated with the re-establishment of "freedom"... and "social justice"... for the populace throughout the ancient Near East, yom kippur offered an attractive occasion in the cultic calendar of Israel for the proclamation of the jubilee. [...]

"As the kingly rule of the patron deity of Israel is re-affirmed and renewed through the purging of the sanctuary, the deity expresses his justice and righteousness by proclaiming freedom to his servants who live on his sacred estate. [...] The primary imperative of the jubilee was the return of each Israelite to his ancestral possession of land and his clan. The reunification of family with land is the central concern of all the stipulations."
(Ibid, 31-32, 105. Emphasis added.)
For detailed discussion on the Leviticus Jubilant laws, see David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law (Grand Rapids, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 80-97.

From all these, we can draw out two major objectives of the Jubilee. First, Jubilee is about the restoration of the Israelites' socioeconomic life, and hence the whole community's sustainability. The institution of social safety net through property return, workers' liberation, and cessation of field plantation brings about a new start for the less fortunate and narrows the gap between the rich and the poor. 

Secondly, the Jubilee was instituted to have the Israelites put into practice their knowledge that they belong to God, that God is their Lord. "Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 25:17) "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers." (v.23) In other words, Jubilee was given to transform 'theology' into 'ethics', turning the people's knowledge of God into practices that reflect that knowledge.
3. Jesus Christ and Jubilee
Although there is no explicit mention of the Jubilee in the New Testament, Jesus quoted the messianic imagery of Isaiah's "year of the Lord's favour" as the overarching motif of his ministry (Isa. 61:1-2; Lk. 4:18-19). He proclaimed the fulfillment of the Jubilee concept through him (Lk. 4:21). He has initiated the true Jubilee. And it is through him, we gain liberation from socioeconomic struggles and eternal separation from God.

His followers (as the spiritual descendants of the Israelites) therefore have the responsibility to carry out the restoration of socioeconomic life and community's sustainability among themselves. Living out this communal life is practicing the acknowledgement that we belong to God. It is the reflection of our covenantal relationship with him. Christians' understanding of Jubilee should always be appropriated through Jesus' ministry.

This is not a call for state communism. It is not meant for everyone, just as the Israelites' Jubilee is not for everyone. It is for the churches. This church-based ethics is how Christian disciples to live in their community.

Therefore, Christian's celebration of the Jubilee is neither a call for cancellation of public debt (à la Jubilee 2000 movement) nor overturn alleged unfair political and economic policy (à la John H. Yoder's proposal). Christopher  R. Bruno has clarified this in his article: ""Jesus is our Jubilee"...But How? The OT Background and Lukan Fulfillment of the Ethics of Jubilee," in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53/1 (2010):81-101.

Rather, Christianity's Jubilee is a call for the faithful to establish and manage the church as a community where believers are liberated from socioeconomic struggles and spiritual alienation from God. Let this messianic Jubilant call as understood through Jesus be a reminder for local churches as the nation celebrates her 50th anniversary.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Jesus in the Old Testament? Westminster Theological Seminary and Douglas Green
Theologians and biblical scholars have been discussing Westminster Theological Seminary's (WTS) controversial announcement of Douglas Green's retirement in June. The seminary's Board of Trustees found Green's interpretation method is not consistent with the institution. Here is the official statement:
The Board of Trustees regards the particular hermeneutical method of the New Testament use of the Old Testament included in Dr. Green’s response to be inconsistent with the Seminary’s confessional standards.

While Dr. Green respectfully disagrees with this decision of the Board, he acknowledges the governing authority of the Trustees to lead Westminster in fulfilling the institution’s mission as a confessional Reformed seminary.
Basically, Green thinks that the Old Testament (OT) authors didn't have Jesus Christ in mind when composing their document. WTS' position is that Jesus was objectively present, though vague, in the OT authors' mind when they were writing the relevant passages (its faculty G. K. Beale calls this "cognitive peripheral vision").

To be sure, the WTS doesn't condemn Green as heretical, but (as its faculty member Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. wrote) views his approach as "obscuring" and "compromising" the truth.

This has provoked many responses. Brandon Withrow, who did his doctoral study at WTS, commented that the seminary has over the years becoming inward-looking and hence fundamentalist. Tremper Longman III who taught at WTS for 18 years has strongly criticized the seminary's decision: "Westminster Theological Seminary is a toxic environment for the training of future pastors."

Another former student of WTS, William B. Evans, examined the changes of WTS' doctrinal position through its faculty member Vern Poythress' writings. In the past, Poythress' position was "careful and considered". Now, it's ad hoc and closed---as if the shift is made to justify WTS' current doctrinal stand. (To which Green Baggins disagrees.)

Kevin Davis points out that John Calvin himself wouldn't get a job at WTS given the institution's present position. As Calvin wrote concerning Hebrews 2:7's usage of David's Psalm 8:4-6:
I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle [author of Hebrews] to give an accurate exposition of the words. [...] The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.
(John Calvin, Hebrews and 1 & 2 Peter [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994], 22-23.)
The author of Hebrews, as Calvin commented, was not describing what David had in mind.

The World Reformed Fellowship has produced a statement signed by dozens of WTS' former faculty members and alumni in support of Green---in disagreeing with WTS' present position. 

How then should Christians decide which position is right? Did the OT authors had Jesus Christ in their "cognitive peripheral vision" when writing the scripture? If yes, then aren't we assuming too much on what the OT authors knew? I think it is too ambitious, too self-conceited, on our part to claim that we know the OT authors had Jesus in their mind when writing the scripture. No one can know such thing for sure. Saying that we know is making our faith in our cognitive ability an idol.

If no, then how can we claim that the OT foretells the coming of Jesus as the Christ? I think we can. It has to do with our understanding of how scripture's authority works.

The OT foretells Jesus as the Christ because of his own foretelling of his own death and resurrection, and the fact that he did rose from the dead. In other words, the veracity of Jesus' application of the OT passages as referring to himself depends entirely on (1) his prophecies about himself and (2) the fulfillment of them.

If Jesus merely prophesied about himself yet he wasn't raised from the dead according to his own prophecy, then he was just a loony, and according to Deuteronomy 18:21-22, a false prophet. Jesus was raised, and so his application of the OT prophecies about him was vindicated. This means that Jesus didn't override the OT authors' intention. Rather, he was revealing what they didn't know.

This is not special-pleading. When a text becomes authoritative, its intent does not belong entirely to the authors alone. This is how authoritative text works. For example, a country's constitution which was drafted in the 1950s is still being invoked to address a new situation in 2014. Though the drafters of the constitution did not have the 2014's situation in mind, yet their writing carries the authority to speak to 2014's situation as if the latter is implied in the text. And how we know whether there was such implication depends on how history turns out to be. In Jesus' case, he was raised.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Theologian's calling and the context of local theological scene
My previous post is a reflection based on my two years observation of the context in Singapore (and in lesser degree Malaysia) as a pastoral staff who tries very hard to remain connected with the academic theological scene. Here are three things that I have observed.

1. The High-Calling of 'Pastor-Theologian'
I have met fellow Christian workers who seem to believe that 'pastor-theologian' is achievable. After more than two years of trying to keep myself immerse in pastoral ministry as well as theological academy, I begin to lower down my optimism.

A regular full-time pastoral staff simply doesn't have the bandwith to keep up with academic theology while wholly giving in to pastoral ministry, not to mention the tedious task of bridging the two. The fact that John Piper, Timothy Keller, and Tom Wright cannot do it (in my view), what makes me think that I can?
2.The High-Calling of Theologian
For the past two years, I have met a few young people who told me that they want to study theology not because they want to be equipped for pastoral ministry but because they felt being called to serve in the academia or be a theological lecturer. I can very much identify with them because I was like them.

I enrolled into theological college purely out of my interest in theology. I didn't know what will I do after graduation. When I started my theological education, I wasn't ready to go into pastoral ministry nor expecting myself to do so. In my final semester, I talked to a few theologians, including the principal of the college, about my desire to go for further study so that I can be a theologian. Basically, there wasn't such opportunity open at that time. Or perhaps, I wasn't a suitable candidate even if there was.

In retrospect, I realized that it was probably truer that I wasn't a suitable candidate. I didn't know what exactly is the vocation of a theologian. It took me some time to discover that being passionate in reading, thinking, writing, and arguing for certain ideas about God is not a theologian's vocation. Unfortunately, this mistaken idea of a theologian's calling is pervasive due to the widely read kind of popular-level theological literatures which are usually oversimplified polemic crafted in the context of "modernist/postmodernist conservative versus liberal". For an example of a good local theological work, check out Trinity Theological College's theologian Tan Loe-Joo's recent article in the New Blackfriars, which is made freely available for now.

Rather, a theologian's calling is to articulate and express his/her love for God and people through his/her teaching and research topic, academic presentation at theological conferences, and publication in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. This means that when people read your academic paper or sit through your lecture, they don't only learn theological ideas, but also through your work sense your own love for God and people and thus inspired to love God and people. This demands much more than intellectual capability. It is the giving of one's whole self in making one's love for God and people in academically visible ways. It's practising theological-pastoring.

Interacting with academic theology as a pastoral staff has made me more aware of the kind of pastoral care that people need and what kind of academic theological literatures can help them. Many academic theological works out there do not meet much of the need of local regular believers. Certain instinct and judgement can only be gained from pastoral ministry.

Therefore I think that the notion "You are a theologian because you have some ideas about God" is an insult to theological vocation. In the art scene, you are not an artist just because you have a degree or postgraduate degree in the arts. Only the renowned ones are callled artist. This perspective of theologian's high-calling may help young people who aspire to be theological teacher to get a glimpse of what they should actually work towards.

3. Organic Unity of Local Theological Scene
Local theological schools are very different from state-funded secular universities' divinity or religious study faculty in other countries. Theological institutions in Singapore have very intimate link with local churches. I think this is the same with Malaysian ones.

Some denominations and churches only recognize graduates from certain theological school. Therefore funds needed to sustain the schools come mainly from the denominations and affiliated churches. Many of the lecturers are financially supported by their own churches and friends. Hence, theologians in this part of the world need to have very close working relationship and deep level of trust with their own church. 

For this reason,  renegade theologian can hardly find a place here. I know a few people who have completed their theological degree at established theological schools out of their passion for theology and desire to teach theology. Yet they are now too busy with their work (for very practical reason), and hardly able to pursue their ambition further. Even if they manage to get their doctorate, they would have difficulty looking for a teaching post in local theological institutions as they don't have a denomination or church to support them. 

Therefore, the local theological scene is very much a communal enterprise. A theologian discovers his/her vocation within a community, commissioned to study from the community, and then research and teach with the support of the community. #youngpeoplewhoaspiretobetheologians, take note of this.

So my previous post wasn't written with negative experience of serving in church. On the contrary, I've learnt much from the two years as a pastoral staff. My church leaders and colleagues have expanded my theological horizon. The congregation has deepened my appreciation for pastoral care and theology. The post was a reflection of the theological scene here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

I've failed to be a pastor-theologian: Not everyone is a theologian.
It has been more than two years since I've graduated and started serving as a pastoral staff. With the passion for academic theology and a pastoral job, I aspired to be a 'pastor-theologian'. My senior colleague told me that I should aspire to be like one. John Piper has preached about it. Al Mohler advocates for it. A center is set up to facilitate it. But after trying for two years, I confess that I've failed.

I can't be a pastor-theologian. 

Technically, I'm not a 'pastor' as the local Presbyterian Synod only endows the title to ordained minister. I do all the things a pastor does except presiding over Holy Communion, solemnize marriage, and conduct baptism.

I am not a theologian as I don't follow the idea that "everyone is a theologian". Just because someone has some thoughts about God, that doesn't make him/her a theologian. To paraphrase my friend Khiong, if we don't consider a cashier as mathematician, then we shouldn't consider someone with ideas about divinity a theologian.
At times, I think that perhaps we can still use the title 'theologian' with appropriate adjective. For example, we can call lay people who are well-versed in theology as 'lay theologian', or full-time teachers of theology as 'academic theologian' or 'professional theologian', or full-time pastors as 'ecclesial theologian' (which is synonymous to 'pastor-theologian'). However, if so, then should we call cashier 'retail mathematician'? I think not.

So, I cannot agree with the "everyone's a theologian" slogan. A theologian is a Christian disciple whose expertise in theology is expressed through his/her full-time work. He/she spends most of his/her time doing teaching and researching on theology, presenting at academic theological conferences, and publish in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. 

Some may question the insertion of 'ecumenical' as it excludes many academic journals which are supported by denomination and churches. Precisely because they are supported by denomination and churches that these journals are restrictive in academic critique.

Others may say that this would exclude many, if not all, apostolic fathers, church fathers, and reformers from being called 'theologians'. My answer to that is that a vocation changes according to social changes. In the past, there was no 'seminaries' or 'theological colleges' like ours today. In the past, the church and the academy did not relate in the same way today's church relates to the academy. In fact, the 'church' and 'academy' in the past are not like today's church and academy. Even pastoral ministry carries different responsibility in different era. The definition of 'theologian' that I mention here belong specifically to our time and locality, which may change in the future.

Then what about those who teach and research on theology in the academy and at the same time provide pastoral care to local church? I think these are 'theologian-pastors', not 'pastor-theologians'. And these theologian-pastors usually have served as pastors for some years before becoming theologians.

Pastoring is highly demanding. One simply don't have the energy and focus to research into theology after work. Hardly can one write and publish in established academic journals on theology. There are pastors who publish two to five journal articles, but that's all they can manage in their whole career life. It's easier for them to write popular-level Christian living books based on their own pastoring experience. Cases in point: John Piper and Timothy Keller haven't been publishing in academic journals, and Tom Wright resigned from his bishopric to go back to the academy. The former two are pastors, the latter is a  theologian-pastor.

It's not that I haven't been trying. I've been presenting at semi-academic conferences and forums, attending academic seminars, giving talks, helped proof-read theological papers for publication, and reading up academic literature. A friend asked me to consider cleaning up my own paper for publication. A former director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia asked me to kickstart a 'pastor-theologian' movement in local churches. I wanted to continue to do all that, but I'm just tired after the day's work.

This doesn't mean that 'pastor-theologian' is an impossible vocation. There might be people who can do it. What I'm saying here is that I've failed to be one--I'm not one. To come to term with my own limitation, after trying for two years, does clarify my own direction and lighten the burden of attempting to be someone that I can't be.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Book Review: 'The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology' by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently proposed a new political theology that formulates a way for Christians to understand the politics of liberal democracy. As such, the book is not so much on God but the state:  
The subject of political theology is not God but the state. It is not a branch of theology but a species of political theory, namely theological political theory. [...] The task of political theology is to develop a theological account of the state and of its relation to various other realities. (p.112)
The proposal is defined by Wolterstorff's theology of authority. In order to better understand the state, Wolterstorff leads us to examine three things. First, our citizenry experience of the state, particularly its authority; second, Romans 13:1-7; and third, the relationship between church and state.

Wolterstorff points out that our experience of the state comes in two dualities. One duality is political authority's mediation of God's authority; with the former is limited and judged by the latter. The other duality is Christian citizens' experience of political authority (as mediated divine authority) and church authority (as mediated Christ authority). Wolterstorff's proposal aims to explicate these two dualities (p.16).

For this reason, the proposal parts way with two influential interpretations on Christian experience of the state. Wolterstorff spends chapter two critiquing John H. Yoder's failure to observe the difference between power and authority in the state which leads to Yoder's impotent social ethics of "freedom". In chapter three, Wolterstorff highlights Augustine's mistaken "two cities" reading of the state, which wrongly assumes that the imperial administration only governs the pagans and not the members of the church. Therefore, both the Yoderian and Augustinian interpretation of the state overlook the two dualities that Wolterstorff describes.

To understand the two dualities, Wolterstorff differentiates between "positional authority" and "performance-authority". Positional authority is the authority a position or an office exercises. A king can issue a directive regardless of the directive's moral status. It is well within the office-holder's authority to issue. Performance authority is the authority to perform certain action. Such authority requires morality as legitimacy. As Wolterstorff explains:
Sometimes one's authority to do something is the legal authority to do it, the legal right. In other cases ones authority comes along with some social role or position that one has or with some social practice in which one is engaged. But sometimes the right that comes with the authority to do something is the moral right to do that thing. [...] when I speak of someone as having authority to do something, I mean to imply that he has the moral right to do that thing, that he is morally permitted to do it. (p.49, emphasis added)
Then Wolterstorff went on to differentiate two types of power based on its Latin variations. Potentia power is the ability to perform that comes from oneself. Potestas power is the ability to perform that comes from others; hence it is an authorized ability.

These two binaries (positional/performance authority and potentia/potestas power) allow Wolterstorff to build his case to understand governance authority as having "the potestas and the [performance] right to issue directives that are morally binding." (p.62, emphasis added) And I think this is the crux of Wolterstorff's theological account of state's authority: "A condition of having the potestas to issue a binding directive to someone to do something is that it be morally permissible to direct him to do that." (p.63)

Two implications follow. First, binding directive depends on performance authority, not on positional authority. Second, directive is only binding and command our obligation if it is morally permissible. Therefore, a policy is authoritative only if it is issued by one's authorized ability to perform the issuance bases on moral rightness, not on one's position of power.
Whenever I say that someone has the authority to do something, I mean to imply that he has the moral right to do it. One might say that he has the moral authority to do it. (p.78, emphasis original)
In other words, whether a policy is legitimate or not depends on its moral status rather than the sheer act of power. After having established this, Wolterstorff applies it to interpret the locus classicus text on the relation between divine and political authority: Romans 13:1-7. Here is where it gets novel. Here is where Wolterstorff dismantles the popular "two rules" doctrine as articulated by John Calvin's reading of Romans text.

The two rules doctrine, according to Calvin, says that humans are under spiritual and civil rules. In terms of the latter, God provides civil government in our world as his representatives to (1) keep the peace, (2) punish evil doers, and (3) uphold Christian doctrines and the church's position in the society.

Hence, according to Calvin, the government is to be obeyed at all times---the only exception is when it violates the first five rules of the Ten Commandments. Therefore citizens have two obligations to civil government. First honor them for their office. Second, obey them even when they mistreat or wrong us (as long as they do not ask me to break the first five commandments).

Wolterstorff highlights two problems with this position. First, this doctrine does not allow us to exercise love to our neighbor when the only exception to civil obedience is the violation of the first five commandments. (p.74) Second, this position does not allow us to ask for God's deliverance when we are oppressed and unjustly treated by the government. (p.75) And Calvin's mistake lies in not differentiating between "positional authority" and "performance authority". As Wolterstorff writes:
[Calvin] while mainly working with the positional concept of authority, when it came to whether or not we have an obligation to obey the government he thought in terms of performance-authority. (p.80)
By differentiating positional and performance authority, Wolterstorff able to demarcate between legal from moral obligation. Citizens may be legally obligated to obey the magistrates, yet not morally obligated if the policy is not morally right.
In [Romans 13:4-6] Paul clearly teaches that God has authorized government to do certain things, and that when it does what it is divinely authorized to do, we must for that reason "be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience." (p.116)
Wolterstorff's interpretation is clear and very helpful as a guide on how can we relate to the state. It provides a more coherent context to better understand the moral status and the authority of the state and our role as citizens.

With that, Wolterstorff goes on to list six principles that "constitute an expansive charter for the autonomy of the church vis-a-vis the state and for the religious freedom of citizens in general---or to put it from the opposite side, an expansive set of limits on what the state may do with respect to the church, its members, and citizens in general." (p.125) One would have to read the book to find out more, so as not to be impoverished by this brief summary of a new and stimulating political theology.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Essay 3 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Daniel Strange defends 'exclusivism' in his essay 'Exclusivism: 'Indeed Their Rock is Not like Our Rock''. Strange defines exclusivism by its concern with two "central insights":
The first is that God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring salvation into the world and that this salvation is both judgement and mercy to all human beings who are deeply estranged from God. [...] Second, this salvation won by Christ is only available through explicit faith in Christ which comes from hearing the gospel preached..., requiring repentance, baptism and the embracing of a new life in Christ. (p.37)
Strange qualifies that those who affirm exclusivism do not necessarily think that salvation is only given to those who express explicit faith in Christ. Salvation is contingent upon other theological decisions than mere exclusivism. There is a range of exclusivism.

Nonetheless the essay points out that exclusivism is widely recognized as the "dominant theme regarding Christian approaches to other religions" (p.38). Strange gives three reasons showing that the scripture teaches this position. First, the ancient world of biblical authors was religiously pluralistic. This shows that the Judeo-Christian tradition is self-consciously exclusive. Second, it is consistent throughout the scripture that there is only one transcendent and unique God and Jesus is God incarnate. Third, if truth, salvation, and goodness are in God, God's word, and God's community, then anything outside of these boundaries fall short (pp.38-39).

Then Strange proceeds to give a brief historical sketch of the various affirmations of exclusivism since the time of the ancient Israelite to ours. He calls the contemporary form that he holds as 'Reformed Evangelical Presuppositional Exclusivism' (REPE), which affirms that,
[W]hile the triune God has revealed himself through his work in the natural world, in terms of an ultimate religious authority, it is God's totally truthful revelation of himself and his works in divinely inspired [...] Christian Scripture that is the ultimate authority in all metaphysical, epistemological, ethical and soteriological issues, and like all claims to ultimate authority (Enlightenment rationalism included) such a claim is made on the Bible's self-attestation, for to go outside of Scripture for Scripture's justification would be self-referentially incoherent. (p.48)
REPE is Christocentric in that, "It is the person and work of Christ that distinguishes Christianity from all other 'faiths' and gives Christianity its exclusive or particular claims." (p.52) So how do we account for other religions and the good found in them?

Strange points out two reasons. First, God's common grace, though non-salvific, enabled by the Holy Spirit to restrain sins and the consequence of sin in the non-Christians and lead them to do good (p.54). Second, humans' universal religious consciousness when suppressed and substituted by human sinfulness gives rise to idolatry, hence other religions (p.48, 54; based on Cornelius van Til's reading of Romans 1:25). In summary, Strange is saying that, 
[O]utside of Christianity there is damnation, because of the necessity of repentance and faith in the person and work of Christ which has been revealed in the apostolic gospel message, and the claim that God is perfectly just in his condemnation of non-Christians, for no one is ever 'ignorant' of God and their responsibilities before their Creator. All humanity is universally guilty of rejecting the knowledge of God they have been given in revelation and will be judged for this rejection. (p.55)
To Strange, one is either conscientiously for or wilfully go against God. The former leads to Christianity, the latter to other religions or non-religion. There is no place for sincere rejection of Christianity in good conscience because by REPE's principle, a good conscience can never reject God. Any conscience that rejects God is suppressed or distorted by sin.

What if there are people who are really ignorant of God and their responsibilities before their Creator?

Take for instance, devotees of other religions are often sincere. They believe and practice their religion as conscientious as they could, just like Christians. Yes, they may sometimes act contrary to their religion in good or bad way, yet they really desire to follow their faith. Just like Christians too.

On the other hand, if (as REPE argues) non-Christians reject Christianity due to suppressed and distorted conscience, then is the acceptance of Christianity really an act in good conscience? There are people who accepted Christ not because they have studied the scripture and came to an illuminated understanding of the faith. They decided to accept Christ because their prayer for certain physical, material, or existential blessing is answered.

If the acceptance and rejection of God in relation to humans' knowledge of and conscience before him is not as pronounced as Strange perceives it to be, then this ambiguity should make us hesitant to declare who is in and who is out based solely on humans' knowledge and conscience. If so, then Christian truth and salvation is not as exclusive as REPE presents.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Essay 2 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Paul Hedges wrote the second essay in Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008) titled 'A Reflection on Typologies: Negotiating a Fast-Moving Discussion.' The first half of this chapter examines the various typologies or conceptual models that have been used when discussing theology of religions. In the second half, it fine-tunes the classical typology suggested by Alan Race in the 1980s and developed his own 'particularities' model. 

The main typologies that Hedges engages with are:
  1. Alan Race's exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
  2. Perry Schmidt-Leukel's atheism, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
  3. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen's ecclesiocentric, christocentric, and theocentric.
  4. Paul Knitter's replacement, fulfilment, mutuality, and acceptance.
  5. Owen Thomas' truth-falsehood, relativity, essence, development-fulfilment, salvation-history, revelation-sin, and new-departure.
Hedges' own typology is based on Race's. He envisages that a good typology should be descriptive (contrast prescriptive), heuristic (contrast normative), multivalent (contrast defining), and permeable (contrast closed). Therefore he suggests that each category should be in the plural: exclusivisms, inclusivisms, pluralisms, and particularities. 

The particularities model that Hedges proposes takes seriously the uniqueness of each religion and so it can hardly conclude how religions relate among themselves. Particularists reject metanarrative. Objective evaluation various religions cannot be done. These are regarded as unknowable. The particularities position is thought to transcends exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. As Hedges writes,
The orientation of particularity has affinities with exclusivist type approaches, in that it sees each faith as being 'tradition-specific', which is to say, it speaks its own unique language about its own unique goals and purposes. It also has affinities with inclusivisms, in that many particularists allow that the Holy Spirit may be at work in other faiths. It might also move towards some measure of overlap with pluralisms, for a number of particularists hold that other faiths display some purpose within the divine mystery and may hold truths from which Christianity can learn.  However, as defined here, particularity is grounded in post-modernism, and it is this which provides its distinctive character. (p.27)
Hedges explains what he means by 'post-modernism',
Post-modernism relates to the theology of religions by disputing basic (modern) assumptions. One of these is the question of whether all 'religions' are pursuing the same goal, even granting that such a category termed 'religions' exists at all. It also emphasizes the need to respect the religions 'Other', rather than fit other faiths within a grand overarching (Western, rational, controlling) metanarrative.
Without metanarrative, particularities have no common ground that could arbitrate between religions. They strongly affirm the unique particularity of each religion. For this reason, their proponents hold on to "indeterminacy" in how God works through other faiths. The Holy Spirit's function in other religions is unknowable. (p.29)

My critique on this model is that it renders futile the quest for theology of religions. If we assume that we cannot say anything theologically meaningful about other faiths from our own religious tradition, then it follows that any distinctly Christian approach to them is impossible. The attempt for theology of religions is conceptually prohibited at the outset.

Hedges has written chapter 6 to elaborate on the particularists position. Perhaps he will address this concern there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pacifist response to the violence in Iraq---ridiculous
The situation in Iraq and Syria is not getting better. The "Islamic State" (also variously known as IS, ISIS, ISIL) has declared itself as a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph on 29 June 2014. Afzal Ashraf explains:
Caliph or Khalifa in Arabic, is used in Islamic tradition to connote theological successors to prophets. According to Sunni Muslims, the prophet of Islam had four "Rightly Guided" caliphs; subsequent caliphs were principally political leaders. A myth developed with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, which advocated that to restore Islamic power it was necessary to unite all Muslims under a single caliphate.
IS issued an ultimatum to all Christians in Iraq and Syria on 19 July 2014, either they convert to Islam or pay a heavy tax, or be slaughtered by the sword. Ten of thousands became refugees overnight. Videos of massacres, severed heads, and victims being beheaded are posted and circulated through the internet. Besides committing genocide in the region, IS militants raped, kidnapped and sold their victims as sex slaves. The militant group also threatens and persecutes other Muslims such as the Shiites

IS expresses plan to expand to Southeast Asia. There are locals who aspired to follow IS to set up a Southeast Asia caliphate spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. It is reported that there are self-radicalised Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans who have traveled to Syria to join IS. Hence, this issue is also a huge concern for Southeast Asia.

On 15 August 2014, the United Nations security council blacklists those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to IS.

I'm curious what do Christian pacifists have to say about IS. The leading pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas was interviewed for his view on the situation in the Middle East. Here is his response:
I'm really attracted to the work that Christian Peacemaker Teams do, who go to Hebron and get between Palestinians and Israelis and say, "can we fix you guys a meal?" I mean, that's at least starting to help people discover one another's humanity, and if you don't do that, I think that any kind of long-term solution is quite hopeless.
 Another pacifist wrote,
[W]e are all made in the image of God. Killing is not only iconoclasm, it’s a re-crucifixion of the Incarnate Christ. It’s participation in the same sacred violence and mimetic impulses that killed God.
The pacifists' position is not only unrealistic but counter-theological. Take for example the latter one. The scriptural verse that says humans are valuable because they are made in God's image in relation to killing is Gen. 9:6. And when we read that verse, God himself sets it out that: "Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind."

The pacifists like to think that the infliction of violence on violent humans is destroying God's image bearers. Gen. 9:6 says otherwise. If IS militants are misusing the Islamic scripture and tradition to pursue extremist ideology, the Christian pacifists are doing the same with their own scripture and tradition.

As for Hauerwas, he should gather all his pacifist friends and fly into Iraq to have a meal with the IS militants. Besides eating, they would most probably end up as contributors to IS' series of gruesome videos.

Realistic and theological response would be much more helpful than ideological mumbo-jumbo. Take for instance, Pope Francis' statement
In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor... I underscore the verb 'to stop'. I am not saying 'bomb' or 'make war', but stop him (the aggressor). The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. Stopping the unjust aggressor is legitimate... One single nation cannot judge how he is to be stopped, how an unjust aggressor is to be stopped.
World Council of Churches' appeals to the United Nations: 
The international community recognizes that nations have a responsibility to protect their most vulnerable citizens. When a national government lacks the control necessary to ensure citizens’ rights and wellbeing, the responsibility is taken up by international bodies and their member states. We urge you to marshal all available resources to protect the people of Iraq in this hour.
World Communion of Reformed Churches' statement
We call for those who can to lobby their governments and the United Nations to act to protect those under threat.
Some American academics' and religious leaders' petition:
Therefore we call upon the United States and the international community to do everything necessary to empower local forces fighting ISIS/ISILin Iraq to protect their people. No options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table... Nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Essay 1 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Christianity is one religion among many in the world. Within Christianity itself, there are many different schools, under the main three groups: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Inter-religious and intra-religious diversity are given. Nonetheless, despite the intra-diversity, what is the most appropriate theological account Christianity should have on other religions?

Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008), edited by Alan Race and Paul Hedges, is a good place to start exploring for answer. The book is divided into two parts. First part is on theoretical and methodological issues while the second part on Christian responses to various religions.

Alan Race, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at St. Philip's Centre, begins the book with his essay 'Theology of Religions in Change: Factors in the Shape of a Debate.' One factor is Christians' interest in other religions. Race lists three reasons for such interest.

First, Christians have a mission to reach out to everyone. Hence it is important for Christians to learn how to relate to other religions, whether is there a need to evangelize; if yes why so, if not why not? Second, religious extremism in our time poses a serious threat to everyone. Christians need to discern how should religion, theirs and others', be expressed not as threat but for human flourishing. Third, for the sake of theological truth. If there are other religions around, then how can Christians give an account for them? (pp.5-6)

Then Race moves on to the next factor, which is on the sources for our reflection on other religions. He cautions the use of scriptures and tradition when we theologize about the religious other. Our interpretation and application of the scripture and tradition cannot be the "sole determiner" or "final arbiters" for our theology of religions. (pp.7-8) Race's suggestion here is helpful but left us hanging. If scripture and traditions are not the only determiners of theological judgements on other religions, then what other sources can we draw from to produce a view that is distinctively Christian?

In the next section, Race provides three areas of interest for us to explore in relation to religious plurality. The first area is on how religious plurality shapes the meaning of our understanding of Christian belief. For example, our knowledge of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour needs to be understood vis-a-vis other religions. The second area of interest is in the development of Christianity itself, how can theology be enhanced, without being relativistic, through its interaction with other religions? The third area is in inter-religious dialogue, particularly in the converge or similar ideas found in different religions. (pp.9-11)

Race ends with a call to negotiate between "all the same" and "all different" as a way forward to find a middle path to construct a Christian theology of religions. He points out that this tension is reflected in the New Testament, such as: "Whoever is not against us is for us," (Mark 9:40) and, "Whoever is not with me is against me." (Matt. 12:30)

What I found most provocative in this chapter is the probing question that Race asks: "If Christian theology is a process of reflection on experience---as in the famous Anselmian definition of theology as 'faith seeking understanding'---then we might ask about what constitutes the data of experience.... What level of impact might the data of other religious experiences and convictions have?" (p. 9)

The answer to this question is, I think, the key to an appropriate theological account of every other religion and the reality of religious plurality.