Thursday, October 30, 2014

SG50 and Christianity's Jubilee

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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

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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

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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.

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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.