Sunday, April 16, 2017

Which systematic theology textbook?

There are many textbooks on systematic theology. So if you are new to this subject, you may wonder which one should you get? 

I cannot survey all the available books on systematic theology out there, but here is a brief guide that I hope you will find helpful. I have also limited the list to text written by modern theologians, so no mention of classical works like John Calvin's Institute of the Christian Religion.

Over the years, I have noticed that there are two types of systematic theological text that serve very different purpose.

Introductory Systematic Theology
The first type is introductory text. These books come in handy to provide basic information about Christianity in an orderly way. By orderly, I mean their content is organised according to doctrine like 'God', 'sin', 'salvation', 'Jesus Christ', etc (some of them like to use the technical term like 'theology proper', 'harmatiology', 'soteriology', 'Christology', etc).

Usually books in this category are published in one-volume. Due to its introductory function, the scholarship in them is not very broad. They are more substantial than catechism but less scholarly than journal articles.

Inevitably, the discussion on each doctrine touches only the surface, which is alright as long as the author leaves the discussion open and direct readers to other substantial works.

What I don't like in some of this systematic theology is that they give cocksure answer by way of prooftexting to very debatable theological questions. So I do not recommend Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994), which is very popular among evangelical seminaries, unfortunately.

Alister McGrath's Christian Theology: An Introduction (currently in its 6th edition published by Blackwell in 2016), is a good example of this type of systematic theology. Its coverage is very wide, from history to doctrinal controversies to key theologians to contemporary theological trend. It reads like a theological travel guide. Very handy to new theological students.

Other good ones are Anthony Towey's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Richard Plantinga, Thomas Thompson, Matthew Lundberg's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). But these two texts have not received wide recognition among local Christians.

Other introductory one-volume systematic theology which do not cover as wide but provide good discussion over doctrinal themes are Michael Horton's The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013), Millard Erickson's Christian Theology (Baker Academic, 3rd edition 2013) and John Frame's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R, 2013). These four systematic theologies are more suitable for sermon preparation and relevant to the general church people.

For those who has a liking for a more philosophical-theological approach, Anthony Thiselton's Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 2015) is the text to go to. Thiselton is renowned for his work on philosophical hermeneutic, so his discussion has a continental philosophy flavor.

While those who want an introduction to the historical development of doctrines can benefit from Roger Olson's The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (IVP, 1999). If you find Olson's work too laborious, you can always turn to Jonathan Hill's highly readable The History of Christian Thought (Lion, 2003). 

And those who are Pentecostal, you may be interested in Simon Chan's Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life  (IVP Academic, 1998).

Constructive Systematic Theology
The second type is constructive in nature. This type aims to generate discussion by asking new theological questions, proposing new ways of asking those questions, setting unexplored trajectory, and/or re-vitalise forgotten theological approach.

These texts casually presume readers to have background over the subject matter. The scholarship is more substantial than the introductory type. There is one-volume constructive theology text such as Rowan Williams' collection of essays On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000), but usually they come in multi-volume. For examples, Robert Jenson's 2-volume Systematic Theology (Oxford University Press, 1997-1999); and Jurgen Moltmann's 7-volume Systematic Contributions to Theology (Fortress, 1981-2012).

However, not all multi-volume texts are constructive. For instance, Norman Geisler's 4-volume Systematic Theology (Bethany House, 2002-2005) is an introductory type. On each doctrine, Geisler lists out the Bible verses (often in prooftexting manner), quotations from church fathers, and syllogism that support his position on the doctrine. Who and who say what, and that is that. Hardly any constructive discussion, new questions being raised, or trajectory set.

On the other hand, shorter text doesn't mean more elementary. Jenson's 2-volume is less than 600 pages, but it is for readers with deep familiarity with the theological discourse in both western Roman tradition and eastern Greek religiosity. The language is loaded and technical. How many of us understand Jenson's discussion on Holy Spirit in the following extract:

"Is invocation of the Spirit anything distinctive over against invocation simply of God? Is Pentecost a peer of Easter or does it merely display a meaning that Easter would in any case have? The first position has been endlessly pressed on the West by Orthodoxy; in the judgement of the present work, rightly." (p.146)

20th century saw the publication of noted works such as Karl Barth's 14-volume Church Dogmatic (recently reissued as 31-volume by T&T Clark, 2009), Wolfhart Pannenberg's 3-volume Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1991-1998), Paul Tillich's trilogy (University of Chicago Press, 1973-1976), and Herman Bavinck's 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (translated and published by Baker Academic, 2003-2008). 

There are 3 on-going projects in the present century that deserve the attention of theological students: Veli-Matti Karkkainen's 5-volume A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World (Eerdmans), Sarah Coakley's 4-volume with the 1st setting out a contemplative-ascestic approach on Trinity, gender and sexuality (Cambridge University Press), and Katherine Sonderegger's 3-volume with  the focus on the oneness of God (Fortress). Each deals with very different motif, pointing new ways to discover and express divine truth.

Is there something in between Introductory Systematic Theology and Constructive Systematic Theology?
Some of you, who are well-acquainted with the first type of text, are looking for bridging text to go into constructive systematic. There are two edited books that fit this category: Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin Gunton (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

What I have listed here is not exhaustive. As I have mentioned above, there are a lot of books on systematic theology. Each reader has his/her unique theological inclination. Some prefer Reformed approach, some historical, some Pentecostal, some Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. 

Nevertheless, I hope the two types of systematic theology text as categorised here would help you to decide which text to get and plan your own trajectory of theological development.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessed Good Friday 2017


Good Friday is probably the only event in the world that celebrates the death of a harmless person, calling it "good".

People might be more willing to cheer for the death of an evil person, but a harmless one?

Of course, Jesus was not actually harmless to all, as he questioned, criticized, & sabotaged the powerful religious authority of his day.

Jesus threatened the most respected & highest official in his community, the High Priest Caiaphas.

As a result, the authorities plotted & had him captured, prosecuted, & sentenced to death.

However, on Jesus's own decision, he didn't defend himself at the trial. He desired to be sentenced to death, believing that that was his destiny & there was a cosmic purpose following it. Thus, he was crucified.

His death left his followers confused. Many of them went back to their business as usual, defeated.

Then some time later, his followers regrouped and began celebrating his death as if it was a victory. They came to understand why Jesus desired to die. They saw the cosmic significance attached to it. As one of them later wrote:

"Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:7-8)

The dramatic shift from being defeated to being victorious owed to the followers' experience of Jesus being risen 3 days later.

That is why this Friday is "good". Blessed Good Friday to all.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Not Debate, But Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Responding to Nurul Haqq Shahrir

I read the article by Nurul Haqq Shahrir (a member on the panel for Islamic law transformation under Majlis Dakwah Negara) with much interest and optimism. He has rightly pointed out the resistance among people from different religion to engage each other in respectful exchange. I sympathise with his lament. 

Adding to Nurul’s observation, I would like to highlight two other conditions that severely discourage, if not undermine, Muslim-Christian interaction in this country. 

Absence of Levelled Platform 
The local demography and religious landscape are not fertile for interfaith engagement. This is partly due to the positioning of Islam by the authorities over the past five decades that has made it an extremely sensitive matter for non-Muslims to interact with the religion. 

The recent controversy over Hadi’s Private Bill, the “RUU355” motion, has shown how unacceptable it is for many Muslims to see non-Muslims expressing their thoughts and concern over the issue. Non-Muslims were told not to discuss it. Those who talked about it were criticised and chastised. 

Nurul himself has written an important article on the RUU355, and has received much derision from fellow Muslims. Now, if a Muslim like Nurul is not spared from criticism, one can imagine how much more worse it is for non-Muslims who talked about it. 

Siege mentality and the sense of religious superiority have led many local Muslims to perceive non-Muslims’ engagement on that issue, or any other Islamic topics, as threat to their akidah, their religious rights, and the position of Islam in the country. 

This situation has been so for a long time. One can recall the mob demonstration eleven years ago that abruptly ended the peaceful forum over Article 11, organised by 13 NGOs, including the Malaysian BAR Council and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism. 

Such dismal condition is due to the absence of a levelled platform for all religious communities to engage one another. As long as the authorities continue to ignore their active role to provide such platform, genuine and constructive interfaith interaction will always be intimidated and thus deterred. 

Top-Down Prohibition 
The other condition that discourages interfaith interaction is the authorities’ active dissuasion for such activity. The authorities not only failed to provide levelled platform, but are extremely resistant toward high-quality public interfaith initiative. 

There are occasional closed-door academic discussions, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that such interaction is prohibited in the public. 

A case in point is the cancellation of the international “Building Bridges” seminar in May 2007. The year-long preparation involving 30 renowned Muslim and Christians scholars and leaders around the world was suddenly called off by the authorities just one week before the event. Our national leaders’ talk about the importance of interfaith interaction has always been mere lips-services. 

The reality is that the authorities take an active role in prohibiting different religious communities learning from one another, especially the Muslims from the Christians. Malay Muslims who want to read the Bible cannot even access the book in their own mother-tongue. The authorities deem that having access to the Malay Bible would confuse the Muslims. Again, being perceived as a threat to their akidah

The only type of interfaith interaction that is allowed in the public is the type that Nurul described as having “skilled debaters” employing deceit rather than rational argument to “win.” Thus, our country is plagued by confrontational and aggressive form of interfaith relation that leads to nowhere but continues to inject antagonism, suspicion, and fear among the religious communities. 

Way Forward 
Despite all the obstacles against Muslim-Christian interaction in Malaysia, Nurul’s article brings about a sense of hope, that there are still Muslims in this country who want to see constructive relation between the two religious communities to happen. 

While we continue to hope that the authorities would finally come to their senses, stop paying lips-service to interfaith interaction, and encourage constructive Muslim-Christian relation, we can begin small through our own sphere of influence. 

One of the most fruitful interfaith exercises that we can do is “scriptural reasoning,” promoted by higher-learning institutions like the University of Cambridge. It is about reading and studying each other’s scripture together. I had once been in a scriptural reasoning group consisted of Ibadi and Sunni Muslims, Anglican and Presbyterian Christians, and Orthodox and Reform Jews. 

We gathered for the sole purpose of learning from one another; how we understand our own religious text, how others understand theirs, what others can teach us about our own, what we can contribute to others’ understanding of their own text. Without pretension, deceit, and sense of superiority. We were there for constructive interfaith interaction. Perhaps, Nurul can suggest to the Majlis Dakwah Negara to initiate similar exercise. 

It is not a dismal situation that each religious group has much to learn from others. The important thing is the necessary attitude for religious people to seek knowledge and understanding. We can appreciate the encounter between apostle Paul and the members of Areopagus in Athens, recorded in the New Testament. The apostle tirelessly engaged with people of other religions, to even cite the works of their scholars, Epimenides and Aratus to bridge understanding. (Acts 17:28) 

Instead of futile debates, energy and resources should be channelled for fruitful Muslim-Christian dialogue that seeks after genuine interfaith learning and build relations across communities.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

NCCS’s Advisory on 'Beauty and the Beast'


Many have talked about the National Council of Churches of Singapore's (NCCS) advisory. Here is my reflection on it.

Disney’s “Wholesome Values”
The advisory states that Disney “has always been associated with wholesome values”. The “nice, exclusive gay moment” in the remake is “totally unnecessary and signals a marked departure from the original 1991 Disney classic.”

A friend, Mr. Smith highlighted that Disney is first of all a business. They profit from telling and animating story.

Thus, their “wholesome values” evolves according to what is perceived to be or should be wholesome in their targeted market by the story-tellers and film-makers at certain point in time.

Case in point is the original Fantasia made in 1940 that featured dark-skinned characters slaving for white characters, highlighted to me by Mr. Goh. This scene was edited out in its subsequent releases from 1960s onward, after the American civil rights movement against racism. Some may think that this edit is unnecessary

Disney’s “wholesome values” evolve according to the market’s prevalent values, not set on stone. Thus, it is misplaced faith to expect Disney creating works featuring only values agreeable to us all the time.

Besides, as I re-watched the 1991 animation Beauty and the Beast, I saw that Belle said “I love you” to the Beast without knowing that he was actually a man under spell. 

In fact, Belle was shocked at the Beast’s transformation back into a man (as seen in the photo above). As far as she was concerned, she fell in love with a beast, not a man.

What is NCCS’ and the advisory’s supporters’ take: Does Christianity teach that having human-romantic-love to non-human is “wholesome”?

If it is not wholesome, then on what basis can we say that Disney and the 1991 Beauty and the Beast are associated with “wholesome values”?

Duty To The Young
The advisory noted that some Christian leaders are “deeply concerned about the LGBT representation” in the remake as it is “an attempt to influence young children and socialise them at an early age into thinking that the homosexual lifestyle is normal.”

Regardless of the subject, be it right or wrong within the boundary of civility, we can commend each community leader to alert their members of perceived negative influence.

Be it the NCCS on the movies, Muslim authority over pop culture, or humanist groups on mission schools and religious-oriented co-curriculum activity, all have the duty to alert their respective members over values contrary to their ideology.

So no problem with this right of duty.

Singling Out and Magnifying Homosexuality
The problem comes when the message to “exercise discretion,” be “attentive to the entertainment choices,” and to “engage in meaningful conversation with [children] as they seek to make sense of the world” with the singling out and magnifying homosexuality.

It is as if the Christian’s value-radar is extremely sensitive over same-sex issue. It just beeps at other transgressions but sounds the fire alarm over homosexual content.

Such elevation dangerously turns the same-sex issue into a litmus test for orthodoxy, which divides between the tolerable and the non-tolerable that further stigmatises gay people in the society.

This hyper-sensitivity could be a reaction towards a perceived prolonged LGBTQI aggression that poses threat to civil toleration. Indeed, the public sphere is not cordial to all. 

Nonetheless, Christian’s witness in the public sphere is not to replicate such intolerance. This is especially so when we recognize that it is civilly unhealthy for the society, not least the church.

Thus, it would be more constructive for church leaders to see homosexuality in the same way they see other religions. Not saying that other religions are like same-sex act. Just saying that if Christian leaders do not see people of other religion and their religious life as threat, then they can likewise do the same with regards to homosexuality. Of course, I’m here assuming that other religions and homosexuality are deemed as against the teaching of Christianity.

Besides, in singling out and magnifying homosexuality, we unwittingly elevate same-sex act as ‘super sin’ from other sins. (For e.g., focusing on homosexuality and overlook beastility, as noted above.)

We therefore need to ask, why churches are so concerned over sexual sin? Why can’t Christian leaders be tolerant towards gay element as how they are being tolerant over Islamic or Buddhist element?

This is not to suggest that therefore church leaders should issue advisory or encyclical on every matters deemed sinful. Rather, this is to suggest that Christians should extend the same cordiality they have on other non-Christian element to homosexuality.

If Christians have no issue with people practicing other religion, then we can likewise do so with homosexuals. Of course, this doesn't apply to all things deemed un-Christian, only those within the boundary of civility.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what are we influencing our children for? To further stigmatises gay people? And sosialises them to be people who prejudge others based on their sexuality, religion, and wealth? Or, we want them to be adults who can contribute to the civility of a pluralistic society?

Socialising the young to know that people should not be discriminated based on their sexuality (or religion or race) is something all peace-seeking society needs.  As an article states (emphasis added):
“[It] would have been a huge help for [children] to see gay characters in movies when they were young — that they might have become more sensitive and accepting towards gay peers, or better able to grapple with their own sexuality. Studies have suggested that seeing gay characters in popular entertainment can decrease prejudice towards those groups.

“There is no doubt that kids seeing positively portrayed gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it,” said Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Churches can strengthen the cohesion of a pluralistic society by encouraging the type of parenting that socialises children not to be prejudicial over people based on sexuality.

Christian leaders can help to build a world that no longer stigmatises gay people.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why are Christians criticising LeFou being gay?

3 thoughts on Christians' condemnation of LeFou being portrayed as gay in Beauty and the Beast:

• Take a step back, ask ourselves, why do we react critically against that while not at all at the enchantress casting a spell that turned a man into a beast, which is wrong in using witchcraft to overturn divine order of creation (man into beast)?

• If we say that enchantment is not real while gay lifestyle is, then isn't this show that we are secularised in our worldview by the rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment, that Charles Taylor calls the "immanent frame", that we take for granted there's no enchantment anymore?

• If so, shouldn't we likewise take for granted there's no sacredness or divine-orderliness in heterosexuality? If we persist to take for granted one and not the other, shouldn't we need to account for such inconsistency?