Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Who is Tom Wright?

Some time ago I spoke at a Christian gathering about the righteousness and justice of God as well as the lordship of Christ. I used some of N T (Tom) Wright's material in my presentation. Afterwards someone asked me about Tom Wright's teaching because she had heard some negative comments about him.

I don't intend to defend Tom Wright's theology here. But I think it is unfortunate that Tom Wright has attracted quite a few negative comments about his teaching. Tom Wright is a fellow follower of Jesus who has made significant contribution to the church and the academic community. Wright is not always right. Nor is anyone of us.

One rather unfortunate misunderstanding is the association of the so-called New Perspective with Tom Wright. Some Christians express grave concerns about the New Perspective. But one must note that Tom Wright would have disagreed with certain views of E P Sanders, who is a leading figure of the New Perspective. In Wright's writings he regularly points out how Sanders has got it wrong (but agrees with him at certain points, as every good academic would have done).

In a previous post, I have mentioned how I came across Tom Wright's books. (Click here for the post.) But here I would like to say again that respected scholars like Gordon Fee has spoken very kindly of Tom Wright. Click here for an interview with Fee. Similarly, people like J I Packer have recommended Wright's books. (See back cover of some of Wright's books.) I have read books written by respected respected Christian leaders/scholars like Christopher Wright, Richard Hays and others, and often they cite Tom Wright and use his materials.

(An informed reader would know that there are other opponents of Tom Wright, who come from the other end of the theological spectrum. Space does not allow me to deal with that.)

I also found an article written by Doug Green, who is a professor at the Westminster Theological Seminary. This article is worth reading if one wants to read something from a conservative evangelical perspective. Click here for the article.

It does not mean that Fee, Packer and others would have agreed with Wright all the time. Nor does it mean that Wright would have agreed with them totally. But it does mean that Tom Wright is well received by respected evangelical Christian leaders.

Everyone has to read the Bible and determine whether they agree with Tom Wright. I can only let his own teaching speak for himself. But I feel a bit sad to find that people reject a Christian like him when they themselves haven't read much of him. Let's be a bit more gracious toward one another.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

God's plan for us - Jeremiah 29:11

Recently in an address someone said that God had a plan for all of us. I don't want to get into a theological discussion for or against this. But I suppose many would have in mind Jeremiah 29:11 here.

I already talked about the word "prosper" (or "peace") in this verse in a previous post, and said that the original Hebrew word shalom conveys a much richer meaning than peace or prosperity.

Here I want to look at the context of the verse closer. The verse is part of a letter to the exiles in Babylon. The LORD's word to them was that he would bring them back from exile to their own land.

Jeremiah 29:10-14 is one of my favourite passages in the Bible. It's such a comforting passage, and it lifted my heart many times when I was going through the trials and difficulties in life. I have no problems in applying this verse to our individual circumstances.

But I do wonder whether we do take this passage too far at times. Surely the original setting of the passage is that God would rescue his people - a people suffering from oppression and immense hardship, because of their own sin and rebellion, I must add.

If anything else, the passage is about God's love for his own people, despite their own sinfulness and disobedience. But it must be remembered that this people was suffering from political and racial oppression. In the New Testament this mercy and compassion of God is clearly extended to all the peoples in the world, for the gospel is not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. (One must also note that this concept of worldwide lordship and compassion of Yahweh is already present in the Old Testament.)

Thus "God's plan for us" must not be understood in individualistic terms. It is not about "what's in it for me". Instead, it is about God's justice and mercy for all of his image-bearers, despite the fact that that image is no longer perfect after the fall.

On the one hand, let's take comfort from this verse as individuals. Faith in Christ is intimately personal. But on the other hand we should not privatise our faith. God's plan is for the whole humankind, and let's share this message of hope with the world, especially those suffering from hardship, poverty and injustice.

Peter Adam on "Australia - Whose Land?"

I just came across this article in Sight Magazine. It's an edited extract of a lecture given by Rev Dr Peter Adam, Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne. It is about I haven't read the whole article yet, but I think it's worth letting the readers of this blog know.

Here are two quotes from the article:

"God in His mercy may have worked some things for good when the Europeans arrived in Australia, despite much that was evil. But that does not make that act of conquest and act of will of God."

"We may think that we are not the ones to repent, because we did not commit the sins. However although the Bible teaches that we may not blame the sins of our ancestors for our suffering in order to claim that we are innocent, it also give examples of repentance for the sins of ancestors."

Click here for the article.

My pilgrimage (2) - Walking with Bible teachers

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am one of those people who try to read the Bible from cover to cover once a year (and, again, that practice does not make me superior to others in any way). Along the way I have come across two Bible teachers who have major influence on me.

Just over 21 years ago I came across a book called How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, written by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. It is about how to read the Bible within its own contexts and according to the different genres of the books in the Scripture. I learned heaps from it. One of the reasons why I liked it is that what it says resonates with my own reading of the Bible.

As I embarked on my own theological studies and later on worked on a postgraduate research project in the New Testament, I found myself studying and enjoying Professor Gordon Fee's commentaries and books all the time. I would say that he was my best Bible teacher, despite the fact that I had never met him personally.

Some years ago I eventually had a chance to sit in one of Prof Fee's public lectures at Regent College, Vancouver. At the lecture someone asked him which New Testament scholars he liked most. He was reluctant to single out anyone, but mentioned F. F. Bruce and N. T. (Tom) Wright specifically.

(Recently I found a video clip of Prof Fee in which he mentioned Tom Wright. Click here for the clip.)

At the time I was reading Bishop Tom Wright's books on the apostle Paul. Upon Prof Fee's recommendation, I have since read many of Wright's writings. I have to say that they really resonate with my own reading of the Bible. Tom Wright is able to put together a lot of things in the Bible that I would not have articulated in my own words. Yet I find myself agreeing with him because I have read the Bible in very similar ways over the last 28 years.

This does not mean that I agree with Tom Wright and Gordon Fee all the time. Nor does it mean that they are better than all the other Bible teachers. But I do have to thank them for being my teachers in my own journey of seeking God and learning from the Scriptures.

My pilgrimage (1) - Faith hero - Hudson Taylor

I read a book about Hudson Taylor soon after I came to faith in 1981. Here is a famous saying of Hudson Taylor that touched my life as a young (Chinese) Christian.

If I had a thousand pounds, China should have it. If I had a thousand lives, China should have them. No! not China, but Christ. Can we do too much for Him?

He made immense sacrifice for us. Not only that he gave up his career for the gospel. He also lost his wife and some of his children in China. He trusted in God totally for his provision, and never asked people for financial support for his mission.

Instead of working at the coastal areas in China (where other missionaries were, and where lands were taken by European countries by force), Hudson Taylor went inland. He adopted Chinese customs, put on Chinese clothes, learned the language, and used his medical skills to serve the poor. He identified with the sufferings of the Chinese people, and loved them dearly. To me, that spoke volume about the sacrificial love of Christ himself, and the gospel that I have come to embrace.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

I have just finished writing a brief review on Barack Obama's first book Dreams From My Father. Please click here for the review.

Challenging the culture of our time

I just borrowed Michael J Gorman's Inhabiting the Cruciform God from the library. I haven't starting reading it, but as I flipped through the pages I found a passage that is very interesting. It raises some pointed questions about the popular notion of "national interest" in the Australian political rhetoric. Here is the quote - and over to you to comment!

This brings us inevitably back... to poli­tics, to the "normal" god of civil religion that combines patriotism and power. Nationalistic, military power is not the power of the cross, and such misconstrued notions of divine power have nothing to do with the majesty or holiness of the triune God known in the weakness of the cross. In our time, any "holiness" that fails to see the radical, counter-imperial claims of the gospel is inadequate at best. Adherence to a God of holiness certainly re­quires the kind of personal holiness that many associate with sexual purity. That is one dimension of theosis. But participation in a cruciform God of holiness also requires a corollary vision of life in the world that rejects domi­nation in personal, public, or political life — a mode of being that is often considered realistic or "normal."

Source: Micahel J Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 128.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The scandal of the cross (Derek Tidball)

I just found something in Michael Gorman's blog that is very helpful. Here is an excerpt from his blog (which, in turn, cites Derek Tidball).

“The scandal of the cross continues. From Paul’s day to our own, [it] has never been anything other than a scandal, a cause of offence. People respond to its offensivness in different ways. Some ridicule it. Others try to ignore it. Chrstians, no less than others, have their techniques for reducing its shame. Long familiarity with it has lessened its absurdity and repugnance and led us to turn it into an item of beauty…. Morna Hooker comments: ‘Our problem is simply that we are too used to the Christian story; it is difficult for us to grasp the absurdity—indeed, the sheer madness—of the gospel about a crucified savior which was proclaimed by the first Christians in a world where the cross was the most barbaric form of punishment which men could devise.’”

[Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 200.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A ticket to heaven? Or resurrection?

For years I thought that as Christians our destiny was heaven. In fact, when I was a pastor I used to say that to the people in the church. But then someone said that heaven was not our final destiny. Then I went back to the Scripture and I found that he's most probably right.

I have heard sermons that say that people will go to heaven if they give their lives to Jesus. But then in Acts - the book in the Bible that records the preaching of the earliest church - we don't really find the apostles preaching that kind of message. Instead, they preached the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah!

In 1 Cor 15 Paul says that what is of first importance is that Jesus died, was buried and was raised from the dead, and then he goes on to talk about the resurrection body. What is important about the gospel is not that Christians are going to heaven. Instead, the Christian hope is about the resurrection, which is based on the resurrection of Christ himself (after his death for those who have put their faith in him).

When Jesus was on the cross, he said to the person next to him, "today you will be with me in paradise." Paul says that after Christians die, they are asleep. This means that, for Christians, between death and resurrection there is a period of rest - in paradise. But that is not our final destiny. Indeed in Revelation it is clear that the new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven (Rev 21:10). It seems to me that our final destiny is a place in the new heaven and new earth, in which life is not about a disembodied existence in heavenly bliss. I see a real sense of human communal and bodily life with the presence of God himself in the future. The Christian hope is that those who are in Christ will be raised to life when Jesus returns, just like Christ himself was raised from the dead.

But why does it matter? What, in practice, is the implication of the difference between "going to heaven" and "being raised to life"? I will talk about that in another post. But for now I may mention two things.

First, for us who believe in the Bible as God's revelation it is always good to stick with what it actually says! There is surely benefit in doing so. Second, in the long chapter about the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, Paul concludes with this statement:

"Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain." (1 Cor 15:58)

What is going to happen in the future has implication to what we do today, just as what happened in the past does. The most important event in the past is the death and resurrection of Christ himself, and that means that we are to live for him. But the climax of history will be that Jesus will return, those who believe in him will be raised to life, and the entire creation will be renewed. Paul says here that this future event means that our labour today is not in vain! It is because of this assured future that we are to give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord. The future has profound implication to what we do today!

I will say more in a future post.

Reflection: The kids in my son's school

My son goes to a small Christian school. It's a great community and I have met some wonderful Christian families there. I am very grateful to God for that.

Here is an encouraging story about some students at the school. A group of them were on a school trip to Canberra. On their way back they had lunch in a country town. As they had lunch someone was watching how they behaved and afterwards he commented on their good behaviour and maturity. He is right, I think. The school is a good school. Most of the parents are Christians. They provide a stable and secure home environment, and know how to teach their children to behave.

But my thoughts go to the kids in other schools, schools in the low socioeconomic suburbs of Melbourne. I hear stories of a Christian school teacher who worked for many years in one of those schools. She found herself spending most of her time dealing with the issues that children from dyfuncational families faced. The fact is that it is not the fault of these children that their behaviour is not-so-good. They just happened to have born into families that were less fortunate. For some of them, their parents were migrants from poor countries. They came to Melbourne to flee from poverty and oppression, and found themselves struggling with the language and the culture. They just happened to be born in a country where life was not at all as easy as Australia.

My heart goes out to those children, whose prospects of life will not be the same as children in my son's school. My heart goes to them because they are in fact in our own "backyard", and I suspect that Jesus would have gone to them if he were here today.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"I am a follower of Christ"

Tonight at bedtime my son asked me what is the difference between Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican and Orthodox churches. So, starting from Jesus, I went through the 2,000 years of church history with him (all in 15 minutes) to explain how the different denominations came about. In my answer I also mentioned the Wesleyans, the Methodists, the Catholics, the Reformation (as an introduction to the Protestants), the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Uniting Church (in Australia), the Pentecostals, and even the different types of Orthodox churches - and my son added the Salvos! - and then I said that where I preached this morning was probably an independent evangelical church. I explained to him that there are different types of Anglican churches (high, low, evangelical, liberal, charismatic, etc), and indeed different types of churches within a given denomination.

Then I briefly explained to him the subtle differences between their doctrines, and how often each group thinks that their doctrine is better. Indeed many would argue that their doctrine is closest to what the Bible teaches.

My son actually finds it a bit amusing. I briefly mentioned to him that such divisions in the body of Christ is in fact not what the biblical ideal is.

In the end, I told my son that I see myself as a follower of Christ, rather than a Baptist or a Pentecostal (or whatever denomination). I love the Bible, and I belong to the body of Christ. I won't say that all doctrines (from the different denominations) are equally valid. But I am not sure whether we can say that any one doctrine can reflect the teaching in the Bible perfectly.

Reading Leviticus with your child

Do you think it is a good idea to read Leviticus with your child?

I guess every child is different and hence I won't say yes or no to this question. But I have been reading some selected passages in Leviticus with my son recently, and it has been a good experience. I showed him how some offerings had to be made, and the significance of that to Israel and how that would help us to understand the New Testament. We read about the Sabbath year and the Jubilee, and learned how that worked in Israel's social life and how that protected the poor. I plan to read the day of atonement with him soon.

To me, as a parent I find that even Leviticus can be interesting - even fun - if we know how Leviticus works and how to make it interesting. But I am also aware that every child is different and so probably it won't work for every child. Having said all that, I think reading the Bible creatively with our children will build a solid foundation in our children's lives.

Friday, August 7, 2009

How I read the Bible - entering the text

I remember that before I got baptised, a wise and mature Christian lady said to me that how we understood the nature of the authority of the Bible was critical. I guess I didn't understand her fully back then (it's in 1985!). But I have since found that it is indeed a crucial matter. I will explain why another time, but here I'll share some of my own experience in reading the Scripture.

I am one of those people who read the whole Bible from cover to cover every year. (Yes, I have just finished Leviticus and am reading Numbers! But I have to say that this does not necessarily make me a better Christian, and indeed I can see many better Christians around me.) Since I have been a Christian for a long time, I have read the Bible many times.

In this journey I find that I enter the world of the biblical texts. When I read the Gospels I imagine that I am walking with Jesus as one of his disciples. When I read Exodus I imagine that I am a fellow Israelite walking in the wilderness. When I read the Psalms I find myself praying with the psalmists, pouring my heart to the God of Israel - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

For me, personally, I find that this is an amazing journey. The "text" is not a rigid set of doctrines or commandments (although it contains elements of those things). It comes alive and relates to me. In this way I hear God's voice and learn to walk with him, knowing that he is with me, just as he did with Israel and the disciples.

No wonder the Bible is "God's Word". It's to be heard - and obeyed, because we love him and are grateful to what he has done for us through Jesus.

My work and my academic life require me to read theology textbooks and talk with theologians. My research project requires me to study the Scripture using multiple (technical) commentaries. But I find my own faith anchored on my own daily reading of Scripture, which requires no commentaries or complicated theology. I hope our sophiscation and modern (and post-modern) mindset will not steer us away from the most basic and natural reading of the text.