Monday, December 27, 2010

Reflection: Powerlessness - The main players in the New Testament

The main players in the New Testament were mostly poor, marginalised, disadvantaged and/or powerless - either because it was simply their life situation, or that they had willingly given up their power and privileges. There was a leper and a crippled woman. There were women who followed Jesus from Galilee, and fishermen who gave up their possessions to follow him. And, most of all, we find Jesus in the New Testament, who died on the cross, which was a symbol of utter shame and Roman oppression (on its powerless victims!). Then we have the apostle Paul, who boasts of his weakness and suffering, because he wanted to follow his Saviour and Lord.

Let us enter their stories, and let them touch and transform our lives.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A young woman's story that will make you cry

Here is a young woman's story that will make you cry. It is about her father's dedication to the cause of Christ and her own experience in knowing Jesus. Her father's life and her own experience call us to worship and challenge our own lives.

Click here to view the video.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reading the Old Testament in the age of the New Testament

I have found a post in Daniel Kirk's blog which is very interesting. (Click here for the link.) It is about how Christians should read the Old Testament. He starts with saying how important it is. For example, he says,

"What’s the difference between Reformed ethics and Anabaptist? Oh yeah… We continue to be plagued by the issue of (dis)continuity."

In recent years as I speak with Christians from these two traditions I find that ultimately the underlying debate is precisely the issue of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

Here is Kirk's thesis:

"Here is my thesis, as I’ve hinted at it, perhaps stated it, in earlier posts: nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.

That mediation can mean that the OT storyline and/or law is abrogated, or that it is affirmed and renewed, or that it is affirmed in some transformed manner. But either way, we have to wrestle with the implications of the Christ event and our identity as the Christ-and-Spirit community before we know the relevance of the OT text for us."

I found this useful, but immediately I realised that one could raised several questions. Not surprisingly Nathan MacDonald (an expert in Hebrew and Old Testament from St Andrews University) comments on Kirk's post and says,

"This is a sophisticated attempt to do justice to some of the issues to do with Old and New, but there are considerable traps for the unwary. Which is to say, Daniel, I think you’ve managed to avoid them thus far, but I am not confident that all that read you will. From my perspective, there are various things that need also to be said if we are to get the picture fully right.

First, the Old Testament is presented to us in a form that is unglossed. Even if we recognise the early Christian allegiance to the Septuagint, Christians have steadily refused to gloss the Old Testament so as to make it speak more obviously of Christ or New Testament realities. This is a basic instinct that perhaps deserves some reflection, especially given the possibility that early Christians could have resorted to the type of rewritten Scriptures that are found in Qumran. Thus, it would seem to me, that there is a confidence that Old Testament Scripture can speaks in a clear voice that Christians can recognise. Both directly of Christ, but also I think of other things of which the NT does not speak.

Second, your picture tends to reverse the realities of the New Testament church, as Childs and others have pressed most strongly. Thus, the question in the early church was not how do we make sense of this weird set of texts now that we have Jesus, but rather, given that we have these Scriptures how do we make sense of Jesus? Our own context is some steps on from that, but there is no harm in being reminded of where the first Christians were at, and at very least it needs to be recognized as a counterpoint to what you’ve said. Thus, as happy as I might be to affirm for a Christian reading of Scripture the necessity of “intentionally bring[ing] our New Testament and otherwise Christian theology with us when we read the OT.” the reverse also needs to be stated too, viz. the necessity of intentionally bringing our OT with us when we read the NT”. We fail to do justice to the two testament nature of the Christian Scripture if we do not have the other side.

Third, it is not clear that what you say does complete justice to how the Old Testament has been used and appreciated in the history of the church. That is, Christian readers have been able to read the Old Testament and hear a word from God to them without always deploying the framework that you have set out. This is not to doubt that the narrative theological movement has its benefits, but we might also not wish to too quickly disconnect ourselves from how many Christians have read Scripture before our enlightened times!

Fourth, it is unclear to me that “nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.” could not mutatis mutandis be said about the NT, to the extent to which it is important for a truly Christian theology to be centred around the Christ-event. Or am I missing something in the way that “New Testament” issues such as head coverings or women and ministry have been discussed in the last thirty or more years?

Fifth, it is also unclear to me that “nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.” solves the problems of interpreting all OT texts. Some texts and issues do indeed find further explication in the NT. But how do I deal with those that don’t? Am I then working with some form of developed Christological theology that I can wield to make sense of my OT text, or some sense of the narrative flow of the big story. It is not clear to me that these abstractions necessarily resolve the issues that you rightly mention of having divided Christians in the past: anabaptism etc. Might it not be the case that some OT texts do not need to do a hop skip and a jump via the NT?

As a final note, and discarding any facade of humility, I wonder whether you have read my own attempt to deal with some of these matters in dialogue with Irenaeus and some narrative theological readings of him? The essay was published in JTI a year or two back. I hope you might find there further matters for reflection."

Very good discussion going on!

Scot McKnight: A gospel-shaped theology

Here Scot McKnight aptly says what I have been trying to say in my teaching.

"Pick up your standard textbook-ish systematic theology and you are most likely to get an exhaustive study of a one topic after another. The order of those topics matters immensely, and it just so happens that many theologians write theologies that are shaped by salvation (soteriology). Thus, the God, Man/Sin, Christ, Salvation, Spirit and Eschatology, often prefaced with Scripture, is essentially an ordering of topics through the doctrine of salvation.

Dig a bit further and you will learn in many of these books that “salvation” means the same thing as “gospel” so that a theology of salvation is a theology of the gospel. Which it isn’t, and the order of the above topics proves my point. They are salvation-shaped and not gospel-shaped, else they’d have other topics more prominent.

What we are most in need of is a thoroughgoing sketch of theology through the lens of gospel. Those topics above would come up but they would be framed within the orbit of other ideas.

Questions: How gospel-shaped is your theology? What questions would you ask to see if a theology is gospel-shaped? What are the major indicators of a gospel-shaped theology?

I see two questions that can be asked and those questions will indicate gospel-shaped: How central of a role does Israel’s Story/history play in the theology? How central is the resurrection? Everyone will have the Cross, but does the theology have resurrection as a central theme? Everyone will have christology, but does being Messiah and Lord make its way to the front?

Click here for Scot McKnight's post (from which the above citation can be found).

Monday, November 15, 2010

A life of sacrifice and witness to Christ

I read an article about the life and witness of a Christian in Asia. It's the type of authentic Christianity that should challenge all of us.

Here is an excerpt.

"After his [her husband's] arrest, Alice moved out... with their six children and her mother-in-law. As they had lived by faith and the church was now closed, she went through the most difficult six months of her life. All they could afford was porridge. They slept on planks laid over bricks as a make-shift bed. Fellow Christians were too frightened to help them. She found work on a construction site paying 80 fen a day (less than US$0.20). Her children were cruelly treated at school... the whole family suffered further humiliation. For six months she... was put under intense pressure to renounce her faith and divorce her husband. At night she sought the Lord with tears. Finally, she was found innocent of all charges. Providentially, God supplied the family’s needs through the sacrificial giving of a few devoted believers. Even in her darkest hour she never stopped giving one tenth of her income to the Lord."

Click here for the whole article.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Patrick Fung at Lausanne 2010 on the gospel, discipleship and reconciliation

The International Director of OMF, Patrick Fung, spoke at the recent Lausanne Congress 2010 in South Africa.

There are plenty of good reflections in this short talk. I will cite a few below. Some of my friends in Australia might think that Patrick Fung does not talk enough about social justice and indeed he says nothing about peace activitism. But I must say that the workers in his organisation encounter plenty of poverty, injustice and violence - much more than people in the West experience. Also, they seek to be incarnational and identify with the people they seek to share the gospel with. The contexts in which they work are often the same as that of the early church (socioeconomic hardship and religious-political oppression). Patrick's voice needs to be heard with deep respect, for he represents many authentic disciples of Jesus who pay a high price for their faith and have sacrificed immensely for serving their Lord and Saviour. Here are some quotes from Patrick Fung's talk.
  • "Making disciples in all nations must be our most urgent and ultimate goal."
  • "Generosity is always a way life of the early church. There was always sharing."
  • "Sharing of God's resources is mutual and not unidirectional... A unidirectional over-enthusiastic giving and over-receiving with greed often cripple the work of God. As a matter of fact, they are detrimental to the growth of the church. And more than once I have heard from the leaders and pastors of the church in China saying to me, 'Please do not give us money', for money will divide the church. And I challenge all of us to think beyond just money terms for God's resources are more than money."
  • "In the global family, in the body of Christ, there are many different gifts. Some will give a model of faithfulness in a context of suffering, and some will model perseverance in a context of poverty and injustice... And some will model critical theological and missiological reflections and thinking beyond the Western paradigm." (Emphasis mine)
  • "God's redemptive purpose... [According to] John Stott... nothing is more important than what the church should be and should be seen to be God's new society. And this society - this community - is to be characterised by reconciliation - that is, reconciliation to God and reconciliation to one another. And, therefore, reconciliation is the foundation of all partnership." (Emphasis mine)
  • "Reconciliation is not just to happen between ethnic groups, but between generations, between the young and the old, between genders as well."
  • "I was deeply humbled when I received news of a Japanese Christian woman... who passed away recently... and she donated all her assets for the ministry of the gospel to the Chinese people. If you understand even a little bit of the recent contemporary history... you will understand the significance of this act of love."
Click here for the video clip.

Some quotable quotes and reflections

We must be content with being nobodies for Christ; to be forgotten. Many missionaries will have passed through the twentieth century only remembered by relatives and a few people that they were able to minister to. Their lives were never considered great, but they did their part faithfully, and most importantly, God does not forget them. (Patrick Fung, OMF General Director)

Sometimes it is when all our dreams are shattered that we realise God's dream' for us - that is, to know him and love him, and to know his love for us and for humankind. (myself)

A former refugee at our church finally reunited with his wife recently. His conversion was an amazing one and his baptism a few years ago moved me greatly. It's a great joy to see his wife in our church today. (myself in October)

I think "sorry" (when it is said sincerely) is a powerful word that can change our lives. (myself)

Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others. (Gregory Jones)

God subverts human triumphalism in that he wins by losing. He unleashes resurrection life on his world through the dying and rising again of Jesus Christ. Because of God's surprising ways, God's people will play subversive roles in the gospel drama as we resist the corruption of the present evil age. (Timothy G Gombis)

When we read the Bible as stories - God's stories - we stop treating it as a set of rules or treating God as a genie for our benefits. As we enter the stories of the Bible, we feel the pain and suffering of the characters, feel the wonders of God's deliverance, identify with God's people as they struggle and falter, and experience the amazing grace of God in all our failures and shortcomings. (myself)

Faith is a complex human experience, and [the apostle] Paul preserves this complexity while giving it a unique twist. While affirming its character as trust and conviction, Paul connects faith to the experience of Jesus as God's faithful Son. Faith is more than trust; it is also fidelity, or loyalty. (Michael Gorman)

When I read the Gospels, I see a bunch of people whose lives were in a mess. They followed Jesus because he proclaimed a topsy-turvy kingdom. And he did not become King through his power. He became King because he suffered and died, and was vindicated by God at his resurrection. All this was of course the embodiment of his topsy-turvy kingdom. (myself)

If we understand sin in terms of breaking a set of moral codes, we end up with a self-centred religion. If we understand sin in terms of our failure to love our neighbour and to love God wholeheartedly, then we come close to the heart of the gospel. (myself)

From Homer to Hollywood, people are fascinated with heroes. They are people of power and wisdom. But the apostle Paul, borrowing from Jeremiah, says that he would only boast of his weakness, and 'the Christ crucified' is the true wisdom of God. (myself)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Serving God and the poor sacrificially

I heard something from a group of Christians about their heart for God and the poor. The following is my paraphrase of what they said.

First, what they do.

  • Provide vocational training, health, education and community based services
  • Personal support for addicts in drug rehabilitation
  • Social services for marginalized groups such as the homeless and those living with mental illnesses
  • Support children living with disability
Second, their motivation and ethos.

"Serving the poor is the desire of our heart. We seek to follow Christ's example of humility, sacrifice and a self-effacing lifestyle. Serving the poor means for us serving in places where we do not expect to be honoured, acknowledged or rewarded. We believe that in Christ's example, we can sometimes feel being humiliated and trampled on. Our heart's desire is to serve among the poor everywhere."

This attitude is the kind of Christianity I got to know when I came to faith in Christ many years ago, and is the type of Christianity I find in the Bible. I understand that this group of Christians are more than keen and willing to share the gospel whenever they are given the opportunity. They go to remote villages to serve the poor, and make every opportunity to share the gospel with them. Their desire is to live with them and identify with their pain and suffering. I really appreciate this kind of commitment and authenticity in their lives.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rikk Watts on Creation and restoration of the image of God

I am reading Rikk Watts' "The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God" in What Does it Mean to Be Saved?, edited by John Stackhouse. Rikk Watts understands the creation as Yahweh's temple-place, and here is thesis.

[T]he cosmos is seen as Yahweh's temple-place, and the climax of creation is the installation of humanity as his "cult-idol" or image-bearer within it. It then maintains that the exodus from Egypt, Israel's return from exile, and God's new exodus/new creational work in Christ Jesus are best understood in terms of the restoration of the defaced image-bearer and consequently the restoration of the cosmos as Yahweh's temple-place in which the newly Spirit-indwelt image-bearer is installed. (page 18)

Watts uses Job 38:4-6, 8, 10, 22 to illustrate that Yahweh is the master builder of creation, and lists plenty of other Old Testament passages to support it. He notes that the Hebrew for "temple" is the same word for "palace". The notion that the creation is Yahweh's temple-palace is not unlike that in a number of ancient Near Eastern traditions. (pages 18-19)

An important passage for this notion is Isaiah 66:1, "Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me?"

Rikk Watts borrows from Katherine Beckerleg and says,

Furthermore, if Beckerleg is correct, the Genesis story is something of a polemic against contemporary idolatrous perspectives; instead of a "zoomorphic paganism" we have a "monotheistic anthropology." We do not make a temple-palace for Yahweh; he has made one for us, and it is not only the earth in its entirety but Eden in particular. Hence the parallels between Eden and the tabernacle. (p 20)

More quotes from Watts,

It is important to note that the image of the god was never intended to depict the deity's appearance but instead to describe elements of the function and attributes of the deity. Images were "probably pictograms rather than portraits." [citing H Frankfort] Nevertheless, as is now widely recognized, the idea of image clearly involves its physicality" Our embodied form is also integral to our "functioning" as Yahweh's image in this physical world. Furthermore, far from being an inanimate object, the image was indwelt by the very life of the deity, such that the image became the primary focus of his presence on the earth (cf. Jer. 10:14; Hab. 2:19). (p 21)

Our very embodied existence testifies to Yahweh's kingship, and our function and attributes should resemble his. Just as Yahweh sits enthroned in his cosmic temple, so too humanity images him, reigning between his knees as it were in the smaller temple-place of the earth and functioning as his vice-regents. As such we imitate to a lesser but faithful degree his ordering and filling of the cosmos in our ordering (or gardening) of the earth and our acts of filling it with other bearers of his image. (pp 21-22)

The nexus of humans as bearers of Yahweh's image and yet subordinate to him comes to the fore at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At issue is whether humans will accept their subordinate status, recognizing only Yahweh as the final source of wisdom, or seek to usurp his prerogatives by trusting in their own ability to understand - that is, to fashion creation and even themselves in their own image and according to their own wisdom. (p 22)

Creation too is bound up in this and suffers as a consequence of human rebellion (Gen. 3:17-18). The temple-palace and the bearer of the image fall together into ruin, and humanity finds itself driven farther away from the Garden until Cain, the crown prince, now finds himself in a desert land of wandering. Ultimately, in the flood the earth returns to its pre-creation state: formless and empty under the vast waters of the deep. (pp 22-23)

Watts goes to to demonstrate how Israel - Yahweh's true son - is to be a holy nation-kingdom of priests to the nations (Exod 19:6). Then he says,

Tragically, Israel, Yahweh's new humanity, rebels as did Adam and Eve. Yahweh's son forsakes him for idols. The problem is that since human beings bear the image of Yahweh, to worship an idol is to deny both Israel's identity in particular and humanity's in general. To seek to capture the essence of Yahweh in a lifeless image is not only impossible but also invites manipulation of him rather than a trusting and obedient relationship with him. And if people see to manipulate an objectified deity, which is the essence of idolatry, it is no great revelation that they soon treat his image-bearers in like manner. idolatry and injustice are correlatives, and the prophets fulminate against both. (p 27)

Creation's faith, as temple-palace for the image-bearer, is intimately linked to the authenticity of the image-bearer. Therefore, Paul can say that just as our rebellion caused creation to be subjected to the futility of not achieving its intended goal, so "creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of god;... in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:19-21 NRSV). (page 35)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Natural" disasters and human sin

Recently the "natural" disasters in Indonesia and New Zealand (earthquake) have prompted people to ask whether they are acts of God's judgment because of human sins. I am no expert on this topic but here are my initial thoughts from a biblical perspective.

(1) We need to first remember that the Bible was written in a historical and culture context that was very different from ours. They did not have the knowledge of science that we have today. People like Abraham, Isaiah and Paul would have a worldview very different from ours. For example, their view of the creation story and the fall in Genesis would be very different. Today's question of whether we have a "young earth" would not have been their question. Likewise, I think the word "natural" in the phrase "natural disaster" might not make sense for them. My sense is that for them what we call "natural disaster" may not be natural to them. Floods, famine, plagues and indeed the rise and fall of nations are all ultimately beyond their control, and they know that God is ultimately the one who has control over these things. The same worldview is held by many peoples today, with the Western culture being an exception (although the world is changing rapidly with many non-Westerners taking on a somewhat Western worldview).

(2) I find that in the Old Testament people have two responses/explanations to (the so-called) natural disasters.

(i) They are God's punishment as a result of human rebellion. This is very often applied to God's (chosen) people in the ancient world. But it also applied to human rebellion in general, with the flood as a good example, and with the threat of the destruction of Nineveh in Jonah as another example.

(ii) They are not God's punishment. This is especially the case in Job. The ancient Israelites struggled with whether suffering (including suffering as a result of natural disasters, which Job also experienced) is the consequence of human sins. Job's friends have a view of retributive justice. But Job maintained his innocence. The prologue of Job attributes the source of evil to the devil. But the lesson for us all is that God is sovereign.

(3) The corollary of the above is that suffering can happen to both the righteous and the unrighteous, and God's people are to be faithful to God by acting justly and righteously and at the same time trust in God's faithfulness, love, righteousness and justice. The prophets speak against idolatry and social injustice, as well as God's judgment against human disobedience, especially on God's (chosen) people. But the prophets also complain about God's apparent injustice, with Jeremiah and Habakkuk being good examples.

(4) I wonder whether our (Western) dualistic mindset is being very unhelpful here.

On the one hand, there are those who think that everything should be taken spiritually. Thus the bushfire in Victoria last year, for example, was suggested by some to be God's judgment on human sin. That is, bushfire is a spiritual consequence of human sins, instead of a physical consequence of dry and windy weather. There are two problems here. (i) Romans 2 tells us that no-one can claim any moral superiority, whether we are Christian or not. No-one should judge another person. Only God can judge. He alone is the righteous Judge - and he does judge! Who are we to suggest that the people who suffered from the bushfire are under God's judgment and that we ourselves - who are sinners as well - are not under God's judgment? Peter says that God's judgment will start from the family of God. (ii) In any disaster there can potentially be innocent people, even if it is God's judgment. For example, God punish Israel when Jeremiah was the prophet. He was one of the many innocent people who suffered in the hands of the Babylonians. We cannot understand why it happened to them. But it did.

On the other hand there are those who think that everything should be interpreted according to natural causes. For example, a bushfire is a result of circumstances, namely, bad weather, long draught, etc. One can also say that the unusally bad bushfire was perhaps indirectly a result of human activities on climate change. All these should be taken seriously. But one must note that this natural-cause-and-effect thinking is quite Western. The biblical worldview seems to be that human actions (righteous and unrightoues acts; just and unjust acts and social systems) can have cosmic consequences. Indeed, the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the religious leaders in Jerusalem led to Jesus' judgment on the Temple, including the physical destruction of the Temple. The subsequent destruction of the Temple in AD 70 was not simply a consequence of Roman conquest, but a cosmic event in which the rebellion of God's people was met with God's just judgment. (But once again we must be careful not to apply this to the bushfire via the "spiritual consequence" path.)

In the final analysis, I think, we cannot have a one-size-fits-all explanation to natural disasters. It is in many ways a mystery. "I don't understand it all" is probably not a bad thing to bear in mind.

(5) What does it mean? Some suggestions when there is a natural disaster.

Do not judge the victims. Leave it with God to judge.
Love the victims and stand with them in solidarity by means of practical help.
Reflect on our own sins (including the sins of the Christian community), rather than the sins of others.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

God triumphs through the death of Christ, he wins by losing (Timothy Gombis)

Here is what Timothy G. Gombis says regarding Ephesians 3:1-14. I found this in an interview with him (in this blog) about his book The Drama of Ephesians. I think this sounds really good.

This was the most powerfully transformative passage for me personally. It is so utterly counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. We imagine that we will succeed personally and professionally through self-assertion and will advance in our careers (or in ministry!) through power-accumulation and the exercise of power over others.

But throughout Ephesians (and everywhere in Paul), the manner in which God triumphs in Christ sets the normative pattern for Christian discipleship. God triumphs through the death of Christ, he wins by losing. The victory of the powers was their defeat and the defeat of Christ was his victory. Paul draws the clear implication that if God triumphs through the cross, then cruciformity thoroughly shapes Christian communities and Christian lives.

I believe this is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 3. His imprisonment is not a set-back, but the perfect place for God to magnify his triumph over the powers. God builds his church through the preaching of this shamed prisoner, this ‘least of all the saints’, rather than through someone with loads of social or political capital. For Paul, this makes perfect cruciform sense, and it is one of a number of passages that sets the normative ethical pattern for Christian existence.

How do we model that? By cultivating postures of servant-hood and humility in relationships, never exercising power over others nor relating manipulatively. For those who are well-practiced in (self-)destructive relational modes, our repentance is a bit more painful! But the way of life is the way of the cross.

Click here for the entire interview. It is worth reading.

Forgiveness and an ever-deepening friendship with God

There is an article in Christianity Today (October 2010) entitled How Far Should Forgiveness Go?

The author talks about her own experience in her own life and in a mega-church, without a sense of condemnation but with honesty and sincerity. The article interacts with various good authors on the topic and is worth reading. Towards the end of the article it cites from a book called Embodying Forgiveness by Gregory Jones, which is worth quoting here.

Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not to simply or even primarily be focused on an absolution of guilt; rather, it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion—with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Indeed, because of the pervasiveness of sin and evil, Christian forgiveness must be at once an expression of commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to "unlearn" sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sins, specific instances of brokenness.

Click here for the full article.

Paul as a herald of the Kingdom of God

I am reading Timothy G. Gombis' Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed. Here is a good quote.

"Paul is a herald of the Kingdom of God and of the victory and Cosmic Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is an intensely political vocation, since Paul is proclaiming the emergent reality of a radically new political order— the Kingdom of God—along with an alternative ruler; the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus. This calling as a herald inevitably involved a pastoral task, since Paul's aim was to see the creation and establish­ment of Kingdom of God communities throughout the world." (page 23)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Chris Wright: the greatest hindrance to world mission is God’s own people

Here is a good sermon from Christopher Wright, who spoke at the recent Third Lausanne Congress at Cape Town.

Click here for a quick summary.

Click here for a the audio-visual of the whole talk (about 20 minutes).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reading Bible stories

We visited a church recently where there was a very good family service. The service sought to engage both parents and children, and invite them to participate in all sorts of activities together. It's very creative and I really appreciated the effort they put into it.

On this day they looked at Daniel 3. The main points, I gathered, were that Christians needed to stand up for their faith in adversity and that they could trust the all-powerful God as they did so. They worked out some very simply points in the passage, and delivered their message through various interactive activities that made the whole service very engaging for young and old alike. It's a job well done.

But I keep thinking that this way of reading Scripture is typical of how we are taught to interpret the Bible. Certainly the main points were captured aright, and indeed applied beautifully to daily life. But I wonder whether we do recognise the most natural reading of Daniel 3 here - that is, the chapter is first and foremost a story. Our sophisticated ability to analyse Scripture helps us to jump to the key themes of the chapter, and apply them in everyday life. But in doing so we miss out on experiencing some of the most important aspects of the Scripture.

Let us enter into the stories in the first chapters of Daniel together. That is, let us join Daniel and his three friends in their journey.

The first thing we realise is that we are fellow Jews in exiles. We are slaves as a result of the conquest of the Babylonian Empire. We have been displaced from our homeland. We and our beloved families have been on a long journey to a foreign country. We are well aware of God's covenant with Abraham, our ancestor. And we are aware that it is because of our people's unfaithfulness to that covenant that we are now in exile, as the prophets foretold. Our story in recent times has been a sad one indeed. Our life is full of struggles, pain and tears. We experience social, racial and political oppression, and there is no way out.

But like Daniel and his friends we seek to be faithful to the God of our ancestors. As we seek to remain faithful to him, we experience God's faithfulness despite our rebellion. We watch Daniel and his three friends risk their lives to follow our God, we see God perform signs and wonders to deliver them. Even though we remain in captivity, we see signs of God's blessing and faithfulness.

By entering into the stories of Daniel and his friends, we identify with their sadness and pain, as well as their hope and joy. We struggle with them. We learn to trust God as we watch them - because they are willing to sacrifice and suffer for their God.

As we walk the journey with them, inevitably we relate their experiences with ours in our everyday life. As we allow the Holy Spirit to touch us and speak to us, we worship our faithful God just like the Psalmists in the Bible. We learn to persevere in our own journeys as we seek to remain faithful to Christ in our own daily struggles.

We may want to relate to stories that took place after Daniel: The (partial) return from exile of Israel; the coming of Christ, and above all, his life, death and resurrection. We can go on to relate to the earliest church in Acts, other New Testament epistles and in Revelation.

If we know how to interpret culture (the culture in which we live) and social issues, we would quite easily relate the stories to various social justice issues both in Australia and overseas.

Much more can be said. But I hope I have painted a picture of how much we can experience by simply reading the Bible on its own terms - and in this case, in terms of the fact that we are reading stories.

Again, nothing wrong with the service of the church that we visited. Indeed they did a good job in running the service. My question is around how we have been taught to read the Bible. My suggestion is that our sophistication in analysing the Scripture can potentially mean that we miss out on reading the Bible as it really is - in this case it is "stories". How amazing it could be if we travel into the stories and let the stories travel with us!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

God does not forget the "nobodies" who seek to serve him

This is really good.

"We must be content with being nobodies for Christ; to be forgotten. Many missionaries will have passed through the twentieth century only remembered by relatives and a few people that they were able to minister to. Their lives were never considered great, but they did their part faithfully, and most importantly, God does not forget them." (Patrick Fung, OMF General Director )

Reflection: Reading the Bible as stories

I wrote this recently, "When we read the Bible as stories - God's stories - we stop treating it as a set of rules or prooftexts, or treating God as a genie for our benefits. As we enter the stories in the Bible, we feel the pain and suffering of the characters, feel the wonders of God's deliverance, identify with God's people as they struggle and falter, and experience the amazing grace of God in all our failures and shortcomings. And as we enter those stories and allow the Holy Spirit to touch us, we enter into worship just as the ancients did - and by the empowerment of the same Spirit, we enter into the world to make those stories known through our lives and deeds."

Then I received a note from a missionary friend, Sarah, in Cambodia, which said, "Enjoying the privilige of leading a family to know God simply by telling the stories of the Bible chronologically. I was so thrilled to find yesterday that they have figured out how to talk to God just from hearing the stories."

Sarah has been using story-telling as a way of proclaiming the gospel. This is her response to what I wrote, "It is stories that shape our worldview and worldview that shapes our beliefs and values, which lead to our behaviour. God knew what he was doing when he set so much of his Word in narrative form."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Creation and New Community (Newbiggin)

Here is something Newbiggin wrote about the new creation and the new community. Definitely worth reading. (I found this from the blog Euangelion. Click here for the link.)

This presence of a new reality, the presence in the shared life of the Church of the Spirit who is the arrab┼Źn of the kingdom, has become possible because of what Jesus has done, because of his incarnation, his ministry as the obedient child of his Father, his suffering and death, his resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and his session at the right hand of God. When the apostles are asked to explain the new reality, the new power to find joy in tribulation, healing in sickness, freedom in bondage, life in death, this is the explanation they give. It follows that the visible embodiment of this new reality is not a movement that will take control of history and shape the future according to its own vision, not a new imperialism, not a victorious crusade. Its visible embodiment will be a community that lives by this story, a community whose existence is visibly defined in the regular rehearsing and reenactment of this story which has given it birth, the story of the self-emptying of God in the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Its visible centre as a continuing social entity is that weekly repeated event in which believers share bread and wine as Jesus commanded, as his pledge to them and their pledge to him that they are one with him in his passion and one with him in his victory. Instead of the celebration of the sabbath as the end of God’s old creation, they celebrate the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, as the beginning of the new creation. In this they find enacted and affirmed the meaning and goal of their lives as part of the life of the cosmos, their stories part of the universal story. This story does indeed lead to a glorious end and is therefore filled with meaning, but the end is not some far distant date in terrestrial history. The end is the day when Jesus shall come again, when his hidden rule will become manifest and all things will be seen as they truly are. That is why we repeat at each celebration of the Lord’s Supper the words which encapsulate the whole mystery of the faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen: Christ shall come again.”

Lesslie J. Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.

Authentic Partnership (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Some good stuff from Vinoth Ramachandra about partnership between the West and the South. What Vinoth has to say is important for every church and mission in the West that seeks to work with those in the South.

Click here for the link.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Paul's "the righteousness of God", the debate between Piper and N T Wright, etc

Just read an interesting post from Daniel Kirk's blog about Paul's famous phrase "the righteousness of God".

Click here to see the post. You might also be interested in reading Scott McKnight's comment on this post - it's the first comment.

Everyday Theology (edited by Kevin Vanhoozer)

I just bought Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, edited by Kevin J Vanhoozer. Here are two interesting quotes on page 8.

If theology is the ministry of the Word to the world, it follows that theologians must know something about the world to which they are ministering. What should have been common sense, however, has for various reasons been something of a blind spot, at least until the advent of postmodernity. Indeed, one way of viewing postmodernity is as a "turn to culture." Postmoderns have criticized modern myths about universality precisely because postmoderns have a keen sense of our situatedness in race, gender, class, history, tradition—and culture.

Christian missionaries have always been aware of the need to engage culture. Yet only recently has it been suggested that the West has become a mission field. Lesslie Newbigin points out that the West presents a special challenge to Christian missions, for this is the first time the church has had to mount a mission to a culture that was previously Christian. How does one evangelize cultures that have already received the gospel only to revise or to reject it? For these and other reasons, Christian colleges and seminaries are increasingly coming to see that the study of culture is part and parcel of the prospective minister's theological training.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A divine drama that goes back to creation itself

I read the following from Daniel Kirk's blog recently. Worth reading. (I've read Hays' book below. Good reading for any New Testament student.)

Jesus as we meet him on the pages of the Gospels is not living out a self-contained story, but is acting out a final, climactic scene in the on-going drama of Israel that stretches back to creation itself.

In Paul’s letters as well, the story of the church is only intelligible as the continuation of the story of Israel. Paul is not merely making arguments, he is narrating the story of Israel with his gentile churches as full participants in the story. Paul is a narrative theologian, striving to help his Jesus-following churches understand a new past, present, and future that are all-determinative for their identity now that they are followers of Jesus. To understand who they are in Christ, Paul’s gentile churches no less than we ourselves required a comprehensive reframing of their story, what Richard Hays refers to as a “conversion of the imagination.”[i]

[i] Richard B. Hays, “The Conversion of the Imagination: Scripture and Eschatology in 1 Corinthians,” in The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 1-24.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Weakness as true mark of Paul's apostleship - An example for Christian leaders to follow

I am reading Barry D Smith's Paul's Seven Explanations of the Suffering of the Righteous (New York: Peter Lang, 2002). Here are some good quotes about 2 Corinthians.

Paul would argue that he is not naturally weak; rather, God has made him weak by means of this "thorn in the flesh." (p 167)

In his view, God intentionally humiliated him in this way in order to give him a much-needed sense of the need of reliance on another power. (p 168)

The confession of his inherent incapacity is a pre-condition of the ingression of the power of Christ. The pedagogical effect of his "thorn in the flesh," therefore, is invaluable to Paul's apostolic ministry; his affliction prevents his entering into a state of illusory and unfruitful self-confidence, which would cut him off from the power of Christ. (pp 168-9)

Nothing succeeds like success in breeding self-confidence; self-confidence would not be self-confidence unless the self-confident one is convinced of the sufficiency of his innate abilities. According to Paul, however, there is no place in the apostolic ministry for self-confidence for reasons already stated. So when Paul experiences success in his ministry as the apostle to the gentiles, God strategically forestalls the natural movement to self-confidence occasioned by his success by enforced weakness, as well as by "insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties." (p 169)

Thus, suffering functions to counterbalance the effects of success by reminding Paul that his success has not come from himself, but only through the power of Christ. As a result, he is in a position to appropriate that other power. This is the pedagogical benefit of suffering. (pp 169-70)

The apostles seem always to be on the verge of being overwhelmed by the suffering resultant from their commonness and fragility, and thereby of being rendered ineffectual, but are never actually overcome. It is this model of apostleship that Paul's residual opposition Corinthians find objectionable. they cannot fathom how men who are constantly teetering on the brink of personal collapse can be genuine apostles.

All human beings offer nothing to God. In Paul's view, the realization that this is the human condition is the single qualification for being an apostle. (p 174)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Justice in the Old Testament (More from Wolterstorff)

Here are more quotes from Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Citing Oliver O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations (1996):

[The conception of justice in the Old Testament] is often obscured by the influence of a quite different conception of justice, classical and Aristotelian in inspiration, built on the twin notions of appropriateness and proportionate equality - justice as receiving ones own and being in social equilibrium. Mishpat is primarily a judicial performance. When "judgment" is present , it is not a state of affairs that obtains but an activity that is duly carried out... So, for example, when Amos calls for mishpat to "roll on like a river," he means precisely that the stream of juridical activity should not be allowed to dry up. (page 69 in Justice: Rights and Wrongs)

The following quotes are directly from Wolterstorff.

[J]ust as we use our word "justice" to speak of both primary and rectifying justice, so Israel used its word "mishpat" to speak of both. (p 75)

They were downtrodden as our older English translations nicely put it. The rich and the powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as "lifting them up." (p 76)

Rather often what the writers [of the Old Testament] have in view, when speaking of the plight of widows, orphans, aliens, and the impoverished, is the collapse or perversion of the judicial system. A place midway between Brueggemann's emphasis on primary justice in Israel and O'Donovan's on rectifying justice seems to me the right place to be. (p 78)

Injustice is not equally distributed. The low ones enjoy those goods to which they have a right - food, clothing, voice, security, whatever - far less than do the high and mighty ones. (p 79)

Israel's religion was a religion of salvation, not of contemplation - that is what accounts for the mantra of the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the poor. Not a religion of salvation from this earthly existence but a religion of salvation from injustice in this earthly existence. (p 79)

Yahweh's pursuit of justice and Yahweh's injunction to practice justice are grounded in Yahweh's love. (p 82)

Injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom. That is why God loves justice. God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God's human creatures; justice is indispensable to that. Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined. (p 82)

God holds human beings accountable for doing justice; and God is himself committed to justice, both in the sense that God does justice and in the sense that God works to bring it about that human beings treat each other justly. Underlying these two themes is God's love of justice. (p 89)

Israel's writers were implicitly working with the conception of justice as inherent rights rather than with that of justice as right order. (p 91)

The assumption of Israel's writers that God holds us accountable for doing justice has the consequence that when we fail to do justice, we wrong God. We not only fail in our obligations to God. We wrong God, deprive God of that to which God has a right. (p 91)

What Israel's writers presuppose, of course, is that God has the right to hold us accountable for doing justice. (p 93)

Surely, God does not have these rights on account of some norm that applies to him! They are not conferred upon God. They belong to God inherently; they come along with what god is and what God does. (p 94)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Were people in Paul's churches poor?

Last week I listened to a talk given by a respected scholar, who outlined some of the good work done by Dr E A Judge about the social setting of Paul's churches. He said a lot of good things, but I was a bit disappointed that he did not interact with other writers in the debate, especially the works written in the past 15 years or so. I think this is an important issue to discuss here.

Respected scholars like E A Judge, Wayne Meeks and Gerd Thiessen helpfully challenged the older notion that the earliest Christians were all destitute. They correctly suggested that some Christians in the earliest church were from a relatively more well-to-do economic background. But unfortunately today's church and even some scholars today have mistakenly taken the view that most of the Christians in the earliest church were "middle-class" (which, I believe, Judge, Meeks and Theissen did not say). In the following I want to clarify a few things.

(1) Tradespeople were hardly like today's middle-class professionals. It is true that people with a trade like carpenters, tent-makers and fishermen were relatively well-to-do, but it does not make them "middle-class". People like Peter, John and Paul might be literate. But it does not necessarily mean that they had a high social status. Indeed Peter and John had to "give up" a lot in order to follow Jesus, for they, being fishermen, would have had some material possessions. But we must remember that artisans (e.g. tent-makers and fishermen) did not belong to the upper classes. They were not destitute, but they were not wealthy either. They needed to work long hours, and often in tough conditions. They might be running a so-called "small business". But it's nothing like a small business in Australia. People like Peter, John, and indeed Jesus, were second-class citizens in the Roman Empire and had to pay taxes to the Romans. There was an underlying political, social and economic oppression that they had to live with everyday. A part-time tent-maker like Paul would hardly be able to survive financially. Although being a Roman citizen he did enjoy some privileges, it did not stop him from being jailed on various occasions. There were no laws or insurance to protect them from the risks of running a business. If there was a fire, it would be hard to recover the loss. If the main "bread-winner" (usually the father) was sick for a few weeks, the well-being of the whole family would be at risk. If there was a prolonged sickness or a bad injury in the family, their whole livelihood would be at risk. In fact, in many Roman cities, artisans (including doctors) were slaves. They were looked down upon because of their social status.

I myself grew up in an Asian city in the 1960's and 70's. It was quite a thriving city, with many migrants from the rural areas. It was similar to, for example, ancient Rome. My dad had a trade and was a small business owner. He had about three workers in his factory. But I can assure you that life was tough - very tough - for the family! We were a little bit better off than the workers in the factory. But we worked day and night, most days of the week, and we could only just make ends meet. My father is now retired, and his living standard is worse than most people in Melbourne today (although he's considered to be quite "successful" in life). Well-being should be measured in "real terms" - that is, the fact that Peter and John enjoyed a relatively stable lifestyle economically in their own social setting does not mean that their lives were easy or free from anxiety. And we must remember that they did give up their security to follow Jesus.

(2) Paul's request for a collection from the Corinthians does not mean that they had plenty of money. I have heard on several occasions that the fact that Paul asked the Corinthian Christians for a collection in 2 Cor 8-9 means that they were not poor. To me, this sounds like someone speaking out of a lack of experience in poverty. When I was a pastor I struggled financially. I found that those who had little money were often very generous. In fact, Paul just said in 2 Cor 8:2 that the Macedonians had given in the midst of their extreme poverty. It seems to me that Paul was expecting the Corinthians to be generous despite their poverty. It doesn't mean that the entire Corinthian community was destitute. In fact, if they were all destitute I am not sure whether Paul would say that they should give their very last penny to others. My point is that it is likely that many of the Corinthians were relatively poor (and some of them might be destitute) and belonged to the lower classes - just like many people in the urban cities in the pre-industrialised world. And Paul was saying that those who had some money and could do better than surviving should try to help another church that was poorer.

(3) Think about this statement: "The earliest church was run by people of high social standing, and they needed people like that to lead because otherwise nobody would listen to them." This is a statement made by some people (but not necessarily by the scholars mentioned above, as far as I know). But is this statement true? Yes and no. The first-century society in the Roman Empire was highly hierarchical. No doubt high social standing would be helpful. But it doesn't make it necessary for the church to grow through the help of people of high social standing. It is true that the literacy rate was low and hence by necessity it needed literate people like Paul to write the New Testament. But it doesn't mean that they deliberately adopted a "strategy" of using people of high standing to lead the church, even though that was probably what happened in practice. The church in China, for example, grew without many educated people during the 1970's and 80's. They needed no "people of high standing" to have people listen to them (in order to grow the church). The leaders had some education, for sure. But they did not have a high social status. They were poor and without any Western influence. But the church thrived nonetheless.

I am not suggesting that we don't need teachers in the church. I myself think that academic training in Biblical Studies - when done properly - is very important. But my concern is that we think that people with little or no education cannot contribute to the theology and ministry of the church. In aid and development it is well-known that the poor often knows what is good development. The West does not have all the answers. The rich and the poor are equal partners in poverty alleviation and in tackling the causes of injustice.

My concern is that the concern of Paul, I think. We see this in 2 Corinthians, for example. Power is a dangerous thing. Knowledge puffs up. We should let God's power work through our weakness. My humble personal opinion is that when we fail to focus on this (ie. God's power working in our weakness), we fail to understand the true meaning of the cross.

(4) Ancient non-biblical documents were often biased because they were written by people from higher classes. Their view of the poor was biased, for often they did not have a first-hand understanding of what it meant to be poor. My concern is that scholars can have an over-reliance on documents that had a biased view of the poor. My concern is also that if today's scholars do their theology from a safe and comfortable office or library without any first-hand knowledge of poverty and injustice, then they need to be aware that their research can be somewhat biased too. Paul, on the other hand, learned to live in want. As a former Pharisee and learned person, he would have been a respected member among his people. But he chose to to live differently. If we think that the earliest church was led by people of higher social standing such as people like Paul, we need to remember that the apostle himself had chosen to give up that social standing - see 2 Corinthians.

(5) We need to stop thinking that Paul's churches are like ours in the West today. Nor was his world like ours. In our Western society (e.g. Australia), we have the Bill Gates of the world (the very rich), the homeless people and the very poor, and those in the middle (me, my friends and colleagues). Those in the middle are doing not to badly, often with some kind of social welfare system as a backup, as well as emergency public health care. But in the ancient Roman cities it wasn't like this. The elite groups consisted about 1-3% of the population. About 20%-35% of the population of Rome, for example, were slaves or their descendants. These slaves might have food on the table, but their lives were not their own. Often they were used for sexual pleasures (applicable to women and young boys). At least some residents in Rome were destitute. There were several slums in Rome. The elite groups not only had a lot of wealth, they had political and social power as well. Those in the middle had no social welfare if some mishap happened to them. Many in the middle were not Roman citizens and by default had a lower social status (or "rank", some want to make that distinction). Basically if you do not belong to the elite or the upper-middle social groups, you are subject to injustice in a world where the rich and power well and truly called the shots. It is in this context that Paul's churches lived and in which Paul talked about financial giving and God's justice for the world.

(6) Finally, I want to say that the above doesn't tell us whether Christians are supposed to be poor or not. I think there is no simple answer to this question. A simple "yes" or "no" answer will not be satisfactory. I believe that we are all supposed to follow Christ's way of life, and Paul seems to endeavour to do that himself.

Coming back to the scholar I heard last week, I think he was right in many ways. My concern is more about how the audience would have understood him, and I hope the above can clarify a few things.

For those who are interested in the more recent scholarly debate, here is a list of interesting reading. I think few would disagree with what I said above.

J. J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998).
Dale Martin, "Review Essay: Justin J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival," JSNT 84 (2001).
Gerd Theissen, "The Social Structure of Pauline Communities: Some Critical Remarks on J. J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival," JSNT 84 (2001).
Gerd Theissen, "Social Conflicts in the Corinthian Community: Further Remarks on J. J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival," JSNT 25.3 (2003).
J. J. Meggitt, "Responses to Martin and Theissen," JSNT 84 (2001).
Steven Friesen, "Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-Called New Consensus," JSNT 26, no. 3 (2004).
John Barclay, "Poverty in Pauline Studies: A Response to Steven Friesen," JSNT 26, no. 3 (2004).
Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1987).
Peter Oakes, "Constructing Poverty Scales for Graeco-Roman Society: A Response to Steven Friesen's 'Poverty in Pauline Studies'," JSNT 26, no. 3 (2004).

Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul's Letter at Ground Level (London: SPCK, 2009).

(JSNT stands for Journal for the Study of the New Testament)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A holistic mission among the urban poor

I like this video from OMF.

"This holistic program alleviates poverty and opens us opportunities for Calapan's urban poor on the island of Mindoro through a livelihood project and scholarship scheme.

One of the 250 sponsored students, Apple, describes coming to know Christ in a real way through the program's Bible studies.

Olga, one of the mother's involved in the card-making project, explains how the income is helping her meet her family's needs."

Click here to watch the video.

What is required for us to become a missionary congregation?

I have come across a series of articles entitled "What is required for us to become a missionary congregation?"

I think it's really worth reading. Here is an excerpt.

It is only as we are a living pulsing community of God's love to the world, living with Him as the centre, that we can be a sign, that we can not just bring the Gospel but live the Gospel. In order to do this our centre must be God Himself, we must be grounded in the Word and empowered by the Spirit. We must indwell the Scripture so that it becomes a part of us, so that it not only informs us but forms us. If we are the only way for the world to understand the truth of Christ then we must live this story in a way that both make sense to the world and yet points to something much greater than ourselves.

I like the author's call for us to be shaped by the Scripture, so that we may live out the story of Christ as we bear witness to the world.

Click here for the article.

Friday, July 2, 2010

More recent reflections

More recent reflections.

Intellectualism can stifle the church, making it less passionate about God and its mission. It produces an elitism that is the direct opposite of the humility of Christ. But anti-intellectualism has produced a superficial form of Christianity, making the church conform to the pattern of the world because it is not transformed by renewing the mind - doing the exact opposite of Romans 12:1-3.

"Jesus modeled innocent suffering in two respects. He suffered even though he did not deserve it, and, in the midst of abuse, he did not retaliate." (Joel Green on 1 Peter 2:21-25)

We all come to the Bible with our biases. For many, it's likely to be our middle-class, Western Christian tradition from the church fathers to the Reformation, and to its 21st-century forms. We, generally speaking, either embrace that heritage or react against it.

I think there is at least one difference between a person living in poverty and injustice overseas and a middle-class Westerner who has chosen to live among the poor overseas: The former has no choice, but the latter has made a choice, and has the freedom to make that choice.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Justice and human rights (Wolterstorff)

I am reading Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). Here is an excerpt from pages 4-5.

Rights are normative social relationships; sociality is built into the es­sence of rights. A right is a right with regard to someone. In the limiting case, that "someone" is oneself; one is other to oneself. Usually, the other is somebody else than oneself. Rights are toward the other, with regard to the other. Rights are normative bonds between oneself and the other. And for the most part, those normative bonds of oneself to the other are not generated by any exercise of will on one's part. The bond is there already, antecedent to one's will, binding oneself and the other together. The other comes into my presence already standing in this normative bond to me.

This normative bond is in the form of the other bearing a legitimate claim on me as to how I treat her, a legitimate claim to my doing certain things to her and refraining from doing other things. If I fail to do the former things, I violate the bond; if I do not refrain from doing the latter things, I also violate the bond. I do not break the normative bond; that still holds. She continues to have that legitimate claim on me as to how I treat her.

The legitimate claim against me by the other is a claim to my enhancing her well-being in certain ways. The action or inaction on my part to which the other has a right against me is an action or inaction that would be a good in her life. A common apothegm in present-day political liberalism is that "the right has priority over the good." In the order of concepts, it is the other way around: the good is prior to the right. One's rights are rights to goods in one's life. The converse does not hold: there are many things that are or would be goods in one's life to which one does not have a right. I think it would be a great good in my life if I had a Rembrandt painting hanging in my living room. Sad to say, I do not have a right to that good. It is because the good is conceptually prior to the right that the second part of my discussion is devoted to the goods to which we have rights, and the third part to having a right to some good.

I will argue that it is on account of her worth that the other comes into my presence bearing legitimate claims against me as to how I treat her. The rights of the other against me are actions and restraints from action that due respect for her worth requires of me. To fail to treat her as she has a right to my treating her is to demean her, to treat her as if she had less worth than she does. To spy on her for prurient reasons, to insult her, to torture her, to bad-mouth her, is to demean her.

And to demean her is to wrong her. If I fail to treat her in the way she has a right to my treating her, I am guilty; but she is wronged. My moral condition is that of being guilty; her moral condition is that of having been wronged.

Lastly, rights are boundary-markers for our pursuit of life-goods. I am never to enhance the good in someone's life, my own or another's, or that of many others, at the cost of wronging someone or other, depriving her of that to which she has a right. I am never to pursue life-goods at the cost of demeaning someone. Rights have been described, and cor­rectly so, in my judgment, as trumps. It may be that a wide range of life-goods can be achieved by pursuing some course of action; but if in pursu­ing that course of action one deprives someone of some good to which they have a right, thereby wronging them, one is not to do that. That good trumps the other goods.

The language of rights is for talking about these matters. It is for talk­ing about these normative social bonds. It is for talking about the fact that sometimes by not enhancing the well-being of the other I fail to give her due respect. It is for talking about that curious and sometimes perplexing interaction, within the realm of the good, between the worth of the other person and the worth of goods in the life of the other.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Some recent reflections

Some reflections I had recently:

All too often we think that the Bible is there to help us work out what is sinful, who has sinned, and how "I" can have "my" sins forgiven. Why not read the Bible in light of what Christ has done to forgive sinners and embrace the outcasts, and how he wants us to embrace "others"?

Ultimately everything Jesus did was based on his unfailing love for humankind. But to love us he had to suffer and die for sinful humans like you and me. Yet that's the best way to live as truly human, and that's the way of life we are called to model after.

Three powerful words in 1 Cor 1:9 - "God is faithful" ("pistos ho theos")

We see the worst of fallen humanity when there is anger, enmities, hatred and conflicts within a community. We see the best of God's renewed humanity when Christ-followers learn to love, embrace one another, persevere, and trust in God's deliverance in times of pain, affliction, conflicts and hostility.

Should the church imitate the world so that people will come to church? Or should the church model after Christ's way of life so that people will be attracted to Jesus himself?

Prayer is no panacea (Heschel)

A friend sent me this quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel (from his book Man's Quest for God). I think it is good.

Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we who grope, stumble, and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us, and what course we should choose.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Self-improvement, dreams, or following Jesus?

I have long been thinking what life is about for Christians. Where is the line between achieving our own dreams and doing God's will? How can we be sure that we are not trying to fulfil our own desires? Are we sure that, as we seek to fulfil our dreams, we do not in the process lose sight of God's kingdom and his purposes for his creation? I think the answer lies in the Cross.

Here is something Tom Wright says in his book, Virtue Reborn (or otherwise called After you believe), page 100.

Jesus's call to follow him, to discover in the present time the habits of life which point forward to the coming kingdom and already, in a measure, share in its life, only makes sense when it is couched the terms made famous by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Come and die". Jesus didn't say, as do some modern evangelists, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." Nor did he say, "I accept you as you are, so you can now happily do whatever comes naturally." He said, "If you want to become my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me" (Mark 8.34). He spoke of losing one's life in order to gain it, as opposed to clinging to it and so losing it He spoke of this in direct relation to himself and his own forthcoming humiliation and death, followed by resurrection and exaltation. Exactly in line with the Beatitudes, he was describing, and inviting his followers to enter, an upside-down world, an inside-out world, a world where all the things people normally assume about human flourishing, including human virtue, are set aside and a new order is established. (Emphasis added)

Jesus would have said, of course, that it's the present world that is upside down and inside out. He was coming to put it the right way up, the right way out. That shift of perception is the challenge of the gospel he preached and lived, and for which he died.

What this means is that the normal standards, even the standards of virtue itself, are challenged at their core. No longer is the good life to be a matter of human beings glimpsing the goal of "happiness" in which they will become complete, and then setting about a program of self-improvement by which they might begin to make that goal a reality. They are summoned to follow a leader whose eventual goal is indeed a world of blessing beyond bounds, but whose immediate goal, the only possible route to that eventual one, is a horrible and shameful death. And the reason for this radical difference is not obscure. It is that Jesus's diagnosis of the problem goes far deeper than that of any ancient Greek philosopher. (Emphasis added)

The 'epistles people' and the 'gospels people' (Tom Wright)

The following quotes are from Tom Wright's new book, Virtue Reborn (or otherwise called After you believe), page 96. In in my interaction with Christian leaders and theological students, I certainly find that people tend to be either an 'epistles person' or a 'gospel person' - ie. their starting point is either Paul's letters, or the four Gospels (Matt, Mark...). Probably they don't know that they are doing that, but that's how their theology works.

Christians, particularly in the Western world, have for a long time been divided between "epistles people" and "gospels people." The "epistles people" have thought of Christianity primarily in terms of Jesus's death and resurrection "saving us from our sins." The "gospels people" have thought primarily in terms of following Jesus in feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and so on. The "epistles people" have often found it difficult to give a clear account of what was going on in Jesus's kingdom-announcement and his call to his followers to be "perfect." The "gospels people"—or perhaps we should say the "beginning-of-the-gospels people," since the line of thought they embrace usually screens out the last few chapters — have often found it difficult to explain why the Jesus who was doing these remarkable things had to die, and die so soon. They have often found it difficult, in consequence, to relate to the central themes of Pauline theology.

This either/or split does no justice, in fact, to either the epistles or the gospels. Still less does it do justice to Jesus himself. For him, the kingdom which he inaugurated could be firmly established only through his death and resurrection.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Christians living in the world - something from Volf

Something really well said by Miroslav Volf.

Christians do not come into their own social world from the outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would). They are not outsiders who either seek to become insiders or maintain strenuously the status of outsiders. Christians are the insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again.

(Cited by Joel Green, 1 Peter [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], page 196-7)

The marginal status of first-century Christians

Another two good quotes from Joel Green's commentary on 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), page 196, 197.

Here Joel Green describes the social setting of 1 Peter, and helps us to understand the marginal status of first-century Christians in Asia Minor - and what it meant to them as they sought to live out the gospel in their daily life.

Status situation is reflected in the style of life expected of those who "belong," the restrictions applied to the "inner group" with respect to social interchange with those within and outside the status circle. Status honor is a register that accounts for wealth, particularly esteeming landed wealth over earned riches, but also other factors, such as family heritage, ethnicity, and gender. In the present case [ie. in the case of the Christians in 1 Peter], the pivotal factor is none of these. Rather, these are people whose commitments to the lordship of Jesus Christ have led to transformed dispositions and behaviors that place them on the margins of respectable society. Their allegiance to Christ has won for them animosity, scorn, and vilification. Their lack of acculturation to prevailing social values marked them as misfits worthy of contempt...

The consequence is that believers, whether male or female, slave or free, rich or poor, eke out their lives on the margins of respectable society. If they were honorable males, they are dishonored. If they were free, they now have all the access to power and privilege of a slave. If they had wealth, it does them little good in the marketplace of prestige and is likely short-lived, since, although the right kind of wealth might buy status in Roman antiquity, carrying the la­bel of an atheist or other socioreligious deviant is an easy ticket to downward mobility, economically speaking.

What does it mean to us who live in the 21st century?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Resurrection and justice

This is what Joel Green says in his commentary on 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), page 28, about the resurrection.

Three interrelated motifs help to structure our understanding: (A) Resurrection signals the restoration of Israel. (B) Resurrection marks God's vindication of the righteous who have suffered unjustly; having been condemned and made to suffer among humans, the righteous will in the resurrection be vindicated before God. (C) Resurrection marks the decisive establishment of divine justice; injustice and wickedness will not have the final word, but in the resurrection will be decisively repudiated. To proclaim the resurrection, then, is already to proclaim a new world, and to call for a "conversion of the imagination."

I have been thinking that in Acts the earliest church proclaimed the resurrection (and the death) of Jesus the Messiah. But what would that have meant to the earliest Christians, according to their Scripture (our Old Testament)? Well, it's about God's justice for the oppressed, his victory over evil, and vindication of the righteous. Of course, in order to partake in the resurrection and eternal life one needs to give her/his allegiance to Jesus. But one wonder how often we miss the meaning of the resurrection because we don't know the Old Testament?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

N T Wright on Genesis 1-3 and Adam

Here are two very short video clips in which N T Wright suggests how we should read Genesis 1-3. Simple and easy to understand. Worth watching.

On Adam and Eve. Are they myths? What are myths anyway?

Click here to view.

On the Genesis story

Click here to view.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

1,100 attending a conference at Wheaton to listen to Tom Wright - Why?

Tom Wright will be speaking at a conference at Wheaton College, a well-known Evangelical seminary in the world. Apparently 1,100 people will be attending. Michael Bird has posted something in his blog about why so many are attending the conference at Wheaton.

Click here for the link.

"The End of Reformed Evangelical OT Scholars" (Michael Bird)

Something to ponder!

Michael Bird, an Aussie New Testament scholar from the Reformed tradition, post a link in his blog entitled "The End of Reformed Evangelical OT Scholars". It is about the resignation of two very respected Old Testament scholars from Reformed seminaries. One of them is Bruce Waltke, who is a well-known professor at Regent College, Vancouver (which is widely thought of as a good evangelical college). The other is Tremper Longman, who is also a well-known scholar.

Click here for the link to his blog.

Another post is also worth reading. It is from Professor John Stackhouse at Regent College. Click here for the link.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Religion, economics, politics and salvation in the New Testament world

The following quotes are from Bruce Malina and John Pilch. Although I don't agree with them totally when it comes to interpreting Paul's letters, they help us to understand the New Testament world from a social science perspective.

There is no language implying abstract concepts of market, monetary system, or fiscal theory. Economics is "embedded," meaning that economic goals, production, roles, employment, organization, and systems of distribution are governed by political and kinship considerations, not "economic" ones. (p 393)

Ancient Mediterranean religion likewise had no separate, institutional exis­tence in the modern sense. It was rather an overarching system of meaning that unified political and kinship systems (including their economic aspects) into an ideological whole. It served to legitimate and articulate (or de-legitimate and criti­cize) the patterns of both politics and family. Its language was drawn from both kinship relations (father, son, brother, sister, virgin, child, honor, praise, forgiveness, etc.) and politics (king, kingdom, princes of this world, powers, covenant, law, etc.) rather than a discrete realm called religion. Religion was "embedded," meaning that religious goals, behavior, roles, employment, organization, and systems of worship were governed by political and kinship considerations, not "religious" ones. (p 393)

The temple was never a religious institution somehow separate from political institutions, nor was worship ever separate from what one did in the home. Religion was the meaning one gave to the way the two fundamental systems, politics and kinship, were put into practice.(p 393)

[A]ncient Rome elites did not have an idea of juridical relations among various peoples. Instead Roman statesmen dealt with other peoples in terms of good faith based on the analogy of patron-client relations. Rome was patron, not holder of an empire; it wanted persons to behave like clients. To behave otherwise was to be a rebel, an outlaw. (p 393)

Salvation means rescue from some difficult situation. The rescuer in question is called a "savior." As a rule, in antiquity the title was bestowed on persons and deities whose actions benefited a great number of people.(p 395)

Quotes taken from Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (Fortress: Minneapolis), 2006.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Bible being rhetorical, and our lives being 'rhetorical' God-speak

In an article in The Regent World (Winter 2010, Vol 22, Number 1), Professor Rikk Watts says the following

Ancient rhetoricians were designers, seeking to persuade people of a different vision for the polis. Since it did not exist, they could not prove it — how do you "prove" a dream? But if you've seen the movie Invictus you will understand what is involved. You need to know your audience, their history and their culture. You need to know what they value and you need to use metaphors, since metaphors are the essential bridge between the known and the unknown... [Then] it dawned on me that the Bible itself is fundamentally rhetorical.

Marketplace theology is about precisely this: incarnational "rhetorical" God-speak. His word to us is brimming with metaphors, history, ethics and vision. It is God's rhetoric, persuading us to join him in his new creational work for a new and glorious future. It is a divine summons to design in the light of his life-giving truth.

The more I study Paul, the more I realise the rhetorical character of his letters. They are letters - speeches! - that seek to persuade. The Bible is not about a set of otherworldly (so-called) 'spiritual principles'. It is not a set of systematic theological propositions. The biblical authors did not write the Scriptures to prove the existence of God per se. Instead, the Bible is God's revelation to humankind about who he is and his saving acts. And we are called to embody the gospel in our daily life. That is, we are to be incarnational "rhetorical" God-speak', as Watts says. In doing so we bear witness to Christ.

It's happy for 'deep people'

Here is a quote from the Doctor Who episide Blink. I think it's 'deep'!

Kathy Nightingale: What did you come here [a dilapidated house] for anyway?
Sally Sparrow: I love old things. They make me feel sad.
Kathy Nightingale: What's good about sad?
Sally Sparrow: It's happy for deep people.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

It's not about a bigger mission organisation

I attended an event recenlty where the National Director of a well-known mission organisation spoke. He started with a statement that as an organisation their goal is not about "getting bigger". It's not about the organisation itself either. It is about the gospel.

I think this is the kind of attittude we should have, and it wouldn't hurt for us pastors, leaders and churches to keep reminding ourselves and our congregations.

The fact is that this mission organisation has grown immensely over the past few years. It is sending out many new missionaries, with most of them serving full-time and long-term! They are there for the long haul - learn the language, live with the people, and share the gospel. (It is true that some of the workers do come home after some years and cannot serve long term. But they do so only because circumstances do not allow them to.)

In many places they focus on serving the poor, because the economic and social needs are huge. When they serve the poor, they do so with no strings attached. They treat the poor as God's image-bearers. But at the same time their deepest desire is introduce people to the Triune God, so that they may have eternal life through faith in Christ. And people do come to know Jesus through their dedication and sacrifice.

I am very encouraged.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A book about classical theism, open theism, etc

(Sorry that this post may be too 'theological' for some. It's because of the nature of the book.)

From Michael Bird's blog I found someone's interview with Kevin Vanhoozer about his book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The book sounds interesting. Here are some quotes from Vanhoozer in the interview.

At this point in our time and culture, modern science has pretty much co-opted the language of causality. Consequently, even theologians who should know better sometimes speak of God’s causality as if it were on the same level as other creaturely causes. This is not how Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, or others in the tradition would have understood it. Nevertheless, open theists and panentheists have used this confusion to their advantage to attack classical theism. How, they wonder, can God be in a genuine loving relationship with creatures if he causes all things, including the motions of people’s hearts? Further, if God causes all things, must he not be responsible for evil as well as good? (emphasis added)

I use the term “communicate” in a very broad sense, not merely in the sense “to transmit information,” but “to make common” or “share.” The most important thing that God communicates is himself: his light (truth), life (energy), and love (relationship). Whereas the end of causation is coercion, the end of communication is communion. The category of communicative action opens up new possibilities for theism and adheres more closely to the categories of Scripture itself.

The question of God’s suffering – that is, his ability to be affected by human creatures – is a red thread that runs throughout the book. If Nicholas Wolterstorff is right in comparing classical theism to a seamless garment where one loose thread spells the unraveling of the whole, then divine impassibility makes for an excellent case study.

Remytholgizing Theology is a minority opposition report on the “new orthodoxy” of divine suffering. While I want to take the biblical depictions of God’s dialogical interaction with human beings seriously, I don’t want to pull God down to the creaturely level. The challenge, then, is to specify to what the biblical descriptions of God’s emotions actually refer. There is not much on the meaning of divine emotions in the history of theology. Classical theists tend to take this language as anthropomorphic; open theists tend to take it literally. I had to resist the temptation simply to choose one side rather than the other. (emphasis added)

Click here for the interview.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Looking beyond the labels

My friend Nils Von Kalm has written a new article. I highly recommend it. Here is a quote in his article.

"In our noble attempts to be Christ-like, we have tried to civilise the poor. Gardiner believes that the Spirit would say to the church today, ‘stop civilising and start discipling’. Or, as a pastor at a church I was at many years ago said, we are just one beggar telling another beggar where to find food."

Click here for the article.