Monday, August 25, 2014

The Scripture Forum 1: Its Dependability

Today we had a lively and engaging forum on Scripture's infallibility and trustworthiness. It reflects our church's values of learning together as a community, being open to hard questions and faith seeking understanding.   

Lots of interesting questions were raised. Understandably it is impossible to do justice to all of them in less than 15-20 minutes. Feel free to approach any of the leaders if you like to continue these conversations. 

Here are some blog posts that I have dug up from the Agora blog which may hopefully help us step back and get some background into the discussions:

1) We talk about an infallible, inerrant original manuscript which is no longer with us. So how do we know what was in that original manuscript (autograph) written by the biblical authors? And what about various translations of the Bible? (KJV, NIV, ESV etc) 

Check out this article published in Kairos magazine: (also available on the book table)

With that background, we can appreciate why some ancient texts/manuscripts i.e. Alexandrian, Byzantine, are considered technically more reliable or not. 

2) Belief that “the Bible contains no error” (inerrant) is not an inductive conclusion arrived at after examining all the passages of the bible or years of studying textual criticism. It springs deductively (top-down reasoning) from the “first principle” that Scripture has been inspired by God who does not make mistakes. 

And that theological belief needs to be informed by what we actually read and find in Scripture itself. And that’s where questions arise where Christians continually try to match this top down conviction with their discoveries from an inductive, bottoms-up close reading of the Bible itself. 

Without that top-down conviction, we may fall into the trap of not seeing the Bible as a coherent, trustworthy whole with a single purpose of revealing Christ. Without a bottoms-up approach, we may fall into the trap of ignoring evidences of how God chooses to actually inspire very human authors with very human languages to deliver that message. 

We need both systematic theology AND biblical theology. Not either-or. 

3) Here is a great question from Alvin: How do you even define 'error'? What about ‘discrepancies’ we find in the Bible?

Being clear on what “inerrancy” means and does not mean would help. Here is a definition (italics mine):
“The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time of writing, in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.”

For example, if the Bible never affirms that the “Good Samaritan” is historical, then it is not a problem if we realize that it is a not a historical story. A story does not have to be historical to give us a true, radically life-changing message. Or if the Bible never affirms that Moses wrote every single word in the Torah, why should we be troubled if we found out that scribes in later generations faithfully updated these books?
When approaching ‘discrepancies’ ask these questions: What is the intention of the author? As Phil pointed out, we need to interpret the text not with our own standards of scientific accuracy but with the purpose of the author. 

Is the list of numbers of chariots and horsemen supposed to have exact, scientific precision? 83,712 horses?

Or did the author mean to give us an idea of how big is the army i.e. in approximations? 80,000 horses?
Giving approximations is a common practice even in our own culture. If I earn $2712.33 a month (after deducting tax), it would be correct to round it up to $2700 if my purpose is just to give someone an idea of how much it is. 

But if the purpose is to report it Jabatan Hasil Dalam Negeri, I'd have to be more exact!

Another question to consider: Is this to be interpreted metaphorically or literally?
Some numbers are symbolic like the number 14 in Matthew's genealogy. 

Sometimes we speak of things as we see it. Like the sun will rise at 8 am. Now we know that actually the earth moves. But even scientists talk about sunrise regularly, they do not take it literally but as how they see it. It is not a scientific “error”.
These references are phenomenal, as they appear to human eye, approximations yet they are correct. 
Lastly, sometimes, the bible reports statements made by ungodly persons. For example, the fool who says there is no God. It doesn’t mean these statements are true, inerrancy only guarantees that they are correctly reported.
4) I also made a similar observation as that of Suren’s question on Messianic prophecy here (Isaiah’s prophecy on the cross/resurrection) and here (other OT prophecies). But often times, biblical prophecies that are ‘fulfilled’ in the Gospels are not always predictive in nature.

For example, Matthew records that Jesus escaped from Herod and sojourned in Egypt before He returned to Israel. That is in fulfillment of prophet Hosea said: “Out of Egypt I call my son”. When you flip back to Hosea, the ‘son’ was the nation Israel delivered out of Egypt rather than a Messianic prediction. Matthew sees a pattern: God brings Israel out of Egypt is a type of Him bringing His Son (Christ) out of Egypt. The new exodus has begun.

That means when the biblical authors use the word ‘fulfillment’, it is much broader than what we normally associate as future predictions. They operate an understanding that God works in history (i.e. raise up a king, deliver his people in Exodus, return from exile, setup a priesthood), and that historical person/institution/event serves as a pattern or typology for how He works in the future. When that pattern gets repeated in future events/persons, it is considered as ‘fulfilled’.

Some plausible treatment of Judas Iscariot’s death and its’ fulfillment here:

Please note that we have two more Q&A sessions 
- 21 Sept (The Canon of Scripture)
- 28 Sept (Jesus in the Bible and Koran) 

Bring your friends (skeptics, seekers, curious) and your questions! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Announcing upcoming ACT Online course on spiritual theology - act

Academy for Christian Thought
Belief with Integrity

The Eight Deadly Thoughts - Spiritual Discipleship of the Mind

Learning objective: To practice the medieval spiritual discipline of meditating upon the Lord.

Scope: We begin with a brief history of spiritual theology, followed by a discussion of Evagrius’ eight deadly thoughts, and conclude with the practical application of assessing the kind of person you are and think about the kind of person you ought to be.

Key terms: Spiritual discipline, habit-formation, nolition (the intentional opposition to our wills), compassion, generosity and God’s habitual presence.
Spiritual discipline refers to the proactive decision to exercise metaphysical self-control over physical emotions, passions and temptations of the mind. In each instance, we will consider how science, technology and medicine has transformed the way we think and live. Our goal is to understand the power of nolition by spiritual habit-formation, to override the default volitions of out in-built competitive survival instincts.

Obstacles: Today, much of academic thinking suffers from a theological amnesia about the purpose of theology – to nourish our spirit beyond just wishing it so. Worship without theological integrity can result in ritualistic slavery and theology without the goal of worship can result in dry religious philosophy. Responsible spiritual theology combines a desire for devotional experience alongside rigorous assessment of every truth claim about God. The works of major spiritual theologians: Evagrius of Pontus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor of Constantinople (all from modern Turkey) have been sidelined, not by secular voices but by Church teachings themselves. Those of us of the Reformed Tradition inherit a strong censorship of writings and thoughts that became victims of the 16th century European religious wars, which were more economic and political than theological.

Conflict: The battleground was the role of nature in learning about God. Ancient prescientific theologians had always understood nature as God’s creation and an important source of God’s revelation, i.e., natural revelation, one that modern science can explore and celebrate even more. But the sola scriptura movement claimed that only the supernatural revelation as presented in the Bible is trustworthy. Nature, and by association, modern science, was a temptation to be resisted. Past theologians taught that the created order we call the universe reflected God’s wisdom and majesty, but by the 20th century, nature and the scientific investigations came to be seen as threats to the closely-guarded magical status accorded to the gate-keepers of spiritual knowledge. As it turned out, science did become a threat. Along with technological innovations and medical advances, science became a serious threat not to faith or belief in God but to the perception that God can only be known and cherished through the words of the Bible. This gagging of God and limiting God to human words of testimonies betrays both the wonder of nature and the beauty of the Bible as written testaments of divine encounters by ancient God-fearers.

Practical actions: Live every moment of your life with an awareness of God, even if God seems remote in you daily life. As we grow in wisdom and experience of life, we tend to desire something more than what seems to be our lot in life. Desire God’s habitual presence. How? By shifting our attention from merely being vaguely aware of God’s presence, we can intentionally seek to be in the presence of God. At any moment in our lives, we pay attention to things that we care about – priority determines ranking. But we are free to make the desire for God’s habitual presence our center of attention even as we do the mundane things in our daily lives. The key to success is habit-formation, the formation spiritual habits that is. In this seminar, we will consider how we might form communities among trusted fellow pilgrims of faith, to celebrate the gift of life to the fullest while delighting in God’s grace by practicing the discipline of compassionate generosity.

In this seminar: We shall consider the eight deadly thoughts as starting points to help us navigate the theological cobwebs that plague the Church with increasingly longer lists of do’s and don’ts. We shall examine medieval insights into the nature of the human mind alongside modern neuroscientific understanding of how the brain works. Then we will be better equipped to assess the competing truth-claims of religious and scientific voices, some of which are helpful but many of which distract us from knowing God and learning to harness the most powerful gift of being the imago Dei – the capacity and persistence of love.

The 8 Deadly Thoughts

1. Gluttony: Attempts to get satisfaction from things rather than from God. Examples include over-indulgences in the three basic wants of the human mind; food, shelter, and love (significance).

2. Lust: Attempts to get satisfaction from the sexual use of bodies rather than love of people. This is not a critique of sexual instinct, which is part of God’s creation. Rather, it is a warning that desires for the bodies rather than the persons themselves depersonalize and objectify the persons.

3. Avarice: A defensive greed for self-provision that kills generosity by filling us with anxiety and insecurity, e.g., "I can’t be generous because I have to think of my own future”. The quest for security keeps us from generosity.

4. Sadness: A form of self-pity and disappointment that rejects what God has made in you. It arises from comparison with the material achievements or inheritances of others. Thoughts of “if only I were a different gender or race, then...; If only God had made me different...”

5. Anger: The unrestrained, cumulative anger that ultimately destroys. An example is the anger that God might bless your enemy – think of Jonah.

6. Sloth:  It does not refer to laziness but rather, indifference to the presence of God in our lives that leads to despair. I call it spiritual paralysis. The Greek word Accidia is to "not care." It may arise from discouragement over the apparent lack of spiritual progress in our lives. We blame church politics, fallen leaders, unfriendly, unloving or hypocritical Christians, gossip, etc,

7. Vainglory: A desire for attention that you want everybody to know of your success in life. It is the vain desire to fill the minds of others with yourself, as Doctor Johnson said.

8. Pride: The decision to take full credit for our achievements and progress in life. "God is not my helper." This results in a deep sense of superiority that hinders any spirit of generosity and compassion for others.

The outcome of each deadly thought is a reduced capacity to love your neighbor with compassion and generosity. They are called thoughts rather than sins because in themselves, they do no harm. It is only when these thoughts are nurtured and executed upon that they can created situations that stop you from fulfilling your potential as a person created by and loved by God.