Pluralism and the Particularity of Salvation in Christ (Print Edition)

In response to many requests, I am posting the print edition of an article written when I was much younger, “Pluralism and the Particularity of Salvation in Christ,” Transformation (1998), pp. 10-15. Ah, how time flies and I don’t seem to have grown wiser.

To download the pdf version of this print edition:

Pluralism Particularity Salvation Christ Transformation1998

Throughout this paper, it is my assumption that Christianity promotes and practices social tolerance and affirms plurality. What I dispute is the contention that social tolerance is possible only if Christians embrace a prescriptive form of religious pluralism. I shall further address the issue of prescriptive pluralism, henceforth referred to as religious pluralism within the framework of Christian discourse, and analyze the logic under-girding religious pluralism. In particular, I shall argue that religious pluralism is not only internally incoherent but that in seeking the least common denominator, pluralism offers a religious faith that is too dilute to meet religious needs. Finally, religious pluralism entails the abandonment of the central beliefs that historically define Christian identity such as normative revelational truths and the historical particularity of the incarnation of God in Christ. As such religious pluralists represented by major thinkers like John Hick and Paul Knitter have no basis to speak on behalf of Christianity….

 

…But why should God need to intervene in the human predicament in the first place? How does the Christian teaching of the Incarnation of Christ fit in? Following White I would like to propose the “Criterion of Moral Authenticity” as a means to shed light on this issue. To begin with, estrangement between God and man is overcome not by special knowledge but by a demonstration of perfect love. Given the magnitude of the human predicament, surely such a revelation demands a costly love which does not compromise God’s holiness. It has to be costly love to win over human sin and rebelliousness. But as White asserts, “Unless and until God himself has experienced suffering, death, and the temptation to sin, and overcome them, as a human individual, he has no moral authority to overcome them in and with the rest of humanity.”[Vernon White, Atonement and Incarnation (CUP 1991), p. 38] Continue reading ‘Pluralism and the Particularity of Salvation in Christ (Print Edition)’ »

FAQ on Muslim Questions – Christian Answers (Updated)

 

“Come now, Let us reason together, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:18).

Muslim polemical literature against Christianity is readily available in bookstores around Malaysia. Their polemics gain media attention when institutions of higher learning organize forums to perpetuate false information about Christianity. For example, in 2014, the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Shah Alam, organized a seminar on “Seminar Kalimah Allah & Kristology Nusantara (“The Word ‘Allah’ and Christology in the Malay Archipelago”), purportedly “to defend the dignity of Muslims in the country and also to give them an understanding as they are being confused by this issue.”
-“UiTM Warns Students About The Threat Of Christianity In “Allah And Christology” Seminar
-Gospels are ‘Fake’ as Jesus was ‘Human Slave to Allah’, Don Claims [The Malaymailonline 6 May 2014]
-Books Warning Muslims About ‘Christian Agenda’ Distributed at Allah Forum in University

Several seminar speakers were reported to have mocked at Christianity as they posed rhetorical questions that suggest the grounds for Christian beliefs are fundamentally flawed. For example, in a forum “Christianisation vs Islamization”, the speakers answered pre-prepared questions that included “Did Jesus really die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins?”, “What is the Trinity?”, “Why did Jesus cry ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani’ (Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”) while on the cross?”

Another speaker claimed that the parts of the Bible based on his teachings should simply be called “Tales of Jesus” instead of the “Gospel”. The books in the Bible were written by Christ’s disciples such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke were considered hearsay and similarly should not be considered the Word of God. The so-called gospel is only Jesus’ words, speech, hence should not be called gospel. He asserted, “The Christian gospel is a fake gospel.”

These speakers were trying to confuse Christians with fabricated lies. Instead of clarifying confusion among Muslims, they were promoting prejudice among Muslims against Christianity. Christians are justified if they feel offended. However, they are mindful of the divine exhortation given in their Holy Book on how to respond peaceably to faultfinders, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:14-15).

Instead of reacting to these Muslim polemicists, Christians are more interested in reaching out to other Muslims who are sincere when they raise questions about Christianity as these Muslims genuinely believe in constructive dialog. To these sincere Muslims we would like to offer “FAQ: Muslim Questions – Christian Answers” as a modest contribution to promote interfaith understanding. Hopefully, the two FAQs given below will assure Muslim inquirers of the intellectual integrity and peaceful intentions of the Christian community.

Continue reading ‘FAQ on Muslim Questions – Christian Answers (Updated)’ »

FAQ: Jawapan Kepada Soalan-Soalan Orang Islam (Dikemas kini)

Marilah kita berperkara, demikian firman TUHAN (Yesaya 1:18)

Kesusasteraan polemik yang menyerang kepercayaan Kristian mudah didapati di kebanyakan kedai-kedai buku di Malaysia. Polemik ini mendapat perhatian media ketika institusi pengajian tinggi menganjurkan forum untuk menyebarkan maklumat palsu tentang agama Kristian.

“UiTM Warns Students About The Threat Of Christianity In “Allah And Christology” Seminar
-Gospels are ‘Fake’ as Jesus was ‘Human Slave to Allah’, Don Claims [The Malaymailonline 6 May 2014]
-Books Warning Muslims About ‘Christian Agenda’ Distributed at Allah Forum in University

Namun daripada merasa takut, umat Kristian mengalu-alukan serangan seperti itu kerana ia memberikan peluang kepada orang Kristian untuk menjelaskan iman mereka.

Tetapi dengan tulus hormatilah Kristus sebagai Tuhan dalam hidup kamu. Hendaklah kamu sentiasa bersedia memberikan jawapan kepada sesiapa sahaja yang meminta kamu menjelaskan harapan yang kamu miliki. Tetapi lakukanlah hal itu dengan lemah lembut dan hormat. Hendaklah hati nurani kamu murni, supaya apabila kamu difitnah kerana hidup dengan baik sebagai pengikut Kristus, orang yang memfitnah kamu itu akan menjadi malu (1Petrus 3:15-16).

Walau bagaimanapun, ada orang Islam yang secara ikhlas bertanya soalan mengenai kepercayaan Kristian dalam mencari persefahaman antara agama. Untuk orang-orang Muslim yang ikhlas seperti inilah kami ingin menawarkan “Jawapan Kepada Orang-orang Islam.” Semoga Allah memberkati umat Kristian dan umat Islam di Malaysia dengan persefahaman dan saling menghormati. Continue reading ‘FAQ: Jawapan Kepada Soalan-Soalan Orang Islam (Dikemas kini)’ »

Christ’s Death as Expiation-Propitiation (Hilasterion): Appeasing the Wrath of God

 

If the heart of the cross is the atonement, the heart of the atonement is penal substitution.

Christ’s Death as Penal Substitutionary
The prima facie evidence from Scripture supports the case for Christ’s death as penal substitutionary. This is clear from the following verses.

Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6)
Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8)
Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3)
he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21)
who gave himself for our sins (Gal. l :4)
who gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us
(Gal. 3: 13)
who gave himself as a ransom for all (I Tim. 2:6)
and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)
Christ suffered for you (I Pet. 2:21)
He himself bore our sins in his body ( 1 Pet. 2:24a)
By his wounds you have been healed (1 Pet. 2:24b)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet. 3: 18)

These verses confirm beyond dispute that Christ died for us. However, how Christ’s death brings reconciliation between the holy God and sinful man is hotly debate. Some scholars teach that Christ died as our representative who advocates or pleas for us as we are not personally present in the judgment court of God. However for evangelicals, these verses require an understanding of Christ’s death which goes further than Christ dying as our representative – Christ died as our substitute on the cross.

To sharpen the difference between the representative and the substitute – the substitute not only pleas for his client, he takes his place on the dock. He becomes the accused who is condemned as guilty. He takes the place of his client as he is executed on the cross. As he took punishment in our place, we are so to say present in him. The phrases “gave himself”, “bore our sin”, “to be sin”, “becoming a curse”, “as a ransom”, and the interchangeability of statements about Christ’s death “for our sins” and Christ’s death “for us” suggests that Christ suffered the penalty that was due to us. The inseparable link between substitution and penalty demands an understanding of Christ’s death as a penal substitution “for us” and “our sins”. Continue reading ‘Christ’s Death as Expiation-Propitiation (Hilasterion): Appeasing the Wrath of God’ »

Going Beyond Evangelical-Liberal Debates on Models of Atonement?

Question from an old friend:

“Is it not possible to accept that penal substitution is only one Pauline model of the atonement and that those of us who find it fails to communicate the Gospel in many cultural contexts prefer to use other models/metaphors (whether Pauline or non-Pauline)- without us all being denounced us “liberals”? Isn’t it also high time we moved away from such misleading and irrelevant theological labels as “liberal” or “evangelical” which are largely Anglo-American cultural imports?…there is no way Stott’s and Morris’s insistence that this [hilasterion] means “propitiation” can be defended in the light of both Jewish and recent Christian scholarship. In any case, you well know that words don’t derive their meanings from dictionaries but from usage in larger literary contexts.”

Answer:

1) Regarding atonement models – Of course I agree with you that there are many valid models of the atonement. Notice I mentioned that the classical Confessions did not ‘canonize’ any one model? I further argued that because of PSA, I can believe in CV? But that doesn’t mean that I cannot argue that PSA is foundational for the other models. Whether one agrees with me or not is a matter of theological exegesis. Everyone is free to take a position on this matter. Continue reading ‘Going Beyond Evangelical-Liberal Debates on Models of Atonement?’ »

Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing

Comment from a reader: I hope to see in a subsequent post the question answered as to whether Barth has a place within orthodoxy if he denies that God moves from wrath to grace in the history of the believer.

Response: Ah, Barth reminds me of my previous life when I wrote my doctoral thesis on him 30 years ago. Sadly, I have not continued my engagement with Barth since coming back to Malaysia. I just simply could not find someone who is interested even to survey the imposing theological Alpine Mount Blanc (yes! Barth was a Swiss, not German) from a distance using a telescope, much less climb its treacherous cliffs and dizzying heights. No one can theologize alone. Hence not much Barthian rumination in my life for the last 28 years. Pastoral necessity forced me to stay in the lowly valleys and grasslands of theology. To theologize Barth would indeed be an indulgence. But then why not once again for a change? Maybe just a quick shot at the problem?

Barth sounds like an evangelical when he talks about the cross. He deploys words like judgment, wrath, representation and substitution. He writes, “the Son of God fulfilled the righteous judgment on us men by Himself taking our place as man and in our place undergoing the judgment under which we had passed. That was why He came and was amongst us.” (Church Dogmatics CD 4.1.222). Barth adds, “His doing this for us, in His taking to Himself – to fulfil all righteousness – our accusation and condemnation, in his suffering in our place and for us, there came to pass our reconciliation with God.” (CD 4.1.223) But then in his usual and confusing dialectics he differentiates his position from that of Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Continue reading ‘Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing’ »

Erasing The Wrath of God from the Cross (in two parts)

In this present climate of social and religious tolerance in the West, one would not have expected a major Christian denomination to ban books, much less delete a popular song from its hymnal. But in 2013, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Songs for the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) decided to delete the song, “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal. It judged a line in the song to be problematic: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Apparently, the committee considered the line to be offensive to modern sensibilities twice over – it not only refers to the “wrath” of God, but suggests that the cross is the place where divine wrath is “satisfied.” The committee overruled what has been for centuries the prevailing Christian understanding of Christ death. This incident confirms the prophetic insight of J.G, Machen who declared in 1923 that theological liberalism is not just another form of Christianity; it is “a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” Continue reading ‘Erasing The Wrath of God from the Cross (in two parts)’ »

Christ’s Victory Through Penal Substitutionary Death

In this post, I shall compare Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) and Christus Victor (CV).

Definitions:
Christus Victor (CV): Gustav Aulén gives a summary of CV in his classic work, Christus Victor:  “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil…the victory of Christ creates a new situation, bringing their rule to an end, and setting men free from their dominion” [Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, (MacMillan, 1969), p. 20]

Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA): Martin Luther whose sympathies for CV is well known, offers a succinct description of PSA, “[Jesus Christ] became a substitute for us all, and took upon Himself our sins, that he might bear Gods terrible wrath against sin and expiate our guilt, he necessarily felt the sin of the whole world together with the entire wrath of God, and afterwards the agony of death on account of this sin” [Martin Luther, Sermons on the Passion of Christ (Rock Island, 1871), p. 29]. See related posts on PSA given below**

Following Luther’s example, Christians should welcome the diversity of models of atonement as they seek to understand the full significance of Christ’s death on the cross. This being said, I would still like to explain why Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) is foundational for other models of the atonement. Continue reading ‘Christ’s Victory Through Penal Substitutionary Death’ »

Are We Saved by Believing in Right Doctrine?

I received a question from a reader of my previous post, “Only Saving Faith Promotes Saving Faith and Obedience.”

Question: “I would like to humbly request for further clarification with regards to the idea that “only right doctrine promotes saving faith”. “Does the statement imply that those who don’t have right doctrine are not saved.” The reason I ask is because this is the argument raised by church X that salvation is based on doctrine rather than on a belief in the person of Christ…However my concern is more for those who have a simple child-like faith and who are ignorant either because they happen to be unknowingly stuck in a church that deprives them of sound doctrine or because they happen to be uneducated. Do these people have saving faith without “right doctrine”?

Answer:

Many church leaders have the impression that doctrine entails argument over abstract propositions that distracts Christians from focusing on more important spiritual exercises which build faith and relationships. To correct this false impression I pointed out MLJ’s insistence that doctrine is practical and that “there is an inseparable link between doctrine, spiritual experience and Christian obedience.” I was hoping that MLJ would add weight to my post which was written in a “rah-rah” spirit to get church leaders excited about doctrine.

I am aware of the possibility that the title of the post could be misread. Hence, your question, “Does the statement imply that those who don’t have right doctrine are not saved” does not come as a surprise to me. May I suggest that we read the title for what it affirms positively, “Right doctrine promotes saving faith” without implying the negative possibility, “No right doctrine means no saving faith”?

Some clarifications is in order:

First, while it is our duty to defend right doctrine, nevertheless, we should refrain from drawing definitive conclusions about someone’s salvation simply because of doctrinal difference. That is to say, our focus should be on critiquing wrong doctrine and not on judging people. Ultimately, to judge whether someone is saved or not is the business of God alone. We should humbly leave this matter to the holy God who is not only a God of truth and justice, but who is also a God of mercy. Continue reading ‘Are We Saved by Believing in Right Doctrine?’ »

Only Right Doctrine Promotes Saving Faith and Obedience

Nowadays, doctrine is not much mentioned in churches. Words like “creeds” and “catechism” are foreign to the vocabulary of church leaders. In the absence of doctrinal teaching, it is not surprising that most Christians no longer understand what they are supposed to believe. Unfortunately, nature abhors vacuum – the consequence is not just doctrinal indifference, but doctrinal perversion. Liberal theology which was vanquished and banished from the Malaysian churches in the early 1980s now finds a ready audience among younger Christians who are not properly taught the faith of their forefathers. It is indeed what the Apostle Paul foresaw when he wrote, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2Timothy 4:3)

Rather than giving an exhaustive list of new heresy that will one day become new orthodoxy in the Malaysian church, I shall just share the so-called “Apostate’s Creed’. Continue reading ‘Only Right Doctrine Promotes Saving Faith and Obedience’ »