The Gospel in the Key of Minor: Contextualizing the Gospel to a Cynical Generation

Note: This was the last paper I wrote upon completing my bachelors degree in Theology. This one, although being the standard boring papers that probably no one would read, is one that has some sort of emotional attachment when I wrote it. Probably one of the favorite paper I wrote. This post of course is not poetry but theology. I’ve tweaked some parts here and there so this is a modified version of what I handed in to be graded.

Jesus is So Cool
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Introduction

            Contextualization is not a new concept. It is an idea developed out of certain probing by people who saw that there were problems when relating the Christian message in different cultural settings. Because of the heightened issues that have been gleaned from countless experiences in conveying the Christian message to these cultures, it seems that there should be a guiding principle that should direct how Christians approach how they are to convey the Christian message of Jesus in an understandable way to different people living with different cultural settings. This is where contextualization comes in. This essay will first work through understanding the principles of contextualization. The second part of the essay will then seek to apply some of the principles in an attempt to convey the message to a particular culture or sub-culture, as I have tried to do so to what I ascribed later as a “cynical generation.” The last half of the essay is to seek how contextualization is realized when applied to the setting of discipleship.  

1.      Principles of Contextualization

One of the defining reasons why Christianity has spread so widely over different cultures and regions is underlined by the fact of its adaptability to intersect its message to different cultures and settings.[1] Part of the reason of its adaptability is how the message of Christianity has been shared across cultural and ethnic barriers. Understood simply, the task of contextualization is explaining the gospel in the context of a people that will make sense to them in a way that is relevant pertaining to the way of their context, people groups, cultures and religious groups. Flemming notes that the term contextualization is relatively a new concept[2] which has been largely connected to the scope of missionary fields.[3] Embedded in the construction of the new term, Christians throughout the centuries have tried in their way to communicate the Christian message through creeds or by basing it on their historical context, but there have been dissatisfaction following this in the turn of globalization as most of the ways of expressing the Christian message were mostly Western ways.

            What is culture and the implication of culture?

Culture is something that is pervasive and massive if one is to seek a definite understanding concerning it. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, he tries to give an understanding as to what it means which is “the meaning dimension of social life.”[4] In this manner what Vanhoozer is trying to convey is that the landscape of where people live in stating the social life, is given color by the culture that directs and gives meaning to it. The color that shape cultures are the values and beliefs that inhibit it and that is why “every part of culture communicates something about meaning of the whole,”[5] in this case the social life.

Given the fact that culture is what defines the social life in the way that it gives meaning to it, if it is put then to a grander perspective of globalization, what we have is a plurality of cultural expressions. This is given to the fact that each nation or ethnic race of people has their own definitive cultures embedded in their social life.

Just looking at the landscape of possible definitions of culture as viewed above would see the massive task that is given for those who seek to convey the gospel of Jesus, faithfully and exhaustively in its full meaning and in the case of communicating it for life transformation. This is where contextualization comes in and tries to modulate the radical task of offering dialogue between the Christian message defined by how one explains the scripture with the perspective of life transformation and doing so in a way that would be conveyed meaningfully, taking into consideration the social context of each culture.

 

            Contextual Theology

Contextualization, the task that it is to undertake has the understanding of communicating a defining narrative controlled by a figure of importance in a way that takes into consideration cultures. What is meant by this is that the gospel message is hinged on the narrative or story of Jesus who is the focus of the scriptures. All tasks of contextualizing the message of the gospel stands or falls under this narrative; the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in an encapsulated way, that Jesus is the pinnacle of God’s encompassing story in his dealings with Israel and mankind as a whole. This is the centre of contextualizing the message as it seeks to dialogue within an existing culture. This infusion is seen as a dialogue between the defining narrative (Jesus’ story) and culture that it engages in. This dialogue is moderated by the non-negotiable centre, the figure (Jesus) that defines the message. The ultimate purpose in this contextual dialogue is not just to open understanding but for life transformation, where the defining narrative takes precedence in proposing a third way to live.

 2.      Communicating the Gospel to a Cynical Generation

Much of the messages that are generally played out by the modern church largely display a black and white reality. That life without Jesus is empty and one that is driven by Jesus is meaningful. I do believe that this is real and true, but to a cynical generation, statements or messages that allude to that form of communication rarely gets heard, or if it does seep into the hearts of hearers, the excitement does not last.

Part of the reason for this is that in more ways than none, it is a disconnected message that entails little or no identification with the struggles people go through in life. In the demographic of living life in the world or what we would call reality, such black and white distinctions very rarely project much truth in them. Take for example the principle of retribution or what is popularly known as karma. This principle that it so plays out in life is that, if one does good things, good things will go their way but if one does bad things, he or she will reap the benefits of the bad thing that he or she had done. The problem with this view is that the dimension of probability in the realms of reality is spaced out. Things in reality do not always work in such black and white terms. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.

The problem that I see is that the bulk of messages coming from churches now follow in some ways a-karma-like-infused principle to spirituality. That if one is in God one will receive blessing and protection and if one is not he or she shall suffer. These for me are seeds that would easily open doors to cynicalism.

Often, cynicalism is a reaction to spirituality that avoids grappling with reality, suffering, meaninglessness, injustice or weakness. The overly infused message of what is projected as the gospel sounds more like positivism that leans towards what I had earlier mentioned as karma infused Christianity. Andrew Byres gives some potent understanding concerning cynicism. He defines it as “an embittered disposition of distrust born out of painful disillusionment.”[6] The cynical disposition according to Byers is a reaction to what he calls “pop Christianity” which refers to,

“the over simplified theology and the trite sentimentality that is so rife throughout the Western church. This is a populist version of Christianity that is “purged of complexities, nuance, and darkness” and lacking “poetry and emotional breadth.” Many illnesses can be identified under the rubric of pop Christianity, to which cynicism has become a common response.”[7]

Although as Byers mentions as sickness in a Western context, much of what is seen in urban churches in Malaysia are similar in nature as well, with what is mentioned as cynicism being a negative response to Christianity, and this, more so with the demography of younger adults.

In contextualizing the message of the gospel to a cynical generation, one presumably needs to consider a modified way of presenting the gospel. Modified as in having wisdom, in not overplaying an overtly hopeful and positive message (although the Christian message is in fact a message filled with hope), but rather detour in a different route. Since what I mentioned earlier concerning much of the message of the church seems to devoid complexities in life, where reality does not go smoothly with one following Christ or not, a good point of consideration is to point listeners or those we are conversing with to the narrative of Jesus’ life, death and crucifixion as a starting point.

 

            The gospel in the key of minor

The analogy that I use comes from a musical key that in most cases exemplify sounds that would churn mellow moods or for that matter dark moments. Most songs in contemporary culture follow this general principle and this would be a good analogy to use in portraying the gospel to a cynical generation. The analogy assumes an atmosphere of darkness and in some ways Jesus’ death and crucifixion portray this. A good example of how cynics view the complexities of life can be exemplified in the lyrics of this song,

“[chorus:] cause the sun always sets, the moon always falls, it feels like the end just pay no mind at all, keep rolling, rolling, life must go on…[bridge:] we have our misfortunes the darkest of days, we must endure and keep strong, just look to the morning the promise awaits, and know that this life must go on.”[8]

 

The song above portrays a reality that speaks both about the realistic conditions of life which entails hard times and suffering but in some ways speaks a message of hope and survival. This is typical of most songs which resonate with a cynical generation who holds both the tensions of sufferings and hardships and the necessary mode of surviving through. But missing element to moving on is to the question, “On what basis is one supposed to move on?”

Jesus’ life portrayed one that most would adhere to as exemplary in terms of ethical and moral standards. Ghandi himself was one who was attracted to Jesus’ ethical and moral standards. Jesus could be presented as a man who was highly spiritual and morally robust in how he lived his life. This would be a good model for us to highlight in telling a cynical generation concerning Jesus. Scripture adhered to this as we can find in Luke where on the mouths of those ascribed to as rebels being crucified alongside Jesus spoke and said “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41).

But taking a radical overture, although being someone who did nothing wrong to deserve death at the arms of authorities, Jesus who was a model of spiritual and ethical virtue in following God and his commands met with a fate that spoke of injustice and meaninglessness. Here we have a narrative of someone who was very much close with God but suffered regardless of how he lived in following God’s command.

This narrative as opposed to one that defies any form of contradicting force in living in the realms of reality bridges the gap for those who are cynical of an overtly positive message of hope, that sometimes exhibits the constrains of protection from God who is largely portrayed by a reductionist form of Christianity that avoids talking about contradictory stances in life. A message portrayed in this direction would, I presume open interest to those opposed to a largely positive message to resonate on that part where life is unfair and even one who followed God closely encountered as well. Jesus is also seen as one who cried out in pain at his abandonment when he wailed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46) This particular scene in the narrative speaks in terms of identification. Jesus, although being someone spiritual and who modelled a life following the moral and ethical demands to God’s command, himself went through a period of abandonment.

But the story of Jesus does not end there. Although it explicitly shows that a life of faith is not a life devoid of suffering and at points the emotional feeling of abandonment of God, it ends on a resonating major note which rings hope. Jesus, after being crucified, dead and buried, rose up from the dead. It is at this point the narrative of Jesus’ life portrayed in all his following of God, through suffering, death and resurrection speak more about how life on earth is. The defining key note here is, hope entails, not a life that is devoid of suffering and meaninglessness but the promise is that in the end God will come through as he has in the details of Jesus’ life.

A cynical generation wants and longs to hear a story not in terms of victory but a connection point that speaks in line with the hurts and longing that they are going through. Jesus’ life is portrayed in such a way that it speaks about that life, one that is steeped in the soils of reality but also one that directs to a better hope than just a strong will to move on.

3.      The Task of Discipling a Generation of Cynics

The task of finding a contextual ground for discipleship to a cynical generation is somewhat hard to construct. There are many things to be addressed and worked out. Because of the brevity of this essay, it can only do so much as to offer some gleanings in the hope of how this can be done. I have to confess that there are no hard and fast rules to what should be considered but this would need further exploration by way of reflection and experimentation.

One of the things that is vitally important for one engaging this generation of cynics is on the model of openness and receptivity of questions pertaining to faith. This mark of engagement that is fuelled with a disposition of not being shaken by questions is the few traits of dealing meaningfully with this generation of people. Rather than refuting questions because they seem off key or in some ways opposed to the gospel or the message of Jesus, one needs rather to respond by affirming the validity of their questions and asking those who have asked them to explain as to why they ask these questions. A good portrayal of this would be in terms of how Paul engaged with the Athenians. Although this seems more like a gospel presentation case for basing communication, I believe it should also be modelled in a discipleship context because many of those who are in the generation that I presumably mention are bible illiterate or have their own pretensions to what they understand as the Christian message. Therefore this needs to be subtly deconstructed to the Jesus message.

The principles introduced by Flemming in his book are those that can be followed in doing so. Flemming observes that Paul addressed Athenians with respect by calling them “very religious” which Flemming says in a term that is “neutral and nonjudgmental sense.”[9] But the address does not end with that, as Paul continues to probe a deeper reality at hand, which ascribes to their need, in the Athenians statue to an unnamed God. This unknowing becomes the platform in which Paul used to address his presentation of this unnamed God as a means of bridging the gap in unravelling a mystery to them.[10]

The principle underlined here works with what I have mentioned earlier. Now to put it more clearly, an example needs to be presented in how this will work in terms of discipleship. Flemming, in the last chapter of his book, briefly addressed some important themes that a postmodern generation longs and in some ways need to understand. The first on the list was on the importance of community. Community is something that the church is missing at the moment in terms of understanding. Part of the reason is due to translating the word church to a place or building when it should be something in connection with community.

Say for example, someone one was discipling asked a question concerning his or her disillusionment about church. And in following Paul’s principle one affirms the questioner’s disillusionment and addressing in a way that this questioner is in some ways right to convey this question and frustration about what she sees as church. Let me assume that this person, is steeped in culture and knows a thing or two concerning heavy metal music and propose to explain church in the context of a community ascribed as metal heads, which are those who are ardent or hardcore followers of a particular subculture which reveres metal music.

I have written a blog post ascribing to what the church can learn from heavy metal communities which details the journey of Sam Dunn[11], who while writing his dissertation paper based on anthropology which focuses on metal heads, in understanding sociological and anthropological insights concerning this group of people. There are three things that I found fascinating in Dunn’s documentary; (1) metal heads were considered outcasts because of the nature of their musical tastes being underground or countering pop-culture (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11; 4:1-5); (2) there was a keen sense of belonging forged from because of the music that connects them; and (3) they were ardent devotees to the group they belonged to as if to say, “Once a metal head always a metal head.”[12] These three points translate well into forming a bridge in terms of modulating cultural trends in a way that it deconstructs a dented view of church and in that way offers a reconstructive passageway in proposing a more biblical model of what church is supposed to mean.

In short what I have proposed above is a conversational way in which those discipling this generation that I have termed cynical. It has more to do with acceptance and openness in conveying biblical truths by way of conversing a cultural trend, deconstructing an old model of thinking and proposing a more biblical view concerning a certain subject.

 

Conclusion

 

            The task of contextualization is something that the church should and must consider in the reality that each culture has embedded in it differing beliefs and values. Christians need to understand this at heart in order to be able and clear communicators to those they seek to evangelize and disciple. But it must remember that relevance in terms of communicating the gospel in a given context clearly has to be controlled by what I have mentioned earlier as the defining narrative, and this point to Jesus and Scripture. But the overall purpose of communicating the gospel is not for the purpose of just giving understanding. The ultimate purpose of communicating the gospel is for life change and transformation in following Jesus.

 

 


[1] Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003). p.99

[2] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. (Apollos: Leicester: 2005) p. 15

[3] According to David Clark the term arose due to a response of how “theology and missions were done in the light of globalization” in 1972, being a term that replaced indigenization “in a report of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches (WCC).” Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Methods for Theology. Pg 102

[4] Vanhoozer; Kevin J; Charles A. Anderson; Michael J. Sleasman. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) Pg.24

[5] Vanhoozer; Kevin J; Charles A. Anderson; Michael J. Sleasman. Everyday Theology. Pg.24

[6] Byres, Andrew. Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011) Pg.9

[7] Byres, Andrew. Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. Pg. 10

[8] The song is taken from a band named “Alter Bridge” entitled “Life must go on” http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/a/alter_bridge/life_must_go_on.html (accessed October 1st 2011)

[9] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Missions. Pg 75

[10] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Missions.  Pg. 76

[11] A brief description about what Sam Dunn did can be read here with the link of his video documentary which I have myself watched. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal:_A_Headbanger’s_Journey (Date accessed: October 1st 2011)

[12] The following is taken from a blog post I have written concerning this which can be accessed here: https://achorusofehoes.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/how-heavy-metal-can-teach-us-devotion/ (Date accessed: October 1st 2011)

Bi-Vocational Ministry

My friend Kurt, of whom I should thank for graciously giving me the opportunity to contribute something for his blog has recently posted my article  on my thought of going bi-vocational. I contemplate on our somewhat narrow sense of how we understand ministry as well. Follow this link to read more. And do share your thoughts :).

Theology for the Community

Many have mentioned their disdain at achedemic theological studies. I’ve had my share of people telling me that whenever someone enters into seminary, it somehow eats out the passion in the person, sucking it dry and leaving the student dry. Maybe they have some truth in their reflections on this. But to simply lump up accusations like this on theological academic studies is simply a misconception. 

It is true sometimes that the sheer technical words that some encounter might mimic the expression of dry and boring readings. Arguments are by their hundreds on issues raging from positions taken. Take for example how we should think about the Lord’s supper, or is God all sovereign or is there a degree of freedom on our side to our understanding of God. I think we mostly scratch our heads with all this arguments and positions one way or another. But does this actually tell us that these things are unimportant? 

So, some might want to do away with theology and anything about positions, taking the route of simplistic understandings. Just go back to the simple teachings of the bible. 

But I think we miss the whole point here when preconceived in this is the thought of theology only being the thing that we do just in the confines of the academy. Regulated to the confines of our seminaries, or for that matter, just some thing we do when writing our paper to pass up to our lecturers and nothing more than that. At best this is a misconception. 

One thing we have to know is that, all what we call mindless debates of positions undertaken in what we read off in our textbooks are thoughts being constructed with the community, or the church as a whole in mind. Take the reformation as an example. We can say that Luther’s beef with the teaching of the church back then was not just personal, but it had in it the church in mind, well we can say the people in mind. His reflections affected the whole church, and the whole understanding of the people back then. In this manner it is safe to say that, theology or reflections on theology are not just personal but they effect the mind of the masses. Theology, first and foremost is done with the community. 

Anyway, this is just some thoughts I reflected on reading this article which paved way for this reflection. A good link from someone in the blogsphere I should say. I hope it benefits you as well. Click here to read the article.

The Nameless and Faceless

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Last week a few of us handed out some proposals for some sort of book that us student in seminary were interested in writing. We were thinking on the lines of Genesis. Since, it’s one the OT books that people have a hard time understanding.

We talked about it to our respected dean and it was sadly rejected. He had good points though, like, “who do you have in mind to address?”, “is there a nagging question that you want to answer to the masses?”, “if there have been others (well known authorities who have written on the issue), what value will our essays mean compared to their’s?”, and “there is a relatively low market of getting theological writing in Malaysia.” I think what he said were very thoughtful things. But it still leaves me a bit dismayed. So here’s what I think.

Sure, our contribution might not be as inventive or authoritative as those well known authors who have progress on Genesis, but that does not necessarily point to unnecessary contribution from nameless and faceless seminarians. I think we can and should get out our opinions on issues. But yes, who will want to read essays done by unknown authors who have no weight to their credentials.

And for all it’s worth, the only contribution we can offer is our personal testimonies and callings. Sure, in a way it’s good to share about our changed life but is that all we can offer for people to read? I guess that’s all that everybody wants.

I also think that there is no confidence vested in us by the seminary because our work, our writing or papers are only seen as just papers to be marked and given grades. Maybe it is more than that but it sure feels like what i mentioned earlier.

I guess that’s what happens when you’re nameless and faceless. There is no real contribution that you can make. Just some meaningless words you thought were meaningful. But ultimately meant for the garbage.

The Concept of God as Trinity and a Response to Modalism

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Introduction

The doctrine of the trinity is one of the most hard to grasp and explained teaching in Christianity. Many Christians steer away from trying to understand it or flee whenever questions asking about their understanding of it (the trinity) comes about. But when people try to explain it in various descriptions and models, their explanation of the trinity either lead their views to embrace tritheism; the understanding that God is three or modalism; the understanding that God is one but has revealed himself to us in three forms; Father, Son and Holy Spirit at different points of time.

Concerning this Doctrine in Malaysia, most Christians ascribe to it in the form of information. But upon further investigation, the majority explain or understand the trinity taking modalism as their reference point. Being a multiracial country with diverse religions, the turn towards monotheism and in that conjunction, modalism, is a logical jump to take.

This study will be in response to modalism which Christians in Malaysia have in understanding God, where, although ascribing to monotheism, refutes embracing the Christian doctrine of a monotheistic Trinitarian God. This study will consist of the historical development of the doctrine of the trinity particularly tracing the developments of modalism. Next, the biblical perspective is investigated, but responding first to the question of how the early Christians made the radical jump ‘from’ their monotheistic faith to embrace the concept of the trinity. The remainder of the study will look into the implication and importance of this doctrine for the Christian faith.

 

1.      The Development of the Doctrine of Trinity in History

This doctrine (trinity) has seen it being developed over a long period of time in an attempt to respond to a problem that the early believers that time were grappling about where integration of three different beliefs “the heritage of monotheism, the confession of Jesus’ lordship, and the experience of the Holy Spirit,”[1] were to be merged together. In order to give some detailed understanding concerning modalism, it is best to see it in the light of historical development.

In the development of this doctrine based on the considerations above, Grenz observes that there are two phase of the development in history, where, firstly, focus was turned to God’s relationship to Jesus and second, was concerned with the nature of the Holy Spirit.[2]

The early discussion surrounding Trinitarian debate focused on early Christological debates- in the “mid-second century” which focused on the explanation known as the “logos Christology” dealing with passages found in John 1 and also in the creation of the world in Genesis to the implication of this Jesus, who is ascribed as divine, also being fully human. 73 But some were not happy with this explanation labelling the explanation above not monotheism but believing in two gods. Dynamic monarchism, which can be ascribed to Theodotus in Rome at about A. D. 190 and Paul of Samosata[3] is the theory “that the divine power descended upon the man Jesus, so that he was not ontologically God but merely the carrier of the divine power, an inspired man.”[4]

The other known as the “modalistic monarchism” tried to explain that the three forms Father , Son and Spirit are three ways in which God had revealed himself to people[5] and also that they did not stand for exact distinctiveness.[6] Erickson, sees some hope in this doctrine because it seeks to adhere to the concept of the trinity, where all three are divine and one. But as mentioned previously, it is the oneness that is emphasised because they do not see Father, Son and Spirit as distinct persons.[7]

Controversy again arose from a deacon named Arius of Alexandria who wanted to defend the monotheistic understanding of God. For him Jesus was not divine and that he was a created being, this understanding which he derived from understanding the “biblical verb “to beget” means “to make”- the Father made the Son.”[8] Athanasius opposed this view by stating that it will dent the doctrine of salvation. And in Nicea 325 the affirmation of Jesus’ divinity was agreed.[9]

On the Deity of Spirit, basically, followers of Arius were the ones who raised this issue, stating that the Holy Spirit as the other creature created by the Father. This controversy is ascribed to Macedonius who was Bishop of Constantinople.[10] This again was further opposed by Athanasius who noted that the Holy Spirit is placed on equal footing with the Father and the Son in the baptismal formulas, apostolic benedictions, and Trinitarian doxologies found in the New Testament and in the early Christian literature.”[11] 77 But the most important pointer noted by Athanasius pertaining the argument is its connection with soteriology where the Spirit that enters us upon conversion must be the very spirit of God. This question was settled in the “Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.”[12]

Taking note of the shifts in Christian history concerning how the doctrine of the Trinity was developed, it does reveal to us that issues concerning the trinity, in the case of modalism, are not new. For this particular study which seeks to trace the development of modalism through history, one sees that earlier proponents especially those who were modalistic monarchism, although trying to keep the concept of trinity failed to see their mistakes in the designation and understanding that they sought to hold concerning the trinity. This view is known popularly now as “Oneness Theology,” where instead of holding on the concept of “One God, three Persons,” because of the difficulty in ascribing to this Trinitarian modal opted for a more monotheistic bent. Therefore, we now move to the bible to help us discern the thought progress concerning a biblical Trinitarian modal that is a move away from modalism.

2.      Trinity: In Biblical Perspective

This particular part of the paper will seek to see how concepts of the trinity were developed among the Early Christians and then tracing this development (albeit assumed) to the Old Testament and it’s clearer picture in the New Testament. The question of the Early Jewish Christian is treated first in the hope that discoveries in this development might assimilate data from the subsequent study concerning the data found in the Old Testament concerning hints towards a plurality in the Godhead. This will thus lead to the investigation in the New Testament which speak more clearly concerning the concept of the trinity.

                                                                                          

a.      The Early Christians: Did the early Jewish Christians disregard their monotheism?

 One of the constant questions that I have whenever thinking about trinity and reading through material that pertains to it is the question regarding, “How did the early Jewish Christians overcome their monotheistic leanings and embrace the addition of Jesus in the equation of their monotheism?”

I think if one wants to overcome barriers pertaining to the study of the doctrine of the trinity might find some hope in seeing how the early Christians overcame their strict monotheism. Because for them, it was a significant jump that they too, knowing so much that monotheism was at the centre of their belief in God.

Thomas H. McCall has probed some interesting insights in the acceptance of the early Christians of somewhat ‘modifying’ their monotheism. His survey of the development is gained from looking through the period of Second Temple Judaism, a period which relate to the understanding of the NT writers.[13] Jews during those periods were strict in their monotheism. The highest form of exclusive monotheism was worship which was central.[14] It is interesting to note in McCall’s survey, he quotes Bauckham as saying

“Jewish monotheism clearly distinguished the one God and all other reality, but the ways in which it distinguished the one God from all else did not prevent the early Christians including Jesus in this unique divine identity. While this is a radically novel development…the character of Jewish monotheism was such that this development did not require repudiation of the ways in which Jewish monotheism understood the uniqueness of God.”[15]

This is to say that, the form of monotheism that was held to was in no aspect distorted by the early Jewish Christian by placing Jesus as worthy of worship.[16] This is important information that we gain concerning what forms what can be termed monotheistic. But it needs further clarification.

In 1 Cor 8:1-6 Jesus is infused in the Shema, which is the foundational framework to the monotheistic ascription to God. Gaining perspective from Bauckham and N.T. Wright, who both explain that this was not a distortion of the Shema’s concept of monotheism, but rather both scholars see that Paul was merely ascribing Jesus to be included to the unique identity of God.[17] This is not a violation of the Shema, explains McCall, but rather the notion of the Shema does not designate the understanding of “numerical tropes of divinity” but on the understanding of absolute devotion to the one God. McCall states that the meaning of “one” (echad) in the Shema where,

“…the word used here is a word that actually allows for interpersonal relationship-it is the very word used of a man and woman becoming “one flesh.” The original Shema is a statement of monotheism, but it is much more concerned with exclusive devotion than with informing us about the acceptable maximum number of divine tropes.”[18]

Thus, taking this view, that the monotheism was not seen in numerical terms that people now understand them, they as McCall recalls in studying Bauckham, was more of fixed to a call for their ultimate devotion.

b.      OT Developments of the God’s plurality

I find it necessary then to probe the investigation of the concept of Trinity looking at it from the lens of the Old Testament. Caution must be taken when trying to build an argument concerning the idea of God’s plurality. We must take note that the full-blown revelation of the trinity is only developed in the New Testament.

In Feinberg’s chapter on the trinity in his book that concentrates on the doctrine of God, he spends some pages noting passages in the OT that show us intimations of the plurality of God. They deal much with the way words are used by the OT writers in particular elohim which is in plural form, linguistics in the OT passages which do not equate in the normal use of how sentences are structured and formed (e.g. Gen 1:26; 20:13; 35:7 2 Sam 7:23), designation of angelic beings being ascribed to as God but in some ways distinct from him, passages in the OT that somewhat address speculation that God has a Son, the divinity of God’s Spirit being at times distinct from God, and lastly some passages where divinity is ascribed to more than one person. Although the evidence is vast and wide, nevertheless, Feinberg does not over impose these passages ascribing to the teaching of the trinity. But this being the case, he does not deny that they somewhat imply some constructive thought in the idea that in the OT there is a slight hint bent towards the implication that there exists a plurality in the monotheism of Israel.[19] Ironically, ascribing to a similar stance is a Jew who is known as Maoz, whom, in Richard Harvey’s book surveying Messianic Jewish theology takes these considerations more seriously.[20]

c.       NT Evidence of Trinitarian Understanding

There can be no doubt (although modalists would disagree with me) that the New Testament is where this revelation of a Trinitarian understanding of God is developed more exhaustively. Matt. 28:19-20 is one of the most common descriptions of the Trinity presented in scripture. It is this very passage that becomes the very words a minister uses when baptizing a new convert. Erickson makes some observation about this rendering in saying that “name” is singular although the three are spoken of and that “there is no suggestion of inferiority or subordination” coming from reading the text. Paul’s passage in 2 Cor.13:14 also indicate the unity and equality of the Trinity.[21]

One of the things that are constantly unmistakable in the New Testament concerning the revelation of God being Triune is passages that describe the Godhead together in completing the task of our salvation and redemption.[22] This is especially indicated in 2 Cor. 1:21-22 where it states that “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit.” Apart from this Erickson also mentions other verses that fit this understanding which are 2 Thess. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 13:14 and Ephesians 3:14-19.[23]

One of the more interesting knowledge concerning the development of the Trinity is how this is not only developed based of references from just verses but as Erickson gleans from the study done by Arthur Wainwright is the indication of a Trinitarian framework of Paul’s letters found in Romans and Galatians. Here is one example taken from Romans

“The judgement of God upon all (1:18-3:20)

Justification through faith in Christ (3:21-8:1)

Life in the Spirit (8:2-30)”[24]

The witness of the fourth gospel also gives a compelling case for Trinitarian leanings gleaned from the New Testament which is the “strongest evidence of a coequal Trinity,” according to Erickson.[25]

Thus, the witness of the New Testament is compelling, in that it tells us that God exists in a tri-unity that is expressed in a coequal community which completes the redemptive work of saving us. Judging for a modalist point of view, evidence for ascribing to the concepts that God is one and descriptions like Father, Son and Spirit are not distinctions but rather the ways in which God has revealed himself to us in the course of time, is weak.

d.      Responding to Some passages that might assume modalism in the NT:

Some who ascribe to modalism are keen proponents to passages such as Col 1:15-18 and John 14:10-11.[26] These might be two passages we can focus on. This passage in Col 1:15-18 can be taken in a sense that Jesus, because he is the exact likeness of the invisible God, then the notion of the trinity is somewhat a misconception. It does so elude when the passage is not read with verses 19-20 in mind. Sometimes context and careful reading can eliminate our fleeting sense of thought.  V. 19 does indicate a clear distinction, “For God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in him,” because following the train of thought why would one be please of a response of another if not for the sense that there is a strong sense of plurality here? Clearly then, reading through this, there are clear distinctions intact.

Let us now look at John 14:10-11. Ascribing to the equation of modalism in this passage seems to be hindered by the word “in the Father” or “the Father living in me.” But a simple reading through of the passage also indicate that the rendering which speaks of “in the Father” simply speaks of the Son perfectly representing the Father, for this is the basic understanding that is derived from these verses.

I assume that confusion arise not by people unable to understand what they are reading but is mainly because of the inability to remove the theological lens that one is wearing. Modalists, taking up this view because of the inability to ascribe to the understanding of the oneness of God amidst plurality, become trapped because they are unable to shed their theological lens and see the vast description that leads to the understanding of the trinity.

3.      Implication and Importance of the A Trinitarian Understanding of God  

Once a Trinitarian laden perspective is presented, it needs to have some theological bent towards why this doctrine is important for their life and also what it then means for the Christian church as a whole. There are three points that I would like to develop concerning a Christian Trinitarian understanding.

First, when one takes the Trinity seriously there is a renewed understanding of God’s redemptive work. In a recent study by Frank D. Macchia, he highlights the importance of having the Spirit as the very substance of justification. Taking the Spirit out of the ‘equation’ of redemptive work has sometimes been our fault as Christians. But when we do recognize this Macchia states that “Only by placing the Spirit at the very substance of justification is it possible to arrive at a Trinitarian integration of imputed and imparted righteousness. Justification as a Trinitarian act must be accessed by the Spirit and in relationship with the Son.”[27] Therefore, integrating this into the understanding of God’s complete redemptive work, we see the Trinity at work together in unity to complete the work of redemption in us. Thus, our understanding of the doctrine of soteriology can take a more Trinitarian perspective.

Second, a Trinitarian understanding of God is the basis for modelling Community life. Jesus’ prayer in John 17:22-23, especially when it says “…that they may be one as we are one.” This passage is a clear indication for us to grasp the depths in understanding the deep sense of community and unity that consists in the God head. Their perfect community compels us to model our Christian church in this manner, to which Jesus prayer was and is that we are “brought to complete unity,” in the pattern that is revealed to us in the Triune oneness of God.

Thirdly, a Trinitarian understanding of God is the basis for building on the understanding of mutual love among believers. In 1 John 4:16b which tells us that “God is love,” it somewhat implies that in an ontological state, before creation God is love. For love to be real it has to have been shown and responded to. But those are human terms of love for it to be a proper analogy concerning God and the Trinity. But however muddied our human description may be, love originated with God in the community of the Godhead, in what we know now as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their love thus, is an analogy for us to replicate. F. LeRon Shults quotes Moltmann which I find compelling to complete this explanation on love concerning the trinity,

“…the way in which they mutually share power is the model (and the hope) for human social relations. The biblical idea of the “kingdom” or “rule” of God must not be conceptualized as dominion, but as the manifestation as the shared love of the Father and the Son in a through the Spirit.”[28]

 

Conclusion

Modalism is a concept that seeks to ascribe to monotheism and it is a view that Christians in Malaysia mostly ascribe to in trying to articulate the understanding of God as trinity. But what modalism does is actually distorting what scripture has revealed about the trinity. As this essay tries to state, trinity is a biblical idea, although the very word we use to designate God as trinity does not exist. But looking at the scriptures there seems to be an unmistakable witness. And as I have laid out the implication and importance of this doctrine, we can say that trinity is not a foreign concept made up by theologians. It is a concept derived and interpreted from scripture. And thus concluding, modalism, is not what people might perceive it is. Modalism in fact distorts who God is as the Bible reveals to us.

 

Bibliography:

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998)

Fienberg, John S. No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2001)

Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. (Nashville. Broadman &Holman Pub, 1994)

Harvey, Richard. Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Colorado Springs, Patenoster. 2009)

Macchia, Frank D. Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2010)

McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphisics of Trinitarian Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.2010)

Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming the Doctrine of God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005)


[1] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. (Nashville. Broadman &Holman Pub, 1994) p.70

[2] Ibid. p.73

[3] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998) p. 359

[4] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. p.74

[5] Ibid.

[6] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.360

[7] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.360

[8] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. p.76

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p.77

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphisics of Trinitarian Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.2010) p.57

[14] McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.59-60

[15] McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.61

[16] The Philippians passage in 2:5-11 which presents to us the description where Jesus was ascribe as divine, because the passage where it says, “that every knee should bow and every tongue will confess…” is ascribed to YHWH, seen in Isaiah 45:23. But there is also a clear distinction between God the Father and Jesus; Jesus is not infused in the Father, but distinct from the Father. McCall states that “Paul is convinced that Jesus is fully divine, but he understands him to be distinct from the Father even as preincarnate.” see McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.62

[17] Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? p.62-63

[18]Ibid.  p. 64

[19] Fienberg, John S. No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2001) p. 448-456

[20] “The ‘plural’ nature of God is demonstrated from the Hebrew scriptures, following the traditional pattern of Christian apologetics. The plural term for God (Elohim), the occurrence of plural verbs (Gen 1:26, etc), the Angel of the LORD, references to the coming Messianic figure as ‘God,’ and the threefold invocation of the name of God in the Shema (Deut 6:4) all point to God’s ‘plural’ nature, despite the attempts of some to give alternative interpretations. Maoz does not deal with alternative traditions of interpretation, or the hermeneutical and historical-critical issues that arise from such argumentation.” see Harvey, Richard. Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Colorado Springs, Patenoster. 2009) p. 68

[21] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.355

[22] For a more exhaustive view concerning a recent study that presents the Spirit indwelling us which make the justifying work of Jesus whom God sent framed in Trinitarian understanding is Macchia, Frank D. Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2010)

[23] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.356

[24] Ibid.

[25] See more in, Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Ed). p.357

[26] These are two passages which I assume (judging from recent conversations), most would go through in ascribing their modalist leanings judging from the response that I had concerning the question I posted out on a social site concerning the other people’s view concerning the trinity.

[27] Macchia, Frank D. Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2010) p. 296

[28] Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming the Doctrine of God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) p.149

Concept of Biblical Authority

Introduction

Whenever the issue concerning how one explains their view concerning the doctrine of scripture comes up, they tend to become explosive and in some ways divisive. Take for example the controversy surrounding Peter Enns upon his vies in a book entitled “Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.”[1] Professor Enns following the controversy surrounding the fiasco initially resigned from his position as Professor of the Old Testament. This is to see how upbeat it is when people explain their positions concerning the notion of the Scriptures being authoritative and this will soon lead to questions pertaining to the inerrancy of scripture. This particular essay will seek to present my understanding concerning the concept of Biblical Authority, and my explanations and position I gravitate to concerning the doctrine of inerrancy.

Concept of Biblical Authority

Erickson states that the understanding that is derived from talking about scriptural authority is that, “the Bible, as the expression of God’s will to us, possesses the right supremely to define what we are to believe and how we are to conduct ourselves.”[2] But all around there are problems with this in society around and also within the regions sector itself with regards to authority. The notion of being rattled by understanding authority in our human existence, where it is normally abused, is the thing that sometimes limits our understanding of what it actually means. Riddled with this as a base for our context, authority is mostly ascribed to the realm of abuse in terms of power, where, something is withheld from us.[3]

“Who holds authority?” or rather “Where does authority rest?” are the questions that Erickson asks. He presents some notion to explaining this in giving us some points of consideration. Following neoorthodoxy approach, God is the one holding the authority as he deals directly with humans. So for this view, the bible is just an “instrument, an object, through which God speaks or meets people.”[4] For them there is no notion of delegation. They hold to an extreme position, it should be said.

In a moderate category as the one above there are those who “understand authority of God to be exercised in some direct fashion.”[5] This would fall under the category of a spirit or the Holy Spirit bringing guidance where special revelation is revealed to the individual listening to God’s word revealed to him/her.

Another view is that religious authority is delegated to some, in the form of individual or an institution, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church. Another view popular nowadays is the view that understands that authority is placed to “prophets present in the church.”[6] This can be viewed in most ultra charismatic churches.

Erickson follows the view that holds to the understanding that God is the one who holds all authority but that there is a delegation of his authority, in which the bible comes into place. This is because the Bible “conveys his message, the Bible carries the same weight God himself would command if he were speaking to us personally.”[7] This makes perfects sense because a document written by a superior that carries his signature is vitally important to getting this done or for that matter in amending things. So the same weight is placed on the Bible, because it is the divine utterance of God, the one who spoke is the one who is in all authority.

On establishing the meaning and origin of the Bible, Erickson presents three views to this. The first is the church and consequently the pope. “The church and ultimately the pope give us the true meaning of the Bible. The infallibility of the pope is the logical complement to the infaliibility of the Bible.”[8] 271 One would notice that this is the Roman Catholic’s position. The second view to this is the leaning towards human reason to which meaning and origin of the bible is established.[9] For the third view, a view that Erickson ascribes to, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit where it is through the illuminating work of the Spirit, people can come to an understanding of scripture and thus creating trust and impetus to seeing the bible’s divine origin.[10] Grenz also agrees that the work of the Spirit illuminating Scripture is the foundational basis of trusting scripture.[11]

Thus, a criterion for scriptural stance when scripture is to be understood needs this element of listening to the Spirit to be at the centre. The authority is derive because, as Grenz states, “it is the vehicle in which the Spirit speaks.” This understanding gives impetus to the understanding of 2 Tim 3:16-17 where striking connection can be seen analogous with God breathing in Adam and giving him life and God breathing in scripture “thus making it useful.”[12]Ascribing to the understanding of illumination of the Spirit and the biblical text assumes another framework at hand. Grenz[13] and Erickson[14] agree on humanity’s finite state, our human condition marred by the influence of sin necessitates this need for the Spirit’s illumination to awaken us to understand the scriptures. Both authors seem to run in tangent with each other when presenting their cases and position in explaining the authority of Scripture. But, two things needs to be mentioned concerning their positions.

Grenz’s explanation is great in many ways as he sees the Spirit at the centre of biblical understanding in that the Spirit is the one that informs our understanding facilitating its authority through the community of God. His stance on community and Spirit is well taken. But this view does assume to remove the ontological authority from the bible. If the authority of the bible is only moderated under the working of the Spirit in the context of the church and only then is authority facilitated to the believer, does that not assume that authority is a confined thing or as Clark would call this, ontology based on the church’s recognition of the text as authoritative?[15] It is better to assume that the scriptural authority is only authority to us when the work of the Spirit opens us up to it, in this manner an epistemic sense, although on an ontological sense it does carry authority within itself because it is God’s word.[16] But taking Grenz’s explanation of authority the value of his Spirit illumed, congregational context informed model is a healthy, although given the critique, position taken for understanding authority.

Moving on to Erickson, although being a robust description and understanding concerning scriptural authority, where Erickson presents the nuisance concerning the understanding derived from the word authority and as he unpacks the understanding of illumination in connection with authority in the context of the Spirit, he lacks the communal factor that Grenz models. To me without the communal aspect in modulating our understanding of the scriptures, although we might have the best type of scholarship to inform our understanding, we lose a dimension that is important to the Christian life which is the fellowship and community life built on the grounding faith of pursuing and understanding scripture together. In my view, an integration of both Grenz and Erickson’s position will help us gain a more robust understanding of what it means by scriptural authority. So for now, this discussion will position towards understanding authority of Scripture by way of God’s Spirit illuming us to trust it in that manner to direct our lives.

Understanding the Doctrine of Inerrancy

The definition of inerrancy when ascribed to Scripture holds to a position that attempts to protect the concept of infallibility which simply means that scripture is fully trustworthy. Inerrancy is defined as “not erring, exempt from error; making no mistakes; infallible.”[17] The notion of inerrancy tries to define the understanding that scripture is trustworthy by taking it up a notch in stating that the Scripture does not err in what it states or says. This to me, is a logical progression of thought.

Some general preliminaries can further explain the logic that runs behind the understanding that Scripture does not err. Because Scripture is inspired by God and is considered God-breathed, one can ascribe scripture to be obviously equated with God (2 Tim. 3:16). In Christian understanding, God is understood as trustworthy and that no deceit can come from him (Num. 23:19; Heb 6:18), thus, since scripture is God’s word, carrying with it God’s authority, Scripture must also hold the same amount of trustworthiness and unerring nature of God.  But questions have arisen that question the very essence of the reliability of scripture, where questions concerning the historical reliability of scripture and to its contribution to science.

With the above questions looming, explanation has to be given in how scripture is inerrant. Its meaning cannot just be assumed. Millard Erickson gives seven positions on how people see the Bible. Four deal with various degrees of understanding that pertain to inerrancy and three views that disregard the concept altogether.[18] But generally there are three main ones  (positions that ascribe different degrees of inerrancy) that I will mention here.

The first is absolute inerrancy. This position argues that the biblical writers took into consideration in their writing true and factual bearings of scientific, historical, geographical details. This assumes that everything in the bible can be argued as truth because scripture gives witness to it. Although this has a strong leaning towards explaining Scripture as being without error, it must account for questions where the bible seems erring on several issues like that of Joshua 10:12 -13 for example.[19] Consequently, there have been debates concerning how one interprets Genesis 1. If one take the position of absolute inerrancy and hold to the understanding that Genesis 1, in all it is stating, holds true to scientific and historical understanding. One would ask whether the writer of this narrative was inclined to understand science in the manner that modern scientist understand things. This view for me fails miserably under the weight of modern probing.

The second view of inerrancy is one that is called limited inerrancy or inerrancy of purpose. This view comes as a response to the above view because in the bible there seems to be numerous inconstancies regarding scientific, historical and geographical detail. Because of that this view takes the position that, with regards to the didactic passages, these are the ones that are deemed inerrant. Although this view sees errors in the one above, in some ways it is more of a cop out. To hold God as trustworthy and also be possible of erring is a chasm that can never be brought together. This view, although seems helpful at first, crates problems when one reflects on the nature of God.

The third and final view is known as full inerrancy. This view is sensitive to the difficulties raised by the second view concerning various inconstancies found in the bible. Although not differing in the perspective of absolute inerrancy regarding the biblical witness in as far as it is true but varies in its explanation of science and history. Erickson explains that full inerrancy “regards these references as phenomenal,” where they are written and reported in how people of that time viewed things.[20] But the important underlining this view is that most importantly, scripture was written by its inspired authors giving a theological viewpoint of things. As I mentioned earlier concerning recent debates concerning the interpretation of Genesis 1, John H. Walton has written a book that tackles the issues by setting the interpretive lens by trying to read the cosmological make up from views congruent for people of that time. His proposal is stated as such, “The Isrealites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos…And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.”[21] Walton’s perspective might fall under the category of full inerrancy which to me is a better view compared to the two above which are deemed problematic.

Therefore, whenever one want to ascribe to inerrancy, because it pertains to defend the Bible from arguments that question whether what it says is true, there needs to be explanations concerning the various views of inerrancy that one ascribes to. Failure to do so will play in much to the assumption of the questioner and also the value of the Scripture as being God’s word. In this case, ascribing to inerrancy demands that one come up with viable explanations.

Is the Doctrine of Inspiration worth ascribing to?

            Kevin Vanhoozer explains that “inerrancy is a subset to infallibility.” Earlier he explains that before there were probing on the trustworthiness of Scripture, the general impetus that Augustine and the Reformers such as Luther and Calvin had towards scripture was high.[22]  While the full-blown stance towards the doctrine of inerrancy is considered recent, Erickson sees the “general idea” from a historical point of view of this very understanding of scripture was not new.[23] This is a considerable explanation but I would rather state that the idea of Scripture’s trustworthiness was something that was held long before issues concerning inerrancy came about. Jesus himself quoted Scripture (Matt. 4:4,7,10) as does Paul in 2 Tim. 3:16-17 who emphasised the trustworthiness of Scripture, and Peter in 2 Pet. 1:19-21 who stresses the reliability of scripture because it comes from God. These all, to me, hold the Scriptures in high authority as it is God’s word and it is reliable.

But as Vanhoozer traces, doctrinal positions on the authority of scripture only dated in the sixteenth century out of a response to theological error, thus, the doctrine of inerrancy also was brought to the forefront because of doctrinal error. The spawning of the influence of modernity created new probing that questioned the reliability of scripture.[24] Reason governed trust and thus the Scriptures were read not as the Word of God but just a text to be investigated like any other text. In consequence, responses to these criticisms were brought forth, for example by Warfield and Hodge.[25]

There are several questions that arise when trying to affirm and defend the doctrine of inerrancy. The might seem at first, intelligible, but upon probing, they are nothing but shallow pretensions. One question asks how inerrancy is justified because of the human side of scripture. The example of how in a social setting we state that the sun comes up but generally we do not find anything wrong with the way we use the statement, although in science the notion of error by that statement is a fact. Scientis for that matter who live in the vicinity of human society do follow in make the same statement. Vanhoozer states that one “must not confuse a social convention with a scientific affirmation.”[26]

Some questions follow on that mostly include words like “literal” and “truth” combined. I find such question sometimes bordering on illogical steps. They intend to, in my view, compound God in what he has to say, to be framed in a certain way or in a certain perspective. To ask of whether every word in the bible literally true is to treat words a already formed sentences that conjure up intelligible meaning. Words in themselves must be formed into sentences before being able to be judged of their validity.[27] With this one would ask “What amounts for error then?” Vanhoozer informs us that ‘error’ is a “context-depended notion.”[28] He gives the example of him stating to his student of how long it will take for him to give a lecture. In this context precision is not decisive. One could just give an estimated time frame. But in the context of news reports or statistics, precision is an important factor.

Most qualms about scripture seem to be misguided critiques. They are arguments that question authority, or to designate a clear focus, directed to God, where untrustworthiness to scripture is ultimately, I would assume to God. The problem I see is that one has to deal with the understanding of God to appreciate the doctrine of Scripture being as it is, infallible, or trustworthy. Christians on the other hand approach the trustworthiness of the Bible having made some ‘extensive’ progress in their understanding of God.

Another argument questioning the trustworthiness of scripture falls in the category of asking “What kind of truth?” If we understand the truth question pertaining to historical, scientific, geographical, mathematical, in that they must be 100% actual, we have somewhat missed the point about scripture. Those who do want to ascribe to inerrancy must take the time to explain what model of inerrancy one ascribes to.

I think the problem with upholding inerrancy in what it means (what kind of truth is truthful) and in what it is trying to avoid (what is error) is that the bible is not written in as a compiled book of just correct statements, or factual reporting of events. The bible is rather found in many forms of literature that are weaved into the story where authors interpret God in their events. The Bible works more as a communicative means rather that what I mentioned briefly above. So if the bible is in some ways communication, it is somewhat dynamic, like our own communication, where things are exaggerated to emphasize something, generalized or culturally infused. To assume truth by trying to conform God’s dynamic nature as God is to create wall that do not necessarily fit. Even truths in the context of our human context are wide and varied.

So, with all these taken into consideration, is inerrancy a doctrine worth ascribing to? In the matter of context, in many rural setting where the Christian population has no burdening quarries pertaining to science and how the world works or on the questionable nature of assumed errors and inconsistencies in scripture, people basically ascribe to the trustworthiness of Scripture without much difficulty. They basically want to know how it applies or helps with living life rather than in the time consumed to argue about inconsistencies.

But simply take another context where Christians are uprooted from their rural setting and are now opening themselves up to new waves of quarries concerning their faith and on the validity of scripture, the question of inerrancy will be something that needs to be answered. For me, I have no problem with this doctrine. But I would generally not bring up the case of inerrancy if it is not brought up. This doctrine is dependent on context and cultural setting in my view. I would be happy with treating scripture as God’s word, being reliable in the context of how it directs our ways in living to please God. But it the context that warrants explanation, in terms of the subset queries of trustworthiness of scripture, inerrancy needs to be taken up and followed by answers. If I was to take up a position of inerrancy views that I have presented and stated above, the view most probably useful would be the full inerrancy of Scripture.

Bibliography:

Chin, Clive. Theology 1:Revelation (Class Notes)

Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method For Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003).

Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker.2005)

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998).

Grenz, Stanley J; Franke, John R. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. (Luisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. 2001).

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. (Downers Grove: IVP. 2009)

Internet Resources:

 

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Inerrancy of Scripture. http://www.theologynetwork.org/biblical-studies/getting-stuck-in/the-inerrancy-of-scripture.htm (Accessed: December 2010)


[1] Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker.2005)

[2] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998) p.267

[3] Ibid., p.267-268

[4] Ibid., p.270

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.,p.271

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.,p.272

[10] Ibid.,p.273

[11]Grenz, Stanley J; Franke, John R. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. (Luisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. 2001). p.65

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.,p.66

[14] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition).,p.273-277

[15] Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method For Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003) p.64

[16] Ibid.,p.65

[17] Chin, Clive. Theology 1:Revelation (Class Notes) p.40

[18] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition).,p.248-250

[19] Chin, Clive. Theology 1:Revelation (Class Notes) p.43

[20] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). p. 248

[21] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. (Downers Grove: IVP. 2009) p.16

[22] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Inerrancy of Scripture. http://www.theologynetwork.org/biblical-studies/getting-stuck-in/the-inerrancy-of-scripture.htm

[23] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). p.252

[24] One modern day example would be Bart Ehrman who has written extensively highlighting scriptural misguidance in the issue of eering. Read for example in Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). (Harper Collins. 2009)

[25] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Inerrancy of Scripture. http://www.theologynetwork.org/biblical-studies/getting-stuck-in/the-inerrancy-of-scripture.htm

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

Contextualization: Clark’s Idea, A Theological Topic For Assessment, Ministerial Application

                                                                                                         Introduction

Contextualization is not a new concept. It is an idea developed out of certain probing by people who saw that there were problems when relating theology and issues imbedded in culture. This essay will seek, in the first part to summarize David Clark’s idea concerning contextualization. The second part of the essay will seek then to apply the methods spelled out by Clark about contextualization with a certain theological topic. I will choose to deal with the issue concerning ritual for this part. The third part of the essay will deal with the implication this subject for practical ministry.

1.      David Clark on the Validity of Contextualization

David Clark states that “…Christianity’s adaptability to culture is its greatest asset and a major reason, humanly speaking for its resilience.” But thought this is the case, this strength can also entail some form of “alteration of the message.” He has great reservation towards principlizing methods and explains that being aware and sensitive of cultural diversity calls for a more discerned method in conveying the message of Christianity. He calls this to “properly connect God’s Word to contemporary culture.”[1]

Following the development of the concept of contextualization in Christianity there are two routs which Clark presents as the converging dimensions that spawned this idea. The first deals with the global and social awareness and the second deals with the hermeneutical challenge.

Clark explains contextualization, which I term, the global and social awareness as “a feature of theology and mission done in light of globalization.”[2] The progress of how the awareness of globalization can be explained in this manner following Clark’s presentation. The awareness of the uniqueness in each culture (how a certain group of people view and understand life in the context they live) has been coupled with the study of cultural relativism, which cultural anthropologist use to curb the notion of ethnocentrism (a view that undermines another cultures view as low and theirs as high). On this Clark states that as a “methodological commitment, cultural relativism mitigates the tendency to condemn other cultures and coronate one’s own.”[3] This realization thus spills to globalization which holds cultural sensitivities as being a core value. Clark explains that globalization “is primarily a planetary consciousness, a deepened awareness of, and sensitivity to, the reality of increasing interdependence among the peoples of the world.”[4] This makes us aware of the various theological viewpoints that can come to the table of conversation to make their understanding be heard.

The second dimension in the idea conceptualized as contextualization comes from issues gleaned from hermeneutical challenges. Reaction concerning the un-connectedness of Western theological matters seen by poverty stricken contexts, has come up with their own critique concerning theological issues. Their main critique is that Western influenced theology is working at issues from the standpoint of their economical context and so it undermines other contexts. Thus, they mainly start theological construction by way of elevating praxis as the norming norm for theological reflection rather than the bible.[5]

Further connections can be seen when the turn towards praxis as the basis for contextualization can be seen between the hermeneutical principles. Historical developments of this can be traced back to Friedrich Schleiermacher who proposed that the interpreter of the text infuse their own preunderstanding to the text and find connection that fit that line of reading. Preunderstanding enables the interpreter to grasp the text’s outward linguistic grammar and meaning as well as to penetrate the inward psychological dimensions of the text. By preunderstanding, the reader enters the inner structure of the writer’s own consciousness.[6] Moving on from Schleiermacher, others such as Martin Heidgger and Rudolf Bultman have also developed ideas that run along the lines suggested by him. All in unison hold to the fact that the interpreted guides the direction of understanding and interpreting the text.[7]

Because of issues above, contextualization was not really accepted among evangelical circles. But for all the thorny issues of early proponents of contextualization, Clark acknowledges that evangelicals have to agree with the notion that “readers bring preunderstandings to the Bible, and evangelical theologians simply must acknowledge this fact and reflect on its implications. It’s simplistic to think that we are tebulae rasae as we interpret the Bible and develop theological conviction.”[8] But rather than let contextual notions as being directed in their theologizing by praxis, evangelicals must find a striking balance to this.

What then follows is Clark’s version of how Evangelical Contextualization can look like. He presents two models. The first is the decoding or encoding model. This model works where the bible is decoded to arrive at its “transcultural understanding of principles, moves to a new culture, and then encodes the principles in the communication form of the new culture.” Clark moves on to say that, “this model presumes that contextualization happens only or primarily in the encoding stage.”[9] Although this model preserves the priority of scripture, there are weaknesses that can be seen. According to Clark, this model assumes that principles that have been decoded and encoded do not change as they get translated from culture to culture. What must be seen in this process is that three cultures are in conversation; the biblical culture, the communicators culture and the culture of the listeners. Any understanding that simply sees principles fall into linier categories is somewhat misguided.[10] The second weakness is that this model focuses much attention towards the missionary that decodes and encodes the bible and not those who are in that culture doing contextual theology by themselves.[11]

The second model is what Clark calls the dialogical model. This model offers the most promising and fruitful model that evangelicals can gravitate towards when doing contextual theology. In explaining the pattern of thought and conversation that the dialogical model approaches, the bible takes prominence, as theologians ask questions to a given culture and slowly develop their theology as a form of dialogue while looking to scripture for direction. Here, dialogue modulates the platform for biblical understanding in a given culture.[12] The positive observations of using this model are conveyed by Clark. Principlizing is not seen as linier in all cultures thus this approach takes the bible as it is. This model is applicable to whatever given culture because of its dialogical method. And finally this model assumes that obedience plays a large part in the process of contextual theology.[13]

Next, Clark presents a case study in doing contextualized theology. On this particular issue, multiculturalism is addressed. Multiculturalism is perceived as integrating unity amidst plurality under the umbrella of tolerance. It has an aura of pluralism in mind where truth is relative and any perspective that is otherwise is not in step with multiculturalism. How does one respond to such question, asks Clark? First Clark deciphers the romanticism behind the ideology perceived as multiculturalism. Clark calls it “ideological multiculturalism” because it denies any form of critical thought that tries to question the idea.[14] Next, Clark seeks to hear what the bible has to say about people. The biblical witness seems to say more concerning God’s love and care for humanity as well as the reason to hold peace among people.[15] Thus, the third step in Clark’s response is to correct certain errors that multiculturalism ascribes to while retaining the good points.[16]

Reading through Clark’s views concerning contextualization, there is a sense of rigorous dialogue to be done. Christian responsive theology is not just bordering on the witness of Scripture but must seek to hear from the diversity of perspectives where one does theology. Holding on a biblical, Christian stance cannot be done under the microscope of the Bible alone. But that being said, Scripture is the point of reference in which we start our journey in contextualization. And as the dialogue of Bible and Scripture develop, a more faithful perspective that is biblically sound as well as culturally sensitive is ascribed to when theologizing

2.      Contextualization of a Theological Topic: Ritualism

One of the issues that I see that is Asian in nature is the element of ritual. It is something that is somewhat embedded in the Asian mindset, or should we say culture. Malaysia is no stranger to ritual. Since Malaysia is embedded with diverse cultures as well as religious beliefs, this in turn would be the logical influence of ritual in the mindset of people in Malaysia.

Ritual, by definition involves action that is done repeatedly in a prescribed order mainly for their symbolism. Taking the former animistic background of the culture[17] that I am part of, which is now obsolete because most of the people of my tribe have turned to Christianity. I myself am a fourth generation Christian. Although touching on the topic of ritual is somewhat wide in its scope, I will touch on how the ingrained practice of ritualism is something that needs to be addressed.

Being animist, the Kelabits were ruled by spirits. Their life and actions were ruled by sets of beliefs that controlled how they lived and viewed life. Some of the rituals that they ascribe to before was the belief was held that if they happen to see a black bird pass right in front of them when going to the field to work, this was an indication that they had to turn back. Beliefs were held that bad omens followed if they did not do so. Life was governed by practices done physically in the human realm which had spiritual consequences.

At the turn of Christianity, all these practices were abandoned. Missionaries came and taught the people about the Christian faith. It was logical that they modulated a set of rhythms for the people to follow through to keep their faith in tack. Soon however these practices in turn replaced the rhythms that once were pagan. Thus, the practice of ritualism is something ingrained, perhaps for most Asians. The notion of doing this spiritual act (done continually) will be met with blessings, would be a general understanding. So, practices like prayer, going to church on Sunday, reading the bible are encouraged by leader so that some spiritual good might come out of their practice. It sounds too much like ritualism to me if it is just put up that way. To dig deeper concerning this issue, does the bible have anything to say concerning ritualism?

The Bible is in fact loaded with descriptions of ritual practice. We see Israel having their own ritual practices which they do continually. I will basically point out some of them. In Exodus 23:14-19, three kinds of feasts are mentioned; the Festival of Unleavened Bread, Festival of Harvest and Festival of Ingathering. In it we find certain practices that are given for how these celebrations are to be observed. We also find a beautiful picture of Israel’s ritual of the Passover being observed by King Josiah in 2 Chronicles 35:1-19. These rituals have theological meaning in them that have elements used to remind Israel of what God had done for them. The example of the Passover comes to mind here in Exodus 12:1-30. Judging from these various passages the practice of ritual seems to play a large part in the life of Israel.

But looking at the scripture again especially reading from the perspective of the prophetic books, rituals in themselves were nothings. Isaiah states that the burnt offerings being offered, sacrifices and prayer were being conceived as worthless to God when people did not embody right ethical practices (Isaiah 1:10-17). Even Kind David in Psalm 51 echoes the sentiment that God does not delight or have pleasure in lifeless sacrifices while the heart of the person is unchanged. Moving to the New Testament we find Jesus also emphasizing the ethical side of life over against ritual (Matt. 12:7 and 15:3-20 are two examples). But one of the most striking criticism of ritual observation comes from Col.2:16-23. But in 1 Cor.9:19-23 Paul implies here that in some cases he does not disregard ritual (v.20). He also applies freedom to those who might seek to show special observance to certain days (Rom.14:5) and not be judged by it.

With those biblical passages we can now seek to address the issue concerning ritual. There is nothing theologically wrong with ritual. Rituals if observed rightly in the spirit of what they might conform in us are helpful. Take for example the rituals of Israel. In them are practices that signify a certain historical event and the people were commemorating and remembering what the Lord had done for them. Rituals taken in this manner and light are good. Like the practice of the old folks in my culture where they wake up at 5.a.m. in the morning for communal prayer. There is nothing wrong with the practice. When done in a ritualistic manner where it becomes a discipline, and in it forms the life of the believer to gain a better consciousness of God participating in his or her life is a good thing.

But rituals with strings attached with them are considered misguided instruction. A common practice like observing the Sabbath as the people in my culture would call it is observed. Over the course of time, people were criticised if they played any sports, went fishing or did something leisurely. They viewed that people were violating a God ordained law. These rituals that were supposed to modulate in people spiritual disciplines became constructed laws where if people broke them, something will happen. Holding on to this belief by taking the practice of ritual observance, be it Christian induced practices, seems to awaken pagan influenced understanding.

The theological value of ritualistic practice is that it conforms in us practices that train us in the manner of discipline. The practice of prayer when done ‘ritualistically’ should not influence us in the manner that by constantly doing it we will be blessed. This is the contrary. What rituals help to do in us is in the manner of how it leads us to worship. If we do these practices to gain something, we are in error.

Thus, taking a theological contextualized theology of practicing rituals we can say that rituals when taken as a form of worship that implies the element of spiritual formation is theologically sound. Practices like reading the Bible, observing prayer or fasting, worshiping in song are all good. But what makes the ritual run sour is when it is used as a method of enticement, a practice that promises blessing, or that when someone does not practice it something wrong will happen. These to me run contrary to taking ritual seriously from a contextualized perspective.

3.      The implications of this subject for practical ministry.

Looking for how this subject will imply for practical ministry, there are two thing that I would like to offer for our consideration. The first is that, rituals can have meaning rather than just modes of practices that lead to nothing but an invisible barometer of blessing. Many times, rituals become empty practices because people forget what was the reason they do them in the first place. The old folks who were ritually inclined had no problems continuing their practices because ritual repetitiveness was somehow in their nature. When their practice was transferred to the younger generation they became lifeless rituals that were strictly meant to be observed without any clear indication of what they meant. If one can find why such practices we done in a way they were done in history might help breathe life into those old ritual practices. Even the sacrament we call taking the Lord’s supper can be explained in such a way that practical implications were embedded. In a way the Lord’s supper can teach that we all come to the table leaving our statuses to become a common people partaking of the Lord together. This can in its practice and teaching become a powerful message for people to hear.

Secondly, it can spawn ethical dimensions of practices in people when they know what is behind a certain ritual. Taking again the example of the Lord’s supper and the implication stated above, people can now break the chasm of status among themselves and see every one as common. This can in still a more communion oriented community who see unity in their observance of the Lord’s Supper. Even in the area of communial prayer where the fellowship of coming together to prayer is not to fulfil religious requirement but to be together as a church to pray for God’s issues as well as minister to one another.

The third implication for practical ministry a greater awakening of a cultural nature that has been asleep because of distortions concerning ritual practices. Most young people have shunned the ritual dimension of discipline. But if we can reintroduce a more biblical and theologically inclined view concerning it, greater depths of knowledge concerning Asian leanings to ritualism might be awakened. Like i said in the beginning, since the ritual ‘heart’ is somewhat a cultural embedded subconscious dimension to Malaysians, a corrective perspective might create a platform to awaken a powerful vehicle that can be a raging fire for youths in Malaysia which can possibly spawn wildfires of a greater awakening in the churches surrounding the nation.

Conclusion

After considering the study gained from Clark in his book concerning the justification of theological contextualization, we can say that the awareness of globalization and the knowledge that each culture is tailored differently, care needs to be taken in when presenting biblical ideas to people. As the study of a theological topic concerning the practice of ritualism in Malaysia, I have tried to model my thoughts concerning the context I’m in with a theological at hand in the dialogue between culture and the Bible. As the part on implication has spelled things out, justification to the view of contextualization is valid and helpful to promote theological reflection that is culturally in tuned.

Bibliography:

Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003).

Internet Resources:

http://www.kelabit.net/index.html (accessed: December 2010)


[1] Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003). p.99

[2] Ibid.,102

[3] Ibid 101

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.,p102-104

[6] Ibid.,p.105

[7] Ibid.,p.104-110

[8] Ibid.,p.108

[9] Ibid.,p.112

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.,p.113

[12] Ibid.,p.114

[13] Ibid.,p.120-121

[14] Ibid.,p.124

[15] Ibid.,p.126-127

[16] Ibid.,p.128-130

[17] The Tribe that I am part of in Malaysia is known as the Kelabit. Information concerning Kelabits can be accessed here at: http://www.kelabit.net/index.html (accessed: December 2010)

Fitch and The 5 Excuses Seminarians Make

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Image by katieash via Flickr

In a changing society that the church is living in, the demands that are faced by seminary trained student plunging themselves in ministry are many. Gone are the days when it is a “safe” passage way where seminarians plunge into full-time ministry according to David Fitch. He argues for seminarians to plunge into bi-vocationalism. Not that he thinks that the vocation of being in ministry full-time any less as worthy as he does state that “it is a worthy and awesome vocation.” Rather it is for the reason of becoming more missional, since, full-time ministry forces a chasm for reaching out because ministers mostly spend little time with other people rather than Christians.

People might have their arguments for his proposal but take time to read this informative article. It might give seminarians in Malaysia especially, some valuable insight to think about.

Read the rest of the article here.

Exegetical Notes on Ephesians (4)- (5:21)

“submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21)

Bruce interprets this call of ‘submitting’ as mutual submission which probably come from the understanding that this submission is done to’ one another.’[1] This is done out of reverence to Christ where he has set the example for believers to follow suit taking the example of Phil. 2:3-8.[2] Talbert locates Eph. 5:21 away from the proceeding verses (5:22-6:9) that speak about household codes. He notes that contemporary scholars, particularly feminist scholars find difficulty to understand the concept of submission. Aligning 5:21 to 5:22-6:9 might be problematic. One example is that, the understanding of mutual submission runs counter when this connection is sought. Basically Talbert wants to locate 5:21 together with 4:17 and onwards which focus more on worship.[3] Thus, he comments that “one may conclude that Eph. 5:21 goes with what precedes it…and that Eph. 5:21 does not teach mutual submission.”[4]

But others have differing views concerning this. O’Brian states that the verb rendered on ‘submit’ here in the Greek denotes the meaning ‘arrange under’ which he explains as “submission to someone in an ordered array to another person who was above the first in some way, for example, the submissions of soldiers in an army to those of superior rank. The term appears some twenty-three times in the Pauline corpus and has to do with order.”[5] Following O’ Brian’s comments concerning the understanding of ‘submission’ in this particular verse there are two opposing views concerning what is meant. The first view carries with it the understanding of mutual submission taking the phrase ‘to each other’ as the controlling understanding that rules the understanding of mutual submission.[6]

But according to O’Brian, if one takes the context, semantics and syntax captured in the flow of Paul’s explanation the above view is weak. The first counter argument is that the relationships mention following v.21 does not offer reversal of understanding concerning submission in the mutual sense.[7] Second, the pronoun ‘one another’ has to be taken in the context of the explanation given by Paul. This is explained further by O’Brian, that in “the present context, then, given that ‘submit’ is one-directional in its reference to submission to authority, and that the pronoun does not always indicate a symmetrical relationship, it is preferable to understand the clause ‘submitting to one another’ to refer to submission to appropriate authorities, not mutual submission.”[8]

The third counter argument has to do with the “flow of the argument” where the statement made in v.21 becomes the title of introduction that introduces the topic of submission in the context rendered in the following verses. Probable arguments against the notion of submission might be the modern understanding that influences the meaning when we read and understand it now. This should not be read in our eyes but the context in which readers of the time would have understood it. O’Brian states that, what “submitting to one another means is spelled out in the household table, with its ordered array in society. And submitting to one another is significant outworking of being filled by the Spirit.”[9] Here the preceding informs a proper response which is submission. Thus, following O’Brian, v.21 should be used to understand the proceeding texts or rather the highlight introducing the following verses.

O’Brian contends that translations have watered down ‘the fear of the Christ’ and rendered it to ‘reverence’ or ‘respect’. ‘Fear’ according to O’Brian is still the best translation that captures the meaning which denotes awe at the midst of Jesus coming to judge us in the coming age. O’Brian further argues that the “motive of the fear of God is prominent in the Old Testament, especially as the appropriate response to his mighty acts.”[10]


[1] Bruce, F.F. The Epistles to the Collosians to Philemon and to the Ephesians.,p.382

[2] Ibid

[3] Talbert, Charles H. Ephesians and Colossians. p.130-132

[4] Ibid.,p.132

[5] O’Brian, Peter. The Letters to the Ephesians. p.399

[6] Ibid.,p.400-401

[7] Ibid.,p.402

[8] Ibid.,p.403

[9] Ibid.,p.404

[10] Ibid.