Wednesday, 25 April 2012
THINKING THINGS THROUGH
New York-based apologist and thinker, Rev Dr Ron Choong was in Malaysia recently to speak on “An Overview of Church History.” Founder of the Academy for Christian Thought, Choong has an international ministry of discipleship. He shares with Dr Lim Poh Ann his views on apologetics and the need for in-depth study to develop the Christian mind.
Q: If a simple-minded believer were to ask, “Why should I attend a church history seminar”, what would you say?
A: History is an inescapable part of who we are. The best way to understand ourselves is to understand the trail of our history — where we came from. Christianity is a historical faith. If you do not understand its history, you do not really understand its present. Christianity, the human experience of worshipping God, draws from the concerns of the early church and its response to them; we need to responsibly understand the concerns of the forefathers of our faith.
The seminar I deliver is not on church history but the history of Christianity — more than what happened to the Church, it’s about what happened to those who regard themselves as followers of Christ. Many of them were rejected by their churches, some for good and some for bad reasons. Some were ahead of their time and were punished for it while others manipulated the Church for their own economic and political advantages. History can help us identify the good from the bad that is happening right now. So learn a bit about the history of Christianity to know what you really believe as a Christian.
Q: In the past, various theologians had to decide which God-inspired books should be included in the Bible—the canonisation of the Bible. What were some of the difficulties
they faced then?
A: The canon was not an independent text. It came out of the Church. When the first scholars were asking, “Should we put this book in?” they did not base their decisions on any fixed criteria of ‘authority’ but they asked around, “Who have been using this book already?” In fact, no single global authority which speaks for every Christian has ever existed — even now. The process of canonisation was very gradual — evolutionary rather than revolutionary — over hundreds of years. By Jesus’ time, even what we call the Old Testament had no fixed number of books. Different Jewish sects used different collections of scripture. People trusted human memory and mastered the art of preaching God’s Word according to the needs of the people (more than using its written form).
The Church had been hearing the gospels of Matthew and John for a long time before they were finally written down in documentary form. Rev Dr John Stott was once asked, “If we discover the book of 3 Corinthians, shall we put it in the Bible?” He said, “No”, and the reason is because the Bible is a living text, not a guidebook. It is a book that came out of the Church and which transformed the Church over time. In his view, the Church developed to what it is today in concert with the 66 books in the Protestant Bible. At this stage, to inject this newly discovered book would be chaotic and may be irresponsible. The most difficult issue with the canonisation of the Bible is why it took so long for the Bible to become the sacred book of Christians. The Bible is, in itself, not divine. What is holy about the Bible is its divinely-inspired origin.
Q: So then, what were the criteria used by the various theologians in the canonisation process?
A: Three basic criteria were widely agreed upon. First, apostolic authority. Were the writers declared apostles, or did they draw their knowledge from other apostles? For example, though Mark was not an apostle, he was discipled by Peter; this gave the early Church sufficient confidence in the reliability of Mark’s gospel as one of the four gospels. Second, was the church already using it? Letters which were written, read, copied and exchanged became the collective wisdom of the early Church. Third, do the texts gel together to give us a consistent, coherent story? Thus the gospel of Thomas was rejected because it did not gel with the other books. All these details may be found in my newly published book, The New Testament You Thought You Knew. We are following up with the Old Testament guide in October.
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Q: As an apologist, do you aim to reach out to the intellectuals or the masses?
A: Definitely the masses, but if I encounter intellectuals, I shan’t ignore them. I teach by pushing my strongest students to reach their potential rather than permit the weakest students to dictate the standards by dragging everyone down. Yes, some of the materials we use are difficult. Rather than worry whether the Bible is difficult or easy, my first concern is, whether it true of God. So as one who speaks to protect the faith, it is my duty to boldly proclaim the relevance of the Bible.
Q: Are your books for Christians or non-Christians?
A: They are for anyone. Christians will find me challenging their assumptions that may not square with the Bible. If you are a Christian, do not be afraid of history, philosophy, or the sciences since God gives us revelation through these fields of studies as well. Our knowledge of God that we draw from the Bible appeals to the history, philosophy and sciences of the different periods to make its case. Indeed, Jesus was impatient with sloppy thinking. A student of the Bible must first be a good student.
If you are a skeptic, I invite you to explore the fact that I have a confession to make — that Jesus is Lord. Why? Can I prove it? Wrong question. I do not try to prove my Christian belief. Science is about measurement. If you cannot measure something, it is beyond the competence of science to draw any conclusion. Just as the thoughtful believer should not shout skeptics down but welcome them to inquire, the thoughtful skeptic should investigate with fairness and integrity. We invite you to think things through in a theological safe space. You may come to surprising conclusions.
Q: So, are you trying to inspire people to study and do research?
A: No, I am not asking everyone to do technical research. I want to inspire people to think things through for themselves in a theological safe space. Most skeptics don’t really know why they don’t believe. But responsible atheists know the Bible very well. Christians too need to have a firm command of their own beliefs, especially in relation to other world religions. That’s why I read the scriptures of other faiths to be confident that I should not follow those religions. To this end, ACT as a ministry seeks to enlighten Christians on other world religions (in a concise, intellectually honest, and loving way), respecting their views even if we do not subscribe to them. For every Christian began life as a skeptic.
Q: Doesn’t God speak up for Himself through miraculous works? If I have cancer, and after fasting and praying, God heals me, doesn’t that prove His reality? Why go into apologetics?
A: Sure, that is a possibility, but I think God’s revelation is wider than that. More importantly, if we love God just because of blessings, God has been reduced to a genie, an amulet in times of trouble. When Jesus healed, thousands followed Him, but most of them didn’t stay on. Jesus was aware that we tend to go for the “magic show”, and not Him.
Scholarship and miracles are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the greatest medieval theologians (called the scholastics) were also mystics. But they never went into mysticism for personal gain. They sought God using their minds so that they can love God more meaningfully.
Happily, I am first and foremost an evangelist and missionary. Scholarship is a tool of my trade, that’s it. So I devote my life to bringing the best scholarship to meet piety in the Church, that there may be mutual blessing.
Finally, to hinge one’s evangelistic model on miracles is exactly what Peter resisted (Acts 8:17-18). Simon Magus, the magician, was thrilled by Peter performing miracles. Instead of seeking Christ, he asked to buy Peter’s power. We are in danger of becoming spiritually lazy when we seek shortcuts to evangelism, luring skeptics to Christ by making claims which we may not be able to deliver. Many people in the world claim to be miraculously healed by their God. But only Christians claim that their God made everything there is and loves His creation. A universal faith must be something that can be universally applicable. Even one without cancer should be able to know God — because God is God.
Q: Is it possible for a Christian to be much involved with apologetics and yet remain spiritually dry?
A: Absolutely. This is a great danger. Why did God give us the mind that we have? So that we can achieve what God wants to develop in us — the capacity for love. Yet love is a double-edged sword; we can love things that will not love us back. I say to the people I disciple, “Love people and use things, not vice versa.” Spiritual dryness in academia happens when the thinker thinks too much of himself, or when the thoughts do not result in generosity and kindness. My advice to academics is “Don’t take yourself too seriously” and my advice to apologists is “Consider the weakest minds in your audience and reach out to them with the fullest strength of your thought.” My own dissertation starts with serious philosophy, science and theology but ends with a concluding chapter on ‘love’; it is not a mechanical dissertation. At the end of the day, high academia must serve the church or it is knowledge without wisdom.
Q: Paul said that his preaching was not in enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4). He also regarded all his impressive credentials, including scholarship, as rubbish when compared to knowing Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). How do you reconcile Paul’s ethos with disciplined study?
A: I suspect that Paul is not saying that he regrets his training. Do these references imply we should not be serious students? No, Jesus made it clear that we’re to study the Bible. Paul used hyperbole to draw attention. He clearly valued his Roman citizenship, a credential he inherited at birth, as it saved his neck. John Sung reportedly threw his PhD in science into the sea. But I’m not ashamed of my qualifications. Study disciplined me in the art of sustained thinking through difficult problems. When you are forced to articulate what you think for others to critique, it puts the fear of God in you. Then you make a career of saying all that in public and wait for pot shots to arrive. Paul says his great learning is rubbish relative to the satisfaction of knowing God, but he does not reject scholarship.
Q: Paul mentioned that he resolved that his audience knew nothing “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). If that is our goal, why is there a need for apologetics?
A: Paul was speaking hyperbolically. In comparison with all the things he had proclaimed, the crucified Christ was of paramount importance. For example, when he was preaching in Athens, he empathised with the hearers, as out of ignorance they had been worshipping an “unknown God”. To study natural sciences is my way of tipping my hat to the Creator. Every field of human enquiry has the fingerprint of God. Throughout church history, the people who made contributions to our knowledge of God were those who laboured and studied. In the 16th century, the invention of the telescope opened people’s eyes to the vastness of the universe, the marvel of God’s creation, while the invention of the microscope saved countless lives through the discovery of microbes. This is the topic of my upcoming book.
Q: What sparked off your interest in academia?
A: I’m not a natural academic. I love life far too much — by that I mean movies, music, cars, sailing, flying, hot-air ballooning, cycling, camping, hiking, jigsaw-puzzles, swimming, scuba-diving and golf. When I was studying in London, the beauty of legal training stunned me; it was as if it had answers to everything, though it said nothing about what happens when I die. That’s what led me to go into serious study of the Word and natural sciences. So my move to academia was very gradual. I served as a missionary for almost 7 years before I entered seminary for the first time at 36. I started my doctorate at 40 when most academics had already become professors. Thus my interest is not in academia per se but what its training could do to discipline my lazy mind.
Q: Do you think the rigour of study will prevent a Christian from backsliding?
A: It doesn’t prevent anymore than it will guarantee. Backsliding is an issue of the heart. What serious study does is that, if you decide to backslide, you have no excuse to say you didn’t know.
Q: In what way is Project Timothy different from other Bible study courses?
A: In Project Timothy, we do not give you a fixed “model” answer. Our goal is to train you to develop an answer that is coherent and biblically sound, one that you can defend. We help you develop your own answer through critical thinking and the Holy Spirit. Though exclusively Bible-based, our course is very holistic in that we teach the Bible in the context of economics, politics, history, literature and archaeology. We hope that it will give Christians a rich appreciation of God and also attract non-Christians. We desire credibility, and hope that Project Timothy will give people a sense of responsible apologetics.
The above article was first published in Asian Beacon magazine, October 2010, issue 42.5