Someone asked me how reliable is the Gospels in the Bible? This is part of an article by Blomberg.
“Non-Christian religions often allege that the Gospels as they now appear cannot be trusted because the text has been greatly corrupted. This allegation has virtually no evidence to support it. There are 2,328 manuscripts and manuscript fragments surviving from the earliest centuries of the Christian church and representing all portions of the Gospels. The earliest fragment of any portion of the NT currently in existence is the John Rylands papyrus fragment (P52) of John 18:31–33, 37–38, which probably dates to c. A.D. 125 or within about thirty years of the original composition of the Fourth Gospel. Twenty-one papyri containing major sections of one or more Gospels can be dated to the third and fourth centuries, while five virtually complete NTs survive from the fourth and fifth centuries. Compared with the numbers and ages of manuscripts which have survived for most other ancient documents, including many believed to contain reliable accounts of historical events, this evidence is overwhelming.
As a result, textual critics have been able to reconstruct a highly reliable prototype of what the original Gospel writers undoubtedly wrote. Estimates suggest that from ninety-seven to ninety-nine percent of the original text is securely recoverable. More than fifty-four percent of all of the verses in the Gospels are entirely free of textual variants, and the vast majority of those which remain have no bearing on questions of historicity. Modern editions of the Greek NT (Nestle-Aland; UBS) print the textual variants which have any significant effect on meaning, and most modern English translations use footnotes to alert readers to the most disputed texts (e.g., Mt 6:13b; Mk 16:9–20; Jn 7:53–8:11).”
C. L. Blomberg, “Gospels (Historical Reliability),” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 292.
The most common reconstruction of the literary interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels has Matthew and Luke depending on at least two written sources—Mark and Q* (a hypothetical document accounting for material Matthew and Luke have in common which is not found in Mark; see Synoptic Problem). Q is usually dated to the 50s and Mark is assumed to have utilized source material at least that old. With Christ’s crucifixion no earlier than A.D. 30, the time gap between events and written accounts is reduced to about twenty years
C. L. Blomberg, “Gospels (Historical Reliability),” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 294.
Malaysian Christians marked themselves as safe in the Covid-19 pandemic 2020. We are still here. We request prayers. Last year was a roller coastal year of ups and downs. There were periods of intense fear accompanied by long periods of extreme boredom. The pandemic came like a thief in the night and took us by surprise. We were aware of some early storm warnings which were sounded in Wuhan China about a new coronavirus, initially named the novel SARS-CoV-2, because of its close resemblance to the SARS virus. Alarming news started coming in rapidly. The infected and death tolls started rising. Different countries were reporting cases, and the global spread was impressive. Then countries started reacting by placing their populations under lockdowns. We observed healthcare facilities being overwhelmed in Italy and Spain as the virus spread. We, however, were too busy celebrating the Chinese New Year of the Metal Rat to pay much heed until the storm hit. The rapid sale of toilet paper amused us until it was time for us to rush and buy. Our government informed us that we need to ‘flatten the curve’, not referring to weight control, but to contain the spread by lockdowns or Movement Order Control (MCO) which will allow time for our healthcare facilities to be expanded. What brought the message home was the lockdown on 18 March 2020 when the causeway was closed and we were all restricted to our home. Since then, we have experienced MCO, Extended MCO, Recovery MCO, and unfortunately at the time of writing back to MCO. A state of emergency has been declared nationwide because of the increasing number of cases.
A pandemic disrupts the function of society by revealing, removing, and resetting it. The Black Plague which almost decimated the population of Europe in the 14th century laid the foundation for modern Europe. Whether this pandemic will result in improved revitalized Malaysian churches remains to be seen. What it does was to reveal the complacency of many Malaysian Christians. We have settled into our own comfort zones. Aside from occasional forays to the outside world, most of us are quite happy doing church. We are at peace with the society we live in and have comes to terms with its challenges. What we did not or refuse to realize is how broken ourselves, our churches, and our society are. The SARS-CoV-2 RNA virus did not break our society. It is already broken. We have been propping it up it up it so that it continues to function. Society’s brokenness arise from marketing, unrealistic branding, doubtful morality, and borrowed money. The church in this society is broken through being inward-looking, and existing on a form of ‘cheap grace’ without the need for accountability, commitment, and involvement by getting our hands dirty. A few Christians did most of the work while the rest side back and critize. More efforts were spent looking after the welfare of church members than in reaching out to the poor, exploited, sick, and destitute around. Many of the Christians are not even aware of the millions of migrant workers in the country, nor of those who are living with disabilities and needing help.
The pandemic removes all the props and reveals our brokenness. With the lockdown, all churches are not allowed to hold their services and meetings on-site. This was a shock to the churches in Malaysia. No one was prepared for this. To many Christians, the Sunday service was the sum total of their faith. There was a deep sense of depression and lamentation in the church at that time. A webinar Moving Beyond Lament: Biblical, Pastoral, and Spirituality Perspectives was held to explore this.
Unfortunately, the lamentation was not one of biblical repentance and seeking the Lord, but of not being able to do church the way we are used to. For the first half of the year, many churches did not do anything except to wait for things to get back to ‘normal’. It must be noted that during this early period of the pandemic, bigger urban churches that are more techno-savvy moved online faster than the smaller and rural churches. These churches are also more active on social media. When the middle of the year came and Christians begin to realize that the virus is not going away anytime soon, they began to review their situation and began their reset the way they do church.
Christians in Malaysia faces a lot of challenges when they started to reset the way they do and be the church in the new pandemic era. The lockdowns have caused a lot of economic hardships as the economy has literally come to a standstill and needs to restart. Workers had their pay cut, overtime allowances trimmed and even retrenched or sacked. Thousands of families dropped below the poverty line. Jobs are hard to find. Churches and faith-based organizations are hard hit, and some are forced to close. However, in the midst of the doom and gloom, some interesting trends appeared during this resetting period.
First, more and more churches are moving online. Churches have expanded their services with direct streaming, and YouTube and Facebook Live. The smaller churches are starting online services. What is encouraging is that the larger churches who have the expertise are training the smaller churches on how to stream their services. The infrastructure for the Internet is not well developed in Malaysia. Internet available is spotty or non-existent in many areas. Mobile networks are better and many smaller churches especially indigenous churches in East Malaysia are connecting and even conducting their services on their mobile phones by email or Whatsapp.
Second, the small groups in churches seen to be revitalized. Even as Christians cannot meet in church services, they become more active in small or cell groups. Many use the media platform Zoom, Google Meet, or Lark. Attendance in small groups has gone up. They even have members joining in from overseas. More Christians have taken up leadership in these small groups which is a very encouraging trend indeed.
Third, Christians have become more ecumenical as they begin to attend service services and listening to sermons and teaching which is outside their denominational borders. Many have expressed wonder and awe at the exposure of different traditions of Christianity. Others feel they are receiving better teaching and know more about the bible and Christianity. With time during the lockdown, some have taken up theological courses from institutions around the world. The pandemic has pushed Malaysian Christians to become global Christians in new and meaningful ways.
Four, there seems to be a new level of collaboration between the churches in Malaysia. When the first wave of the virus in Malaysia was contained and there were indications that on-site church services may be allowed, a group of Christians collaborated to draw up the first guidance of Standard Operation Protocol (SOP) for the reopening of churches. This document is distributed free and form the basis of many denominations in drafting up their SOPs, not only in Malaysia but also in other countries. A webinar Guidance for Churches in the Post-Covid Era was held to inform the church leaders.
Five, many churches are involved in buying and bringing groceries to the poor during the lockdowns. It is heartening to note the innovative way the churches reaching out and meeting the needs of their neighbor in these difficult times. A group of churches in Johor Bahru receive a few tonnes of unsold vegetables from Cameron Highlands, repack these in one of the church compound, and gave out these vegetables to about 6,000 poor families. Another church looks after 600 families and makes sure they have enough food and their children receive an education. Yet another reached out to the Orang Asli villages in the interior of Peninsular Malaysia.
Finally, with the uncertainty, anxiety, and threat of the virus, many Malaysian Christians are drawing closer to God. When all our delusions of control have been stripped away, we realize how dependent we are on our Lord. When all human machineries have failed to control the virus, we are left with only our faith. Prayer meetings are better attended than before. More Christians are reading the bible and attending bible studies. Interest in spirituality has shot up.
The journey is not over yet. The virus is still rampaging the country. While there is the promise of the vaccine, none has been sighted on our shores yet. So what news from Malaysia? We are good. How about you?
There has been some concern that the Covid-19 vaccines were made from fetal cells of aborted fetal cells. Covid-19 infection is caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus which is an RNA virus. Were aborted human fetal cells used in the creation of Covid-19 vaccines?
Vaccines developed from fetal cells lines were not new. Pharmaceutical companies find that cell lines are perfect for vaccines to grow. The fetal cell lines used were derived in the 1960’s and 1970’s from two elective abortions that were not performed for the purpose of vaccine development. Fetal cell lines were used to create vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis A, rubella, and rabies. Only two fetal cells lines were used: HEK-293: A kidney cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1972, and PER.C6: A retinal cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1985. No other fetal cells from terminated fetus or abortions were used. No new abortions were done to obtain new fetal cell lines.Of the Covid-19 vaccines, only live-attenuated or inactivated virus vaccines, and viral vector vaccines used fetal cell lines. Some of these are using animal cell lines while other human fetal cell lines. Examples are AstraZeneca, CanSino, Gamaleya, and Janssen. Other DNA, RNA, and Protein vaccines do not need fetal cell lines for its development. Examples of the RNA vaccines are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. For a full list see here: Update: COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates and Abortion-Derived Cell Lineshttps://lozierinstitute.org/update-covid-19-vaccine…/
To those who are concerned about the moral implications of using vaccines derived from aborted fetal cells, the RNA, DNA, and Protein vaccines will not be a problem. It is only as we face the issue of live attenuated or inactivation vaccines that the problem arises. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the church offers some wisdom on this issue. From Thomas Aquinas, we learn of the principle of natural law, the principle of totality, and the principle of double effect. The principle of natural law states that the “Natural Law consists of first judgment that good should be pursued and evil avoided”. It means that whatever action should seek for the greater good and not for greater harm. A vaccine is for the greater good. It gives some protection for the vulnerable and those at high risk especially the older persons, those with chronic medical conditions, and those whose immune system are weak. It also aims at creating herd immunity to protect those who did not have an opportunity to be vaccinated. In natural law, we should aim to do good, not evil.
In his second principle, the law of totality, Aquinas noted that “the body may be changed only to ensure the proper functioning of the whole body.” He pointed out that it is our duty to be responsible steward not only of our own bodies but that of our neighbours. A vaccine enables better functioning of the body against the virus. Aquinas may not be aware of vaccination but he was aware of plagues and pestilences.
The third and final principle from Aquinas is the principle of double effect. Aquinas taught “The act must be good or at least morally neutral. The moral agent must intend only the good effect and bad effect must not be the means of bringing about the good effect. The good and the bad effect must be proportional.” He was saying that sometimes you have to do something bad so that some good will emerge. For example, if a pregnant woman has an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is when the fetus is implanted not in the uterus but in one of her fallopian tubes. After growing to a certain size, the fetus will rupture the fallopian tube and the mother will bleed to death. The doctor may have to go in to remove the fetus in order to save the mother’s life. Without an operation, both will die. However, removing the fetus is what we understand as abortion. The principle of double effect is abortion though a negative action was done with the intention of a good effect, the survival of the mother. The fetus died so that the mother may live.
Aquinas’ teaching may have an impact on how we think about fetal cell lines. These fetal cells line were derived from two abortions done 30-40 years ago. Yet the death of these two fetuses are providing a legacy to ensure others keep on living. Two negative events are providing many positive effects.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. As I mentioned, not all Covid-19 vaccines are made from human fetus cells. What is essential is that enough persons need to vaccinated for their own individual and their neighbours’ protection.
Christmas is not postponed or canceled. With the upsurge of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks all over the world, countries, and cities which have been gradually relaxing their pandemic restrictions for the Christmas season are restricting their prevention measures again. This has been a roller coaster year where the pandemic plays a game of ups and downs with the nations. Countries that have declared themselves pandemic free a few months ago are experiencing an upsurge of cases. The emergency rollout of the new vaccines is a light in an otherwise dark year. The restriction of preventive rules will result in churches holding services for a smaller number of members or only having online services. The normal Christmas cheer of frenzy shopping, partying, and caroling will be restricted or dampened. This has led to some news media to report that ‘Christmas this year is canceled’.
Christmas which derived from the Middle English word of Christ’s Mass is actually a celebration of an event that happened more than two thousand years ago. It celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. This is a fact and cannot be canceled, no matter how much spin we apply to it. The celebration of Christmas cannot be canceled. Christmas celebration is not the holiday merrymaking, shopping, Christmas trees and presents, caroling, special church services, or family gatherings. It is a celebration because many years ago when the shepherds in the field heard that the savior was born and found that it is true. This savior, named Jesus is God incarnate. He is fully God, yet fully human. This is a step in the redemption of all human beings to do what we cannot, but made possible by God; the salvation of all humankind. The celebration of Christmas happens in the reconciliation of the relationship of all of mankind and God, and all of mankind with one another. Hence the refrain: ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to men’. This type of celebration cannot be canceled or postponed, not even during a pandemic. This pandemic has shut down the cultural trappings of the Christmas season, leaving with us only the basics in lockdown. However, the basics are more than enough. Christian celebration is Immanuel, roughly translated as God with us.
We are not the first generation to be shut down by a global pandemic. There have been many pandemics in the past, and many more will come until Jesus comes again. The second coming of Jesus is the other reason we celebrate Christmas. Jesus’ second coming will bring to an end all suffering and tears. In the meantime, let us be grateful that we survived the pandemic so far. As we slow down to the end of the year, let us reflect on the year with gratefulness. There is always something to be grateful for. And we shall bring this gratefulness into the New Year. We shall enter the New Year with gratefulness and high expectations. We shall carry on and adapting to the new circumstances. Human normalcy is adapting to change. Hence there is no new or old normalcy. A wise man once said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” We shall learn to cope and even to thrive in this Christmas season.
Julian of Norwich, an English mystic, encouraged us with “But all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” It was not some idealistic saying but one born of experience and pain. Julian lived during the times of the Black Death (1348-1350). According to her book Showings (the long version), Julian spent 15 years and more walled up in her cell against a church wall, immersed in a deep, faithful struggle to understand the meaning of these words. Her conclusion was that human beings will survive and thrive, not because of their own efforts, but by the Love of God. Such is the message of Christmas.
Finally let us not forget the poor, the sick, and the marginalized amongst us. It is too easy to forget them as we strive to be safe and to survive. They are the ones who suffer the most in any pandemic. The socio-economic consequences of the pandemic have driven many people below the poverty line. Financial giving to many non-governmental agencies and faith-based organizations have nose-dived. The need is greater than ever. If you have survived or even thrived in this first year of the pandemic, be grateful, and think of giving to those who have not. Christmas is not canceled.
This is the best quote I have heard about growing old
When they asked her to reveal her beauty secrets, Audrey Hepburn wrote this beautiful text that was later read at her funeral.
To have attractive lips, speak kind words. To have a loving look, look for the good side of people. To look skinny, share your food with the hungry. To have beautiful hair, let a child cross it with his own fingers once a day. To have a beautiful poise, walk knowing you’re never alone, because those who love and loved you accompany you. People, even more than objects, need to be fixed, spoiled, awakened, wanted and saved: never give up on anyone. Remember, if you ever need a hand, you’ll find them at the end of both your arms.
When you become old, you will discover that you have two hands, one to help yourself, the second to help others. The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, in her face or in her way of fixing her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the door open to her heart, the source of her love. The beauty of a woman doesn’t lie in her makeup, but the true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the tenderness that gives love, the passion that it expresses. The beauty of a woman grows over the years ′′
As I meditate and think about growing old, here are four movements of the Holy Spirit that will help us.
The heart of Christian spirituality is the Presence of God with the Love of God. The narratives of the heroes of faith in the bible are full of examples of the intimacy of men and women with God. Abraham and Sarah had a meal with God under the oaks tree in Mamre. Moses spoke to God face to face, and even got a glimpse of God from behind! Jacob wrestled with God and was handicapped. Joseph visited with God in his dreams. Samuel was awaked by God’s voice calling his name, and Elijah on the mountains, a quiet voice. David danced, sung, and played music for God. These people and the prophets shared an intimacy with God that is astonishing. God, the creator, enjoying intimacy with his creatures is a great mystery; one even angels seek to understand.
Is this intimacy for these chosen few or is the intimacy available for all of God’s people? Jesus, in using the metaphor of a vine plant and it branches implies that this intimacy is for everyone. The precondition as the metaphor taught is how attached the branch is to the vine. Elsewhere, Jesus talks about grafted branches. Hence, we can deduce that the Presence and Love of God is for all God’s people. Unfortunately, nowadays, many understood this intimacy and love as grace. Grace is a free undeserved gift from God. It is one way, from God who loves and forgives, to us. Intimacy with God is two way. That is why the biblical writers use sexual union between a man and a woman as the metaphor of intimacy with God. The Song of Songs is a key book in the bible on this.
Intimacy with God is not romantic love. Romantic love is often just lust. Intimacy with God is opening and sharing with God our innermost being which is our souls. Christian spiritual teachers taught about union with God. That is why intimacy with God may be costly and painful. Of this deeper aspect of the spiritual life, Teresa of Avila, both in her autobiography and her book The Interior Castle described it well. In her autobiography, Teresa of Avila recorded her vision of an angel with a golden arrow which tip seems to be on fire. She shared, “It was as if he bored into me several times with the arrow, through my heart, and when he withdrew the arrow again, it was as if the most inner part of my heart was drawn out. He finally left me, on fire with a fervent love for God. The wound was so great that it caused me to moan in pain; but the joy caused by this pain was so effusive that it was impossible for me to want to be free of it, or that I will be content with anything less than God”. Teresa commented on the pain was joyful as the arrow was withdrawn taking a piece of her heart with it. What is more is that she described the pain as a longing for more of God; that the piece of her heart that is stuck on the flaming arrowing is crying out for more and more of God’s love.
Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, marble sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1647-52). (Rome, S. Maria della Victoria)
photo source: Wikipedia
We often think of intimacy with God as bible reading, praying, and serving God. We treat these activities as transactions we do to repay God for his grace. That is not what true Christian spirituality is. True Christian spiritual is falling in love with God. Sometimes this intimacy is painful as all true intimacy are. We cannot truly give of ourselves unless we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. That means to feel the pain that intimacy with God may bring. C.S.Lewis wrote about our yearnings as if distinct music from behind a closed door stirred memories of a distant land which is our real home. It is more than that. It is the yearning for the love and presence of a loved One who is far away which is sometimes painful with loss. Moses, Sarah, and others enjoyed their intimacy with God. It must be appreciated that this intimacy also come with pain for each one of them.
Intimacy with God is not for mystics only. As Karl Rahler noted long ago, all Christians are mystics. Intimacy with God is for all Christians as we grow deeper in our spiritual lives. There is a tendency to trivialize intimacy with God in our churches today and replace it with activism. The sad consequence of that is that we will end up with very shallow Christians with deep spiritual hunger for God that is not satisfied.
John Wyatt, pediatrician and research scientist, conducted an excellent webinar on “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Healthcare”. This webinar is part of a helpful series of webinar by International Christian Medical Dental Association (ICDMA) which has been held weekly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Focusing on healthcare, Wyatt highlighted the rapid progress Artificial Intelligence (AI) has made in healthcare. Initially using machine learning on algorithms and pattern recognition, it improved much since them. AI now appears in the real world as Babylon, a phone app that diagnoses medical conditions better than general practitioners (GP) in the UK and Woebit, another phone app that talks and courage the depressed. This is only the visible part of the iceberg. Thousands of AI is already embedded in medical devices and robotic machines in the hospitals and is actively engaged in diagnosis, ensuring patient safety, and even in surgery. Wyatt’s Christian response to AI in healthcare is that AI do not provide the human solidarity that face to face with another human being provides.
John Lennox, apologist and mathematician, wrote in his 2020 book 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity about the rapid rise of AI especially since 2012 with deep learning, the evolving of neural networks seems to be beyond human understanding. While acknowledging the use for AI in a wider perspective in general especially in our social media, surveillance, big data, and self-driving cars, Lennox is careful to point out:
It is clearly one thing to try to build AI systems that seek to mimic aspects of what the human mind can do; it is an entirely different thing to try to recreate what it feels to be human. Consciousness bars the way (kindle 153, 2020).
Lennox made the argument that (1) AI can mimic the human mind in thinking but (2) AI cannot have what we call consciousness. AI with pattern recognition and algorithm needs a lot of data input before it can ‘think’. Even in deep learning, it will need to be programmed with millions of possible outcomes before it provide an outcome of its own. Hence AI ‘thinking’ is different from human thinking. As one AI expert pointed out, a young child can be taught what an elephant is by giving that child one picture of an elephant. An AI will need input of millions of photos of elephant just to be able identify the animal. The other argument is that an AI cannot have a consciousness or a soul no matter the type of programming it receives. Consciousness is what distinguish a living human brain and a dead human brain.
One discussion that Lennox gave a lot of space to is whether AI can evolve into a superintelligence like God. Lennox argues against that stating the created cannot surpass the creator. In my article Artificial Intelligence and God I offered a different argument. A superintelligence, if it is even possible to build, cannot transcend space and time. Whether it will possess the will to power and dominate like human beings is best left to science fiction writers and their dystrophic futures.
AI is an emerging technology and as responsible stewards, we are to control and guide its development. Like any technology, AI has the potential to improve human flourishing. It also has the potential for human destruction. Therefore, like any technology, it should be use to serve human beings
I am looking forward to the ICMDA webinar on The Ethics of Genomic Editing. Genomic editing has been eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic but its significance has not. Last year I was invited to be part of a symposium organized by Berman Institute of Bioethics, John Hopkins University and Universiti Malaya on this topic The Ethics of Genome Editing: A Christian Perspective.