Bird Theology

Afew of my classmates in seminary were Indonesian pastors. In one of our informal theological discussions, some of them shared with me that in Indonesia they spoke of teologi kucing (cat theology) and teologi monyet (monkey theology).

They explained that the mother cat picks up its kitten with its mouth when it moves around; the kitten is passive and does not need to do anything. This represents Calvinism. On the other hand, the baby monkey holds on to the neck of its mother as she swings from tree branch to tree branch. This characterises Arminianism.

Later I found out that these two illustrations were first used by the 11th-12th century Tamil philosopher Ramanuja in his reflections on divine grace. His teachings led to the formation of two bhakti (devotion) schools: the “monkey school” and the “cat school”. These philosophical ideas were imported through the Indian empires that existed in medieval Indonesia, and found their way eventually into Christian discussions.

The two illustrations are interesting but their weakness is in exaggerating Calvinism and Arminianism so much so that the ideas they convey are not exactly in line with what the Bible teaches. Both John Calvin (1509-1564) and Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) explained their understanding of how we are saved. Both used Scripture, emphasising different aspects – the sovereignty and grace of God and the need for human beings to respond to divine grace respectively.

As is often the case, the positions of the original founders of schools of thought are stretched to the extreme by enthusiastic followers. Therefore some followers of Calvin and Arminius went beyond what they had originally said.

You can get into a position that says that one is saved solely by the irresistible grace of God and that the believer is like the passive kitten in the illustration. On the other hand, it is also possible to hold an extreme position of human response and responsibility that marginalises the importance of divine sovereign grace. Many heresies are wrong teachings arising from unbalanced Bible teaching.

We find a Scriptural balance in the teachings of the apostles. Paul, for example, challenged false teaching by declaring simultaneously: “The Lord knows those who are his” and “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”

(2 Tim 2:19). He holds a biblical balance and poise that emphasises both the sovereignty of God’s gracious choice of those who are saved as well as the need for believers to respond to that grace and to act responsibly.

Paul reiterates this in Philippians 2:12-13, where he declares that God is at work in us to enable us to choose and act, but at the same time urges his readers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. To be sure, Scripture is clear about the priority of divine grace. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) “We love because he first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:19) Paul also wrote that God chose us in Christ “before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4).

Defective forms of Christianity are produced when we lose the balance. We may either end up in an apathy of the flesh (careless, presumptuous and light-hearted attitude to sin) or an activism driven by the flesh (neurotic and restless self-effort aimed at self-justification); both forms are prevalent in church today.

To my Indonesian friends, I suggested that perhaps we can talk about a teologi burong (bird theology) – for we read in Deuteronomy 32:11 of how God led and guarded Israel in the desert.

The picture is that of a mother eagle that hovers over its young, and then stirs up the nest (to push them out so that they can fly), and spreads its wings to catch them if they fall. This is an interesting picture of divine sovereignty and grace as well as human response to that grace.

There is no place for passive faith. Faith has to be active – a lively response to the sovereign and gracious moves of God. What flights has God prepared for you this new year?

Picture by littlebit/

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Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon was Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000 to 2012. Currently retired, he now keeps busy with an active itinerant ministry speaking and teaching in Singapore and overseas.