Rural Theologies

“Social class in America isn’t just about money.” So says J.D. Vance in the midst of his memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Raised in southwestern Ohio, but grown with close ties to nearby Kentucky, Vance tells a story that is more than just his own “rags-to-riches” type of narrative. His tale encompasses a breadth of white rural experience that conditions not just the hillbillies of Appalachia but actually many poor rural whites throughout the country. Around the time of the election of Pres. Donald J. Trump, Vance’s memoir was often pointed at as a description of the ailment that manifested in political symptoms.

If social class, neatly construed, is not, as Vance suggests, about money, then what is it about? Vance struggles with this throughout his book. He goes to the Marines, a big state university, an Ivy League law school, upper-crust elite work, and all the time he still feels like a “hillbilly.” For him there’s a sense of pride in that identification; but there is also a sense of humiliation. For some reason, he stresses near the end of the book, he just cannot escape the pressures of rural poverty and the power it wields over his life, even in the midst of relative success.

I have wondered about this problem of social class too. In my working life thusfar, I have been a campus missionary, a graduate student, and a low-level lab manager in an expensive neighborhood (e.g. my pay was better than as a missionary; my costs were higher still). At every juncture I would have described myself, financially, as poor. And, based on the poverty level standards, this would have been objectively true. Yet I was raised in a middle-class household, in a stable family, in a culture with certain values. It has only been fairly recently that my eyes have become adjusted to seeing what “poverty” looks like.

The numbers describe me and my family as poor. But we don’t look it. Instead, we look pretty successful. (We save a lot of money by not caring about having “satellite TV” or “high speed internet.”) In a strange way, in spite my financial “lacks” (i.e. I don’t make enough to save any money, and we spend more on food every month than we can afford), I feel successful while Vance, in spite of his financial gains (making upwards, we are told in the book, of $100K a year; good house; good neighborhood), feels unsuccessful. What constitutes this? What is “social class” really, if it isn’t, as so many sociologists or economists (or policy-makers) claim, an economic demographic?

Benld IL
A dilapidated building in downtown Benld, IL, where I grew up. Photo by Bruce Wicks via Flickr.

A problem confronts me whenever I set down to think about theology: I have been to too many different places. At present, I live in a demographically-mixed (all the demographics!) part of Chicago’s South Side; in the past, I lived in a poorer part of the river town Alton, IL; I grew up in a middle-class household in an impoverished rural county; I once lived in a burgeoning up-and-coming town for the upper-middle-class. And this is just the state of Illinois!

An observation that I have seen in my life throughout Illinois (and also in my sojourns to other states as well) is that denominational / theological groups thrive in certain socioeconomic circumstances. The more poor, the more rural, the more Pentecostals, the more Baptists, and the more non-denominationals (who are really Baptists). Drive through eastern Tennessee into the mountains, for instance, and you will see, one after another, X Baptist Church, Y Baptist Church, Z Church of Christ, Q Church of Christ, R “Fancy Name Big Church” (which might be non-denominational evangelical or charismatic, you can’t quite tell by the sign).

This observation is just an observation, of course, and I haven’t yet gotten the chance to dig up the data for it. My hunch is that there are surely a few of churches that don’t fit these socioeconomic trends, and yet my hunch is also that this is the minority. There is a history to this phenomenon: most American denominations were founded by ethnic minorities as they migrated to the country. Poor Irish settlers (like my great-great-great-grandfather Caveny) brought with them their Roman Catholicism, not-quite-as-poor-but-still-poor German farmers brought with them their Lutheranism or their Congregationalism, while more financially-astute English immigrants brought Methodism and Anglicanism.

Different ethnic groups brought with them different levels of financial stability and different home-cultures and values when it came to work, money, and the like (although discerning those cultures and values becomes a very difficult ethnographic task, one that cannot be navigated lightly). The different ethnic groups in America for a long time created different social classes, and these social classes became tied to theological identities.

How American society transformed from ethnically-determined churches into socioeconomically-determined churches, especially amidst white people, is a mystery that I do not want to broach here, and it should go without saying that there is another parallel story that occurs in American society with regards to African-American, Hispanic, and other minority churches. But the result of these historical processes is clear: somehow when you land in a geographic location determined by certain economic situations, you can already get a sense of the theology of that people.

This leads me to propose a surprising and bizarre claim: theology in America is the result of socioeconomic class more often than it is the result of Bible-training, study, and preaching.

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A movie theater scheduled for demolition in Middletown, OH, where Vance grew up. Photo by Robby Virus via Flickr.

Vance finds this to be true in his memoir. His observations of the culture of Appalachian hillbillies includes claims like “[they have] a lack of agency,” they believe in “avoidance and wishful-thinking,” and “[they] had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream.” He provides some statistical differences between how hillbillies perceive their own church attendance (“Why, of course I go to church!”) and how the actual church attendance in their towns; he notes the suspicion held by his communities towards ecclesiastical structures; he observes their personal, private commitments to Christian faith that are divorced from communal, public manifestations of it.

What manifests in utter suspicion of ecclesiastical structures in Appalachian appears as devout congregationalist / Baptist communities in my own southern Illinois. Non-denominational churches pop up like wildfire in the rural Midwest, communities with little to no oversight except centralized pastoral authority. American civil worship practices appear too, like the displaying of patriotic symbols (the flag, “God bless America!”) or the singing of the National Anthem at a church. I remember visiting a church on the Fourth of July in which the whole congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, something that to me was utterly off-putting but absolutely normal for the community. For many in rural churches this is a natural manifestation of their Christian belief.

I am “waving” at something here. One of the pinnacles of Protestant — especially Reformed, but also Wesleyan — belief is the emphasis that beliefs, values, doctrines, and practices find their home in the Scriptures first. And, yet, if we take Vance’s personal stories of Appalachian faith to heart, and if my admittedly-broad observations ring true, then it would seem that theologies and doctrines are not as based off of “serious Scriptural study” as they are based off of socio-economic class, with a priority to the “social” part over the “economic.”

The pastor-theologian should find this strange and maybe even a little troubling. If a pastor’s goal is to see my people grow in the knowledge of the Lord and in a knowledge of His Word, how is it that the people under pastoral authority seem to grow most effectively in a knowledge of the socio-cultural beliefs they already bring with them? And, given these socio-cultural beliefs are difficult to leave behind, as we see Vance wrestle near the end of the memoir, how is a pastor to provoke pervasive underlying beliefs that have a lot more to do with American or social-class identity than our ancient Christian identity or the Scriptures?

Theologically speaking, this is the problem that feels most at stake in Vance’s work. There are surely problems of socio-economics, justice, cultural-community dynamics and the like that one could discuss from Hillbilly Elegy, but the issue of a socially-determined (as opposed to biblically-determined) theology is one that seems to manifest underneath a lot of the societal ills Vance describes. He comments, for instance, on how churches that ought to be a safety-net for low-income families instead have become so individualistic that their social benefit is altogether negated, to the detriment of his community.

 

How the American Christian should respond to this level of theological crisis, a thing tied to the socioeconomic crisis of the white poor, is complicated, and my goal here is simply to point out what Vance has already pointed out in his book. It is provocative enough to notice that most of our received theologies in evangelicalism are not the result of Bible study or theological inquiry, but instead the result of the strange interconnections between church-life and our social-cultural matrix. My hunch is that this is just another type of syncretism that American Christians do not see as such because we would rather describe syncretism as something “people in the third world” do. (As I overheard a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology say the other day: “Anthropology is the word white academics use to describe non-white cultures, while sociology is the word for white cultures.”)

If rural theologies flourish and propagate as a culturally- and socially-derived set of beliefs, even tied to economics and class, how ought pastors — in all types of communities and contexts — communicate the Gospel and discuss the Scriptures? Once the problem is clearly seen, it becomes difficult to know how to go forward. Vance wrote that “social class in America isn’t just about money”; but, as we have seen, so too “theology in America isn’t just about Bible studies and teaching.” Somehow both of these things rely on a rural culture that is much more powerful than we could have expected.

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Preach

 

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There’s a new Gallup poll out on what makes people go to Church, according to Christianity Today, and it’s kind of awesome. The number one reason why folks go to church is to hear sermons about Scripture. 82% of Protestants cited a rigorous exposition of Scripture as what draws them to Church. I say “kind of awesome” because the best answer would be “I go because she is the body of Christ and we love her and want to build her up” but I imagine that answer wasn’t an option on the Gallup poll.

Here’s the money paragraph from the article.

Last year, Ed Stetzer cited several examples of congregations (such as Oklahoma megachurch Life.Church) that shifted toward more rigorous teaching once they noticed interest from the unchurched: “In other words, those for whom sermons were being dumbed down aren’t dumb. They are interested in the truth or else they’d be out golfing.”

I’ve long believed that churches, evangelicals in particular, make things far too easy on folks in the pews by “contextualizing” things in such a way that it’s impossible to distinguish from the wider culture. This survey shows that is a mistake. Here’s to more rigorous teaching and more demanding church going that holds a certain finger to the way culture does things and is her faithful self in serving our Lord.  

Seeing Walking Trees: Jesus’ Healing of the Blind Man in Mark 8

Blind Man

I was asked today what is going on in Mark 8 when Jesus’ healing of the blind man falters in the first attempt and he has to touch the man again. It’s a strange story and I had no reply. So I went home and did some reading. Here is the story as told by Mark:

22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village” (Mark 8: 22-25, NRSV).

What in the world is going on here? I’ve never paused to look at this story in depth but when I have read it I’ve always flown past it and thought, “well, Mark includes that so that we see the humanity of Jesus and how even he had to ask for more faith sometimes” or something to that effect. But I took a look in Lawrence R. Farley’s fantastic Orthodox commentary on Mark this afternoon and this is what he had to say, shocking in its blunt simplicity:

“The healing of the blind man in stages is narrated at this point to embody the blindness of the disciples, who are also only gradually enlightened as to who Jesus really is. Like the blind man from Bethsaida, the disciples are blind to Jesus’ true messianic significance” (125).

When I read it I thought, “Oh, that’s nice but that sounds much too clever and simple.” But then I went back and looked at what bookends this particular healing and I think Farley is absolutely right. Look at what immediately precedes the healing of the blind man:

17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

And then immediately following the healing of the man is the climax of Mark in the Petrine Messianic declaration:

27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Do you see it now? Mark is telling us to look, really look, at who Jesus is. Like the man from Bethsaida, we may have to look twice in order to really see. Brilliant. This studying Scripture stuff never gets old.

Paul and the Christian Life: A New Perspective Reading

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The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective Eds. Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica
Baker Academic, 2016. 209 pp.

What is it that makes a person a Christian? Or, more specifically, what does it mean to apply Paul’s letters to the center of the Christian life, especially in the light of the “new perspective” of Pauline exegesis? Those provocative questions orient The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life, an important volume that belies its small stature. There’s a lot packed into barely two hundred pages here and because of its subject matter —Paul tells us that everything is different now because of the good news of Jesus—it is not a quick read. Let me briefly recount what I think are the two strongest features of the book before diving into some comments on what the new perspective is and then concluding with more detailed exposition of why the contributors to this volume think the new perspective on Paul (NPP) matters so much for how we read Paul and apply his letters to the Christian life. Given the scope this book covers (nothing less than the whole of the Christian life) and the lens through which it does so (nothing less than the first revolution in Pauline exegesis since the 1500s) this review has turned into a bit of an essay itself!

  1. Introduction

The most important and notable element of this book is the centrality of the person of the Spirit to the each contributor’s understanding of the Christian life—a welcome surprise given the absence of the Spirit in many presentations of the Christian life. Jimmy Dunn’s treatment of Galatians in the first essay of the volume sets the stage for the prominence of the third Person of the Trinity throughout:

If Paul’s emphasis on faith—we might properly say faith alone—is so clear in Galatians, it is equally noticeable that the gift of the Spirit is almost as important for Paul in the same letter. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that in the history of interpretation…much greater emphasis has been given to the importance of ‘justification by faith’ in Galatians that to the gift of the Spirit… (10).

Patrick Mitchel says the same thing, but more provocatively: “The Galatians’ reception of the Spirit by faith, just as much as their justification by faith, is a fulfillment of the blessing promised by God to Abraham” (92).

If you had asked me prior to reading Dunn’s and Mitchel’s essays in what Pauline letters the Spirit plays a prominent role, Galatians would not have come to mind. This book provided a welcome corrective to my poor readings of Galatians. In fact, this volume brings out the striking reality that without an intentionally focused hermeneutic of reading Paul through the lens of the centrality of the Spirit in the Christian life (hunt the pigeon! Sarah Coakley says in God, Sexuality and the Self), one will not read Paul well at all. Case in point: my reading of Galatians solely in terms of “justification”. These essays understand that the Spirit is the Person who empowers the believer to actually live as Jesus commanded. (I was struck reading the gospel according to John today that Jesus tells his disciples that it is actually better for Him to leave so that the Spirit might come upon them [16:17]. Do we take the Spirit seriously enough to take Jesus at his word?)

The second most important feature of this volume is the way in which the essays are soaked in Scripture. The contributors have not availed themselves of the opportunity to give a window dressing treatment of Paul in order to tell us what they really believe the Christian life is all about. They have taken Pauline exegesis and its importance quite seriously and it’s clear that each writer has a high value for Scripture. In fact, the index of Scripture citations takes up six pages at the back of an already short volume. The amount of Scripture included in each essay makes this book a slow read, like I mentioned above, but it also provides the reader with a tour through the letters of Paul

Let’s turn now to the way the readers interpret Paul. What is the “new perspective on Paul” and why does it matter?

 2. The New Perspective on Paul

The subtitle of The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life is, “Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective.” I imagine to some picking up this book that will prove something of an enigma. The new perspective on what, exactly? The editors, Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica, assume that the new perspective on Paul is ubiquitous enough of a term now to omit the genitive of ownership—the new perspective on Paul—and while that may, indeed, be the case, it would seem worthwhile to provide a brief foray into the new perspective in order to be able to provide any comment in the last section on why the contributors in the book think its vital to read Paul in this way. There are those that will scoff at the last sentence: “Of course we know what Paul was trying to get at and even the suggestion of a “new perspective” means that you have all lost the ‘gospel,’” I can well imagine someone saying. But this volume proves that those who think the new perspective is an important corrective to distortions in the reading of Paul are just as devoted to the text and the message of Scripture as those who warn their flock of this “dangerous reading” of Paul as I myself have been advised.

The three-page introduction (I told you it is a short volume!) gets the ball rolling by referring to the “origins and impact of the NPP”, beginning with the trifecta of Krister Stendahl, Ed Sanders, and Jimmy Dunn (xi). Perhaps those names are familiar to you, perhaps not. If not, that’s ok, but hang on because what they have to say is important, if for no other reason than it’s a virtue to be confident enough in the truth of Jesus to listen to what those who take Scripture seriously have to say, even if you’ve only heard nasty things about it.

If you’d allow me a fairly extensive autobiographical note at this point,—which hopefully will help flesh out why the new perspective should matter to you— my first true wrestling with the NPP (outside of a general reading of N.T. Wright) came not five years ago at a table in a small shack on vacation in the lake of the Ozarks. For several years before that vacation, I had been doing a fair amount of reading on the conflagration over the doctrine of justification between John Piper and N.T. Wright (including attending the seminal 2010 Evangelical Theological Society meeting between Wright and Schreiner) and was lead to a small little book by Krister Stendahl. Stendahl, I read, was a Lutheran pastor and scholar that needed to be taken seriously in order to understand the modern context of Pauline studies of which the debate over justification was but one part of the whole. (As any true student of any subject will know, trying to immerse oneself in one topic almost inevitably leads to the necessity of reading a whole trove of other books which provide the larger context which enables you to even begin to get into the material one originally intended to study.) Stendahl’s book, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (1976), was small enough that I felt like I could take it on vacation and have the chance time to finish it without it being too mentally draining for me to have a restful vacation.

If the idea for my vacation was for some mental relaxation, the book proved to be a poor choice. The book proved to be a fairly quick read, indeed, but its contents were both frustrating and exciting to my then current understanding of Paul. Paul, I had been taught, was the guy that made it relatively clear that the purpose and fulfillment of Jesus’ mission on earth was to die so that we might be saved from our sins, thereby attaining salvation and reserving our spot in heaven after death. Our “acceptance” of this message meant that we trusted in its historical truth correctness through our faith and that its life-changing ramifications would mean that we became people through which the fruits of the spirit were developing. A good Christian would tell his or her friends this good news: you can stop trying to be good people in order to make yourself ready for heaven, that’s impossible. Instead, you can that you are a forgiven sinner because you are forgiven through Jesus and can now be sure that you will go to heaven when you die! Any good friend in my circle would have immediately known what the question, “where are you going?” was truly about. We weren’t asking people if they were going to the mall!

I considered this summation of Paul’s message of Jesus life as pretty much the gospel truth aside from the obvious untruth that salvation involved going to heaven. We were meant for the new heavens and new earth that really began here and now I never tired of telling people! But essentially, that’s what Paul wrote and so that’s what we should be telling folks. But reading Stendahl that day at the lake made me question whether or not that reading of Paul could still hold.

Now I know that some at this point may want to say to themselves, well that’s because Stendahl must be preaching a false gospel that must be rejected. But hold on, because that’s not what Stendahl was doing.

What he was doing, was asking whether or not we have been reading Paul well. The question that he asked in its essence was: “Have we been reading Paul as Paul’s 1st century Jewish audience would have read him, or have we been reading him with our 16th century Reformation spectacles on?” Stendahl made me ask things like: Do the “works of the law” that Paul often refers mean simply “good deeds” as Luther would have it, or is Paul talking about something specifically Jewish? Is the message of salvation primarily addressed to individuals or is there a larger, corporate element that we have missed?

Stendahl’s little book went quite a ways to convincing a lot of people, myself included, that we have not been reading Paul from the understanding of his original audience but from the questions that the Reformers were asking. Stendahl showed me that the old perspective reading, while not “wrong” necessarily, certainly didn’t contain the fullness of what Paul was getting at.

That same day after reading Stendahl, I went back to read Galatians, one of the two most important sites of the NPP (the other being Romans) and thinking, “Stendahl has raised some really important questions but now I can’t make heads or tails of this text. If Stendahl is right, Galatians seems to be a completely irrelevant old book on a debate between the finer points of the Jewish “works of law.” I was both excited and confused. My “old perspective” reading of Paul no longer seemed possible but what I was learning was the “new perspective” seemed irrelevant at best. Where did I go from here?

Enter the second character in the trifecta that the introduction lists, E.P. Sanders. Sanders volume, Paul and Palestinian Judaism challenged the prevalent understanding that the Jews of Paul’s day thought that they could earn their salvation through “works of the law.” Without getting in to any detail, Sanders’ book caused a massive shift in understanding the attitude with which Jews approached their standing under the covenant and, thus, their “salvation”. The introduction to The Apostle Paul and the Christian life says that what Sanders’ book did was shift the understanding that “Judaism was not a works-based religion emerging from human effort but one emerging from divine election and the obedience expected of those who were already in the covenant” (xii). Sanders termed this understanding of Judaism, covenantal nomism. That is, the covenant is what “gets one in” and following the works of the law is what allows one to “stay in.”

The last character in the trio is Jimmy Dunn who caused everyone to rethink just exactly what the contentious phrase “works of the law” (ta erga nomou) was referring to. Dunn saw the phrase as referring to “badges” or “boundary markers” of the Jews like food laws, circumcision etc., which Paul criticized on account of the new saving work of Jesus. It was Dunn that applied Sanders’ shifts in understanding to Paul.

To put it simply, the new perspective changed the question from Luther’s (and the “Old Perspective’s”) “how can I as a sinner find a gracious God” to the question that embodies the heart of Paul much more holistically: “what effect has the incarnation of Jesus had on who are now truly part of the covenant people of God?”

That’s as far as I think we should go into the history of the NPP in this review; if you are unfamiliar with it, I hope that this has whetted your appetite to learn more and, ultimately, to go back to Paul’s letters. For my money, Patrick Mitchel’s essay is the most substantial contribution in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life and he provides a good introduction to the NPP in a short amount of space. McKnight and Modica suggest Keith Yinger’s The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, which I would also recommend (it’s only about 100 pages), and also Michael B. Thompson’s The New Perspective on Paul as useful introductions, though I can only speak to Yinger’s fair treatment.

III. Going Deeper

In the introduction, McKnight and Modica state that their reason for using the new perspective as the lens through which the book reads the apostle Paul is because it “offers a fresh and rich approach as one grapples with the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the Christian life” (xiii). One of the results of the NPP Timothy Gombis says in his essay is, “the space created for reading justification in the contexts of Paul’s arguments and for allowing many other aspects of Paul’s richly textured theology to emerge into view” (103). That’s a fine summary of what the contributors of this volume believe the NPP has to offer for the life of everyday discipleship: a renewed look at the letters of Paul that focus on the Spirit and the Church rather than heaven and the individual. No other writer is as critical of the Old Perspective’s emphasis on individual justification and holiness as Scot McKnight this lengthy quotation suggests:

The old perspective generated an individualistic understanding of the Christian life; the old perspective focused on personal redemption and thus on happiness now and eternal life with God when we die; the old perspective saw the mission of God in getting people saved, even if the word salvation gets expanded into the social sector for some; the old perspective tended at times (not always) to minimize social efforts because personal redemption and eternal life became the whole message; the old perspective never had ecclesiology at its center and sometimes diminished the church” (128, original emphasis).

For McKnight, it is clear that the importance of the new perspective lies in the move away from the individual and toward the community united in love for one another through the Spirit of Christ:

The mission of the apostle Paul is to form fellowships in separate cities that embody the new sociopolitical and economic and spiritual order….My contention is that for Paul the Christian life was learning how to live in this new ecclesial identity that demonstrated to Rome not is parading of power and status but instead a parade of sacrificial love and care for all. This is why I contend we need to reclaim Paul for the American church (145).

To sum up: The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life is a welcome addition not only to Pauline studies but also to the everyday life of the Christian disciple. It is a unique volume, employing a formidable cast of New Testament scholars who take the footnotes of Pauline scholarship very seriously but do so in this volume in order to help the believer interact with her colleagues at work in a more thoroughly Pauline, that is to say, Christo-centric, way. This book takes the new perspective seriously as a reading of Paul that has major ramifications for everyday discipleship and for furthering the life and mission of the Church. At barely two-hundred pages, it is a serious work not only for those curious about the new perspective but for the seasoned scholar as well because it furthers our understanding of just what Paul’s letters are all about. For those who take Paul and Scripture seriously enough to come back to the text daily and wrestle anew with what the Spirit is doing in the pages and words of the living word of God, The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life is a vital read.

Salvation By Faith Alone?

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Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King
Matthew Bates
Baker Academic, 2017. 234pp.

Matthew Bates has written an important new book titled Salvation By Allegiance Alone that came out this month from Baker, a publishing house that seems to consistently come out with solid theological works, especially in their academic branch of which this book is a part. Scot McKnight wrote a lengthy forward to the work and has been blogging about it and so it is sure to receive a good deal of attention given how popular his site is. (An odd side note that I must warn you about: every time he posts about the book he includes a family-portrait type photo of Bates that is just awkward, so be prepared for that….)

I was thankful for the time to read the book last week and it was one of those rare books that I had wished were longer. It seems like Bates is just starting to sink his teeth into the material by the time you turn the last page. He tries to cover a ridiculous amount of ground ranging from linguistic studies to soteriology to Pauline studies to eschatology in a little over 200 pages. They all come together under the theme of truly understanding and responding to the good news of Jesus and so I don’t want to make too much of all of the different aspects he tries to cover but two of the middle chapters on eschatology and a Christian anthropology (six and seven, respectively) do feel a bit forced. Someone told me this is just the start of a longer project but it would have been enormously helpful, given Bates somewhat controversial thesis which I will get to here in a second, if he would have provided an additional substantial part that engaged with the history of the doctrine of faith and salvation in the history of Christian thought. For example, I think of the third chapter in John Barclay’s game-changing book Paul and the Gift that gave the reader a substantial, yet obviously limited, overview of the history of Pauline interpretation of grace. That chapter, which looking at it again here now, was right at 100 pages, was an enormous aid for the reader in situating Barclay’s thesis into the larger context of Pauline interpretation. Bates’ book would have been far better had he been able to provide a similar 100 pages or so on the history of interpretation of faith. But, with that said, it’s still an important book to pick up.

Bates’ controversial thesis is that the language of faith and belief are so contaminated for describing the appropriate response of a person to the good news of Jesus that they must be abandoned in favor of the term allegiance. In an admirable in its boldness but sure-to-be divisive two sentences at the beginning of the book Bates states emphatically: “The best corrective is that ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ insofar as they serve as overarching terms to describe what brings about eternal salvation, should be excised from Christian discourse” (3). As if that wasn’t clear enough, he attempts to clarify: “That is, English-speaking Christian leaders should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith’ or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation. For the sake of the gospel we need to revise our vocabulary” (ibid, emphasis mine). See why this book is already a bit controversial?

If the language of belief is to be abandoned for allegiance, what does allegiance entail? Without getting into too much detail, Bates highlights three aspects: 1) mental affirmation that the gospel is true 2) professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord 3) enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus the King. The use of the word allegiance to replace faith and belief is centered around the understanding of Jesus kingship. In the clearest statement of his thesis in the book Bates says: “We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of ‘faith’ (pistis) as ‘allegiance’ in relation to salvation. Jesus as King is the primary object toward which our saving ‘faith’ —that is, our saving allegiance—is directed (67).

For Bates, the most “important” part of the Apostles Creed in the life of the believer today is the oft neglected clause that “He is seated at the right hand of the Father.” This means that even with all of the mess in the world today, Jesus is actively reigning and is the current King. Therefore there is no excuse to wait for an other worldly application to the life and death and resurrection and per Bates, enthronement, of Jesus.

Bates helpfully points us to Paul’s terse and dense summary of the gospel in Romans 1:3-4 by saying that, “In reading Paul’s summary of the gospel, we quickly recognize that the gospel is not at its most basic level a tale about me and my quest for salvation (or even about ‘us’ and ‘our’ quest), but rather it is a grand, cosmic story about God’s Son and what he has done” (30). The book is full of high points like this that will preach on Sundays and that reorients the Western pastor soaked in the hedonism of individual indulgence to the paradigm-shattering news of the gospel about God and not us.

For me, the most helpful part of the book was Bates’ frequent interaction with the scholarly literature in the footnotes. Bates introduces many of the controversies of New Testament scholarship like pistis Christou, dikaiosune theou, and justification/participation and helpfully situates them both in the larger context of the good news and the scholarly literature. For instance, n.27 of chapter eight on justification took me to the work of Charles L. Irons on the use of “righteousness” in Paul which was a fascinating trail to go down. In fact, chapter eight alone on justification would be worth the price of this book. So even though I do wish that Bates would have given more contextual grounding for his thesis in the history of Christian doctrine, it’s clear that he has done his homework in the notes and they are helpful for taking the discussion further.

Thoughts on N.T. Wright’s work on the atonement

nt-wright-the-day-the-revolution-began

It’s classic Wright, a long and sprawling work that reads like a novel and manages to talk about (almost) everything from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22:21. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (2016) rediscovers many of the threads that have featured predominantly in Wright for the last several decades while also launching out into previously unexplored territory, even changing his mind from his previous work  on one significant question: namely, was God punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross? (See, for example, page 273.)

Before I get to the heart of the book, allow me a brief excursus on the author. I would bet a fair amount of money that Wright has been the greatest influence that you may have never heard of upon the pastors and friends that have influenced you and those that you listen to teach you every week. I know that’s certainly the case in the circles I run in. Wright has the almost superhuman ability to be a world-class scholar and a world-class pastor at the same time, which means that he has had an undue influence on both the academy and the pews. His written output and the amount of places he speaks through the year are remarkable. I had the privilege of beginning my theological discoveries at the 2010 Wheaton theological conference which was a celebration of Wright the man and his work. (All of the sessions can be found here.) Few scholars ever receive a festschrift in their lifetimes, let alone have the star power to be honored with an entire weekend of festivities that draws crowds in the thousands. At one lecture I sat next to the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today and at another next to a resident of Chicago who had never heard of Tom but wanted to check out what all the fuss was about. Such is the gifting of Tom Wright, a man humble enough to bless the establishment and those outside and with the grace and civility to respond to emails, phone calls, and coffee requests from myself and my friends.

To the work itself.

After reading two rather ho-hum reviews, I wasn’t, to be honest, expecting all that much from this book. (If interested, Ex. 1 and Ex. 2 though I would point you to my good friend Ben’s review who did a fine job [better job?] with more limited space on Scot McKnight’s site.) I expected a slender volume that was written mainly to introduce new readers to the major and familiar themes that Wright has laid out in his previous dozens of books. (I once heard a friend of Tom’s say that he was so thankful for an afternoon walk with Tom when he was an undergraduate but apologized for taking up Tom’s time because he could have written a new book in those two hours. Wright is quite prodigious.)

Thus, I was surprised upon receiving the Amazon package that the book clocked in at over 400 pages and, as far as the reviews, upon turning the final page, I wondered if the reviewers and I had, in fact, read the same book. Surely excitement about the glories of the drama of death and redemption and the majestic vision of God’s faithful and righteous plan for the salvation of his creation and what that now means for the world should have at least peaked through the reviews a little bit like the sun through drawn curtains? Have we gotten to such a place that we are unable to be moved by the drama of the story of God, even if we disagree with some of the details? How could such a bombastic manifesto be treated with such temerity?

Though, admittedly, The Day the Revolution Began starts off a bit slowly, it finds its pace beginning in part II (around page 75) and sprints into part III. I was swept up into the great story the rest of the way. The story Wright tells throughout is that Christ has died and and set us free from the idols which have enslaved us and defeated death itself by the power of the resurrection which gives us, his image bearers, the power to live as God originally created us to live!

CHRIST HAS DIED AND SET US FREE FROM THE IDOLS WHICH HAVE ENSLAVED US. HE HAS DEFEATED DEATH THROUGH THE POWER OF GOD— ON DISPLAY IN THE RESURRECTION—AND GIVEN US THE POWER, THROUGH THE SPIRIT, TO EMBODY HIS VICTORY IN THE WORLD! 

At some point in the near future I want to try and do a more full-scale review but for now let me highlight a couple of the main questions followed by three fancy theological terms that more or less embody what the book wants us to see in Scripture and the story of Israel and Jesus. To say it briefly for those who are familiar with Wright’s work, read this book if you have been unsatisfied with Tom’s previous treatment of what sin, forgiveness, and the  are not about, rather than giving new, positive understandings. That to me, is the importance of this book in Tom’s overall catalog, (without saying anything about its importance to readers in general, which is much more significant.)

Summarizing the aim of the book before diving into an exposition of Galatians, Wright says: “our task is to rescue the ‘goal’ from Platonizing ‘going to heaven’ interpretations and the ‘means’ from paganizing ‘angry God punishing Jesus’ interpretations—and so to transform the normal perceptions of what ‘atonement theology’ might be from a dark and possibly unpleasant mystery to an energizing and highly relevant unveiling of truth” (234).

The three questions that stuck out to me that are raised in the beginning of this work and that set the tone might be stated this way:

1.From whence comes the power of the cross to capture imaginations still to this day and what does that power mean? 

2. Why did the cross of Jesus have the place it did in the life of Christianity even from the very beginning? As Tom writes, “Jesus’s first followers… saw it as the vital moment not just in human history, but in the entire story of God and the world. Indeed, they believed it had opened a new and shocking window onto the meaning of the world “God” itself” (4).

3. How was the cross considered part of the “gospel” and how does it relate with Jesus’ Kingdom announcement?

Overall, we might crudely summarize, in one paragraph, why Wright thought it was necessary to write this book: “For too long, we have thought that the goal of Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive our sins so that we could go to heaven. In fact, the biblical story tells us much richer and complex story. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, Israel has indeed been faithful to her covenant vocation and as a result, sins are forgiven and all nations can come to know and love the true God. Those who live out of this story are truly human, not waiting to die to be with God, but living with God now, as the first fruits of the new and redeemed creation, inaugurated by Jesus’ defeat of death in the resurrection.

Which leads us to the fancy theological terms that elucidate Wright’s major themes:

Hamartiology (sin)– At the heart of the book is the plea for Christians and the Christian declaration of the “gospel” to broaden the concept of “personal sin” from a moral lawbreaking to a more biblical notion of sin as a forfeiting of our power as image bearers of God to idols. Wright does much of his most important exegetical and thematically work out of this understanding and it does a lot of the heavy lifting in this book. Two brief quotes will do here:

“Worshipping things other than the one true God and distorting our human behavior in consequence is the very essence of ‘sin’: the Greek word for ‘sin’ in the N.T. means…not just ‘doing wrong things’ but ‘missing the target.’ The target is a wise, full human life of worship and stewardship. Idolatry and sin are, in the last analysis, a failure of responsibility. They are a way of declining the divine summons to reflect God’s image” (100.)

The change of definition of sin means that a forgiving of “sins” looks quite different than we might have seen it in the past:

“Within that new reality, [the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is on heaven] the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name for a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailor has already been overpowered” (157).

Soteriology (salvation)– The major thematic readjustment here is closely related to our understanding of sin and is what Wright labels the “works contract” vs. the “covenant of vocation.” The caricatured understanding of salvation in the works contract model of salvation is the “Romans Road” reading: “God gave us a moral standard to live up to, we broke that moral standard and thus deserve death, but God punished Jesus for our sins instead of us on the cross which means we are now able to get in to heaven if we believe in what Jesus did.” This reading, while it has some echoes in Scripture, Wright says, is really more of a pagan version of redemption. The biblical version of salvation is the “covenant of vocation”: in completely gracious love, God made a covenant with Israel meant to bring all people back to himself. Israel itself stumbled, and was thus unable to fulfill its job. Jesus, acting both Israel and God, fulfilled both sides of the covenant on the cross, highlighting not God’s wrath, but God’s self-giving love, freeing humans up not to go to heaven when they die, but to be the regents of God on earth.”

“‘Forgiveness of sins’ belongs…within a narrative different from the one most people imagine today. The purpose of forgiving sin, there as elsewhere, is to enable people to become fully functioning, fully image-bearing human beings within God’s world, already now, completely in the age to come [not to go to heaven when they die.]” (155).

Missiology (mission)– What’s the result of this more biblical understanding of sin and salvation? Nothing less than an entire reorientation of Christian mission. The message and mission of Christians should be quite dramatically changed from “you can go to heaven when you die” to implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross. That implementation of victory comes, however, not by the world’s understanding of victory. Jesus’ showed us that victory means feet washing and death. It is through suffering that the Kingdom message of the cross will be spread. “Suffering and dying is the way by which the world is changed” Wright says. And in perhaps the most striking sentence in the entire book: “Did we really imagine that, while Jesus would win his victory by suffering, self-giving love, we would implement that same victory by arrogant, self-aggrandizing force of arms?” (374).

What are your thoughts? How does redefining sin from a moral law code broken to a giving of our power to idols rather than God strike you as significant? How would our understanding of the cross change if we saw Jesus as dying on behalf of a fulfillment of the covenant of Israel in love rather than as appeasing an angry God that needs a blood sacrifice to atone for the breaking of a moral law code?