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.

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

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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?

Mary, the Mother of our Lord

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As Protestants, we seldom hear of the mother of our Lord for fear of Mariolatry. But we cannot think of our Lord without thinking of His mother.

As I quiet myself this morning with but a few days left in this advent season I am grateful for Ralph Wood’s meditation on Chesterton and Mary. He has reminded me that we cannot think on the Christ child without also thinking of Mary, the humble and obedient mother of our Lord and the theotokos, bearing very God of God in human form.

Growing up in a church culture rooted in the Protestant fears of Mariolatry, Mary is not someone I hear mentioned all that often. And yet consider this powerful thought from Chesterton, recounting an experience in his childhood parish in England in which baby Jesus was removed from a statue thought to give improper attention to Mary.

“One would think that this [act] was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother.”

The position afforded to this girl from a small town in the backwaters of the Middle East as the conduit through which world history would reach its climax thus far is one of those bizarre beliefs that helps my faith continue in a world where it is so easy to give it up. God’s veneration of women, declared equally good with their male counterparts and worthy of bearing God Himself, must be in the forefront of our minds as we seek to answer those ignorant of the glories of Christianity. I will never forget how confounded I was early in my high school years when I stranger at a coffee shop told me she didn’t believe in Christianity because “it was sexist.” Obviously you don’t know much about what is truly in the Scriptures I’m sure I so ignominiously replied. Please tell me what other world religion lists a pagan prostitute in the genealogy of its God.

May those of us charged with leading the bride of Christ, the Church, realize the great power that Mary the mother of our Lord as the literal embodiment of the divine nature as 2 Peter 1:4 bids of us. May we understand that we cannot speak of our Lord, or His Church, without reflecting on his mother, “chosen to humble the proud.”

Amen.

The Enigmatic Lady: Wisdom in Judaism

The Jewish Notion of WisdomPart One

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Wisdom, the erotic young maiden, calling in the streets. 

I’m in a guys small group at KU with InterVarsity and we are going through Proverbs. At our first meeting last week we all were struck by the power of the writer’s personification of wisdom. (Was Proverbs written by Solomon? Maybe. Probably not. This could be a post in itself, but for now all I will say is that we need to get over this idea though that psudeopigrapha somehow lessons the authoritative nature of the scripture in question. It was a common ancient practice and there is nothing deceitful about the writer calling himself ‘Solomon’ when in fact it may not have been. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of psuedopigrapha.)

Elizabeth Huwiler, professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NIB) says that “perhaps the most striking theological aspect to the book is the personification of Wisdom in feminine form.” We all felt the same in our initial read-through of Proverbs one. It is hard to ignore the seductive imagery of Wisdom “cry[ing] out in the streets” (1:20, NRSV) of her “pour[ing] out my thoughts to you; mak[ing] my words known to you” (1:23). What else dos a young man want but to have a young woman crying out to him in the streets and then pouring herself out to him? There is all kinds of sexual tension going on here.

In a helpful excursus on the “person of Wisdom” Huwiler does not shy away from the obvious sexual, erotic nature of this feminine personification of Wisdom: “the presentation of Wisdom as a woman would have appealed to the audience of Proverbs. If the sages sought to describe wisdom as desirable and yet elusive to an audience of young men [which would have been the intended audience for the book, see 1:4], then allusions to a woman would have been apt. The listeners are urged to seek Wisdom, find her, and make her their own as if she were a wife.”

This erotic element of wisdom is particularly striking in the context that I am reading Proverbs – all male, single, college-age. As the lone married (almost) not 20-something, I was struck by how effective this literary device is and gained a new appreciation for the genius of this writer. But now here is the question, is this just a literary device or does it signal something else going on? Some scholars think that personified Wisdom is an Israelite goddess “or at least Israelite flirtation with goddess worship” like the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, Ma’at, the Canaanite goddesses Astarte and Asherah,, and the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Other’s see the personification as a hypostasis – a bringing to life – of one of God’s attributes. This is a kind of middle way between outright goddess worship and the notion that Wisdom is just a clever literary device like the Psalmist makes use of when he speaks of “righteousness and truth kissing each other in Psalm 85:10.” That is clearly meant as nothing more than a literary anthropomorphism. So shouldn’t Wisdom be seen as a similar device?

Not so fast. The history of the concept of Jewish Wisdom is a complex and fascinating one and contains much more significance than it may appear at first. This notion of Jewish Wisdom sheds light on Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, and what it might mean for God Himself to somehow be embodied and personified. We will dive into that in the next part.

Advent Reading Day 7

Maximus of Turin, Homily 60, 3-4

Let us therefore purify our heart, our conscience, and our spirit many days ahead of time, and thus cleansed and spotless let us prepare to receive the immaculate Lord who is coming. As he was born of the Immaculate Virgin, so too may his servants be immaculate to celebrate his birth! Indeed, anyone who is dirty and tainted on that day neither is concerned with the Nativity of Christ  nor desires him.

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An advent reading with Maximus of Turin born in 380 A.D.

Such a man may well participate bodily in the feast of the Lord, but spiritually he quite distant from the Savoir; nor is it possible for an impure man and a holy man, an avaricious man and a merciful man, a corrupt man and a pure man to be together without the one offending the other, proving himself all the more unworthy the less he is aware of his unworthiness.

Indeed, he causes insult though wishing to be courteous, like the man in the Gospel invited to the feast of the saints who dared to attend the wedding without a wedding garment (see Mt 22:1-14): while all the other guests radiated with justice, faith, and chastity, he alone — with an unclean conscience — was spurned by all the others for the repugnance he caused; and the more the sanctity of the holy guests shone, the more the insolence of this sins was revealed.

Amen.

Advent Reading with the Fathers Day 6

Advent is the season for the church to contemplate and celebrate the long anticipated arrival of Jesus 2000 years ago. It also serves as a time for the church to celebrate the hopeful return of Christ,  where we believe his presence will be manifested and his kingdom consummated here on earth.

We look back in celebration; we look forward in hope.

The content of our lives is filled in this space. We wait. How we wait is important, to be sure. When we grow bored of waiting, we often turn to superficial pleasures that minimize our horizons. Ultimately, our humanity is diminished.

Jesus provided us an alternate, more fully human way of living life in the between.

Advent and Christmas are propitious times to set your sights on Jesus’ life and to live as he did. Here are some fitting words provided by St. Hilary (and myself) to keep in mind as you follow Jesus on the way, as you wait for his return: gladness, hope, peace, poverty in spirit, purity of heart, everlasting treasure.

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Hilary of Poitiers, Discourses, I, 1ff.

‘We await the Savior.’ In truth, the righteous man’s waiting is gladness, for he awaits the blessed hope and advent of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

‘What then am I awaiting,’ says the righteous man, ‘if not the Lord?’ . . . Poor in spirit, be happy you have stored up your treasures in heaven in accordance with the advice of the heavenly Counselor, for fear that your heart, like your treasure, would come to know corruption if left on earth! Indeed, the Lord says, ‘For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be’ (Matt 6:21).

May your hearts therefore follow their treasure! Set your thoughts on heavenly things, and may your expectation hold fast to God, so that you may say as the Apostle says, ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Phil 3:20).

Amen.

 

 

Advent Reading Day 5

I apologize for getting our Advent reading up late. I’ve had a busy morning. You may find it below.

Upcoming Posts

Be watchful as next week I am aiming to post a concise explanation about the Liturgical (Church) Calendar – its seasons and their meaning – and why it’s important for shaping and nurturing faith in a secular age.

Also forthcoming will be a series of posts looking intimately at Martin Luther’s acclaimed 7 Marks of the Church and why they are necessary concepts to keep in mind, especially for pastors and church leaders in the American evangelical scene.

Is there a particular idea or book you’d like us to explore? Please don’t be shy about offering recommendations.

Lastly, we at The Theologian’s Library cannot say often enough how much we desire to be a helpful resource for the local church and the leaders who’ve dedicated their lives to serving it. We know we are just getting started, and of course there is much work and content development left to be done, but we want this little space to be conduit for finding helpful resources that explore the deep, penetrating truths that have sustained the life of the Church for 2000 years. Perhaps most importantly, we desire this space to be a community of people whose affection for the Church and her theology leads them to better serve her people, thus preparing them to joyfully inhabit the kingdom of God.

Yours in Christ our King,

Ben

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Caesarius of Arles, Sermons, 187, 3.5

If the king of this world or a family father invited you to this birthday celebration, what garment would you wear other than the newest, most elegant, and most handsome one, so that neither its old age, nor little worth, nor any other unfavorable quality might be offensive in the eyes of your host?

With equal care, then, as  best you can and with the help of Christ, make sure you prepare your soul, adorned with many ornaments of virtue, the jewels of simplicity, the flowers of temperance, and sure conscience, the beauty of chastity, the radiance of almsgiving, and the splendor of charity, for the solemn celebration of the Eternal King: the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior.

Indeed, if Christ the Lord sees how well you have prepared yourself to celebrate his birth, he will deign not only to visit your soul, but also to rest and abide there forever, as it is written: ‘I will live with them and move among them’ (2 Cor 6:16); and ‘behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] i will enter his house and dine with them, and he with me.’ (Rev 3:20)

Amen.