Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament

Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis by Gary A. Anderson. Baker Academic (April 2017, 220 pp).

The relationship between theology and biblical studies is fraught with misunderstanding. While maybe not always murderous in intent, their relationship often feels like what it must have been like to stand between Cain and Abel—strained and tenuous, at best. There are certainly numerous exceptions, but generally speaking, it often seems that theologians have no personal stake in the claims they are making while biblical scholars are so entrenched in their traditional reading that they miss incorporating fruitful theological insights into their exegesis. Anderson-Doctrine and the OTSo there’s something humbling—perhaps even startling, sadly, because it’s so rare—in a serious theologian rolling up his sleeves and doing meaningful exegetical work informed by theology and the tradition, which so obviously affects not only the scholar’s career, but their personal faith as well. Gary Anderson, professor of Catholic Theology at Notre Dame, is such a scholar and Christian.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Anderson claims on the first page of his newly released book of essays, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, that he makes the “rather audacious claim” that theological doctrines actually aid the process of biblical exegesis and, when properly used, play a key role in uncovering the meaning of a text. As Robert Louis Wilken blurbs on the back, this claim, and his understanding of the historical-critical method, theology, and the history of biblical interpretation, makes Anderson a “rare creature among biblical scholars.” That sounds like quite the mouthful but, to extend the metaphor, he is a rare bird able to be identified and understood by all those who have the patience and discipline to explore, and not just by fellow expert ornithologists. Anderson writes clearly and intelligibly while also reminding the reader that serious reading of the Bible theologically is a “demanding enterprise” and reminds the nontheological reader of the benefits of “having some theological sophistication.”

In fact, the most startling and welcome aspect of this book for me was how this collection of essays read much more like extended devotionals and meditations than a scholarly précis. Throughout the book I found myself continually rediscovering the Old Testament—particularly through the eyes of the Church Fathers— and wanting to go back to the texts. There are exegetical gems which have the potential to reorient ones reading of Torah, for example: “The construction of the tabernacle is the climax of creation” (64) and “the moment of lighting the sacrificial pyre is the very apogee of the Torah” (ibid).

Gary-Anderson
Gary A. Anderson has written books on sin and Christian charity and writes for First Things and other magazines.

There are moments that may make the more conservative scholar uncomfortable like Anderson’s contention that “Paul’s turn to the figure of Adam as the prime example of a biblical sinner is not in accord with the basic thrust of the Old Testament itself” (73) and others times when all sides might feel a bit put out like in the third chapter on creation: “Though Gen. 1 does not teach creatio ex nihilo in the way early Christian theologians might have thought of it, it does not rule it out as decisively as many modern readers have assumed” (48). There is also plenty that the Protestant scholar will find exception to such as Anderson’s study of Mariology and his chapter on the biblical warrant for purgatory but he might also make the Catholic theologian uncomfortable with his usage of Barth in places. Above all, I would say that this book brought me further into the heart of God, which for reader, and I would daresay, author alike, there could be no greater hope.

There are three other subthemes at the heart of the essays—apart from the main thesis that doctrine and biblical studies belong together—that Anderson identifies for the reader:

  1. There is no single method of reading Scripture advocated or that holds sway in the book. This is illustrated in his favorable use of Barth in the proper biblical grounding of original sin (which, provocatively, neither thinker believes is found in Genesis 3, proper) alongside chapters arguing the biblical warrant of Mariology and purgatory.
  2. The need for biblical scholarship to make a concerted effort to properly understand what theological doctrines actually wish to affirm. One of the biggest hindrances between the exegetical grounding of Christian doctrine, Anderson writes, is the ignorance of biblical scholars actual grasp of theological doctrines.
  3. The importance of the Old Testament, with particular influence on Jewish interpretation, as a source for Christian doctrine.

Though these themes are on display throughout the essays, it is easy to lose them in the midst of the specific material of the individual chapters. I found myself wanting more internal consistency and coherence among the essays. To that end, Anderson’s book would have been richer if he would have taken the time to write a new section on methodology or discussed in more depth the proper relationship between theology and scriptural exegesis and how they are to inform one another. We see the fruit of Anderson’s methodology but it would have been more satisfying to see behind the ways in which that fruit was picked. Nevertheless, Anderson has given readers a treat in his careful theological exposition of the scriptures.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

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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.