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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Salvation By Allegiance Alone (2): Paul’s gospel and the sweeping plains of history

After an exciting afternoon with friends at Antalya Zoo—a pair of lions shamelessly and noisily copulating in the long grass, a family of grizzly bears brawling over some obscure breach of protocol—it’s back to part two of my review of Matthew Bates’ Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.

Bates says that the gospel is “the power-releasing story of Jesus’ life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king, but that story only makes sense in the wider framework of the stories of Israel and creation” (30, his italics). In chapter two he gives the reasons for this proposition, drawing on three key passages in Paul (Rom. 1:1-5, 16-17; 1 Cor. 15:1-5).

There is much that I like about his argument—above all his steady insistence that the good news in the New Testament is not the private offer of eternal salvation but the public announcement that Jesus has been made king.

But it seems to me that his concern to provide a workable alternative to the traditional evangelical paradigm has led him to overlook the properly historical orientation of the New Testament narrative. I will illustrate my point here by looking at his use of the two Romans passages.

The critique reflects my blinkered narrative-historical approach, which arguably gains historical coherence at the expense of direct theological relevance. Personally, I think we will have to go that way sooner or later—historical coherence will prove too valuable an asset to be disregarded by the witnessing community. But it requires a bigger restructuring of our general theological method than can be managed in the short term, and I would suggest that the more user-friendly hermeneutic that underlies Bates’ reading of the New Testament provides a necessary half-way house. He may disagree with that.

The gospel as part of Israel’s story

The claim that the gospel requires the framing story of Israel quickly drops from view in this chapter. Bates’ real concern is to show that Paul’s gospel consists in “a grand, cosmic story about God’s Son and what he has done” (31).

As I see it, while the gospel undoubtedly has cosmic implications, it is primarily good news for first century Israel. In other words, Paul’s gospel is political rather than cosmic; it has to do with the particular, limited story of first century Israel and its relation to the nations, not the general story of humanity.

The point about Jesus being “Son-of-God-in-Power” is well made, but I missed any reference to Psalm 2:4-9 (LXX):

He who resides in the heavens will laugh at them, and the Lord will mock them. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and in his anger he will trouble them. “But I was established king by him, on Sion, his holy mountain, by proclaiming the Lord’s ordinance: The Lord said to me, ‘My son you are; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will give you nations as your heritage, and as your possession the ends of the earth. You shall shepherd them with an iron rod, and like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them.’ ”

If this hasn’t directly shaped Paul’s language in Romans 1:1-4, it has certainly shaped his thought. I would suggest that Paul defined his task as bringing about “the obedience of faith… among all the nations” precisely because he believed that Israel’s newly installed king would eventually be given the nations as his heritage. That Gentiles were being included in God’s people was a sign of the political transformation to come.

With an eye to the justification-by-faith controversy Bates draws attention to the fact that Paul makes pistis a matter of obedience rather than merely of belief. But this leaves us in a world of abstractions: we have lost sight of history.

Paul’s gospel and pre-existence

Rather surprisingly, Bates inserts an argument for the pre-existence of Jesus from the use of ginomai rather than gennaōin Romans 1:3: “who came into existence (genomenou) from the seed of David”. He thinks that the verb indicates “a change from a non-fleshly existence to a fleshly one” (32).

But “from the seed of David” makes this very unlikely, suggesting specific Israelite descent rather than simply human identity. The use of ginomai to mean “be born” is not unknown: eg., from Adam and Eve “was born (egenēthē) the seed of humankind” (Tob. 8:6; cf. Wis. 7:3; Sir. 44:9). There is perhaps an emphasis on the idea of coming into existence in these passages but no thought of a change in nature or entry into a new condition.

The operative contrast in Romans 1:3-4 is not between non-fleshly and fleshly modes of existence but between “having become from the seed of David according to the flesh” and “having been appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit”. The contrast is between the natural manner by which Jesus became “seed of David” and the direct action of God in making him Son of God in power.

Bates wrongly, in my view, lines “from the seed of David” up against “from the resurrection from the dead” and concludes that ek in verse 3 should be interpreted instrumentally: it is the means by which Jesus became flesh. Rather “from the seed of David” is structurally parallel to “Son of God in power”.

There’s more on pre-existence in chapter three, I notice—this is clearly an important theme for Bates. I have to say, however, that I’m not persuaded that the story about the enthronement of Jesus as it is constructed in the New Testament properly begins with incarnation. In fact, it seems to me that these two storylines pull in different directions. More to follow perhaps…

The righteous shall live by faith

The mis-framing of Paul’s gospel—as I see it—carries over into the section on Romans 1:16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (ESV)

Bates finds here evidence for his view that the gospel is a transformative story because it “unleashes God’s saving power for humanity” (41). That may make sense from a modern perspective, but what Paul actually says is that the gospel means salvation first for the Jew, then for the Greek—and salvation is necessary because the wrath of God is coming first upon the Jew, then upon the Greek (Rom. 2:8-9).

The framing narrative here is not cosmic but historical, it is not the story of humanity but the story of Israel and the Hellenistic world.

The “righteousness of God” revealed in the gospel is demonstrated not in “our ability to share” Jesus’ resurrection life but in the fact that God will intervene to judge first his own people and then the historical opponent of his people. He will show himself to be in the right. That YHWH is righteous will be demonstrated by the ensuing apocalyptic sequence of events.

Bates is still in too much of a hurry to get something of immediate personal relevance for the modern church out of this ancient narrative.

This is the point of the quotation from Habakkuk: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Bates takes the Old Testament verse out of context—somewhat against his own better judgment, it seems to me—and treats it as an example of how “faith” means “faithfulness” or “loyalty” (42). But I think we have to take Habakkuk’s narrative into account for the reason that it parallels exactly the apocalyptic outlook assumed in Romans.

Habakkuk prophesies judgment against the wicked in Israel in the form of invasion by the Chaldeans but wonders what will happen to the righteous. Are they merely collateral damage? He is told that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4). He then learns that the uncircumcised Chaldeans will sooner or later have to drink the same cup of God’s wrath that they forced upon Israel—first the Jew, then the Chaldean (2:15-16).

This narrative of God’s righteousness needs to be translated into first century terms, but then we have the necessary frame for Paul’s gospel. Israel faces the wrath of God in the form of Roman invasion, but the impious Greek-Roman world itself will eventually be overthrown when Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations. YHWH has raised his Son from the dead and has given him not just power over sin and death but the authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the pagan nations.

The importance of Habakkuk’s maxim for Paul’s argument in Romans lies in the fact that those who believe that all authority and power have been given to Jesus, and who live accordingly, will inevitably face tribulation—opposition, persecution, suffering, death. How will they live through this? By trusting in God.

Watching lions…

In the concluding paragraph of the chapter Bates again sums up Paul’s gospel: “it is a power-releasing story about Jesus, the one who is now ruling as the allegiance-demanding Lord of heaven and earth”, and so on (44). It’s a good statement—except that nothing is said about either the Jew or the Greek. It’s recognisably Paul’s gospel, but why has it been lifted out of its (apocalyptically interpreted) historical setting?

It’s all very well watching lions doing very natural things in an enclosure, but lions are not domestic animals. They belong in the wild. Paul’s gospel is not a domestic message. It belongs in the wild, in the remote savannah of Israel’s history.

Image of Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King

On Amazon (US):

Matthew W. Bates
Baker Academic (2017), Paperback, 256 pages, $24.99
Image of The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Wipf & Stock Pub (2010), Paperback, 188 pages, $24.00

Comments

The zoo is a bargain at 5 Turkish Lira—not much more than a pound at the moment. But I’m not trying to stop people reading Matthew’s book. It’s an excellent contribution to the general debate. I just don’t think it goes far enough in grounding the “gospel” story in the concrete historical experience of first century Israel. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.

Andrew,

Can you explain what you meant by this: “historical coherence will prove too valuable an asset to be disregarded by the witnessing community.”

If the church has been happy with readings that promote direct theological relevance at the expense of historical coherence for centuries, why do you think this will soon change?

Thanks

Basically, I don’t think the modern church has really grasped the seriousness of the threat posed to its existence by secular humanism—or worse, by what comes after secular humanism. Theological constructs are too much like castles in the air. Sooner or later they are going to evaporate or be blown away. I think then the church will have to fall back on a historically grounded sense of its vocation as a distinct, recalcitrant people loyal to the biblical narrative but also painfully conscious of the precariousness of its place in history and the uncertainty of its future.

I think that the faith we will need will not be in universal abstractions but in a meaningful future. Matthew’s emphasis on allegiance takes us a good way towards this, but we need to recover the “apocalyptic” element along with it. We need a theology that enables us to deal with our particular moment in God’s story, not just with some general cosmic metanarrative.

So, does what you say here suggest that you think the NT doesn’t contain any theological constructs? You say that the church is in a precarious place in history with an uncertain future. At least that seems to be the implication of what you said. If not, please explain. What is the meaningful future that you propose (prophetically? or narrative-historically?), and is it based on some sub-theological interpretation of the theo-narrative of the NT? Sorry, I’ve read a fair number of your posts over a number of years, and have appreciated a lot of what you’ve said, but what you’ve said here doesn’t seem very clear.

With all due respect, there seems to be a bit of inherent contradiction in some of your thinking when you say things like this:

while the gospel undoubtedly has cosmic implications, it is primarily good news for first century Israel. In other words, Paul’s gospel is political rather than cosmic; it has to do with the particular, limited story of first century Israel and its relation to the nations, not the general story of humanity.

To say that something is “primarily” one thing then say that it is one thing “rather than” another, and to say that it “not the general story of humanity” is a bit of a logical leap.

Yes, I think that the church in the West at least is going through a very serious existential crisis and probably underestimates how difficult it is going to be to maintain a plausible witness to the living God. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s how I see it.

I don’t know what a meaningful future will look like, but I think that the biblical narrative gives us the frame and the tools that we need in order to begin to envisage how God relates to a secular humanist culture and how the church should best position itself. My main point is that we need a prophetic-historical perspective that addresses the particular circumstances of late-/post-modernity not a generalised and abstract theological system.

The “primarily” is from our perspective. In essence it had to do with the “political” crisis faced by first century Israel and the new possibilities that this crisis presented. I don’t think it is right to assume that the apostles thought that they were dealing with an overarching story about humanity. Their outlook on history was much more limited.

If that gospel has meaning for us today, it is in a secondary sense insofar as our self-understanding and mission are indirectly determined by what happened to first century Israel. It is not now good news for us that God is about to judge Israel and the pagan world. That is all history. But it is an integral part of our story.

That said, it’s not correct to say that the first century was without a cosmic dimension. The New Testament is not greatly interested in the final renewal of heaven and earth, but the thought is there at the margins. My point, perhaps somewhat overstated, was that Paul’s “eschatology” is fundamentally oriented towards realistic historical outcomes—and that the cosmic implications are subordinate to that orientation.