Matthew Bates’ book Salvation By Allegiance Alone is further evidence that evangelicalism is wrestling honestly and constructively with the biblical, theological and practical deficiencies of the traditional understanding of gospel, faith and salvation.
I haven’t got very far into it, but I’m going to hazard a critique on the strength of the summary provided in the Introduction (9). If it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll post a correction. And an apology.
There are four parts to the argument. The last takes us into the complex world of Catholic-Protestant dialogue, and I’m not going to venture there. So that leaves three main propositions, which I have abbreviated a little.
1. The true climax of the gospel is the enthronement of Jesus, but this has generally been “deemphasized or omitted”.
This seems to me absolutely right. The traditional evangelical emphasis has been on Jesus’ death with the resurrection understood as confirmation of the saving effect of the cross and proof of his divinity. The leading New Testament argument, on the other hand, is that because he was faithful unto death, Jesus has been exalted to a position of supreme authority and power—notice that the “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11 doesn’t even mention the resurrection. That is the gospel.
The Bible affirms that there will be a new creation, when evil and death will finally be defeated. But kingdom language refers to what happens in the meantime, in history, while there are still enemies—internal and external—which threaten the integrity and witness of the people of God. In the New Testament context kingdom has to do with the judgment and transformation of Israel, on the one hand, and of the pagan empire, on the other.
I get the impression that this eschatological layer will be missing from Bates’ analysis. His discussion of the story of the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-22 and parallels) seems to confirm this observation.
Bates makes the point that the story cannot be explained according to the terms of a traditional evangelical understanding of salvation by faith alone:
even when Jesus clarifies that the man still lacks one thing, it is not faith or belief, but rather he is required to perform specific additional “works” beyond the Ten Commandments in response to Jesus’ instructions—to sellall that he has, give the money to the poor, and follow. (11)
But we do not get beyond the existential binary of faith or works. Bates does not ask about the eschatological context. The man is not commended for good works but for Torah observance. He is not offered personal salvation but a share in the future of restored Israel—the life of the age to come. He must sell everything and follow Jesus because he is being called to discipleship, which means that he is being called to take part in the dangerous mission of proclaiming to Israel, and perhaps to the nations, that YHWH is about to act decisively to turn the ancient world upside down.
In other words, nothing as yet—it may come later, admittedly, but the passage appears not to get discussed again—indicates the concrete eschatological circumstances under which radical allegiance to Jesus becomes necessary.
2. Pistis has traditionally been misconstrued as “faith”—typically in the saving power of Jesus’ death. It should be understood instead as allegiance.
The substitution of “allegiance” for “faith” is a bold step in the right direction. It takes seriously the lordship of Jesus, it speaks of the embodiment of Christian conviction, and it conveys a sense of narrative—allegiance is meaningless apart from a historical context.
But as a definitive way of explaining what is going on in the New Testament it may have some drawbacks—quite how Bates develops the argument remains to be seen.
First, it seems to me that belief in the fact that YHWH raised his Son from the dead and seated him at his right hand lies at the heart of New Testament pistis. There was an eschatological time frame for this belief: God had made his Son king, had given him the name which is above every name, and at some point in the foreseeable future this would be acknowledged by the nations. When this happened the churches would be justified for having had faith in this future despite the sheer improbability of the outcome.
But this highlights a second important aspect of pistis—perseverance. If the churches did not persevere in this belief and its associated allegiance to Christ as the one who would judge and rule the nations of the empire, they would not be justified. Indeed, the whole divine project would almost certainly have failed.
So once we bring the eschatological frame into focus, pistis naturally shades into “faithfulness”. Allegiance, yes—but an allegiance that would have to overcome opposition and persecution if it was finally to be vindicated.
3. Final salvation consists not in going to heaven but in participation in the new creation. Once this “true goal” has been recognised, terms such as “faith”, “works”, “righteousness” and “gospel” can be reframed.
I’m a little disappointed that Bates seems to want to keep salvation centre-stage. I would construct the framing argument somewhat differently.
We become part of the priestly community of the church because we have a desire to serve—or because we are called to serve—the living God who raised his Son from the dead and seated him at his right hand. That sense of vocation naturally entails belief in this particular narrative. It takes us out of a fallen creation and incorporates us into a “new creation” people. We can label that “salvation by faith” if we like, but it is the calling to serve and bear witness to the living God that is centre-stage. Then allegiance kicks in.
But there is in any case the prior question of what the terminology meant in the New Testament context. A narrative-historical approach does not allow us to assume that our situation in the modern West coincides with the situation of believers in the first century.
In the New Testament the nature of salvation was determined by the expectation that the kingdom of God—indeed, the wrath of God—was at hand. That is not the same as the expectation that ultimately the creator God will make all things new. If we are going to use the same terminology, we should recognise that we have shifted it to a quite different narrative and eschatological context.
So my guess is that both the strengths and the weaknesses of this book derive from the fact that it is a polemical argument against the narrow premise of modern evangelicalism.
That gives it its momentum—and fortunately it sets off in the right direction. But it may also have limited its engagement with the political context that alone gives meaning to the idea of “allegiance”—though, ironically, the cover of the book shows a mosaic from the Hagia Sofia showing the emperor Leo VI kneeling before the enthroned Christ.
We shall see.