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

Ascension Day and the Coming of the Son of Man

I’m afraid I missed it, but yesterday was Ascension Day. Dang. Ian Paul, however, reposted a good piece making the important point that whereas John’s Gospel makes the crucifixion the climax of Jesus’ ministry, the New Testament as a whole pursues the narrative through the resurrection to the ascension and exaltation of Jesus. We often miss this emphasis because our tradition downplays it and because we don’t read carefully. Quite!

The beginning and the end of Trinitarianism: a response to Fred Sanders

In a recent article on the Christianity Today site Fred Sanders argues that “We Actually Don’t Need a Trinitarian Revival”. He has heard widespread rumours of the death of Trinitarianism and he thinks that they are “grossly exaggerated”. Where the “everything-you-know-is-wrong diagnosis” fails is in not recognising a basic distinction between primary and secondary forms of Trinitarianism—a distinction which Sanders attributes to Robert Jenson.

Primary Trinitarianism is “the underlying reality of the presence and work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the life of the church”. It is grounded biblically in the idea that the person who is “born of the Spirit… testifies that the Father so loved the world he gave his only-begotten Son”. That person, therefore, is “giving an account of the triune structure of salvation history itself in the Bible’s own language”.

Narrative substitutionary atonement in Luke: Jesus and the sins of Barabbas

Last night I went to hear Steve Walton’s inaugural professorial lecture at St Mary’s University. The lecture was entitled “Doing Theology Lukewise: Luke as theologian and storyteller”. It was a straightforward demonstration of the theological depth of Luke’s narrative art. It was lucid, engaging, and I enjoyed it immensely.

One of the main points that Steve wanted to make was that, contrary to popular opinion, Luke has an atonement theology—it’s just that he constructs it narratively rather than as a matter of explicit theological assertion.

Mission from anywhere to Europe

Stefan Paas is Bavinck Professor of Church Planting and Church Renewal at the Free University Amsterdam, which is where I started work on my PhD back in the 90s.

In an excellent article in Mission Studies called “Mission from Anywhere to Europe: Americans, Africans, and Australians Coming to Amsterdam” (2015) he examines three phases of foreign mission to Europe over recent decades: by American evangelical Protestants, by West African Neo-Pentecostals, and more recently by Australian neo-Pentecostals, which basically means Hillsong. In each case he looks at their perceptions of Europe, their message and method, the responses from Europeans, and the results.

A hermeneutical parable: the frog of the gospel and the lily pond of narrative

Matthew Bates’ book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King is just one straw in a strong wind blowing out of biblical studies, driving us away from theological towards narrative constructions of Christian identity and purpose.

In my view, this is an exhilarating and necessary development, but Matthew’s book, for all its merits, has highlighted a fundamental shortcoming. Because evangelicals naturally want to retain the direct practical application of the “gospel”, evangelical narrative theologies exhibit a consistent tendency to leapfrog history. I would put Greg Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology and J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology in the same category.

Salvation By Allegiance Alone (5): the exegetical evidence for faith as allegiance

In chapter four of his book Salvation By Allegiance Alone Matthew Bates sets out to defend his core thesis that the pistis (“faith”) with which we respond to the gospel is better understood in terms of concrete allegiance than as mere mental assent.

He argues that the gospel consists in an eight-part narrative that “climaxes with the enthronement of Jesus as the cosmic king, the Lord of heaven and earth, even though all too often this portion of the gospel is entirely omitted when it is proclaimed today”. If that’s the case, “faith in Jesus is best described as allegiance to him as king” (77).

Salvation By Allegiance Alone (4): the best bit so far

From pre-existence and incarnation Bates works swiftly through “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”, “was buried”, “was raised on the third day”, and “appeared to many”, to the climax of the chapter and the best bit of the book so far: “is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and… will come again as judge” (52, his italics).

The shape of the story supposedly reflects a reconstruction of apostolic preaching in Acts, though how he accounts for pre-existence and incarnation on that basis is not made clear. For example, Paul tells the Jews in Pisidian Antioch only that God brought to Israel from the seed of David a saviour, Jesus, whose “coming” was after the preaching-beforehand (prokēruxantos) of John the Baptist (Acts 13:23-24). The language as good as rules out any thought of pre-existence.

Salvation By Allegiance Alone (3): pre-existence and the gospel of Jesus

I am in solid agreement with Matthew Bates that the central narrative of the New Testament—the narrative which makes sense of the “gospel”—has to do with the enthronement of Jesus as king by his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to the right hand of the Father.

Two areas of disagreement have surfaced so far:

  1. Bates is trying to read the New Testament at a cosmic level, guided by theological interests, whereas I think it needs to be read at a political level, from a more rigorously historical perspective.
  2. Bates is firmly of the opinion that the story begins with the pre-existence and incarnation of Jesus—this was already apparent from his discussion of Paul’s gospel. I don’t deny that these ideas are part of the New Testament witness, but I think they arise from an association of Jesus with divine wisdom rather than from the Jewish hope of kingdom.

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).

Salvation By Allegiance Alone (1): a review on the basis of the Introduction alone

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.


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