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).
This is a critical but enthusiastic review specifically from a narrative-historical perspective. I would not normally devote so much space to one book, but I’ve enjoyed my engagement with Bates’ thesis. I think that he has missed the real narrative context for the faith terminology, I have serious doubts about his attempts to tie the kingdom narrative to the pre-existence of Jesus, and I’m not persuaded that “allegiance” really identifies what Paul meant by pistis, as will become apparent from what follows. But the book nevertheless is a solid and passionate demonstration of the potential that current New Testament scholarship has to recalibrate evangelical conviction.
Evidence for allegiance
So Bates aims to show that “allegiance” is a legitimate translation for pistis at least in some contexts.
The evidence from the wider body of Hellenistic-Jewish writings is straightforward. For example: “The Judeans, for their part, maintained their good will and unswerving loyalty (pistin) towards the royal house…” (3 Macc. 3:3). In certain contexts pistis has the meaning “loyalty” or “allegiance”, which is a far cry from the traditional Reformed idea of faith as assent to the saving power of the cross.
So if it works in this “royal” setting, perhaps it works for Paul.
The strategy adopted is simply to retranslate a number of relevant passages with “allegiance” substituted for “faith” (80-82). For example, Romans 5:1:
Therefore, since we have been justified by allegiance, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus the Christ.
Bates argues that since “the allegiance concept welds mental agreement, professed fealty, and embodied loyalty, foregrounding allegiance makes excellent sense” in these passages (82).
I’m not so sure.
A point to draw from the Hellenistic-Jewish material, in the first place, is that pistis signifies “loyalty” or “allegiance” in a particular context of discourse. The 3 Maccabees passage has to do with the difficult political relations between the Jews in Alexandria and Ptolemy, and we are told explicitly that they maintained loyalty or allegiance “towards the king” (pros tous basileis). The same point can be made with regard to the passages from Josephus that Bates cites.
The Pauline texts lack the distinctive narrative context, and we never have the sort of prepositional phrase that would show unequivocally that he is thinking of pistis as “loyalty towards Jesus as king”.
Then we have to ask whether “allegiance” actually works in the various places where Bates has dropped it in as a translation for pistis.
He begins with Romans 3:3:
What if some were unfaithful (ēpistēsan)? Does their faithlessness (apistia) nullify the faithfulness (pistin) of God?
If tēn pistin tou theou here refers to the “faithfulness of God” towards his people, should we not assume, Bates, asks, that the same concrete meaning applies a few verses later in the classic justification by faith passage, Romans 3:21-25? This is how Bates translates the passage:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through the allegiance of Jesus the Christ for all who give allegiance. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in the Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, through his allegiance.
I have a number of reservations about this line of argument:
- “Faithfulness” and “allegiance” are not synonymous terms. Was the pistis of Jesus (Rom. 3:22)—if we accept the subjective genitive—manifested as allegiance to God or as faithfulness to his calling? In the wider context “faithfulness” may be thought to carry a reference to the suffering of Jesus that is missing from “allegiance”. So “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, through his allegiance“ seems an inadequate translation of Romans 3:25.
- Is the apistia of the Jews in Romans 3:3 to be understood as “disloyalty” towards YHWH? In the context of chapters 2-3 is it not rather their faithlessness towards the covenant (in contrast to YHWH’s faithfulness towards the covenant), their failure to keep the precepts of the Law, that is at issue?
- Allegiance is allegiance only as long as it lasts, so “since we have been justified by allegiance, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1) makes less sense than “since we have been justified by faith”, which would refer to the moment when peace with God was established. I would also point out that “justified by pistis“ in Romans 5:1 refers back to the faith that trusts the promise of God in chapter 4, which Bates acknowledges consists in mental assent.
- Although the noun pistis may mean “allegiance”, Bates has provided no evidence that the verb pisteuō can mean “to give allegiance to”. We have Josephus’ account of the Jews unwisely “entrusting themselves (episteusan autous)” to Bacchides (Jos. Ant. 12.396), but this is not the same as giving allegiance to. The construction with the accusative pronoun and indirect object is quite different to Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:16, which Bates translates “so we also have given allegiance to the Christ Jesus” (81).
- It seems to me that the subjective genitive is less likely in Galatians 2:20, which Bates translates: “the life I now live in the flesh I live by the allegiance of the Son of God”. The “allegiance” of Jesus would take us back to his earthly life, but Paul’s emphasis is on the Christ who lives in him. In this regard the traditional “faith in the Son of God” seems more appropriate.
- Galatians 2:20 also highlights the fact that Paul prefers to speak of the relationship between believers and Christ as a matter of participation or of “being in”. I would suggest that for Paul the kingship or lordship has less to do with personal relations than with historical outcomes—the future judgment of Israel and of the pagan world. Personal relations in this eschatological context are framed as participation in the suffering and vindication of Jesus.
- Does it make sense to say that “by allegiance (ek pisteōs), we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5)? “Faith” as belief seems a more natural state of mind out of which to wait eagerly for something.
The obedience of faith among the nations
Bates argues further that the “allegiance” interpretation gives us a solution to the apparent problem of Paul’s phrase “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). For the traditional view that we are saved by faith alone this is problematic. It looks like works righteousness.
If we recognize that the climax of the gospel is Jesus’s enthronement and that pistis is predominately allegiance, then Paul’s point is lucid: the gospel is purposed toward bringing about the practical obedience characteristic of allegiance to a king—what I have termed enacted allegiance. (86)
The general point is undoubtedly correct, but does it mean that in these passages pistis means “allegiance”? The thought could just as well be that Paul called the Gentiles to the life of obedience that necessarily comes from believing the good news that God has declared Jesus to be “the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).
This is even clearer in the later passage:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom. 16:25–27)
It is not the lordship of Jesus that is in view here but gospel, preaching, mystery, and prophetic revelation. The faith of the Gentiles, surely, is oriented towards these propositional factors; embodied allegiance is required as a consequence, but it’s not itself the pistis. The difference from the traditional doctrine is that this was a belief about historical or eschatological outcomes rather than personal salvation.,
So while it may be appropriate to say in general terms that for Paul faith in Christ entailed allegiance to Christ as Lord, it’s less clear that “allegiance” can be substituted in any particular passage without mangling the sense. I am still inclined to think that pistis has to do primarily not with the allegiance to Christ expected of believers but with the change of mind that saw the future differently in the light of the resurrection and enthronement of Jesus—“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
Faith and promise
The second part of the chapter asks about how the faith of Abraham fits into the pistis as allegiance argument. Here Bates rightly, in my view, registers the fact that Abraham had faith in, or trusted, the promise-making God. He maintains, however, that in Paul’s argument this is not “trust in the promises of God in general” but specifically trust in the promise of the seed who would become king. In view of that longer term perspective, we may suppose that Abraham’s “faith” in the promise as “mental assent” can be subsumed under the broader category of allegiance.
The argument seems to me somewhat forced. In Romans 4 faith is in the God who promises rather than in the future offspring who will become king. But the real concern here, I think, is whether “allegiance” can be stretched to encompass or contain the full narrative gamut of pistis. The final part of the chapter goes some way towards resolving this question, at least at the theoretical level.
Dimensions of allegiance
Basically, Bates argues that “saving allegiance” includes three dimensions: “mental affirmation that the gospel is true, professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord, and enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus as the king” (92).
The distinctions are important, but it is apparent that the word “allegiance” really only applies to the third of these dimensions. So why make it the overarching category?
If we bring the relevant eschatological narratives into view, there is a sense in which the witnessing communities will be saved by their enduring allegiance to Christ as Lord. For example, the “elect” will be saved if they persevere with their master’s commission through to the end of the age of second temple Judaism (cf. Mk. 13:13). But I’m not sure it helps to obscure the idea of faith as the initial expressed belief in the eschatological significance of Jesus’ resurrection.
So here’s my closing thought.
The translation of pistis as “allegiance” is a useful polemical and pedagogic device. It shoves justification-by-faith off its pedestal. It makes us think about gospel and faith in the frame of an eschatological narrative about Jesus and Israel in relation to the nations.
Bates makes too little of the Israel-and-the-nations aspect. I disagree, for example, that Matthew 7:21-23 “pertains specifically to entering true life” or securing “eternal salvation”: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (99). This is part of the story about Israel building its house on the sands of false hope before the coming storm of AD 66-70.
But that aside, once we have got some sort of narrative framework firmly in place—and have thus dismantled the old misleading soteriological paradigm—we will probably need to reinstate some distinctions that have been obscured by Bates’ enthusiasm for the “allegiance” motif.