Monday, April 3, 2017

Book Write-Up: Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Matthew W. Bates.  Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.  Baker Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Matthew W. Bates has a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame and teaches theology at Quincy University.  In Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Bates argues that the faith (Greek pistis) that brings justification in Paul’s writings is not merely intellectual assent to propositions or passively trusting Christ that one’s sins are forgiven and that one has eternal life.  Rather, for Bates, pistis in Paul’s writings is continued loyalty and allegiance to Christ as king, which entails doing good works.  (Note: Bates includes Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals in Paul’s writings, whereas a number of scholars dispute Pauline authorship of those epistles.  Bates addresses this in the endnotes.)

The key points in this book include the following:

—-Bates shows that pistis in Second Temple literature and Josephus’ writings can mean loyalty or faithfulness to a dynasty or king.  Bates also agrees with New Testament scholar Richard Hays that Paul frequently discusses the faith of Jesus, meaning Jesus’ faithfulness.  While Bates acknowledges that there are cases in Pauline writings in which pistis refers to intellectual assent to propositions, he maintains that it mostly means allegiance or loyalty in those writings.  Bates attempts to demonstrate that his interpretation is consistent with the Pauline passages themselves.

—-Bates mediates between Protestant and Catholic views on justification (being righteous).  Like Protestants, Bates maintains that justification includes imputation, God’s declaration that the believer is innocent and righteous, even if the believer practically falls short.  Like Catholics, however, Bates holds that justification includes infused and imparted righteousness: that the believer is righteous in terms of his or her deeds, not just declared to be so.  A significant aspect of Bates’ view on justification is believers’ union with Christ, a theme that appears in Pauline and Johannine writings.  For Bates, when believers are united with Christ, they share Christ’s status as righteous and innocent, even though they fall short of Christ’s righteousness, and yet they also bear spiritual fruit (good works) in their union with Christ.  Bates subsumes both imputed righteousness and practical righteousness under the category of justification and dismisses as unbiblical the Protestant belief that justification is imputed righteousness, whereas sanctification is the believer becoming practically righteousness.

—-For Bates, as part of one’s allegiance to Jesus, one needs to repent of sins and do good works if one wants to enter the good afterlife and avoid hell.  Bates appeals to passages in the synoptic Gospels, Pauline writings, and Johannine writings to support this point.  Bates also draws from John Barclay’s scholarship.  According to Barclay, a gift in antiquity often entailed reciprocity on the part of the recipient.  The same goes for those who receive God’s gift of salvation!

—-Bates contends that a key theme in the Scriptures is God dwelling with people on earth.  For Bates, this will find its culmination in the eschaton, when God renews the earth and dwells therein.  This, not heaven, is the hope of believers, as far as Bates is concerned.

—-Another key theme in the Scriptures, according to Bates, is that human beings were made in God’s image.  Humans mediate the divine presence, as images (idols) were believed to mediate the divine in many pagan religions.  For Bates, humans being in God’s image entails that they rule the earth as God’s representative, with justice and righteousness.  Christ and believers will do so more fully in the eschaton.  Moreover, one of Christ’s tasks was to renew the image of God in human beings so that they could be righteous, like God, and this occurs with believers (Colossians 3:10).

—-Bates argues that the Gospel is more about Jesus and how we participate in what he is doing, than it is about us being assured of personal forgiveness and having eternal life.  For Bates, the Gospel states that Jesus pre-existed, came to earth as a human being, died for people’s sins to bring them forgiveness, and rose from the dead to a position of authority.  Bates maintains that this Gospel is present throughout the New Testament and should be emphasized in Gospel presentations.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  I am giving this book four stars, even though I cannot say that I “like” the book (for reasons I will explain).  Overall, the book argued its case rather effectively, and it also did well to mix relatable anecdotes with heavy theological discussion.  (I think of Bates’ discussion of his vocational path and how he came to understand that in light of his beliefs about God’s renewal of the cosmos.)  Bates was especially convincing in his argument that the New Testament holds that good works are necessary for final salvation.  It is difficult to reconcile certain New Testament passages with ideas such as once-saved-always-saved, or the notion that all one has to do to be saved is to trust Christ, without avoiding sins or doing good works.  Bates’ argument that Christ’s pre-existence is in the synoptic Gospels was not as strong, however.

B.  That said, the book did depress me, a bit.  “If that is how it is, then I might as well give up on salvation, since I will never be good enough!”, I thought (not that I have given up on salvation).  To his credit, Bates did attempt to address pastoral questions: Does one’s allegiance have to be perfect for one to be saved?  What is the minimum of obedience to God that is necessary for final salvation?  Bates’ answers were not always helpful, though.  For example, Bates said that we should look at our lives and make sure that we are repenting of the sins in Galatians 5:19-21, sins that Paul says can bar one from the Kingdom of God and eternal life.  That may be faithful to what Paul is saying, but my problem is that many Christians define these sins rather broadly.  Adultery is on the list.  Remember that Jesus said in Matthew 5:28 that looking on a woman to lust after her is committing adultery in one’s heart.  Does having sexual desire place one on the path to hell?  Idolatry is on the list.  There are Christians who define idolatry, not merely as worshiping images, but as looking to anything or anyone other to God for one’s fulfillment.  Who isn’t guilty of that?  Even if I were to tell God I was sorry for that, I would still do it, on some level, for it is part of who I am!  Also on the list are enmity and envying.  Does that mean a person would go to hell for not liking everyone, or for having negative feelings toward others?  Can people eradicate such feelings from themselves?  There are Christians who have reasonable answers to these questions; perhaps Bates could have engaged such questions better than he did, without going too far afield.

C.  There was a lot of emphasis in this book on doing good works or avoiding sin as part of receiving final salvation.  The book would have been better had it also emphasized God’s love, or God’s faithfulness towards human beings.  Maybe Paul had the sort of soteriology that Bates thinks he had, but Paul also felt loved and accepted by Christ (Romans 5:8; Galatians 2:20).  Paul thought that Christ had made Paul his own (Philippians 3:12) and that Paul would be with Christ after dying (Philippians 1:23).

D.  In my opinion, Bates was rather inconsistent on faith and good works.  Bates seemed to treat good works as part of one’s allegiance (pistis) to Christ, whereas Paul in Romans 4:5 distinguishes faith from works.  Even though Bates believes that good works are necessary for final salvation, Bates stresses that we cannot earn our salvation: our good works are a result of God’s grace in Christ, after all, something that we neither earned nor deserved.  Bates also employs the New Perspective on Paul in explaining the Pauline distinction between faith and works: we are saved by allegiance to Christ, not by obeying the Mosaic law or doing good works apart from Christ.  You would think that Bates maintains that Paul is distinguishing Mosaic works, not good works in general, from allegiance to Christ.  And yet, Bates also seems to maintain that Christ delivered us, in general, from a system that focused on rules.  I question, though, whether one can embrace Bates’ soteriology and avoid that kind of rule-based system.

E.  While a “trust-alone” Gospel does make me feel better, I identified with some of Bates’ practical critiques of this view.  Bates said that there are Protestants who seem to stigmatize good works, treating them as an attempt to earn God’s approval, which contrasts with passively trusting Christ for salvation.  In my opinion, that particular Protestant viewpoint (not that all Protestants hold it) is itself discouraging.  If I do good works, how can I be sure that I am not doing them to earn God’s approval?  Should I not do them?  Will I go to hell if I do them to earn God’s approval, even in the tiniest bit?  I think that the doctrine of hell can ruin a lot of people’s spiritual lives, making them feel that they have to have all their ducks in a row to avoid going there.  This can occur when one adds good works as a requirement for salvation, but also if one holds that trust-alone is the requirement for salvation.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley.  My review is honest!

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