Salvation by Faith, or Allegiance Alone? Matthew Bates in the Hot Seat (Part 1)

Not since the Reformation has there been a challenge to the five solas as persistent and potentially persuasive as Matthew W. Bates’ third book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017). This book has generated a groundswell of controversy that continues to build as more theologians, pastors, and laypeople are exposed to Bates’ nuanced proposal.

Bates’ thesis, at once radical and obvious, is this: in the New Testament writings, the Greek word pistis, or “faith,” is better translated as “allegiance.” He does not intend for every instance of pistis in our Bibles to be retranslated, but for him, there are specific contexts, especially in Paul and the Gospels, in which the only reasonable rendering is “allegiance,” as in the kind of fidelity or loyalty that one would give to a king.

Since Jesus is now the reigning King of the Cosmos, the pistis of believers, directed to Jesus, can only legitimately be explained as the proper attitude of loyal subjects before their sovereign ruler.

1. Matt, it’s a great pleasure to have you as our first guest author on the relaunched Logos Academic Blog. Although we have done a few author interviews here in the past, this is our first of the “Hot Seat” series. I hope this doesn’t make you nervous, even though perhaps you should be.

Me… nervous? No, of course not. /breathes twenty-six times into a paper bag/ Feeling fine. I just like how brown bags smell. Golly it is warm in here. Could you open a window? Thanks. I’m grateful for the invitation. It’s an honor and a pleasure.

2. It strikes me as both commendably bold and yet disconcertingly dangerous that you have written a book that attempts to bridge the typically disparate spheres of everyday Christians and biblical scholars. Why didn’t you simply write this book for one or either audience, or perhaps begin with a technical monograph full of footnotes, and then follow up with a popular version of your thesis?

Salvation by Allegiance Alone is a book about the things that matter most—faith, the gospel, and salvation. So, from the get-go I was certain that this should be a book for scholars, students, pastors, and pew-sitters. However when I was writing I kept wondering, Can I deliver?

I feared that it would prove impossible to write for such a varied audience. Scholars do not want to wade through basic information that everyone in the field already knows. Packed prose and footnotes are preferred. Proposed advances should be modest within a carefully delimited scope.

Meanwhile the ordinary Christian wants nearly the opposite: personal stories illustrating the essentials, spritely prose, and practical advice. Footnotes are the kiss of death. Students and pastors form the middle ground but have unique interests and needs. When in doubt I kept the middle in mind.

Yet I recognized that in trying to make this book all things for all people, it would prove fully satisfying to no one. Despite the hazards, I jumped. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, it is not always a bad idea to seek to become all things to all people—especially for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:22-23).

As the final product has rolled off the press, I have felt emotionally overwhelmed. The quality and quantity of initial feedback has confirmed to me that it was worth the effort.

I am convinced that both church and academy need to rethink faith, the gospel, and salvation. I hope my book proves to be a thoughtful entry point.

3. In your introduction, you mention the nearly 10 years of development and composition of your proposal in Allegiance. Can you pinpoint a specific moment in time or period in your life that acted as the catalyst for the ideas you write about in the book, and what changes have occurred, for better or worse, in the issues that stimulated this work?

About half the creative energy for Allegiance came from material that I studied when I was an M.C.S. student at Regent College in 2001-2004. I read N. T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, and quickly followed that up with Wright’s larger works, The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God.

The Challenge of Jesus book cover
The New Testament and the People of God book cover
book cover of Jesus and the Victory of God

Wright helped me recognize the degree to which my ideas of faith, sin, repentance, works, “heaven,” the kingdom of God, and the like were constructed through sixteenth-century Protestant categories rather than first-century.

My PhD coursework and candidacy exams at Notre Dame gave me the opportunity to continue to learn more about Second Temple Judaism and the New Perspective on Paul. But this involved deepening rather than recalibrating.

Perspectives on Paul: Reformation and the New Perspective course cover image

A second breakthrough came when I was working on my PhD dissertation. My dissertation focused on Paul as an interpreter of Scripture. I performed spadework on several passages in which Paul gives the content of the gospel, especially Romans 1:2-4 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. I noticed how much the gospel centers on Jesus as a sovereign ruler.

At the same time I began to reflect on the comparative neglect of this motif in popular and academic descriptions of the gospel. But in terms of my writing, I couldn’t pursue the matter as I needed to finish my PhD study first. The dissertation was eventually published as The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation (Baylor University Press, 2012).

Meanwhile my first book had opened up another fruitful area of inquiry. I had determined that the Apostle Paul used a technique to interpret the Old Testament known as “prosopological exegesis.” This technique was somewhat known among studies of early church Fathers, but biblical scholars had not ever (to the best of my knowledge) clearly identified its use in the New Testament.

This technique involves finding surprising speakers in the Old Testament, and I felt that it had underappreciated Trinitarian implications. So even though Allegiance was on my heart, I felt my second monograph needed to be The Birth of the Trinity (Oxford University Press, 2015).

After finishing The Birth I was free to pursue the topic that had first intrigued me as an M.C.S. student. Final pieces of my “allegiance alone” thesis were put into place as I conducted research and wrote. I’m sure I’ll have occasion to discuss some of the more important scholarly influences as our interview continues.

4. You are, by any account, an extremely busy academic. You have a family, you are active in your church, you teach a heavy class load each year, you manage your own interview podcast, you have a blog, and you have published and continue to publish articles in some of the top-tier peer-reviewed journals in the world. How do you approach the craft of research and writing with such a busy schedule, especially for a book that requires engagement with both popular Christianity and elite biblical scholarship?

My life is indeed overflowing. I’m very grateful! However, you short-changed me in your question. I don’t merely “have a family.” For I have six—yes, that’s right—six (!) children. Any time-management skills I possess are mostly owed to my wife, who is a saint. Literally.

Okay, I get a little credit, because I am usually at the office working by 6:15am when I could be sleeping. So I do get an early start. During the semester I teach several mornings a week, but my most productive writing time occurs early in the morning on the days when I teach only in the afternoon. Large swaths of my summer break have also been devoted to writing.

Since it is hard to squeeze in research between teaching and family, the secret for me is caring—deeply and passionately caring—about the topics that I choose to research. If I am not convinced that the topic utterly matters, I’ve found that I’ll never find the motivation. So I can usually tell if a future project is a good one by touching a thermometer to my heart.

As to how I approach the craft, I am an investigator. I don’t know the answer yet when I am writing, but I have caught the scent of something tantalizing. I need to figure out how and why these ideas fit together. Writing helps me ferret out the answers and to clarify them—for myself and hopefully for others too.

When approaching a topic, and even when writing certain portions, I ask myself, Why do I care about this? Why would anyone care about this? I’ve found this helps keep me from being a dreadful boor, if not to others, well, then, at least to myself!

Good research writing shares the mystery, has a plot, and tells an evidence-based story.

5. Your personal journey of faith is very interesting, beginning in a KJV-only church (which you speak about with great affection and felicity) to doing a PhD at Notre Dame and now teaching in a Roman Catholic university. You mention your ecumenical practice of praying the Hours every morning with fellow faculty (and students?). Prayer is an essential component of the Catholic scholarly tradition, and I’m curious to know how prayer functions in your vocation as a writer and scholar.

It would take too much time, and we’d probably need several counselors (just kidding… maybe…), if I were to tell my whole story. Suffice it to say that although my journey out of hyper-fundamentalism has involved intellectual and spiritual wrestling, much as with Jacob’s battle with the mysterious angel, I’ve never found God to have unduly withheld his blessing.

Some who have made this journey are bitter. I’m not. I am grateful that early in my life numerous folks cared enough to share about Jesus with me, even if some of the packaging surrounding those ideas was goofy. I learned to love Jesus and the Bible, even if the strong-anti-intellectualism and fear of science within fundamentalism was confusing. Taking a B.S. degree in physics helped me sort some of this out.

Meanwhile God provided me with the right mentors at the right time—faithful Christians who were serious scholars. Professors Roger Mohrlang and Jerry Sittser at Whitworth University, Professors Gordon Fee, Rikk Watts, and Iain Provan at Regent College, and Professors David Aune, Gary Anderson, and Brian Daley at Notre Dame. More could be mentioned, but these were especially important to my journey.

Today I have a heartfelt affection for the center of the Christian tradition. I still hold what is usually termed a “high view” of Scripture as God’s inspired Word, but I feel like I have made progress toward integrating that with other fields of inquiry.

I still have lots of questions, but unlike within fundamentalism, I see further learning as a delight rather than a nagging worry that the intellectual center might not hold. As a Protestant it has been very enriching to study and serve as a professor in a Catholic context, especially as the Catholic theological tradition has often excelled at holding together faith and reason.

As to my teaching and writing vocation—which is really just part of my larger attempt at being an ordinary Christian disciple—I try to pray each day. Sometimes this is private, sometimes corporate as I join students and faculty in praying the morning office liturgically.

Not going to lie to you and say that I am always on top of my prayer game. Striving to do better there and in all aspects of my service to Jesus the King. Hopefully it is two steps forward and only a step-and-a-half back.

6. The claims that you make in Allegiance are strong, yet they are obviously driven by a heart deeply concerned for the Western church. Do you hope that your book, and its identification of allegiance as the missing component of Christian life and experience, will be the impetus for a new reformation of sorts, perhaps even a counter reformation that brings Protestants and Roman Catholics closer to a point of reconciliation? If you had your way, what would this New Reformation look like, how long would it take to reset the parameters of Christianity and the global church, and upon what doctrinal and practical pillars would it stand?

A new Reformation? Wow, that sounds ambitious. And I can’t decide if it sounds terrifying or exhilarating as I contemplate all the perils and possibilities of what a new (or counter?) Reformation might look like today. And I do spout witticisms, engage in polemics, and drink beer, but not nearly as well or as much as would be necessary for me to play the role of a Luther!

But inasmuch as the Reformation fractured the church, yes, I dream that my book will stimulate unity. I think this dream of unity is something all the faithful have burned into their hearts. Jesus prayed for it, so we know that God desires his church to be one.

“One” does not necessarily entail a hierarchical unity under a single leadership structure—other possible modes of unity must be considered too—although I would contend that true unity must ultimately be visible to the world.

As our conversation unfolds over the next several sessions, I anticipate we’ll be able to speak more about what doctrinal and practical matters could help the church move in the right direction.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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