A Multi-part Interview With Matthew Bates on His New Book, Part One

Q– The tone of your book seems to imply that many have ‘gotten it wrong’ (i.e., salvation) up till now. Was that intentional, or is it merely a byproduct of your emphasis? Or, to put it more bluntly, the way it was put to Luther: do you think you are the only one to understand what salvation ‘is’ and everyone who came before erred?

AThe publication of Salvation by Allegiance Alone should be hailed as the second most important event in history, second by a narrow margin to Jesus’s death. I am fairly certain that nobody was actually saved until my book appeared to straighten this whole mess out. I allow that Jesus is still the Messiah, but I should at least get a prime-time talk show.

Joking aside, I think it may be unfair to suggest in such a sweeping fashion that my book implies that many have ‘gotten it wrong’ till now, for that flattens the kinds of ways the church can ‘get things wrong’.  Do I think the true church (in its full Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant expression) has always possessed the gospel in a saving fashion? Absolutely. So the church has never gotten it wrong in the ultimate sense.

Even when individual theologians, communities, and denominations have slightly (or even quite badly) misarticulated the gospel and/or salvation theory, I think the Holy Spirit was still operative in orchestrating salvation, so individuals could respond with saving allegiance through a tacit understanding of and response to the real gospel. It has been preserved and voiced every time the Scripture has been read down through the ages, and it has also been announced through liturgy and art. But this does not mean that there hasn’t been gospel confusion. A sufficient articulation is not the same as an exact articulation.

Yet, I can see why you might feel I am (overly?) bold, for I do make forceful claims about deformations within past and present soteriology. Salvation by Allegiance Alone develops four theses, the first two of which are relevant (and here I quote exactly from p. 9):

1. The true climax of the gospel—Jesus’s enthronement—has generally been deemphasized or omitted from the gospel.
2. Consequently, pistis has been misaimed and inappropriately nuanced with respect to the gospel. It is regarded as “trust” in Jesus’s righteousness alone or “faith” that Jesus’s death covers my sins rather than “allegiance” to Jesus as king.

Then I go on to assert:

“This inadequate identification of the climax of the gospel and faulty aiming of ‘faith’ is not a new problem. Nor is it a problem specific to certain Christian denominations or subgroups. It has been a norm across the full spectrum of the church for many hundreds of years. In fact, both Protestants and Catholics alike generally were invested in this slightly skewed scheme in the sixteenth century—indeed these problems extend at least in part all the way back to Saint Augustine in the fifth.” (Salvation by Allegiance Alone, p. 9).

So I do claim that my proposal might help correct historic and present missteps with regard to faith, works, and the gospel. I also assert that Saint Augustine injected a number of theological errors into the stream of Western soteriology, and that my book is making strides in the right direction. (On Augustine, see, e.g., Hart, “Traditio Deformis” [https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/05/traditio-deformis]).

Yet, do I think my own thesis is a perfect articulation of salvation theory? Not a chance.

As I am able to build on many scholars and theologians who have labored to articulate salvation theory, I do hope it is nearer the truth than other expressions have been. I also think it is imperative that we re-cover and re-deploy the gospel in every era of church history, so serious attempts are necessary.

Q– The theological topic of ‘salvation’ seems to be making a bit of a comeback among theologians and layfolk. How do you see your book contributing to that discussion.

A- I think interest has been stirred by N. T. Wright’s popularization of elements of the New Perspective on Paul, his novel theory concerning “the righteousness of God,” and the debate this has caused, especially in Reformed circles. One thinks, for instance, of John Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, which has generate buzz among layfolk, and which deliberately responds to Wright’s proposals.

As I felt I had something to say to scholars, pastors, students, and general church-folk, I wrote for as broad an audience as possible. The numerous works of Wright (e.g. Jesus and the Victory of God; Paul and the Faithfulness of God; How God Became King), as well as books by Piper, Schreiner (Faith Alone), Barclay (Paul and the Gift), McKnight (The King Jesus Gospel), Teresa Morgan (Roman Faith and Christian Faith); Michael Gorman (Becoming the Gospel), Joshua Jipp (Christ is King); Michael Bird (The Saving Righteousness of God), and many others helped me refine my own proposal. In articulating my vision of justification, I found myself applauding and criticizing both Wright and Piper at times.

My book seeks to offer something new by reassessing the gospel and ‘faith’ simultaneously. If Jesus’s enthronement and kingly rule is not extrinsic to the gospel, but intrinsic to it, then this colors what it means to respond to the gospel in “faith”. It suggests that allegiance, including embodied obedience to Jesus the king, is essential to salvation.

Note: The other portions of the interview will be posted at the links below.  Those links will go ‘live’ when the interview segment is posted.