In this final segment of our interview with Matthew W. Bates, author of Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), we discuss the impact of “allegiance alone” on ecumenism between Protestants and Catholics, implications for the imago Dei, and the marks of a church adhering to an allegiance-alone framework.
theLAB: You speak fondly of your ecumenical approach to Christianity, which is in itself a commendable thing, but what are the implications of your thesis of allegiance for the relationship between divergent traditions of the church, in particular Catholics and Protestants? To be specific, some may wonder whether one can give allegiance to both Jesus (and God) and to Mary, the Queen of Heaven. Are there thus varying degrees of allegiance you would encourage, such as the different levels of veneration in the Catholic tradition (dulia, hyperdulia, latria)?
MB: A person certainly can give primary allegiance to Jesus as king, and secondary allegiance to Mary as Queen of Heaven. I have many Catholic friends who do this very thing. Whether this is a good idea or connects to the truth is another question altogether.
Although I accept the communion of saints, meaning I believe that the church extends beyond the earthly realm into heaven glory, it is unclear that the saints who are in heavenly glory can assist earthly saints (scriptural judgments otherwise usually involve a faulty interpretation of Hebrews 12:1). And even if (and it is a big if) they can assist us, there is no apostolic warrant for seeing Mary as immaculately conceived (i.e., born without a sin nature) or an essential mediatrix. These ideas are not part of the genuine apostolic deposit at all, but only emerged later.
So when official Catholic dogma makes Mary part of the essential chain of mediation, this is in conflict with Scripture’s claim to Christ’s sole mediation (“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”—1 Timothy 2:5). Even if it is claimed that Mary’s mediation is derivative from Christ’s and is within Christ’s, to the degree it is deemed she is always present within Christ’s mediation, this still compromises the sole.
I loved my time at Notre Dame and consider it an honor to serve as a professor at a Catholic university. I am ecumenically minded, believing that what unites Protestants and Catholics is far, far more important than what divides us. I regard the Roman Catholic Church as a tremendous storehouse of wisdom and truth.
If I were a pastor, I would be happy to welcome a Catholic into a communion service at my church, since Catholics baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, proclaim the gospel, affirm the Apostles’ Creed as the true story of the cosmos (that is, they treat the gospel as a norm), and do not wantonly flout Christian standards of morality. (If you do not believe Catholics proclaim the gospel, then you don’t understand the gospel—and I’d especially urge you to take up the challenge to read Salvation by Allegiance Alone).
But I am not welcome to take communion in a Catholic Church. This saddens me, even though I am convinced that there are some significant untruths within the Roman Catholicism—falsehoods which must be unmasked and resisted. Regarding salvation theory, for instance, while I argue that Catholic infused righteousness can be accepted with qualifications, the Catholic view of imparted righteousness (defined at Trent) must be protested until it is rescinded.
Yet I think traditional Protestant articulations of imputed righteousness also need to be reframed. N. T. Wright has argued the same, but I don’t think Wright’s equation of “the righteousness of God” with the “covenant faithfulness of God” withstands careful scrutiny. In conversation especially with Michael Bird, I have my own proposal about the best way forward for both Protestants and Catholics in my Ch. 8.
Final Christian unity can and will happen only on the basis of the full truth in the eschaton. In the meantime we should not settle for a cheap unity, but nor should we feel that perfect unity in salvation theory is required for basic communion. Unity need not be hierarchical or structural, but does need to be visible, such as sharing at the Lord’s table.
theLAB: As if your thesis wasn’t controversial enough for some in terms of soteriology/justification, you are bold enough to offer a revised understanding of the image of God. You rename the image as the idol of God as a means to emphasize the biblical teaching of transformation. This is surely a needed emphasis in the church today, as in all ages. However, there are two major concerns that come to mind reading this chapter. First, can we really say that Jesus as Lord is equivalent to calling him Yahweh, and then in the same breath refer to him as the “ultimate” idol of God? Would any early Christian even dare to call Jesus as idol, or themselves idols, when the explicit teaching throughout both Testaments is that idols are the antithesis of anything truly divine? Second, I question your correlation of ancient perceptions of idols as being imbued with divinity and Jesus as the most fully divine idol/image. Is transformation, then, for Christians, a matter of being more fully imbued with divinity?
MB: In Hebrew “image” (tselem) “likeness” (demuth) and “idol” (pesel) are synonyms. Your implied claim that “idol” and “image” don’t mean the same thing is mostly an English language argument. If your point is in English that they don’t mean the same thing because idol is negative and image positive, then I accept that you are mostly correct (although we do use idol positively—e.g., if I were to say, “you are my idol”). If you think this is a valid critique, then so be it. But in Hebrew “idol” and “image” frequently intend the very same referent, so they cannot be tidily separated into good/bad in this manner. (For evidence see my p. 148 n. 2).
And I think we will both agree that the scriptural context must determine valid translation of Hebrew terms into English. I have made an argument in context that “idol” is a valid translation in Genesis because the creation scene describes God’s crafting of a temple and God’s placement of an idol in that temple. If God has no problem placing idols (Adam and Eve) in the temple of creation, why would it be invalid for me to point out what is happening?
If you think I have read the temple as creation context incorrectly, or if you doubt that idols were regarded as imbued with divine breath in the ancient Near East, then you’ll need to deal with the arguments of John Walton (and others) to the contrary. (See, e.g., Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One).
Why did I substitute “idol” if “image” works equally well? It is a teaching moment. We need to disrupt prior patterns of thought and bring a fresh angle (in valid ways) in order to teach effectively. The use of idol rather than image helps us recognize that image of God theology is connected to the placement of an idol in a temple.
Creation is God’s temple, and he places his idols in it—although the idols become marred through sin. Holistic salvation involves a restoration from our defacement, so that we can serve as the true idols of God.
theLAB: Your lists of questions at the end of every chapter are refreshing, especially for a work that is attempting to bridge the scholar/layperson divide. If you had to pick one question as the most significant, out of all the questions for thought in your book, which one would you want to stick with your readers long afterwards?
MB: Can I pick two, one theological and one for personal application?
From Chapter 8, “Justification and Allegiance Alone”:
What does the resurrection of the Messiah have to do with our justification? What do we learn through this about the meaning of the interconnection between Jesus the king’s righteousness and the meaning of “the righteousness of God”?
This question brings much of the book together theologically. If the reader can successfully answer this question, not using the definitions of “faith,” “grace,” “justification,” “righteousness,” and “the righteousness of God” given by traditional systematic theologies, but instead using the first-century categories described in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, then the book has largely accomplished its purpose.
And an application question from chapter 5, “Questions about Allegiance Alone”:
In considering the necessity of embodied allegiance (enacted loyalty) for salvation, do you think in the past you have been underconcerned or overconcerned with the necessity of obeying Jesus for eternal life? How has that impacted your past journey with God? What kind of concern should you maintain in the future?
This is a very practical question for the individual and for the church as a whole, helping to stimulate creativity about how to foster greater allegiance to Jesus the king.
theLAB: What will be the marks of a healthy church that ascribes to allegiance alone in our modern world?
MB: Above all a healthy church will focus on proclaiming the actual gospel (not the skewed Romans Road articulation), while recognizing that the gospel climaxes with the triumphant words, Jesus is Lord, or, Jesus is the Christ-king. It will of course recognize this Jesus is not merely the king, but the atoning king.
It will embody allegiance to Jesus the king by living out the kingdom directives given in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere.
It will acknowledge that discipleship is the one and only path to salvation, because discipleship is an enactment of pistis to Jesus the ruling Messiah. In other words, it will embrace a gospel culture rather than a salvation culture (on the difference, see Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel).
It will be incarnational, missional, prayerful, and always pockmarked by the horrible beauty of the cross-resurrection sequence. We will begin ruling with the king now by bearing the image of God effectively, exercising appropriate self-emptying dominion over creation in service to the King of kings.
The gospel will be explicitly proclaimed and lived out in the life of individual church members and corporate gatherings.
The Spirit will be present and the Spirit’s gifts operative.
The triune God will be encountered in transformative worship.
theLAB: Is this your final word on salvation by allegiance alone? Or have you planned more scholarly monographs and or popular books that either build upon or further substantiate your arguments in Salvation by Allegiance Alone?
MB: Stay tuned! Thanks, Tavis, for the great “hot seat” discussion. I’ve enjoyed it. I hope your readers have too.
Matthew W. Bates is Associate Professor of Theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois. Bates holds a Ph.D. from The University of Notre Dame in theology with a specialization is New Testament and early Christianity. His books include Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker Academic, 2017), The Birth of the Trinity (Oxford University Press, 2015), and The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation (Baylor University Press, 2012). He also co-hosts OnScript, a popular biblical studies podcast.