For me, allegiance is a central Christian concept, and it has been throughout my adult life. In this first post on the word-concept allegiance, I traveled through a bit of personal history, referring to the relationship of allegiance to human government, songs by Ray Boltz and Rich Mullins, and the influence of Lee Camp. In the last two years—and especially in the last few months—the place of allegiance has been bolstered considerably in this believer’s thinking. Allegiance has been inextricably connected to faith itself.
Life can bring great serendipities, synergies, and dovetailings.¹ I note the following that have come in the same phase of my life:
- a heightened awareness of theological positioning around the word “faith” (and also sovereignty and free will), due in part to a men’s discussion group
- persistent thoughts about allegiance to God’s Kingdom in a group study of Matthew
- our home group’s study of Galatians
- an academic blog’s feature of Dr. Matthew Bates’s 3rd book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Amazon catalog reference here).
While I have been mentally and hermeneutically challenged in all of the above, the connections are nevertheless satisfying. Prior to applying this to my present study of Galatians, I’d like to highlight key portions of the lengthy interview with Matthew Bates (see here for part 1). Here are the lead paragraphs:
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.
Note that Bates is especially focused on the gospels and Pauline letters, and also note that allegiance is connected to divine sovereignty, something to which most Christians would give assent, to one level or another. Next, here is a crystallization of what I take as the crux of the issue, from part 2 of the interview:
Interviewer: Of the Reformation solas, only yours seems completely dependent upon human agency. All the rest are due to God’s agency, whether that be scriptura, gratia, doxa, fides (as a gift from God, Eph 2:8), or Christos. How would you respond to the criticism that your sixth sola fails to meet the standard of the others due to misplaced agency?
Matthew Bates: First, I am not arguing for a sixth sola, but primarily seeking to advocate for a truer understanding of sola fide (by faith alone). My exploration seeks to uphold the solas while seeking greater precision with respect to their true biblical boundaries. I do conclude that sola gratia (by grace alone) and soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone) need to be nuanced in particular ways in order to stay faithful to the biblical vision. This is because grace and boasting have both been misunderstood with regard to works (of Law). As far as I am aware, I am not seeking to add distinctive shades of meaning with regard to Christ alone or Scripture alone.
Second, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone I never state that pistis is solely dependent on human agency rather than God’s agency. In fact, quite the opposite:
Grace in the sense of God’s prior activity precedes ‘faith,’ for God first had to bring about the good news before it could be proclaimed and before allegiance to Jesus as Lord could be confessed (Rom. 10:9–14). Moreover, God is the creator, and every good gift comes from God (James 1:17), so we must affirm God as the ultimate source of ‘faith’ and all else. (p. 105)
What is being claimed is that faith, enabled by grace, is the only contribution that we make to our salvation. (p. 122)
So I do assert that in some sense the ability to render allegiance to Jesus the king is either due to God’s agency, or is at least a gift bequeathed to our libertarian agency in the wake of the Christ-event. Yet since Scripture puts far more emphasis on our agency with regard to pistis than God’s agency, throughout the book I frequently speak about our own human agency in giving pistis to Jesus the king (emphasis mine -bc). In so doing I am trying to give the same weight of emphasis that we find in Scripture. Yet I deliberately leave the nature of God’s agency with respect to our own underdetermined.
This matter of agency is key for systematic theologians whose formulaic approaches almost make it a spiritual crime to acknowledge a human response to God—or, dare I suggest it, a human initiative in some sense. Yes, “while we were yet sinners,” God took action. But that notion does not negate the fact that we now owe God allegiance. If allegiance is something God enables, fine, but as far as I know, I choose to give it, and I am glad to give it, in my human weakness, when I am at my best.
With respect to the word “gospel” (ευαγγέλιον | euangélion), Bates makes the statement, “We can’t make decisions about what ‘good news’ means on the basis of our feelings about what sort of ‘news’ would be better for us.” Bates then points as an example to a popular author who “is allowing systematic concerns about what would be better for us to override first-century meanings.” Taking what I believe would be classified a synchronic (within a time period) linguistic approach, Bates says, “The meaning of first-century words must be determined by first-century usages.” He would say the same about the word “faith” (pistis | πίστις ). In other words, it doesn’t really matter what what a 21st-century regurgitation of a Lutheran “faith alone” theology conveys to the modern Protestant ear. Recovering as much of a first-century sense of “faith” (pistis) as possible is key to understanding what Paul and others meant when they wrote of “faith.”
Whatever one makes of Bates’s book,² there can be no doubt that coming to grips with a fuller range of meaning of “pistis” is key to a more adequate understanding of New Covenant “faith.” And so, when I come to Galatians and struggle hermeneutically with whether in 2:16 or “pistis” means faith (RSV, ESV, NIV, etc.) or faithfulness (NET Bible and some more recent commentators), I now have another viable option: allegiance or loyalty.
I might now paraphrastically expand some Galatians phrases to include the allegiance idea. Consider a few more traditional English renderings, followed by the “new possibility” in each case.
ESV: we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, …
NET: we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, …
New possibility: we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by Christ’s allegiance, and not by works of the law, . . .
New possibility: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by loyal trust in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
ESV: And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, . . .
New possibility: And the scripture, foreseeing that God would later justify the Gentiles by their faith-filled allegiance to Him, . . .
ESV: But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
New possibility: But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise that emanates from Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance might be given to those who also believe loyally.
CSB: for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .
New possibility: for through faithful allegiance you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .
New possibility (expanded): for through faithful allegiance —first, that of Jesus, and now, your own—you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .
Whether this season is more filled with Santa and snowmen or shepherds and angels for you, consider allegiance to the King. Perhaps the thoughtless use of phrases such as “newborn king” or “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” bothers you a little, as it bothers me. Still, I affirm that Jesus did become Lord and Christ. He became King. And having faith in Jesus implies allegiance to Him as King.
¹ One such dovetailing was when we first engaged in the serious study of Paul’s letter to Philemon—a letter written to a “house church”—with a home fellowship that met in our living and dining room. What serendipity, right? (Or providence, if you prefer.) I’ve written about that more than once. Try these two:
² I myself pored over the serial blogposts and am about to order the book but but have not read it yet.