Tag Archives: gospel

Book Review: Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, by Matthew W. Bates

Salvation by Allegiance AloneIt’s no secret in scholarship that the English language does not have words that carry the same meaning and connotation of the Greek word pistis and its various forms and conjugations; however, that doesn’t stop most from using “faith” in its place wherever found. The driving force of Matthew W Bates’ Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King is the reevaluation of pistis as “allegiance” rather than “faith” in its greater context. I do not doubt that many will find Bates convincing in this regard, especially those already aware of the political context of Scripture; however, there are several major points I find in need of revision in this thought-provoking work.

First, Bates argues that the oft used arguments for “salvation by faith alone” have not only been theologically wanting but also damaging to the way in which hearers may then perceive and read Scripture and live (or not) as citizens of the kingdom of God. Studying in both Presbyterian and Catholic contexts, Bates feels he is uniquely positioned to speak in a bridging manner for Protestants and Catholics, particularly regarding the place of “works” or “living out one’s faith,” as some describe it, in conjunction with faith—or, as he argues, one’s allegiance to Jesus as Lord. His arguments are sound and point out philosophical, theological, and practical flaws on both sides of the traditional arguments that overemphasize faith or works in such a way that diminishes the other. However, after so doing, he comes back to “allegiance alone” (hence the title), perceivably unable to escape his traditional Evangelical roots, even after arguing for a much deeper understanding of an holistic life actively aligned with the king in mind, heart, and action. Perhaps this new phrase is intended to imply this holistic life, but his arguments against “faith alone” can be used against the reevaluated pistis phrase since “allegiance” may be easily misinterpreted and misused in time, as he has demonstrated the case to be with “faith.” I would encourage an holistic understanding and teaching of pistis, as does Bates, but without the wholesale removal of “faith” terminology, arduous as the task may be.

Second, Bates attempts to define the “gospel message” in its entirety according to eight foundational statements found in the Apostles’ Creed:

“Jesus the King
1. preexisted with the Father,
2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
3. died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
4. was buried,
5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
6. appeared to many,
7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
8. will come again as judge.” (p# unavailable, emphasis original)

There’s no doubt that these statements are either explicitly or implicitly made by Jesus and/or the apostles; however, I find his argument utterly unconvincing, stemming more from creedal theology rather than an holistic approach to the New Testament’s use of euangelion and its varied forms—basileia (kingdom) isn’t even included in Bates’ gospel message, that which is most associated with “gospel” in the New Testament.

Third, Bates argues that we are “idols of God” solely based on characteristic similarities between “image” and “idol” and the nature of idols in ancient Egypt as articulated by John Walton. No linguistic evidence is provided—contrary to the positive evidence for the pistis/allegiance argument—for a shift from “image” to “idol” in his desire to “restore the idol of God” (humans who properly reflect God, Jesus noted as being the prime and only perfect example this side of the new heavens and earth), but that does not stop him from making the switch and henceforth referring to those aligned with Jesus as idols. Not only is it unconvincing, I find no positive or helpful reason for its inclusion in the book. It simply appears to be an attempt to cram into the book a second linguistic wrench of controversy for the academy and ends up detracting from the greater message.

Finally, pairing “allegiance” and his “gospel” creed, Bates encourages Christians to use and recite the current form of the Apostle’s Creed as the true and proper “Pledge of Allegiance” with ever-increasing frequency in order to proclaim, teach, and remind people of the gospel (as defined by Bates) and with whom they are aligned. Certainly reciting and affirming creeds is not my dispute. They may proclaim truth and serve a purpose, and it’s the purpose and degree of complete truth claimed by the authors and perpetuators that I question. Bates is not the first to put forth an alternative pledge that counters those nationalistic in nature (Shane Claiborne being one of the most recent), and it sounds like a good idea. Jesus is lord; Caesar is not. We (well, some of us) get that. My reservations for using at least this pledge in particular (or really anything as the pledge) should be apparent in my questioning of Bates’ presentation of the holistic gospel message above.

Given the aforementioned observations and reservations, I find the overarching thesis to be an important one in need of further discussion within the academy and local churches alike. A proper understanding of the political context within and with which Scripture is written can only help us more fully understand whose we are, for whom we live, and what a life lived with that perspective may and ought to look like.

*I received a temporary, pre-published digital copy for review from Baker Academic via NetGalley.

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Book Review: Divorce & Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology, by Rubel Shelly

Divorce & RemarriageIt’s not often I have a major shift in my theology, but it does happen. When it comes to the oh-so-controversial-and-convoluted-subject of marriage-divorce-&-remarriage, there are a number of systems that have been constructed through the centuries to explain various interpretations of what Jesus and Paul have to say about it in the New Testament. Up until a few days ago, I had already shifted my thinking a couple different times; however, no matter how seemingly logical the legal constructions fit together in my mind, nothing has set well with what I read elsewhere in Scripture as to how they fit with the heart of God.

For the past ten years, I have not been a part of a church, either in general membership or leadership, where there has not been a messy, or at least very uncomfortable, dealing with people who found themselves in the middle of trying to figure out what to do with their marriage, divorce, and potential for remarriage. I’ve often heard from those older than I that this is a growing concern in the church; however, I believe it’s simply that we become more and more aware of these difficult situations the older we get—things were always better back in the “good ol’ days,” whether that be when we were toddlers, teens, middle-aged, or what have you…or so they say. Though I’ve had discussions with many about my beliefs and interpretations of Scripture, something always kept me from speaking from some position of authority (ha!) to those I thought may be “in sin” when it came to my interpretations of Jesus and Paul on this subject. I either felt God holding me back and keeping me from speaking, or scheduled meetings simply didn’t happen for a number of reasons. I am so thankful they didn’t!

I come from a rather legalistic and “rule book” approach to Scripture, and looking for those legal systems is still a temptation, which isn’t to say that systematic theology is a bad thing! In my late college days I began to pray more, listen to God, and do my best to stay out of the way of the Spirit’s leading in my life. That has been the foundation of how I have since approached Scripture and my life. Those who know me can attest to the changes and far-off places to which that approach led! Once I began graduate work in theology, my academic endeavors were kept in check with my reliance on the Spirit, without which I could very easily jump right back into a purely “do and don’t” mentality on how to use Scripture. The deeper I leaned into God, the more these divorce and remarriage systems disturbed me, but I could not see what Jesus and Paul had to say any differently than how I’d been approaching them for decades prior.

Jumping to the present, my wife (Delana) and I recently moved to the greater Denver area where we believe God led us. We first visited back in January (2015) for an interview Delana had at a local university. We decided to spend a little of our own money to stick around for a couple more days so that we could get to know the area a little bit. One of our biggest desires was finding a church we could immediately plug into and glorify God through serving others. We had several recommendations, and had planned on visiting one in Denver proper—we only had time to visit one church on Sunday morning, so we wanted to make it count! Around 10:00 PM the Saturday before, getting ready to go to bed, I told Delana, “I think we’re supposed to go to [a particular Church of Christ].” Both of us were shocked by what I’d said because I’d not planned on going back to another denominational congregation, and she didn’t have the most pleasant experience with the CoC since learning about it and visiting a few after meeting me. We both felt a bit nervous about it, but I believe it’s where God wanted us to be. So, we followed. It was the best experience at any church we’ve ever had. We were welcomed warmly and joyfully, prayed with, immediately included, and encouraged. One of the ministers and a married couple kept in touch from that point until we moved to CO on June 29, and then we had breakfast at the minister’s house the next morning. Just awesome.

We were immediately plugged into different ministries and Bible studies, and began growing closer to several families in the church—we still haven’t even been here two months! In July I attended an information session about the church and what they expected from those who wanted to be “members.” Delana was out of town that weekend for work. At the beginning of this session one of the ministers, out of a desire to be transparent and wanting others to be the same, told us of his past marriage, his infidelity, and subsequent divorce and a host of other consequences. After fifteen years of celibacy, he remarried just a few months ago. The elders and the rest of the church fully supported him in this. I’d never seen that in a CoC, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I knew what I wanted to do with it, but not sure what I was supposed to do with it. This is where Delana and I truly believe God wants us. Our move to CO for her job and our coming to this church was purely a decision by faith, not by sight (we’re still trying to work it out financially!). When Delana returned, I gave her the bullet points of the meetings and shared with her the minister’s story. “What are we going to do?”

The minister and I had a few things to discuss anyway, so we set a time for earlier this week. There was much prayer beforehand, and when the time came we had a loving, nonjudgmental, brotherly conversation about how he read Scripture concerning divorce and remarriage and from where we both came. After going through every passage in the New Testament and looking at context from the Old Testament, I felt a peace about his conclusion that I’d never had before. Things clicked and I felt like God had lifted a weight from my shoulders that had been hanging there for over ten years.

It’s important to understand that he held this position before things went sour in his first marriage. This isn’t a case of someone subsequently trying to find justification for selfish desires in Scripture thereafter. In fact, he’d never planned on marrying again, but had a similar “God put us together” story with his current wife that Delana and I share.

So, what does all of this have to do with a book, let alone a book review? Context! When I first asked for the minister’s perspective on divorce and remarriage, he reached over to his bookshelf, pulled out Rubel Shelly’s Divorce & Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology, and said, “This is what I believe.” Of course, we didn’t read the book right then and there (he did read a few pages in conversation), but I did borrow it and read it over the next couple of days. I’d already been convinced by our conversation to change my perspective on the subject, but I wanted see what this book had to say, since it was likely going to be added to my library and recommended to others if it had anything to do with what we discussed! And it’s wonderful: full of love and compassion, and with no lack of scholarship and “sound” reading of Scripture. It includes the meat of the text (setting up context and addresses all necessary Scripture references for the subject, peppering a number of “what would you do?” narratives in mix the to help the reader think through these things), a lengthy question & answer section (he asks himself many of the questions he’s heard in the past and answers them well), and two brief letters, one to those who have been divorced and one to church leaders.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those who find themselves in any sort of church leadership position so that we do not continue to heap more burdens on people with whom we have no right to so do. Read with an open mind and heart toward God, and get ready for a life changing moment. It can happen.

To all those I’ve oppressed in the past regarding their divorce and remarriage, I ask for your forgiveness. We are always called to reconciliation, and that is what we first desire in any relationship, especially a marriage. We do live in a fallen world, and bad things happen. Let us continue from there in love, grace, and mercy. Lord, forgive us and grant us that capacity for one another. Amen.

Book Review: Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw

Jesus for PresidentIn 2014, my good friend Zach bought us both a copy of Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. He had heard good things about the book and wanted my opinion as we went through it since we had been studying political theology for about a year in church. Unfortunately, we didn’t get past our first meeting with our combined busy schedules, but I’m glad to have finally come back and finished reading it myself.

I want to first point out that no one should be approaching this text from either a “liberal” or “conservative” political stance. This, unfortunately, has been the stance from which many have reviewed the text. We should first see how Jesus calls us to live, and then work out pragmatic application in our own context, regardless as to whether it may be perceived as “liberal” or “conservative.” In Jesus for President, Claiborne and Haw approach a number of controversial subjects from the initial perspective of being a citizen in the kingdom of God first. Many cannot separate their national and political affiliation from their Christian affiliation—framing it this way may seem harsh, but it’s what Jesus called us out on; we’re all in, or we’re not—and this will be the foundation of much disagreement and debate. So, I would encourage the reader to stick with them and make as much an attempt at thinking from a kingdom perspective first as able. This does not mean he or she will always agree or disagree with the authors—I certainly didn’t agree on all theological or practical points—though I do think one may be better able to appreciate their arguments, and perhaps learn and grow into being a better disciple of Christ.

It’s widely understood by my friends and family that I am a pacifist and am far more in favor of living in community than is my individualistic, privatized, American culture. I believe this is what Jesus asks of us. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that I agree with the authors on much of what is presented; however, I do not always come to the same conclusions as to how we go about demonstrating these things. Nevertheless, I do and will recommend this as a beautiful and interesting introduction to how we engage with one another and the world.

Book Review: Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don’t Have to Wait for Eternity to Live the Good News, by Josh Ross and Jonathan Storment

Bringing Heaven to EarthMany of us have grown up in the “I’ll Fly Away” crowd, getting much of our eschatology (what we believe about end times) from our hymns rather than the Bible, which in turn influences what we believe about how we are to live here and now. If this place is going to blow up and we’re going to fly away, then nothing here really matters, right? Unfortunately, this way of thinking is still pervasive in many churches and schools. Josh Ross and Jonathan Storment grew up in this same vein, have since been convinced of a greater reality of living in the kingdom now, and have provided an easy to read book on why and how that can and should happen. This is Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don’t Have to Wait for Eternity to Live the Good News.

“Part 1: A Reintroduction to Heaven” begins emphatic, but lighthearted, sports jokes and jabs not spared (just look past them!). Ross and Storment make a simple case for the real connection between heaven and earth and God mission of resurrection and redemption, not rapture. “Part 2: When Heaven Celebrates” gets a little heavier—if that can happen when talking about partying!—but only insomuch as the authors continue drawing the reader into the importance of the topic at hand. Once in “Part 3: Life in the Light of Heaven” the reader should have a broader grasp of what it means to live for God’s glory and the sake of others right now and give up on any ideas that may keep us waiting until we’re in “heaven” to be joyful in this life.

This can be a great primer for anyone struggling with what to do with the good news of the kingdom of God and how heaven, hell, and earth may fit therein. It may be especially helpful for those who are steeped in dispensationalism, a particular theological stream espoused by much company I’ve kept in recent years. If you’re looking for a quick and easy read to whet your appetite to go even further in living as a kingdom citizen now, this can help. Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid!

 

*Disclaimer: I was contacted by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, and received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. I was not paid, nor was I asked to write anything specific, whether positive or negative.

Book Review: Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger Things, by Ken Wytsma

Pursuing JusticePursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma, founder of The Justice Conference, is the introduction to pass along to others for understanding the need and instilling a desire and passion for justice as we live for God, assuming they haven’t already grasped it from the Bible. Although Wytsma does not take anyone through a specific form or topic of justice, he brings his reader face to face with it is, its necessity, and the door through which one walks to begin living it and looking for those specificities one may have wanted within the text itself. There are, however, plenty of injustices mentioned—some with accompanied anecdotes—but the reader is not necessarily provided a path by which to remedy the injustice; rather it is hoped that the reader will be given a heart for wanting to bring about justice and discover on one’s own ways in which that may come about.

If one who is already on fire for participating in the righteousness and justice of God and has the time to read another 300+ pages, I offer this book as a great resource for fueling that fire. However, for those questioning the phrase “social justice” and the inclusion of “justice” as part of the “gospel,” I offer Pursuing Justice as a “must read.” For those who confuse the phrases “social justice” and “social gospel” and don’t want to make it through the first 200 pages with a persistent bias against anything written on the subjects, I recommend first jumping to Chapter 13, “Justice in Society,” for a well-articulated argument and explanation of the controversy and how to play one’s part in ending the perpetuation of certain misunderstandings thereof.

I have two specific critiques, though minor, I hope others will consider when reading this book and others. First, Wytsma peppers the text with lists of perceived injustices, some of which I believe are mere preferences and desires for a happy life and have no direct connection to bringing about “justice”—I would put universal health care and education provided by a government in this box. Though injustices may certainly be found within the methods by which some of these things and those associated therewith are discussed and implemented (e.g., discrimination between race and gender), I do not think the lack of such things are indicative of injustice. I would have hoped for a bit more careful nuance to be made in the given examples of injustice, but found many of these remarks to be side comments that are not necessary to come away from the text with a changed perspective for the better. Second, I often caution others in how they use statistical information, encouraging a better understanding of how the information has been gathered and disseminated. All too often numbers are used to sensationalize and reinforce a point that may be good but not actually appropriate. I’m careful to not call this way of using statistical information in all circumstances “dishonest”—some simply do not know what they are doing—but I would have expected a bit more of an honest approach to some information used in such a large and well-thought-out work as Pursuing Justice.

Overall, I do not know how someone can walk away from a thorough reading of the book without a heart for pursuing social justice, but I say the same thing about the Bible! Blessings upon all who pursue the heart of God, a heart of love—a heart of justice!

 

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”