This is the second in a series of posts engaging with Matthew Bates’s Salvation by Allegiance Alone. The inaugural post can be read here.
The first chapter of Salvation by Allegiance Alone, entitled “Faith Is Not” is Bates’s attempt to clean the deck of the good ship of the church by scraping off the various layers of mold and sediment that have accumulated over the centuries on top of the planks of the gospel, faith, and the Christian life. “At the center of the Christianity, properly understood,” Bates asserts, “is not the human response of faith or belief but rather the old-fashioned term fidelity.”1 However, before he can advance this constructive thesis surrounding “salvation by allegiance alone,” Bates’s deems it is first necessary to deconstruct many of the popular, contemporary understandings of faith.
First, faith must be distinguished from a fideism which retreats from serious intellectual challenge through appeal to “faith.” Faith, Bates asserts, is not “the opposite of evidence-based truth.”2 The phrase “evidence-based truth” seemingly calls for theological clarification, as it could easily stand enthralled to the conceits of modern epistemology, but Bates’s general point holds. The Christian faith must have some purchase on reality that allows for a compelling narration of the world as God’s good creation.
Second, faith must not be confused with an existential leap in the dark. Pointing to Kierkegaard’s great “knight of faith” Abraham, Bates observes that faith is mischaracterized if it is thought of in terms of launching oneself into the void. What characterizes Abraham and the other biblical heroes of faith is that they took God at his word and responded in fidelity to God’s command and promise.
Third, faith must be understood to stand in fundamental opposition to “works.” This temptation arises in certain Protestant circles which read the Bible through a hermeneutic that pits faith against works. I have previously observed how something like this was at work in the Lutheranism of Bonhoeffer’s day, where a certain way of interpreting and emphasizing the doctrine of justification led to severing the nerve of discipleship—aptly characterized by Bonhoeffer as “cheap grace.” 3 Bates sees something similar transpiring in certain forms of conservative American evangelicalism.
Fourth, faith is not to be equated with an “it’s all good” attitude. Here faith has lost sight of its true object and become a mere anthropological attitude or stance. However, biblical faith is not about the power of positive thinking, rather it “is directed toward a defined object—and it is the trustworthiness of the object that sources and fixes faith’s genuineness.”4
Finally, faith is not reducible to intellectual assent. While the gospel consists of certain narrative details that must be received, salvation is not, as the contemporary “free grace” movement contends, about simply giving mental assent to a certain set of facts or propositions. After all, Bates observes, even the demons seem to know who Jesus is (Mark 1:24, 3:11), but surely their knowledge is not to be acquainted with saving faith.
In this chapter, Bates has aptly identified some of the most prominent misunderstandings of faith on offer in the contemporary church and broader Western culture today. It seems unlikely that his rather terse treatment of these misunderstandings of faith will be sufficient to convince someone strongly committed to one of these understandings of the error of their ways. However, the chapter may be successful in driving a wedge into the understanding of “faith” that opens up enough daylight for his constructive proposal to be seen in clear distinction from the various other understandings on offer.
- Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 15. ↩
- Bates, 17. ↩
- Robert J. Dean, For the Life of the World: Jesus Christ and the Church in the Theologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Stanley Hauerwas (Eugene: Pickwick, 2016), 74-77. ↩
- Bates, 24. ↩