In chapter 3, “Jesus Proclaims the Gospel,” Bates turns to confronting a longstanding problem in modern Protestant Christianity: the reconciliation of the Letters of Paul with the Gospels.1 The writings of Paul have long been a haven for certain forms of Lutheranism and conservative evangelicalism espousing the centrality of a particular understanding of justification by faith. While the Gospels have often been the playground of some liberal forms of Christianity attempting to advance a social agenda based upon ethical principles. The irony is that in their readings of their respective canons-within-a-canon both groups have lost sight of the animating center of the canon as a whole, as well as Paul’s Letters and the Gospels in particular, namely the crucified and living Lord Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of the chapter, Bates lays out his thesis in a most straightforward manner, writing: “My point is simple: there is only one gospel, and just as in Paul’s Letters, it is the transformative story of how Jesus, who pre-existed as Son of God, came to be enthroned as the universal king.”2 The centrality of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God to Jesus’ ministry serves to underscore this point.3 Drawing upon and slightly modifying the work of C.H. Dodd, Bates maintains that the basic contours of the apostolic proclamation can be outlined as follows:
“Jesus the king
- pre-existed with the Father
- took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
- died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
- was buried,
- was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
- appeared to many,
- is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
- will come again as judge.”4
In reading Bates’s outline, I am reminded of Martin Luther’s definition of the Gospel in his delightful tract, “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels.” There, Luther avers, “The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell.”5 Although Bates may part ways with Luther when he asserts, “Properly speaking, pistis is not part of the gospel but the fitting response to the gospel. Moreover, our justification is not part of the content of the gospel proper either; only Jesus’s justification is, inasmuch as the resurrection is the effect of his being declared righteous. Our justification is a result of the gospel when we are united by pistis to Jesus the atonement-making king. Full clarity can only be achieved if precision about these matters is maintained.”6 While I am sympathetic to Bates’s desire to recover the Christocentric heart of the Gospel, I wonder if he has overstated his case at this point and perhaps unintentionally undercut the participatory impulse that he wants to affirm in his soteriology.
While I’m not able to fully flesh out this line of questioning in this forum, I will provide a sketch of two potential lines of critique, one from the Lutheran tradition and the other from the contemporary apocalyptic school of theology. On the Lutheran front, Luther and Melanchthon were fond of stressing that if you haven’t thought of Christ as being pro me (“for me”) then you haven’t thought of Christ rightly at all. Of course, to recognize Christ as being “for me” must, at some level, involve existential self-involvement brought about through the quickening power of the Holy Spirit. Something like this seems to be at play when Paul speaks in Romans 1:16 of the Gospel as being the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes/has faith/demonstrates allegiance (the verb is pisteuo). Here it seems that Bates’s distinction between the Gospel and our response to the Gospel might be overplayed. A similar critique could potentially be raised from an apocalyptic angle. J. Louis Martyn, in his celebrated Galatians commentary, has observed how for Paul the coming of faith is synonymous with the coming of Christ and the advent of the eschatological age (see Gal. 3:24-25). As a result, Martyn observes, “From 2:16, 3:22–25, and 4:4-6, we see that Paul is referring interchangeably to the coming of Christ, to the coming of Christ’s Spirit, and to the coming both of Christ’s faith and of the faith kindled by Christ’s faith.”7 From both of these threads, it appears that the presence of the Holy Spirit appears to muddy the waters of Bates’s distinction between Christ’s work and our response. I wonder whether it could be affirmed that the Gospel includes the good news that faith/faithfulness/allegiance has once more been renewed on the face of the earth, inaugurated by the supreme faithfulness of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), which in turn, through the Spirit, kindles and elicits the obedience of faith in others.
- Interestingly, Bonhoeffer felt the need to make a similar move in his famous treatise Discipleship. Although, Bonhoeffer began with the Synoptic Gospels before turning his attention to Paul. ↩
- Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 47. ↩
- Bates, 47-50. ↩
- Bates, 52, 74. ↩
- Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 105. ↩
- Bates, 54. ↩
- J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, Anchor Bible, vol. 33A (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 362. ↩