Book Review: Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone

batesIn his new book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Matthew Bates argues that Christians “should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith’ or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or of ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation” (3). In fact, he proposes nothing less than “to rethink the gospel, faith, and salvation” (8). And, to boot, Bates suggests that his book “will ultimately contribute to the healing of that long-festering wound between Catholics and Protestants” (6). Most books that make such ambitious, even grandiose, claims inevitably disappoint readers hoping for something truly insightful and meaningful. Bates, however, actually delivers on his promise, penning a work that is, at once, sharply erudite, richly theological, and deeply pastoral.

Bates notes up front that he is writing as a committed Christian committed to earnestly wrestling with what God has to say to us through Scripture. Bates makes clear in chapter 1 his concern that many Christians today have an incomplete notion of “faith”; for Bates, “like rot in an apple, much of the malaise in contemporary Christianity stems from a rotten core,” which he here identifies as an overly simplistic rendering of the Greek pistis as “faith” or “belief” (15). Pistis is not, Bates insists, naive fideism, a Kierkagaardian leap in the dark, the opposite of works, blind optimism, or (perhaps most significantly in today’s church context) intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. In particular, as Bates goes on to contend in chapter 2, viewing salvation as simply a matter of mentally agreeing with the statement “that Jesus died for my sins” is dangerously reductionistic (25).

Bates is particularly concerned to demonstrate that the gospel cannot be reduced to a me-centered “Jesus died for my sins,” but rather that the gospel is in fact a story about Jesus the King. In chapter 2, Bates surveys key texts in which Paul describes the gospel (Rom 1:1-5; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Cor 15; Rom 1:16-17) and concludes that the Pauline gospel is “the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king” (30). Drawing on Ben Witherington, Bates emphasizes the “V pattern” of the gospel in which the preexisting Son of God took on flesh, died, and was resurrected and now takes on “an even more exalted role” as “Son-of-God-in-Power” and “Lord” (37). This gospel, Bates demonstrates from Paul, is not merely an interesting story but one that “unleashes God’s saving power for humanity” (41); Jesus’s pistis to the Father facilitates our pistis to Jesus (43; cf. Rom 1:17).

Likewise, in chapter 3, Bates demonstrates that the Gospels depict a single gospel message including the following specific content (which can also be found in Paul): Jesus preexisted with the Father, took on human flesh, died for sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, appeared to many, is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and will come again as judge (52). The gospel, again, is not about how we are saved, but rather about how Jesus has become Lord; thus, pistis and justification are not part of the content of the gospel, but rather the gospel’s intended response and result (54). For Bates, it is the ascension, when Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father as Lord, “that is the most critical yet most neglected component of the gospel today” (66) and is in fact “the most important part of the gospel for us today” (67). Why? Bates explains (67):

We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of “faith” (pistis) as “allegiance” in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object toward which our saving “faith”—that is, our saving allegiance—is directed.

After all, of all the components of the gospel, Jesus’s reign is the only one which corresponds with the present time in which we live; here Bates draws especially on the work of N.T. Wright in re-centering our understanding of the Gospels as the story by which Jesus became Lord or King.

Having surveyed this biblical data, Bates then reaches the heart of his argument in chapter 4, showing how pistis is best understood as allegiance when it is used in the context of ultimate salvation. Drawing on contemporaneous texts such as 3 Maccabees, Greek Esther, and Josephus, Bates demonstrates that “allegiance” is the best way to understand Paul’s use of pistis in texts such as Rom 3:21; Rom 5:1; Gal 2:16; Gal 2:20; Gal 5:4-6; Phil 3:8-11; 1 Cor 1:21; 1 Cor 15:1-2. Bates also appeals to leading Pauline scholars such as Wright, Michael Gorman, and John Barclay to indicate that this proposal is hardly idiosyncratic. Bates then uses this notion of understanding pistis as allegiance to illuminate otherwise difficult Pauline ideas such as the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; Rom 16:26) or the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21). The clear clincher for his argument, though, is the simple appeal to the indisputable imperial context of the early Christian confession “Jesus is Lord”; as Bates shows, in imperial rhetoric, pistis or fides “had sociopolitical overtones of loyalty to the emperor (or other patrons) as well as reciprocity in receiving benefits in exchange for demonstrated loyalty” (88). What, then, does allegiance to Christ look like? Bates identifies three “basic dimensions”: (1) mental affirmation of the gospel; (2) professed fealty to Jesus as Lord; and (3) enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus as King (92). Bates unpacks each of these elements in detail and then, in chapter 5, addresses potential objections to his thesis, showing how his proposal is consistent with Christian emphases on grace and free will, ties in with several of the insights offered by the New Perspective on Paul, and allows for even imperfect allegiance to Christ in this life. These discussions are fairly detailed and will be useful for those interested in these topics, but some readers may feel these sections drag a bit beyond what is necessary to make Bates’s points.

At this point, the focus of the book shifts rather abruptly, with Bates turning away from his discussion of allegiance to instead probe the notion of salvation more generally. Thus, Bates presents a defense of understanding salvation in terms of the Christian hope of bodily resurrection into the new creation (chapter 6) and the restoration of the imago dei (chapter 7). Those familiar with N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope or the work of John Walton will find much that is familiar here. These chapters make some important correctives to contemporary misunderstandings of these aspects of salvation, but one wonders if the thread of “allegiance” could have been carried through more consistently in these chapters, perhaps yielding more genuinely new insights.

Finally, in chapter 8, Bates picks up the main thread of his argument, seeking to situate his understanding of “salvation by allegiance alone” with respect to different models of justification. For Bates, justification is not simply a matter of a cosmic transaction between Christ and sinner; rather, “an individual’s justification is entirely bound up with the union of the church to Jesus the king” (167). Bates thus (correctly, in my opinion) foregrounds our union with Christ as centrally determinative for salvation, developing his understandings of corporate election and the righteousness of God to reject traditional models of imputed or infused righteousness in favor of Michael Bird’s language of “incorporated righteousness,” which Bates defines as “the saving perfect righteousness of Jesus the Christ that is counted entirely ours when we join the Spirit-filled body that is already united to the righteous one, Christ the kingly head” (190). Bates ties this back to his notion of allegiance in this way (190):

That is, this alien righteousness, this righteous standing that properly belongs to Jesus alone, becomes ours derivatively when we give allegiance to Jesus as the sovereign king, at which moment the life-giving Spirit that already envelops the allegiance-yielding community also enters into us. At the moment of allegiance-generated, Spirit-enabled union, the individual is born again, is declared and truly is fully righteous in God’s sight, and can properly be described as having eternal life because and only because she or he is united to Jesus the king and so shares his totally righteous standing. Paul envisions all of this ordinarily happening as part of the baptismal process.

This leads Bates to challenge the Reformed position on eternal security, instead seeming to suggest that there may be some who will not persevere in allegiance and therefore not maintain their salvific union with Christ; “our ongoing and future justification depends on the maintenance of our righteousness-union with Jesus the saving king” (191).

Finally, in chapter 9, Bates considers some practical implications of his argument for salvation by allegiance alone. His metaphor of a “shield of allegiance” feels a bit cumbersome (it’s a lot to remember and the connections aren’t always immediately obvious), but he succeeds in making the case for providing a better gospel presentation that connects with the actual gospel. Simply put, “A true gospel invitation must summon the hearer toward a confession of allegiance to Jesus as the king or cosmic Lord”; after all, “the present-tense moment of choice in a gospel invitation should always be understood to be a response to the present-tense reality of Jesus’s kingly rule” (199). Bates also highlights some other important points: The focus must be on God and not the self. Tell the whole story of God’s work of creation, redemption, and re-creation, and give an invitation to live into that story. Heaven should be downplayed in favor of the new creation. False assurance of salvation should not be given in light of the need for perseverance. Public “ratification” of this newfound allegiance needs to take place publicly, through baptism.

From there, Bates describes how the “one path to final salvation” is the “path of discipleship” (205), which is of course precisely how Mark and the other writers of the New Testament portray the true Christian life. Bates offers up this insight (206):

A person is not first ‘saved’ by ‘faith’ in Jesus’s death for sins and then, once that is secured, plugged into a discipleship program as an optional extra in hope that he or she might ‘grow.’ On the contrary, a person is first saved when she or he becomes a disciple by declaring allegiance to Jesus the king — that is, when a person agrees to submit obediently to Jesus’s wise and sovereign rule so as to take up his way of life.

What is this way of life? It is, again as Mark clearly demonstrates, the imitation of Christ in his self-emptying and death to self. Finally, Bates turns to the Apostles’ Creed as not simply a summary of Christian belief but “a concise presentation of the allegiance-demanding gospel” (211). Drawing a parallel with the American Pledge of Allegiance (here James K.A. Smith came to mind), Bates offers this as a “trinitarian pledge of allegiance to Jesus the king” (211).

In many ways, Bates is simply restating key insights from the popular Anglican trio of N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Michael Bird. The success of this work, in my estimation, is his ability to synthesize these different developments and set out a model of salvation that is both deeply grounded in Scripture and the best modern biblical scholarship in a way that will be accessible to students and educated laypeople. Where Bates shines in this book is his exegesis of key New Testament texts, demonstrating a comprehensive awareness of relevant lexical, grammatical, cultural-historical, and scholarly issues impacting interpretation. While some reviewers (e.g., Will Timmins in JETS) have not found Bates’s exegesis as compelling as I have, I think it is important to remember that Bates only wants to foreground pistis as allegiance in the context of passages talking about eternal salvation, and in this sphere the notion of owing allegiance to the rightful and enthroned King makes perfect sense.

There are, however, a few places I wish Bates would expand his argument. For instance, he several times attacks the Reformed position that works flow from genuine faith, arguing that such a formula misunderstands the terms “faith” and “works.” This may be true, but I struggle to see how, practically speaking, this would impact a person’s approach to discipleship; either way, one is compelled to examine one’s life for evidence of good works and therefore true allegiance. I also wish Bates would have given more attention to early Christian literature outside of the New Testament; Bates contrasts his (and by extension his understanding of the New Testament’s) definition of faith with that of Augustine and then that of the Reformers, but his argument could have been strengthened by showing how his definition is evidenced in, say, pre-Nicene Christian literature or by explaining the historical or philosophical context for the change in definition between the New Testament and Augustine. In sum, though, I judge this to be a rich book precisely because I suspect that even readers who disagree with some of Bates’s conclusions or would prefer to see some issues clarified will find much to consider and will profit from his challenge to present (and live!) a more complete and nuanced version of pistis.

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Irenaeus: A Critical Biography

Note: As a service to fellow researchers, I am going to post critical biographies of the church fathers I examined in my book The Trinitarian Testimony of the Spirit. These biographical overviews were included in my original dissertation but were cut from the published version. Original footnotes are included as endnotes below; in conjunction with the essential bibliographies I have posted, this should help those looking to get into the literature on the early church fathers. I have been struck by how many published sources read the primary sources with a fairly uncritical lens; in these summaries, like any good historian, refuse to take primary sources at face value. 

Irenaeus of Lyons: A Critical Biography

As influential as Irenaeus’s writings have been, much of his life remains shrouded in mystery, with his writings providing little assistance in reconstructing his biography.[1] As with Justin, most of our knowledge concerning the life of Irenaeus comes from Eusebius. Our first clue for establishing a chronology of Irenaeus’s life concerns his relationship with Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who was martyred ca. 156 CE.[2] In a letter to Florinus, preserved by Eusebius, Irenaeus describes how when he was a boy he listened eagerly to Polycarp’s teaching,[3] a point to which he also alludes in Against Heresies.[4] As a result, scholars place the date of Irenaeus’s birth between 130 and 140 CE,[5] with Asia Minor, perhaps more specifically the city of Smyrna, as the most plausible location for his birth.[6]

At some point, Irenaeus moved west. Irenaeus almost certainly passed through Rome, and likely spent a considerable amount of time there.[7] In any event, he eventually arrived in Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons in France),[8] and it is in this city that Irenaeus became first a presbyter and then a bishop.[9] In Irenaeus’s time, Lyons was the largest city north of the Alps as well as the center of both religious and economic activity in the province of Gaul.[10] Some time around 177 CE,[11] an intense persecution broke out in Lyons and nearby Vienne, and Eusebius preserves a letter from these Gallic churches to the churches in Asia Minor providing details of the martyrdoms that occurred at that time.[12] At some point during the persecution, Irenaeus was sent to Rome bearing a letter to Eleutherus, the bishop of Rome ca. 174–189 CE, identifying him as a presbyter of the Gallic church.[13] The aged bishop Pothinus was also martyred during the persecution, thus opening the door for Irenaeus’s presumed elevation to the episcopacy ca. 180 CE.[14]

Our best insight into Irenaeus’s ministry in Gaul comes from the aforementioned letter from the churches of Vienne and Lyons to the churches of Asia and Phrygia, from which we can glimpse “a remarkable Christian community, proud of those members who endured appalling torments, but prepared to acknowledge that some had weakened and, what was even more unusual in the early Church, prepared to forgive them.”[15] The fact that the letter was written in Greek and addressed to these Eastern churches suggests that the Christians in Lyons and Vienne were Greek-speakers with roots from Asia Minor, a hypothesis that fits well with known migration patterns from Asia to Gaul during this period.[16] The presence of Latin names among the list of martyrs suggests a significant Roman presence among the Greek-speaking majority in a church that likely drew members from across all of Lyons’s social classes.[17] Scholars are divided as to whether any form of Gnosticism was present in Gaul during the time of Irenaeus’s episcopate, but the evidence appears to be on the side of there being at least some Gnostic activity, which would explain both the extent of Irenaeus’s familiarity with their beliefs and the vehemence of his polemic.[18]

During his episcopate in Lyons, Irenaeus was actively engaged in the church’s missionary endeavors to the Celts in Gaul. Despite bemoaning the lack of what he considered to be high culture in Gaul,[19] Irenaeus was nevertheless motivated by his beliefs in the universality of the church and in the ability of the gospel to be truly accepted even among the so-called barbarians.[20] The successfulness of Irenaeus’s mission to the Gauls, Gregory of Tours’s sixth-century embellishments notwithstanding, is something of an open question, though as mentioned above, there appears to have been a small Celtic contingent within the church at Lyons.[21]

Irenaeus extensively involved himself in the theological disputes affecting Rome in the late second century, as evidenced by the numerous examples of his letters to Roman church leaders that are quoted or referenced by Eusebius.[22] Perhaps the most significant of these is a letter to Victor, who was bishop of Rome in approximately the last decade of the second century, concerning the Quartodeciman controversy.[23] In response to Victor’s attempt to excommunicate the Christians from the churches of Asia Minor on account of their difference in dating the celebration of Easter, Irenaeus pressed for peace between the churches out of respect for the ancient tradition followed by the Eastern churches.[24] Eusebius thus ends his account of Irenaeus’s life; although later accounts suggest that Irenaeus was himself martyred, this cannot be historically corroborated.[25] Regarding the date of Irenaeus’s death, Minns is correct to point out that “there is no evidence that Irenaeus lived beyond the reign of Victor,” whose tenure as bishop of Rome ended ca. 198 CE.[26]

Perhaps the most important issue concerning Irenaeus’s life for this study is the extent of Irenaeus’s knowledge of other early Christian writings. With respect to Justin Martyr, J. Armitage Robinson has convincingly demonstrated Irenaeus’s knowledge of and dependence on Justin, suggesting that Irenaeus had physical copies of Justin’s writings in his possession when composing his own works.[27] Not only this, but the evidence places Irenaeus in Rome at the same time that Justin was at the height of his career in that same city, making it highly unlikely that the two men did not have at least some degree of personal acquaintance.[28] Indeed, in his own writings Irenaeus speaks highly of Justin and names him as a source for his heresiological writings.[29] As such, in this chapter we will assume Irenaeus’s direct use of Justin’s writings, though the extent to which Irenaeus may have been influenced by Justin’s view of the Trinitarian testimony of the Spirit will be explored and validated later in this chapter. With respect to his use of the New Testament, as fitting his broader project of showing the continuity between Old and New Testaments Irenaeus quotes extensively from the vast majority of the New Testament writings.[30]

[1] For an overview of Irenaeus’s life, see F. R. M. Hitchcock, Irenaeus of Lugdunum: A Study of His Teaching (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), 1–18; Morton S. Enslin, “Irenaeus: Mostly Prolegomena,” HTR 40 (1947): 137–65; Pierre Nautin, Lettres et écrivains chrétiens: Des IIe et IIIe siècles (Paris: Cerf, 1961), 92–104; Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, ECF (London: Routledge, 1997), 1–10; Eric Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1–7; Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 1–13; Paul Parvis, “Who Was Irenaeus? An Introduction to the Man and His Work,” in Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy, ed. Paul Foster and Sara Parvis (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 13–24; John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity, Christian Theology in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 66–71; Jackson Lashier, Irenaeus on the Trinity, VCSup 127 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 18–41.

[2] On the dating of the martyrdom of Polycarp, see Sara Parvis, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Paul Foster (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 127–32.

[3] Hist. eccl. 5.20 (SC 41:60–63).

[4] Haer. 3.3.4 (SC 211:38–44). The anonymous elder that Irenaeus introduces in Haer. 4.27.1 (SC 100:728) may in fact be Polycarp; so Charles E. Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus’ Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of Ad Diognetum, WUNT 186 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 7–94; idem, “The Man Who Needed No Introduction: A Response to Sebastian Moll,” in Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy, ed. Sara Parvis and Paul Foster (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 95–104. For more on the relationship between Irenaeus and Polycarp, see Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, 57–66; Hill, Lost Teaching, 72–80.

[5] Osborn (Irenaeus of Lyons, 2) and Lashier (Irenaeus on the Trinity, 18) broadly suggest the years 130–140; Behr (Irenaeus of Lyons, 67) locates Irenaeus’s birth closer to 130 CE, whereas Grant (Irenaeus of Lyons, 2) locates it closer to 140 CE. The other factor to consider in this is that because we know Irenaeus carried a letter from Gaul to Rome in 177 CE, when he served as a presbyter in the church of Lyons, it is unlikely that he could have been born after 140 CE and still have been old enough for the presbyterate; cf. Enslin, “Irenaeus,” 145.

[6] Parvis (“Who Was Irenaeus?,” 15) notes that whether or not Irenaeus was himself from Smyrna, “It is in any event clear that Irenaeus was from the East. He thought and wrote in Greek and has links both personal and theological with Asia Minor.” Cf. Lashier, Irenaeus on the Trinity, 20–21.

[7] Nautin (Lettres, 93) suggests that Irenaeus came to Rome in order to find work as a rhetorician. A lengthy stay in Rome would also explain Irenaeus’s close ties with that city, as revealed in his letters and later emissary trip. The Moscow Manuscript of the Martyrdom of Polycarp places Irenaeus in Rome at the time of Polycarp’s death; cf. Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 3.

[8] Hitchcock (Irenaeus of Lugdunum, 3) hypothesizes that Irenaeus fled to Gaul during the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, under which Justin was martyred.

[9] Hist. eccl. 5.4–5 (SC 41:27–31). Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in 52 BCE, and shortly thereafter in 43 BCE the Romans established Lugdunum on a hilltop overlooking where the Rhône and Saône rivers come together. On the founding of these towns, see further Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, 17–18. On the close relationship between the churches of Gaul and Asia Minor (including Smyrna), see Hitchcock, Irenaeus of Lugdunum, 3–4.

[10] Parvis, “Who Was Irenaeus?,” 15; see further Enslin, “Irenaeus,” 155–57; Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, 16–21.

[11] This dating is an important fixed point in a chronology of Irenaeus’s life, as Eusebius gives the year of the persecution as the seventeenth year of Antoninus Verus (that is, Aurelius Verus, who co-reigned with Marcus Aurelius).

[12] Hist. eccl. 5.1 (SC 41:6–23). Though this cannot be proven, it is at least possible that Irenaeus wrote this letter himself; so Nautin, Lettres, 54–61. On the significance of this letter, see Enslin, “Irenaeus,” 148–49.

[13] This letter is preserved in Hist. eccl. 5.4 (SC 41:27–28); cf. Hitchcock, Irenaeus of Lugdunum, 5–7. As Minns (Irenaeus, 2) observes, “it might seem odd that a high official in the Christian community should not only be at liberty while other members of that community were imprisoned, but even be able to travel to Rome on the business of the community.” Nautin (Lettres, 94) tries to solve the mystery of Irenaeus’s survival by suggesting that Irenaeus was at the time of the persecution bishop of Vienne and therefore largely unknown to local authorities. It was only upon the death of Pothinus, according to this reconstruction, that Irenaeus was consecrated bishop over Lyons as well.

[14] Hist. eccl. 5.5 (SC 41:31). Irenaeus, it should be noted, never identifies himself as a bishop, and to compound the problem there are difficulties in distinguishing between the offices of bishop and presbyter at this point in early Christian history; cf. Minns, Irenaeus, 2; Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, 6. On the question of who consecrated Irenaeus, see Hitchcock, Irenaeus of Lugdunum, 8.

[15] Minns, Irenaeus, 3–4. Minns (Irenaeus, 4–5) goes on to find evidence of a critique of the Roman church’s developing hierarchy, which is intriguing in light of Irenaeus’s later emphasis on the importance of the episcopacy.

[16] Minns, Irenaeus, 3; Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, 4; Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, 19.

[17] Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 2.

[18] Donovan, One Right Reading?, 32–33; Lashier, Irenaeus on the Trinity, 31. Irenaeus also refers to the presence of the followers of Marcus, a disciple of Valentinus, in his own area; cf. Haer. 1.13.7 (SC 264:204).

[19] Haer. 1.pref.3 (SC 264:24).

[20] Haer. 3.4.2 (SC 211:46–48); cf. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, 4–5.

[21] As Grant (Irenaeus of Lyons, 5) points out, the letter from the churches of Lyons and Vienne in ca. 177 CE does not include any Celtic names, and so at least as of this time “the Celtic population remained resolutely non-Christian.” The early church at Lyons disappears from historical view after the city was sacked ca. 197 CE following Septimus Severus’s defeat of Clodius Albinus; cf. Minns, Irenaeus, 5.

[22] Hist. eccl. 5.20, 5.24 (SC 41:60–63, 69–71). On these letters and their historical context, see further Enslin, “Irenaeus,” 151–53.

[23] On the nature of the Christian communities in Rome during this period, see Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, 21–47; Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, trans. Michael Steinhauser, ed. Marshall D. Johnson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), noting especially 292–318 on the Roman Valentinians. For text and introduction to this letter, see Nautin, Lettres, 74–85.

[24] Hist. eccl. 5.24 (SC 41:69–71); Eusebius takes the opportunity to note that Irenaeus’s name comes from the Greek word for “peace.” Cf. Hitchcock, Irenaeus of Lugdunum, 11–12; Minns, Irenaeus, 2–3; Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, 8–10.

[25] This tradition is, at the earliest, attested by Jerome (ca. 342–420 CE), with the first full account of Irenaeus’s martyrdom provided by Gregory of Tours (ca. 540–594 CE); cf. Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons, 14 n. 4; Hitchcock, Irenaeus of Lugdunum, 17–18.

[26] Minns, Irenaeus, 3. Jerome’s account suggests that Irenaeus died in 202 or 203 CE during the persecution of Septimus Severus, but there are good reasons for doubting this tradition; cf. Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 2.

[27] J. Armitage Robinson, intro. and trans., The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (London: SPCK, 1920), 6–14. See further Lashier, Irenaeus on the Trinity, 22–26.

[28] It is quite plausible that Irenaeus was even one of Justin’s students; see further Michael Slusser, “How Much Did Irenaeus Learn from Justin?” StPatr 40 (2006): 515–20.

[29] Haer. 1.28.1, 4.6.2, 5.26.2 (SC 264:356; SC 100:440; SC 153:334).

[30] By one count, Irenaeus quotes 1,075 passages from the New Testament, including all its books except Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude; cf. Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 154.

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Justin Martyr: A Critical Biography

Note: As a service to fellow researchers, I am going to post critical biographies of the church fathers I examined in my book The Trinitarian Testimony of the Spirit. These biographical overviews were included in my original dissertation but were cut from the published version. Original footnotes are included as endnotes below; in conjunction with the essential bibliographies I have posted, this should help those looking to get into the literature on the early church fathers. I have been struck by how many published sources read the primary sources with a fairly uncritical lens; in these summaries, like any good historian, refuse to take primary sources at face value. 

Justin Martyr: A Critical Biography

In his writings, Justin reports some basic facts about his life.[1] At the outset of his 1 Apology, Justin writes that he was born in the Palestinian city of Flavia Neapolis (modern-day Nablus in the northern West Bank).[2] Established during the reign of Vespasian (69–79 CE), this colony town was located in Samaria, near the ancient site of Shechem.[3] Justin also notes in this passage that he is the son of Priscus and the grandson of Bacchius;[4] the latter name is Greek, while the former, like Justin’s own name, is Latin,[5] suggesting Roman descent.[6] In the absence of any more specific evidence, most scholars assign the date of Justin’s birth to the late first or early second century.[7] Elsewhere in his writings, Justin purports to be a Gentile convert to Christianity.[8] Interestingly, despite his birth in Samaritan Palestine, he claims to have been entirely ignorant of Mosiac religion and the Hebrew prophets until late in life.[9]

Justin’s writings also provide a basic sketch of his education and life as a philosopher. In the prologue of his Dialogue with Trypho (chs. 1–9), Justin recounts how he rejected one philosophical school after another until becoming a follower of Platonism.[10] His later decision to instead embrace Christianity as the one true philosophy seems to have come about on account of a chance meeting with an old man who directed him to the Hebrew prophets and thus to Christ.[11] While Justin’s conversion narrative has no doubt been shaped in light of the dramatic and literary conventions of his day, there is no reason to reject the historicity of its basic elements.[12] That Justin continued to see himself as a philosopher even after his conversion to Christianity is evident on account of his distinctive gown.[13]

For the rest of Justin’s biography, we are dependent on sources other than his own writings. In particular, we are forced to depend on Eusebius and his “moving but not wholly reliable” report of Justin’s life.[14] Much of Eusebius’s account simply confirms what Justin already told us about himself,[15] though Eusebius helpfully specifies that Justin was living in Rome and at the height of his activities during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138–161 CE), engaging in both public disputation as well as the informal teaching of pupils, including Tatian, in the model of a philosophical school.[16] Justin’s time in Rome thus overlapped with that of another figure of enormous importance for early Christianity, Marcion of Sinope, who was active in Rome during this same period.[17]

Eusebius suggests that Justin was martyred at the instigation of Crescens, a Cynic philosopher with whom Justin frequently debated.[18] Tatian, Justin’s disciple, merely suggests that Crescens conspired against Justin and himself,[19] and as such Eusebius has likely made a plausible inference about what is otherwise unknown.[20] A longer account of Justin’s trial and martyrdom also survives from antiquity and places the time of Justin’s death during the prefecture of Rusticus (162–168 CE), when Justin was living in Rome for the second time[21] and informally teaching students from his living quarters above the bathhouse of Martinus.[22]

[1] For a basic overview of Justin’s life, from which this section is drawn, see Henry Chadwick, “Justin Martyr’s Defence of Christianity,” BJRL 4 (1965): 275–78; L. W. Barnard, Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 4–13; Osborn, Justin Martyr, 6–10; Craig D. Allert, Revelation, Truth, Canon and Interpretation: Studies in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, VCSup 64 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 28–31; David Rokéah, Justin Martyr and the Jews, JCP 5 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 1–2; Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, eds., Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies, OECT (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 32–33.

[2] 1 Apol. 1.1 (SC 507:128).

[3] Osborn, Justin Martyr, 6.

[4] 1 Apol. 1.1 (SC 507:128).

[5] Allert, Revelation, 28.

[6] Osborn, Justin Martyr, 6. Barnard (Justin Martyr, 5) speculates that Justin’s ancestors were some of the earliest Roman settlers of Flavia Neapolis.

[7] Barnard (Justin Martyr, 5) further suggests that the only facts we can know definitively about Justin are that he taught in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius and that he was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius; still, he infers that Justin was likely born in the late first or early second century. This conclusion is echoed by Allert, Revelation, 28. Osborn (Justin Martyr, 6) favors a date in the early second century.

[8] Dial. 41.3 (PTS 47:138). Justin was, therefore, uncircumcised; cf. Dial. 28.2 (PTS 47:115). Osborn (Justin Martyr, 6) notes that Justin does at Dial. 120.6 (PTS 47:278) describe the Samaritans as his people but that he nonetheless never ceased to self-identify as a Gentile. Cf. Minns and Parvis, Justin, 32.

[9] As seems to be implied in Dial. 7.1 (PTS 47:82); cf. Osborn, Justin Martyr, 6.

[10] Dial. 2 (PTS 47:71–73); cf. Barnard, Justin Martyr, 6–7.

[11] Dial. 3–8 (PTS 47:73–85). Allert (Revelation, 29) notes that Justin gives the witness of the martyrs as a second reason for his conversion to Christianity in 2 Apol. 12.1 (SC 507:356). Barnard (Justin Martyr, 13) suggests that Justin’s conversion from Platonism to Christianity likely took place shortly before the outbreak of the Bar Kochba revolt (ca. 132 CE).

[12] For instance, though Erwin R. Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr (Jena: Frommannsche Buchhandlung, 1923; repr., Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1968), 58–59 sees Justin’s conversion account as merely following literary convention, Barnard (Justin Martyr, 11) and Osborn (Justin Martyr, 7–8) believe Justin’s story to be rooted in history.

[13] Cf. Dial. 1.2 (PTS 47:69), in which Trypho identifies Justin as a philosopher on account of his attire.

[14] Osborn, Justin Martyr, 8.

[15] Allert, Revelation, 29; cf. Hist. eccl. 4.8 (SC 31:170).

[16] Hist. eccl. 4.11 (SC 31:175–76). On Justin’s “school,” see further Barnard, Justin Martyr, 12–13; Osborn, Justin Martyr, 8–9; Harlow Gregory Snyder, “‘Above the Bath of Myrtinus’: Justin Martyr’s ‘School’ in the City of Rome,” HTR 100 (2007): 335–62; Jörg Ulrich, “What Do We Know about Justin’s ‘School’ in Rome?” ZAC 16 (2012): 62–74; Tobias Georges, “Justin’s School in Rome—Reflections on Early Christian ‘Schools,’” ZAC 16 (2012): 75–87. For more on the extent and nature of Christianity in Rome in and around Justin’s time, see Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, ed. Marshall D. Johnson, trans. Michael Steinhauser (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), and especially 257–84 on Justin.

[17] Justin mentions Marcion and his followers by name at 1 Apol. 26.5, 58.1 (SC 507:200, 281); Dial. 35.6 (PTS 47:129). Regarding Marcion’s chronology, the traditional view, following patristic sources, is that Marcion arrived in Rome ca. 140 CE, was expelled from the community of the orthodox Roman churches and founded his own in July of 144, and died around 160; see further Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus, 241–56, who follows the work of Adolf Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium vom Fremden Gott (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1921). R. Joseph Hoffmann, Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century, AARAS 46 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984), 74, presents an alternative chronology that is far more skeptical of the early sources, suggesting that Marcion was active in Asia Minor ca. 110–150 CE and that his purported trip to Rome was a patristic fiction. Hoffmann’s work has not been well-received; cf. the criticisms of Sebastian Moll, The Arch-Heretic Marcion, WUNT 250 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 7–8. In the most recent work on Marcion, Judith M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 297, accepts “the most stable tradition that associates Marcion with Rome.” A vigorous defense of the traditional chronology and Marcion’s activity in Rome may be found in Moll, Arch-Heretic Marcion, 25–46.

[18] Hist. eccl. 4.16 (SC 31:190–92).

[19] Or. Graec. 19.2 (PTS 43:39).

[20] Osborn, Justin Martyr, 9; contra Barnard, Justin Martyr, 5–6.

[21] Adalbert G. Hamman, “Essai de chronologie de la vie et des oeuvres de Justin,” Aug 35 (1995): 231–39, places Justin in Rome from roughly 140–150 CE and 155–165 CE, with an intervening stay in Palestine. Allert (Revelation, 30) suggests that Justin was more of an itinerant teacher headquartered in Rome than he was the leader of a permanent school. Cf. Barnard, Justin Martyr, 12.

[22] The text and translation of the Acta Justini can be found in Herbert Musurillo, ed. and trans., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 42–61. Osborn (Justin Martyr, 8) notes that this account seems authentic, lacking later “credulous ornamentation.” This form of the tradition likely comes from the third century (Barnard, Justin Martyr, 6), though its roots no doubt go back into the second. For more details on Justin’s location in Rome, see Minns and Parvis, Justin, 57–59. On the date of Justin’s death, scholars find the year 165 CE to be the most plausible; cf. Minns and Parvis, Justin, 32; Barnard, Justin Martyr, 5.

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2018 Year in Review

IMG_1688With SBL Denver now behind me, it’s a good moment to pause and reflect on the year that has passed and look forward to the year ahead. Without a doubt, this was one of my most active years to date: a monograph (The Trinitarian Testimony of the Spirit, from Brill), a journal article (on Cyprian, in the Journal of Early Christian History), a book review (in Review of Biblical Literature) and three conference presentations (on the Epistle of Barnabas and on Irenaeus at SBL Helsinki; on second-century Christology at SBL Denver). Still, the highlight of the year, academically speaking, was the opportunity to attend these conferences where I could both reconnect with old friends and meet new people, especially current graduate students, who are excited about my work and seem eager to take it in new directions.

Where does that leave things for 2019? With significant family and professional developments on the horizon, conference appearances in the coming year would appear to be unlikely. There is a chance a book review or the perpetually-on-the-back-burner Barnabas journal article might see print in 2019, but I’m not expecting much more beyond that. Rather, I see next year as an opportunity to dive back into the primary sources and begin laying the groundwork for a second book. More details to come!

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SBL Denver: Prosopological Exegesis, the Regula Fidei, and Christology

SBL Denver is just around the corner, and if you are attending, please consider yourself very welcome to attend the Development of Early Christian Theology session in which I am presenting. Information from the organizers is as follows:


Here’s the blurb for my talk, which I hope will be of interest to anyone interested in how early Christian readings of Scripture contributed to the development of Christian theology:

This paper examines the interplay between biblical exegesis and Christological development through the lens of the evolution of pre-Nicene prosopological exegesis from the person (prosopon/persona) of the Son. In particular, this paper catalogues all of the instances of prosopological exegesis from the person of the Son in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian of Carthage for three purposes: first, to analyze the continuities and discontinuities concerning the themes that each writer connected with the Son’s prosopological speech; second, to consider the arguments by which each writer justified his prosopological reading of the Old Testament; third, to compare and contrast the key Christological themes emerging from a prosopological reading of Scripture with early Christian creedal statements regarding the person and work of the Son. This argument aims to demonstrate how a more comprehensive and systematic approach to studying how early Christian writers utilized prosopological exegesis can yield new insights into the development of pre-Nicene Christology (or indeed Trinitarian theology more broadly).

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The Spirit and the Scriptures

rech20.v008.i02.coverI’m excited to share that I have a new article available in the Journal of Early Christian History. This article was in part spun out of my book The Trinitarian Testimony of the Spirit to provide some categories and clarity for thinking about the different ways in which the Holy Spirit relates to the words of the Old Testament, as presented in early Christian writings.

In his book The Birth of the Trinity, Matthew W. Bates introduced the categories of the Spirit speaking as a “primary speaking agent” and an “inspiring secondary agent,” but he did not develop these or provide criteria for thinking about how to differentiate between these proposed categories of usage. It’s my hope that this article serves to advance this discussion in a much more concise and carefully articulated way than what is found in the book.

Here’s the abstract:

While recent research into the early Christian reading practice of prosopological exegesis, which seeks to identify various persons (prosopa) as the “true” speakers or addressees of a scriptural text in which they are otherwise not in view, has highlighted the complexities involved in attempts to identify the Holy Spirit as the prosopological speaker of Old Testament quotations, there remains a need for clear criteria by which scholars can distinguish between different forms of the Spirit’s speech. Building on terminology suggested by Matthew Bates, this article proposes just such a means of distinguishing between when the Spirit functions as the primary speaking agent and when it functions as an inspiring secondary agent, with the former endowing the Spirit with a sufficient degree of theodramatic personhood to make its speech truly prosopological in nature. Applying this criteria to an analysis of Cyprian of Carthage’s use of prosopological exegesis in On Works and Alms (De opere et eleemosynis), this article challenges the conclusions of David Downs by demonstrating that the Spirit does not truly speak from its own person in this treatise, though Cyprian may make some moves in this direction elsewhere in his writings. As a result of this study, we have not only a means of better assessing the extent of the pneumatological discontinuity between Cyprian and his Carthaginian predecessor Tertullian but also a clearer path forward for future scholarship that seeks to investigate how early Christian writers conceived of the relationship between the Spirit and the Scriptures.

An offprint of the article is available on this website under Academic Archives.

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Helsinki 2018

IMG_1404I’ve just returned from the 2018 SBL IM in Helsinki, where I presented two papers on early Christian pneumatology (one on the Epistle of Barnabas and one on Irenaeus). Despite the heat wave pummeling Finland along with the rest of Europe (oddly, the saunas still seemed wildly popular despite every non-air conditioned environment (read: everywhere) itself feeling like a sauna, Helsinki was a wonderful city to visit: beautiful, clean, welcoming. Expensive, too, but that’s par for the course in the Nordic countries.

This conference was particularly memorable because I at long last got to see a book of my own for sale and because I now had grad students coming up to me with questions about their research and so on, as if I were in fact a “grown-up” who has “made it.” If only they knew!

What’s next? There was a particularly fine group of Apostolic Fathers scholars present for my Barnabas presentation, and they gave me some really helpful suggestions and guidance for perhaps turning that into a published article. Besides that, I’ve got research to do for my Denver presentation that brings issues related to the development of the regula fidei into discussion with my work on prosopological exegesis. Ever onwards…

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