The V-Shaped Gospel

This is part 1 of Patrick’s reflections on Matthew Bate’s book, “Salvation by Allegiance Alone.” In the next post he will explain why he thinks allegiance is not the best way to translate pistis.

The V-Shape

For the last six years my eyes and ears have been attuned to a spatial reading of the Scriptures. I wrote my first book on the spatial nature of the kingdom and have plans at some point to write a biblical theology of the descent-ascent theme that is found across the canon of Scripture.

Recently I picked up Matthew Bates newest book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone. In the first part of the book, he gives an argument for what I would call a “wide angle lens” of the gospel, but he employed imagery that resonated with me. He argues that the gospel has a V-shape (he admits he heard this from Ben Witherington first).

What does he mean by this?

When Paul and other writers summarize the gospel, they tell a V-shaped story about Jesus. They start with Jesus’ preexistence as the Son of God, which presupposes an exalted status. Yet the key movement is always downward, the taking on of human flesh. I would add that this descent includes reaching to the very bottom, the realm of the dead.

Yet once Christ has reached the lowest point and declared victory over the spiritual forces, his death is then vindicated. He is raised from the dead and installed in the heavenly sphere as the Son of God in power. Bates rightly points out that we often forget to include the enthronement of Jesus as part of the gospel.

The gospel thus can be summarized like this…

Exaltation > Incarnation > Enthronement


The V Is Everywhere

Bates argument has good support in the rest of the New Testament. The V is everywhere. Here are a few examples from Ephesians, Romans, and Philippians.

I had seen a similar pattern when I taught through Ephesians last spring. In chapter four, Paul uses Christ’s descent and ascent to encourage unity amongst the congregation. Christ descended and ascended and he gave gifts to men. He did this so that he might fill all things.

 

 

Bates points out that Paul uses this imagery in Romans 1:1-5 as well. Usually in Romans, we jump down to Romans 1:16-17 for the gospel presentation, but Paul sets up his explanation of the gospel by first explaining it in 1:1-5.

While the exaltation is assumed, the first movement in this cosmic drama pertains to the incarnation—the taking on of human flesh. The good news begins when Jesus is sent by the Father to assume human flesh, according to Paul. The second movement is the enthronement of the Son. Paul states that after the incarnation he was appointed to be the Son of God in power. In other words, he was installed as the King.

 

This V-shaped gospel is then employed again in Philippians 2:6-11. Though he was in the form of God (exaltation), he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (incarnation). Therefore, God highly exalted him, and granted to him the name that is above every name (enthronement).

Paul in Philippians begins with Christ’s exaltation next to the right hand of God and then narrates the V pattern of his descent and then ascent.

Our Descent and Ascent

Bates (rightly, in my mind) argues that the gospel proper does not start with me and my need for salvation, but with the story of Jesus. Yet maybe we have our cake and eat it too. The V-pattern, though ultimately framed around the true human, Jesus Christ, is also the pattern of our lives. Below are a few examples to consider.

Adam and Eve in the Garden are created in the likeness of God. They fall and are cast out of the garden, but God promises to enthrone them again if they return to him.

  • Exalted Status – made in the image of God.
  • Descent – Fall
  • Ascent – Enthroned with Christ.

And this movement is mirrored in their physical movement. Eden is said to be on a mountain. When they are exiled they go down off the mountain, and then Christ ascends on the mountain telling them he will return so that they can reign and rule with him.

While Jesus’s descent is categorically different than ours, I still suppose we can draw certain correlations, as he is our brother who came to sympathize with us.

Israel likewise makes this descent and ascent. They are in their land and then go down into Egypt. But God rescues them and they go up out of Egypt and then commune with God at Mount Sinai. The people are to mimic this movement in Leviticus as they approach the Day of Atonement. This movement is even mirrored in individual stories. Daniel is exalted in Babylon and then goes down into the lion’s den, only to be brought up and exalted.

In the New Testament believers are to follow Christ in humbling themselves and then being exalted. In Philippians and Ephesians, more specifically, this pattern becomes the basis for their conduct with one another. Baptism itself is a descent then ascent.

The point is as we are incorporated into Christ, we follow Christ is his V-shaped pattern. I say all this to argue, as others have before me, that Paul and the other New Testament writers conceive of the gospel in both a narrow and wide way.

The problem, as Bates rightly identifies, is one of order. If we start with the narrow, we might miss the wide. However, if we start with the wide we can then incorporate the narrow.

The gospel has a V-shape to it. Jesus’ life was one of descent then ascent. The gospel concerns his enthronement as King. As children of this King, we too participate in this descent and ascent.

 

About Patrick Schreiner

Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He completed his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Seminary. In addition to his pastoral ministry experience, Patrick also enjoys writing. You can follow Patrick's journey and his thinking online at his blog, Ad Fontes. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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