Michael Bird – The Saving Righteousness of God, part 1

For the most part then Paul’s quest to unify Jewish and Gentile Christians in the body of Christ and the connection of justification to ecclesiology was largely neglected in post-Reformation scholarship which allowed dogmatic theology to set the agenda for studying Paul’s letters and did so primarily in categories that were not useful to elucidating the meaning of Paul’s arguments in their historical context. Protestant theology became preoccupied with an ordo salutis at the expense of a historia salutis. – Michael Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God, 19-20.

Michael Bird’s treatise on Paul, entitled The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective, has been reviewed positively by James Dunn and Robert Gundry (scholars who have both pushed for a redefinition of justification) as well as by I. Howard Marshall and Scot McKnight (more traditional scholars, both having contributed volumes to the much-lauded NICNT). This alone should be enough to get the attention of anyone involved in hashing out an understanding of the historical Paul and his theology of salvation, righteousness, and justification. At less than two hundred pages (plus bibliography &c.), it is not a daunting volume; Bird is concise and readable.

Chapter two (his first is a very short introduction) addresses several dichotomies that have arisen in the study of Paul. To use his subheadings: is Paul’s concept of “righteousness” imputed or imparted? Is it relational or adherence to a norm? Transformative or forensic? What is its relationship to the concept of covenant and to inclusion in the people of God? While NPP advocates (i.e. N.T. Wright) commonly emphasize this social aspect of righteousness, Bird (with Marshall and others) takes a more cautious approach. Yes, inclusion in God’s covenant people is an important concept in Paul, but not to the exclusion of forensic justification. No, the “righteousness of God” is not exclusively referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ versus our own attempts at righteousness; but it doesn’t exclude imputed righteousness.

Bird attempts later in the chapter to reconcile Stendahl’s covenant focus (which includes justification as inclusion in covenant promise) and K√§semann’s apocalyptic focus (which includes justification as final rectification). In Bird’s view, Paul must have had both in mind when he penned his epistles. Any study that excludes one or the other is missing part of the story.

Bird’s technique of treading the middle ground, understanding and incorporating the strengths of both traditional and NPP views, promises to contribute something genuinely new and useful to the current debate surrounding Paul. Unlike so many traditional scholars who have merely dug deeper trenches, Bird is willing to incorporate the best of what NPP scholars have elucidated. That is part of what makes Bird’s book so refreshing.

At least as valuable (to me): his survey of scholarship from Baur onward is such a lucid retelling of the progression of discovery of the social aspect of justification that it also makes a good introduction to the student seeking to induct himself into study of the NPP, if one did not have the time to invest in Westerholm’s larger work (Perspectives Old and New) on the subject. Among the many gems in this chapter is Bird’s welcome (and all too needed) reminder that the convert is not saved by his belief in justification by faith! He is justified by grace through faith in Christ.

There is quite a bit more in this chapter that is worth talking about; buy the book and see for yourself. I am looking forward to reviewing the rest of Bird’s text. His blog, Euangelion, which recently moved, is also interesting reading and is updated often.

This is part one of a four part review: see also part 2, part 3, and part 4.

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