Michael Bird – The Saving Righteousness of God, part 3

I am constantly made aware of my own prejudice of reading Paul and the New Testament via the grid of soteriological inquiry where I often assumed that the question underpinning every Pauline text was “what must I do to be saved?” A far better question to embed at the back of our minds as we read Paul (and indeed the entire New Testament) is this: who are the people of God and in what economy shall they be vindicated? – Michael Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God, 109

Chapter Five of Bird’s increasingly useful work is his response to the New Perspective. Any conservative scholar who has totally rejected the NPP needs to read at least this section of Bird’s work. As one who is sympathetic to the social/covenant/ecclesiological dimension of justification but who also stands firmly in the anthropological/soteriological dimension, he is a great mediating influence in the current debate. As we discussed in the first part of our review, Bird is not averse to taking the best of what the NPP has to offer while rejecting its one-dimensional portrait of Judaism and Paul.

Bird first challenges the one-sided theological paradigm that some in the NPP have sought to build in their tacit rejection of anything that seems a bit too Lutheran. Is justification solely a designation of covenant membership? Are “works of the law” nothing more than social boundary markers? Was Second Temple Judaism completely devoid of synergism, merit theology, or works-righteousness? No, no, and no.

I appreciate Bird’s critique. As one who has a shelf full of Sanders, Dunn, Wright, Raisanen, Nanos, Zetterholm, and others, I have found their work to be an extremely helpful corrective to mainstream Christian understanding of Jesus, Paul, and the Law. However, a corrective though it might be, it is no replacement. Where the traditional view is deficient, or wrong, or even anti-Semitic, the NPP offers – well, a new perspective. On the other hand, there is a lot of solid exegesis in Luther, Calvin, and their intellectual descendants, and there is no reason to throw that away. To do so involves quite a few awkward, forced readings of key texts.

Bird follows his critique with several points he shares in common with the NPP. His ability to strain out the good (and there is a lot of good) in the NPP is virtually unparalleled, at least in works I have read by other traditional scholars. I truly appreciate his balanced perspective. Again, multiple dimensions (horizontal/social and vertical/soteriological) are at work in Paul. His letters are both pastoral and theological.

Bird goes on in his sixth chapter to reconcile the ideas of justification as forensic status and justification as covenant membership. Following his typical pattern, he argues that both aspects are essential to a complete understanding of justification. His primary text, that of the Antioch Incident in Galatians 2, is well chosen.

There are many questions surrounding this incident. Why was Peter pressured to quit eating with Gentiles? What did Paul mean when he said that Peter lived like a Gentile? Who were the “men from James” and who was the “party of circumcision”? Bird commendably draws from Nanos in his argument that the issue was not the quality of the food, but the quality of the participants. The circumcision party required Peter to quit eating with Gentiles because in doing so he signified that they were equals – full covenant members, people of God, and still Gentiles.

Bird accounts for this harsh requirement by referring to the rising tide of Jewish nationalism at the time leading up to the first Jewish war, which saw the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Leading up to this event, James was martyred for antinomianism (!) by the high priest in A.D. 62, and further back, Caligula insisted on having his image placed in the Holy of Holies. These pre-war stirrings, according to Bird, caused Jews in the land of Israel to more strictly separate and distinguish themselves from Gentiles, though these provisions were later relaxed.

Some Jewish Christians who apparently took a similar stance and who advocated the requirement of circumcision for Gentile believers pressured Peter to cease eating with Gentiles. Here, Bird argues, one can clearly see that justification has a social dimension. On the other hand, by no means is it restricted to this dimension, as Paul goes on in Galatians to use justification in its soteriological sense to argue for the acceptance of Gentiles in the social dimension.

Bird goes on to Romans for the second half of this chapter, but again we will have to save that for another day.

This is part three of a four part review: see also part 1, part 2, and part 4.

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