30 November 2007

Bird: Saving Righteousness

This weekend I'm writing up reviews of two Paul books, before I forget what they're about entirely! The first is Michael Bird's The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective (Paternoster, 2007), an enjoyable read which breaks some new and refreshing ground.

Michael Bird is New Testament Lecturer at Highland Theological College in Scotland. With his first major monograph, Bird reiterates and synthesizes some lines of thought already worked out in a few major articles, having to do with the perennial Pauline topics of righteousness, justification, and the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP). What makes this book so refreshing is that Bird has plugged a real gap in Paul studies, offering a revitalizing presentation that steers clear of the rancor and biting argumentation that fills the footnotes of so much recent published work on Paul. Not only is Bird downright comedic at points (“As far as I can tell the only topic that John MacArthur and Rudolf Bultmann agree on is that the noun pi,stij implies faithfulness and obedience” [176]), he also writes with the aim of engendering rapprochement where possible and seeks to soothe, rather than stoke, the flames of Pauline controversy ignited in 1977, and with an irenic tone to match. Bird injects the discussion revolving around the NPP with a solid dose of hope that agreement, in broad strokes if not in jot and tittle, may indeed be a realistic aim. At the least, we might put to death various nagging misportrayals on both sides.

Excluding an introductory and concluding chapter, six substantive chapters comprise the book. These somewhat unrelated essays do not form a linear, progressive argument due to the fact that chapters three through six are republications of earlier journal essays. The only element that truly ties them together is that each of them broaches a perennially thorny topic.

Chapter two, “The Riddle of Righteousness,” opens by arguing that Catholic and Protestant views of justification are finally irreconcilable (8-9) and that we ought not to make too strong a distinction between righteousness as a moral norm or as relationship (10-12), but rather see God’s righteousness as possessing both elements: “[t]he righteousness of God then is the character of God embodied and enacted in his saving actions which means vindication (for Israel and the righteous) and condemnation (for the pagan world and the wicked)” (15). Bird then examines numerous scholars in the field of Pauline studies over the past century on his way to arguing that “justification is the answer to both Jewish particularism and any kind of grace/works synergism” (35). The proposal of God’s righteousness as essentially his covenant faithfulness, then, is true yet incomplete—to it must be added “a forensic verdict” (39).

Bird seeks to show in chapter three that the NPP has performed a salutary service for Paul studies with its reinvigoration of the importance of Christ’s resurrection for Pauline soteriology. Examining several key texts, Bird argues that one ought to view the resurrection as “far more intrinsic to justification” (42) than merely vindicating Christ or authenticating his work. To say “[t]he cross without the resurrection is sheer martyrdom” (57) may be overstating his case, and Bird’s conclusion that “the resurrection transforms the verdict into vindication both now and in the future” (58) sounds little different that what he is arguing against. Yet taken as a whole the chapter is clear enough that Bird is arguing that God’s salvific righteousness, manifested in the justification of Jesus at his resurrection, provides the means whereby those united to Christ are themselves justified. Hence the resurrection’s critical role in justification.

Tackling the topic of imputation in chapter four, Bird reproduces his important 2004 JETS article which argues for an approach he labels “incorporated righteousness.” After rehearsing the history of imputed righteousness in the theology of Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, the Puritans, and Wesley, Bird enters the firestorm sparked by Gundry’s 1999 Christianity Today article and the responses by Seifrid and John Piper. The author argues that “believers are incorporated into the righteousness of Christ” and that union with Christ provides the “matrix for understanding justification” (70, emphasis original). Interacting heavily with Piper, Bird suggests that imputation ought to enjoy a happy home in the realm of systematic theology, but it cannot be sustained exegetically as the language of the NT writers—rather, “incorporation has more exegetical mileage in it than imputation” (87, emphasis original).

Chapter five is entitled “When the Dust Finally Settles: Beyond the New Perspective,” and it will be clear to even the casual reader that Bird lives up to the claim of his subtitle with considerable more success than Francis Watson’s recent revision of his 1986 doctoral thesis which bears the same subtitle (Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective [Eerdmans, 2007]). Bird gets immediately to the heart of the matter in his observation that some NPP proponents may be allowing uncritical post-Holocaust proclivities influence their exegesis, while traditional Reformed exegetes may equally uncritically dismiss the NPP simply due to its seeming novelty. Bird’s strategy in the chapter is then to address “areas of critique (89-104) followed by “areas of concurrence” (104-111). Bird helpfully extracts the best of both Reformational exegesis as well as that of the NPP, concluding that while the former has neglected the pervasive social dimensions of Paul’s theology, the latter has neglected the quite real and problematic soteriological synergism with which Paul is embattled in Romans and Galatians.

“Justification as Forensic Status and Covenant Membership” is the title of chapter six, the longest in the book. Through a close look at Galatians 2-3 (119-40) and Romans (140-52), Bird attempts to hold together both the Reformed understanding of justification as solving an individual’s guilt before God as well as the NPP emphasis on justification as Paul’s means of arguing for the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. Thus both the scope (the horizontal category) and the content (the vertical category) must be held together in delineating Pauline justification (152). “Ethnocentric nomism” (117) is Bird’s proposal to replace Sanders’ “covenant nomism.” What remains unclear, however, is the precise relationship between the two—which is subsumed within which? Or are both to carry exactly the same proportional weight?

Finally, chapter seven investigates the question of works in relation to justification, Romans 2:12-16 providing the platform for discussion (Bird sees 2:13 as speaking of Gentile Christians). The main point of the chapter is to suggest that “[w]orks as christologically conceived, pneumatically empowered, and divinely endowed are necessary for salvation in so far as they reveal the character of authentic faith expressed in the form of obedience, love, faithfulness, righteousness and holiness” (178).

The strengths of the book are clear. First and most importantly, rather than line up neatly on either the Lutheran-Reformed side of the debate or on that of the NPP, Bird has genuinely sought to harvest the best of both approaches and blend them together into a faithful portrayal of the Apostle’s thought. Though few will sign on with all for which Bird argues, the irenic and impartial model of scholarship he portrays, avoiding the innate tendency to tendentiously and prematurely pick what “side” one is on which characterizes so much current Pauline discussion (“I am of Luther,” “I am of Wright,” etc.), commends itself as a fruitful path forward. Second, Bird helpfully draws on obscure though important sources, such as Paul Rainbow’s provocative 2005 monograph on the role of obedience in justification. The incorporation of both well-known and more obscure players in Pauline scholarship gives Bird’s work a fresh and well-rounded flavor. Third, one appreciates the firmness with which the author rightly insists that we must not separate the resurrection from the crucifixion, a timely reminder and one that ought to be heeded.

Though far outweighed by the strengths, three weaknesses ought to be mentioned. First, one wonders if Bird has at points sacrificed mutually exclusive interpretations of Pauline texts on the altar of peacekeeping. Without detracting at all from the admirable and successful highlighting of valid points from both sides of the debate, some will remain skeptical that various contentious passages in Romans and Galatians are really so neatly harmonized. At times, we must frankly acknowledge that either traditional Reformed exegesis gets it basically right or NPP exegesis does. Second, though typographical and syntactical errors ought not to be cited as a major weakness, the obnoxious number of such mistakes quickly grew to a comical proportions, making for extremely distracting reading, and potential readers ought to be warned. One can only wonder how so many errors passed through editorial work. On the upside, this did afford the reader the occasional delightful pun—for example, I presume Bird was not commenting on Professor Dunn’s vanity when he introduces the venerable scholar with, “In this vain James Dunn declares . . .” (180). Third, the unique bibliographical strategy (194-211) backfires despite its worthy attempt to helpfully section off various sub-categories of Pauline scholarship—“Introductions to the New Perspective,” “Works Written by E. P. Sanders,” “Justification,” etc. Due to inevitable overlap between these categories, one finds oneself frequently flipping through all the subcategories in search of a work that defies neat categorization. A single, all-encompassing bibliography would have served his readers better.

All things considered, however, Michael Bird has made a significant contribution to Paul studies and in both tone and content provides an example for aspiring and senior scholars alike.


ErinOrtlund said...

I don't have any profound responses to your theological thinking, but I did want to say we saw that college when visiting friends in Scotland! It's in a town called Dingwall--pretty funny name!

Michael F. Bird said...

Thanks for a very sympathetic and comprehensive review. The typo's were more embarassing than comical, but in the second reprint I'm hoping that most of them will be gone!