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.

29 November 2007

Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder

Two of my favorite verses from one of my favorite hymns, which arrested me again this morning--

Let us love and sing and wonder,
Let us praise the Savior’s name,
He has hushed the law’s loud thunder,
He has quenched Mout Sinai’s flame.

Let us wonder! Grace and justice
Join and point to mercy’s door;
When through grace in Christ our trust is,
Justice smiles and asks no more.

Dr. Edman: 40th Anniversary

On November 14, 1967, Dr. V. Raymond Edman, the fourth president of Wheaton College, was preaching a chapel sermon on "Being in the Presence of the King." At the close of that message, Dr. Edman collapsed and died right on stage. He closed his message by experiencing exactly what he was preaching about.
Wheaton College has recently commemorated that incredible day and has posted the audio of that message. Dr. Edman begins speaking at 32:45.

It's amazing to listen to a man preach, knowing that he is minutes away from standing before God. Would that we would preach each sermon as if that were about to become true of us.

27 November 2007

The New Birth

I love to see that Dr. Piper is beginning a new sermon series on the new birth. I've been wondering for a few years why this has been so neglected in our time compared with the preaching of the Puritans (Sibbes, Owen, Charnock, Howe et al) and that of the two Great Awakenings (Edwards, Whitefield, Wesleys, Nettleton et al). I went to sleep last night listening to a sermon of my dad's which closed with an offering of the gospel in which the new birth and the awakened spiritual taste buds which go with it was explained, and I was thinking about how that was right on but rarely heard today.

Free Religious Affections

This month, Christian Audio is allowing free downloads of Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections.

(HT: SM)

26 November 2007

Witherington on Schreiner's Self-Glorifying Deity

Sam Storms responds.

Helpful Reading

With all the down time the last week or so with both ETS and Thanksgiving, I got to read some books unrelated to my studies. I enjoyed all of them and thought I would pass on a comment on them in case it would intersect any of your interests. All of these are books I got at ETS.

The first thing I read (naturally) was a book I found on Jonathan Edwards, specifically on his understanding of revival, by Michael Haykin, who recently moved from Toronto to teach at Southern Seminary in Louisville: Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival. It was all right. Haykin goes through the most pertinent works Edwards did concerning revival, with chapters on Religious Affections, Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Distinguishing Marks, and Surprising Narrative, and shows how JE navigated the waters between James Davenport and the Enthusiasts on the one hand and Charles Chauncey and the rationalists on the other. Haykin was certainly interested in pointing out the link between JE and later Calvinistic Baptists, as he brought this up at several different junctures. Nothing particularly groundbreaking, just a good solid review of Edwards' revival writings. I would have enjoyed it if he had connected Edwards' work more explicitly with today's needs for authentic, God-sent revival (as for example this work and this one does more generally). Granted, it was a historical study, but I was longing for more bridge-building into today's church.

The next thing I read was Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I've been trying to understand the Emerging Church lately and this book swims in that pond, so I thought I'd give it a read. I confess that though I was skeptical when I started it, I ended up loving it. Miller lives in Portland and goes to Rick McKinley's church there. It is a rambling autobiography that is well-written and addresses lots of aspects of Christian living. At times I squirmed a little bit (e.g. statement that belief is about what you do not what you say--a false dichotomy that is reacting to a true problem but does it by overreacting). But overall I think this book will do and has done lots of good. The depiction of sin was right and true, which is often not true of Emerging writers. And the thoughts on how to reach unbelievers, by loving rather than condemning, was of course good. I'm still digesting the book.

Then I read two small books by Steve Nichols that Crossway has published in the last two years. The first is The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. I loved this book because Nichols effectively brings history to life. I now have a book I can enthusiastically put in the hands of people who want to understand the Reformation but are not avid readers or who find history generally boring. The second book was Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards' Vision of Living in Between. I appreciated this one very much too because, as I wished Haykin had done, Nichols explicates an aspect of Edwards' thought and then transplants it into our world today, painting a picture of what it looks like, with Edwards as our teacher, to live on earth in light of eternity in heaven. This book is also one small contribution toward putting to death what we were all taught in high school lit, that Edwards was an angry, misanthropic fire-and-brimstone preacher and nothing else.

John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright was next, which I got for free because at the ETS Crossway lecture in San Diego Crossway handed out 900 free copies. This was much shorter than I expected, which is good because it will be less formidable to everyday believers who have benefitted from Wright yet don't know how much to swallow and how much to spit out. It was fair and helpful and I think it did the job it intended to do. The clarification that Paul's Gospel is essentially "Christ died for our sins" and not "Jesus is Lord," and that the latter is only good news in light of the former, was especially helpful.

Lastly I read the recent work on penal substitution by three men assosiated with Oak Hill Theological College in England: Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. It was originally published by IVP in Britain but Crossway just put it out for American readers. I am very grateful for this book. It is thorough and unique--unique because the last third of the book, 125 pages, is devoted to answering critiques of penal substitution. Dozens of objections are addressed, quoting those who have voiced them so as to leave no confusion and to avoid knocking down straw men. The book is divided into exegetical defense, theological coinherence, pastoral implications, historical corroboration, and the objections answered. I found the theological defense to at times spend time filling out unnecessary theological points, I thought the historical section had some glaring omissions (Luther, Edwards, Wesley), and I found the pastoral section a bit thin, but the exegesis focused on a good selection of passages from both OT and NT, and the objections answered makes the book worth reading if nothing else does. The book explicitly says it is meant to be something between scholarly writing and popular writing, which I appreciated and at which the authors succeeded. And it clarified many things that were a bit fuzzy in my own mind and I find myself more sure than ever that Jesus died as my substitute to pay a penalty I deserved, satisfying God's righteous wrath. The authors rely heavily throughout on D. A. Carson and John Stott, as well as several old-timers such as Owen and Calvin. The idea that penal substitution is the answer as to how the evil powers are overcome, and that we ought not to elevate the latter over the former as many are today, was especially illumining.

Now back to dissertation reading! Next up is Paul Rainbow's The Way of Salvation, which just arrived in the mail from Amazon and argues for a more critical place of works in justification than the Reformers allowed, done through exegesis of Paul and James.

24 November 2007

Witherington, Piper, Schreiner: Divine Selfishness

Dr. Piper responds briefly to Ben Witherington's discouraging negative reaction to Tom Schreiner's NT Theology text, the underlying thesis of which is properly asserted to be God's desire to magnify himself in Christ. Denny Burk did his PhD under Schreiner at Southern and responds in more length.

I found Witherington's post to be more of a slap in the face than usual because of all the things I've heard leveled at the idea that God seeks to exalt God most, I've never heard the accusation that this is recreating God in humanity's image. I thought that critique was supposed to argue the other way!

23 November 2007

Carl Henry: Christians in the World or Worldly Christians?

I've been going to sleep to Mark Dever interviews lately. Last night I was listening to a 1997 interview he did with Carl Henry, one of the key pillars in the middle of last century of a new evangelicalism which was neither theologically compromising (liberalism) liberal nor culturally retreatist (fundamentalism), and a member of Capitol Hill Baptist for 40 years. One of the key books was his 1947 The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. His single point in that book is that Christians need to once again get out into the world to transform culture rather than being so fearful of being stained by the world that they lived with a basic aversion to all things non-Christian. A needed point for 1950's American Christianity. But he made a fascinating, backhanded comment at one point after describing this book. He said,

"The problem today is just the opposite. We no longer need to get the Christians out into the world. We need to get the world out of the Christians."

I have been wondering about this for a few years, as I try to understand the Emerging Church, some young church planting networks, and, I confess, many churches in my own denomination, the PCA. I think he is exactly right. The pendulum has swung the other way in much of American Christianity.

22 November 2007


Just got back from ETS. Enjoyed it (mostly the sun and skipping lectures to read outside).

Good report from Darrin Patrick on a class he did on the Emerging Church at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis this Fall. My brother goes to The Journey (Darrin's church) and loves it.

07 November 2007


I will not be posting anything until Monday, Nov. 19 at the earliest. Blessings to you all.