Bird first surveys the history of scholarship on this topic. Since the Reformation, there has been a tendency to read Paul's letters as ahistorical treatises on systematic theology (19). Being more interested with what Paul teaches about the order of salvation, Protestant scholars have often failed to appreciate the meaning of the apostle's arguments in their historical context. The Jew/Gentile issue - so central to Paul's thinking - receives scant attention in Reformed scholastics. To simplify, post-reformation scholarship envisaged justification/righteousness as pertaining primarily to the individual's relationship with God.
However, this trend of dehistoricizing Paul's teaching began to change in the 19th century. Increasingly, interpreters began to appreciate the literary and historical contexts of Paul's letters. F.C. Baur (1792-1860) attempted to show that a dialectic tension between Paul and the Judaizers was the catalyst that drove early Christianity. Wrede and Schweitzer expanded on Baur's work, contending that Paul developed his thinking on righteousness/justification in response to his Judaizing opponents. Subsequently, Davies, Munck and Stendahl all (in quite different ways) argued that the Jew/Gentile problem was fundamental for Paul's thinking. The stage was thus set for scholars to evince an explicit correlation between the apostle's thinking on righteousness/justification and the issue of Jewish particularism. E.P. Sanders demonstrated the centrality of covenant membership in 1st century Judaism (and that Jews were not proto-Pelagian legalists trying to work their way to heaven). Building upon Sanders's work, Dunn and Wright argued that Paul conceives of God's righteousness as his covenant faithfulness, and that justification means membership in the covenant. For these scholars, justification is primarily about how one can tell who is a member of God's people. Paul's opponents say that one is marked out as God's by the distinctively Jewish rites of Torah (e.g. circumcision, food laws, etc.). In contrast, Paul says that faith is what marks one out as a member of the covenant people. It should be evident that this view of justification has more to do with the church (i.e. how you can tell who is "in"), and less to do with the order of salvation (i.e. how one gets saved).
Bird goes on to note that some have taken issue with Dunn and Wright on this point on the grounds that apocalypticism, not covenant, constitutes the background for Paul's righteousness/justification language. This is a complicated debate, and one that I am still getting a handle on, but let me say that I agree with Bird that the alleged conflict between apocalyptic and covenantal categories is artificial. When God radically intervenes in history to save and judge, it is an expression of his faithfulness to the covenant. Once this point is conceded, the debate seems misguided.
What intrigued me most about this chapter was Bird's assessment of pre and post-Sanders scholarship. He says,
pre-Sanders scholarship was correct to identify Jewish particularism as the context of Paul's missionsary career and how righteousness is the resolution to Paul's anthropological pessimism concerning the law, flesh, sin and the final judgment. However, it failed to identify exactly how righteousness and justification relates to the problem posed by Jewish particularism. In contrast, much of post-Sanders scholarship correctly identifies and prosecutes the significance of Jewish particularism in relation to Paul's theology of righteousness. Yet the error is frequently made of mistaking the context of justification with its content or to wrongly equate the implication of justification with its purpose.(32)
I agree with Bird that this is one of the big problems with New Perspective exegesis. However, there's a point I need clarification on. I understand justification as having a basically forensic and soteriological meaning. Justification is God's verdict of "righteous" to the ungodly sinner, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is an effective pronouncement, insofar as it creates a new state of affairs in the relationship between God and the believing sinner. That (to me) is the meaning of justification. Now, it's implication is sociological and ecclesiological; namely, people who are justified by faith are accepted by God, and therefore can accept each other. To me, New Perspectivites err by confusing the meaning of justification with its implication. On this point Dr. Bird, I believe we are in agreement. However, you go on to state that justification is constitutive for the unity of Jews and Gentiles (33). In other words, justification creates a new people in a new covenant (33). Do you then think that justification has a (partly) ecclesiological meaning? Is the difference between your position and that of New Perspectivites (viz. Tom Wright) one of emphasis? I suppose I am trying to pin down where you agree and disagree with the New Perspective on justification.
Well, this review is already too long. Let me conclude by saying that the next two chapters contain some of the most helpful stuff I've ever read on Paul, so stay tuned!