Well, we are almost over the proverbial literary hump; four chapters with four remaining. In this chapter, Bird seeks to appropriate insights from the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP), while showing some of its the weaknesses (89). I believe this debate is (finally) running out of steam, and am excited to see Bird move beyond the NPP.
First, Bird makes a few salient criticisms of the NPP.
(1) Merit Theology - E.P. Sanders and his scholarly progeny have adamantly maintained that Jews in the Second Temple Period were not legalistic. The covenant was the undergirding presupposition in every strand of Judaism, and this covenant was an expression of God's grace. In fact, "getting in" the covenant was solely a matter of divine grace. On the other hand, "staying in" the covenant was via obedience. This obedience, however, was understood by Jews as a grateful response to the covenant. Moreover, Jews could avail themselves of the sacrifical cultus if they failed to meet the covenant stipulations. Sanders's schematization is known as Covenantal Nomism. Bird agrees with Sanders that the Jews were not legalists. However, he criticizes Sanders's imposition of one soteriological construct on all the various strands of Second Temple Judaism. Judaism is diverse, and certain groups within Second Temple Judaism definitely emphasized law-keeping as the means of eschatological vindication. Therefore, when Paul challenges his opponents' emphasis on Torah-righteousness as the basis for final justification, he isn't knocking down strawmen. Second Temple Judaism is simply more diverse than Sanders admits.
(2) Election and Eschatology - Sanders equates election with salvation. This is misleading, since (according to him) "staying in" the covenant is by human obedience. Assuming this to be the case, it is difficult to understand how salvation is a matter of God's grace rather than human achievement. Biblically, salvation has an eschatological focus.
(3) Works of the Law - Dunn and Wright have argued that for Paul, the "works of the law" denote those distinctive Jewish works (e.g. circumcision, sabbath, food laws) which marked Jews out from the surrounding nations. The problem with this interpretation is not in what it affirms but in what it denies. For Paul, the works of the law certainly include those ceremonial rites which demarcated Jews from Gentiles. But said works also encompass everything that the law demands (cf. Rom 3:20; 4:4-6). Therefore, it is reductionistic to say Paul is simply attacking a nationalistic mindset. He is also critiquing the Jews' synergistic understanding of salvation.
(4) Nationalistic Righteousness/Righteousness as Covenant Membership (I'm lumping these two together for the sake of time) - Many NPP proponents see the righteousness the Jews were pursuing as nationalistic, and the righteousness which Christians receive as tantamount to covenant membership. Again, the problem with these views pertains to reductionism. There are moral aspects to righteousness (i.e. Paul thinks the Jews were trying to attain a right-standing with God through obedience). Moreover, righteousness doesn't simply relate to "who's in" the church. Romans 5 makes clear that righteousness is the remedy for all of humanity in-Adam. Righteousness has to do with salvation, not just the church.
5) Justification and Regeneration - Bird takes issue with N.T. Wright, who ostensibly conceives of justification as an analytic judgment based on regneration. In other words, justification is God's declaration that someone has become a Christian. Justification is not how God makes someone a Christian, or how someone gets saved; it is God's declaration that they are in fact saved. The problem with this view is that it flattens out the content of justification. God does not simply declare something to be the case in justification; he brings about a new state of affairs in the relationship between himself and the believing sinner.
Bird makes three additional "smaller" criticisms of the NPP, but you'll have to buy the book to read about those.
Second, Bird notes some helpful insights from the NPP.
(1) The Jewish Context of Theology - NPP advocates have rightfully emphasized the need to understand Paul in the milieu of his day. I laud Sanders, Dunn, and Wright for drawing attention to this. We are quite removed from the world of 1st Century Judaism, and we will impose improper categories onto the text if we do not take the historical context of the New Testament seriously.
(2) The Social Function of the Law - It's easy to view biblical statements about the law in a generalized way. The NPP has reminded us of the boundary-creating effect the law had in Mediterranean antiquity. This has helped me to remember that Paul's aim in talking about the law isn't just vertical (me and God), but horizontal as well (Jew and Gentile).
(3) The Unity of Jews and Gentiles in One Body - The unity of Jewish and Gentile believers is central to Paul's mission. Just read Galatians, Romans 3, or Ephesians 2, and you will see that justification is integrally bound up with the Jew/Gentile issue. In light of this, the question we should ask when reading Paul may not be "what must I do to be saved?", but, "who are the people of God and in what economy will they be vindicated?" (109).
(4) Justification as Covenant Status - Justification does have at least something to do with being a member of the covenant!
(5) Righteousness and Obedience - The NPP has contended for a link between justification and obedience that is oftentimes lost in Protestant theology.
Well Dr. Bird, I have a few questions...
(1) How much gas do you think is left in the tank of the New Perspective debate? Have most people settled on a mediating position? Will there be a new hot topic in this field of study?
(2) How do you incorporate insights from the NPP into your teaching without losing your congregation (and your own mind!) in the process?