Thursday, September 4, 2008
The Saving Righteousness of God (ch. 8)
At long last we reach the end of Dr. Bird's monograph. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and interacting, and feel a renewed desire to go back to the sources. In summing up his work, Bird offers (1) some reflections on post-New Perspective scholarship, and (2) N.T. Wright.
As regards the former, Bird desires that we go beyond reformed and revisionist readings of Paul and arrive at a new synthesis. The basic tenants of the reformers need not be eschewed, but neither should salient points of the New Perspective be dismissed. Henceforth, all scholarship must engage with Sanders, Dunn, Wright and their ilk. It is naive to think that revisionist readings of Paul add no clarity/correction/focus to those of the reformers. We must test everything, and hold to what is good. Bird conceives of himself as painting a portrait of Paul; one with more historical color than others. I concur. Paul is a superb theologian, able to articulate different facets of a single event (i.e. justification). His theologizing is complex and multi-textured. Because Bird appreciates this multivalence, he is able to paint a more robust portrait than the reformed and revisionist hardliners. While I might quibble about his wording at times (e.g. what does it means that justification is "equally soteriological and social in Paul"? (182)), I feel Bird's project is a success. It's time for those of the reformed persuasion (including myself) to appreciate the social thrust of Paul's teaching. Conversely, I believe it's time for revisionist scholars to affirm that the reformers said something profoundly right about St. Paul.
Concerning N.T. Wright, Bird wishes to show that he is within the pale of reformed orthodoxy. If one defines reformed orthodoxy as adherence to the 5 solas, then Wright is ostensibly orthodox. Moreover, Wright has expressed a belief in something similar to the imputation of Christ's righteousness (though he has at times been needlessly critical of the traditional Protestant formulation of the doctrine). It should also be remembered that there is diversity within the reformation on the issue of justification. I appreciated Bird's attempt to defend Wright against some of the vitriol directed at him. Denouncing Wright's views on just about anything takes a good deal of prudence; something his detractors have sometimes lacked. He has written extensively on New Testament Theology, and any attempt to refute his position on justification should be undertaken with a healthy measure of humility. Still, I find some things in Wright's work disconcerting, not least his ambiguity on the role of works in justification. It seems that a little bit of clarification on Wright's part could go a long way in resolving this controversy.
In light of this chapter, here are a few final questions for Dr. Bird...
Tom Wright is due to write his definitive book on Paul. What does he need to do in this work to...(a) clarify his views on justification, and (b) gain adherents to his position?
Dr. Bird, thank you so much for your willingness to dialogue. It has been a privilege and a blessing discussing Paul with you. We at Christians at Context look forward eagerly to how God uses you to advance His Kingdom.