Introducing Paul: A review

Article by   September 2010
American humorist Mark Twain once wrote a correspondent, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." To explain a matter succinctly without sacrificing depth, penetration, or clarity tests the mettle of any writer. When the subject of study is the life and teaching of the apostle Paul, and when the author is engaging both historical critical and evangelical New Testament scholarship, the challenge is all the more daunting. 
It is this task that Michael Bird has undertaken in his survey of the life and teaching of the apostle Paul, Introducing Paul. Bird, presently on the faculty of the Bible College of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, and formerly lecturer in New Testament at Highland Theological College, Dingwall, Scotland, writes to introduce Paul to "laypersons and undergraduate students" and to offer a "refresher for pastors and ministers" (6). His intention is not only to inform readers of what Paul said, but "to get people excited about reading Paul's letters, preaching Paul's gospel and living the Christian life the way Paul thought it should be lived" (ibid.). 

Introducing Paul has many positive features to commend it. First, Bird's style is readable, engaging, and generally accessible to the serious reader. For example, the concise survey of the content of each of Paul's thirteen letters is nicely done (57-73). Furthermore, Bird's exposition of Galatians 3-4, one of the densest specimens of argumentation in Paul, is striking for its brevity and lucidity (46-48). 

Second, Bird rightly recognizes that Paul was not an academic theologian by calling. While possessed of extraordinary intellectual gifts, Paul was by calling a pastor and missionary. Bird offers a survey of Paul and his significance by developing five New Testament "images" of Paul - persecutor, missionary, theologian, pastor, and martyr (15-28). His brief discussion of Paul as "pastor" helpfully shows that Paul saw his letters as means of pastoral care to his churches. It also highlights how Paul understood pastoral ministry to be oriented toward the return of Christ, and to be centered upon the gospel (24-25). Strikingly absent from Introducing Paul, however, is any extended treatment or exposition of Paul's calling, office, or identity as apostle.

Third, Introducing Paul grasps and communicates well the centrality of eschatology to the apostle's writings and ministry. For Paul, "fundamental ... is that the future age (the eschaton) has already broken in and has been inaugurated through the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God" (114, emphasis Bird's). Referencing multiple passages from Paul's letters, Bird explains clearly the "already" and "not yet" dynamic of Pauline eschatology - believers have already begun to share in the blessings and benefits of the age to come, but they have not yet enjoyed those blessings and benefits consummately (115-116). Bird's exposition of Paul's understanding of the sequence of events leading up to the return of Christ is helpful, although many readers will demur at his suggestion that a millennial, messianic kingdom precedes the consummation (121). 

Fourth, although Bird claims that "the chief legacy of Paul is his claim that Gentiles can be part of the Israel of God without becoming proselytes to Judaism," Bird gives pride to place to soteriology throughout his exposition of Paul's teaching (28). Paul not only proclaimed a message of salvation, but he also experienced that message personally. Against some Pauline scholars who urge that Paul did not experience conversion, Bird describes the Damascus Road Encounter as Paul's conversion (34-35, 16-17). Even so, Bird claims that "this conversion was not a conversion from one religion to another or from Judaism to Christianity. Paul was converted from the Pharisaic sect to a messianic sect within Judaism" (35, emphasis Bird's). Such a characterization, however, hardly does justice to Paul's own reflections about his conversion. Paul assigns his zeal for the "traditions of his fathers" to his "former life in Judaism" (Gal 1:14), and consigns both his privilege and performance in Judaism to the "rubbish" bin (Phil 3:4-8). To speak of Paul's conversion as a movement within Judaism understates just how radical Paul understood his conversion to be.

Fifth, Bird highlights some of the leading features of Paul's description of the Christian life. Bird shows that, for Paul, nurturing a sense of Christian identity is critical to living the Christian life well. Each believer is "in Christ" and "of Christ." Believers have been made new and are assured that they shall be "conformed to the image of the Son of God" (135). This reality does not warrant passivity in the Christian life. On the contrary, believers are "commanded to pursue and practice ... [their] renewal" (ibid.). In living the Christian life, Christians must be convinced that the "imperative" of Christian duty is grounded upon the "indicative" of the "prior act of salvation [that] God has wrought in Christ" (136-7). The contours of this life are two-fold - "cruciformity," or "[being] shaped in accord with the cross of Christ" and "anastasisity," or "[being] made alive by the power of Christ's resurrection." While it is doubtful that the terms "cruciformity" and "anastasisity" will become household words, the realities they represent are indisputably Pauline and surely rest at the heart of Paul's understanding of the Christian life. 

Sixth, Bird offers a helpful and brief defense of Paul's statements on homosexuality. He argues that Paul explicitly forbids homosexual activity, acknowledging that the apostle upholds Old Testament proscriptions of the same (156). Against efforts to restrict Paul's prohibitions to only certain forms of homosexual activity, Bird argues that Paul's strictures on homosexual behavior are global in character. Against claims that "Paul did not know of sexual orientation or of long-term same-sex relationships," Bird observes that the ancient Greeks long before Paul were debating the question of sexual orientation, and that same-sex relationships were well-attested in antiquity (157-8). For Paul, homosexual behavior is serious precisely because, as a "rejection of the created design for human sexuality," it is "symptomatic of rejection of the Creator" (157). 

Introducing Paul raises at least two further matters that merit extended consideration. The first is the way in which Bird relates narrative and proposition in his understanding of Paul's theology. At both the beginning and the end of Introducing Paul, Bird takes aim at those who see Paul's letters as a "systematic theology handbook" or "deposits of theological dogma" (12, 13). Paul cannot, Bird urges, be "domesticat[ed] by way of any theological system, however elaborate" (169). Elsewhere, Bird stresses that Paul's "epistles are not a pool of timeless theological and moral truths; instead, they are a form of personal communication between Paul and his readers ... Beliefs and doctrines are not forged amid a list of propositions and by logical inferences, but in the telling of a story" (38, 39). 

The gospel, furthermore, is "not an inference made from a deductive argument about God's holiness and human sin. Such an approach is not so much wrong as it is deficient" (74). Bird highlights "potential errors that follow if we articulate the gospel as a series of linear propositions in need of resolution rather than seeing it as the fulfillment of a redemptive-historical story" (ibid.). An example of such an error is when one understands Jesus' obedience in terms of "frequent-flyer points in order to fly persons from hell to heaven" rather than in terms of his identity as "the new Adam and the true Israel who is obedient where humanity and Israel failed to be" (ibid., emphasis Bird's). Another example is seeing Jesus' life strictly in terms of the merit he accrued for salvation, and of the teachings he gave for people to follow. Such an approach, Bird suggests, fails to appreciate "Jesus' mission to Israel" as the "fulfillment of God's plan" (75, 76). 

One does wonder which individuals Bird has in mind when he sketches the position with which he cares to distance himself. The examples that he gives do not always strike me as representative of the view with which he disagrees. Moreover, Bird's way of stating matters unnecessarily polarizes the legitimate projects of biblical and systematic theology. The reader might be left with the impression that they are the bitterest of enemies when in fact they are the best of friends. Bird himself acknowledges this point in practice. When Bird explains the contrast between the pre-Christian Paul and the post-Christian Paul, he not only does so in terms of specific beliefs, but in terms of beliefs drawn up according to familiar systematic-theological categories: christology, soteriology, eschatology, nomology (the doctrine of the law), ecclesiology (35-37). Elsewhere, Bird conducts his exposition of Paul's gospel by a study of several Pauline terms, many of which long ago entered the corpus of Christian systematic-theological reflection: propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, renewal, to name a few. Bird acknowledges, then, that systematization of Paul's statements is both wholesome and necessary. This project need not be conducted at the expense of legitimate biblical-theological reflection on the apostle's teaching. Faithful consideration of Pauline teaching requires a welcoming embrace of both systematic and biblical theology. 

One area where more self-conscious reflection upon systematic-theological questions would have strengthened Introducing Paul is Bird's discussion of the "repertoire of metaphors, expressions, images and concepts that explain what the cross and resurrection actually achieve" 92-93). Bird discusses these "metaphors" individually (righteousness, sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, renewal, and victory), and claims that they are "contingent" upon the "coherent centre of Paul's thought about salvation," namely the "death and resurrection of Jesus" (93). Bird, however, never expressly considers whether Paul understands these individual "metaphors" in a particular logical sequence. Although he overlooks systematic consideration of the ordo salutis (order of salvation) in Paul, Bird nevertheless indicates that he understands some "metaphors" to stand in certain relationship with others. Bird understands "faith" logically to precede "justification" (97). The "new birth," furthermore logically precedes "renewal," or sanctification (111). Bird recognizes at points, then, that there is an ordo salutis within Paul's theology. Explicit and thoroughgoing attention to this question would have enhanced the discussion and lent needed clarity to a matter that lies at the heart of Paul's writings.

A second matter to consider is Bird's exposition of Paul's doctrine of justification by faith alone. Classical Reformed theology has maintained from the Scripture that justification is a strictly forensic doctrine. That is to say, justification is a legal verdict and not a change made within the believer. It is God who pronounces this verdict concerning the sinner. The sinner is justified, or declared righteous, solely on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This righteousness - Jesus' perfect obedience to the law of God and his full satisfaction to God's justice - is imputed or reckoned to the sinner, and received by faith alone. The sinner is not justified because of his works, past, present, or future; nor even because of his faith. He is justified solely because of the imputed righteousness of Christ. 

Bird understands justification to be forensic, and to be tied to Jesus' death (and resurrection). But how? In particular, how does Bird understand "righteousness" to relate to the believer's justification? In answer to this question, Bird argues that we must distinguish in Paul "incorporated righteousness" from "imputed righteousness." What is "incorporated righteousness"? Bird explains: "we are justified by union with Christ ... Jesus is justified in his resurrection, and by faith we have union with him so that we share in his justification. Through incorporation into Christ by faith, what is his becomes ours and what is ours becomes his" (97). 

While Paul is said to teach incorporated righteousness at the level of the text, imputed righteousness is said to be a "necessary and logical inference" drawn from several texts (97). "We cannot proof-text imputation. If we think we can cite 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 4:1-5, 1 Corinthians 1:30 or Philippians 3:6-9 and find the entire package of the imputation of Christ's active obedience and the imputation of our sin to Christ embedded in all of these texts we are sadly mistaken" (96). The "entire package [of imputed righteousness]" cannot "be read ... back into certain texts of Paul's letters" (98). Even so, Bird acknowledges, "although no text explicitly says that Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers, nonetheless, without some kind of theology of imputation a lot of what Paul says about justification does not make sense" (97). 

Bird's discussion of "righteousness" in justification leaves unanswered a number of questions. Is he suggesting that "incorporated righteousness" possesses an authenticity that "imputed righteousness" does not because the latter is said not to lie fully in any single text? Is he suggesting that "imputed righteousness" is a "second-order" component of justification in particular or Pauline theology in general? For Bird, "incorporated righteousness" certainly seems to carry an importance that "imputed righteousness" does not. It is not clear to the reader what that importance is. 

To complicate matters, Bird's "incorporated righteousness" entails some kind of imputation: "through incorporation into Christ by faith, what is his becomes ours and what is ours becomes his" (97).  What is said to be imputed here, however, is not the righteousness of Christ, but the verdict Jesus received at his resurrection. Bird's asseveration raises the question whether this imputation is different from, entailed by, or overlapping with imputed righteousness. Introducing Paul regrettably does not bring resolution to this important question: precisely what is the righteousness that grounds the believer's justification, and how does this righteousness come into the possession of the believer? 

In summary, Bird's exposition of justification is far from lapidary. What's more, it is difficult to place Bird within recent discussions on justification. In seeing a place for imputed righteousness in Paul, Bird certain parts company with N. T. Wright's wholesale criticisms of imputed righteousness. On the other hand, Bird's exposition of imputed righteousness, especially in relation to what is called incorporated righteousness, is not a standard and straightforward Calvinist explanation of imputed righteousness. Perhaps this particular difficulty can be resolved by reading Bird's other publications on this topic. But it is surely not unreasonable to expect an introductory volume, targeted for a beginning audience, to be self-explanatory on a point so central to Paul's teaching. 

Introducing Paul does a commendable job of calling attention to some of the leading lines of the apostle's teaching. In particular, Bird accurately assesses Paul as a "theologian of the gospel, determined to expound and apply the gospel to himself and to his converts" (23). When it comes to defining a critical part of Paul's gospel - justification by faith alone - Introducing Paul raises more questions than it answers. While not, in this respect, ideal for beginning and lay readers, Introducing Paul is a stimulating overview of Paul's teaching for more advanced readers. Pastors and teachers in particular can glean much from this book. Even when disagreeing with its formulations or conclusions, readers will be challenged to rehearse for themselves the biblical foundations of the gospel of grace, and its implications for Christian living. If and as this rehearsal takes place, then surely Introducing Paul has done a good service to its readership.

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Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2008), 192 pp.
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