Today I am posting an interview with Dr. Michael F. Bird, author of the recent book, Introducing Paul (see my review). Dr. Bird teaches New Testament at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland.
Trevin Wax: Why do Christians need a “fresh encounter” with the Apostle Paul?
Michael Bird: In church history, times of theological renewal and religious revival have most often come from a fresh re-reading of Paul. From Augustine to Luther to Barth, Paul has often been the catalyst for huge theological shock waves that riveted through out the church.
When you read Paul, there are so many places where you find that your experience (whether that is: joy in salvation, frustrations in ministry, or even the challenges of living in a pluralistic, pagan, and permissive society) is also the experience of Paul.
Paul’s letters also present us with a “warts and all” picture of the church (especially in Galatians and the Corinthian letters). From him we learn that there really are no new problems and no new heresies, just the same one’s that get recycled over and over, and if we are to deal with those challenges in our own setting, then it is really a matter of going back to the Pauline letters.
The other reason we should read Paul is because he was the first great “missionary theologian” of the church. Most of Paul’s theology (biblical and practical theologies I should say) was done on his feet, on the move, in some cases while on the run, while on the mission field.
Paul demonstrates that theology is no ivory tower exercise for pew sitting couch potatoes; it is done in the church, amidst prayer and hardship, in the context of church debates about our identity and purpose, and in the service of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I think Paul, above everyone else, validates Martin Kahler’s dictum that “Mission is the Mother of all Theology”. In the 21st century, that is something we need to think about time and time again.
Trevin Wax: How important is Paul’s conversion story to his theology of grace?
Michael Bird: I think Paul was the kinda guy who never really got over the fact that God had saved him.
When you read the account of his conversion in Galatians 1, Philippians 3, and 1 Corinthians 15 (especially 1 Corinthians 15:10 – ”But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them– yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me”), you get the feeling that Paul knew that God had every reason available not to save him, but nonetheless, He still decided to do so. There was nothing about Paul that made him more saveable than anyone else. To the contrary and by his own admission, he was the last person worthy of salvation.
Thus Paul’s narration of his conversion, I think, is the best example of the catch-cry sola gratia (grace alone) that I can find in the entire New Testament.
For Paul grace was an event that turned him around 180 degrees from persecutor to proclaimer, and grace was the power of God that operated in him, despite his weaknesses, with amazing effect.
Trevin Wax: You spend a lot of time telling the “stories behind the Story,” helping us see the worldview stories that form the foundation of Paul’s thought. Why is it necessary for us to understand Paul within this framework?
Michael Bird: When you come to Paul you are not approaching a guy who lives in a historical or cultural vacuum.
Paul is engaging competing ways of telling the story of the Messiah and Israel in relation to his Jewish compatriots and Jewish Christian co-religionists. Ultimately, the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) provided a tapestry of stories upon which Paul’s theological disputes and his theological discourses were based.
For instance, unless you have a grip on the story of creation in Genesis 1-3 a lot of Romans 1 and 1 Timothy 2 simply won’t make sense.
Likewise, unless you’re up on Genesis 15-22 (and aware of some Jewish perspectives that Abraham somehow kept the Law of Moses) then you’re missing a lot of background in his debates in Romans 4 and Galatians 3.
When we come to Paul we miss his admonitions (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10) and theological argumentation (e.g. Romans 9-11).
Paul demonstrates, much like the writer to the Hebrews, that the Old Testament really is the substructure of New Testament Theology.
Trevin Wax: You express appreciation for many of the insights of the New Perspective on Paul, and yet you come back to what is largely a traditional Reformed framework for understanding Paul. What are some of the beneficial insights of the New Perspective that you believe we should incorporate into our understanding of Paul’s theology?
Michael Bird: I think the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is correct in what it affirms, but wrong in what it denies.
Where the NPP is correct is in emphasizing the social dimension of Paul’s debates and concerns. Paul’s debates about works of law and justification by faith, were not abstract debates about “what must I do to be saved?” but really came down to the matter, “Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to become Christians?”.
To claim that one gains a righteous status by “works of law” is both legalistic andethnocentric. I think the NPP provides us with a bit more social realism in our handling of Paul and his letters and keeps us grounded in the socio-religious realities of the first century.
To give another example, I often ask my students, why was Jesus cursed on the cross (Gal. 3.13)? They often say things like: “so we could go to heaven”, “so we could have a relationship with God”, “so we would be saved” – all these answers tend to revolve around personal, vertical, and individual soteriology.
I then ask them, “Why did Paul think that Jesus was cursed on the cross?” The answer being in Galatians 3:14 – ” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
There is no doubt that we are “redeemed” by Jesus’ death. And the fact that he is cursed “for us” is as pretty clear a statement on penal substitution as you can get.
But note the redemptive-historical horizon! Jesus was cursed so that God’s plan to bring Gentiles into the family of Abraham would come to fruition. And here, I submit, whether you jolly well like it or not, you have to admit that those NPP chaps are actually on to something.
That is not to say that one should wholly embrace the NPP. Far from it! We should read the NPP authors critically and discerningly. That is part of the problem here.
For instance, I find N.T. Wright utterly inspiring when he’s talking about Jesus and Israel and the big picture of the Bible’s storyline, but I also find him utterly frustrating when he’s going on about “works of law” as exclusively boundary markers and his understanding of the righteousness of God in 2 Corinthians 5.
Generally speaking, I think the NPP has shown us that we need to read Paul not through the lens of an ordo salutis, but through the lens of a historia salutis.
Trevin Wax: How does the doctrine of imputation of Christ’s righteousness fit into Paul’s theology?
Michael Bird: This is a good question and I’ve thought much on this.
John Piper has presented a fairly thorough case for imputed righteousness. The problem I sometimes get with Piper is that in several of his exegetical displays (e.g. 1 Cor. 1.30, Rom. 4.4-5, 2 Cor. 5.21), I think he’s simply going a few steps further than what the text actually says, and you end up having to read a lot of stuff into the text for his argument to work.
In contrast, Wright can say that union with Christ gives you everything that imputation is ordinarily supposed to. That is fine, until you ask, “how does union with Christ result in me having a righteous status before God”?
My own approach has been to speak of “incorporated righteousness” whereby we are united to Christ by faith, and in that union God’s verdict against us is executed in the cross of Christ, and yet that verdict against us is transposed into God’s verdict for us in Christ’s resurrection. Jesus is justified by God in his resurrection and because we are in him, we too are justified.
So for me, union with Christ is absolutely central, and we need to relate justification to incorporation and participation in Christ. (I’m hoping to read Mike Horton’s book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ soon because I hear that it represents another approach to combining the forensic and participatory aspects of justification).
Now if you take union with Christ, the representative nature of Adam and Christ, the language of reckoning, recognize that righteousness is a gift, etc., then the only way to hold it together in my mind is with some kind of theology of imputation.
So, I don’t think that any single text in the New Testament speaks of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers, but spread throughout the New Testament we find the ingredients for it when taken collectively. (I really do recommend Brian Vickers’ book, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation, for a judicious and sober account on imputation that approaches the subject much like the way I’m suggesting here!)
In the end, I would say that “imputation is a corollary of union with Christ”. Now to any in the Reformed spectrum who think that that is not a good enough a statement, I will simply plead that what I have just written is a direct quote from Leon Morris’ book, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross!
Trevin Wax: How can Paul’s letters help us to live a life worthy of the gospel?
That little phrase, taken from Philippians, is my favorite verse for summarizing the task of discipleship. In a nutshell you could say that we live the gospel-driven life. Paul makes the gospel central to everything: missions, pastoral work, hope, prayer, etc. Christian discipleship is the process of gospelizing ourselves so that we begin to reflect in our thoughts, actions, families, churches, mission, and witness the realities which the gospel endeavors to produce in us: conformity to the image of Christ.
Paul helps us to live a life worthy of the gospel in a number of ways:
- He reminds us that the gospel is the only way we can deal with our post-conversion sins. Sin is always a struggle, but the gospel shows that God’s grace super abounds over our sin.
- We are ordered to have an obedience that accompanies our confession of the gospel. So if the gospel is the royal announcement that Jesus is Lord and Messiah who has died on the cross and been raised for our redemption, reconciliation, and justification, then as a consequence we must offer him the best of our service.
- The gospel reminds us that nothing less than God’s honor is at stake in our behavior. What the unbelieving world thinks of God will ultimately depend on what they see us doing and saying. For the sake of God and the gospel, we must cultivate a character, conduct, and virtues that bring honor and glory to our Savior and Lord.