Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message
Craig Blomberg's review of "Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message" by Michael F. Bird
Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message (Downers Grove: IVP Academic [= A Bird’s Eye View of Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message (Nottingham, UK: IVP)], 2008). Paperback, $20.00. 192 pp. ISBN 978-0-8308-2897-5.
Michael Bird is an amazingly prolific young Australian scholar teaching at the Highland Theological College in Scotland. In addition to a whole spate of published articles, he has outstanding monographs on Jesus and the Gentile mission and saving righteousness in Paul already under his belt. Now he has produced this primer on Paul, which immediately takes its place as the best, up-to-date introduction of this brevity available.
Bird is fully abreast of all the relevant Pauline scholarship but wears it very lightly and even with an occasional touch of humor. But he can also drive home Paul’s relevance with great power. An introductory chapter considers Paul as persecutor, missionary, theologian, pastor and martyr, through consecutive stages of his adult life, adding that he can also be viewed as a maverick. He is also passionate and at times abrasive. “Paul is not given the thirty-nine lashes by his fellow Jews because he asks them to ‘try’ Jesus in the same way one might try a kebab (2 Cor. 11:24). He is not executed for suggesting that Roman citizens may wish to invite Jesus into their hearts. No, Paul has the courage and conviction to proclaim that the one who is to come again, the Messiah, is Jesus, who has fulfilled Israel’s hopes by being cursed on a cross and raised from the dead. Jesus is the deliverer Israel had hoped for and desperately needed (2 Cor. 1:20; Acts 13:32-34; Rom. 11:26)” (pp. 28-29).
From here Bird treats “the road to Damascus.” Hellenistic Jewish Christian preaching of the gospel to full-fledged Gentiles, welcoming them into the people of God without requiring conversion to Judaism, may have been the catalyst for the persecution triggered by Saul of Tarsus. Saul’s conversion, in turn, while not out of Judaism to a new religion but from a Pharisaic to a messianic sect within Judaism, nevertheless represented a gut-wrenching and decisive transformation,” in which “he was swung around 180 degrees” (p. 35). Saul came to believe that the new covenant Christ claimed to inaugurate was indeed the fulfillment of the covenant God had made with Abraham as early as Genesis 12.
After helpfully offering very succinct synopses of each of Paul’s letters, Bird summarizes Paul’s gospel in narrative form, akin (but not identical) to synopses like those of Witherington, Hays, and Wright. In defense of his procedure he quotes Luther on the gospel as a story, rather than a mere series of propositions about humanity’s plight and its resolution. Paul’s gospel is a royal announcement that employs frequent language that the emperors had arrogated to themselves. Jesus is thus rightly seen as a rival king because he is the Lord of the universe.
The heart of how Paul defends all of this is to be found in his understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection. Justification “is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age” (p. 96). While not a Pauline term, the “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is “a necessary and logical inference” from Paul’s thought overall and is a helpful way to summarize a number of key themes: righteousness as a forensic status, the representative roles of Adam and Christ, Christ’s obedience and faithfulness, our union with Christ, his righteousness as a gift to us, and the role of God’s “reckoning” it to us (p. 97). “The mistake comes when scholars, even well-intentioned ones, try to read the entire package back into certain texts of Paul’s letters—it just does not come out that way.” In short, Bird follows Leon Morris, “who said that imputation is a corollary of the identification of the believer with Christ” (p. 98). Bird continues with equally helpful, if briefer, treatments of sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, renewal, and victory in Paul.
Bird’s understanding of Paul’s eschatology is more a kin to standard American historic dispensationalism than the common amillennialism of his native and adopted homelands. He cautiously endorses a millennial reign in 1 Corinthians 15:23-25, sees a future for the conversion of a significant number of Jews in light of Romans 11:26 and adopts a posttribulational perspective in view of 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and 2 Thessalonians 2. “Our churches, some American ones in particular, need to spend less time telling non-Christians how to cope with being ‘left behind’ and start teaching Christians that to know Christ means to have fellowship with his sufferings and to be conformed to his death (Phil. 3:10)! For one day the prosperity bubble will burst and the lawless one will be revealed” (p. 118).
As Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham have both shown in massive detail, even if in different ways, Paul’s Christology was astonishingly exalted at a very early stage. In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 he could predicate the same things of Jesus as the Hebrew Scriptures did of Yahweh, and in Philippians 2:9-11 alludes to Isaiah 45:23, making Jesus hold the same exalted role as the prophet ascribed to God himself. Bird notes in passing that Jehovah’s Witnesses have no prescribed responses to these observations.
Bird has a healthy respect for the salvation-historical shift in the ages in Paul’s ethical thought. Christians are no longer under the Law, which was a temporary administration of God’s grace, highlighting the severity of sin and the need for a Savior and pointing people to Jesus. The Law is fulfilled in the love commandment and informs Christian ethics but never apart from its interpretation by Jesus and the apostles. Christian liberty or freedom permeated with love will achieve a balanced mediating position between legalism and license. Romans 7:14-25 is understood to be Paul’s Christian reassessment of his plight as a pre-Christian Jew, though not one of which he was aware before Jesus appeared to him.
On the vexed issues of sexual ethics, Bird properly finds Paul limiting full sexual union to a heterosexual, monogamous marriage. “While Paul for the most part shared the patriarchal perspective of the ancient world, he also speaks of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21) and a mutual authority (1 Cor. 7:4) between husbands and wives” (p. 119).
Before a brief conclusion, Bird deals with Paul’s spirituality, which is centered on cruciformity and anastasisity (did he make this word up?–it’s only google hits were to part of the name of one transliterated Russian website!), i.e., conformity to Christ’s cross and resurrection. To sense how bizarre early Christian hymnody, including that used by Paul, would have seemed to the unbeliever when it worshiped a crucified Messiah, Bird concocts the analogous doggerel about a hypothetical Peruvian peasant: “Carlos was there on that horrible chair. They tied him down with bolts and then zapped him with 40,000 volts. It was for you our saviour fried and died. Despite the fact that his hair caught on fire, this one was God’s true Messiah. The wisdom of the world has been refuted because Carlos was electrocuted. He is my saviour and my lamp, because he absorbed every deadly amp. Now I know that God does care, ‘cause he sent Carlos Hernandez to the electric chair” (p. 163)!
There is one glaring factual error in the book, as Bird assigns all of the Pastoral Epistles to Paul’s second imprisonment, not just 2 Timothy (pp. 32, 70), and several curious statements that cry out for explanation where we find none: Why is Ephesians assigned to the second imprisonment that Bird dates to some time between 65-68 and not to the period of house arrest in Rome between 60-62 in which he, like most evangelicals, places Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon? Why does he call the label “Pastoral Epistles” a misnomer (because there is a pastoral element to all Paul’ letters) without acknowledging that the label came from the fact that these three alone were written first of all to his apostolic delegates, Timothy and Titus, as pastors? What is meant by his chart on p. 47 that appears to make the Mosaic covenant plus the New covenant add up to the Abrahamic covenant (by an arc so-entitled that spans the two)? Nor am I yet convinced that pistis Christou means “Christ’s faithfulness” in any of the places where most modern translations render it “faith in Christ.”
But these are minor complaints compared to the abundant merits of this small book. I intend immediately to recommend it to my students as a supplement to their more major reading assignments on Paul and his epistles. May we have many more “Bird’s Eye View” books of New Testament scholarship in years to come, and may the American IVP in the future retain the wonderful British IVP title!
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament