Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Book Summary and Evaluation: Michael F. Bird's "Introducing Paul"

Note:  Just about every semester I teach a college course titled “New Testament and Early Christianity.”  In addition to the Bible and the main textbook I generally also assign a brief secondary book on the life and letters of Paul.  Last semester, I made use of Australian evangelical scholar Michael F. Bird’s Introducing Paul.   This semester I am using Anthony C. Thiselton’s The Living Paul (IVP Academic, 2009) and next semester I plan to use Thomas R. Schreiner’s Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, Second Ed. (Baker Academic, 2011).  Here is my summary of each chapter and my final evaluation of Introducing Paul:

Book Summary and Evaluation

Michael Bird, Introducing Paul:  The Man, His Mission, His Message (IVP Academic, 2008).

1.  What is Paul?

There are five images that emerge for Paul:  persecutor, missionary, theologian, pastor, martyr.

Paul was a maverick and a controversialist.

2.  A funny thing happened on the road to Damascus

There are three historical anchor points for determining Paul’s life:  (1) Death of King Aretas c. 38-40 AD (cf. 2 Cor 11:32-33; Acts 9:24-25); (2) expulsion of Jews from Rome by Claudius in 49 AD (cf. Acts 18:2); and (3) proconsulship of Gallio in Corinth 51-52 AD (cf. Acts 18:11-13).

Bird provides a chronology of Paul’s life and letters from birth (c. 5 BC-10 AD) to death (c. 67-68 AD).

Paul was “the last person” one would have expected to become a Christian (p. 37).

3.  The stories behind the story

Here the focus in on the OT backgrounds for Paul’s thought:  God and creation; Adam and Christ; Abraham; Israel.

Brid also investigates Paul’s understanding of Jesus:  What did Paul know about the historical Jesus?  Bird says Paul does not “play off” the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” (p. 55).  Also important is Paul’s view of the ekklesia as the people of God.

4.  Reading someone else’s mail

Bird reviews each of Paul’s letters in this order (reflecting his view of their chronological order): Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Romans, Pastorals.

Bird presumes Pauline authorship of all epistles.

5.  The royal announcement

Bird presents his summary of Paul’s understanding of the gospel as more than merely a series of propositional points.  The gospel concerns the story or narrative of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-5; Rom 1:1-4; 2 Tim 2:8).  The gospel “is what one believes in and is saved by” (p. 82).

Bird also notes how Paul’s gospel and its declaration that “Jesus is Lord” would have brought him into conflict with Caesar.

“The centre of Paul’s gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Messiah” (pp. 90-91).

6.  The crux of the gospel

This chapter offers a survey of various concepts Paul uses to describe the significance and meaning of the cross and resurrection:  righteousness [justification and imputation; note:  Bird does not see imputation as explicit but implicit in the text of Paul]; sacrifice [note:  Bird sides with Leon Morris against C. H. Dodd in favoring “propitiation” over “expiation”; he also gives a nuanced affirmation of “penal substitution”]; reconciliation; redemption; adoption; renewal [note the discussion here:  Bird might be accused of confusing justification and sanctification]; victory.

7.  The return of the King

Bird traces Paul’s eschatology.  Paul believed in two ages:  the present evil age and the age to come.  With Christ;s coming the two ages now overlap.

Paul anticipates large numbers of Jews being converted in the future.

Note:  Bird rejects dispensationalism but holds to a messianic or millennial reign of Christ on earth after the parousia (some form of either historic premillennialism or post-millennialism?).

Paul also teaches a personal eschatology:  life after death. 

8.  One God, one Lord:  monotheism and the Messiah

Paul was a messianic monotheist:  “God is known through Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus is the one who reveals and manifests the person and work of God” (p. 125).

9.  Living a life worthy of the gospel:  the ethics of Paul

Paul taught that when one becomes a Christian he undergoes a “fundamental shift” (p. 135).

Bird rejects the idea of there being a “civil war” in believers but prefers to say shortcomings are due to failure to live as new creatures.

He offers a “pre-Christian” reading of Romans 7.  The “I” is Israel.

Paul sees the weakness of the law.  Bird rejects the Puritan distinction between law and gospel:  “Paul was not a Puritan in this regard” (p. 141).

He urges Christians to live fruitful lives following the example and teaching of Jesus.

Bird rejects the ongoing validity of the moral law.  He writes, for example, "Surely the Ten Commandments feature prominently in the life of the Christian according to Paul?  To put it bluntly, not necessarily!" (p. 148).

Paul urged pursuit of things that lead to peace and urged liberty exercised in love to avoid both license and legalism.

Paul followed Jewish norms and rejected sexuality outside marriage.  He rejected homosexual behavior.  Bird says Paul saw a place for women in public ministry. 

10.  Gospelizing 101:  Paul’s spirituality

Paul urged “cruciformity” (being shaped by the cross) and “anastasisity” (living with resurrection power).
11.  Epilogue

Paul’s legacy:  the acceptance of Gentiles and the acceptance of his letters as Scripture.

Final Evaluation:  Bird is an engaging and entertaining (even humorous) writer.  This book is an interesting read.  Unfortunately, it reflects many of the weaknesses typical of evangelical scholarship which attempts both to be conversant with modern scholarship and hold to orthodox Christianity.  On the positive side, Bird upholds the traditional view of authorship of all the Pauline epistles.  He also provides an uncompromising presentation of Paul’s views on human sexuality.  On the negative side, his views on imputation are weak.  He does not uphold a Reformed view of the law/gospel and of the abiding validity of the moral law (see chapter 9).  Also, he presents an egalitarian view of gender with regard to church office and public ministry.

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