Monday, August 9, 2010

Review of Introducing Paul

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message. By Michael F. Bird. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008, 192 pp., $20.00, paper.

Michael Bird sets out to provide an introductory book on Paul’s life, thought, and writings in a way that is relevant and stimulating without being overly-distracted by “scholarly debates and complex technicalities” (p. 6). This is quite a challenge; however, Bird, who is a lecturer in Theology and Bible at Crossway College, in Queensland, Australia, admirably accomplishes this task in Introducing Paul. Chapter 1 is a fast-paced discussion seeking to answer the question, What is Paul? Bird’s answer is that he was “a servant of Jesus Christ” (p. 29). Furthermore, this chapter introduces the reader to various contested issues within Pauline studies, all structured around the image of Paul as a “persecutor, missionary, theologian, pastor, martyr, and maverick” (p. 28). Bird understands Paul’s greatest accomplishment to be his successful mission to include gentiles within the transformed understanding of the people of God. Chapter 2 briefly highlights the implications of Paul’s Damascus road experience, referred to as a conversion “to a messianic sect within Judaism” (p. 35 emphasis original). Bird provides a traditional Pauline chronology and then a description of the way Paul’s identity and theologizing were discontinuous with his Pre-Damascus road Jewish self-understanding and Pharisaic theology.

Chapter 3 presents a narrative substructure for a Pauline biblical theology. Bird’s topical review of salvation history provides the reader with key intersecting narratives that inform his epistolary discourse. His discussion of Adam and Christ is quite theological while his discussion of Israel argues the viewpoint that, for Paul, the church has replaced Israel as the people of God (p. 50). Chapter 4 gives a brief summary of the argument, structure, and framework of all the canonical letters attributed to Paul. Bird is a maximalist with regard to Pauline authorship of these letters (but see pp. 70-71 n.5). Chapter 5 provides a narrative-critical reading of the Gospel. Bird contends that for Paul, the Gospel is concerned with both the person and work of Christ. Furthermore, the Pauline stories in Rom. 1.1-4, 1 Cor. 15.1-5, and 2 Tim. 2.8, function as theological narratives designed to inform their auditors about God, salvation, and humanity (83). Bird draws from historic empire studies and the work of N.T. Wright to provide an informative discussion of the way the gospel was heard in the context of Roman imperial ideology.

The death and resurrection of Christ, which Bird understands as the center of Paul’s theological thought, is expressed through images and metaphors designed to explicate the significance of the Gospel. These concepts are introduced by Bird in chapter 6 and, when taken together provide a contingent discursive understanding of Pauline soteriology. The expressions covered by Bird include: righteousness, sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, renewal, and victory. Chapter 7 offers a brief discussion of Paul’s eschatology and its importance for New Testament theology in general. Bird presents the “already” and “not yet” scheme, while also considering it plausible, based on 1 Cor. 15.23-25, that Paul expected a “messianic or millennial reign of Christ upon the earth” (p. 121). In Chapter 8, Bird presents Paul as a “messianic” monotheist who understands Christ as one “participating in the divine identity” (pp. 126, 128). This is an excellent of example of the way an introductory book can discuss important and relevant but often challenging conceptual material. The subject of Pauline ethics is the focus of chapter 9. Bird relies on the traditional Pauline “indicative” and “imperative” interpretive framework as a way to organize some of Paul’s teaching on the social implications of the Gospel (p. 136). Chapter 10 discusses Paul’s approach to discipleship and spiritual formation, which Bird refers to as “gospelizing”. In “gospelization”, individuals are formed in the shape of the cross and empowered by Christ’s resurrection (p. 162). The epilogue provides a reminder concerning the fragmentary nature of the Pauline discourse, the significance of his legacy within church history, and a clarion call to emulate Paul by living a missional life.

Bird has written a useful entry-level book for undergraduates, informed laypersons, and for ministers seeking to stay current within Pauline studies. His book sometimes presents only one side of rather disputed and contentious issues (e.g. the relationship of the church and Israel) and the influence of N.T. Wright is evident throughout the work. This book is recommended for those seeking to understand the contours of Paul’s thought in a way that is engaging, relevant, and highly readable.

Originally published as:
Review of Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), Criswell Theological Review, N.S. volume 7, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 119-20.

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