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A Bird’s-Eye View of Paul: The man, his mission and his message

By Michael Bird
November 2008 | Review by Nathan Pomeroy

Synopsis

As Christians, we all know the apostle Paul, don't we? He is our theological master, our pastoral mentor, our spiritual advisor and our missionary hero. Yet just when we think we have him in our grasp, we find he slips through our fingers. At the point where we suppose we have finally understood him, Paul again confounds us and stirs our hearts and minds further. So how well do we really know him? If the Paul we claim to know looks and sounds a lot like us, then that is probably a good indication that we don't know him as well as we think we do. However, all is not lost. If we let Paul be Paul, letting him speak for himself in his language, on his terms and for his purposes, then we stand a chance of meeting him anew. Mike Bird offers a lively, accessible new survey of the apostle Paul's life and teaching. His aim is to get us excited about reading Paul's letters, preaching his gospel, and living the Christian life.

  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press
  • ISBN: 978-1844742554
  • Pages: 192
  • Price: £9.99
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Book Review

Dr Bird describes himself as ‘a redhead Reformed Baptist with an Australian accent and a Pauline view of the law’. He is lecturer in New Testament at Highland Theological College and his bibliography indicates his engagement with modern scholarship on the Apostle Paul. Interestingly, most references are from the works of J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright (both leading writers of the ‘new perspective on Paul’).

The first 70 pages cover Paul’s biography and his letters. There is a good emphasis on the need to understand Paul in the light of redemptive history – both the Old Testament and Jesus.

The next 100 pages cover the ‘building blocks of his theology’ and are an exposition of the gospel. I found this section most stimulating. The gospel focuses on both the work of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5) and the identity of Christ (Romans 1:3-5). ‘There is no gospel without the heralding of the king, and there is no gospel without atonement and resurrection’.

Bird warns of the deficiency of articulating ‘the gospel as a series of linear propositions in need of resolution rather than seeing it as the fulfilment of a redemptive-historical story’. He affirms penal substitution and also lays stress on the ‘not yet’ aspect of the gospel.

In two areas I felt rather uneasy. Bird gives a fourfold definition of justification which I found confusing – justification is ‘forensic … covenantal … eschatological … effective’. Second, although he clearly believes in the deity of Christ he doesn’t use traditional Trinitarian language to describe it. ‘Messianic monotheism’ replaces ‘second person of the Trinity’ and ‘Son of God’ is only a messianic title.

The final two chapters expound what it means to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, including a rebuttal of the third use of the law. He affirms that a disciple of Jesus must be conformed to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

If Paul’s theology is pictured as a beautiful garden, Dr Bird guides us through the garden with ease, but because he doesn’t always use the well-trodden paths we are able to see the glories of the gospel from different angles. I don’t think he leads us outside the garden, but it would have been helpful if he had pointed out the fence around the garden – especially in the light of current debates.

Tags:
Apostle Paul

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