New/Old Perspective on Justification 4

The New Perspective argues that since Judaism was not a works religion, Paul was not opposing “works” righteousness. If everything in the old perspective flows out of the view that humans are merit-striving and if everything flows from a gospel that assaults human striving by replacing it with grace and faith, and if the new perspective is more accurate, then, well, lots of Paul’s theology deserves a more careful look. Which is why the works of Ed Sanders, Jimmy Dunn and Tom Wright are so much at the center of today’s debates. And since so much is at stake, we ought not be to surprised at the vehement reaction to the new perspective by some in the Reformed camp. Someone once told me he heard a well-known NT scholar say “Anyone who believes in the new perspective is not a Christian.” Well, that’s raising the flag, wouldn’t you say?

Thanks to the fine efforts of James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, the book, Justification: Five Views (Spectrum Multiview Books), we have a book that sorts out the various views on justification in this new perspective debate today. We looked last week at Michael Horton’s traditional Reformed view, and today we look at Michael Bird’s “progressive” Reformed view.

Michael Bird is one of the bright young lights in the evangelical movement, but he’s not easy to box up into a predictable position. Michael wants more if more is to be had in the Reformed view; and he wants less if the Bible dictates less. So, in this post, he moves outside the box of Horton but is not with Dunn. He’s Reformed but he’s got a new perspective kind of Reformed theology of Paul. He takes “reformed and always reforming” seriously. Most Reformed don’t.

How does Bird’s take on justification strike you? Does it improve on Reformed thinking? Does it go far enough toward the new perspective? If not, where does it not go far enough?

He gets us started with this: “justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as part of the first installment of the new age” (132). Paul’s emphasis in justification language — and here he parts ways with everyone in the traditional Reformed camp — “justification is Paul’s way of describing how the gospel saves Gentiles and brings them into the heritage of Israel” (133). “Works of the law,” so contested in this debate, “means works that the law requires, though in some contexts the laws that distinguish Jews from Gentiles” [there’s the more I spoke of above].

Here’s a ringer and I totally agree with Bird here: “justification by faith is not the gospel per se, rather, it is the mechanism that describes how the Gentiles can partake of those Abrahamic promises” (138). [I’m not convinced Michael is consistent on this one because he sees Jews needing justification too, so I want to say that Bird’s statement here is an attempt to mirror the emphasis in Paul’s theology.]

The “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:16-17 is subjective; it is not the gospel; it is not justification by faith; it is reducible to God’s covenant faithfulness. [Here he’s getting “more” again.]

He summarizes this discussion in ways that lead to greater nuance from that opening definition: God’s righteousness bursts into the world through the gospel about the Lord Jesus; there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles; it is God’s grace in putting all believers in a right relationship; is tied to the Abraham promise of bringing in Gentiles; it is rooted in God’s eschatological purposes.

What then of double imputation? Bird presses against how Reformed folks work this doctrine and says they are too medieval and too merit-based in how they conceive of double imputation. “righteousness… is not a property to be transferred, but a a status to be conferred” (147; my italics in this post). He is not convinced that even Romans 5:17-19 teaches much of what the Calvinist double imputation folks want it to teach. He pushes here against Piper. 1 Cor 1:30 is not imputational, reckoning language. And even 2 Cor 5:21 need not be: it might be that he “became” (not counted as) sin by bearing the load of sin on our behalf. There is no reference to Christ’s righteousness in imputation passages; there is no evidence his obedience was seen as merit; the big point is that by faith and in Christ we gain the status of righteous.

Bird drives home the centrality of union with Christ, not double imputation. For Horton the center is justification; the center of that is double imputation. Bird says, No, the center is union with Christ. He’s with Wright here in affirming union, but Bird wants “more”: imputation becomes “a necessary implicate” (151). In the end, I think Bird affirms something very close to the Reformed view of double imputation, but it is shorn of its medieval merit and active/passive obedience scholastic elements. He’s completely right here: union with Christ is more central, and Christ himself is even more central, and it is contact with Christ that does the work.

So we are back to five elements in justification: forensic; eschatological; covenantal; effective (it transforms); trinitarian.

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  • John W Frye

    Scot, these essays remind me that Luther and Calvin were as much informed by their cultural lens as any other theologians. That medieval categories shaped Luther’s theology need not shock us. Yet, some Reformed thinkers arrogantly assume that the *only* thing that shaped Luther’s theology was the text. This is where the postmodern critique might have some beneficial traction in “reformed and always reforming.” –In Lutsk, Ukraine. –John

  • John W Frye

    The above comment was posted at 7:11 a.m. here in Lutsk, Ukraine. I did not get up at 1:00 a.m. to write.

  • Rick

    I like what Bird once said in an interview:

    “I think the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is correct in what it affirms, but wrong in what it denies.”

    I agree with him.

  • DRT

    The language seems to get in the way imo. Thanks for giving me the space to work this out here.

    If I could be so bold and describe it from a god perspective I think it will make my point. God had been hanging out trying to keep Israel in the game until he could send Jesus. Its much like the wizard of oz, Dorothy had the power to go home anytime she wanted all along. Just like Paul says in the beginning of Romans, it should have been plain to us. But it was not, and when god came to us (Jesus), showed us the way, and was raised from the dead, it showed the way home. So from his perspective he is telling us that he is not going to push anyone away. That’s the point. Just come on board and follow him. That’s it. Justification is just a fancy way of saying that it is ok, he will not push us away.

    So when Bird says ““justification is Paul’s way of describing how the gospel saves Gentiles and brings them into the heritage of Israel” he still has this Calvinistic propensity to somehow make it something about us, but he is getting close. He is still, I think, ascribing a state to being *saved* as opposed to describing the relationship. Saving just means that we take god up on his offer to come into his fold. Justification means that he won’t push us away if we take him up on his offer. The good news is that we finally have a clear vision of who we should follow, and he we should take him up on his offer that he will not push us away if we choose to follow him.

    I like Bird’s take on righteousness, he moves it out of the category of a property and into a description of a relationship, almost. “righteousness… is not a property to be transferred, but a a status to be conferred” Close. The “status to be conferred” still makes it about us, though not as explicitly. To make it more relational he could just say it says we are in relationship with god.

    Again, you say “the big point is that by faith and in Christ we gain the status of righteous.” Doesn’t this just mean that we choose to follow the Messiah and therefore are on the right team now? With being on the right team = righteous?

    Again, thanks for letting me work this out here.

  • I was thinking about this in the shower this morning. Where, outside of Paul, does δικαιόω (dikaiow) mean to enter the covenant? Even in Romans, the opposite of being justified is being condemned. The whole covenant aspect of justification that Wright and others see is still a mystery to me. It sounds good, I just can’t find it anywhere.

    And for the life of me I can’t figure out why imputation and union always have to get played off against each other in these discussions. Maybe I just need to read more.

    Thanks for the review.

  • jdm


    dikaiow is not a technical theological term. It is a word meaning “to be found in the right” or “to be confirmed as the case.” Dikaiow gets thrown into different contexts and therefore takes on different connotations. Thus, the disagreement takes place, not over what the word itself means, but what Paul or Jesus or James is talking about when they use the word. If it can be demonstrated that Paul’s main concern is to explain how Gentiles (and even Jews for that matter) can be included within the covenant family of God without having to adhere to the Mosaic Law, then Dikaiow means God is announcing who is “in the right” concerning covenant membership. This is why Wright says justification is not about how one gets in but the declaration that one is already in.

  • jdm, I understand the argument, I just don’t see that it works. First, to say that dikaiow is not technical theological term is a non sequitur. And second, of course words have meaning in context. So my question: find me a context where dikaiow equivocally means “announcing someone to be in the covenant.”

    To say that someone is “in the right” concerning covenant membership makes little sense to me unless the courtroom Paul has in mind is irreducibly a covenant courtroom. But I don’t see it. Does Rom 8:1 mean that there is no no “non-covenant membership” for those who are in Christ? I don’t think so. Is Ps. 32:1-2 about David’s covenant membership? I don’t think so.

    Lastly, I’ve never been able to understand how Wright manages to keep “how one gets in” so hermetically sealed from “the declaration that one is in.” That sounds like a distinction without a difference to my ears.


  • Tim

    I agree that Luther, Calvin et al. were influenced by their contexts. At the same time, I think that much of what is taken as *the* Reformation view often goes beyond Luther and Calvin themselves. Lutheranism, post Luther, tied justification strongly to Philip Melancthon’s view of imputation, with a tendency toward seeing righteousness as an abstract legal entity taken from Christ and given to us. Although I’m not a NPP proponent per se, I think Wright’s quip that “righteousness is not a gas passed across the courtroom” has some bite for the Melancthonian view of justification.

    A further complicating factor seems to be Calvin’s polemic against Andreas Osiander. They actually agreed about quite a bit, both objecting to an impersonal abstracting of righteousness from Christ and transfer to us. Rather, both Calvin and Osiander conceived of justification fundamentally “in Christ”, in very personal terms. Whether rightly or wrongly, Calvin perceived Osiander’s view as bordering on a fusion of divine and human natures, and objected vehemently to it. In the aftermath, scholastic Calvinism and its modern descendants tend to be overly suspicious of anything that smacks of “participation,” “transformation,” and at times, even “union with Christ.”

    I say this as a Calvinist (more along the lines of Bird) who thinks a lot of the NPP’s critics need to chill out. As far as I’ve read, Luther and Calvin were much more along the lines that salvation (including, of course, justification, but also adoption, sanctification, etc.) was found *in* Christ, not abstracted from him and doled out to us.