Christianity as eschatology

Section 3 of Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology is Gospel and Kingdom.

The kingdom of God for Bird is ‘divine dominion’ – an inaugurated eschatology where kingdom is both present now and not yet fully arrived – here he is following Ladd, Jeremias, G R Beasley-Murray etc.  Scot McKnight has posted more on this section and has commented before on the limits of Ladd’s rather idealised and abstracted idea of the kingdom – Scot wants to link it more ‘earthily’ with the story of Israel and the people of God.

But here are some broad questions:

Where does eschatology ‘fit’ in your everyday faith? What difference does it make in church life – how much does the local church see itself as an eschatological pilgrim community? What difference in your work?  In your motives, priorities and hopes?

How future oriented do Christians in the West tend to be? Or do we tend to be so tied to this life with all its comforts and pleasures that we have little desire, thought or need for the next?

Bird rightly wants to push eschatology up to the top of the list. Christian faith is eschatological from first to last. He concurs with Moltmann (Christianity is eschatology) but more importantly with the entire thrust of the New Testament.

He sees kingdom as God’s reign over God’s people in God’s place – the entire biblical story is framed eschatologically as it moves towards God’s redemption of creation from evil, sin and death. Jesus’ teaching is kingdom centered – the now and the not yet of the kingdom of God. Paul’s theology is thoroughly eschatological – as Peter, as Revelation. The church is an eschatological community, or as Bird puts it, a community of exiles journeying towards a heavenly Jerusalem.

It is this future-orientated story that marks out Christianity out from other world views – past and present.

– Contra the story of the eternal and glorious advance of Roman civilization.

– Contra Enlightenment optimism.

– Contra postmodernity’s pluralism and fragmentation.

– And, contra I would add, capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit.

He says that “eschatology …. is not just about the final chapter of the book of history. No, eschatology is an invasive story, about how God’s promises to bring justice, reconciliation, and peace to earth have already invaded this age …”

The end result is that God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

The future hope of Jesus’ return  has 3 implications for Bird:

  1. Evangelize: tell the good news of the gospel. Eschatology as the engine for mission.
  2. Endure: hope in suffering.
  3. Encourage: spur one another on in light of the future (Heb 10:24-5).

He also lists 7 excellent reasons of Richard Hays on why the church needs apocalyptic eschatology:

  1. To carry Israel’s story forward – the whole story of Scripture and God’s promises to Israel find fulfilment in the eschatological people of God.
  2. To see the cross as a saving event for the world – the victory won at the cross has cosmic implications; it destroys the power of the old order and inaugurates new creation.
  3. To provide critique of pagan culture – Jesus is Lord over all powers, authorities, ideologies, politics and truth claims.
  4. To resist complacency and triumphalism – the church is a servant of God on a journey.
  5. To affirm the body – eschatology is not anti-creation. It is for new creation and that includes resurrection bodies. God creates the world good.
  6. To ground its mission – future hope shapes mission.
  7. To speak with integrity about suffering and death – Christians are to be realistic about the evil of grief and death and injustice – but grieve with hope and compassion (and work for justice now).

In the rest of the section Bird unpacks his views for historic premillennialism (like Blomberg et al) and is post-tribulation, intermediate state and heaven (like N T Wright, a waiting place prior to new creation), hell (as eternal punishment) and new creation.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Gospel of God: is God good?

Probably one of the biggest questions circulating around the interface between Christianity and contemporary (western) culture concerns the goodness (or not) of God.

The (not very) new atheists take the line that the hypothetical idea of ‘god’ (which lazily tends to mean the Christian God lumped within an ill-defined and ultimately nonsensical notion of ‘religion’) is a decidedly unpleasant character – perhaps indeed the greatest villain ever to be invented by the human mind.

Hence Christopher Hitchen’s polemic that God is not great or good and Richard Dawkins’ famous adjective-laden description of the God of the OT – you know, that petty, unjust, unforgiving, vindictive control-freak who is at the same time a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Yes, that one.

Yet the ultimate foundation to sustain a living Christian faith is a belief in the absolute goodness of God. For if God is not good he can’t be trusted, loved, worshipped and followed with any solid sense of joy and hope. And the consistent witness of Scripture is to the utter goodness of God.

So it is a significant theme that Michael Bird turns to in Part 2 of his Evangelical Theology – the gospel of God (e.g., Romans 1:1). This means not only that the gospel is of God (he is the origin of good news), he himself is good news.

Bird argues that it is in the gospel that God is most truly revealed. The doctrine of God is best seen through the lens of gospel. This works out in 4 ways:

Trinity: the gospel is a window into the triune nature of God. The gospel is our closest point of contact for understanding the triune God – Father Son and Spirit who act together in salvation. Each person of the Godhead ‘perform’ distinct roles in the economy of salvation (eg the Father chooses, the Son redeems, the Spirit sanctifies]. Without the Trinity the gospel loses coherence [I’d have expected some engagement with Rahner’s view that ‘the economic trinity is the immanent trinity’ and vice versa since it ties in so closely with what is being argued here].

Character: the gospel reveals what God is like; it shows us his self-giving nature; his infinite love, his justice and judgement and his grace.

Story: if the gospel is a narrative of Jesus, this narrative is set within the wider story of creation, redemption and new creation. So the gospel of Jesus Christ points us to the revelation of God as creator and redeemer.

[Observation: here I think was a possible departure point to write a very differently structured ‘evangelical theology’. While Bird is using ‘gospel’ as the key to unlock systematic discussion of the traditional foci of theology, it would have been a more radical move to structure the book around the gospel narrative rather than fitting gospel into systematic structure.]

The ultimate aim or telos of the gospel also reveals God’s final objective. God is the giver and gift. His goal is ‘bring glory to himself by the effusion of his holy love in uniting the world with the Logos.’ (91).

The next few chapters unpack this in detail. I like the emphasis on gospel and it feels fresh as an interpretative lens by which to look at the doctrine of God. This is a very readable theology textbook.

Evangelical sausage-maker theology

Step 1: insert the Bible

Step 2: crank the handle, and grind the Bible into a series of propositions.

Step 3: arrange the propositions into nice neat pristine doctrine.

This ‘sausage maker’ approach to theology is, laments Michael Bird, the theological method of ‘most evangelicals’ and it amounts to little more than a ‘naive biblicism’.

This was certainly a ‘default’ perspective that I held for years. I subconsciously assumed this rationalistic dissection of the Bible was the way to do theology and didn’t really know any differently.

I guess you could say I’m a recovering biblicist. How about you? 😉

There are a couple of assumptions floating around such a theological methodology:

– the Bible is all you really need to do theology

– the main purpose of theology is to distil propositional truth to be believed

– the actual form of Scripture is a bit like a complex riddle to be un-coded and sorted out into neat logical categories

The problem is that this sort of theology ‘de-stories’ the Bible. It detaches it from an overarching narrative and flattens its variegated genres and sub-plots into a uni-dimensional source book of truth. It gets pretty sterile pretty quickly.

Bird mentions Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology as an example of such biblicism – a sort of theology, despite some strengths, that is ‘derived from a concordance’. Gotta admit it is not one of my favourite theology books.

Vanhoozer gets quoted

“Scripture is not simply a propositional shaft to be exegetically mined and theologically refined like so much textual dross to be purified into systems of philosophy or morality. On the contrary, both the form and content of the New Testament are elements in the divine drama of revelation and redemption.”

And Bird puts it this way in arguing against naive evangelical biblicism:

“We take Scripture with the utmost seriousness, but we do Scripture a disservice if we attend only to it. It is Scripture understood in the light of the regula fidei that will enable us to bring together the Christian canon and the Christian community in a fruitful exchange. Similarly, we need to believe propositions about God, but our theology is about more than propositions, for it encompasses our relationship with God, our mission in the world, and our performance of the drama that we find ourselves in as Christians.” (80)

Bird’s method in constructing an evangelical theology is to;

  1. Define the evangel
  2. Relate the gospel to the main foci if Christian theology (God, person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, humanity, church, last things etc)
  3. Embark on a creative dialogue between the sources of theology (the primary authority of Scripture, but also tradition, natural revelation, engagement with cultural context and so on)
  4. Describe what the loci look like when applied and appropriated in light of the gospel – when theology is not only believed cognitively but lived.
  5. Engage in a continuing spiral between theology and practice: learning is applied, but in the application new things are learnt and more questions arise. So we do more theology by listening to Scripture, traditions and teachers and so on.

So Bird says he is offering ‘simply the first steps toward thinking aloud about how we perform the divine drama in the communities of faith we find ourselves in.’

My comment, theology in this sense is not ‘fixed’ but ‘alive’. It is developing, growing, questioning, exploring and learning because this is what life is like.

Bird on gospel

Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: a biblical and systematic introduction arrived on my desk this morning.

His project is to construct an authentically evangelical theology shaped around the gospel (=evangel). In his prolegomena he argues the following – and how persuaded are you by what he says here?:

1. A theology which begins with the gospel will be defined and shaped by the gospel

2. The gospel possesses an experiential and logical priority over all other doctrines – the gospel is where we first experience the salvific benefits of a redemptive relationship with God.

3. A gospel focussed theology will help us to stay centered, navigating for example between liberalism and fundamentalism

4. The gospel is a natural integrative motif for Christian theology  and Bird is well aware that many others have been tried: Barth (self-disclosure of the Triune God); Grenz (the community of God); Calvin (the glory of God); Reformed systems (covenant); Dispensationalists (kingdom); Erickson (magnificence of God); Luther (justification by faith).

5. The shape and content of the NT itself points to the gospel as the integrative core of Christian faith (the gospel of God in Rom 1:1 and elsewhere).

6. The new birth by the regenerating power of the Spirit is a fulfilment of the promise of the gospel. Missiology is gossiping the gospel. Apologetics is defending the gospel. Ecclesiology is study of the gospelized community and so on

7. The Christian canon is gospel shaped. Genesis to Revelation; the gospels as the foundation of the NT; the gospel of Rom 1:1-4 at the beginning of Romans. This is what Bird calls ‘gospelesque architecture’.

8. The gospel is the hermeneutical lens through which we read Scripture. The Bible is read in light of the euangelion that lies at its heart (Francis Watson). The gospel is the interpretative grid for Scripture. Irenaeus called it ‘the ground and pillar of our faith’. It is, says Bird, ‘the lens through which we understand the mission of the Triune God and his work for us in salvation.’ (45)

A closing quote

It is, dare I say, the beauty of the gospel that matures our theological reflection on who God is toward us in Jesus Christ. (41)

Claiming the G word

This is a 3 part post on Christian overuse and misuse of the word gospel that I’ve been mulling over for a while.

It is offered not in a snide critical way, but out of an increasing sense of sadness at the divisions within evangelicalism (‘gospel people’ to quote John Stott) over the very word that gives them their name.

Reading some literature from a Christian organisation a while ago I couldn’t help noticing the frequency of the word ‘gospel’. It was everywhere.  I counted over 50 appearances used in about 20 different ways. For example:

‘gospel message’, ‘gospel-centred churches’, ‘full-time ministry of the gospel’, ‘the work of the gospel’/’gospel work’/’gospel workers’, ‘gospel partnership’, ‘growth of the gospel’, ‘the gospel speaks to the heart’, ‘the blessings of the gospel’, ‘gospel commitment’, ‘bringing the gospel to x’, ‘y being passionate about the gospel’, ‘proclaiming the gospel’ , ‘everything we do has the gospel at the centre’ – and so on.

Now I’m all for the gospel. It’s the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). It bears fruit and grows as it is taught and learnt (Col 1:5-6).  It is a message that, by the grace of God, has changed my life.

But I have a few problems with this sort of claiming of the ‘G word’ for just about every aspect of Christian activity. Here’s the first reason why:

  1. Indiscriminate use of the G-word devalues its meaning

As has been blogged about plenty of times here, the gospel has a specific meaning.  John Dickson has a wonderful chapter on ‘What is the Gospel’ in his equally wonderful book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. In it he offers this summary of the gospel.

“for Paul is the news of Jesus’ royal birth, authoritative teaching and miracles, sacrificial death and burial, glorious resurrection and appearances to witnesses. It is the whole story of the Messiah, establishing him as Lord, Judge and Saviour in God’s kingdom.”

Or you don’t have to take his word for it; try D A Carson,

” … from a comprehensive theological perspective the gospel is the good news of the coming of Jesus – who he is, his mission, above all his death and resurrection, the inauguration of the final eschatological kingdom even now, and all that this means for how we live as individuals and as the church, the eschatological people of God, in fulfilment of all the promises God made in the scriptures that led up to Jesus.”

Or Michael Bird

“God promised in the Scriptures that he would renew creation and restore Israel. The gospel is the good news that God has made these promises good in Jesus, the Messiah and Lord. Jesus died and rose for the purpose of atoning for sins and through faith in him and his work believers are reconciled to God. The new age has been launched and God has revealed his saving righteousness in the gospel so that he justifies and delivers from the penalty and power of sin and death.”

Or Scot McKnight in his recent book The King Jesus Gospel (not a quote)

1 Corinthians 15 is the early and prime example of ‘gospel’ in the NT. And this gospel is best summarised by Jesus the Messiah bringing completion to the story of Israel. The gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ; his life, death, resurrection, ascension and the consummation of the kingdom to come. This is, Scot argues, the message the 4 gospels tell; it is the gospel of Paul; it is the gospel Peter preaches in Acts, and it is what Jesus himself preaches – he repeatedly puts himself at the centre of God’s purposes for Israel.

Now you can come back at me and say I’m just plain wrong, but I suggest that this NT understanding of gospel above is not what is in mind behind the indiscriminate use of the G-word in the sort of literature I was reading.

It’s my strong suspicion that those who most vehemently claim the G word tend to have a pretty specific summary understanding of what gospel equals. And that is something close to an evangelistic summary presentation of how to be saved like this (actual example):

  1. [Bad News] We have a serious sin problem
  2. [Bad News] We cannot solve our sin problem by our own good works
  3. [Good News] God has a solution to our sin problem
  4. [Good News] We must accept God’s solution by faith

I’m not saying this isn’t true as far as it goes. But you don’t need to have Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation to notice that ‘how to get saved’ formula [what Scot McKnight calls a ‘soterian gospel’] is rather a long way from the New Testament’s rich understanding of the Good News. It tends to reduce the gospel down to little more than shorthand for anything to do with evangelistic activity. It’s detached almost completely from the story of the Bible – a story which has the coming of Jesus the Messiah of Israel as its climax.

To equate this with ‘the gospel’ is like comparing a kids colour by numbers picture of the Mona Lisa with the finished masterpiece.

In other words, indiscriminate use of the word ‘gospel’, rather than demonstrating fidelity the good news, actually starts to devalue the G-word. Ironically, it does the opposite of what is intended.

Next post is on how the use of the G-word can become an exclusionary weapon.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Bird’s Eye View of Paul (21): Paul’s Spirituality

The final chapter (10) of Michael Bird’s excellent book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul: the man, his mission and message, is ‘Gospelizing 101: Paul’s Spirituality’

Spirituality is a word that in contemporary language can mean almost anything. So what is Christian spirituality, and more specifically what was Paul’s spirituality?

Bird highlights two themes that stand out from his letters. They are shaped around the gospel since for Paul ‘the Christian life is the gospel-driven life’.

– God is a ‘God of the gospel’

– Christology is understanding ‘the man Jesus Christ’ (1 Tim 2:5) and the ‘gospel of Christ’

– Christian ethics is living ‘a life worthy of the gospel’

– the gift of the Spirit is fulfilment of the ‘promise of the gospel’

– apologetics is the ‘defence of the gospel’

– ecclesiology is the doctrine of the community of the gospelized

– missiology is the practice of gospelizing

– discipleship is the process of gospelization, ‘beginning to reflect in one’s life the realities that the gospel endeavours to create’

This gospel shaped life is supported by two pillars:

i.                    Cruciformity

This is to be shaped in accord with the cross of Christ. Paul came to Corinth determined to preach nothing but ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. What this looks like in Christian spirituality is something like this:

– Foolishness of the cross, the paradox of Christian faith is that from death comes life

– Mutual forgiveness, forgive as you are forgiven

– Overflow with love in gratitude for the cross

– Pattern of life to follow, take up the cross and self-sacrificially live for others

– Seeking the kingdom not the world’s approval, the cross is counter-cultural

– Finding identity in the cross – ‘I no longer live’ but Christ lives in me.

In this sense believing the gospel is far more than assenting to mental set of propositions. Christian spirituality is manifested in actions – taking up the cross daily.

ii.                  Anastasisity

[or to be made alive by the power of Christ’s resurrection. C’mon, what sort of word is that?]

Bird makes an important point here. Too often evangelical theology has focused so much on the cross that it has neglected the resurrection. This has had some negative practical effects. The ‘gospel’ can be reduced down to solving our sin problem [see the earlier post on this]. It can also mean that there is a disconnect between the cross and empowerment for daily Christian living.

Seeing the resurrection as integral to the gospel has positive effects, namely;

– In the here and now Christians experience the life-giving power of the Spirit to live the Christian life.

– The resurrection imparts hope, a hope with real substance and foundation. The hope of the new age to come and the resurrection from the dead.

– the resurrection assures believers of God’s empowerment for all of life – and death

Overall verdict of this book?

Buy it. Read it.

Bird’s eye view of Paul (20) Paul, Sex and Women

In his excellent book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul, Michael Bird has a discussion of ‘Paul, Sex and Women’ in his chapter on Paul’s ethics.

Here’s a good discussion starter …

A society that has rejected God will be driven to pursue power or pleasure, the fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hefner.

And he catches well the dual character of Christian sexual ethics. On the one hand, grace and welcome is there for all, whoever they are and whatever their sexual orientation or lifestyle. On the other hand everyone is called to experience the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit and be part of God’s redeemed humanity.

In other words, grace is not opposed to ethical transformation, indeed it leads to it.

On homosexuality the exegetical territory is so well mapped out that it is difficult to add to the conversation. Bird concludes that for Paul homosexual practice is sinful and out of line with God’s purpose for human sexuality – but it is no ‘worse’ than any form of heterosexual sin.

On women the relevant texts have also been exhaustively dissected  but with much less agreement. So where does Bird alight? Well, he doesn’t spell things out in detail, but he heads in a generally egalitarian direction:

I say generally, because when he says that several texts speak of the husband’s authority over the wife, he does not discuss what this actually means in practice. He also says that Paul ‘for most part shared the patriarchal perspective of the ancient world – again I’d like to know what is meant here – for much of the rest of the discussion is anything but traditional patriarchy.

Bird stresses how Paul qualifies patriarchy in his emphasis on mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21; mutual authority in 1 Cor 7:4;  and blows apart cultural norms of the ancient world in Galatians 3:28. This text neither supports an obliteration of gender roles nor can be reduced to simply ‘unity in salvation’ with no implications for challenging patriarchy. But it does, says Bird, gloriously demonstrate the ‘negation of the distinctions that have separated human beings from each other’ in how ALL are equal in Christ.

On women and teaching he points to the ‘clear evidence’ in the NT that women had a teaching ministry:

– Priscilla and Aquilla both taught Apollos

– women prophets were active in Corinth

– there were women who were heads of households and who exercised some form of leadership in house churches

– women like Lydia, Syntyche and Priscilla were Paul’s co-workers (synergos) in the gospel, a word used elsewhere of key leaders

– and of course there is Junia the female apostle of Romans 16:7.  The evidence here is increasingly accepted as unambiguous. Bird quotes a major study by Eldon Epp that ‘Contemporary Christians – lay people and clergy – must (and eventually will) face up to it’ [the fact that the Bible has a female apostle].

– the restrictions on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are due to a local heresy, not Paul laying down some sort of blanket prohibition for all time.

Which, to come back to the post the other day on Mark Driscoll, all casts huge doubt over any dogmatically held ‘male only teachers’ position – and all the baggage which often comes with it

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Bird’s eye view of Paul (19) Paul’s ethics

Getting near the end of Michael Bird’s excellent book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul which offers a first class introduction and overview of Paul’s thought [bout time I put up a picture of the red-headed Ozzie author]. There is a lot of stuff packed into this chapter on Paul’s ethics. Some big points Bird makes are:

1. The Law

Being a Jew, Paul’s Christian attitude to the law is radical and complex. Complex because it has  elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Radical because it is revolutionary in relativising the unique status of ethnic Israel as the God’s nation.

-The Law highlights the holiness of God and severity of sin

-Is a temporary administration of God’s grace to govern his people

-Foreshadows and prepares the way for the coming of Jesus

-Romans 7 is best understood, NOT as Paul the Christian’s internal anguish about his battle with sin, but Paul picturing the pre-Christian experience of utter inability to keep the law. Or better, the law’s inability to produce a life of righteousness.

But ‘liberty from law is not licence to sin’.

2. The motive and framework for the Christian life comes from 4 areas:

– The example of Jesus: Christians are to live to serve others. They are to be generous, hospitable, reconcilers and forgivers.

– The teaching of Jesus: Bird interprets the ‘law of Christ’ mentioned in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21 as referring to Jesus’ whole teaching programme on life in the kingdom of God.

– Life in the Spirit: This is the empowering for the Christian life. For Paul the transforming presence of the Spirit in the life of a Christian will be evidenced by the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Not being under law does not mean lawlessness, but a fulfilling of the law by a life marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control.

– The law of love: Love is central to Paul’s ethics. All of the law is summed up by loving God and loving neighbour. Christians are to love one another, walk in love, build one another up in love, do everything in love, work out their faith in love.  Love is what being a Christian is all about. The sign of authentic Christian faith is a ‘life of love’.

At the heart of Paul’s ethics is this tension between freedom and the imperative of love. Christians are set free in Christ [Galatians 5:1]. But free to love others with sacrificially, seeking their best and serving joyfully. Free not to do whatever they wish, but free to honour God with their lives, bodies, and thoughts.

Again and again while reading this book, it has struck me afresh what a distance exists between popular perceptions (and expressions) of what Christianity is (obligations, moral straitjacket, duty, conventionality, institutionalism) and Paul’s revolutionary gospel of Spirit empowered boundary-breaking love, graciousness and service. And how Christian spirituality is measured in the quality of our love – love for one another, for others and for God.

He has some comments on Paul, Sex and Women which I’ll come back to in the next post.

Bird’s Eye View of Paul (18) Paul’s ethics

Chapter 9 of Michael Bird’s excellent book on Paul is on the apostle’s ethics.

I’m enjoying this book and there is lots in this chapter – so I’m going to do a couple of posts on it.

Some thoughts upfront before getting to what Bird says. There is a very popular saying of Philip Yancey’s that goes like this:

There is nothing I can do to make God love me more and there is nothing I can do to make God love me less

Now at a very important level this is wonderfully right. We love God because he first loved us [1 Jn 4:19]. Salvation is purely by grace. We cannot earn God’s approval.

However, Yancey’s epigram can easily give the impression that since ‘there is nothing I can do’ to make him love me more, then there is nothing I need to do full stop. This gets perilously close to Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace’ – a sort of individualistic ‘easy believism’ that reduces the Christian life down to a warm sentimental feeling of being loved by God and little else.

The necessity of a transformed ethical life becomes an optional ‘add on’ to faith, not an essential part of it. There is more than enough of this sort of distorted theology around in evangelical and Protestant circles – often seen in a very loose attachment to living out faith within the accountability and demands of a church community for example.

What place to you give to ‘works’ in salvation? At the end of the chapter Bird puts it this way, “While we are not saved by works, we shall not be saved without them.” What’s your response to this?

As Bird makes clear, Paul would have been baffled by this sort of disconnect between faith and ethics. He is not abstract theologian (and there are plenty around!) but a pastor-apostle deeply concerned that the behaviour, attitudes, actions and lifestyles of Christians in his care show that they are living lives worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, both individually and corporately.

The framework for his ethics is eschatological. The future age has arrived with the resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit. Christians are to live life in ‘this present evil age’ [Gal 1:4] empowered by the Spirit. Christians are new creations [Gal 6:5; 1 Cor. 7:19; Col 3:11]; they are now ‘in Christ’, they are continually to ‘put on’ the ‘new man’ [Col. 3:9-10; Eph 4:22-24].

He doesn’t say so, but Bird sides here with Gordon Fee that, although hugely popular in Christian piety, it is a mistake to think of Christians as having two internal natures, ‘spiritual and carnal’ which ‘fight like dogs’. This sort of pessimistic thinking also tends to treat the ‘two natures’ as nearly equal and therefore has a pretty limited expectation of spiritual progress – but that’s a post for another day. Bird rightly says that Christians have one nature – the new creation. The process of spiritual transformation is more about ‘be what we are, be what we are becoming and be what we will be on the final day of Christ Jesus’.

This ‘be what you are’ theology makes sense of the many Pauline imperatives. Paul is no legalist. He exhorts his listeners to changed behaviour, not to earn merit, but because of their identity in Christ. Imperatives follow indicatives. There are tons of examples. One is 1 Cor. 6:19-20,

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.”

Ethics flow from identity as God’s people. As Bird puts it

‘The charge to produce good works and seeds of righteousness cannot be separated from the continuing and sustained relationship the Christian has with God.”

Bird’s Eye View of Paul (17) the identity of Jesus the Christ

The next chapter of Michael Bird’s excellent book on Paul is ‘One God, One Lord: Monotheism and the Messiah.’

There can be no more important question within the Christian faith than that of the identity of Jesus Christ.

I am teaching a course on Christology [the person of Jesus] next term. This chapter is a really helpful summary of the astonishing things Paul says about Jesus the Messiah.

Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham have been two influential writers arguing that the NT shows how the first Christians came to understand Jesus as being included in the identity of God. [Hurtado is lecturing in Dublin this evening – sadly I can’t go).  In other words, the NT holds absolutely to monotheism, yet speaks of Jesus in remarkably unambiguous terms as one who shares the functions and status of God himself. Bird works off Bauckham’s conclusions and discusses (briefly) some key texts.

I’ll just mention some:

1 Corinthians 8:6

This text mirrors the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Paul re-phrases it as “There is one God, the Father … and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things and through whom we live”. Clearly, Jesus is described as within the framework of the Shema, yet carefully distinguished from the Father.

1 Cor 16:22 “Our Lord Come!” uses the Aramaic Marana tha where mara stands for Lord or Yahweh (kyrios in the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint).

Phil 2:5-11 a poem of messianic monotheism which places Jesus within the divine identity and reveals the depth and purpose of his incarnation. Bird highlights four points:

i. Phrases like ‘in the form of God’ and ‘equality with God’ indicate the characteristics of deity. The theme is gracious condescension of the servant.

ii. That Jesus does not ‘grasp’ onto equality with God means that his very identity as the pre-existent Son uniquely qualifies him for the role of saviour

iii. He ‘empties himself’ refers not so much to what is emptied but how – pointing to his incarnation and ultimately the cross.

iv. Verses 9-11, speaking of Jesus, say every knee will bow before him and every tongue confess him as Lord. This is an obvious reference to Isaiah 45 which says the same things about Yahweh. The implications are clear – Jesus is being talked of in parallel ways to Yahweh, the Lord.

Colossians 1:15-20

A classic Christological text

Jesus is involved in creation and redemption

  • – Sovereign over creation [the meaning of firstborn is rank not a created being]
  • – Supreme; pre-existent
  • – Bird even calls Jesus ‘the intergalactic glue that holds the universe together’
  • – In whom redemption is found
  • – In whom the fullness of God dwells
  • – Ruler over all powers and authorities through whose work on the cross cosmic reconciliation occurs
  • – The entire created order is set in motion by him and for him

Even from these snapshot sketches it is clear that Paul and the early Jewish Christians had such a remarkable experience of Jesus that they could, without hesitation worship him as the resurrected Lord and the incarnate Son. Yet they did so with theological subtlety, maintaining a monotheistic faith in the one God of Israel who acts through his Son, in the power of his Spirit, to redeem the world. Thus for Paul, God is known “in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ , in the love of the Father and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

Bird’s focus is simply on Paul so of course he doesn’t get into how these claims for centuries have been, and are, the subject of fierce debate and ongoing ‘quests’. One thing is clear. Just as the gospel is all about the good news of Jesus, so Christianity itself is ‘all about Jesus’ – who he is and what he has done. Yet this christocentricism should NEVER be divorced from monotheism and Trinitarianism. Paul held them together, so should we. This is the wonder and mystery of the triune God.