[This is part of the Justification: Five Views mini-series]
Michael F. Bird represents a progressive Reformed view on justification, which he differentiates from a traditional Reformed view this way:
I consider myself Reformed in the sense that I believe in the supremacy of Scripture in the life of the church, I hold to a Calvinistic scheme of salvation, I have a theological framework that is broadly covenantal, and I regard the Reformed confessions as good though clearly fallible summaries of Scripture (131).
He then goes on to say he considers his view “progressive” because he is (1) open to modify the tradition, (2) wants to be free of the “theological straight jacket” that he sees Reformation theologians wearing while reading Paul, and (3) thinks Reformed interpretations of Paul have missed the social context (131-132). His essay then consists of exegetical work in the relevant passages of Galatians and Romans 1-4 (due to space), and then an examination of the term “imputation,” followed by a comparison of James and Paul on justification.
Bird is concerned that too many people (most likely he has evangelicals of the Reformed variety in mind) make the gospel into simply justification, privileging it over “other equally important images like redemption, reconciliation, and adoption” (133). This is his segue into examining the social context that Paul uses in Galatians and Romans for bringing up justification by faith.
Space here keeps me from detailing too much of Bird’s exegetical arguments, but one thing to note is that he helps the reader move beyond seeing Paul’s talk about the law either battling legalism (traditional Reformed/evangelical) or ethnocentricism (New Perspective on Paul). Instead, Bird shows how both problems dovetail into each other. This means that the issues are not quite the neat little dichotomy that they are usually presented as being.
From there, he looks deeper into the nature of imputation and whether or not it is exegetically visible in the New Testament or whether it is a systematic theological deduction. Bird argues for the latter, and I tend to agree with this assessment. The issue then is what to do with the “imputation” language. Bird argues that our union with Christ is what makes us righteous, not necessarily having Christ’s active obedience credited to our account. For this latter concept, Bird examines the relevant passages and concludes there is no clear passage of Scripture that says Christ’s active obedience for keeping the law perfectly is credited to believers. His contention is that our union with Christ unites us to his life, death, and resurrection. In this sense, we lived the life Christ lived (perfect obedience), died the death that he died, and one day will rise into new life just as he did. Bird then marshals N. T. Wright and Calvin for support on this point.
To end out, Bird looks at Paul and James in comparison. Here he makes the very important point that Paul uses different Greek prepositions for talking about being justified by faith (dia or ek) or talking about being justified according to works (kata). He then states clearly that “we are not justified by mere assent [what James is saying] nor judged by a criterion of synergism [what Paul and James are not saying]” (154).
Overall, I am very appreciative of Bird’s work and find his position the most favorable in the book. Horton of course disagrees, but mainly on the ground that either a) Bird is departing from the Reformers interpretation of Scripture or b) what he is saying isn’t “progressive” and can already be found in the Reformers. James Dunn is more appreciative and says that he has “very little substantive disagreement,” and his criticisms are “mostly minor and not very significant” (163). Though this is just my speculation, it seems the only substantial difference between Bird’s view and Dunn’s view is that the former is a Calvinist and interprets texts in that manner, and the latter is an Arminian and openly admits that contributes to his interpretive positions (106).
Veli-Matti Karkkainen takes some offense to Bird’s definition of progressive and asserts that traditionalists don’t merely restate and repeat views of the past. Beyond that, Karkkainen does not want to dispense with imputation and wants to retain it for its traditional value (You can decide whether this constitutes irony or not).
What struck me as perhaps the most odd is the Catholic response from Gerald O’Collins. It is odd for two reasons (1) the majority of the response is outlining 7 areas of agreement rather than criticism, (2) the one thing he is critical of is Bird’s holding to penal substitutionary atonement which O’Collins. He is all for Christ’s atoning death, but states that the Scriptures “do not support the picture of Jesus literally taking upon himself and carrying the sins of others and so being (literally again) “condemned” and “punished” by God” (173).
While a response to this would take up an entire blog post, I’ll just note here in passing that it seems a very odd thing to pick out as the one criticism. I’ll just close then by reiterating my appreciation for Bird’s position and my agreement that his view, or something close to it, is the best interpretive option.