Justification As Forensic Declaration And Covenant Membership -- By: Michael F. Bird

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 57:1 (NA 2006)
Article: Justification As Forensic Declaration And Covenant Membership
Author: Michael F. Bird

Justification As Forensic Declaration And Covenant Membership

A Via Media Between Reformed And Revisionist Readings Of Paul

Michael F. Bird

My thanks to Joel Willitts (Cambridge) and Benjamin Myers (University of Queensland) for reading earlier drafts of this paper.


The emergence of the New Perspective on Paul has led to renewed debate concerning Paul’s statements on justification. Discussion is divided over whether being ‘righteous’ signifies a legal status before God or represents a legitimisation of covenant membership. This study argues that both elements are necessary for a comprehensive understanding of Paul. Proponents of the New Perspective attempt to squeeze all ‘righteousness’ language under the umbrella of ‘covenant’, whilst Reformed adherents divorce Paul’s talk of righteousness from the social context of Jew-gentile relationships in the Pauline churches. I argue that, in Paul’s reckoning, justification creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age.

1. Introduction

When Paul speaks of justification what is he talking about? Is justification a forensic declaration that the Christian is legally righteous before God? Alternatively is justification merely a Pauline theologoumenon concerning the inclusion of the gentiles? Or does the answer lie somewhere between these two possibilities? The issue of justification is one of many contentious matters emerging from debate concerning the ‘New Perspective on Paul’.1 In light of this controversy,

I wish to ambitiously propose a via media between reformed and revisionist approaches to Paul’s conception of justification. My objective is not to produce a theological fudge to satisfy all and sundry. Instead my aim is to demonstrate that the Reformed view and the New Perspective on Paul are indispensable to attaining a proper understanding of Paul’s articulation of justification. In sum, I agree with the Reformed view that justification is a vertical category dealing with man’s legal relationship to God, but with the New Perspective I affirm that justification is Paul’s primary weapon to argue for the inclusion of the gentiles as gentiles into Christian fellowship.

2. The Reformed View Of Justification

I begin with those features of the standard Reformed view of justification that require nuancing in light of recent scholarship. That must be prefaced with the observation that there was a significant degree of diversity amongst the early reformers concerning justification...

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