Michael Bird begins his defense of the Progressive Reformed View by getting right down to business and defining his terms. To be Reformed, according to Bird, means that he “believes in the supremacy of Scripture in the life of the church, holds to a Calvinistic scheme of salvation, has a theological framework that is broadly covenantal, and regards the Reformed confessions as good, though clearly fallible, summaries of Scripture.” To be Progressive means to “be willing to modify tradition if it is shown not to line up with Scripture.” More specifically, Bird’s progressiveness includes the assertion that the Reformer’s interpreted Paul through a “theological straight jacket” and deserve to have a few of their theological conclusions put back up on the examination table.
With the foundation laid, Bird begins by unpacking Galatians 2:15-21. A central part of Bird’s argument is that in addition to the forensic metaphor in which a believer’s legal status changes from “guilty” to “not guilty,” Paul uses “participationist” categories such as “in Christ,” “with Christ,” and “Christ lives in me” to expand his explanation of justification. According to Bird, Paul considers justification not simply a legal transaction, but something that can only be understood in the context of the believer’s spiritual union with Christ.
It is within the rubric of “union with Christ” that Bird examines the concept of imputation, beginning with a detailed analysis of the logic of Romans 4. What is described here, proposes Bird, is not the transference of Christ’s righteousness to the individual, but the justification of the believer because he or she is “in Christ” and therefore participates in God’s vindication of Jesus. While this concept is certainly more complex than a simple transfer of legal status, Bird argues his case well and supplies ample scriptural evidence (not to mention charts!)
As the author moves on to the exploration of the relationship between justification and works, he provides a perfect example of how one’s understanding of an esoteric theological concept like justification can have a direct impact on how they live out their faith. In my humble opinion, it is the traditional evangelical emphasis on the individual’s initial salvation—and the minimizing of Paul’s exhortations to actively live out one’s faith—that has created a Christian culture content to concern itself exclusively with its own comfort. Michael Bird seems to have a similar passion for stirring the pot in this regard. His position (amply supported with scripture ) is that while justification is based on faith, God’s judgement will be based on obedience. “The pew-sitting couch potatoes of our churches” Bird writes “need to hear Romans 8:1-3 as well as Romans 8:4-5…Otherwise it is irresponsible to give a sense of assurance to people who have no right to have it!”
Michael Horton’s response to Michael Bird’s essay is, oddly, clearer than his original defense of the Traditional Reformed View. Among Horton’s critiques of the Progressive Reformed View is that, contrary to what Bird says, the Traditional Reformed view does not minimize the role of the Holy Spirit or the outworking of salvation through obedience. My own response to Horton’s claim is that while the original Reformers, theologians, and scholars may not minimize the importance of works as evidence of faith, evangelical pew-sitters (and by extension their pastors) certainly have. I agree with Bird when he writes “The protestant paranoia against reminding our communities of judgment according to works, lest we become Catholic, misrepresents the biblical witness.” From where I sit, this refusal to preach all of what Paul says about salvation has resulted in millions of American Christians assuming that they can adopt the self-absorption and materialism of the culture around them and still end up in heaven because they’re “justified” by Christ.
James Dunn tackles this same issue in his response to Bird’s essay, countering that Bird does not do enough to explore the tension between “judgement according to works” and “justification through faith alone.” “What cannot be neglected here,” writes Dunn “is that Paul does not assume that the recipients of his letters would live blameless lives; hence his repeated warnings against moral failure.”
And in contrast to their responses to Michael Horton’s essay,Veli-Matti Karkkainen and Gerald O’Collins provide insightful critiques of the Progressive Reformed View. For his part, Karkkainen suggests that Bird is missing the “missionary orientation of Paul’s theology,” while O’Collins presents a fascinating case against penal substitution that, although I don’t find it convincing, still demonstrates a firm and thoughtful commitment to Scripture.
A common thread that runs throughout Bird’s original essay, as well as most of the responses, is a commitment to the idea that justification is not the sole—or even primary—image that Paul uses to describe what it means to live in a restored relationship with God. With the possible exception of Horton (although even he may actually agree if pressed), each of these scholars makes it a point to say that a full and complete gospel will not privilege justification over the other metaphors that Paul uses to explain salvation. It is a great comfort to be reminded on almost every page that the gospel is bigger than any single metaphor—and so much more than we can ever capture with mere words.