Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Michael Bird on Paul's Eschatology

Craig Blomberg's review of Michael Bird's Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message (IVP, 2008) highlights Bird's cautious understanding of Paul's view of Christ's millennial reign. In light of recent posts and discussions of eschatology and the local church around the blogosphere, I was curious to read this particular section for myself in Introducing Paul. I would like to point out a few portions from chapter 7, The Return of the King.

First, Bird admits the difficulty of the task of ironing out the details of eschatology.
Trying to understand Paul's eschatology can be a bit mind-boggling at times, even more so if you try to correlate it with events, language and descriptions from the book of Revelation. It is tempting for us to resort to being 'pan-millennial', the belief that it will all pan out at the end. Then again, we should not ignore the seriousness of Paul's eschatological teaching, which involves defending the gospel (1 Cor. 15) and providing hope to those in distress (1 Thess. 4). While Paul does not want believers to become 'eschatomaniacs', end-times fruitcakes or a doomsday cult, he still urges them 'not to be uninformed' of the doctrine of the last things (1 Thess. 4:13). So, I suggest, get excited about Paul's eschatology, take it seriously, but avoid becoming fixated on dates and timetables. (116-17)
From here, Bird introduces Paul's view of "suffering, temptation and tribulation to come." In short, Bird argues that Paul held a post-tribulational perspective. Bird applies this perspective by calling on Western churches to fervently uphold the persecuted church in prayer. He also issues a corrective call, saying,
Our churches, some American ones in particular, need to spend less time telling non-Christians that to know Christ means to have fellowship with his sufferings and to be conformed to his death (Phil. 3:10)! For one day the prosperity bubble will burst and the lawless one will be revealed. (118)
Finally, I'd like to say that I appreciated Bird's hesitancy with regard to his exegesis of 1 Cor. 15:23-25. He writes,
What is perhaps more controversial (and I propose this view with a degree of hesitation) is that Paul also implies a messianic or millennial reign of Christ upon the earth.... An interval is implied between Christ's resurrection and his parousia, and another interval between Christ's parousia and his subjugation of all authorities at the 'end'. The explanatory clause 'for' (gar) of verse 25 appears to make the reign of Christ temporally prior to the 'end' (telos) in verse 24. In other words, before the 'end' or the consummation is the reign of Christ over all authorities. I wouldn't bet my house on this one, but it is plausible, it fits the text and the idea comports with the millennial imagery we have in Revelation 20:1-10. (121)
This chapter on Paul's eschatology is an excellent example of theological charity on non-essentials. Bird places greater emphasis on the essentials and lesser emphasis on the negotiables. Truly, my favorite portion of this short chapter is his dealing with Romans 8, which concludes with the words,
It is the hope for resurrection and new creation that sustains believers, and they wait for it patiently and prayerfully as led by God's Spirit (Rom. 8:22-27). (122)
This is a very helpful introductory book, suitable for students and lay-persons alike. I recommend it. I also recommend you read the following review:
I also recommend that you listen to Andy Naselli's discussion with Kevin Bolin on the topic, Are Millennial Views Essential.