Evangelical Theology

Marty Foord reviews Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology.Zondervan 2013. 912 pages.  ISBN 0310494419
Michael Bird writes books faster than I can read them! In his latest publication, Evangelical Theology, Bird has turned from his usual work in NT studies to the discipline of systematic theology. It arrives amidst the release of several other significant systems of theology by the likes of Michael Horton (The Christian Faith), Gerald Bray (God is Love), and John Frame (Systematic Theology). Bray and Frame have produced their systems of theology late in their career, whereas Bird has authored his early on in his career.

Putting ‘Evangelical’ Back Into Theology

Why has Bird written Evangelical Theology? In his words, “I do not believe that there is yet a genuinely evangelical theology textbook” (11). Quite a claim! For Bird, a truly evangelical theology is one “that has its content, structure, and substance singularly determined by the evangel [Gospel]” (11). This is magnificent. Not only is it evangelical more importantly it is Scriptural. Bird’s desire for a Gospel-centred theology follows in the vein of the Gospel Coalition, recent theologians such as John Webster and Peter Jensen, and ultimately goes back to Martin Luther who said the Gospel is the “principal article of Christian teaching, in which the knowledge of all godliness is comprehended”.1
But what, for Bird, characterises a Gospel-centred system of theology? He uses a five step method (81-82). Firstly, Bird provides a careful and helpful definition of the Gospel as the proper subject of theological prolegomena. Secondly, he seeks to show how the Gospel relates to the traditional topics in a system of theology. Thirdly, each of the major topics is then elucidated via a “creative dialogue between the sources of theology”, which he has defined as Scripture, tradition, nature, and experience (62-76). Next, the elucidated topic is then to be practically applied; the topic is to be lived out. And finally, the Christian is then encouraged to go back and follow the same five-step process in light of what has been learned by living out the doctrine.

Bird follows his “Gospel-driven” method according to eight sections that indicate something of how the Gospel is kept central throughout:
1. Prolegomena: Beginning to Talk about God
2. The God of the Gospel: The Triune God in Being and Action
3. The Gospel of the Kingdom: The Now and the Not Yet
4. The Gospel of God’s Son: The Lord Jesus Christ
5. The Gospel of Salvation
6. The Promise and Power of the Gospel: The Holy Spirit
7. The Gospel and Humanity
8. The Community of the Gospelized
Here we can see that Bird covers the traditional topics of systematic theology, but they have been somewhat re-ordered. For example, eschatology (section 3) has moved from its usual final position and placed prior to soteriology (sections 5-6) presumably because the now / not-yet Kingdom proclaimed in the Gospel provides the appropriate framework with which properly to grasp soteriology.
Bird’s self-conscious Gospel-driven approach is nothing less than a breath of fresh air for the discipline of systematics. Moreover, Bird’s NT background means that this systematic theology interacts strongly with Scripture. He regularly engages in both exegesis and biblical theology. An example of how this shapes Bird’s theological conclusions is in his discussion of “sanctification” (541-544). He notes that in the past systematic theology used the word “sanctification” to signify a process of ongoing growth in personal holiness. But Bird rightly contends that in Scripture “sanctification” is fundamentally (but not exclusively) a once-off experience where a believer is set apart or consecrated for special use. Hence, Bird appropriately renames the ongoing process of a believer’s inner renewal as “transformation”. Here, he superbly allows Scripture to shape his theological vocabulary. This is exactly how an evangelical theology should proceed.

Putting Theology Back into ‘Evangelical’

Systematic theology is the attempt to summarise Christian belief according to the major biblical topics and show how they relate to each other. It is a notoriously difficult field to master in depth because it draws upon an array of disciplines. One needs some competence in biblical studies, historical theology, biblical theology, hermeneutics, and philosophy, at least. This has been made all the more difficult with the contemporary demand for ever-increasing specialisation. Just mastering one theological topic properly can be quite a task! That is why theologians tend to produce in depth systems of theology later in life because time is needed to master a large area of learning. I wonder therefore if Bird, a NT specialist, has bitten off more than he can chew producing a 900 page system of theology.
This is seen, firstly, in many discrepancies. Here are some examples. Bird says that “the Apostles’ Creed precedes the existence of a biblical canon” (66). However, the origin of the Apostles’ Creed as we know it today was in the late sixth or seventh century, hundreds of years after the biblical canon formed.2 Bird asserts that “During the Middle Ages there emerged a different view of tradition as something apart from Scripture that was considered as authoritative as revelation” (68). In fact this idea arose in the patristic era, not least through Basil of Caesarea. He asserts that God as timeless means he “knows neither the past nor the future” (128). No reputable theologian has ever claimed such. Bird believes that “Only love is predicated of God in an absolute way (1 John 4:8, 16)” (139). Not so. There is also “God is light” (1 John 1:5), “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and “God is faithful” (1 Cor. 1:9; 10:13). Bird states that the Monophysites advocated that “Jesus had one nature where his divinity was absorbed by his humanity” (483). In fact, it was the other way around: Christ’s humanity was absorbed into his divinity. Then Bird asserts that monophysitism is the teaching of the Coptic and Ethiopic Orthodox churches, and calls it “two natures in a blender Christology” (483). Not only is this statement likely to offend our Oriental Orthodox sisters and brothers, it is also false. Oriental Orthodoxy is miaphysite not monophysite: Christ’s humanity and deity are united in one nature, without the two being altered, separated, or confused. Bird identifies the “integrating motif” or “organic principle” in the systems of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Barth, and Dispensationalism (43). Not only are Bird’s identifications dubious, but as Richard Muller has so effectively shown, the notion of an “integrating motif” is alien to systematic theology prior to Schleiermacher.3 One gets the sense Bird has not gotten familiar enough with the theological discipline.
Secondly, Bird’s discussion of the Gospel’s relation to systematic theology lacks clarity. Five times he states that the Gospel is the “center and boundary” (21, 41, 45, 85, 807) of systematic theology. “Center” yes, but “boundary”? How can the Gospel be the “boundary” when certain NT teachings not in the Gospel are critical for salvation (1 Cor. 6:9-10)? Paul taught his churches the “word of God”, the Gospel (e.g. 1 Thess. 2:13), as well as the “will of God”, a Christian way of life commensurate with the Gospel but not strictly found in the Gospel (e.g. 1 Thess. 4:1-7). Recent Lutheran thinkers have argued, for example, that because the Gospel says nothing about monogamous gay marriage, it is an indifferent issue for Christians. It is not helped when Bird speaks of the Gospel as the “canon within the canon” (21), a typical Lutheran dictum. Is the Gospel more inspired than the rest of Scripture? Essential to Christian living is a code of conduct that accords with the Gospel but is not actually the Gospel (Titus 2:1-10). It is a sad development that modern systems do not expound this Christian code of conduct, also absent from Bird’s work. Moreover, Bird asserts that the Gospel “permeates all other doctrines” (21). But when Paul preaches to the Athenian pagans in Acts 17 he covers the doctrines of creation, God, general revelation, and sin before there is any mention of the Gospel. The Gospel presupposes certain doctrines rather than “permeates” them all. Bird’s position runs the risk of being Gospel-monist not Gospel-centric. It is evidenced in his ordering of theological topics. The doctrine of sin (section 7) is covered after Christ’s person and work (section 4), and soteriology (sections 5-6). This is conceptually and pedagogically awkward if indeed “Christ died for sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). Indeed, sin is an enormously important topic that deserves to be covered as a doctrine in its own right. But Bird examines it as a subtopic of humanity.
Thirdly, Bird’s theological discussion is, at times, shallow. An example is his rejection of verbal inspiration (which does not sit comfortably in a volume entitled ‘Evangelical’). Bird believes inspiration is at the “level of concepts, framework, worldview, and idea” not words. He avers that 2 Peter 1:20-21 speaks only of the inspiration of biblical authors and “God-breathed” in 2 Tim. 3:16 as a “neologism” is “ambiguous” (639). But there is no interaction with the classic biblical texts used to prove verbal inspiration. For example, Paul believed the apostles’ message was inspired right down to the very words they used (1 Cor. 2:13). Israel received the “very words [ta logia] of God” (Rom. 3:2; Acts 7:38). Jesus cited the human comment in Gen. 2:24 with the introduction “the creator [God] said” (Matt. 19:4-5). Indeed, the NT uses “God said” and “Scripture said” interchangeably (e.g. Rom. 9:13, 15, 17). When the OT prophets proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord” was it true or not? These are well-trodden paths but Bird seems unaware of them and that about a critical topic.
Michael Bird’s books as NT specialist are superb. I have found them spectacularly helpful and recommend them highly. I wish I could say the same about Evangelical Theology.

Marty Foord  is an ordained Anglican minister and for the last fourteen years has been teaching systematic theology at Trinity Theological College, Perth

1      Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535) 2:4-5, D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883-), 40:168.20-26.

2       J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (3d ed.; New York: D. McKay Co., 1972), 420. See especially Liuwe H. Westra, The Apostles’ Creed: Origin, History and Some Early Commentaries (Instrumenta Patristica Et Mediaevalia 43; Turnhout: Brepols, 2002).

3       Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725 (4 vols., 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2003).