A Review of “Evangelical Theology” by Michael Bird

Evangelical TheologyIt feels almost blasphemous to suggest that Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology could be displaced as the best text for young theologians. In this post, however, I will venture to go where even Angels fear to tread. Michael’ Bird’s new Evangelical Theology may just be the new systematic theology that young evangelicals gravitate towards. It is certainly the one I am going to recommend often. Whether you agree with this conclusion or not, Evangelical Theology deserves a place on your shelf. Bird’s work is worth your time because of its catholicity, methodology, and eccentricity.

Bird’s own ecclesial experiences lend themselves well to writing a truly catholic work. He identifies himself as an “ex-Baptist post-Presbyterian Anglican” (23). He says that he loves Baptists, self-identifies as a Calvinists, but generally speaking would just prefer to be known as a “mere Evangelical” – in the vein of C.S. Lewis’ “mere Christianity.” Bird has had a number diverse experiences – converted in a Baptist church, trained in a Baptist seminary, taught in an interdenominational college, and preached in a Presbyterian church – and these experiences lend themselves well to his publishing a theologically generous work. He draws from a deep and a wide well in his development of the various doctrines, quoting at one moment Karl Barth and Ben Witherington at the next. He draws from the Westminster Confession, the Nicene Creed, and the Thirty-Nine Articles, all without adding dozens of qualifiers or caveats. When they are square on the gospel he can quote a Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, or Baptist without any qualms. This kind of theological clarity accompanied by generosity is such a rare site that it makes Evangelical Theology itself a rare kind of work.

It’s not that Bird is flimsy on truth or precision.  He offers us sidebars clarifying some thoughts in Barth. Even as he quotes him often he warns us of some potential issues in reading Barth. He is quick to point out the deficiencies in some of Rob Bell’s claims regarding hell, and he takes a closer look at Charles Hodges approach to theology. He is not afraid to call out what he believes is wrong, but even here he doesn’t belabor points or attack individuals. When talking about the millennium he demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of all the views before defending his particular position. He is always kind to those with whom he disagrees, even while he does clearly express and defend his disagreement.

The real uniqueness of this book is not its catholicity, however. Other theologians had written from such a vantage point before, most notably Thomas Oden. The real uniqueness of this book is Bird’s methodology. In his prolegomena he explains the approach he will use to develop this systematic theology, he states that “The evangelical theological project is to construct and live out a theology that is defined by the good news of Jesus Christ” (42). His goal is to do theology in a distinctly “Evangelical” way, so that “our theology is utterly pervaded and distinctly defined by the good news of Jesus Christ” (77). In some ways Michael Horton set out to do the same thing in his systematic, but Bird comes much closer to the realization of this goal. He examines every doctrine through the lens of the gospel and seeks to apply those doctrines in ways that are consistent with the gospel. As an example, one might look at his eschatology.

Eschatology comes very early in this systematic work, and that’s because Bird’s methodology requires that it be addressed early on. In his own words, “Eschatology is not an afterthought but is one of the main building blocks in constructing an evangelical theology from the outset.” The gospel focus of this particular approach to systematic theology requires thinking about eschatology early on in our construction of a system. Again, Bird writes:

This means that eschatology provides the framework for Christian theology but also comprises the essential nucleus of the Christian gospel. Thus, an evangelical theology should be one that is colored, flavored, saturated, and pervaded by eschatology: God is king and becoming king in the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. (236)

Because eschatology is central in the gospels, and shapes our understanding of the gospel it should also play a vital role in the development of our theological system. This was a fascinating chapter for me, not so much because of Bird’s own eschatological views – he is a classic or historic premillennialist, which I don’t ultimately accept – but largely because he re-framed for me the entire discussion of eschatology in relation to other doctrines.

Bird is not a traditional systematician. That will become quickly noted as one begins to work through his text. His catholicity and methodology are themselves their own eccentric features of this book, but Bird offers a host of other unique contributions to the field. As a trained New Testament scholar he brings a unique perspective to the discipline. His text, while addressing all the major doctrine of a typical work, also includes a variety of extra discussions that often get overlooked. In his prolegomena he gives a brief sketch of the evolution of methodology within the history of the church. He examines the shift from Platonic to Aristotelian influence in the church, the influence of modernity on theological methodology, and then the shift to postmodernism and its rejection of prolegomena. In discussing Christology he gives readers an overview of the historical quest for Jesus. He gives readers a breakdown of the Kingdom of God language in the gospels, dealing heavily with the texts of Scripture. He gives thorough exegetical work at times, avoiding the simple practice of proof texting doctrines by giving full Biblical-theological treatments of doctrines. His background in exegetical theology makes this a unique volume in systematic theology. It might not be the sole text you use, but it should definitely be a text you consult.

Bird himself is a cheeky writer. He is often witty and evidences the great joy he has in studying the deep things of God as he writes. He makes all sorts of humorous connections, quoting lines from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure on one page, and offering side bars of “comic belief” on the next. He demonstrates the joy and delight that come from knowing God and studying Him. There’s no denying his intelligence and competence in theology, but he continually exemplifies the truth that the study of God’s Word brings great delight. In that regard he is not only a good theologian, but an engaging one.

There are many things in my opinion that commend Evangelical Theology to the church. The three aforementioned features are just the best attributes of the work. I don’t know if it will end up replacing Grudem’s now classic work, but it certainly has the potential. But whether you give it a place of dominance in your theological library or not it at least deserves a spot on your shelf. Evangelical Theology is a unique volume in the field of systematic theology. It will surprise and delight you often, and its unique approach will hep you think in fresh ways about important and old doctrines.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I was utterly surprised by how much I loved this book. Bird’s approach to systematics is so refreshing, that’s largely because he is not first and foremost a systematician, but rather a New Testament scholar. This different background allows him to bring some fresh eyes to the various topics of standard systematics, as well as to include in his volume some subjects that are often overlooked in standard works. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and will continue to reference it often in my studies. You can read my full review here. […]

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