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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Evangelical Theology" (Michael F. Bird)

TITLE: Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction
AUTHOR:  Michael F. Bird
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (912 pages).

"The gospel is the fulcrum of Christian theology." The is the underlying conviction of the author in the systematizing of an evangelical theology shaped around the Person of Christ. For Bird, the gospel is the "glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice." Writing for the evangelical churches, Bird seeks to balance "biblical exposition" with contemporary theological engagement with various theologians through the ages. More crucially, Bird is concerned about the two extremes of current evangelical circles. The first extreme are those who try to make theology more relevant to a post-modern audience. This is problematic because it tempts well meaning theologians to unwittingly compromise and buy into pluralistic thoughts. The second extreme are those who try to defend orthodox theology so much that their very identity grows upon their oppositions rather than their propositions. Such actions lead to various levels of them accused of "imposing" their ideas on other people. Only in the gospel through Christ can one avoid the extremes; practice love; uphold truth; integrate Christian theology with ethical living; and proclaim the gospel well as evangelicals. Bird teaches at theological schools in various parts of Australia. He is currently a professor in theology at Ridley College, Melbourne. Although he is an unabashed Calvinist, he prefers to call himself a "mere evangelical" believing that labels are often quite unhelpful. Proving the point, he assigns himself other labels too, like "catholic evangelical," "reformed," and a biblical theologian trying to do systematic theology. The book is written in eight parts.

Part One is where the author explains his theological method. He defines evangelical theology as the "drama of gospelizing." Out of delight in the gospel, one can develop a theologizing be shaped by the gospel, avoid extremes of liberalism or fundamentalism, integrate other theologies, and to let the gospel guide our Scripture reading. Bird then lays the groundwork of the gospel being the kingdom of God having come in Christ and fully represented in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The reason why there is value in having a biblical theologian doing systematic theology in this way is the conviction that the gospel breathes life into theologies that are often accused of being dry and hard to comprehend.  Bird adopts the five main sources of doing theology; namely; Scripture, tradition, nature, experience, and culture. He also distinguishes his type of theology from "apologetic theology" (too question and answer heavy),  "dialectic theology" (overly paradoxical), and the "Wesleyan quadrilateral" (more a framework rather than a method), before proposing his own method of "gospelizing theology." Four questions guide Bird's method.

  1. What is the gospel? (Definition)
  2. Relationship to the gospel?
  3. How Scripture "dances" with other sources of theology?
  4. What the theology looks like when the gospel asks: "So what?"

Key take home is that we cannot have a relationship with Christology or other theologies, but we can have a relationship with Christ (the gospel).

Part Two sees theology as the gospel of God, of God revealing himself in the Trinity, how it is expressed in traditional creeds and confessions, and the highlighting of various heresies that distort the identity of Christ. Bird then brings together the theological thought and apply it to prayer, worship, ministry, missions, and community. The way to know God is through Christ, who perfectly manifests all the perfect attributes of God. Bird even squeezes in a section to ponder about whether God is male or female.

Part Three is eschatology in which the gospel announces the coming and culmination of the kingdom of God. Interestingly, in contrast to many systematic theology texts which put eschatology toward the end, Bird inserts it earlier, believing that the kingdom stems from a vision of the end. This is consistent with Jesus' consistent declaration of the kingdom in his ministry. Eschatology is not some future event but a present reality. He contrasts Christian eschatology with contemporary ones like modernity and postmodernity, and claim that "reason" per se is unreliable due to its constant flux. They do not offer sufficient hope, unlike the gospel. Taking the position of the well-known German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, Bird argues that eschatology is not about the future itself, but about the future of Jesus Christ and our participation in that future. After explaining the three different views surrounding the millennium and the tribulation, Bird proposes that a biblical theologian will assume the position of "historical premillennialism."

Part Four is Christology with an intense focus on Christ and the centrality of Jesus as God's Son. There are many issues with regards to the method. The Jesus seminar, the search for the historical Jesus, and the Third Quest seem to be losing steam as they increasingly look more like a quest based on the opinions of the biographers. Instead of doing Christology from the basis of "from above" or "from below," Bird insists on a Christology that is "behind, below, above, and before" which is more encompassing.  Jesus is not an idea or a philosophical frame of thought. Jesus is a person who lives and represents Word made flesh. Meticulously, Bird describes the birth, the life, the death, the cross, the atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, and the second coming of Christ.

Part Five is soteriology, the gospel of salvation. The author details how the gospel is salvation to all who believe. The gospel is redemptive and the message of redemption fills both the Old and the New Testaments. We learn of how one can "work out" the gospel through understanding predestination, and contrasting Calvinism and Arminianism, always remembering that it is God who saves.  The results are mindblowing. From forgiveness to redemption; rescue to reconciliation; justification and peace, faith believes that God works. There is even a comment on Rob Bell's controversial book about heaven and hell, as well as open theism.

Part Six touches on Pneumatology, on the identity, the Person, and the work of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Triune Godhead. Bird laments that the Third Member of the Trinity has been largely neglected by evangelicals. Lest we become Binitarian instead of Trinitarian, we need to remember that the work of the Holy Spirit is beyond mere experiential. The Holy Spirit is at work in all areas of Christian ministry, a fulfilling of the Promise of Jesus, and empowers the Church to do God's work.  Unfortunately, the brevity of this chapter is in itself embarrassing. Just when Bird says that the Trinity has been largely neglected, I am dismayed to see this section on the Holy Spirit relatively shorter than theologies about God the Father and Christ. Surely, there is no shortage of sources on Pneumatology. Just ask our Pentecostal brethren!  

Part Seven is on the doctrine of man and sin. It covers the themes of how humanity plays out in the overall plan of God. We learn how man is created in the image of God, its implications, and what it means to be children of God. Bird argues for a literal reading of Adam in creation. In explaining the nature of man and sin, Bird also emphasizes man's need for salvation and redemption in Christ. This is in view of the potency and ferociousness of sin that continues to drag down the whole world in sin. On the place of evil and suffering, Bird tackles theodicy and the problem of evil. He asserts that the ultimate form of theodicy is the gospel, for Christ himself suffered the gravest injustice and the greatest bearer of world suffering. Just think of it. If we being imperfect and evil deserve the pain and suffering, what about a perfect and good person like Christ who suffers unjustly?

Part Eight is about the Church and the community in Christ. Also known as Ecclesiology, we learn of what an evangelical church is like, biblical images, the shape, the marks, the governance, and the liturgies of the Church. Evangelical churches are identified with the gospel as the very core of their being and ministry. It is not a denomination by name, but an identification with Christ by nature. The Church is the people of God, the elect, the flock of Jesus, the priesthood of believers, the remnant of chosen people, the body of Christ, the temple of God, the new creation, the new Israel. The Church is a Trinitarian, diaconal (existing for others), fellowshiping (living with one another), and holistic community. There is an interesting chapter on the governance of the Church, covering the Episcopal, the Presbyterian, the Congregationalist, and others. Bird allows readers to discern what is most appropriate for their situations.

(**) The Advanced reader copy I received has mistyped the Part 8 as part 9. Hopefully, the publisher can catch it before the final copy goes to print.

So What?

This is a work of biblical/systematic theology textbook written by a biblical theologian. Bird admits firsthand that it is easy to criticize the work of systematic theologians from a distance, but hard when one is actually a practitioner. I can recognize the the painstaking details put into this giant textbook. Bird draws widely from the Patristics and the Reformed theologians. At the same time he is conversant with historical creeds, confessions, heresies, as well as contemporary theologies like Open Theism and Modernity. Let me offer a few thoughts about the book.

First, I applaud Bird for the very comprehensive treatment given to this important book on evangelical theology. The scope is indeed breathtaking. There are lots of references and summaries of the different theologies. As I read the book, sometimes I feel like this is a mini theological shopping mall where everything is available under one roof.

Second, I notice that Bird's writing starts to lose steam from Part Six onwards. While the first five parts of the book are meaty, even heavy, the next two parts, namely Pneumatology and Anthropology seem to be like a marathon runner slowing down drastically three quarter way through the race. The brevity on the Holy Spirit to me is quite disturbing, especially when Bird specifically mentions that many Churches tend to be Binitarian rather than Trinitarian!

Third, I smile when Bird compensates at the very end by writing a very good chapter on Ecclesiology. This is important because the primary vehicle where the gospel is communicated is through the Church.

Four, I appreciate the way Bird presents the book, putting forth a fair representation of the different scholarship and the theological perspectives first before telling the reader where he stands. With many tables and illustrative maps, readers find it easy to navigate the complex material presented.

Five, this is a textbook, a reference, a resource, for the Church. It will be a shame if it is consigned only to theological institutions or religious schools. It is a valuable book for the pastor, the preacher, the teacher, or a lay leader of any Church.

Finally, I applaud Michael Bird for a very good effort, especially for a biblical theologian attempting a systematic theology project like this.

I warmly recommend this book for teaching, preaching, and for anyone who calls himself an evangelical. I agree with the author that evangelical theology is a gospelizing drama. So dance away with Christ, delighting in the study of the Word with steps anchored in the kingdom and the gospel.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.

conrade

This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

2 comments:

  1. Conrade, thanks for your thorough and generous review, and I accept your point about the relative brevity of parts 6 and 7. Though it is hard to say something fresh and innovative in every section and word counts tend to bite at some point. Thanks again and every blessing in your ministry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Michael,

      I appreciate your book a lot. It makes me think afresh with the gospel as a focal point. It helps put things together in one clear manner. Reminds me of Colossians 1:17.

      Peace,

      c

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