Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last several years, biblical scholar, teacher and blogger (and comedian!) Michael Bird should be a name you are relatively familiar with. He has written on Jesus in Are You the One Who Is to Come? and Jesus is The Christ. He has written on Paul in Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission, and His Message and has edited Four Views on the Apostle Paul in the Zondervan Counterpoints Series. He has also written on Second Temple Judaism in Crossing Over Sea and Land and has even written a highly academic commentary on 1 Esdras which is part of the Septuagint. He is the editor of two journals and commentaries series. He has contributed to numerous journals, edited works and reference books, all of which you can view here.
There is no doubt the Bird is highly qualified to write and speak on a number of topics. His areas of focus range from the Historical Jesus, Paul, Christian origins and even biblical and systematic theology. It is to these last two areas that we now turn to, and which Bird has most recently written on in his highly anticipated Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction published by Zondervan. The question that might arise in the mind of some, and which already has, is, can a biblical scholar with his areas of study competently write a systematic and biblical theology? Has Bird gone through a midlife crisis and the biblical scholar become a theologian!? After all, there are a number of famous systematicians such as Turretin, Pannenberg, Barth, Grudem, Hodge, Berkhof, Bavinck and Erickson whom many of them have not published as many books as Bird, and of those they have, most of them are in subsets of systematic theology.
Has Bird stretched himself so far that he has become too thin?
Bird’s Uniqueness: An Evangelical Systematic and Biblical Theology?
I put a question mark at the end of the above heading not because I question Bird’s goal but because I want to bring due attention to what makes this book stand out from others like it. There is no doubt that there are many good systematic theologies out there that are written by evangelicals such as Grudem, Erickson and Geisler, just to name a few. But what Bird feels they lack as an evangelical theology is a focus on just that, the evangel – the gospel itself. Bird is not saying others are unevangelical but that they seem to miss as their focus what makes them what they are.
This is not to say other theologies by evangelicals do not mention the gospel or relate an aspect to the gospel. It is to say, however, that they are not writing their theologies with the gospel front and center in every loci of theological doctrine. For Bird, an evangelical theology must do just that. Bird says of his own work, “It is a gospel-centered theology for Christians who seek to define themselves principally by the gospel.” (21) And later, “Evangelical theology is a theologia evengelii – a theology of the gospel.” (45) True to form, Bird begins every section introduction with a short discussion of how the doctrine under consideration relates to the gospel. For example,
On the doctrine of God in part two,
If we are going to study the God of the gospel, we must study God as he is to us in the gospel: a triune being comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, I contend that the gospel itself establishes our primary contact with the doctrine of the Trinity. The operation of God as he is described as acting in the gospel intimates the triune nature of God. Only a triune God can do what is done in the gospel. (89)
On the doctrine of Christ in part four,
The centerpiece of the gospel is Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is so identifiable with the gospel that there can be no gospel without him. His identity as Messiah and Lord, the redemptive significance of his death and resurrection, set in the coordinating of God’s kingdom, constitute the core of the gospel message. In other words, the gospel sets before us both the work of Jesus Christ and the person of Jesus Christ. (343)
And finally, on the doctrine of the church in part eight,
The evangelical churches are those that have the gospel at the center of their proclamation and practice. The evangelical church is a community created by the gospel, a church that promotes and preaches the gospel, that cultivates the gospel in its spirituality. Its members strive to live lives worthy of the gospel, and at its center is Jesus Christ, the Lord announced in the gospel. (699)
Not only at the main headings does Bird relate the gospel to each section of doctrine, but he shows how each subsection does as well. Bird has given more than mere lip service to the gospel as that which binds all of Scripture and, therefore, theology together. “The gospel is the glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice. I submit that an authentic evangelical theology should be a working out of the gospel in the various loci of Christian theology and then be applied to the sphere of daily Christian life and the offices of Christian leaders.” (21) This gives him the content for his five step method for how theology should be done (81-82).
This gospel focus is also what makes this book a work of biblical theology because it is the gospel, as hinted at in Genesis 3:15 and consummated in Revelation 19-21, that runs throughout the entire Bible. It is the story of the Bible. After working through the various aspects, Bird defines the gospel as
The announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (52)
Though some may wince at the positive use of the phrase “canon within the canon,” Bird is not shy in saying that “the gospel is the ‘canon within the canon’ simply because the biblical canon is the scriptural expression of the ‘rule of faith.’ which itself is an exposition of the gospel.” (21)
Evangelical Theology as a Systematic and Biblical Theology
I think Bird hits a home run with his focus on the gospel at every angle, and therefore, has accomplished part of his goal in writing a biblical theology. So how does he do with the systematic aspect? In short, Bird touches on the major loci of theology with adequate depth and coverage for most sections but has some shortcomings in others.
Bird does a good job with the doctrine of God (chapter 2), eschatology (chapter 3), Christology (chapter 4), soteriology (chapter 5) and ecclesiology for the most part (chapter 8). I think Bird’s does his best work right out of the gates with his chapters on God and Christ. He masterfully shows how God as triune forms the heart and shape of the gospel and supports John Piper’s book, and now famous phrase, God is the gospel. He ties the gospel God as triune, creator, His character and attributes and His revelation to man. His chapter on Christ is equally impressive, and should be, as Bird has written a few books and many essays and articles on Christ previously. Chapter three on eschatology is decent and provides a fair and accurate treatment of the various views. Bird’s soteriology by in large follows the standard Reformed/Calvinistic view, with the debatable exception that he holds to the Amyraldian view of the atonement, which is actually dealt with in Christology (section 4.4.3). Finally, Bird’s ecclesiology is handled well. He seems to see more unity between Israel and the church than disunity (719-27 – which I like!). The only glaring omission from this chapter is a dedicated discussion of the offices of the church as deacon, elders and pastor/teacher. These are mentioned in several places but only as they are viewed by different forms of church governances such as Presbyterian or Episcopalian.
Chapters needing more work begin at the beginning with prolegomena (chapter 1). Though this is where Bird laid out his unique approach in focusing on the gospel, this also became its downfall as there is not enough else by way of a standard discussion on this area of first theology. The chapters on the Holy Spirit (chapter 6) and man (chapter 7) read and feel too short. Perhaps, in my opinion, what is lacking the most in the book is an adequate doctrine of Scripture. (Consider that Wayne Grudem spends almost 100 pages in his systematic theology in the doctrine of Scripture!) This is surprising since Bird has contributed to the recent book Five Views on Inerrancy. Bird places his very short discussion on Scripture under the discussion of the Holy Spirit “because the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired authors to write Scripture, who preserves the inscripturated revelation, and who brings illumination to those who read Scripture.” (638) Bird does not outright reject inerrancy and verbal inspiration (though he does sympathize with both) but he does express much hesitancy towards the terminology. He gives a list of reasons he is hesitant about fully affirming verbal inspiration (640-42) and on inerrancy he states, “If the Word of God is God’s own Word, then its veracity is safeguarded not by our efforts to harmonize any apparent inconsistencies or even by our sophisticated arguments for inerrancy, but by divine fidelity. That is to say, the truthfulness of Scripture is secured by the faithfulness of God to his own Word.” (645) At times Bird seems to use all the same phraseology of an inerrantist but just does not use the term itself.
In the end, though I don’t think Bird has written the next systematic theology that will replace Grudem or Erickson, he has written an overall fine book that will serve the church. What Bird has excelled at is defining the role and relationship of the gospel to systematic theology. This contribution alone is worth owning the book, and others in the future need to follow in his steps. The only other systematic theology I can think of that comes close to this approach is Michael Horton’s recent work A Pilgrim Theology.
Bird treats other theological traditions fairly and shows a real awareness and familiarity with church history. He is thankfully very in tune with and supportive of the various creeds of the church which he turns to throughout the book. Evangelical Theology is not your typical systematic theology as it seeks to weave systematics with biblical and historical theology (primarily through the creeds) to create a more rounded source of theological discussion. The book is peppered with sidebars (often very extensive) in which he seeks to draw attention to certain issues at hand. True to form, Bird mixes his humor throughout the book which makes the reading all the more enjoyable.
NOTE: I received this for free from Zondervan in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts and words expressed are my own and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.