Anyone who writes a book has to wrestle with one painful question: Does the world really need another book on this? And browsing the categories on Amazon, it’s hard to answer that question with a “yes.”
That’s particularly true with introductions to systematic theology, where we already have solid contributions from people like Millard Erickson, Michael Horton, Shirley Guthrie, Stan Grenz, Daniel Migliore, and Alister McGrath, among others. And that’s not even counting Wayne Grudem’s perennial best-seller. So why would we need another introduction to systematic theology?
According to Mike Bird’s new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013), there’s one simple reason: we still need a systematic theology that is truly centered on the gospel.
I’m working my way through Bird’s book and will eventually post a full review. But it’s a long book, so it’s going to take a little while. And there are some great snippets that I thought we could chew on along the way. This is the first.
Why We Need a Gospel-Centered Theology
Bird launches the book with a bold claim:
“There are a lot of good theology textbooks written by evangelicals, but I do not believe that there is yet a genuinely evangelical theology textbook — a theology textbook that has its content, structure, and substance singularly determined by the evangel.” (p. 11)
And he cites John Webster to explain more precisely what he has in mind:
“The best evangelical theological work emerges from the delight in the Christian gospel, for the gospel announces a reality which is in itself luminous , persuasive, and infinitely satisfying. That reality is Jesus Christ as he gives himself to be an object for creaturely knowledge, love, and praise.”
So Bird sets himself on the task of developing a systematic theology that does precisely this. And he goes on to explain eight principles that will guide him along the way (the headings are mine).
The 8 Principles of an Evangelical Theology
1. Beginning with the Gospel
According to Bird, we must begin with the gospel because our starting points shapes everything that comes after.
“A theology that begins with the gospel will be defined and shaped by the gospel….If we begin with the gospel and proceed to unpack its significance in all that follows, we are set for developing a theology that allows the gospel to inform and drive all aspects of Christian believe and practice.”
2. Prioritizing the Gospel
Similarly, Bird argues that we must prioritize the Gospel over over other possible starting points: both experiential and logical. And he quotes Peter Jensen to make his point:
“the gospel is the introduction to the faith, the starting-point for understanding. It then rightly becomes the touchstone of the faith. Since this is where faith begins, it is essential that faith continues to conform to it.”
3. Protecting the Gospel
Beginning with and prioritizing the gospel should (hopefully) put the theologian in good place to protect the gospel, guarding against perennial temptations like liberalism and legalism.
4. Integrating the Gospel
Many theologies operate with an integrative motif: covenant, community, kingdom, grace, etc. For Bird, while there may be value to these other integrative motifs, an truly evangelical theologian will orient itself around the gospel.
5. Integrating the Gospel Some More
It’s entirely possible that I missed something, but this point sounded rather similar to the fourth one. A robustly evangelical theology will take the gospel as its “integrative core.”
6. Applying the Gospel
Throughout the book, Bird critiques any approach to systematic theology that stops short of recognizing that theology should be a transformative endeavor, one that shapes the way we live and worship. So an evangelical systematic theology must pay attention to the difference theology makes in everyday life.
7. Shaping the Canon with the Gospel
Here Bird wants us to notice that the gospel frames the entire canon, beginning with the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 and culminating in the eschatological vision of Revelation. And this in turn has implications for theology: “The gospel opens and closes the Christian canon, so our theology should also reflect a gospelesque architecture.”
8. Interpreting the Canon through the Gospel
Finally, the gospel must shape how we read Scripture. “Because the gospel is ‘according to the Scriptures,’ we must read the Scriptures ‘according to the gospel.’” And, although he doesn’t unpack it in this section, he also affirms that an evangelical theology must be firmly grounded in Scripture. If our reading of Scripture is shaped by the gospel, then, this will necessarily impact the shape and content of a gospel-centered systematic theology.
So, according to Mike Bird, that’s what a gospel-shaped theology should look like. As I move forward with reading the book, then, I’ll be asking myself a couple of questions: (1) To what extent does Bird remain faithful to these eight principles? and if so (2) How adequate is the systematic theology that results from them? I’ll keep you posted.