What Should a Theologian Talk about First?

Evangelical-TheologyWhat do you have to say before you say anything? That’s the question that Mike Bird uses to frame the introductory chapter to his new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013). And the way Bird answers that question says a lot about what he thinks theology is and how it should be approached.

We started working our way through Bird’s theology a few weeks back. And, after a slight hiatus due to conferences and Thanksgiving, I’m picking it up again, focusing this time on what he has to say about the prolegomena of theology–i.e. the things that you need to say before you can dive into the doctrines themselves.

(And, by the way, it would take way too long to blog on every section in the book. So I’ll just highlight a couple of interesting sections and then post a review of the whole book, hopefully by the end of the month.) 

There are several things to appreciate about Bird’s approach in this section. First, I loved his definition of prolegomena as “pre-theology theology” (p. 32). Theologians often make the mistake of presenting prolegomena as though these are the issues that you deal with before you do theology, masking the fact that there really isn’t anything you can say about theology that isn’t already theological. Bird captures that nuance by recognizing that prolegomena comes before theology in one sense–the things that need to be said first–but that they are all thoroughly theological in their own right. As he says a bit later, “There is a theological prolegomenon, but it is not what one does before theology; rather, it is what one does first in theology” (p. 38). Well done.

Most importantly, I loved Bird’s decision to identify the gospel as one of those things that must be talked about first in the theological task. I’ve commented before on Bird’s desire to grounded his systematic theology in the gospel, something we can only applaud. And that emphasis comes out clearly in his prolegomena, as he includes extended discussions of the gospel and its role in developing a systematic theology. I was a little concerned at first to see that he’d placed it in the prolegomena section, since that could lead some to conclude that decisions about how to define and explain the gospel weren’t already theological. But his explanation of prolegomena as pre-theology theology addressed that concern.

Bird also offers a nicely balanced account of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Unsurprisingly, he emphasizes Scripture as the ultimate authority in theology. And his biblical emphasis shines throughout the volume. But he does not emphasize Scripture at the expense of tradition, arguing that Scripture must be “read, interpreted, and applied in continuity with the apostolic explanation of the story line of Scripture” (64). In other words, the Protestant principle of sola scriptura is best understood as reading “the Bible illuminated by the Spirit in the matrix of the church” (68).

Nonetheless, there were a few things in this section that were less satisfying. Bird does a nice job explaining how theologians have historically been influenced by philosophy in dealing with issues of prolegomena. But summarizing centuries of philosophical history in just a few pages is a daunting task, something that even experts would struggle to do well. And Bird’s summary is frustratingly thin, skimming centuries of philosophy in a couple of pages. That wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Bird addressed philosophical issues later in the volume, but he rarely does so. As it stands, the volume leaves the reader with only the most superficial understanding of the intimate relationship that has always existed between theology and philosophy, how that relationship ought to function, and the various philosophies that might inform our theologies today. And I would particularly have appreciated hearing Bird say something hear about his own philosophical background, the ideas that will inevitably shape much of what follows. Obviously Bird can’t go into these issues in depth in a summary volume like this, but those issues seem far too important to skim over in 2-3 pages.

Another frustrating aspect of this section is an occasional tendency to slip into language that would be difficult for a beginning theology student to understand. For example, I’m pretty sure that I know what it means to talk about postmodernity’s critique of metanarrative and cultural hegemonies (39), but I’m not sure that these concepts will be immediately clear to those just starting out in theology. That’s unfortunate since Bird’s writing style overall is perfectly suited for his audience; indeed, his light-hearted prose is one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Finally, while Bird does a nice job explaining the four sources of theology often referred to as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (i.e. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), he unfortunately stops there. How does systematic theology relate to the other theological disciplines (e.g. exegetical theology, biblical theology, historical theology), and how/should it interact with non-theological disciplines like the sciences? Sadly, Bird’s theology remains silent on those important methodological issues.

In the end, Bird’s prolegomena section provides the reader a good sense of what the rest of the book will be like: a strong emphasis on biblical theology and the gospel, a generally readable and engaging writing style, and a fair dose of engagement with the tradition (though I’ll have more to say on this in a later post), but very limited interaction with philosophy and other disciplines.




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