On the “Proper” Order of Theological Topics

If you were going to teach a class on Christian doctrine, all of it, how would you do it? What topics would you include? In what order would you address them? Which ones would receive the most attention, which would you address more cursorily, and which would you skip entirely, saving them for those chance theology discussions that often break out on Facebook?

Evangelical-Theology

For me, those are very real questions. Next semester, for the first time, I’ll be teaching a one-semester survey of Christian theology. The theology classes I taught at Western Seminary were always part of multi-semester sequences. So you had to teach the doctrines assigned to each class or you’d mess up the whole sequence. For the first time, then, I have the opportunity to think through how I would like to do it. And I’m discovering that this isn’t easy to figure out.

So I was quite interested when I read through Mike Bird’s new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013) and saw that he had chosen to order the doctrines in a rather novel way. That provided an interesting impetus for thinking through how I would like to do it.

1. Where’s the Word?

Bird begins traditionally enough, starting out with a chapter on prolegomena dealing with a number of preliminary issues (see our last post for more on this), before launching into the doctrine of God (i.e. theology proper). These are common enough starting points for a systematic theology, so no surprises here.

But Bird does make an interesting decision about where to locate the doctrine of Scripture. He follows the lead of many contemporary theologians in rejecting the idea that you have to deal with Scripture first to lay a strong “foundation” for the theological work to follow. These theologians reject this approach as a kind of theological foundationalism, presenting Scripture instead as a doctrine in its own right. And Bird eventually locates the doctrine of Scripture in the section on the Holy Spirit (part 6), specifically “the works of the Spirit,” arguing that Scripture is rightly a pneumatological doctrine because it is the Spirit who “inscripturates.”

I actually think this is a good move. Though I tend to deal with the doctrine of Scripture just as much in the doctrine of the Church as in the work of the Holy Spirit, I think the nexus of Church/Spirit/Word is the right place to deal with the nature of the Bible and its role in shaping the people of God. My only real concern here is that I would have liked to see Bird deal more with epistemology and revelation and the beginning of the book, not because of some perceived need to lay a foundation for theology, but because these are the questions many students are asking at the beginning of the theological journey.

2. Where Do You Put the End?

The bigger surprise comes in the third section, which Bird devotes to eschatology, a topic normally reserved for the final section of a systematic theology. Instead, Bird argues that because “kingdom of God” is such a prominent motif in the Bible and Jesus’ gospel, and because the kingdom is a thoroughly eschatological concept, we need to address the eschatological nature of the kingdom before we can do justice to the rest of the doctrines. So we unexpectedly encounter discussions of Jesus’ return, the tribulation, and the millennium before we’ve even discussed Jesus and salvation!

I found this decision rather less satisfying. On the one hand, I agree that the biblical narrative is one that has to be understood from back to front, with the end of the story shaping how we understand earlier elements. In that way, it’s a lot like those movies with a big plot twist at the end. Although you watch it first without knowing how it ends, after that you’re supposed to understand the whole narrative in light of the twist at the end. Theology is the same. So I appreciate Bird’s argument on the significance of eschatology. It isn’t just speculating on the chronological details of the end times; eschatology provides the appropriate perspective for understanding the whole story.

But there’s a reason that most systematic theologies deal with eschatology at the end, and it’s not because they don’t think it’s important. It’s just very difficult to understand what’s happening in the doctrine until you’ve engaged so many other doctrines. I think there’s a good chance that students will get a bit frustrated and confused to be thinking through the millennium when they haven’t talked about Jesus, salvation, humanity, or the church. Instead of placing the entire section on eschatology this far forward, I think the book would have been better served by either (1) offering a quick summary of eschatology in the introductory section on the gospel or (2) offering a shorter section just on the Kingdom of God at this point. Either approach would have allowed Bird to highlight the importance of eschatology early on, while reserving some of the specific details of the doctrine for later in the work when students are better prepared to work through those issues.

3. When Should We Sin?

The rest of the book unfolds in a less surprising manner, with sections on Christology, salvation, the Holy Spirit, humanity, and the church. The one thing that might catch people off guard is that Bird does not dedicate a section to the doctrine of sin, dealing with it instead as a subtopic in the section on humanity. But that in itself is not unusual as many theologians prefer to deal with sin in a similar manner. And I’ve always appreciated Karl Barth’s argument that “sin” is not a doctrine in its own right, but something that is parasitic on other doctrines.

What is surprising and problematic about Bird’s approach here is that Bird deals with humanity after he talks about salvation. And this in turn means that he hasn’t yet addressed the doctrine of sin when he’s talking about the gospel and salvation. Although there’s no question that we should emphasize salvation as the more central doctrine, I found it frustrating to be working through issues like forgiveness, regeneration, and justification when we haven’t yet said anything about the sinful state that requires those realities.

Provide a Better Roadmap

In the end, I thought Bird’s alternate ordering of the doctrines was interesting, and I appreciated several things about it. But there are some pretty important drawbacks as well, issues that I think create unnecessary difficulties for the reader, particularly if the reader is a beginning theology student. I actually don’t think there is any “proper” order that you have to follow in systematic theology. The doctrines are so intertwined that it is possible to arrange the presentation in many different ways. And there are a few things about Bird’s arrangement that I found problematic.

Some of this could easily be addressed, though, by providing better directions within the book. Reading through the book, I often found myself wondering why some topic had not yet been addressed, only to discover it later in the book. And Bird often references theological concepts that he doesn’t explain until a later section (e.g. image of God). Simple references directing me to the later discussions would have cleared up all kinds of unnecessary confusion. (A clearer table of contents would also be helpful, one that more readily identifies where the book deals with things like Scripture, sin, and eschatology). Hopefully future editions will address some of these problems and strengthen the book significantly.

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  1. Biblical Studies Carnival XCIV: December 2013 | Cataclysmic - January 1, 2014

    […] Marc Cortez reviews Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology here and here. […]

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