A Theology Big Enough for the Gospel: Reviewing Mike Bird’s Evangelical Theology

Writing a one-volume survey of Christian theology is a daunting, some might say insane, challenge. How exactly do you go about saying all that is important about the triune God, humanity, salvation, the church, eschatology, and everything else, in a single book? Good luck with that.

And along the way you have to make decisions about what topics to cover, how much time to spend on them, and what positions to take, with each decision likely to anger, or at least annoy, someone.

Evangelical-TheologyDoesn’t that sound like fun?

Yet every generation needs people willing to rise up and respond to the challenge. Theology is not a task to be done once, something already accomplished by theological giants like Augustine and Calvin. Theology is always an ongoing process of thinking through what we must believe and say today, a calling that no prior generation can fulfill for us. It is ours alone.

And although some will engage that task by engaging smaller portions of doctrine, digging deeply into issues like Christology, anthropology, or ecclesiology, we will always need those willing to present the whole scope of Christian doctrine for the church today. And that is precisely what Michael Bird sets out to do in Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013)I have already commented on some aspects of Bird’s project, and I’ll include links to those posts below. But now I’d like to comment on the book as a whole. You’ll have to bear with me, though. Systematic theology books are long and complex. So this review is a tad wordier than usual.

Summary

I won’t even try to summarize an almost 900-page book in any real detail, but Bird divides the book into eight parts, each with several sections. Like most systematic theologies, Bird begins with his prolegomena (part 1), or things that need to be addressed at the beginning of the theological task (see my comments here). From there he moves into the doctrine of God (part 2), eschatology (part 3), Christology (part 4), salvation (part 5), pneumatology (part 6), anthropology (part 7), and ecclesiology (part 8). So Bird has devoted sections to most of the major doctrines in Christian theology, even though a few of them can be a little difficult to locate (e.g. calling the third section “The Gospel and the Kingdom”’ makes it difficult at first to notice that it’s actually a chapter on eschatology).

One of the most notable features of the book is its readability. Bird has clearly gone out of his way to offer a book that avoids the sterile dryness of so many theological tomes. Instead, Bird uses an interesting mix of humor, anecdotes, charts, and pop-culture references to keep the book light and accessible. I’m sure some will find that a little off-putting, especially if they are used to theology books of a more academic nature, but in general I thought it was refreshing.

As for ecclesial and theological location, Bird self-identifies as an “ex-Baptist post-Presbyterian Anglican” (p. 23), and he offers a theology that is generally Reformed, though he does make a few decisions that would place him at odds with mainstream Reformed theology. (This, by the way, isn’t terribly unusual. Reformed theologians have been doing that for a long time.) People who want a generally Reformed systematic theology will find much to appreciate here. Unfortunately even a book of this length has space limitations, particularly if you include all of the “fun” elements that Bird does. And, as a result, Bird generally dedicates little space to describing and engaging contrary positions. I’ll comment more on that below, but one result is that the book will be of far less interest to those coming from other theological perspectives, unless they’re just seeking to understand a particular Reformed perspective better.

Strengths

There’s no question that my favorite aspect of the book was its attempt to orient systematic theology around the gospel. I’ve commented before on Bird’s explanation of why we need gospel-centered theology and how he defines the gospel. But my favorite aspect of this move, as reflected in the title of this post, is how it helps us appreciate how deep and complex the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, really is. Rather than just something we can summarize less than a minute after a few seminars on relational evangelism, the gospel is a multi-layered truth, something that continues to unfold in all its beauty and glory as we strive to understand more deeply what it means to say, “Jesus loves me.” If nothing else, Bird’s book demonstrates that even 900 pages isn’t enough to unpack the gospel and all its implications.

Since Bird’s primary training is as a biblical scholar, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that another strength of the book is its biblical orientation. Although Bird certainly wants to offer a theology that is more than a simple summary of key Bible verses, he also strives to ground his theology in the biblical text. It’s not difficult to find examples of Bird simply citing verses without much explanation to support his theological points (i.e. the infamous “proof-texting” of theology), but that’s unavoidable unless you can convince a publisher to let you publish a 34-volume systematic theology. When Bird thinks it necessary to engage the text more deeply, which he does with some frequency, his explanations are helpful and insightful, even in places where I might disagree.

And, like any systematic theology, Evangelical Theology has a few sections that stand out as particularly helpful. In addition to his discussion of the gospel, I found enjoyed the sections on Christology—particularly the fact that he engages the life of Christ more than some theologians—and ecclesiology. And that’s coming from a Baptist!

Weaknesses

As I said in the introduction, though, every systematic theology faces a series of decisions, none of which will make everyone happy. So here were a few things about the book that I found less satisfying. I’ve already commented on some quibbles I have with the way Bird orders the doctrines and some difficulties I think that creates for the reader. And I’ve also commented on the fact that Bird’s discussion of the philosophical issues involved in various topics can be frustratingly thin and uneven, though at least some of that is again the result of space limitations. But here are a few other areas of concern.

First, I was surprised at times at how much space Bird devoted (or failed to devote) to certain topics. For example, he deals with the attributes of God, a notoriously complex subject with many debated issues, in a little over ten pages, offering just a paragraph or two on most of God’s attributes. We could blame space limitations again, yet somehow Bird managed to find space for 11 pages on biblical support for the return of Christ, 10 pages on views of the tribulation, and an entire chapter on the intermediate state (17 pages), and that’s just in the eschatology section. Although these might be important issues, it’s hard to see that they rise to the same level of significance as understanding God’s own attributes, especially given Bird’s argument that we need to understand God if we’re going to understand the gospel. Similarly, despite the fact that Bird mentions the image of God throughout, clearly viewing it as an important topic that has bearing on a range of other issues, he devotes only five pages to it, one of which is just a recitation of the relevant biblical verses. His excursus on infra- vs. supralapsarianism is almost as long! And union with Christ hardly gets any attention at all. In a systematic theology, pages are like currency; what you invest in shows what you value. And I was surprised at a few of the investments.

Second, although biblical interaction stands out as a real strength of the book, theological interaction occasionally leaves one wanting more. For example, although Bird devotes a fair amount of attention to dealing with the exegetical arguments for universalism, he fails to address the strongest theological and philosophical arguments, many of which offer the most compelling reasons that people embrace universalism. And he doesn’t engage annihilationism with any real rigor. A similar weakness arises in his work on the Trinity. Bird affirms a social trinitarian approach, defining the divine persons as “self-aware” beings who are “capable of consciousness” (p. 615), and he even refers to separate consciousnesses in the Trinity (p. 118). Regardless of whether you think social trinitarianism is viable, Bird’s discussion simply fails to deal with the historical and theological objections that can (and have!) been raised. And unfortunately, these aren’t isolated incidents.

Third, as I mentioned earlier, Bird chooses to focus largely on presenting his own perspective on issues, often moving quickly past contrary positions. That’s a strength in that it allows the book to present a clear perspective, but it will also be a weakness for anyone hoping that a systematic theology would provide robust discussions of the main theological options on the table. Bird does that on occasion (e.g. millennial views), but just as often chooses not to (e.g. alternate ways of understanding the orders of salvation).

Fourth, and of more worry than the prior point, I was occasionally concerned about whether Bird had fairly represented contrary positions. In particular, I think those coming from a Wesleyan/Arminian perspective will be troubled by the way Bird describes their theology, especially the suggestion that any form of synergism is essentially semi-Pelagian. (I’ve commented before on why synergism is not semi-Pelagian). And his description of the verbal theory of inspiration was unfortunate (p. 640), confusing verbal inspiration with a dictation theory of inspiration. (Hint: they’re not the same thing.)

Finally, and most surprisingly, Evangelical Theology gives relatively little attention to the practical outworking of theology in ethics, cultural engagement, pastoral theology and the like. It’s hard to see how a systematic theology oriented around the gospel could fail to spend more time considering the ways in which the gospel should shape everyday life.

Conclusion

Bird’s Evangelical Theology is one of the more unique, readable, and engaging systematic theology textbooks that I’ve come across. It is ideally suited for use in an introductory theology class where the teacher can supplement it with other resources, which is true of most one-volume theology textbooks. And it really shines as a resource for helping students do systematic theology in a way that is thoroughly grounded in the gospel and biblical theology. It will be less helpful for those looking for a book that will help them or their students understand various theological perspectives, the nuances between them,  how to navigate those differences, and how those decisions will impact everyday life and ministry.

Comments

comments

5 Responses to “A Theology Big Enough for the Gospel: Reviewing Mike Bird’s Evangelical Theology”

  1. Theodore Zachariades January 15, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Thanks for this insightful assessment. I am currently working through this book.
    Your notes of concern are registered and I will be thinking through some of your questions as I encounter potentially troubling issues.
    I agree, so far at least, that the book is refreshing in some respects as it includes periodic pinches of humor. Novel, indeed for a serious book!

  2. Bradley January 16, 2014 at 5:21 am #

    What is it with evangelicals that tends to make them see “evangelical theology” as their particular Tradition’s theology and misrepresent all other theologies? Your review is very helpful.

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