A Denver Journal Review
Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction
Michael F. Bird. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 912 pp. $49.99. ISBN: 978-0-310-49441-6.
This book is a unique achievement, not so much in its content or the topics addressed, but in that it is a book on Systematic Theology written by a New Testament scholar whose training, teaching, and writings have focused on the field of biblical studies, not systematic theology. It is a systematic theology book written by a NT scholar! But it is apparent that Michael Bird is up to the task, given the comprehensive nature of the work, and the total page count (811 pp. excluding bibliography and indices)! However, the subtitle (A Biblical and Systematic Introduction) hints that one will find more than just a traditional systematic theology within its pages. It grounds its treatment of traditional systematic theological concepts in a well-founded biblical theology. For example, Bird’s discussion of “Salvation” begins with a tracing of Redemptive History as it develops throughout the biblical canon, beginning with the creation narrative (Gen. 1-2). Refreshing in this work was more attention to exegesis than is often found in Systematic Theologies, where biblical texts are often treated in a-contextual fashion, as repositories of theological ideas.
At the beginning of his work Bird lays his “theological cards on the table.” He was raised as a Baptist but now belongs to the Anglican tradition, and is broadly Reformed, falling in the Calvinistic tradition. However, he is fair in his presentation and assessment of other positions than his own. Bird chooses as his organizing concept for his theology “the Gospel,” which he defines 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” (p. 52). But this is not just a convenient organizing principle for Bird. I think that he, for the most part, has succeeded in implementing all the important traditional theological topics into the overarching theme of Gospel. When it comes to the sources for doing theology, Bird suggests four: Scripture, tradition, nature and experience (p. 62). While he says that Scripture is the ultimate source, Bird was not as clear as he could have been on the relationship and interaction between these four sources.
This review only has space to sample a few of the conclusions that Bird draws on a limited selection of theological topics. Bird finds an overarching covenant of grace that spans the biblical narrative. The kingdom of God is already present, but has not yet reached its consummation, which it will at the second coming of Christ (cf. Ladd). Regarding eschatology, Bird rejects Dispensationalism and sides with post-tribulational, historical premillenialism. He interprets the discourse of Jesus in Matt. 24-25 as referring to Christ’s coming in judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The intermediate state, between the death of Christians and the resurrection, will be one of conscious existence and fellowship with Christ in his presence. Bird finds the Christus Victor theory of the atonement as the unifying model for understanding the atonement. Bird thinks that the atonement of Christ is efficient only for the elect, but is sufficient for the salvation of everyone. In regard to inclusivism, he is theoretically open to God “having mercy upon whom he will have mercy,” but he rejects universalism. Infants are conditionally elected, and do not have Adam’s sin imputed to them until they reach the age of accountability. Rather than imputation, Bird prefers the notion of incorporation into the righteousness of Christ. Bird’s approach to soteriology is Calvinistic. He sees the order of salvation as predestination à calling à regeneration à faith and repentance à justification à transformation à glorification. The Holy Spirit is a personal being, not just a power. Bird does not like “verbal” inspiration, but prefers a more dynamic conception of inspiration. He also prefers the term “veracity” over “inerrancy.” The image of God in humanity is primarily a function, reflecting the reign of God in creation. When speaking of the human problem, Bird suggests that we drop the word “sin” because it has lost its ‘shock value’, and instead use the word “evil.” Bird understands “original sin” as our sinning in Adam, who is responsible for our ensuing guilt and condemnation of humanity. The church consists of one unified people, not two (Israel and the Church). The Church does not replace Israel; rather, the story of the church is a continuation of the story of Israel. Bird prefers the term “sacrament” over “ordinance” in describing baptism and communion. Bird holds to a dual baptism, paedo- and credo-. While he prefers immersion for baptism, affusion is also a biblical option. He also prefers a Reformed view of Christ’s presence in the communion meal – Christ is present in the bread and wine through the Holy Spirit.
Scattered throughout his book are numerous charts and sidebars. I found the charts helpful for the most part, though I found his charts on eschatology confusing and not as clear as they could be. His quote from Plantinga on p. 669 on sin is anything but clear. In this vein, Bird demonstrates a wide familiarity with writers from various theological traditions and time periods. He quotes theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin to Barth to Warfield to Bloesch. But Bird does not just use them as a garnish for his own work, but to inform his own theological reflection. Overall, the book is clear and non-technical, and could easily be used by the non-specialist and budding theological student. One of the most delightful features is the humor (comic relief) scattered throughout the work. For example, he summarizes Calvinism’s view of total depravity as “People suck, they suck in sin, they are suckness onto death” (p. 24). In discussing the imputation of Christ’s obedience to us, he denies that we should view it as if “Jesus was racking up frequent flyer points that can be transferred into our account” (p. 563). For Paul’s famous phrase Me Genoito (lit. “may it never be”), Bird offers “No way, dude!” Or why does God do everything with his left hand? Because the Son is sitting on his right hand! In conclusion, there will be obvious areas of disagreement in a book of this nature and scope. But this work is unparalleled as a comprehensive work which touches on all the major theological issues important for the church, related to the Gospel and life of the church, which packages discussion of the theological issues in an easy-to-read format in delightful prose.
David L. Mathewson, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament