This post is part of Zondervan Academic’s blog tour for Michael Bird’s latest book, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. I was given the task of reviewing Part 5: The Gospel of Salvation.
I am usually not drawn to new introductions to systematic theology. With so many classics (e.g. Calvin, Bavink, Berkhof) as well as the reigning contemporary volume by Grudem, I generally don’t expect new thousand-page tomes to really have anything new to say. But when I first heard about Bird‘s Evangelical Theology, I knew it was a book I wanted to read because this is a systematic theology that has its center, boundaries, and interpretive glue determined by the evangel. I love the gospel, and one of my primary aims in life is to understand it more and more deeply, to cherish it more and more dearly, and to live an ever-more gospel-centric life. Therefore, I could not wait to read this systematic theology that does not localize the gospel to soteriology, but instead places it at the helm and relates it to every locus of systematic theology. The gospel “permeates all other doctrines, it defines the church’s mission, and it constitutes our identity as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ” (21).
I was not disappointed one bit as I began feasting at this gospel banquet. From a prolegomena (Part 1) that defines the gospel and lays out a gospel-driven theological method to a theology proper (Part 2) that displays God as He is made known in the gospel of Jesus Christ to an eschatology (Part 3) that is shown to comprise the essential nucleus of the evangel to a Christology (Part 4) that presents Christ as the center of the gospel and exposits the redemptive significance of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, this volume is truly gospel-soaked. The gospel-centeredness of this volume is its primary unique strength. And so, as I faced the task of reviewing the soteriology section (Part 5), the honest truth is that I was nervous. I was nervous because I wouldn’t be able to evaluate my part in light of the primary strength of this text, as soteriology is the doctrine of salvation and by definition every soteriology is soaked with gospel. Would I be able to find distinctive strengths and contributions purely in this section? Again, I was not disappointed. For, just a few pages into this 120-page part, I was delighted by a rather unique section.
5.1 Saved by the Gospel
Bird begins his section on soteriology by stating that “the gospel is only good news because it first tells us some bad news” (491), and goes on to expound upon the various facets of this bad news. Here he makes some passing statements about the depravity of fallen man, and then indicates that this theme will be developed more in part 7 (The Gospel and Humanity). He goes on to briefly treat the judgment of God against sin before asserting that God’s plan of redemption finds its soteric architecture in the covenants, and finally showing from various scriptures that “gospel” and “salvation” naturally go together. This section has a “side” page entitled “What Does it Mean to be ‘Saved?'”
I personally am in favor of the traditional order of placing soteriology after anthropology; to me, it seems more natural to talk about the doctrine of salvation after a full treatment of the doctrine of man that points to our sin and our need for a Savior.
5.2 Redemptive History: The Plan for the Gospel
In my opinion, this section is the gem of Bird’s soteriology. It is the pleasant surprise I alluded to in the introduction. Within the limited scope of my reading and knowledge, I am not aware of an introduction to systematic theology that treats the historia salutis in the soteriology section; ordo salutis always plays the leading role, and historia salutis rarely has an appearance at all.
The gospel…is the culmination of God’s covenanting activity. Salvation is thus indelibly connected to God’s prior dealings with the world and is rooted in his eternal decision…God has one purpose (to glorify himself through the effusion of his holy love) and one plan (to bring people into the new creation through the incarnate Logos). The unity of that plan can be conceived by way of inference to the covenant of grace. In that covenant, God acts through a series of covenantal promises to draw his people from being in Adam to being in the Messiah so that they may share in his glory. The outworking of this covenantal plan is what we call “redemptive history” or (by others) “salvation history” (historia salutis). Redemptive history narrates the key events that take us from Eden to the new Jerusalem and all that lies in between (496, emphases original).
In this section, Bird gives a summary of the stages of redemptive history (creation and fall, patriarchs and Israel, Jesus, the Church, and consummation) and identifies the objects and means of salvation at each stage and situates each in relation to God’s rule and covenants. For each stage Bird presents a cumulative tabulation modified from Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan: The Unfolding of God in the Bible, in which the headings are God, covenant, people, place, promise, kingdom, and response.
5.3 Order of Salvation: The Logical Working of the Gospel
The ordo salutis describes the sequence of events in salvation and their logical order and interrelations “as it moves from God’s eternal decision to save people, to the gospel call that people hear, to the faith and repentance of the individual, followed by their spiritual transformation, and their participation in God’s new creation” (513).
Bird presents an ordo salutis that follows a mostly traditional sequence: predestination, calling, regeneration, faith and repentance, justification, transformation, and glorification. Of note is the absence of adoption, treated by many systematics (e.g. Grudem). This is because Bird sees adoption as something that is not distinct from other acts of grace in redemption, but rather, as another contingent image for salvation. Adoption expresses the corporate element of justification. Also of note in Bird’s ordo salutis is the portion dedicated to justification – a mere two paragraphs. I couldn’t believe that such a precious, important, and hotly debated topic could be so glossed over, but later realized that there are pages upon pages of rich development of justification in the subsequent section, “Images of Salvation: The Result of the Gospel.”
5.4 Images of Salvation: The Result of the Gospel
Salvation is not a monolithic concept in Scripture, but instead “encompasses various elements of the human condition, including physical well-being, mental health, freedom from oppression, economic needs, honor, and one’s relationship with God. In the tenses of past, present, and future, the saving action of God is effected toward his people and the whole sphere of their existence” (548). However, the Bible is primarily concerned with the relationship of people toward God. Despite horrid horizontal consequences and sometimes detriments to self, sin is primarily an offense against God. This section explores several images of salvation, of reconciliation of creature to Creator: forgiveness, redemption, rescue, reconciliation, justification (here Bird interacts with the New Perspective on Paul), peace, adoption, eternal life, and theosis. In the conclusion of this section, Bird explores the center of salvation. While inclined to think that no single image of salvation has the explanatory power and complexity to constitute the underlying unity for all the other images, Bird suggests that “the center of salvation consists of communion with God, union with Christ, and life in the Spirit. That encompasses not only the goal of salvation, but also its instruments and its chief blessings in light of God’s plan for the cosmos” (579, emphases original).
5.5 Scope and Security: How Wide and How Certain a Salvation?
The final section of Bird’s soteriology explores 1)who will be saved and the fate of those who do not respond to the gospel; and 2) the question of whether it is possible to lose one’s salvation. In regards to the issue of scope, Bird provides a sweeping summary of the history of Christian universalist thought spanning from Iranaeus all the way to Rob Bell. After providing several reasons why universalism is biblically inadequate and theologically unsatisfactory, Bird moves on to exclusivism and inclusivism, giving attention to the two most troubling questions on this topic – what about those who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel, and what about those without the ability to respond?
And finally, Bird addresses the certainty of salvation, examining again many prominent saints of old as well as biblical texts. He acknowledges the tension in Scripture between assurance and obligation, divine faithfulness and human capability, but demonstrates that the biblical evidence clearly supports the case for perseverance. He spends some time on the warning passages of Hebrews 6 and 10 because these text have been the “Waterloo” and “Armageddon” for so many Calvinist exegetes who could not match their system with these texts in a convincing way. Bird presents a case for the warnings being real, but not pertaining to the elect or to false believers, but rather, “to participants in the covenant community, who have a share in the message of the gospel and exhibit a degree of faith, but are at risk of forfeiting what they have set on course for” (601).
In my opinion, the most unique and significant contribution of Bird’s soteriology in this volume is the section on historia salutis. As mentioned earlier, ordo salutis is standard fare but historia salutis is usually absent from systematics. The section on images of salvation is also rather unique, and I greatly enjoyed it. I found my heart warmed and my affections stirred as I meditated on these amazing results of the gospel, these stunning and precious facets of what God has done for me in Christ Jesus. I only wish that there would have been more on union with Christ, but that is a minor qualm. As in the volume overall, in Part 5 Bird strikes a great balance between biblical exposition and engagement with church history as well as contemporary debates. As others have written, this volume is a canonical and credal tour de force.
The primary strength and distinguishing contribution of this systematic theology, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that its boundaries, methods, and interpretive glue are determined by the evangel. This is a gospel-soaked volume with the evangel at the helm. This is the primary reason why I emphatically recommend this book to every evangelical.
Stylistically, this volume is very engaging and easy to read. Bird has a sense of humor unique among academics, and he allows it to come through often – sometimes in the main text, sometimes in obvious jokes in sections called “Comic Belief.” Undoubtedly some might disagree with such humor in a systematic theology text, but I think that most will find it refreshing. There are enough dry systematic theologies that take much labor and effort to read through; this one is refreshing and will captivate even those who do not innately enjoy reading theology.
I highly recommend this volume to every evangelical. Whether you’ve never read a systematic theology or you’ve read many, you will appreciate this text and learn much from it.
For my overall review of the whole volume, click here.
*Many thanks to Zondervan Academic for sending me a free copy for participating in the blog tour and providing an honest review.