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Book Review: Evangelical Theology (Michael Bird)

Michael F. Bird. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic IntroductionGrand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. 912 pp. $49.99.

EvThAs I have previously written,  I’m 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 Michael Bird‘s latest book, Evangelical Theology, I knew it was a book I wanted to read because this is a systematic theology that aims to have “its content, structure, and substance singularly determined by the evangel” (11). Because I love the gospel, I was drawn like a moth to a flame to this systematic theology that would not localize the gospel to soteriology, but would instead “bleed” gospel from beginning to end.

And so, Bird’s first aim in writing this text was to construct an authentically evangelical theology for the benefit of evangelical churches – “a theology that makes the evangel the beginning, center, boundary, and interpretive theme of its theological project” (21). Secondly, he wanted to strike a balance between biblical exposition and interaction with church history and contemporary theological debates. And thirdly, Bird wanted to avoid the extremes of catering too much to our postmodern, pluralist world and thereby compromising the non-negotiables doctrines, and the opposite extreme of being so rigidly fundamentalist so as to be known more for what you oppose than what you are for. Bird takes an approach that will not force us into the false dichotomy that pits orthodoxy against orthopraxy.

At this point, Bird lays his ecclesial and theological cards on the table, describing himself as an “ex-Baptist post-Presbyterian Anglican.” In regards to his theological leanings, Bird writes, “first and foremost I am a follower of Jesus; second I consider myself an evangelical; and third, I identify with the Reformed tradition” (p. 23). He goes on to identify himself as a “mere evangelical” (a la C. S. Lewis’ mere Christianity) and a catholic evangelical (and thereby reading Scripture not in the isolation of his own study, but as part of the communion of the saints past and present), and makes clear that in this volume he is trying to dialogue with a wide range of traditions. In the final part of the introduction, Bird reveals his academic background and addresses why a biblical scholar would/could write a systematic theology.

In looking at the table of contents, those who have read introductions to systematic theology will immediately notice that the ordering at several points is different from the “traditional” ordering found in most volumes. Eschatology is covered in part 3 (of 8), whereas usually it is the last section to be covered. Soteriology is the topic of part 5, two sections before anthropology. The doctrine of Scripture is covered under the works of the Holy Spirit rather than in the prolegomena. Because of the length and nature of this work, I will merely point out a few unique aspects of each section, highlighting elements that differ from typical systematic theologies.

Bird’s prolegomena is unique both because of what is present and what is absent. He begins by expounding upon the idea of evangelical theology as the drama of gospelizing. Notably absent is a doctrine of Scripture, as alluded to above. Also conspicuously absent is a philosophical defense of the existence of God and how we know God; instead, Bird sets forth the assertion that “the primary function of an evangelical prolegomena should be a setting out of the gospel” (41). Uniquely present and entirely apropos to the text that Bird set out to write is a section explicitly dedicated to an evangelical prolegomena (1.2.2) and a subsequent section (1.3) dedicated to defining the gospel.

“Since the gospel is fundamentally the ‘gospel of God,’ any theology must be theocentric and seek to understand God as he has made himself known in the gospel of Jesus Christ” (88). Thus begins part 2, theology proper, of which the first section is dedicated to the topic of “God and the gospel.” Much of the content of the fifth section (“The God Who Reveals Himself”) is typically found in prolegomena – topics such as revelation and proofs for the existence of God. This section briefly addresses Scripture.

In the first section of part 3 (eschatology), Bird makes a case for why eschatology should be taught earlier in the theological curriculum. His defense lies in the fact that the kingdom of God does not merely pertain to the end of time; “rather, the whole sweep of redemptive history is driven by the conception of God as both king and yet becoming king…we cannot help but notice that the kingdom of God figured prominently in Jesus’ gospel.” (235). Furthermore, “eschatology provides the framework for Christian theology but also comprises the essential nucleus of the Christian gospel…all Christian theology is based on God’s promise to put the world to right, to unite himself to creation through the Logos, and to usher in the new creation” (236).

“A gospel-driven Christology entails a bifocal approach on a study of both salvation and the Savior…our study of Jesus must be more than merely affirming his human and divine natures, more than affirming what his death achieved, and more than affirming his second coming. A Christology rooted in the gospel is going to redefine the very meaning of ‘God’ (e.g., Phil 2:5-11) and exposit the story line of what it means to say that God was in the Messiah reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19)” (343). Bird devotes a section of his Christology to methodology, in which he summarizes Christology from below and Christology from above. He points out weaknesses and dangers of both approaches and concludes that the gospel cannot be strictly tied to a Christology from below or a Christology from above. Rather, we do Christology from behind (Old Testament), below (historical Jesus), above (Christ of faith), and before (creedal and confessional testimonies) (355). Bird also summarizes theories (or modes, the designation he prefers) of atonement, favoring Christus Victor as the central image that binds all the others together. Furthermore, he touches on the different alternatives for the extent of the atonement, identifying himself with the Amyraldian tradition.

The most unique part of Bird’s soteriology is section 5.2 on historia salutis. Soteriology sections of systematic texts never address historia salutis; this is the turf of biblical theology. Therefore, I was delighted to see this section. In regards to pneumatology (part 6), Bird laments  that too many churches neglect the Holy Spirit and are almost binitarian. “The Holy Spirit should be all the more prominent in evangelical theology because of the Spirit’s unique relation to the gospel. The Holy Spirit acts in gospel preaching to evangelize, to execute God’s purposes in our lives, and to impart to us an effervescent spiritual life” (612-613). The Holy Spirit is part of the promise of the gospel, He is the great liberator of humanity, and He is the empowerer of the gospel (613-614). Whereas the doctrine of Scripture is usually found in the prolegomena of systematic theology, Bird has placed it in the part on pneumatology under the works of the Holy Spirit. This is because “the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired authors to write Scripture, who preserves the inscripturated revelation, and who brings illumination to those who read Scripture” (638).

It feels a bit strange to read about anthropology (part 7) after eschatology and soteriology. Nevertheless, in this section Bird hits all the topics pertinent to this locus – the imago dei, the human constitution, the problem of sin. He ends this portion with a section on theodicy, again connecting the issue to the gospel by concluding: “The gospels tell the story of how Jesus went to his death in order to defeat evil – human, natural, supernatural – by undergoing the penalty for all the evil of the world. He allows the viper of death to sting him, but he drains the poison of sin from its mouth, so that although the serpent may yet still bite others, the venom of its attack is gone” (693). Michael Bird concludes his systematic text with ecclesiology (part 8), examining the nature of the church as driven by and defined by the gospel. “The evangelical church is a community created by the gospel, a church that promotes and preaches the gospel, that cultivates the gospel in its spirituality. Its members strive to live lives worthy of the gospel, and at its center is Jesus Christ, the Lord announced in the gospel. This should be unsurprising because church and gospel go together like an egg and its shell” (699).

Theologically there were points at which I disagreed with Bird, but that will be the case with anyone’s general systematics text. He did help me to consider my own views, and to be challenged outside of my “box.” My primary disagreement lies with the ordering – while Bird provides reasons for his diversions from traditional ordering, I find the reasons unconvincing and favor the traditional orderings. Talking about soteriology before anthropology seems a bit unnatural – the “bad news” of man’s hopeless fallen estate should be developed before blooming the flower of the good news. I also question the effectiveness of talking about the consummation of the kingdom before talking about the initiation of the kingdom through Christ. Those familiar with systematics probably won’t be bothered by the ordering, but as someone’s first text, it might be confusing and perhaps not optimal.

This is a very readable and engaging text. Because of its unique approach, even someone already knowledgeable in systematic theology will learn much and gain new perspectives through this text. However, it is very readable for the novice as well. Bird has a unique sense of humor that he allows to come out in this volume (both in sidebars called “comic belief” as well as in the main text). Sometimes his humor surprised me in the main text because you just don’t expect it in a theology text. But because this is written for students and not academics, I think the humor is a strength and makes the volume easier to read for its target audience. There are plenty of dry theology texts, and I think students will find Bird’s humor refreshing.

Michael Bird has written a masterful, significant, and unique contribution to the world of introductory systematics texts. This is a gospel-soaked volume from beginning to end, with the evangel ever at the helm – this is the primary unique strength of this volume. The other strength lies in the fact that Bird skillfully achieves a great balance between exegesis and engagement with church history (as well as contemporary debates. Rob Bell even gets a mention in the section on hell).  Amongst ample Scripture references you find quotations from the Patristics all the way to Piper. This volume is a canonical and creedal tour de force. Because of these two significant unique strengths, I believe this is a text that every evangelical needs. It is a necessary complement to whatever systematic theology texts you may already own.

For an introduction with many author interviews as well as sneak peeks into the text, click here. For my detailed review of Part 5 (soteriology), click here. To explore in-depth looks into each section of the volume, click here for Zondervan Academic’s blog tour.

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon

*Many thanks to Zondervan Academic for sending me a free copy in exchange for an unbiased review!

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  1. Evangelical Theology – Part 5: The Gospel of Salvation |
  2. Book Log: December 2013 |
  3. Favorite Books (2013) |
  4. Friday Funnies |
  5. Introducing Michael Bird’s “Evangelical Theology” |
  6. A Theology for the Church (Daniel Akin ed.) |

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