Book Reviews

Book Review: Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Michael Bird)

Michael Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, came out with a massive systematic theology (ST) in 2013, and his revision came out last year. Bird’s hope is that “this updated volume is a continued defense and thoughtful explication of what it means to be an evangelical Christian” (xvi). I’ll write a bit about what’s new and look at some of what Bird writes concerning the Trinity.

Though some equate evangelicalism with fundamentalism and others see evangelicalism as being aligned with conservative American politics, Bird continues to use the dreaded term evangelicalism. He does this because he refers to “a historic and global phenomenon that seeks to achieve renewal in Christian churches by bringing the gospel and by making the promotion of the gospel the chief mission of the church” (xxv).

Since people come to Christ through the gospel, Bird’s purpose for this evangelical theology is to show how the gospel works out in different parts of Christian theology. This is then applied to our daily lives and to the offices of church leaders. As Bird writes, “The gospel is the glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice” (xxix). Bird’s task is “to lay out what a theology driven and defined by the gospel looks like” (xxix). Theology gospelizes. That is, theology makes “the gospel shape our thinking, praying, preaching, teaching, and ministering in relation to God so that we increasingly participate in the life and mission of God” (xxix-xxx).

What’s New?

According to Michael Bird on Patheos, he cut 50,000 words and wrote 100,000 words in this edition. Some parts needed to be changed, refined, expanded, or deleted. What is actually new?

  1. Bird explains why he keeps using the word evangelical (see my first paragraph above).
  2. The bibliographies are updated to include more female theologians (like Beth Felker Jones) and majority world scholars (especially from Asia). Being a Calvinist himself, he interacts more with Wesleyan and Arminian perspectives.
  3. He agrees with Jacob Arminius over John Calvin on autotheos (see pp. 159–161). The Trinitarian language runs thick here, and I can’t begin to try to parse it out here, but Bird explains well how Arminius’ view might be the correct view.
  4. The chapters on the Trinity (see my section below) and the Holy Spirit have been beefed up!
  5. The chapter on Anthropology has been re-written and has a greater focus on Christian identity, the image of God and disability, and sin.
    1. The disabled need more than to be included (aka tolerated) within the church; they need to belong to the church, to be valued and missed if they are absent.
    2. In regards to sex and gender as a social construct, Bird is nuanced here. He points out that you only need to look at 1950s advertising to see that “sociocultural constructs of manhood and womanhood exist” (762). Yet, there are actual differences between men and women. For example, Norway promotes gender equality in many ways. Yet “90 percent of engineers are male and 90 percent of nurses are female,” something Jordan Peterson has also noted in an interview (762).
    3. There are numerous communities one could live in and be a part of—”be they political, racial, economic, occupational, educational, or what have you”—and all of them will pressure you to “think, live, and act in certain ways.” Resist what is ungodly and know you should live with “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) and have a “mind governed by the Spirit” (Rom 8:6). Our identity is in Christ. “We are known by God, baptized in Christ, and made alive in the Spirit” (766).
  6. In discussing God’s purpose and plan, along with dispensationalism and covenant theology, he includes Wellum and Gentry’s kingdom through covenant view. He agrees most, however, with covenant theology, though he doesn’t deny the issues there either.
  7. He discusses multi-site churches in his chapter on Ecclesiology. He looks at both pros and cons to multi-site churches.
    1. A few pros
      1. The apostles wrote to churches that were clustered together (see “churches of Judea” in Gal 1:22).
      2. As well, some rural churches have so few members they can barely afford to to pay a full-time minister.
      3. Instead of having one ginormous building, you can have five smaller church buildings closer to where people live.
    2. A few cons
      1. On the other hand, in the case of Baptist churches that believe themselves to be an independent and autonomous local church, Bird writes that they have actually taken on an episcopal form of church governance. They are allowing a central hub to control their finances, who they appoint to leadership, what their preaching roster is, etc.
      2. Multi-sites can also amplify the worst of the Western evangelical subculture—consumerism, corporatism, and celebrity-pastor cult followings.
      3. Bird writes, “It would be unhelpful to stream a worship service from the middle class Anglo/Asian suburbs of eastern Melbourne into the working class, welfare-dependent, and ethnic minority suburbs of western Melbourne. A pastor needs to be among the people to lead them in worship, preach the word, and administer the sacraments, knowing who they are and what they are going through in their environment” (856).

The Trinity

Many think that the Trinity isn’t really very important to know much about. It’s too complex and is really just “an esoteric doctrine forged in an unholy marriage of Greek metaphysical speculation and dodgy biblical interpretation” (105). But Bird disagrees and says it isn’t that way at all! The Trinity is Christianity’s most distinctive doctrine (107) Bird examines both the Athanasian and Nicean creeds to show how these two creeds explain “how the three persons were all divine and yet separate persons and rejecting all the wrong ways of articulating that fact” (116-17).

After giving us a short Council of Constantinople rap battle and a very helpful Trinity Starter Reading Kit, Bird tells us what the Trinity is. Dun dun dun! It is actually “biblically rooted,” but as well “its nuances and assertions cannot be biblically derived entirely from Scripture” (119). Rather, “the Trinity is a theological and hermeneutical framework drawn from the biblical materials” (119). As well, it is deduced from Scripture. It  is derived from reading Scripture closely on how God has revealed himself through his words and redemptive acts.

Bird scans through both Testaments to see how trinitarian language develops, noting that the angel of the Lord “was both God and not God” (123). He both delivers messages from God while speaking almost as if he is God (see my post here). His angelic form allowed people to look at the “un-imag(in)able” (that is, you have never seen him you you can’t even imagine what he looks like, and you can’t make an image of him either) and the “un-look-on-able” God (123).

Bird offers hosts of texts from the New Testament on the relationship between the Triune persons. Concerning eternal generation, Bird writes that “as a doctrine [it] functions to differentiate the Son from the Father as it simultaneously affirms that the Son derives his divinity from the Father. In other words, God makes creatures outside of himself, but God the Father generates a Son from within himself” (136).

Bird surveys the Trinity in the Patristic era (and gives us a silly-but-clever Christological Rap Battle Royal) and then summarizes two recent issues in Trinitarian theology: social trinitarianism and Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS). He states both how he was initially sympathetic to the position but, having rejected that position, how he also has some reservations and warnings about it.

Recommended?

Bird’s volume is both bolstered by good biblical, systematic, and historical theology and is easy to read (if you can believe that). A little while ago I reviewed Grudem’s revised Systematic Theology, a whopping 1,600 pages. Bird’s volume is more modest, coming in at just over 900 pages. If you’re wondering which of these you should buy, don’t make your purchase based only on page count. Grudem’s is backed by a lot of biblical texts and theology, but he’s not as strong on historical exegesis as Bird. That’s not at all to say it isn’t in there, but Bird’s conclusions receive more support from historical exegesis than Grudem’s.

Both Grudem and Bird have provided excellent, updated systematic theologies. If you were to purchase only I think he is more correct concerning the Trinity, and I like his perspective, humor, and writing style. He’s conservative and solid, but where he and Grudem diverge, I usually go with Bird. This is a fantastic book that I highly recommend.  

Lagniappe

    • Author: Michael Bird
    • Hardcover: 1,008 pages
    • Publisher:Zondervan Academic, 2nd edition (October 20, 2020)

Buy it on Amazon or from Zondervan Academic

Disclosure: I received this book free from Zondervan Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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