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Michael Bird's Prolegomena to Evangelical Theology

Michael Bird compares the writing of theological prolegomena to clearing one's throat, so I considered titling this post something like "clearing your throat with the gospel," "a gospel throat-clearing," or better, "gargling with the gospel." Bird does not begin his systematic theology in the typical way—there is no philosophical defense of the existence of God or how we know God. He writes,

In place of philosophical justification, I prefer the Barthian approach of asserting the fact of divine revelation as the counterpoint to unbelief... the primary function of an evangelical prolegomena should be a setting out of the gospel (p. 40).

For me this is both disappointing and refreshing. Let me explain. Michael Bird is an established biblical scholar. He has widely published in the fields of Second Temple Judaism and New Testament Studies, and he has written a commentary on 1 Esdra in Brill's Septuagint Commentary Series (you can access his full CV here). Since he takes up the task of systematic theology as a genuine biblical scholar, with intimate knowledge of all the historical and philosophical challenges those fields pose for the theologian, I hoped he would answer all my questions for me.

Alas, as I read the first few pages of the book, I heard, as if in an audible voice, Bird's response to my expectations: a classic τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί ("What does your concern have to do with me?") à la John 2:4.

In my own journey, I am trying my best to come to terms with the fact that there is no peace to be made with modernity's epistemology. It is, therefore, refreshing to see that Bird unashamedly, but not not naivley, sets the gospel front and center. He places it in the driver's seat and calls evangelicals to allow the gospel to impact every category of both their theology and life.

Section-by-Section

Section 1.1 sets the tone. In the very first paragraph Bird defines theology using joke that made me laugh out loud. What is theology? (a) The name of the eighth full-length album by Sinead O'Conner, released in 2007, (b) What my father tells me to stop doing and to get a real job, (c) The study of God. Bird answers, "All of the above!"

He goes on to explain theology as the drama of gospelizing, by which he means "trying to become what the gospel intends believers to be: slaves of Christ, vessels of grace, agents of the kingdom, and a people worthy of God's name" (p. 30). Bird's writing is distinguished by an all too rare "deep levity," to borrow a favorite phrase from my good buddy Cody King. Bird has a knack for communicating weighty ideas with a lighthearted self-awareness that shows he doesn't take himself too seriously.

Section 1.2 provides a brief history of theological prolegomena writing and critiques the ways in which it has been done in both the modern and post-modern eras. Some of the theologians who have most influenced Bird are Karl Barth, Peter Jensen, John Webster, Alister McGrath, and Kevin Vanhoozer. It is here that Bird discusses most clearly how and why the gospel is central to the theological task.

Section 1.3 surveys the use of εὐαγγέλιον and its cognates in the Bible, and then Bird answers the million-dollar question: What is the gospel?

The gospel is 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, and repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effect include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit (p. 52).

He explains,

The gospel is not a deductive argument that reasons from God's holiness to human sin to an incarnate Savior whom we universally need. The gospel is fundamentally a story about how salvation comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The gospel does not announce a twelve-step plan to salvation. It narrates the story of salvation that pertains to events in the life and work of Jesus (p.48).

Section 1.4 explains the necessity and goal of theology. At the end of the day, we must confess what we believe and how these beliefs impact our lives. The goal of theology is to become mature in Christ through a deeper understanding of God.

In section 1.5 Bird notes three obstacles to doing theology, and he responds with three exhortations: (1) We must realize that systematic theology is limited in scope and cannot answer every question (But surely the combination of biblical scholar and theologian will do the trick! [Sigh] Maybe in the next book.), (2) we must allow biblical theology to set the agenda, and (3) we must be aware of our historical situatedness and cultural context because these will inevitably affect the way we approach the theological task.

Section 1.6 is a gem, in which Bird provides a nuanced discussion of the sources for theology. I will limit my comments to his treatment of tradition. Bird starts with a clear explanation of the regula fidei ("rule of faith"): The regula fidei "was not a precise creedal statement, but more of a summary of the narrative of Scripture" (p. 66). For Bird the term regula fidei is essentially synonymous with "gospel"—both are a narrative summary of Scripture culminating in the person and work of Jesus.

The regula fidei is the glue that binds together Scripture and tradition.

The regula fidei was not an oral tradition that existed parallel to Scripture. The regula fidei was what emerged out of the preaching and teaching of Scripture in the early church. The regula fidei was both derived from Scripture and was the interpretive lens through which Scripture was to be understood. In this perspective, Scripture and tradition mutually reinforce each other (p. 67).

Scripture is primary, but tradition is the "consultative norm" for theology. He does not advocate "traditionalism," a blind acceptance of tradition, but calls for us to adopt a "believing criticism." That is, we should sympathetically listen to the creeds and confessions but then test them in light of our reading of Scripture.

Section 1.7 discusses theological method. With respect and appreciation for the work of Wayne Grudem, Bird holds him up as the example par excellence of naive biblicism. Bird playfully names this method the "Theological Sausage Maker 3000."

Instructions for Theological Sausage Maker 3000

  1. Put Bible into Theological Sausage Maker
  2. Turn handle of sausage maker grinding Bible into propositions
  3. Out comes pristine and pure theological doctrine
  4. Eat with Catholic Carrots or Protestant Peas as preferred (p. 77)

One of Bird's primary critiques is that doing systematic theology in this way does a disservice to the various literary forms in which Scripture consists. Bird asserts that Scripture is given in the exact forms in which God intended, and appreciation of these forms is essential in order to position the church to experience and live out the drama of Scripture. Bird is not against theological propositions. He states,

We need to believe propositions about God, but our theology is about more than propositions, for it encompasses our relationship with God, our mission in the world, and our performance of the drama that we find ourselves in as Christians.

Concluding Thoughts

I've joked about how I am disappointed that Bird did not answer all my questions, but I really would have liked to hear more at the front end of the book about his understanding of the relationship between historical criticism and theology—perhaps a couple pages (maybe ten or twenty) of his own journey in wrestling with questions like those posed by Chris Hays and Christopher Ansberry (eds.) in their Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism. For example, David Carr's Reading the Fractures of Genesis inextricably links a book's composition history to its final form reading. How should someone holding to a gospel-centered, evangelical, but not biblicistic hermeneutic respond?

Furthermore, Bird accents the importance of biblical theology and the necessity of allowing the text to set the agenda for systematic theology. I would have liked to see more discussion of  the type of "biblical theology" he has in mind. For example, Edward Klink and Darian Lockett describe several different ways of doing biblical theology in their Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice. What type(s) of biblical theology informs Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology? No doubt the 800 plus pages that follow the Prolegomena with tell the tale, but I would have liked to see him discuss this topic in his section on methods.

As Bird says, "Discussions on method could go on forever. Discussing method is a bit like clearing your throat before a speech. You can only do it for so long before the audience gets bored" (p. 81). Perhaps an introductory systematic theology simply cannot give more space to questions about historical criticism and the nature of biblical theology. These are just a couple things I would like to see, and they in no way detract from the high praise Michael Bird deserves for placing an exposition of the gospel at the forefront of his theology and demanding the gospel be central to the theological task.

I'm excited to read the rest of the book, and I haven't said that about a theology book in years, let alone a systematic theology.

This post is a part of a Zondervan Blog TourThanks to Zondervan for providing me a review copy of the book.

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Biblioblog Carnival—October 2013