Michael Bird is best known as a biblical scholar. His book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul is our introductory text on Paul in Porterbrook Seminary. (Apparently the US Publishers didn’t appreciate the punning title and published it under the more prosaic, Introducing Paul.)
Now Bird has produced a lively systematic theology. Bird is evangelical, Reformed, Calvinistic and Anglican (with a Baptist background). What makes Evangelical Theology distinctive, he claims, it its focus on the gospel. This is gospel-centred systematics. He says, ‘I intend to undertake this theological exercise of constructing an evangelical theology by putting the “evangel” at the helm.’ (21) Here’s how this evangel-ical theology is to be undertaken: ‘1. Define the gospel … 2. Identify the relationship of the various loci to the gospel … 3. Embark on a creative dialogue between the sources of theology … 4. Describe what the loci look like when appropriated and applied in the light of the gospel … 5 … What array of behaviours, activities, applications, and consequences follow on from [these] findings.’ (81-82)
This gospel-centred approach means, for example, that the order of topics is different from most other systematic theologies, especially the place of eschatology (the kingdom of God). Bird’s order is: revelation, Trinity, eschatology, christology, soteriology, pneumatology, anthropology and ecclesiology. This reflects Bird’s definition of 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 fulfilment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ (52) Bird is not the first person to put eschatology nearer the front end of systematics (see, for example, Peter Jensen’s shorter At the Heart of the Universe). But it is good a move. This is systematics shaped more by the narrative of the Bible than logical structures.
The book is over 800 pages long with another 100 pages of bibliography and indices. But any sense that this might be an intimidating read is soon dispelled by the lively, engaging and occasional jocular style. This might irritate some, myself included. That said, people like me have plenty of more sombre alternative systematic theologies to turn to and I suspect it will lighten the process for a younger audience. Here’s a sample: ‘When I explain Calvinism to people, I usually say this: “People suck, they suck in sin, they are suckness unto death. And the God who is rich in mercy takes the initiative to save people from the penalty, the power, and even the presence of this sin. This is Calvinism, the rest is commentary.’ (24) Or on page 451 we are given ‘some comic belief’: ‘Why does God always have to use his left hand? Because Jesus is sitting on his right hand!’ At this point I’m getting pretty fed up with the jokes There are also some anomalies in terms of the level at which it is pitched. The first item we meet the word ‘epistemology’, for example, it is defined, but not the rarer and more complex word, ‘nominalism’.
As with any such undertaking there are points where I disagree with Bird. Stephen Williams highlights some specific deficiencies in his review in Themelios. The idea of creating gospel-centred systematics is welcome. But I’m not persuaded the ‘gospel-at-the-helm’ approach has created something which is very different from other evangelical systematic theologies. There is regular engagement with contemporary theological debates which is welcome and many readers will find this helpful and engaging. But I’m not sure that the missional implications come through as much as they could in a systematics with the gospel at the helm. Nevertheless I would happily use it with people.
We seem to have a growing number of good contemporary, thorough introductions to systematic theology at the moment. For example:
- Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Tony Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- John Frame, Salvation Belong to The Lord (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- John Frame, Systematic Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
All of them are have their distinctive emphases and styles. My problem is I can’t decide which I like best.