Evangelical Theology – the Gospel Word from the Bird

I had a dream one night that I had book contracts to  write both a systematic theology textbook and also a commentary on Romans (two of the most serious challenges a Christian scholar might face in his or her career). I turned and looked in the mirror and saw red hair – for I had become Michael F. Bird.

No, not really. But I am delighted there are people in the world like Mike who feel comfortable in the Biblical Studies world as well as the theology world. And I am honored to have Zondervan send me his Evangelical Theology to review.

By now there are several reviews finished or started on the web, so I won’t try to be comprehensive here. The bottom line for me is that this is the first thing I would mention to anyone who asked me to recommend a systematic theology. When I was in seminary, I found the pick of systematic theologies woefully inadequate and they talked about theology in such stale and confusing ways. Mike’s approach is clear and engaging, and offers the best reflections from Biblical Studies and systematic (and historical and cultural) theology.

You may already know that the way Mike approaches an “Evangelical Theology” is by focusing on the “Evangel,” the Gospel. Here is his definition:

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, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit (52).

This is a wonderful way to proceed with a systematic theology. I am not sure it is infused in every part of the theology, but it is there enough to make it distinctive. Bravo!

Truth be told, I did not read every single word of the book of 900+ pages, but I read bits that were most interesting to me. From the portions I read (and a glance at the indexes), I noted that the greatest influences on Mike evident in the work are: Augustine, Barth, Calvin, Millard Erickson, Michael Horton, Thomas Schreiner, Kevin Vanhoozer, and (last but not least) N.T. Wright.

How shall we proceed with my own reflections? I thought it appropriate to refer to what I thought was Groovy and Not-So-Groovy.

Groovy

1. The book is just a lot of fun. I laughed. I cried (at his Calvinism). I ate popcorn. I said a prayer. I fell asleep. It fell on me.

Seriously, though, it is a very engaging textbook with great excurses and charts. The outline is clear and the topics flow very smoothly. It would be easy to organize a course around the book sections.

2. Mike’s discussion about his “doctrine of Scripture”:

“In my thinking, a doctrine of Scripture should not be a locus of its own. Such a doctrine stands somewhere between ecclesiology and pneumatology, or between church and Spirit, in terms of its appropriate place in a Christian theology” (196)

3. Mike offers a very groovy summary of Richard Hays’ reasons why we need “apocalyptic eschatology” (241-243).

4. Mike has a discussion of “cool internet resources” (291)

5. Mike quotes Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (301)

6. Mike argues that Jesus is a theologian. He also says that the epistles, Acts, and Revelation could be called the “Jesus Festschrift” (381)

7. Mike’s discussion of models of atonement is the best I have seen. See the handy charts on 410 and also 421. Every time I teach on the atonement I will appeal to this.

8. I love Mike’s explanation of the Christological heresy of the Monophysites: “two natures in a blender Christology” (483).

9. Mike’s work on ecclesiology is reason enough to get the book. He presses for the evangelical world to have a strong sense of the church’s identity and mission.

Not-So-Groovy

1. Perhaps the biggest concern I have with Mike’s textbook is that I couldn’t quite see where “ethics” and “redemptive living” fit into his framework. There is no specific category for it. Something like ethics gets into his order of salvation vis-a-vis regeneration and sanctification, but this can come off as very individualistic. His discussion of the life and mission of the church is better on the concern for the life lived, but it did not come across as distinctive of a Gospel theology.

2. In relationship to the above, I was not that excited about his short discussion of the final judgment of believers. He takes a Schreiner-ian stance, I think: “Good works demonstrate the necessary evidences of a saving faith in the Savior” (303), where works are demonstrations of faith. But, if this is so, why not judge the “faith,” why judge the works at all (especially if God knows our hearts)? Perhaps this is explained by his statement that judgment will determine “how successfully believers have cooperated with his grace of renewal” (303). I think this gets closer to a helpful answer, but, again, it can come across as very individualistic (as if renewal and sanctification is about me and Jesus) – what about the Christian and the Church’s worldwide mission? Are we not held accountable because the world needs our works? I wish Mike had done a better job wedding his judgment-theology with his robust ecclesiology.

3. I found the discussion of hell to be too systematic. Imagine my surprise when Mike starts talking about two separate sheols in the OT, one for saints and one for the wicked; and then later in salvation history the saints go with Jesus and the bad sheol gets dumped into hell. Don’t get me wrong, this is the kind of thing systematicians do (so Mike’s discussion may be par for the course), but I just don’t see how it can be worked out in that way with that level of detail (and a timeline with pictures!). Also, you might not be surprised that Mike defends a traditional view of eternal damnation in hell for the wicked, but I was not satisfied with his short dismissal of annihilationism, and I wish he had brought in C.S. Lewis’ mature and rewarding thoughts on the language of the “eternality” of hell that comes from The Problem of Pain. I know you can’t expect a theologian to talk about everything, but — for me — Lewis’ approach ties up a lot of philosophical and moral loose ends. (Also, Mike – leave Rob Bell out of the book; in five years when this textbook is being used regularly across the world students are going to read your book and ask “Who’s Rob Bell?”)

Last Word

Please don’t take my few negative comments as the last word. My last word is that this is a better read than any other theology textbook I have read. Mike is humble, clear, entertaining, balanced, and studied. He is thoroughly evangelical, but cites and works with anyone that offers something useful (like Moltmann). If someone asked me if Mike’s Evangelical Theology was groovy or not-groovy, I publicly state now that I dubbeth it groovy – indeed.

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Varia on NTW’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God #1

I am 200 pages into N.T. Wright’s massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013). In due time, I will be doing an evaluative review for Interpretation. However, a 1500-word review can hardly do justice to a 1500+ page book of this complexity and depth (a 5000 word review would still seem inadequate!). Also, an evaluative review will, of necessity, focus on the flow and substance of Wright’s wider argumentation, but there are so many anecdotal, exegetical, and even random “goodies” in these many pages that are worthy of comment – many things that would never be noted in a review. Hence- varia. In several posts, I will interact with or just repeat some of the many comments in PFG that I found blog-worthy!

#1: Some may know about a kind of falling out between Wright and Richard Hays when the former expressed serious concern with the latter’s work in Seeking the Identity of Jesus. I think that time and conversation may have healed some of those wounds, but this came to mind when I read the dedication – “For Richard Hays, a prince among exegetes, a jewel among friends.” Perhaps there is no way for a scholar to say publicly “I value you” than in this way.

#2 (P. 9, passim): not sure why Wright does not capitalize “spirit” when referring sometimes to the Holy Spirit. I am sure he explains it in another book, but I didn’t see it here. I could guess as to why, but an explicit comment would have been helpful. (And sometimes he does capitalize it, see below)

#3: You may know that Wright begins with a case study – Philemon. How does Paul’s unique perspective come out in this ostensibly mundane letter? I think it is an interesting and unique way to commence his work, but I felt it carried on a bit too long. Still, I found his theological reflections helpful overall. For example, regarding Paul’s concern for reconciliation, he appeals to this as an outworking of Paul’s theology of the cross – “Philemon himself is part of [the] new creation, and so is Onesimus, so the question of their social status is radically outflanked. How has this happened? Through the Messiah’s cross” (18).

#4 (43): Wright’s big idea: “Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the Spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans.”

#5 (56): Regarding whether he should include the so-called disputed Pauline epistles in his analysis of Paul, Wright expresses disappointment that Colossians and Ephesians (in particular) are demoted and even seen to be major distortions of Pauline theology by “the guild.” Wright states: “The prejudice against Ephesians Colossians has grown so strong in some circles that it has reached the point where young scholars are warned against using them in the study of Paul lest they be thought unscholarly.” Indeed – I was told to leave Eph/Col out of my dissertation study, and I took that advice out of the same fear Wright comments on. I have the same indignation towards this bias. Bravo to Frank Matera for stepping out and developing a Pauline theology that includes (cautiously) the whole Pauline corpus. In a footnote related to this discussion, Wright ends his note in this way: “Fashions come and go.” Here is Wright’s way forward for his study: Colossians will be taken as Pauline (no doubt), Ephesians & 2 Thess are “highly likely” to be Pauline; 2 Tim may be Pauline and will be used with caution; 1 Timothy and Titus will be used “in the opposite way to that in which a drunkard uses a lamppost, for illumination rather than support” (p. 58-59).

#6 (57): Related to the discussion of discipline-given assumptions (e.g., cannot talk about Pastorals), Wright cites Robert Morgan who (in a different context) proposed “let us put the chess pieces back on the board from time to time and restart the game.” A great metaphor for this desire to revisit long-held assumptions.

#7: Wright makes frequent appeal to NTPG, and does not add much to it except that he wish he had given more attention to the Greco-Roman world (see p. 75)

#8: Wright takes issue with the critique that Edward Adams has made of the way that Wright reads end-of-the-world cosmological imagery in Scripture.

Jesus really did use this end-of-the-world language to refer to a great cosmic event yet to come, but in line with many biblical and post-biblical writings this didn’t necessarily mean the actual physical end of the planet or the universe, since these writings often intended to speak instead either of a major transformation or of a destruction that would then be followed by remaking. (166)

Adams gets a very thorough response from Wright and I think we can expect Adams to counter-respond in some way in the future.

#9 (166): Wright points to Troels Engberg-Pedersen as someone who takes Adams’ side on end-of-the-world imagery. But listen to Wright’s words about Engberg-Pedersen: “I wonder if Adams is happy with this ringing endorsement from someone who clearly has little idea of what Judaism actually was or how it worked, and who uses the word ‘apocalyptic’ in a fairly unreconstructed, and certainly unhistorical, Bultmannian sense.” (footnote, 367). I have never heard or read Wright slam a scholar this hard…

#10 (220): Wright has a nice introduction to Greco-Roman philosophy. In his section on Seneca, he notes how Seneca had a habit of taking his rivals’ ideas and turning them against themselves. So, in his letters to Lucilius, Seneca uses the words of Epicurus to defend his own point. Anticipating Lucius’ concern with this method, Seneca replies: “quod verum est, meum est.” As Wright sums up Seneca’s justification: “If it’s true, it’s mine. The best ideas are common property. What does it matter who said it? He said it for everybody.” (p. 220; see Ep. Mor. 12.11; 14.17; cf. 8.8).