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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6 thoughts on “Evangelical Theology – the Gospel Word from the Bird

  1. Thanks for this groovy review of a seemingly groovy systematic theology. I never have thought I would see “groovy” and “systematic theology” in one sentence …

  2. Some good thoughts here, Nijay, esp. on the mention of Rob Bell. The volume will probably be in its second edition in 5 years, so maybe that portion will be omitted then.

    I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on works and the final judgment. I think you’ve said more here on the logic of your position than you did when blogged through the Counterpoint Series book. And I didn’t realize you were so sympathetic to annihilationism.

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