REVIEW: "Evangelical Theology" by Michael Bird

Michael F. Bird. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic IntroductionGrand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 912 pp. $49.99.


Michael Bird’s new book, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (ET) was provided to me for review by Zondervan as a part of the Koinonia Blog Tour for this book.  Bird teaches theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of various other theological books and commentaries, and also blogs at Euangellion.

In this book, however, Bird has set himself to the task of writing a truly Evangelical theology. Of course, that’s quite the task, considering the great diversity that exists among evangelicals worldwide.

As a part of Zondervan’s blog tour, I’ve been assigned to review the final section of Evangelical Theology, which Bird entitles “The Community of the Gospelized”.

This section in any other systematic theology might be entitled “The Church” or “Ecclesiology”. Entitling it in his work “The Community of the Gospelized”, Bird tips his cap to his overarching argument: that the church is a community of people created by and sustained by the gospel. In my opinion, this would be the most difficult chapter to write if one were to attempt writing a theology that represents Evangelicalism. If you were to ask me what church I worshipped with this Sunday and I were to respond, “An Evangelical Church”, I would have told you almost nothing about what the service was like. To say, “An Evangelical Church” may say a great deal about what one believes, but very little about what one practices in a formal, ecclesiological sense.

Perhaps this explains why Bird opts to explain Evangelical Ecclesiology the way he does. His chapter is incredibly ecumenical, and it’s Birds ecumenism that brings both the greatest clarity as well as the greatest confusion to his arguments. How can this be? It seems to be quite the contradiction, after all. It seems to me that Bird’s ecumenism allows him to be incredibly clear and beyond helpful on abstractions about the ekklesia, but less than helpful– indeed confusing– in regards to the visible church.

The Strengths of ET‘s “Community of the Gospelized”
Bird identifies the “community of the gospelized” as:

…a people believing in a single Go, answering a common call, confessing a common gospel, receiving a common faith, sealed by a common baptism, and serving a common Lord, Jesus Christ. The communion of the saints is the living fellowship of all believers who participate in a shared worship, spiritual gifts, graces, material goods, and mutual edification (609).

 It is this that will serve as the foundation for Bird’s ecclesiology.

Bird intends to focus on the major points of ecclesiology and, with the aforementioned foundation, he does just that. I can’t emphasize enough how important Bird thinks it is to factor in the weight and effect of the gospel at every turn.


Bird believes that the church is riddled with 3 basic problems: 1) the preference of quasi-unity (in word only) as opposed to actual, tangible unity 2) anti-Catholicism (which he defines as an aversion to pre-Reformation theologians and liturgy all the way back to the patristic era) and 3) hyper-individualism (701-703). I think Bird nails it right on the head with this prognosis. In some sense, he argues, there is no salvation outside the church.


So if those are the problems with the Evangelical church, what is the solution? What are the true marks of a church? The church, he says, is 1) one, 2) holy, 3) catholic, and 4) apostolic. Bird does not herein deviate from traditional Evangelical (and Protestant for that matter) definitions of these terms, but it is worth noting that his handling is incredibly accessible. I would give those 3 pages (737-739) to any church member wondering about those terms. I imagine questions would come up around the Apostles Creed and this is an excellent resource for that. This is followed with an even more helpful section on the marks of a church in Reformed theology which Bird says are the ministry of the Word and sacrament. I include this only to point out the best line in this whole section: “…Word and sacrament go naturally together, like beer and skittles, peanut butter and jelly, or cheese and wine. Word and sacrament have an instant Evangelical unity. The Word announces the gospel, while baptism and Eucharist [Note: communion, for the Baptists out there] symbolize the gospel.” If nothing else, Michael Bird tells us that he loves the disgusting combination of beer and skittles.


Perhaps the best thing in the book is Bird’s gospel-centeredness as well as his Trinitarian formulation of doctrine. It’s clear that Bird really is interested in having the light of the Trinity and the beauty of the gospel shine forth in every point he makes. The death and resurrection of Christ is in no way absent from this book, in part or parcel. Bird’s weaving of the themes throughout his argumentation is helpful for anyone new to the “gospel-centered” group.


Helpful


Throughout Evangelical Theology‘s “Community of the Gospelized” chapter, Bird includes excursions into side topics, which he labels “Ecclesiology in Contention”. Essentially these are short essays on contentious issues, such as: 1) “The Unity of the Church”, 2) “The Visible and Invisible Church”, and 3) the incredibly intriguing “The Church and Israel”, among others. These are helpful, concise essays that really give you a feel of the topic at hand, whether you submit to his conclusions or not.


Evangelical Theology‘s Weaknesses


In the particular section I’m in, Bird may be at his weakest. Of course, Bird is trying to write a book that spans Evangelicalism, and where are we more divided than ecclesiology? I’m reminded of this joke by Emo Phillips (watch from 1:45).



I’ll try to keep the ‘weaknesses’ section short; just enough to give you a taste. It seems that the fact of the matter is that no author of an Evangelical theology will be able to settle on an ecclesiology that represents the whole of Evangelicalism. Admittedly, Bird is an ex-Baptist ex-Presbyterian Australian Anglican. In short order, he’s a mixed bag and as a Southern Baptist we had a great deal of disagreement. I think on the specifics on ecclesiology, ET is a wash. I want to be clear, however that the abstraction of Ecclesiology (i.e. who the church is, how the church began) is worth reading. I found his section on Baptism, as a Baptist, to be completely “dissatisfying”, to use his prediction of my reaction (770). For example, Bird’s argument that the church did not start at Pentecost (713), but rather is a renewal of the Abrahamic covenant causes Bird to conflate Israel and the church in a way that I found to be unhelpful at best. He says,”God has one plan for one people, not two plans for two peoples.” Because of this, however, Bird goes on to explain images of the church in the Old Testament. That seems to me to be a mistake. Of course we agree that there is only one people of God. It is not clear, however, that pre-Pentecost that the people of God were “the church” and not “Israel”, or that the two are one-in-the-same. This section is intriguing, but flawed in my estimation.

Another weakness of the book is that Bird completely fails to deal with the issue of gender roles at length. One of the greatest dividers among Evangelicals is the divide between tribes on the issue of gender roles. A lengthy discussion on the issue is completely missing in this chapter (and from what I can tell, the whole book). Obviously, this has massive implications for the structure, function, and organization of the church. To not deal with it, in my eyes is a mistake. Simply ignoring it in favor of de facto egalitarianism does no one good. [NOTE: He has dealt with the issue at length in book format here. This only adds to my confusion, however, in regards to its absence here.]


Lastly, I noticed as I spanned this section that Bird seems to not practice what he preaches in regards to the importance of church history and the breadth of scholarship therein. In this chapter on ecclesiology, however, nearly of all the references are from 2nd-4th century, Reformation Confessions, John Calvin, and late 20th century-present ecclesiological works. There is very little interaction with theological liberals, albeit there are the occasional reference to (not “liberal”) but neo-orthodox Karl Barth. I really feel like this section suffers because of that. A similar problem was pointed out by my friend David Schrock in his review of a separate section of the book.


Wrapping It All Up


I want to be clear as daylight here: This is a book worth ordering. The organization of the book is wonderful. It is the most accessible systematic theology I have ever owned (among Grudem, Hodge, Calvin, Frame, Erickson, Horton, and a few others). Bird is a great writer, and it shows. 


As a Baptist, however,  I would find myself having to correct my congregants on some of his issues, but his gospel-centrality and Trinitarian development of various doctrines is worthy of commendation. If you are a pastor, you should have this book on your shelf. I’m just not sure about the average layperson. Perhaps a discerning one. If “The Community of the Gospelized” section is representative of the whole, then I find Evangelical Theology to be worthy of commendation, but too diverse in its sources and conclusions to be worthy of recommendation. Ultimately, I’m not sure Evangelical Theology is a book that any particular group of Evangelicals could point to and say,”Here’s what we believe.”

So, pastors: Yes. Absolutely. 
But I’d want to speak with a layperson before handing this book to them. If you are Anglican or Presbyterian, however, this book might be a bit more ‘user-friendly’.

Thank you, Dr. Bird, for a great resource. I look forward to using it in the future.


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