Why an Evangelical Theology? 3 Reasons Why It's Time An Evangelical Biblical Scholar Wrote One
Before we get to our big question—Why an evangelical theology like Michael Bird's new Evangelical Theology?—we should ask a different question: Why another theology?
Evangelicalism isn't short on resources to educate our old and young in doctrine. So, again, why another theology, not to mention a so-called, self-described evangelical one? Well, it's the nature of the question that gets to our answer. Why an evangelical theology?
It is precisely because Bird has self-titled his systematic theology textbook Evangelical that we should perk-up and take note, because Bird is doing something unique and unusual that sets his magnum opus apart from other such evangelical opi: A text that's self-consciously of, for, and by the evangel.
There are three reasons why it's time an evangelical biblical scholar wrote an evangelical theology, and why I'm thrilled Bird is the one who wrote it: because it is gospel-centered; it cuts through two theologizing extremes; and it sweeps away two false tribal dichotomies. All in an effort to place the evangel back at the center of our theology.
1) It is Gospel-Centered
As the title suggests, Evangelical Theology is primarily "a gospel-centered theology for Christians who seek to define themselves principally by the gospel." (21)
The list is long, but I appreciate the full-orbed, fleshy definition Bird gives to the evangel. For Bird the gospel is: "the beginning, center, boundary, and interpretive theme" of theology; "the most important doctrine of them all;" "the 'canon within the canon' simply because the biblical canon is the Scriptural expression of the 'rule of faith;'" it "permeates all other doctrines;" "the glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice;" and finally "the fulcrum of Christian doctrine." (21)
So for Bird the gospel is the beginning, center, boundary, interpretive theme, most important, permeating, glue, and fulcrum of Christian theology. Full-orbed, fleshy definition indeed! And this conviction pervades his systematic theology.
Yes he identifies with the Reformed tradition and gravitates toward the Calvinistic scheme of theology, as he explains, which will impact at some level how he does theology. (Side note: I so appreciated how Bird laid out his ecclesial and theological cards at the outset, a rare occasion for a systematic theology book.) But Bird's stated purpose is to construct an evangelical theology by putting the "evangel" firmly at the helm (21); the gospel pilots this theological vessel.
Because systematic theologians can become blinded by their theological and tribal convictions, I believe Bird's unique experience as a biblical scholar—he has worked in such diverse areas as the historical Jesus, Synoptic Gospels, life of Paul, New Testament theology, Second Temple literature, and textual criticism—has equipped him to craft a truly gospel-centered theology.
2) It Avoids Two Theologizing Extremes
Another important reason why Bird wrote this book is because of two extreme manners in which books tend to "theologize," or engage in theological speculation.
In one extreme, there are those books that invest so much energy into outlining what this theologian and that theologian from history believed that they never get around to asking and answering what Scripture itself says. As Bird laments, "If a textbook has more references to Anselm and Barth than to the Major Prophets and the Gospels, you've got some serious problems." (21-22)
That is problematic, not because retrieving our faith's forebear's voices is unimportant, but because such retrieval "must be married to, rather than be a replacement for, good biblical theology." (22)
The other extreme, however, are those textbooks that are so "biblical" that they are doing theology armed with nothing more than Strong's concordance and without the Nicene Creed. Again, Bird laments, "For such authors, church history is something that happened to other people. I have a hard time learning from anyone who thinks we have little to learn from our forefathers in the faith." (22)
These two extremes are reason enough why it's time an evangelical biblical scholar wrote an evangelical theology. Bird's method cuts through these two extremes by endeavoring to be both canonical and creedal; Bird accepts the Holy Scriptures as "the normative guide for the faith and life of the church," while also "taking into account the witness of the ancient Church and Reformation into the process of [theological reflection]."
3) It Avoids Two Tribal Dichotomies
Aside from the gospel and theological reflection, a final reason why I appreciate Bird's biblioenterprise is the two false dichotomies that have encroached onto the scene of evangelicalism, two extremes I myself have experienced firsthand.
The first comes from the left in circles whose aim is to speak about Jesus to a postmodern, post-Christian, pluralistic world. Within evangelicalism that would be the Emergent Church or so-called "progressive" evangelicalism. "That's all well and good," Bird writes, "except that the way that certain chaps go about that is by assimilating to the culture around them, trying to renegotiate nonnegotiable doctrines like the Trinity and the atonement, replacing the boundaries of the faith with a conversation, buying into the postmodern mantra of 'there is no god but pluralism and diversity is his prophet,' and holding up doubt as the key virtue rather than faith, love, and hope." (22)
As a former Emergent insider who has written extensively on the subject myself, I appreciate Bird calling out this extreme left for their accommodation and capitulation. But as a former fundamentalist I also appreciate his critique of the encroaching extreme right who cares deeply about doctrine and upholding Christian morality.
While the former might be defined by what they are for (inclusion, diversity, love, etc...), Christians from the later quarter are defined by what they are against. As Bird explains, "They labor to impose Christian ethics on people who are not Christians, proudly draw the boundaries of the faith around themselves and their clientele of admirers, and invent shibboleths and code words that one must utter in order to be one of the accepted few. One gets the impressions from them that their zeal for doctrine about Jesus has almost eclipsed Jesus himself as the center of faith." (22)
Bird rightly notes that "A gospel-driven approach will not force us into a dichotomy of orthodoxy (truth) pitted against orthopraxy (love); instead, we will find the courage to guard the good deposit of the gospel while loving our neighbor as ourselves." (22-23, emph. mine)
So hyper-liberalism on the left and hyper-conservativism on the right. Given my personal experiences with both, sweeping away these false tribal dichotomies is another reason why I'm thrilled an evangelical biblical scholar has written a systematic introduction to evangelical theology.
Evangelical Theology is a real canonical, credal tour de force, combining the acumen and depth of a biblical scholar and systematic theologian with the care and sensitivity of a pastor.
I anticipate this volume will quickly become a new standard bearer for training the next generation of evangelical pastors and thinkers. As a pastor-theologian I'm excited to see the evangel—in all of its Scriptural and systematic nuance—at the center of our theology.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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