Matthew Barrett reviews Bird’s Evangelical Theology
Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, has written a review of Michael Bird’s new systematic theology for The Gospel Coalition, which you can read here. This is what Barrett had to say:
Michael F. Bird. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 912 pp. $49.99.
Rarely will a biblical theologian attempt to cross over into the field of systematic theology. The task is incredibly difficult because systematics is the queen of the sciences. Not only is the theologian attempting to put together what the whole Bible says about each doctrine of the faith, but in doing so one must employ Old and New Testament theology, historical theology, and philosophical theology, as well as apologetics. Additionally, the scholar must be up to date on past and present theological discussions that interest few biblical theologians. Showing an impressive range in scholarship, Michael Bird has atempted to do just this in writing a systematic theology from an evangelical perspective.
From the outset, Bird’s effort to bridge biblical theology to systematic theology is commendable. In entering the world of systematics, the lecturer of theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry in Australia has set an example for other biblical theologians to follow, demonstrating that one shouldn’t stop with biblical theology but follow it through to its theological implications. Bird’s textbook is an example to systematic theologians as well due to his continual and persistent emphasis on the gospel. Bird structures systematics around the gospel so that the objective work of Christ is front and center, the purpose and goal of theological study. While we must not say the gospel is missing from past systematic theologies, Bird is certainly on target to recognize the gospel hasn’t always been the central focus. While at first I was uncertain how Bird would tie each chapter back to the gospel, he proved time and again that each loci drives us back, in one way or another, to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Moreover, I especially appreciated that Evangelical Theology was historically informed. Because a systematic theology has so much ground to cover, it would be tempting to bypass the historical development of doctrine and leave that work to church historians. However, historical theology is wedded to systematics. While Scripture is the only inerrant authority (sola scriptura), we nevertheless stand on the shoulders of others and must glean from their arguments and insights.
Another strength is Bird’s attention to the storyline of Scripture. Bird incorporates the structure of redemptive history into many of his chapters, demonstrating that each doctrine cannot be divorced from what God has done from Adam to Israel to the Messiah. I believe systematics, going forward, could do a better job in this regard, for often the tendency is to dip into Scripture for theological construction but without going deep enough to show readers how each doctrine is grounded in salvation history.
A host of other strengths could be mentioned, but certain criticisms must now occupy our attention.
First, it is questionable whether Bird escapes methods he criticizes. He deals a heavy punch to Wayne Grudem, categorizing his method as “naive biblicism” for using what Bird labels the “Theological Sausage Maker 3000.” Such an approach (1) “finds all relevant verses with a concordance,” (2) summarizes “points made in each verse,” (3) summarizes all the “verses together by making one or two points of what is affirmed,” and (4) finds a “way to harmonize the passages that do not fit your summarizing statement.” While Bird says this approach is “robustly biblical” he believes it reduces theology to a concordance, not taking into account “canonical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical factors” (78). In short, one puts the sausage (the Bible) into the maker and out comes doctrine.
What do we make of Bird’s criticism? First, it’s distasteful to label Grudem’s approach “naive biblicism.” This isn’t entirely fair, either, since there are many points in Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine where he does incorporate “canonical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical factors,” even if not up to Bird’s standards. Second, there are countless times Bird uses the infamous sausage maker he apparently detests. For example, simply read over his treatment of the attributes of God. Bird will quote a passage to support a certain divine attribute with no mention of its canonical context or relation to the storyline of redemptive history. Or he will quote one passage only to rapidly fire off three other randomly ordered ones. And at other times he finds it necessary to quote a cluster of passages in full, one after the other. Or, and for some this is the ultimate sin, Bird will make an assertion and simply list legions of verses in parentheses. This practice pervades Bird’s entire work. This classic prooftexting doesn’t always take into account “canonical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical factors.” So while Bird may detest Grudem’s method, at times his own treatment hardly differs.
Moreover, Bird is critical of Grudem’s approach because his biblicism leads him to reject “divine impassibility” since the Bible says God has emotions. However, Bird does the same when he rejects imputation because the classic prooftexts don’t say “explicitly” that “the obedience of Jesus is imputed to believers as their righteousness” (563), and the covenant of works because “there is no explicit reference to a ‘covenant’ in Genesis 1–2” (223). It appears Bird has not abandoned biblicism’s concordance after all.
Gospel Without Christ’s Imputed Righteousness?
Second, perhaps the most serious weakness of Evangelical Theology is Bird’s allergy to the active obedience of Christ and the doctrine of imputation. One begins sensing this allergy when Bird calls the covenant theology understanding of the covenant of works and the Mosaic law Pelagian (!) because both center around keeping or disobeying God’s command(s). “Adam’s failure,” Bird writes, “was not the failure to keep an eternal law; it was the breaking of his relationship with God” (227). The Reformed view, according to Bird, mistakenly believes that what “we need now is someone to keep God’s law on our behalf and to impute the merit of his law-keeping to us.” Bird contends instead that “Jesus does not fulfill a covenant of works by his life and death, but that he fulfills the roles given to Adam and Israel in completion of his messianic task” (224). Salvation means “restoring the relationship between Creator and humanity as opposed to accruing the meritorious law-keeping that Adam failed to achieve” (227).
Bird definitely shows his cards when he comes to imputation. He’s frustrated with the Reformed view that says that since Adam failed in the garden, “Jesus, as the new Adam” must acquire “merit for us in his life of obedience,” his merit being “imputed into our account”—an imputation that is the basis of “our righteousness” (562). To the contrary, the “problem humanity has is not a lack of moral merits” but a “broken relationship.” This leads Bird, following Robert Gundry, to eventually conclude the standard prooftexts (Rom. 4:4–5; 5:17–19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:7–9) do not prove imputation since “no text explicitly says that the obedience of Jesus is imputed to believers as their righteousness.” So Bird instead opts for the word “incorporation” (563).
While a full response cannot be given here, certain problems should be pointed out. (1) Like N. T. Wright, Bird unfairly caricatures the Reformed position as if Jesus is “racking up frequent flyer points” and we have Christ’s “righteousness molecules floating through the air to us” (563). And though I cannot speak for covenant theologians, Bird seems to misunderstand covenant theology by labeling it Pelagian. (2) Bird poses a false dichotomy between “law” and “relationship,” as if one must understand Adam as either breaking a law or breaking his relationship with God. Doesn’t Scripture affirm both, even grounding the latter in the former? Surely Adam’s failure to obey God’s command causes the rupture in his relationship with God. Likewise, the same can be said of Israel. So why must we choose between the two? (3) Without the active obedience of Christ, our salvation is incomplete. It isn’t enough to say Christ forgives our sin by paying its penalty. If this is it, then we’re left neutral and naked before a holy God. Yes, our sin is removed, but apart from Christ’s active obedience on our behalf there is nothing positive to testify on our account before a holy God. We must still be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, for not only has the law been broken, it also hasn’t been perfectly upheld and fulfilled. (4) Bird’s dismissiveness of the exegetical warrant for imputation is disappointing. He never interacts with the Reformed interpretation of these texts (Rom. 4:4–5; 5:17–19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:7–9). In fact, Bird never argues his own view by exegeting these texts. I’d point readers to Brian Vickers’s excellent exegesis in Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness, as well as John Piper’s case in Counted Righteous in Christ.
In the end we must wonder, for all of Bird’s focus on the gospel, has an essential component and corollary to the gospel been abandoned?
Third, Bird places himself in the broad Reformed tradition. At first glance, this appears to be the case given his moderately high view of Scripture, strong emphasis on total depravity and divine monergism in salvation, and affinity for Reformed confessions. But the more one reads the more one begins to wonder whether the Reformed camp will welcome Bird’s peculiarities.
Bird rejects the active obedience of Christ and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; his treatments of election and atonement are Amyraldian to the core; while he affirms penal substitutionary atonement, Christus victor is Calvary’s central image; he accuses the Reformers of smuggling in anthropocentric philosophy that resulted in the philosophical rationalism and autonomy of modern thought; his high roles for experience, culture, and tradition share more in common with the Wesleyan quadrilateral than the Reformer’s sola scriptura; and he categorizes aspects of covenant theology as Pelagian. All that to say, Bird’s systematic theology may sit comfortably with a broad evangelical audience, but I suspect those evangelicals in the Reformed tradition will cringe and grow frustrated the more they read.
Fourth, there are other little (and big!) frustrations to mention briefly. To begin, while Bird does interact with a variety of historical sources, it was surprising to see legions of contemporary contributions never mentioned. For example, in his lively overview of theological systems, Wellum and Gentry’s “progressive covenantalism” is missing. Or in his treatment of the perseverance of the saints, Schreiner’s and Caneday’s proposal escapes his purview. Likewise, in his theodicy Feinberg, Helm, and Ware are nowhere to be found. Though not always, Bird often neglects to interact with outstanding contemporary theologians.
Additionally, Bird omits a surprising number of topics, and it’s unclear why. Divine simplicity doesn’t make the list of God’s attributes; the debate over Christ’s impeccability or pecability is ignored; the ever-growing rage over evolution, science, and the days of Genesis isn’t addressed because Bird says he has “no interest” in covering it; the clarity of Scripture only receives attention in a footnote; and the list goes on. Other omissions are even more difficult to forgive: Bird spends merely four pages on the hypostatic union; his treatment of original sin never addresses a slew of historical and contemporary positions (for example, meditate vs. immediate imputation of federalism); divine providence is reduced to a chapter on the problem of evil at the end of the book; and so forth.
But perhaps the most troubling instance is the absence of a section devoted to union with Christ. In Bird’s chapter on the order of salvation (5.3), union with Christ is relegated to one paragraph in the conclusion, and in the chapter where one would expect it to be found (“Images of Salvation” [5.4]), it’s missing once again. To be fair, Bird does mention union with Christ at the end in his affirmation of “theosis,” but even here it’s used more as a foil to his intrigue with this Eastern doctrine of deification. This omission is shocking not only because union with Christ language pervades Scripture, but also because Bird approvingly quotes John Murray who says it is the “central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” If so, this neglect undermines Bird’s entire thesis that systematics must revolve around the gospel of Christ.
Some of these omissions and weaknesses are more forgiving than others. However, they may reveal a bigger issue, namely, Bird doesn’t always do justice to the many facets and players of systematic theology. Consequently, Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith or John Frame’s Systematic Theology may have the advantage at this point.
What Shall We Say?
While this review has been occupied mostly with criticism, readers should recognize that there’s far more in this volume to praise than to disparage. So many of his chapters present an orthodox, biblically driven, historically informed summary of theology that readers will find it valuable.
Of late, there has been an exciting influx of systematic theologies, especially those of the Reformed variety (for example, Horton, Frame, Kelly, Bray), and from what I hear there are more to come. Praise God for this resurgence, helping laypeople, students, pastors, and scholars alike grasp the importance of biblically rooted, historically grounded systematic theology. Surely every generation needs to learn what the whole Bible has to say about each doctrine of the faith in order to better apply God’s Word to new challenges in our own day.
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books, including Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. You can read about Barrett’s other publications at matthewmbarrett.com.