Book Review: Evangelical Theology (Michael Bird)

Evangelical Theology Michael Bird

Bird is an accomplished New Testament scholar, with one foot firmly planted in the church. His 2013 Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction in which he suggests that in Christian theology, “the gospel is the glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice”, and offers this as his unique starting point; is now arguably my new favourite one-volume systematic theology. Since reading Wayne Grudem back in 2009, I try to keep up with what is going on in systematic theology, and occasionally try to wade through one of the big ones, whether historic or contemporary. This review, then, focuses on what makes Bird distinctive, and how he treats two areas of theology I am particularly interested in, the atonement and what it means to be human. I thus won’t review every section (That review would be a short book in itself!) but hope to show how his focus on the gospel comes out in practice, and also offer some tidbits of the kind of thing Bird is writing.

One key area of interest to me is what it means to be human – made in the image of God. His Part Seven: The Gospel and Humanity is a beautiful application of the robustly biblical Gospel of the Kingdom to the questions of what it means to be human. With a particular focus on the royal identity of humanity, Bird balances the tension of fallen and glorious humanity; “that is a good biblical theme: glory lost and glory regained. While humanity was crated in glory, it is also important to remember that they were created for glory“. Amen! Bird concludes his introduction thus: “The gospel is the story of human glory lost in evil, the gift of the glorious Lord Jesus, and the glorification of humanity in God’s new world“. On what actually constitutes the human person, Bird leans towards a view that the Bible teaches that “a person is a unified being“, echoing my own view that our embodiment and relational capacity are extremely important for understanding what it means to be made in the image of God. Simply put, Bird defends a classical view of original sin, in such a way that doesn’t overly focus on it. Here, the gospel as an organising way of doing theology is deeply helpful: “the gospel tells us about salvation, whereas original sin tells us why we all need it“.

Another area of great interest to me is the engine room of the Gospel, the atonement. I’ve been reading quite widely about this, this year, and Bird’s take on, and survey of, this doctrine is one of my favourites. Noting that “Evangelicals have a crucicentric gospel and for good reasons”, Bird links this to the message of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching, and also references Luther’s theologia crucis as being important. This eschatological slant is notable in Bird’s comments on what the Cross achieved; “Jesus is the eschatological Son of God who embodies their role in his own person”, into which he observes aspects of recapitulation, ransom, Christus Victor, satisfaction, moral influence, exemplary, and penal substitution as important elements of these. Bird discusses each in some detail, with a particularly amusing demolition of Chalke and Mann’s description of the atonement as ‘divine child abuse’:

Dem dere be fightin words! The problem is that this argument is filled with so much straw that you could literally take that argument, put a costume on it, and audition it for the role of the scarecrow in a new Broadway production of the Wizard of Oz. This pejorative criticism against orthodox atonement doctrine can be reflected by recognising the true nature of the atonement

Bird’s work on the Cross and the atonement that it achieves is thrilling to read, as well as relatively straightforward and clear: “If we identify sin, death, and evil as that which believers are redeemed from, then regarding the cross as a redemptive victory enables us to construct a view of the atonement that is simultaneously catholic in breadth and Reformed in emphasis”.

Evangelical Theology is thus more than ‘just’ a New Testament scholar writing a biblical and systematic theology, and so is a refreshing counterpoint to other work in a similar space, such as Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, or Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith. Bird writes with serious scholarship worn lightly, an entertaining but not distracting sense of humour, and an eye ever on the missional implications of what we believe. This is an excellent book for those seeking to understand evangelical faith, and I would warmly recommend it particularly for those involved in pastoral ministry, or training for/considering it. It will join other important reference books on my shelf, and likely be one of the first places I turn when thinking about a different doctrine.

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