Michael Bird and the Human Condition

There is no shortage of systematic attempts to explain the Christian faith in this world. A number of Church Fathers and Medieval Scholastics gave it a whirl, and modern theologians have proliferated their own takes on such works in recent years. Michael Horton has written one (and offered a “pared down” version as well) along with other Christian scholars like Wayne Grudem, Norman Geisler, and Millard Erickson. Gregg Allison has even written a companion version from the historical perspective for Grudem’s work. As one can clearly see, this is not a realm that is lacking in effort. Erickson’s work comes in around 1300 pages, and most of the others are in the same ballpark. These are not “easy” reads, nor are they the kind of thing one reads in “one sitting.” So why has the Australian New Testament scholar, Michael Bird, put out another systematic theology? Evangelical Theology was written for three reasons, “first…for the benefit of evangelical churches who embrace [the] general pattern of belief and practice,” that Bird sees as common to evangelical Christians (21). Secondly, “to try and strike a balance between biblical exposition and engagement with contemporary theological debates.” And thirdly, to reorient theology and the evangel, or the good news of the gospel, rather than around modern day politics and cultural woes (22).

These are all noble goals. From the outset, I should be clear: I fit Bird’s definition of an evangelical. Not only that, I find myself having much in common with my Aussie brother. We both have Baptist backgrounds, a late blooming love for liturgy that connects us to the Anglican Church, and a love for the Church Fathers that finds its way into the things we write; all while having a decidedly Reformed approach to theology (23-25). And those are just the similarities I find in his introduction, “Why an Evangelical Theology?” I read his blog as well, so I know we both deeply appreciate N.T. Wright’s work, and think on many of the same topics in a given week. Bird and I have also read many of the same works, including some of the ones listed above. So I had been anticipating this book for some months, and counted myself blessed to be included in the Koinonia blog tour.

I spent the last couple of weeks working through Bird’s tome, and I will be concentrating my review efforts on his seventh section, “The Gospel and Humanity.” It is a succinct attempt to define mankind in the light of Biblical teaching, and I think Bird does a splendid job of hitting the high points. According to Bird, “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,” (656). It is this notion of “glory” that frames his outlook throughout the rest of section, and offers some insight into his perspective, some of which might be surprising to many Christians. For example, many evangelicals would count themselves as six-day Creationists, but Bird places himself firmly in the “progressive creation” camp, arguing that evolution is true, but since God is glorified in Man, then there must have been a literal Adam (654-655). This little aside is typical of Bird’s thinking throughout the section. Bird tends to think of the imago dei in terms of royalty, a functional view that sees mankind as being made to rule the earth (660-661), and he aligns with Erickson’s idea of “conditional unity” when discussing the human constitution (665). His largest treatments are focused at understanding sin, and dealing with the problem of evil. In fact, Bird goes to great lengths to connect the two ideas, even suggesting that we stop talking about “sin,” as such language can be confusing, and instead talk about “evil,” (670). Bird’s writing on sin is peppered with ideas that stem from Reformers and Church Fathers, anchoring his view in more than a simple psychological exposition of why humanity is messed up. His concluding points, dealing with the problem of evil, are a solid summary of a complex philosophical debate. He rightly identifies with the work of Alvin Plantinga, and doesn’t try to offer an overly simplistic response. “The gospels tell the story of how Jesus went to his death in order to defeat evil – human, natural, supernatural – by undergoing the penalty for all the evil of the world,” (693). Bird’s eloquence speaks for itself.

Bird is at his best when writing about sin, primarily because he strings concepts together that span 2,000 years of Church history as if all of these past theologians had been sitting around having coffee at some point, and he just happened to wander in. And this is one of the strongest elements of the book: Bird writes in a manner that anyone can grasp. He writes clearly and concisely, making use of present day pop culture references alongside allusions to ancient Christian thought. As an attempt to write something that appeals to the ever broadening group of people who call themselves evangelical, Bird is successful. I cannot think of a book that I would more heartily recommend to new believers or people who are looking for a smooth foray into a deeper discussion of Christian belief.

That being said, the book has some shortcomings that should be pointed out. Obviously, Bird is limited by his task. He cannot go as deep into some things (like the human constitution) because of the diversity of belief within the evangelical household. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it does become a problem in the glib attitude that Bird sometimes displays. When discussing his support for the dichotomist view of the human being, for instance, he simply brushes off other attempts at explanation. As someone who holds to the trichotomist view, I know these arguments and know how to counter them. But Bird doesn’t enter into a discussion. He simply states things as he sees them, and that should settle the matter. While this only happens on issues that I would consider “nonessential,” it is still frustrating since the book is supposed to be aimed at such a wide audience. It is similar to making the statement, “let’s not argue over things that don’t matter,” and then promptly telling everyone they’re wrong anyways. While I would not impugn Bird’s motives (I don’t think he is truly being glib), I would appreciate a more open tone in a book like this. I also struggled with how much of this material I had read before. While Bird has certainly done his homework, he relies heavily on Horton and Erickson in his research, sometimes to the detriment of his own unique perspective. I certainly don’t fault him for seeking wisdom from fellow brothers in Christ, but I would prefer 900 pages of Bird’s perspective, rather than 500 with a lot of footnotes.

Still, my complaints are minor in light of what Michael Bird has accomplished with Evangelical Theology. This is a work that I hope will gain much traction in the years ahead, because I think it asks the right questions. If ever there was a time for evangelicals to ask, “what do we believe?” this is it.

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