Book Review: Evangelical Theology
Author: Michael Bird
Publisher: Zondervan ISBN: 9780310494416
A few weeks ago, I was one of a privileged group selected for the Zondervan sponsored Koinonia Blog Evangelical Theology blog tour. Bloggers were provided a copy of Michael Bird’s book in exchange for a review of one of the book’s eight sections. My assigned section was Part Six, The Promise and Power of the Gospel: The Holy Spirit.
This book is big, over nine-hundred pages big and big in terms of subject matter. The very word “evangelical” is tough to pin down and has various and diverse meaning based on whom you ask. Evangelical can be applied to very different Christian doctrines such as Calvinism, Wesleyan-Arminianism, and points in between. This considered, it is a fairly substantial undertaking to produce a unifying work of systematic theology that can speak for all things evangelical. I’m not sure the Michael Bird has accomplished this task, but what I’ve read up to the point of this writing is very encouraging. Bird holds specific doctrinal views that I do not, so we are certainly in disagreement on some issues; however, I appreciate the spirit of openness and respect with which he has presented this evangelical theology and will recommend it as a teaching text to my peers.
First, I think it is important to read the short introduction piece, Why an Evangelical Theology (pp.19-26). In this section, Bird explains his definition of evangelicalism. He refers to this definition with consideration of six key factors: (1) Outcomes of the Protestant Reformation (2) The convergence of Puritanism and Pietism in North America and the British colonies (3) Missionary movements of the last two centuries (4) Liberal versus fundamentalist controversies of the early twentieth century over core Christian doctrines (5) The separation of “evangelicals” from the fundamentalist movement in the mid-twentieth century (6) The globalization of Evangelicalism as evidenced in through the representation of the World Evangelical Alliance and Lausanne Covenant. Bird goes into greater detail and differentiation of his definition of “evangelical” that, I believe, is crucial to understanding his work in this systematic theology. Additionally, he shares his “ecclesial and theological cards” when he details his influences, educational, and experiential background (pp. 23-24).
Mine was one of the shorter assignments for review at just under fifty pages. The Promise and Power of the Gospel: The Holy Spirit was covered in three main points: Section 6.1—God’s Spirit: The Breath of the Gospel, Section 6.2—Person of the Holy Spirit, and Section 6.3—Work of the Holy Spirit.
I was a bit curious over the brevity given to this subject, the Holy Spirit, but I was not taken by surprise. The Person, work, and ministry of the Holy Spirit is a contentious subject amongst evangelicals—many Calvinists evangelicals are cessationists minimizing the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit and many Pentecostal evangelicals hold a very different view, often accused of over-emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit. This would be one reason for the minimal treatment of this subject (in my opinion). This is not to say that Bird deliberately withheld instruction and explanation about the evangelical positions of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, he readily admits, “the Holy Spirit is largely neglected by many evangelicals.” Perhaps it is the lack of robust theology across the broad spectrum of evangelicalism that this section was a proverbial hiccup in this big book of Evangelical Theology.
My criticism over the length of this section aside, I appreciate the treatment and the balance that Bird presented in his teaching on the Holy Spirit. Bird anchors back to the Nicene Creed and the writings of the early church fathers (Clement of Rome and Basil of Caesarea) to set the evangelical foundations of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He also uses these Pre-Reformation doctrinal positions to further other evangelical distinctions such as Christocentric focus; this evidenced in one of the other unique features of this book, the “gray-shaded call-outs.” Bird uses a feature to deal with or address specific topics and controversies within the various sections of the book. These “call-outs” are convenient and very well-written…easy to understand, well-documented, and highly informative. They add to the subject matter of the chapters without bogging them down or causing distraction.
The third and final section on the Holy Spirit chapter, The Work of the Holy Spirit, was the most extensive. Although brief, Bird addresses some difficult topics in this section—The Holy Spirit and Gender (this is featured in one of the aforementioned call-outs), Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit (another call-out), Sanctifying (p.631), Baptism and Filling with the Spirit (pp. 633-637), and more.
Each of these sections is well annotated with footnotes and references; also, Bird includes a very helpful list of further reading recommendations at the end of each section. He includes a summary and a handful of study questions for individuals and groups at the end of the chapter helpful to facilitate understanding and additional conversation.
This is a good book and a commendable effort under the circumstances previously mentioned. It is not perfect, but I do not think it is intended to be perfect… the subtitle states, “A Biblical and Systematic Introduction.” This is what this book is, an introduction, and it is a very good introductory presentation of Evangelical Theology. This book will serve as a great compliment and balancer to some of the other systematic theology books I have. In these respects, I believe it is a much needed addition to my resource shelf.
I look forward to reading more and intend to update my blog with thoughts shared from my future reading. Thank you Michael Bird and thank you, Zondervan, for another fine Christian theology resource.