Evangelical Theology: Prolegomena

January 9, 2014 — 2 Comments

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The day has finally come to start working our way through Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. It’s a couple months since I introduced you to it, and since then I’ve been getting ahead in my reading so I could do about a section a month until we finish up. You can refer back to the introduction to see the table of contents for the upcoming review sections.

Bird’s layout is somewhat unusual (to me at least). His book is broken up into 8 parts (covering traditional systematic theology loci), but within the parts, we have sections more so than chapters. I mean I guess they can be considered chapters since there is a page break with a new header. But, at the same time, the footnotes run continuously through each part. So, in section 1.2 below, the first note is note 15, not note 1, which is what I’d expect if it were a new chapter. This has no bearing on the material, just something I thought I’d throw out there as an introduction. In each post I make, I’ll make headings out of the section titles, and then offer quotes and comments below each.

§ 1.1 What Is Theology?

The opening section is short (less than 3 pages), but in it, Bird makes two important distinctions between theology and other disciplines like philosophy and religion. First, “theology is not the study of ideas about God; it is the study of the living God.” Second, “theology is studied and performed in a community of faith” (30). Because of this, “to do theology is to describe the God who acts, to be acted upon, and to become an actor in the divine drama of God’s plan to repossess the world for himself” (30). This also means that “theology is the task for disciples of Jesus to begin excavating the manifold truth of the gospel and to start reflecting the spiritual realities that the gospel endeavors to cultivate in their own lives” (31).

§ 1.2 What Do You Have to Say before You Say Anything?

The next section is a good bit meatier. The title is perhaps a more understandable way of saying “prolegomena.” Bird first surveys prolegomena in church history, especially in light of the Enlightenment. But, wisely he notes

It might seem clever to try and outplay Modernity at its own game. It is perhaps a necessity to take captive the usable elements of modernist philosophy and to press them into the service of Christian theology. Charles Hodge and others made a jolly good attempt at precisely this kind of theological project. He and others tried to walk the line between being in Modernity but not of Modernity. The problem is that they allowed Modernity to define the rules of the game. They enabled Modernity to set the agenda for theology, including its beginnings, task, and method. They also ran the risk that the failings of Modernity with its claim to unbridled access to absolute truth could also become the failings of Christian theology. By showing that the Word of God aligned with “reason,” they were in the end subjecting the Word of God beneath reason. (37)

This leads to a discussion of Barth, and then onto postmodernity.

Next, Bird explains why we need a prolegomena in the first place. Bird’s project uses the gospel as its prolegomena:

The evangelical theological project is to construct and live out a theology that is defined by the good news of Jesus Christ. If we accept the premise that the gospel is the most significant story in the life of the church, then evangelical theology should accordingly be a theology of the gospel. (42)

§ 1.3 What Is the Gospel?

This naturally leads to a discussion of what the gospel is. Bird quotes N. T. Wright’s definition approvingly:

The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord. (47)

Then, he lists 6 features from the biblical testimony:

  1. The gospel is the message of the kingdom of God
  2. The gospel includes the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and exaltation
  3. The gospel announces the status of Jesus as the Son of David, Son of God, and Lord
  4. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles is intimated in the Old Testament
  5. The response that the gospel calls for is faith and repentance
  6. Salvation is the chief benefit of the gospel

The definition Bird then gives is:

The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (52)

§ 1.4 The Necessity and Goal of Theology

In this section, Bird lists 5 reasons theology is necessary:

  1. To provide clarification and unity to the diverse body of biblical materials
  2. To respond to the ever-evolving challenges of being a Christian in our contemporary culture
  3. To be a necessary part of discipleship in the church and an important element of our witness to the world
  4. To maintain the integrity of the faith that we profess against incursions from both inside and outside the church
  5. It is our task to tell the story of God, to show where we fit into that story, and to decide how to live out that story appropriately

With this in mind, Bird sees the goal of theology as “our attempt to deepen our relationship with God by having a more profound knowledge of his person and workings” (58).

§ 1.5 Is Theology Possible?

Yes.

§ 1.6 Sources for Theology

Bird unpacks 4 sources for theology:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Nature
  4. Experience

Culture, in Bird’s estimation isn’t a source of theology but rather “the embedded context in which theology takes place” (76) He spends the bulk of the chapter on the the 3 sources besides Scripture, mainly since they need the most nuance and explanation.

§ 1.7 Toward a Gospel-Driven Theological Method

Here, Bird takes on naive biblicism. He sides with Vanhoozer over and against Grudem. This helpfully distinguishes his approach from another major systematic theology written by a New Testament scholar. I would tend to agree with Bird myself, though I can sympatize with Grudem’s concerns. However, when your theological method leads you to deny attributes of God that have a long history of affirmation, you might need to tweak your method.

Bird next explains how he thinks theology should be done:

  1. Define the gospel (which he has already done)
  2. Identify the relationship of the various loci of the gospel (which he has done in his table of contents)
  3. Embark on a creative dialogue between the sources of theology (which he will start to do next section)
  4. Describe what the loci look like when appropriated and applied in light of the gospel.

He then concludes, “what I am offering in this book is not the final and definitive application for each subject area. This volume is simply the first steps toward thinking aloud about how we perform the divine drama in the communities of faith that we find ourselves in” (83).

§ 1.8 A Final Word

The final word is a page long, and the page opposite it offers a summarized “What To Take Home” section that is a snapshot of the material covered. I’ve kind of elaborated on that in what I offer above.

Overall, I like the start to this systematic. It is a little light on epistemology and other related issues for a prolegomena, but I like that Bird makes the gospel foundational. I also like his fourfold use of sources in theology, and his general thoughts on the nature of theology are refreshing. While there could be much more here about bibliology and the nature of Scripture, the topic is not completely ignored. The opening part sets the agenda for the rest of the book, and I’m looking forward to what it has to offer.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to Evangelical Theology: Prolegomena

  1. This was my favorite book of last year! I’ll get to practically read it again through your summaries 🙂

    I was also struck by the lack of treatment of epistemology and doctrine of Scripture. Bird chose to address doctrine of Scripture in the pneumatology section. I’m sure you’ve already noticed from the TOC several departures from typical orderings in introductory ST texts; he does justify the departures, but I find them suboptimal compared to traditional orderings.

    On the positives, I loved that he defined the gospel and gave a section to an evangelical prolegomena; not surprising given the title and nature of this work, but delightful nonetheless 🙂

    • That’s good to know he does deal with it in the pneumatology section, but it looks like a rather short treatment still.

      I’m with you on the prolegomena!

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