As we continue through Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology, we come to his section on the doctrine of God. You can refer back to the introduction to see the table of contents for the past section we covered, as well as upcoming review sections. For now, here’s the rundown on Bird’s foray into theology proper.
§ 2.1 God and the Gospel
Bird begins with a short section to orient readers to the relationship between the gospel and the doctrine of God. As he sees it, “an evangelical theology is really a mix of extrapolation and exposition of the gospel of God. Such a study of a God-shaped gospel will magnetically draw us toward a study of God’s triune nature, his manifold attributes, his creative and revealing works, as well as his ultimate purposes” (89). He then gives four reasons why this is so (89-90):
- The gospel draws us into the mysterious reality of God’s triune being
- The gospel provides the best means to answer the question “What is God like?”
- The gospel is a story about Jesus set within a larger story of creation, redemption, and new creation
- Like all stories, there is an ultimate aim, and like all stories there is an underlying unity
In the end, studying the God of the gospel takes us on a journey into such things as God’s triune being, his attributes, and his actions of creation and revelation. Ultimately, “the gospel is the offer of God himself” (91).
§ 2.2 Getting an Affinity for the Trinity
This is probably the meatiest section/chapter so far, and I appreciate that Bird starts with the Trinity. Often, Trinitarian theology can be tacked onto the end of a presentation of the doctrine of God, but here Bird puts it front and center. Though not as exhaustive, Bird’s presentation is rather Letham-like. He begins by meeting readers in their perplexed state, offers some comic belief (a recurring type section in this book), and explains that though the Trinity is not easy per se, we can grasp some of the mystery. The reason to push forward says Bird is that,
At the end of the day, if we are going to try to know God better, we have to learn about the Trinity. We have to delve into how the church has explained who God is in light of its Scriptures and through its controversies and creeds. Only when we know who God is can we properly pray to him, worship him, proclaim him, imitate him, and serve him! This isn’t easy. It means trying to penetrate into what is an impenetrable mystery, catching a glance of it, and being left in wonder. It will take patience and hard work. You might feel like it is over your head, so lift up your head in order to understand. Once the study is done, the implications and applications will hopefully flow like milk and honey in the promised land of theological labor. As Augustine said: “There is no subject where error is more dangerous, research more laborious, and discovery more fruitful than the oneness of the Trinity [unitas trinitatis] of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Toward this end, readers first explore the Trinity in creeds and confessions (to show the agreement through history), then briefly how the doctrinal formulas were developed. Then, most importantly, the biblical roots of the Trinity are presented. We then come back to the church fathers for a moment, before digging into the intra-Trinitarian relations, and the practical implications of Trinitarian theology.
§ 2.3 What Is God Like?
Having discussed God as Trinity, the following chapter turns to the divine attributes. The usual suspects are present here, and Bird divides them into incommunicable and communicable attributes. This is a useful way of parsing them out, but doesn’t entirely work if you press hard on the margins. Frame I think is the only one who does, so we need not fault Bird for following pedagogical convention.
Interestingly, after his presentation of the attributes, Bird tackles the question of God’s gender (or lack thereof). Frame’s exploration of this discussion is more exhaustive, but the bottom line is that “God will always remain a ‘he,’ since God is a personal being, and the substitution of the noun “God” for the personal pronoun inevitably makes him impersonal in his speech and actions. The fact that God is described as “he” does not mean that God is intrinsically male, but he relates to us primarily in the masculine mode, as Father, Son, and Lord” (137). Ultimately, what is more important is that God is fundamentally glorious, holy, and loving, which is Bird’s unintentional tip of the hat to seeing God as fundamentally triperspectival in his attributes.
§ 2.4 The God Who Creates
The next chapter/section tackles creation, and in doing so gets into alternate “isms” (deism, pantheism, henotheism, gnosticism) as ways of misunderstanding God’s relation to creation. This is followed by a distinctively creation perspective on the doctrine of creation, which is to say, it is Trinitarian to the core. Bird bookends this nicely by a discussion of the new creation, before an extended discussion of creation ex nihilo. While noting that the doctrine itself did not arise ex nihilo (always the jokester), it has a history of being used to defend God’s sovereignty, “for if any molecule in the cosmos is coeternal with God, then it would be either an impersonal deity or a personless demiurge” (162).
§ 2.5 The God Who Reveals Himself
The content of this chapter/section is usually grouped with prolegomena. Here we get extensive discussions of God’s modes of revelation (nature, special, Christological, another latent triperspectivalism), which entails a discussion of natural theology and the traditional proofs of God’s existence (which are nicely charted out). Van Til even makes a brief appearance, though he ends up getting chastised for aspects of epistemology. Specifically, Bird understands Van Til to be rejecting natural theology (185, which is not technically correct) and overemphasizing the extent to which natural man’s reason was autonomous. He sees Van Til’s methodology problematic, and opts instead for taking the approach of Alvin Plantinga. Shortly after, a sidebar explaining Barth’s relationship to evangelicals is included, since we’re talking about natural theology and all.
Though many people might put Scriptural revelation and the revelation through Christ together under “special revelation,” Bird, helpfully I think, separates them (but not entirely). From our standpoint, we see Christ through Scripture, but in the disciples case, they had Scripture and they had Christ (and nature). Eventually, we will have Christ face to face, and still have Scripture and nature.
§ 2.6 God’s Purpose and Plan
Finally, Bird gets into the decrees of God. Rather than focus on the dispute between infralapsarians and supralapsarians, Bird thinks more big picture. He discusses the overall purposes of God, and then gets into a discussion of dispensationalism vs. covenant theology under the heading of the unity of God’s plans for the world. Bird does a much better job than Horton did of briefly expositing dispensationalism and chooses to focus on the progressive variety (and uses more up to date sources). This is probably because Bird doesn’t completely agree with covenant theology either, so he has no need to demonize one or the other (or both in his case). He opts for a modified covenant theology, which is more or less the view I would have. It relies primarily on the covenants as a structuring device, but is not directly tied to traditional covenant theology.
On the whole, I found this section of the book helpful. Though I think chapter 5 above would have been better placed in the first section, I understand the flow of thought and why it is where it is. I think Bird gets Van Til wrong in some respects, but many of his criticisms are not new. Van Til’s rhetoric doesn’t help matters, but I’m glad Bird brought him in as a conversation partner on the topic.
I really like Bird’s emphasis on the importance of the Trinity and that he put it before discussing the attributes. I think that sets a better context, and I think he did a good job of balance theological, biblical, and historical reasons for believing the doctrine.
I thought it was interesting to get into dispensationalism vs. covenant theology in this section, but again, I understand the flow of thought. It also makes a nice segue to the 3rd section, which surprisingly (given most systematics) is on eschatology. But, you’ll have to wait until the next installment to hear about that.