Systematic theologies have never been considered light reading. They serve the church by arranging (or systematizing) the orthodox beliefs—as seen by the author. The author spends countless pages describing and debating the minutiae of orthodox theology, sparring with ancient and contemporary opponents, so that readers can better articulate what—and why—they believe.
In Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, author Michael F. Bird gives the church another single volume systematic theology, one explicitly rooted in the gospel. Bird describes the purpose of writing this book, saying “my goal has been to construct a theology of the gospel for people who identify themselves as gospel people, namely, the evangelical churches” (11). His desired broad evangelical audience is reflected in his own theological journey, as he calls himself an “ex-Baptist post-Presbyterian Anglican” (23).
As part of the Koinonia Blog Tour, I was tasked with reviewing Part Three, entitled The Gospel of the Kingdom: The Now and the Not Yet. This portion of the book covers eschatology, the study of last things, including the second coming of Jesus, what is commonly called the “end times,” and heaven, hell, & new creation. I did a brief survey of the whole book, but I will keep my review isolated to Part Three.
Unlike most systematic theologies—which place discussions on eschatology near the end—Bird places this nearer the beginning of the book; a reader finds Part Three between the theologies of God (Part Two) and Jesus (Part Four). Bird lays out his reasoning for placing eschatology so early in the book, saying the theme of kingdom and redemption is central in understanding the Bible, and even understanding God and Christ Jesus. We understand history and how God works in it through the lens of eschatology: “the whole sweep of redemptive history is driven by the conception of God as both king and yet becoming king” (235). Essentially he is suggesting we keep the end in mind as we read; all other doctrines are rooted in the hope that God will redeem and restore all things.
In Section 3.1 Bird introduces the reader to the kingdom of God, noting both its importance and role in the gospel message. He highlights the already/not yet tension we find ourselves in today: “God is king and becoming king in the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ” (236). As Christians we find our hope in the victory of Christ over sin and death, a victory which will be consummated in the end. So we study eschatology so we can encourage the church, passing on this future redemptive hope to both the church and the world.
Section 3.2 discusses several eschatological views held by those throughout history. Bird notes the basic human struggle with Christ’s coming kingdom: Jesus never set a timetable! Some have viewed Christ’s promise to have failed because the kingdom didn’t appear in his lifetime; others view Christ’s kingdom as a reality today, but without the hope of future consummation. Bird, in turning to the New Testament, sees the kingdom of God as starting with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the start of the church. In describing how the implementation of the kingdom is so transformative, Bird writes:
The final pages in a story of rebellion and death have been torn up and replaced with a different ending written by the Father, who is the author; Jesus is the protagonist, who saves his bride in the tale, and the Holy Spirit is the ink on the page. We read the story, and yet we are the story. (256)
After showing that the kingdom of God has a future reality, in Section 3.3 Bird turns his attention to the return of Christ (or parousia), which will “consummate what he began at his first coming” (258–259). He is correct in stating the Old Testament does not contribute much to the discussion of Christ’s return; thanks to progressive revelation, the relevant passages are found in the New Testament. But Bird holds that not all the passages traditionally viewed as referring to the parousia—specifically those in the Gospels—are actually related to Christ’s pending second coming. Instead, Bird argues that some passages—like the Olivet Discourse—are referring to the events surrounding the destruction of Herod’s temple in 70 AD by the Romans. Since Jesus makes these prophecies, their fulfillment would prove Jesus was a real prophet; moreover, his followers—now gathered into the early church—would be the new temple of the Holy Spirit. Bird acknowledges this is a controversial view, and that it even might come across as preterist; fortunately, he does see sufficient evidence in both Christ’s teachings and the rest of the New Testament for a second coming of Christ.
In Section 3.4 Bird deals with three different views of the millennium. First, however, he notes that debates on the millennium are of secondary importance and should not divide believers. Then he provides a concise, fair summary of the postmillennial, amillennial, and premillennial views. For each view Bird offers a helpful illustration diagramming the belief; he also quotes generously from proponents, allowing them to defend their views. But, based on his readings of the relevant passages, Bird explains that he rejects the first two views in favor of premillennialism.
In the second half of this section, Bird dives further into premillennialism so he can properly place the parousia: either before the tribulation (dispensational view) or after the tribulation (historic premillennial view). Again he provides a fair presentation of both views, quoting from proponents of each. In the end he defends the historic premillennial view. His handling of the rapture is brief, occupying a sidebar not even two pages long; he provides alternative interpretations for the relevant passages, and maintains a posttribulation return of Christ.
Section 3.5 looks at the final judgment of both believers and unbelievers. This final judgment is an “extension of the judgment of God executed at the cross” (301). It brings glory to God by showing the victory of Christ at the cross, and it provides consolation for suffering believers. Bird notes the modern theological trends to describe God’s justice as restorative instead of retributive; he convincingly argues that both words are necessary in accurately describing God’s justice (305). He ends this section by giving a (too) brief pastoral plea to the church: in light these future truths, Christians are to demonstrate justice by supporting the oppressed.
With Section 3.6 Bird continues into individual eschatology, describing what happens to humans between the physical death and judgment. He walks readers through all the various biblical terms for the intermediate state. Through all of this, he notes the inherent challenge in charting the details and nature of the intermediate state. He concludes by reinforcing the promise to believers: “Whatever life is ahead in the eschatological future, interim and final, it can only be a ”life in Christ”” (325).
In the concluding section (Section 3.7), Bird provides a biblical description of heaven, hell, and new creation. He correctly distinguishes between heaven and the new creation. Heaven—the throneroom of God—he describes as a “glorious interlude, not the final destination” (328), whereas the new creation is when heaven comes down and the dwelling place of God is with man. The temple and garden imagery of the new creation is described in detail, showing how this future glory is the fulfillment of these important biblical themes. Hell is briefly mentioned, as Bird defends its everlasting nature against the view of Rob Bell.
Michael Bird has written an accessible systematic theology that will be of great benefit to the local church. He writes in a conversational, easy to read tone, causing the reader to often forget he is reading a systematic theology! He is careful in using technical theological terms, even providing readers with a list of defined key terms pertaining to the discussion (257). Also aiding in the usefulness of this book is the continual gospel-driven applications scattered among the text; he writes as a scholar, but with a pastoral heart for encouraging the church and reaching the lost. As a bonus, he includes illustrations rooted in popular culture; I mean, how many systematic theologies include references to a zombie apocalypse (274) or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (310)?
I appreciate that Bird seemed to represent all opposing views fairly and accurately. I am especially encouraged by his statement about almost changing his view on the millennium while writing this book (280). To me, it means he came to research with an open mind, not seeking to support his personal view. It also shows that, while he would have preferred to move to the simpler amillennial view, his view of Scripture (namely Revelation 20) prevented him from doing so. That type of openness is rarely seen in scholastic writing.
While I agree with Bird as to the centrality of the kingdom in Christianity, it seemed out of place to debate the various views on the millennium, the intermediate state, and hell prior to studies on Christ, man, sin, and salvation. In other systematic theologies there is a logical progression: Trinity, Man, Sin, Salvation, Eschatology; this sequence mirrors redemptive history. In Evangelical Theology, readers have to deal with the consummation of the kingdom—and the victory of Christ—before dealing with the life and works of Christ. In a sense, the rule and reign of God is intimately connected to the gospel—a point Bird acknowledges (47)—so the kingdom discussion will move beyond Part Three and permeate all other topics. But the consummation of the kingdom, the final victory of God and the particulars of how that happens, is best left to a later position.
In Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird has offered the church a great tool for training gospel-centered theologians. This will likely become the first systematic theology book I refer to in my studies. I can see this being used by seminaries, pastors, and even small groups in the local church looking to root themselves in the truths of God. I thank God for this tool, and pray that he will use it to further his kingdom.
- Title: Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction
- Author: Michael F. Bird
- Publisher: Zondervan (2013)
- Format: Hardcover (912 pages)
- My Rating: 5/5
Thanks to Zondervan (via Koinonia blog) for a complementary review copy of this book!Tweet