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Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (1st ed.)
by Michael F. Bird
Michael F. Bird's Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (1st ed.) is engaging and fresh, the occasional humor witty and thoughtful, and his interplay with historical thought as important as it is informed.
One of the first things that grabbed me was this comment, to which I say a hearty "AMEN!"
The chief end of theology is not the accumulation of theological propositions. Instead, it is equipping of the hands to serve, the warming of the heart to love, and the arming of the mind to engage. Let us then celebrate the 'various ways' (Heb 1:1) that Scripture speaks to us in all its genres. Let us learn in 'knowledge and depth of insight,' so that we might 'discern what is best,' be 'pure and blameless for the day of Christ,' and be 'filled with the fruit of righteousness' (Phil 1:9-11). (p 80)
In the prolegomena he covers a lot of territory and the section titled "Sources for Theology" was especially good. I offer a few more thoughts and some possible implications on the interaction between Scripture and tradition.
According to Bird, sources for theology include Scripture, tradition, nature, experience, and culture (though he admits that the latter category is not so much a "source of theology [but is] more of an embedded context in which theology takes place," p 76). I find it odd that he leaves out "reason" as a source for theology, but in fairness I suppose he presupposes it. And, I would like to have seen an exchange on how reason and experience work together (or sometimes against) in helping outline a coherent picture of God's revelation to us. More on this later. As with all writing, one has to draw the line somewhere in the sand.
He makes it clear that "the primary source for theology is God's revelation of himself in the Holy Scriptures" (p 62), yet Bird also insists (and I believe rightly so) that theology is constructed in the context of these other "sources" for gleaning how God's revelation in Scripture speaks to us. And so, section 1.6 (pp 62-76) seeks to highlight the amount of weight and authority these other "sources" have for the task of doing theology.
Regarding tradition, Bird notes the irony of what I would label as the evangelical tradition of "NO TRADITION EXCEPT THE BIBLE!" showing how this attitude takes on "canonical status in some churches" (p 64). Almost contemptuously Bird says "the Bible did not fall out of the sky, bound in leather, with words of Jesus in red, written in King James English, and complete with Scofield footnotes" (p 65). (I could not help but be reminded of the coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy"). I would argue that if Bird's apparent contempt seems unkind, it is not unfounded and perhaps even warranted in light of the sheer ignorance some evangelical circles have for any regard of and respect for the historical context out which the Scriptures came. Those who cry "NOTHING BUT THE BIBLE" are themselves steeped in a tradition that not only is narrowly focused but misses out on some important auditing tools that were essential in maintaining the purity of God's message to us. For example, the early church was keen on Scripture being read and interpreted after the tradition of the apostalic teachings that were handed down.
Wisely noting the "symbiotic relationship between Scripture and tradition" (p 65), Bird begins to unpack how this relationship has worked out since the beginnings of the Christian faith. He offers some historically important, and I believe considerably impactful, comments that should create considerable pause for those biblicists who wrongly insist and even misapply the principle of "sola scriptura" ("only Scripture"). [Incidentally, the next section, 1.7 (see esp. pp 77-80), Bird charitably and ably critiques the "biblicism" of one of the most popular theologies to date; viz., Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology.]
First, it is well documented that the canon of the Christian Scriptures consisting of all 66 books of the Bible was not finalized until several centuries after Christ (see my article on the New Testament Canon). Yet, the Apostle's Creed was widely recognized as a faithful summary of the Christian faith and preceded the recognized biblical canon. "Thus, in historical sequence, the 'canon of Scripture' is a written expression of the church's 'canon of faith'" (p 66). Put differently, the 66 books of the Bible were not compiled in a historical vacuum, but were vetted out by a series of criteria, one of which was a "rule of faith" or regula fidei. Concerning this rule of faith, and what I consider a fine example of this "symbiotic relationship" between Scripture and tradition, Bird opines:
The regula fidei was not an oral tradition that existed parallel to Scripture. The regula fidei was what emerged out of the preaching and teaching of Scripture in the early church. The regula fidei was both derived from Scripture and was the interpretive lens through which Scripture was to be understood. In this perspective, Scripture and tradition mutually reinforce each other. The regula fidei was the attempt to safeguard the authority of Scripture by adopting an interpretive framework sanctioned by Scripture. That took the form, not of a creed, but a general narration of the Christian story as it had been handed on in the early church. (pp 67-68)
What this suggests, at least to me, is that if I had lived in the mid- to late-2nd century as a newly converted Christian and someone shared with me a scroll from Irenaeus or Tertullian that contained a narration of the basic teachings of the Christian faith, then that writing would have had the weight of the authority of Scripture. Why? Because that scroll aligned with and was sanctioned by the essential tenets of the Christian faith as found in the biblical canon that was inspired by God and passed on to us from the apostle's teaching.
Think of it this way: Imagine my having difficulty in my marriage and a Christian brother says to me, “Love you wife sacrificially, just like Christ loved his Church!” Their admonition is no less authoritative than Scripture because it comports fully with Scripture (see Eph. 5:25).
So much for the principle "NOTHING BUT THE BIBLE!"
But there’s more. After warning that tradition must not be misused or even trump the teachings of Scripture (as in some Catholic teachings such as immaculate conception, papal infallibility), Bird offers a corrective to the Reformer's "sola scripture" that is more after the spirit of "suprema scriptura," meaning that "the Bible is our primary authority, but not our only authority" (p 69).
This section is concluded with a call to adopt a "believing criticism," which is to say that the "creeds, confessions, and liturgies...should be afforded the opportunity to inform us as to what it means to believe in God and to worship God. Thereafter, we can assess them critically in light of Scripture so that they can be reinterpreted or corrected as required" (p 69).
It is at this juncture that I believe an appeal to "reason" as a "source" for theology would have helped Bird's case. After all, one must be rational before any criticism could be leveraged for/against any reading of Scripture. God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth and the elements of sound reasoning are required to make sense out of just about anything. First principles of reason include (but are not limited to):
the laws of logic [laws of identity, excluded middle, and noncontradiction] cannot be denied without contradiction
language and thought are meaningful and not mere social constructs
the phenomenal/material world is real and not illusory
relative truth is self-refuting
absolute truth exists and transcends all time and culture and is, therefore, absolutely true for everyone, everywhere, and at all times
Despite this omission, near the end of the section Bird cautions against a traditionalism that puts tradition on equal footing with Scripture (of course this is implied in his "suprema scriptura" principle). Instead, he advocates "an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of listening to the text and listening to our forefathers in the faith" (p 70). This dialectic dance between tradition and Scripture has, for me, much to commend it as the weight of authority rests squarely with God's inspired text but that text is not an isolated voice with little or no regard for all that has gone on before us.
Section 2.5, "The God Who Reveals Himself", is quite "illuminating" on several fronts. First I wish to summarize what I believe Mike Bird is getting at and then offer some personal implications.
Specifically, Bird notes that "the center of gravity in revelation can be pushed into one of three spheres," and then he goes on to ask 1) "Is the Bible a record of revelation?," 2) "Is the Bible the content of revelation?," or 3) "Is the Bible a means of revelation?" (p 197). Rather than choosing one over another, Bird highlights the value of all three. Clearly Scripture records events of history; clearly the words of Scripture contain propositions that objectively speak to an actual state of affairs; and clearly God speaks through those events in terms of meaning and significance. Bird says "the revelation of God in the Scriptures is historical, textual, and experiential" (p 198).
He then provides details on an "unhelpful bifurcation" that Scripture is either "personal" or "propositional," and shows the historical context out of which a penchant arises for favoring one view over the other.
Some theologians retreated from criticism of revealed religion by seeking refuge in the towers of experience. By contrast, conservatives reacted by fortifying their bibliology around the concept of propositional revelation and plenary inspiration....This [later conservative view] led to an emphasis on the Bible as a plenary, verbal, and propositional form of revelation that is fully identical to the revelation itself. Yet it bracketed out the redemptive events behind Scripture and the personal encounter with God at the front of Scripture.
Bird then lays out 5 concerns of this bifurcation (pp 199-201) showing that a strict "propositional" view of Scripture:
falls short of revealing all there is to know about God.
does not account for divine "speech-acts" of God that dynamically impact lives.
misses the progressive and dynamic ways in which doctrine matures over time (e.g., Trinity).
cannot do hermeneutical justice to the varied genres of Scripture.
shows "an Enlightenment bias" toward propositional truth that depreciates alternative ways God speaks to us in Scripture (e.g., parables).
This is not to say that Bird himself is guilty of a bias toward all-things-nonpropositional. Instead he argues for a "properly nuanced" version of propositional truth that accounts for the Holy Spirit's role in understanding the various ways God has spoken to us in Scripture. After all "revelation contains the propositions of a divine person speaking, so that there is no divide between personal and propositional revelation" (p 201). Scripture reveals not only facts, concepts, or raw data about God. Rather it is God himself who is encountered. "The Spirit actualizes the Word in terms of its propositional content and brings about a transforming existential effect" (p 202).
It was at this point in my reading that I had a personal reflection. Without question I err on the side of an "Enlightenment bias" toward viewing Scripture primarily through a propositional lens. Whether due in part to my apologetic and philosophical training or something else altogether, Bird helped me recognize afresh that I too often and too much rationalize my faith at the expense of pursuing a relationship with the God of faith. The need to reach out for, listen to, and yearn for the One who has so graciously and abundantly shown himself to me in the Scriptures is great; indeed greater than any other need I could have.
Of course God has spoken to us propositionally in Scripture and does indeed convey objective facts about actual states of affairs, events that really occurred in time and space, but in so doing he is revealing something much more than content or concepts or facts or actual states of affairs. God is revealing his very person in, through, and by the very words of Scripture. In other words, the revelation of God in Scripture is a means, not an end. Scripture must never be confused with the God of Scripture. What caused the disciples' hearts to burn within (Lk 24:32) was not some "exercise in exegesis" (Bird, p 204) but a divine illumination "in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Lk 24:27). It was the person of Jesus who so ignited their hearts; it wasn't the words on a page. It is this experience and it is this One that I long for and wish to discover and rediscover again and again as I come to the inspired text.
At the end of the day (and at the beginning), Bird's comments should be the mindset when coming to the Scriptures as revelation.
The theological task is not to extract propositions from the morass of genres in Scripture and to file them away in some darkened recess of our minds [or blog post, or systematic theology]. Rather, the goal of theology is to translate divine speech-acts into human response that lead to an increased knowledge of God, an increasing participation in the mission of God, and an increasing Christlikeness in the believer. As such, study of the doctrine of revelation is incomplete unless it results in theological transformation, undertaking mission, and pursuing holiness; only then has revelation been truly revealed.