by Michael Bird
Publisher: Zondervan (October 29, 2013)
Hardback: 912 pages
I found Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology engaging, as well as easy and accessible for students to read without being either too technical and abstruse or speaking down to students. The reader does not become bogged down in footnotes, but relevant further reading is provided at the end of each section.
Although it might seem inappropriate to some scholars for Bird, a New Testament scholar, to cross disciplinary boundaries and write a systematic theology, the line between these two disciplines is already blurred for those who stand within a confessional Christian tradition. This is not a criticism, since I too am an evangelical biblical scholar who favors theological interpretation of the biblical text as Scripture. Indeed, the boundary between the two disciplines only arose as a result of Enlightenment historicism’s aim to interpret the biblical text apart from the Christian theological narrative, so it is appropriate for a evangelical biblical scholar to reintegrate biblical scholarship and systematic theology.
Older theologies began with abstract descriptions of God’s attributes and arguments for God’s existence, and some recent evangelical theologies begin with the doctrine of Scripture, reflecting current debates about inerrancy, but Bird organizes his theology around the gospel, the good news of salvation. By placing the gospel front and center in his theology, Bird insures it does not dissolve into philosophical abstraction but remains focused on what God has done for human beings in Jesus Christ, His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Bird is able to accomplish this because he subordinates specific doctrines to the overarching narrative of the gospel.
In short, I applaud Bird’s innovative approach to systematic theology. My only minor quibble is that he might have ordered the topics somewhat differently. He is right to emphasize that the gospel is a gospel of the kingdom of God, which has already begun but is not yet fully manifested, but at the same time I wonder whether it was necessary to deal with eschatological topics such as the millenium, tribulation, and the intermediate and final states right at the beginning. I wonder if it might have been more appropriate to begin with the plight of humanity, the fall, sin and evil to which the gospel is the antidote and answer. Of course, one could argue that the plight of humanity only became fully apparent with the cross and resurrection, but I think waiting until chapter 7 (the next to last) to discuss the problem of humanity was probably not for the best, since it leaves to the end what problem the gospel was designed to solve. Nevertheless an excellent new evangelical theology, one which I will surely use in the classroom!
One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation
by Marcus Peter Johnson
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Crossway (August 31, 2013)
Marcus Johnson’ book One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation rightly restores union with Christ as the central concept of Christian soteriology, a concept which both embraces and unites all the different aspects of salvation: election, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. He rightly deplores the tendency to reduce salvation to legal/forensic categories at the expense of personal and participatory categories. Drawing upon Luther and Calvin especially, Johnson argues that the modern evangelical preaching of the gospel has created a “dichotomy” between the work and the person of Christ, failing to recognize with Luther and Calvin that the benefits of salvation cannot be divorced from the person of Christ: only by being joined to Christ can one experience any of the benefits. After the introduction, Johnson describes the meaning of the concept of union with Christ, and then in following chapters discusses how this concept affects our understanding of election, justification, adoption, sanctification, and other benefits of being joined to Christ.
Overall, Johnson succeeds admirably in demonstrating the importance of recovering the concept of personal and participatory union with Christ in modern evangelicalism, and of returning to the great Reformers for a fuller understanding of salvation. His writing style is clear, and the book would be helpful for seminary students, pastors and Christian educators. At the same time, I wish that he had gone into greater depth in exegeting relevant biblical passages, and interacted more with biblical scholars. For example, in his discussion of the issue of the transmission of original guilt and original sin, it would have been helpful to discuss how most modern Pauline scholars dispute Augustinian interpretation of Romans 5:13. Augustine translated the verse to mean “in whom [Adam] all sinned,” but most modern Pauline scholars translate the phrase “because of whom all sinned.” This difference of translation could have profound implications for the issues he raises. In addition, I wish he had probed more deeply into how we are united to Christ, and interacted with the history of Pauline scholarship on this issue, especially from Albert Schweitzer to the present. Finally, I had hoped he would have explored more deeply the implications of union with Christ in election, particularly the idea of corporate election in Christ. Nevertheless, the book addresses a central issue of Christian soteriology in a concise and readable manner.