Bird, Evangelical Theology
Today I will continue my review of Part 6, The Promise and Power of the Gospel: The Holy Spirit in Michael F. Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction as part of Koinonia Blog’s Book Tour . In my first post (Bird’s Pneumatology: Overview) I summarized the content of this section. Now I will evaluate it. Let’s go in order of Strengths, Weaknesses, and Further Questions.
Evangelical and Ecumenical:
Bird fulfills his aim of beginning with the Gospel. As I said in my post on Monday for Bird the Gospel is made secure by the Rule of Faith which is given a narrative exposition in the Canon, summarized in the Creeds, and lived in Tradition. Bird’s Pneumatology reminds us that the Spirit brings about Creation and New Creation, the Spirit guided Israel, the Spirit empowered and resurrected the Messiah, the Spirit reveals the Messiah, the Spirit unites us to God the Father and to one another, and I could continue, but my summary from yesterday should suffice.
While Bird does not hide the fact that he refuses to use a simplistic, biblicist approach, opting for something more Creedal, more Catholic (not Roman Catholic), this doesn’t mean he doesn’t provide the necessary exegesis. On pages 633-638 Bird’s discussion on the baptism of and infilling of the Spirit demands interaction with the Book of Acts and the Fourth Gospel extensively. Elsewhere when dealing with the Charismata Bird handles Pauline texts well.
There is very little missing from Bird’s discussion. Now, this is one of the shorter sections of the book. It begins at page 610 and ends at page 648, so thirty-eight pages. Other sections are far larger, but this has more to do with Bird’s ability to be concise than anything else. Those who are familiar with Evangelical Pneumatology will find Bird’s offering to be refreshing.
Bird presents the Spirit from a variety of angles whether it be as it Pneumatology relates to the Trinity, Christology, the filioque, our future resurrection, the charismata, blaspheming the Spirit, it’s all covered.
Since John MacArthur has made this a big deal again recently I must say that I appreciated Bird’s ability to address the Cessationist/Continuationists debate. This statement summarizes his view of the gifts: “If the spiritual gifts help the church in its life and mission prior to the parousia, and if Christ has not yet returned, then it is sensible to think that some of the gifts will carry one until Christ’s second advent.” Unlike Cessationists Bird doesn’t see any reason to deny the charismatic gifts. Unlike Continuationists he preserves the freedom of God to give certain gifts at certain times and in certain places for God’s purposes. For example, Bird doesn’t see any reason to suppose the continued existence of Apostles and Prophets as an ecclesial office today, but other gifts that are needed remain (see pp. 630-631).
On page 623 there is an aside discussing “The Holy Spirit and Gender” and it is one of the reasons I get annoyed by some of the speculation that goes into describing the doctrine of the Trinity. What we do see is that women are equal with men. This is apparent. We see in Genesis 1:26-27 that maleness and femaleness comes from God’s being. Yet when Bird goes to address whether or not it might be helpful to speak of the Spirit as the “she” of God he gives this answer:
“Given the comforting and birthing roles of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, and with due cognizance of the overly patriarchal perspectives inherent in some theology, is the feminine dimension of the Holy Spirit an opportunity to demasculinize the Trinity? Should we refer to the Holy Spirit as a ‘she’? I think not. God is beyond gender, and he transcends both masculinity and femininity. Male titles and role are used analogically for God.”
Then Bird cites Donald Bloesch who argues that if the Spirit is feminine it makes the Trinity into a “binitarianism” because the Spirit will have a trait making it distinct from the other Persons. In my estimation this is allowing our speculation about the Ontological Trinity to override what we can observe. Our language about the Trinity is analogous to our reality and it tries to help us explain a 3-D God to our fellow 2-D beings. We speak of God the Father as Revealer, Son as Revelation, and Spirit as Reveledness (Barthian) knowing that this doesn’t destroy the Trinity. All share in Revelation differently. Why can’t “genderedness” be something that comes from God, yet differs as we meet each Person? Or why can’t God, Word, Spirit all share aspects of both masculinity while one Person reveals an aspect functionally in a way the others do not? Or (and I’m fine with this) we need to say that we might speak of God who is Father/Mother, who reveals himself in a Son who embodies full humanity (otherwise how does the Incarnation matter to women) and a Spirit who is both masculine and feminine as well. When Bird writes, “God is beyond gender, and he transcends….” he doesn’t seem to notice that immediately God is made masculine in the same sentence that denies God is gendered. Our words matter, and we aren’t given the option of making God beyond gender while speaking of God as male all the time. If we believe God is beyond gender then we need to do more than deny it while reinforcing gendered ideas.
Amos Yong may be the most influential theologian of the Spirit at present and he is ignored, completely. Now, I know Bird can’t interact with everyone, but when we speak of the Spirit in light of the Gospel we must engage Yong. Yong has proposed the Spirit is the one who gets us beyond the impasse created by the question of, “What about those who never hear the Gospel?” Yong has suggested an inclusivism that presents the Spirit as working through and outside of religions other than Christianity for some. This doesn’t deny Christ as Savior and Lord, but it moves things away from an epistemology that demands knowledge of the Gospel for God to save. Some Evangelicals have been quite bothered by this idea since it seems to detract from the Gospel in their view, see Todd Miles’ discussion in A God of Many Understandings?
This was the section with which I struggled the most. I don’t have answers here, but it seemed like the doctrine of inspiration was tucked under Pneumatology nicely, left there, and no real answers were given. As I mentioned yesterday there is a sense in which it feels like Bird danced around this discussion. It seems like he advocates for inerrancy, while simultaneously arguing that inerrancy may not be the best language. He doesn’t address directly whether or not there can be errors in the Bible, whether scientific, historical, or other, but appeals vaguely to the faithfulness of God to give us a truthful Bible.
I guess a simple way to flesh this out would be to ask how Bird might use Genesis 1-11 as a case study. Does one have to affirm a literal Adam and Eve? Does one have to affirm that people lived for hundreds of years? What about a global flood? If one denies these things as having scientific and historical accuracy, but proposes a theological truthfulness to it, would Bird be OK with that? Would this allow the Bible to retain “veracity” as he says? Or would this be too much of a compromise putting one outside of Evangelicalism? Could (as Peter Enns has most recently and most famously argued) God has spoken truthfully through the faulty worldview of the ancients? How does the Spirit’s inspiration and illumination work here?
Tomorrow I will provide some final thoughts.
This book was provided for free by Zondervan in exchanged for an unbiased review.