Prolegomena Matters: Engaging with Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology

prolegomenaYesterday, I posted my review of the first section in Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic IntroductionAs with most theology textbooks, Bird opens with a discussion of how to do theology. In theological circles this is called the prolegomena and it portends to how the rest of the book will be developed.

As I mentioned in that review, I am encouraged by his focus on the gospel but concerned about how he is actually going to do his theology. In my review I mentioned in passing four general concerns. Today, I want to substantiate those concerns.

On the Reformation and Modernism

First, Bird’s treatment of the Reformation overplays the impact that the Reformers had on Modernity. As he introduces the reader to the task of doing theology (“What do you have to say before you say anything?”), Bird posits that the Reformers helped “pave the way” for Modernity’s rejection of ecclesiastical authority (34). Rightly, he attributes modern thought to the historical period known as the Enlightenment, but without clear distinctions, Bird gives the impression that the Reformers were in common cause with the rationalists and empiricists. In other words, because the Reformers threw off the magisterial authority of the church, the philosophes of the Enlightenment rejected any authority outside their respective thinking (Descartes) or experience (Locke).

The trouble is not that the fracturing of the Roman Catholic Church had no part in modern thought. The religious wars that preceded and followed Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli did create a context for thinkers to look outside the church. That said, it is simply unclear in ET  how the protestations of the Reformation differed from the anti-supernatural materialism of the Enlightenment. (For a summary of modern thought, see my Postmodernity and Evangelical Thought: Modernism’s Contribution to Postmodernity).

This confusion is heightened when Bird appears to contradict his earlier statement about the Reformers by stating that the Reformation strengthened the church. He writes, “The Reformation bound the gospel to the center of the church as the ever-present and effervescent force within the church united by Spirit, Word, and Sacrament” (41).

So in one place, Bird assigns guilt to the Reformation for its anti-authoritarian approach; in another, he champions the Reformation’s recovery of the gospel as the life-giving means of preserving the church. I have no doubt that these two statements can be reconciled and that if Bird had more space to make his case that he could explain how the Reformation both contributed to modern thought and also opposed to it. However, as it stands the reader is left to wonder what part the Reformers played in Modernism.

Poor Charles Hodge

Second, Bird’s critique of Charles Hodge is misleading. After introducing the tenets of modern thought (34-35), Bird details the way different traditions responded to modernism’s epistemological shift. He lists deism and liberal theology as two responses, and then he turns to Charles Hodge, whose biblical ‘foundationalism’ has become a foil for more than a few contemporary theologians (e.g., Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Joel Green, etc.).

Of Hodge, Princeton’s nineteenth century theological giant, Bird writes, “Some theologians attempted to meet the challenges of Modernity by using the very weapons that Modernity was employing against Christianity. . . . A good example of a systematic theology written amidst Modernity is that by the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797 – 1878). Hodge’s introduction is both a reaction to Modernity, yet also an appropriation of it” (36). Bird then outlines Hodge’s scientific approach to theology and his “storehouse of facts” method of collecting and arranging parts of the Bible “to ascertain what the Bible teaches” (37). From Bird’s description of Hodge, one would assume that Hodge was a full-blown Modernist.

But it is at this point that one qualification needs to be inserted that separates rational foundationalists and biblical foundationalists. The former denies the authority of God’s word, God’s ability to act in the world, and his inspiration of the Bible. The latter, in this case Hodge, affirms all of those. It is true that Hodge’s method reflects the philosophical questions, concerns, and methods of his day, but he is not a Modernist.

Like Grenz and Franke in Beyond FoundationalismBird dresses Hodge in Cartesian clothes, someone seeking an indubitable foundation, on which to build his theological edifice. It may be true that Hodge approached the Bible as a firm foundation on which to build his theology—but if he did, it was because he learned it from Jesus in Matthew 7 and Paul in Ephesians 2, not from the rationalists who he encountered on his two-year European tour (circa 1826-28).

In the end, I don’t have a problem with critiquing Hodge’s method, because there are many ways his Scottish Common Sense Realism—a staple of Princetonian thought in the nineteenth century—would later undermine his own system of Calvinistic soteriology (see Mark Noll’s America’s God). Where I have trouble is when Hodge’s biblical foundationalism is put into the same category as the rest of Modernity, without the necessary qualifications that distinguish his epistemology. Bird dismisses Hodge without accurately reflecting on this man’s warm and affectionate theology and his penchant for what the Bible says. (For more on Hodge, see my review of Paul Gutjahr’s biography).

Critiquing Naive Biblicism without Correcting Postfoundationalism

Third, Bird juxtaposes his theological method against ‘naive biblicism.’ To make space for his own methodology, Bird critiques Wayne Grudem and others for simply collecting and organizing Bible verses without giving proper attention to the framework of the Bible. Of course, proof-texting that ignores or minimizes the narrative structure of the Bible or the context from which the text is lifted is problematic.

Yet, it is equally disconcerting that Bird can cite Stanley Grenz with approval without critiquing Grenz for his coherentist approach to theology, which puts Scripture on equal footing with tradition and culture. If Bible-believing evangelicals are going to critique biblical naivete, we should also critique those who demote Scripture and make it something less than first order. That Bird critiques Grudem and cites with approval Grenz is troubling. Could this one-sided critique be indicative of a larger problem with Bird’s take on the Scripture? I will need to read more.  (For more on the troubles with Grenz and Franke, see my paper on “Ecclesial Accomodation,” which includes a strong critique of postfoundationalism).

Bird’s Epistemological Quadrilateral

Fourth, Bird’s sources for theology are too eclectic for my ecclesial tastes. Richard Lints once said that we need to stop doing theology as run of the mill evangelicals. Instead, we need to be Presbyterian, Anglican, or Baptist theologians. I agree. And so does Michael Bird. We just happen to be doing theology with different ecclesial commitments; therefore, this final point was inevitable but is categorically different than the first three.

From the outset, he shares his own ecclesial journey, one in which he describes himself as “an ex-Baptist, post-Presbyterian Anglican” (23). As a Reformed Baptist, who is passionately committed to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (not solo Scriptura), I was poised to have disagreements. The same would be true, if the tables were turned.

Admitting that much of my distress is explained by differences in ecclesial context, it must be reasserted that the issue is still truth—and our fallible attempt to understand God’s unerring Bible. Differences in location and church tradition are not sufficient to explain the differences; or at least, our various view points (i.e., the horizon of the reader) while partially explaining differences, do not permit plurality in God’s truth. Therefore, as it concerns sources for theology, there are numerous points where Bird appeals to sources in ways that effectively demote Scripture’s authority and elevate the authority of tradition and experience.

In general, I agree with Bird’s concluding remark: “The sources for theology are Scripture as the ultimate norm, tradition as the consultative norm, nature as the stimulus, and experience as the validating norm, with culture as the embedded context of theology” (85). At that summary level, we can stand firm as evangelical theologians. But when Bird explains what he means, he goes beyond that which this Reformed Baptist is comfortable. Let me give a couple examples.

  • For starters, Bird speaks of “four primary sources of authority: Scripture, tradition, nature, and experience” (62). On the same page, he states again that Scripture is “the primary source for theology.” I would submit that using the same term in different ways is not helpful here.
  • As to the canon, Bird states, “The Word of God created the church; the church did not create the Word of God. Nonetheless, the church did create the biblical canon in the sense of being charged with the task of putting the inscripturated Word of God in its canonical form” (66, emphasis mine). Judge for yourself: Wasn’t it the church’s role to recognize the canon, not create the canon? More specifically, didn’t local congregations (and the elders therein) have to decide (i.e., recognize) what books were legitimate prior to the ecumenical councils?
  • Bird adds confusion to relationship between Scripture and tradition when later he writes, “The New Testament itself is both a product of the church’s tradition about Jesus and also generated a tradition as to how Scripture should be read and understood” (69, emphasis mine). In this statement, the reciprocal nature of Scripture and tradition muddles which element is primary and allows for the early church to have some kind of ministerial authority over the Scriptures.
  • Arguing for the formation of the regula fidei, Bird notes, “The regula fidei was the attempt to safeguard the authority of Scripture by adopting an interpretive framework sanctioned by Scripture” (67-68). Wasn’t it the regula fidei’s role to safeguard the message of the Bible, not the authority of the Bible? I don’t think Bird’s sentence is espousing error; I just think it lacks precision. Although imprecisions like this are minuscule, they misalign the delicate relationship between Scripture and tradition.
  • Rightly, Bird cautions against making nature an authority, but he turns around and gives experience a very strong commendation. Without clarifying when or who is receiving the vision, he states broadly, “Certain experiences are even revelatory, such as visions, dreams, and gifts of knowledge when God sovereignly bestows them. All theological statements are undergirded by some kind of religious experience” (73). I wholeheartedly agree if we are talking about Isaiah in the Old Testament or Joseph the husband of Mary in the New Testament. But can we say the same thing about twenty-first century girl who was told in a dream to marry her unbelieving boyfriend?
  • Based on Bird’s description, it would seem that our personal encounters with God provide a “genuine source for theology” (72). He concludes, “Our theology influences our experience, and in turn our theology is influenced by our experience” (73). Certainly, theology and experience are interrelated, but as theologians we must be more precise. By using the same verbiage in both directions, Bird makes theology and and experience interdependent and reciprocal. Each influences the other, yes, but the question is “How do they influence each other?”  They are not egalitarian dance partners.

In the end, Bird’s view of sources elevates experience and culture too much for me. The consequence, as I read it, is a theological method that demotes the uniqueness of Scripture as the ultimate norm.

Judge for yourself.

Bird is writing from his encultured location and I am interpreting from my own. I may be too reluctant to consider experience in my theological method, but I believe that “Bird’s quadrilateral” is too open to tradition, experience, and culture as co-sponsors of our theological conclusions.


In the end, you can see that I have some serious concerns about how Bird is doing his theology. Yesterday, I gave a far more balanced ‘review.’ Today, I simply wanted to engage his prolegomena. Let me know what you think. What have I missed or overstated? Since doctrines arise from our theological methods, this is a vital subject. I’d value your input.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss