Theology All Comes Down to This

Theologians are fond of remarking that they can listen to someone speak on most any given topic in theology and know the fullness of that person’s theology. For instance, tell me what Jesus meant when he said “The kingdom of God has drawn near…” and we can figure out what you think about a host of topics. The one topic where this is perhaps most true is when a theologian explains salvation. Hence, Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, part five concerns salvation and what his study reveals is the following: Reformed, biblically kaleidoscopic, and individualistic. Because of the first and third there will be some disagreements between us.

In this sense, the word “Evangelical” in the title, while it focuses on gospel, speaks more from one location on the evangelical spectrum rather than for the whole of the evangelical spectrum. Molly Worthen’s new book, Apostles of Reason, helpfully reminds us of the four locations: neo-evangelical (more or less Reformed), Wesleyan/holiness/charismatic, Anabaptist and Restorationist. Bird brings into the discussion more of the first and second than the third and fourth. I would expect that the Reformed wing would agree with most of what Bird says and be stimulated to thinking where it doesn’t.

Furthermore, while there is an emphasis in Bird on the Bible’s Story that story in this chp is mostly the history of salvation (soteriological story), there is less emphasis on kingdom and very little presence of salvation as corporate or forming the final people of God in the City of God in Rev 21-22. We need some ecclesiology here. So, I agree with much of what he says and disagree in that other things could have been said. In this section we see how Story is mostly worked through salvation and why kingdom focused so much on salvation in his earlier sections.

Here are Bird’s major points:

The gospel is a declaration that the salvation of God is revealed in Jesus Christ and received by faith and repentance. I would concur that this is the saving dimension of the gospel but the gospel is first and foremost a declaration that Jesus is Messiah and Lord and, as Messiah and Lord, has come to redeem his people.

Salvation in the Bible is holistic, and here I think Bird does very well. Salvation means deliverance from many things: enemies, danger, death, illness, poverty, injustice, social exclusion, et al … sin and final judgment. I agree and because I do it is here that salvation could have been expanded: there is a people (not just individuals) at work in his images.

The plan of God for redemption — “redemptive history” — has five acts: creation and fall, patriarchs and Israel, Jesus, church, consummation. This story of salvation is part of the story of God’s rule or the kingdom so I’d like to see that shaping dominant terms. To be fair to Bird, in his sketch of redemptive history he provides a chart that grows and in that he keeps a bigger story in mind. This map, which includes God, covenant, people, place, promise, kingdom, and response, provides the most holistic perspective dimension of Bird’s thinking. This needs some more work of integration, which any teacher could do, with the other sections in his sketch of salvation.

The ordo salutis, a peculiarly Protestant debate rooted in Romans 8:28-29 but expanding beyond those terms, concerns sequence and Bird falls in line with general Reformed theology here but he does not give them much encouragement to think this way: there is too much overlap in terms, etc. He wants all of it to fit into union with Christ.

The terms of salvation include many images and they must all be at work to get the holistic view of salvation: forgiveness, redemption, rescue, reconciliation, justification, peace, adoption, eternal life and theosis (and here he does very good peacemaking work on accepting the category with both subtraction and nuance so that it doesn’t take over).

At this point I think Bird makes a valuable point, one in tune with much thinking today: the center of salvation is communion with God, union with Christ and life in the Spirit. Totally — now expand that into a city and a kingdom and a people and you’ve got the kingdom of God.

He affirms classic forms of salvation: there is a final judgment, God will declare some justified and others not, and that decision is final for all humankind.

On eternal security, Bird is Calvinist (no surprise there) but he frames this through a helpful lens: we can have assurance in God because God is faithful toward those who remain faithful to him, emphasizing perseverance of all genuine believers. Hebrews is addressing a mixed assembly. (I have an e-book on this called A Long Faithfulness, and there I argue there is no evidence the author of Hebrews sees a mixed assembly but even more the author warns “believers” of final separation from God.)

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.