The follow post is written by my good friend and colleague, Josh Cramer, who reviews Dr. Michael Bird’s forthcoming book, What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed (Zondervan: 2016).
This year I attended the National Day of Prayer at the Idaho Capitol, naively thinking it would be the Church gathering to pray for the nation. It wasn’t. Instead, it was a recommitment ceremony between Church and state. Or, a one-sided ceremony celebrating the Church’s commitment to America (I’m not sure that America is as committed as we are – it’s not us, it’s her). The normal rites followed: Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem, “God Bless America”, “America, the Beautiful”, America as fallen “city on a hill”, confusion of nation with Church. I was encouraged that attendees were few and aging. The ceremony reminded me of the soul-shaping ceremony that the Church needs to be living weekly in worship, except idolatrous devotion to Country had replaced appropriate rites to God and Church. We are the Church, with a citizenship liturgy oriented to the Kingdom of God: Baptism, not the Pledge; Eucharist, not the National Anthem; our Lord’s Prayer, not “America, the Beautiful”; creeds, not “God Bless America”.
Australian scholar and theologian Michael Bird’s upcoming book – What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed – reintroduces us to an important liturgy for Kingdom citizens. The Apostles’ Creed has been and will be a key citizenship rite for the Church long after America is gone. Christians have used it in worship for millennia and it remains a key ecumenical creed but too many American Christians would rather recite the Pledge than the creeds. Bird’s book is needed to reawaken our hypnotized souls to the beauty of God’s truth.
Bird is a New Testament scholar, an ally of NT Wright. Wright makes plenty of appearances here but so do theologians from various times and traditions – like Irenaus and Hans Urs von Balthasar, for starters. This is not the work of a biblical scholar disconnected from theology or the life of the Church. An introduction to the Apostles’ Creed, What Christians Ought to Believe also signals a theologically robust, ecumenically minded, missional Evangelicalism based on Scripture that resources the Church’s rich tradition.
Bird structures the book around the Creed. Chapters 1 and 2 explore Christian creeds and argue for their use in corporate worship and personal devotion. Chapters 3 through 14 explore the Creed’s affirmations: the nature of “belief” (chapter 3 – for Bird, belief is not just praying a prayer or reciting a creed), the Father (4), Jesus (5 through 11), the Spirit (12), the Church (13), and the purpose and end of creation (14). Most the book focuses on Christ, as does most of the Creed, which is sensible since it is a rite that shapes Christ’s Kingdom citizenry. I found myself learning about our God and worshipping Him as I read. The insights Bird gives for learning, devotion, and discipleship are helpful and profound. Chapter 9 – on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross – was a favorite . There, Bird beautifully explores and values various atonement models and then invites us to live cruciform lives.
There are as many good things to say about this book as there are … other kinds of things to say about the National Day of Prayer gathering. Bird writes well and accessibly, at home quoting Irenaus/Pannenberg/Balthasar and Stephen Colbert/Joan Osborne/Star Wars. He combines solid biblical scholarship with good historical, churchly theology to ground the Creed in the Scripture’s story. He gives practical and political suggestions for how the Creed might impact Church and world; for Bird, the Creed is not a doctrinal statement divorced from action but a guide to faith and life. Also, Bird is theologically deep, connected to God’s saving acts in history, and tied to our individual lives and collective Church life through time and space. Nearly every time I put What Christians Ought to Believe down, I felt firmly connected to the Scriptures and the Church’s traditions and pondered ways to use the book in my community. My current suggestions: use it in adult Sunday School classes, reading groups, and other adult studies, with new believers, as a textbook for a college theology course, with a church staff to shape the church’s theology and worship life. You would also enjoy and grow from using it for personal study, though I suspect it is used best in community to help Evangelicals shape our worship. The Creed is one of our rites of citizenship, good at forming us as we submit to it, and Bird’s book is a good, biblical, practical guide through it.
Some minor issues. First, the book really starts with chapter 3. Chapters 1 and 2 are fine but things pick up when Bird dives into the Creed itself. I wonder if the material from the first two chapters could have been an introduction, appendix, or sprinkled through later chapters. Second, after reading Bird’s discussion of the creeds in chapter 1, I was not convinced that we were studying the right creed. Why the Apostles’ Creed and not the Nicene, which Bird points out is more complete and more ecumenical? He says that the Apostles’ Creed is more compact, but is that an argument? Third, in his discussion of Jesus’ descent to the dead in chapter 10, Bird explains an unconvincing understanding of Hell and Hades. New to the discussion, I needed more persuasion. If Bird wants to argue for a particular understanding of Jesus’ descent, then maybe an introduction is not the place.
That said, this is a really good book that the Church can use well. Bird shows us the story and character of God, points us to the Church we could and will be, and then encourages us to be that Church with practical suggestions included. I hope that God and Country ceremonies represent American Evangelicalism’s past; I pray that Bird and What Christians Ought to Believe represents global Evangelicalism’s future – biblical and theological, doctrinally sound and missional, Evangelical and ecumenical, gracious and truthful, intelligent and practical, inviting us into the full wonder of our large and loving God.
* Thanks to Preston for the chance to review the book and post on his blog. And thanks to Zondervan for the advance copy for review.