Book Write-Up: What Christians Ought to Believe

Michael F. Bird.  What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostle’s Creed.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

In What Christians Ought to Believe?, New Testament scholar and theologian Michael Bird goes through the Apostle’s Creed.  Bird uses statements from it as a launchpad for a fuller explanation of Christian doctrine.  Among the topics that Bird discusses are faith in God, God as creator, Jesus as God incarnate and Messiah, the virgin birth, the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus’ descent into Hades and resurrection, Jesus’ ascension to heaven and corresponding reign, the Holy Spirit, the church, and issues related to the afterlife and eschatology.  Before Bird’s chapters about the sections of the Apostle’s Creed, Bird explains why creeds are important.  Bird addresses a question some Protestants may have: Why should Christians consult creeds, when they already have the authoritative Bible?

The book has its share of positives.  It is eloquent yet down-to-earth, with illustrations and occasional humor.  Bird’s Christian conviction is manifest in this book, and it is contagious: readers can feel inspired, stronger, and hopeful as they go through this book.  Bird has a pastoral sensitivity, especially when he discusses the role of doubt in the life of a believer.  In addition, Bird on occasion is unafraid to challenge conventional Christian wisdom.  For example, in his chapter on the virgin birth, he denies that the virgin birth is primarily about Jesus being born without original sin, as he offers other reasons that it is significant.

This book is popular and rather homiletical, and yet the times when it is influenced by scholarship are definite assets.  There are occasions when Bird interacts with scholarly arguments, particularly in his chapter on the virgin birth, as he disputes arguments that the virgin birth is unhistorical and was influenced by paganism.  Bird in footnotes refers readers to scholarly treatments of such topics as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus.  Bird mentions historical nuances on Jesus’ descent into and harrowing of Hades.  The history of Christian theology looms large in this book, as Bird describes beliefs that came to be considered heretical (i.e., Marcionism, Arianism), while lucidly discussing what was theologically at stake in these debates.  In addition, Scripture plays a significant role in Bird’s explanation of the Apostle’s Creed.

The book has some negatives, however.  At times, Bird makes assertions and assumptions in this book, without really supporting them.  Bird assumes and asserts that the church creeds (i.e., the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc.) reflect normative Christian belief going back to the time of the apostles.  Bird’s interpretation of the New Testament reflects that, including his apparent assumption that the New Testament presents a rather monolithic perspective on such issues as Christology. There are many New Testament scholars who would disagree and see early Christianity as more diverse.  Bird knows this and has engaged their thought in other works.  Even in a popular work, Bird should have mentioned sources about this in a footnote, at least so that readers can know that Bird grounds his narrative in something other than assertion.

Another example in which Bird makes assertions is in his chapter on the atonement.  After acknowledging that the New Testament does not explicitly say how Jesus’ death and resurrection bring forgiveness, Bird lists different ideas about the atonement throughout church history and asserts that they all are a facet of how the atonement works.  On what authority does Bird say this, if the Bible itself is not so specific?  One could appeal to an alleged apostolic tradition as authoritative, but Bird fails to marshal patristic statements on this, which is what people who emphasize apostolic church tradition (i.e., Catholics) would usually do.  To his credit, though, Bird did quote Athanasius.

Bird often quotes people throughout church history, even people who lived long after the time of the apostle’s creed.  That is not necessarily bad, for this book is an explanation of Christian doctrine, rather than a scholarly explication of what the Apostle’s Creed originally meant in its historical context.  Bird probably was not trying to imply that someone living centuries after the time of the Apostle’s Creed was an authoritative source for what the people who composed the creed intended.  Still, Bird perhaps should have included more patristic references that were closer to the time of the apostle’s creed, or even references to Jewish sources predating Christianity.

In the chapter on Jesus’ ascension to heaven and corresponding reign, Bird should have contrasted the time before Jesus’ coming with the time after his coming.  What is different now, after Jesus has gone to heaven and sat beside the throne of God?  What difference does Jesus’ rule make, and how does that contrast with God’s rule before Jesus came to earth?  Bird says things throughout the book that may touch on this, but such questions should have been engaged more directly.

There were two passages in the book that especially stood out to me.  First of all, on page 59, Bird offers reasons that monarchianism and modalism do not make sense.  Bird states that “if you read [II Corinthians 13:14] in a monarchian sense, it seems rather impoverished as God’s blessing is mediated through two lesser gods rather than coming directly from him.”  Bird seems to be arguing that standard trinitarianism makes sense of the benediction in II Corinthians 13:14, whereas certain heretical positions do not.  Bird also is identifying and clarifying what is at stake in the acceptance of some positions over others.  At the same time, Bird’s argument that the monarchian position is “impoverished” arguably implies (whether or not Bird intends this) that personal taste should play some role in what one accepts as truth.  There are many fundamentalist Christian ideas that some people find “impoverished” or even oppressive, yet many fundamentalist Christians would tell these people to suck it up: their preferences make no difference in terms of what the truth is!  After all, there are a lot of unpleasant ideas that are true!  By contrast, Bird in this book often tries to argue that Christian doctrines have been rejected because they have not been properly understood.  The implication may be that true doctrines are not just true but are rich, make sense, and have a positive effect on people, when properly understood.  Would that not be the case of doctrines that come from a beneficent God?

Second, on page 172, Bird states: “Jesus is not coming back to inflict apocalyptic carnage on a bunch of innocent agnostics; rather, he is coming to bring heavenly justice to a world that is submerged in wickedness and mired in corruption.”  There may be truth to this, yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Christianity, and aspects of the Bible, forecast doom for non-believers: everyday people who simply reject Christian doctrines.  But I am open to different interpretations and views on this!

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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