Michael F. Bird was kind enough to answer some of my questions on the essence of the gospel and modern perceptions of the good news about Jesus. (See here for the first interview in this series with Darrell Bock.) Michael F. Bird is a prolific author, theologian, and a highly respected New Testament scholar.
My questions are in bold.
If Paul were somehow transported to our modern Western churches, what do you think he would disapprove of? What might he resonate with?
I think first of all, he’d be slightly disoriented at the world, with its technology, history, and change of worldviews. I think he’d be mortified at churches segregated by race or class. A crash course on church history would probably lead him to a mixture of laughing, weeping, and gasping. But I think he’d be encouraged by the fact that his letters form part of the Christian Scripture, his letters have inspired revolutions and demonstrations, and people are still preaching Jesus Christ as Lord.
In the same vein, what do you think Jesus would 1) disapprove of and 2) resonate with?
Well, if you judge things by the sermon on the mount, then the consumerism and syncretism of much of the modern church around the world. What he’d resonate with, those who love God and love neighbor.
Debates about the heart of the gospel seem never ending. In your view, what is the essence of the gospel?
I wouldn’t say the gospel has fixed “essence” because the gospel can be flexibly rehearsed across the New Testament. I prefer to say that the gospel has certain key ingredients that get added and baked in one’s explanation in different ways. That includes the story of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation; OT fulfillment; the kingdom of God; Jesus as Messiah and Lord; the offer of the forgiveness of sins; and calling for repentance and faith.
Do you have any qualms with how the gospel can be presented in Christian literature or in modern worship music?
Yes, of course, sometimes the gospel lacks biblical traction, or depth. The danger is that we reduce the gospel to offering to meet the felt needs of whatever is going on today.
Some come away from this conversation feeling that this is merely a semantics game. How important is this conversation, and is it more than semantics?
Semantics can be boring to argue over about. But trust me, if your cardiac surgeon can’t figure out if the needle goes on or into your heart, you’ll notice by the end of the operation. Some things need to be solid, grounded, and firm. The gospel is one of them, because Jesus and the apostles tell us so. If you preach a truncated gospel you’ll get a truncated church. If you preach a confused gospel you’ll get a confused church. If you preach a vague gospel you’ll get vague spirituality and so forth. The gospel requires crispness and clarity.
Why do you feel that believers are so fragmented when it comes to questions of what the gospel is?
I think it is sometimes because we’ve just relied on inherited assumptions, own sub-cultural constructs, or just plain narrow set of perspectives. If you’ve only ever had chicken McNuggets, you’ve never experienced the culinary delight of a good roast chicken in rosemary and gravy.
What has helped shape and reinforce your views on the gospel and its nature (courses taken, books read, leaders and/or mentors, etc.)? Can you describe any “aha” moments in the development of your own understanding of the gospel?
One of my seminary professors Jim Gibson was a wonderful mixture of evangelist and theologian, my book Evangelical Theology is dedicated to him, and he had a big impact on me. Then there’s reading some good gospel theologians like Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and so many others. I guess for me, learning that the Gospels really are “gospel” was the aha moment, it isn’t only justification by faith, the entire story of Jesus is the gospel. That’s true especially if you read the apostolic speeches like Acts 10!
Ours is a time when “bad news” (even “fake news”) finds itself everywhere. Human suffering and injustice, which are more rampant and intensified in certain parts of the world, taint God’s world. How is the proclamation about Jesus “good news” for the sufferer? How can Christians maintain that we in fact have good news in a time such as ours?
The gospel proclaims Jesus as Lord, lord of all, and he will put the world right. Every knee will bow before him, there will be mercy for those that want it, but those who persist in evil and rebellion will receive their due before the divine tribunal of the Son of Man. It also means that Jesus is with us in our lowest moments, because nothing can separate us from his love, neither disease nor depression nor death. His love and grace is with us, to the end of the age, that’s his promise, and he keeps his promises.
About Michael F. Bird:
Describing himself as a “biblical theologian,” Michael F. Bird (PhD, University of Queensland, 2005) is an ardent researcher, having written and edited over thirty books in the fields of the Septuagint, the Historical Jesus, the Gospels, St. Paul, Biblical Theology, and Systematic Theology. Running a popular blog, Bird has debated the likes of Bart Ehrman as well as interviewed N. T. Wright. He has also co-authored a highly-acclaimed New Testament Introduction with N.T. Wright titled The New Testament in its World (Zondervan Academic, 2019). His 2013 Evangelical Theology is an attempt to develop a truly gospel-based theology that promotes the advance of the gospel in Christian life and thought. The co-editor of the New Covenant Commentary Series, he is an associate editor for Zondervan’s The Story of God Bible Commentary, and speaks often at conferences in the Australia, the UK, and USA.