Greer Heard Preview Pt 6: Michael Bird

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In the weeks leading up to Greer Heard, we are posting Q&A’s we did with the speakers of this year’s Greer Heard forum. Our sixth piece is with Mike Bird. We want to provide these Q&A’s so that you are able to access the information presented at Greer Heard easier, as well as giving you a chance to see a piece of the person behind the ideas.

Steve: Mike, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, about your recent ordination into the church, and your life as a biblical scholar?

Mike: I was born in Germany, but despite that I believe in the resurrection. That’s the standard joke I tell. I grew up in very suburban and secular Straya. I didn’t have much of a religious upbringing at all. Everything I learned about Christianity growing up was from Ned Flanders, basically. The Simpsons were my Sunday School education. I also had a very dysfunctional family and left home as soon as I could. Because of that I joined the army so that I could go out meet, greet, and kill all kinds of exotic and interesting people. I met some guys in the army that were Christians and got invited to go to church. I thought that all people in church were moralizing geriatrics. I attended a new Baptist church plant that broke down all the stereotypes of Christians that I had thought before. I heard the good news of Jesus in 1994 and the world has been a different place ever since. I left the army, got married, went to seminary at a Baptist seminary, progressed to do PhD work and moved back to Straya ending up at Ridley College. I’ve written on many things along the way from historical Jesus, the origin of the Gospels, the Septuagint, the Apostolic Fathers, and I’ve written a systematic theology. My theology and my ecclesiology has evolved from Baptist to Reformed to Anglican. I’ve learned very much from all three phases of that journey. From the Baptists I’ve learned very much the importance of personal piety, that the church of believers and for believers; the importance of personal conviction and having what you’d call a very activist faith and community, that’d you’d actually do something with your faith. From the Reformed I’ve learned the importance of believing rightly, Orthodoxy, and seeing your life as a way to glorify God. With Anglicanism I’ve really liked the Catholicity of the faith. You’re not just following some hipster pastor with $600 sunglasses and $400 haircut with highlights. You actually see yourself with something much more ancient. Generally speaking, the Baptist and Reformed tradition have lost that sense of catholicity.

[At this point in the interview we were a bit derailed by unforeseen circumstances. We will pick back up a little off-topic with Dr. Bird bringing the discussion back into the line of questioning.]

Mike: Americans, you guys really have the best and the worst of everything. You’ve got Billy Graham and Benny Hinn. You’ve got Bob Stewart and Rhyne Putman. The genius of Anglicanism is you get to be Protestant and Catholic at the same time and let’s be honest; all the cool people are Anglican: C.S. Lewis, John Stott, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright. All the cool people are Anglican. So for me getting ordained two weeks ago was a really big deal. A very long journey over the last twenty years and this completes a phase for me because I’ve always wanted to be a bridge between the church and the academy. That in a nutshell is the journey I’ve had.

Steve: Who are some scholars who have really impacted your work in academia?

Mike: Jeff Pew and James Gibson have been influential. I had two great doctoral supervisors in Rick Strelan and Bob Web who really shaped my ability to think critically and not just muster arguments to convince the choir, but arguments that can get you out of worst case scenario; Bear Grylls kind of stuff. Some guys who have really inspired me, I’ve always been a fan of D.A. Carson, who has a very strong Evangelical fervor, but he’s also a generalist as well. He works at writing commentaries, biblical theology, he’s got a hand in a lot of places. He also combines that in a very deep traditional Evangelical piety and a Reformed persuasion. The other one, somewhat more alternatively, is N.T.Wright, who is a gigantic figure of New Testament studies today. In so many ways, he helps us understand that the Bible is a complete story. I think that’s a great thing. That the Gospels are really about Jesus and not simply mirrors of the communities that wrote them. The significance of resurrection and new creation, understanding Paul as a first century Jew, and taking that all together and having to live out that story in our own churches and communities that we find ourselves in. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him over the past couple years now and the guy is really gifted and if I may say, a bit of a genius.

Steve: Sure you can say that.

Mike: Reading his works as well as being around him in person, I certainly remain in awe of his abilities and what God has done through him. And the other thing about him, he’s certainly a divisive figure certainly in the Reformed side and some people really, really do not like him. We had a conference with him in Melbourne, Australia and we were impressed by the breadth people that came along: Evangelical Anglicans, Liberal Anglicans, people from the mainline church, Catholics, and even a huge contingent from Hillsong come down from Sydney. Believe me, people from Sydney aren’t convinced that there is life outside of Sydney [they think], “There might be.” But part of the leadership of Hillsong came down and that shows that Wright is such a magnetic figure. I think he is espousing something that resonates with people of a broad Christian tradition and it has been a long time since the church has had someone like that. I’m not saying I’m a fan, but I am definitely onboard the program that he’s doing and it has largely shaped what I’ve done.

Steve: I want to hear what the focal point of your presentation is going to be?

Mike: I am going to try to disparage a common view in scholarship that the earliest Christology was Adoptionist. An Adopstionist Christology is one that says that Jesus was a man who at his resurrection or maybe at his baptism was adopted as God’s son. He was basically a human being that was adopted and elevated to divine status. For a long time many have assumed on the basis of some texts like Romans 1:3-4 or Acts 2:36 that this was the earliest recoverable Christology. And Bart Ehrman has argued something very similar to that. The basic idea seems to be that the earliest Christology has evolved from Jesus being a man adopted to divine sonship to the evolution in the Gospel of John where Jesus was the preexistent word of God made flesh. On one hand there is something right about this scheme because when the disciples looked at the risen Jesus they did not say to themselves, “Look! It is the second person of the Trinity, God of God, Light of Light, very God of Very God, who is homoousios not homoiousios with the Father.” They didn’t have the whole package there worked out. There was probably a myriad of things that they were saying trying to find the right grammar, the right language, the right Scripture to interpret what they believed God had done and what they’d also experienced of Jesus after his resurrection and exaltation. It certainly took a while to get consensus and there were certain terms that were bounding around, but I don’t think the earliest view was simply that Jesus was a man who had been elevated to divine honors. I think it was a little bit more complex than that. Certainly the resurrection meant that an additional status that Jesus had acquired, it meant something new, it meant that God said something of Jesus that he had not said before. I don’t think Adoptionism is the right word. I proceed to argue that what we call Adoptionist Christology is a second century development.

Steve: How do you think Bart Ehrman is going to respond?

Mike: I imagine Bart will give a very robust response to the contrary. Bart’s got a charming little section of his book where he says that Jesus became God. He asked readers to imagine if the first disciples had written a Gospel of Jesus shortly after the resurrection, it would be Adoptionistic. Some people have pushed back against it. Simon Gathercole did a very good interview with Bart and Justin Brierley on the show Unbelievable.