Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Graham Cole's Book on the Atonement

Posted by Andy Naselli

About Graham Cole

Graham A. Cole is professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He came to TEDS in January 2002 after completing ten years as principal of Ridley College, University of Melbourne, where he lectured in philosophy, systematic theology, ethics, and apologetics. From 1980 to 1992 he taught at Moore College, Sydney, Australia. He spent two sabbatical years in Cambridge, England, where he was the Kingham Hill Fellow at Oak Hill College in London in 1998. Crossway recently published his two books on the Holy Spirit: He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (2007) and Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Real Questions, Practical Answers (2008).

About God the Peacemaker

Cole's latest book is a biblical theology of the atonement:
God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom. New Studies in Biblical Theology 25. Downers Grove: IVP, forthcoming on September 18, 2009. 296 pp.
I enjoyed taking a PhD seminar from Dr. Cole on this subject in spring 2007 ("Historical Theology of the Atonement"), and my expectations for his book are not disappointed. (Note: I just integrated Cole's Scripture index into the master NSBT Scripture index in which I've combined the Scripture indexes into a single spreadsheet and placed an asterisk by each page number where there is a discussion rather than merely a reference or brief comment.)

Here's how the NSBT series editor, D. A. Carson, introduces God the Peacemaker:
Few if any themes are more central to the Bible than atonement. The evidence depends on more than Paul’s asseveration to the Corinthians, ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). The sacrificial systems of tabernacle and temple, the significance of Passover and Day of Atonement, the dramatic way in which all four canonical Gospels climax in the cross and resurrection (some wag has said they are all passion narratives with extended introductions), the nuanced arguments of Hebrews, the fact that the Apocalypse depicts the triumph (of all things!) of a slaughtered Lamb, all combine to provide powerful support for the centrality of the theme explored in this volume.

Even to begin to do justice to this theme one must attempt at least five things: (1) The way the theme of sacrifice and atonement develops in the Bible’s storyline must be laid out. (2) Equally, the way this theme is intertwined with related themes (the holiness of God, the nature of sin, what salvation consists of, the promise of what is to come, and much more) must be delineated, along with (3) more probing reflection on a selection of crucial passages. These first three items belong rather tightly to biblical theology. Of course, (4) how these themes have been handled in the history of the church’s theology must not be ignored. (5) Equally, if the volume is to speak to our generation, it must engage some of the more important current discussion.

Dr Graham Cole is well qualified to address all five of these dimensions. My hope and prayer is that this volume will become a ‘standard’ contribution in the field, informing and enriching its readers as to what God achieved by sending his dear Son to the cross on our behalf. Eternity itself will not exhaust our wonder at these truths. This book, I am sure, will establish many in the right direction.
Table of contents:
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Righteous God of Holy Love
  • 2. The Glory and Garbage of the Universe
  • 3. The Great Need: Peace with God, with One Another and for the Cosmos
  • 4. Foundations and Foreshadowings
  • 5. The Faithful Son
  • 6. The Death and Vindication of the Faithful Son
  • 7. The 'Peace Dividend'
  • 8. Life Between the Cross and the Coming
  • 9. The Grand Purpose: Glory
  • 10. Conclusion
  • Appendix: Questioning the Cross: Debates, Considerations and Suggestions
  • Debate about the centrality of penal substitution
  • Debate about the morality of penal substitution
  • Are moral influence and exemplarist theories atonement theories?
  • Healing in the atonement?
  • The Holy Saturday debate
  • Non-violent atonement theories
An Interview with Graham Cole

Cole kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his latest book.

1. How would you concisely state the thesis and unfolding argument of God the Peacemaker?
The triune God has a project: to secure his people in his place under his rule living his way to his glory in his loving and holy presence. This is shalom or peace in the robust biblical sense of the word: rest from the enemies of peace, and richness of relationship with God and one another in a renewed created order. But there are obstacles to the project: Satan and human sinfulness for example. Atonement in broad terms is how God removes those barriers and achieves his purposes. In narrow terms it is how Christ—his coming, his cross, his coming to life again—are the linchpin of the divine plan to reclaim creation and believers with it.

The bulk of the book explores the project following the biblical storyline—letting God's self-revelation have the foundational say, if you like. However, there are many questions being asked of the project these days, especially of the cross (e.g., violence and the cross) and so the appendix deals with a number of these questions in the light of the framework set up in preceding material.
2. How do you address some of the major contemporary controversies on the atonement (e.g., whether penal substitution is central, just one of many facets, or invalid)?
Penal substitution provides a good example. It seems to me that following the biblical plotline, the first note struck is the Christus Victor one (i.e., the defeat of evil) in the protevangelium (first gospel) set out in Genesis 3:15. But how is the evil one defeated? The grounds of accusation need to be removed that stand against us, and the fear of death that is the devil’s tool needs to be addressed as well. The cross of Christ disarms the evil one by removing the grounds of accusation against us (Col 2). Christ died in our place (1 Peter 2)), experienced the righteous divine wrath that we deserve (Rom 5) and so, if we are in Christ, there is no condemnation (Rom 8). Because we stand clothed in Christ’s righteousness we will not face the divine judgment of the great white throne for our sins (Rev 20). Our names are in the Lamb’s book of life. The fear of death, which lies in judgment, is thereby addressed (Heb 2). Evangelicals in my view need to do more justice to the Christus Victor theme and in so doing find that penal substitution is integral or central to it.
3. You describe this study as "an exercise in theology drawing upon the disciplines of biblical theology and systematic theology with an awareness of the history of theological discussion (historical theology) and an eye on contemporary Christian life with its challenges (practical theology)" (p. 31). This book reflects your theological method to some degree (I say "to some degree" because the biblical-theological approach of the NSBT series no doubt influenced your approach). How would you briefly describe your method, especially how you integrate exegesis and theology (historical, biblical, systematic, and practical)?
My way of doing theology is to regard the Word of Revelation—God's Word written (the biblical)—as normatively foundational and to be read in the plain sense (the exegetical). But we are not the first Christians. The Witness of Christian Thought (the historical) is filled with riches that are worth consulting (e.g., Calvin’s Institutes comes to mind). But we don’t read the Scriptures or consult the witnesses of the past in a vacuum. We live outside of Eden in the groaning creation: the World of Human Predicament. How do the text (the biblical) and today (the practical) connect? Systematic theology comes in at this point. Normative questions need to be addressed: What ought we to believe? What ought we to value? How ought we to live? All asked in the light of what God has revealed. Systematic Theology asks these normative questions in an organized way. Lastly, putting these elements together is the Work of Wisdom which is an activity of careful thinking informed by the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7).
4. You argue, "The Christian life is lived in ways that flow from the gospel" (p. 193), and you note that an author of the past generation "would be amazed to find these days that for many worship has shrunk to singing love songs to Jesus without reference to the cross" (p. 32). How would you describe the relationship between the atonement and Christian worship?
The worship of heaven, which we join when we gather as God’s people, is based on God’s revealed character and mighty works as Creator (Rev 4) and Redeemer (Rev 5). The only fitting response to such grace is that exhibited by the elders in heaven. They worshiped (i.e., adopted the protocol one does in the presence of such majestic selflessness). In the light of the cross we can only look away from ourselves and acknowledge in word and body language someone other than ourselves as the worthy one: the Lamb slain for us. That is the connection.
5. What are some of your next writing projects?
I have just finished a piece on "Preaching God’s Words and Walking in God’s Ways." It is about how the evangelical must not be disengaged from the ethical in our preaching. I am at present working on another piece, "The God Who Wept A Human Tear." This piece looks at the incarnation, suffering, and the nature of God with special reference to Islam. In Islam the idea of a prophet of the stature of Jesus suffering—second only to Mohammad on this view—is unthinkable, hence the claim that Christ did not die on the cross. In contrast to that view I argue for a God who in Christ knows suffering from the inside as it were. Such is the depth of divine love and grace.
6. Many thanks, Graham, for taking time to serve the readers of Justin Taylor's blog with such helpful comments!
My pleasure!