Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Review - He Who Gives Life

I've just finished reading Graham Cole's book on the Holy Spirit - He Who Gives Life. As I've found with most of the volumes in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, it's a text book, which is a clear and biblical articulation of the doctrine under consideration. He initiates his thoughts by setting forth his methodology, drawing attention to the primary importance of Scripture and the supporting voices of church history, all the while clearly identifying and giving weight to the rich variety of Scripture in terms of genre and locale in salvation history - Cole's concern is that we read the Bible to come to an understanding of the Holy Spirit. That said, Cole is quite happy to draw theological opinions (theologoumena) from the text, recognising that there is a difference between what we must and might believe.

Starting with the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and the importance of allowing God to be who He is, Cole traces some of the major themes in church history as to the person and work of the Spirit - the Spirit as the bond of love (Augustine), Spirit as the perfecting cause (Basil of Caesarea) and the idea that love requires a third Person (Richard of St Victor). He also engages with the filioque debate, drawing clear and contemporary application from the subject, without exhausting the reader.

The second and third parts of the work deal with the Spirit in the Old and New Testaments respectively. The ground Cole covers here is too vast to even survey, but is all ground worth walking. His articulation of the work of the Spirit in the life of Christ, and the way he addresses these issues through the key events in Christ's life was refreshing to read, as was his careful and methodologically appropriate handling of the event in Acts.

The work of the Spirit in the church and in the believer omitted some material, on the grounds that it had been covered in other volumes in the series (namely Demarest's The Cross and Salvation), and while it is disappointing to not have some of these topics addressed in a work on the Spirit, it was an understandable choice.

What was particularly refreshing throughout the work was the way Cole was quite happy to walk a path between what he deems evangelical rationalism and evangelical mysticism. He's quite happy to speak of the mystery of the Spirit - and indeed his appropriate epistemic humility (not wanting to claim certainty where the Bible doesn't give it) was refreshing, particularly on the issue of the extent to which the Trinity can be used as a 'solution' or 'answer' to particular ecclesial issues. This epistemic humility, however, doesn't stop him from engaging with the implications for belief and practice - a regular section included at the end of each chapter in the work, nor from drawing theological opinions on the basis of the biblical date.

There is no doubt that he covers a vast breath of topics, grounding his position biblically, theologically and historically. Of course I came away with as many questions as answers, but the overall experience of engaging with Cole on this subject matter was one I thoroughly enjoyed. While a more robust and sustained engagement with some of the pop-theology which exists in many churches around the person and work of the Spirit would have been helpful (particularly for evangelicals in non-evangelical contexts), Cole gives the framework, surveys the data, and sets the direction for Christians to be able to make those engagements. It's a very good book, and I don't hesitate to doubt J I Packer's endorsement that it is 'the widest-ranging textbook on pneumatology that currently exits.' A valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand, relate to, and serve our Triune God.