It is sobering for every believer to recall that the very first work of theology recorded in the Bible—that is, the first example of someone talking about God rather than listening and responding to him directly—comes when the Serpent says “did God really say…?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer described that moment recorded in Genesis 3:1-8 in this way.
…with the first religious question in the world, evil has come upon the scene…the false answer is contained within it, that within it is attacked the basic attitude of the creature towards the Creator. Man is expected to be the judge of God’s word instead of simply hearing and doing it…[the aim] is to divert man from the Word of God.
Graham Cole reminds us that, as divine image-bearers, thinking and speaking of the One who made us is one of the most universal and natural things that human beings can do
While helpfully acknowledging these challenges, Graham Cole reminds us that, as divine image-bearers, thinking and speaking of the One who made us is one of the most universal and natural things that human beings can do:
Whether trained or not, Christians talk and think about God. In that light, there is a sense in which every Christian is a theologian. The question is, How are we to get better at talking and thinking about God?
For the generations of students on three different continents who have had the privilege of being taught by Graham Cole, his latest book is a very welcome arrival indeed. It is a short but significant book in a series of the same kind (Short Studies in Systematic Theology). In the Series Preface Cole and Martin write that:
[these books aim at] what John Calvin termed, ‘lucid brevity’…[the goal] is to be brief, yet accurate … The key aim is that the simpler is not to morph into the simplistic. The test is whether the topic of a short study, when further studied in depth, requires some unlearning to take place. The simple can be amplified. The simplistic needs to be corrected.
Introduction – Methodology
Cole begins by outlining the parameters of his writing and defining his terms. He wisely observes that, whether trained or not, all Christians talk and think about God; so that in that sense every believer is a theologian. The first challenge is to become conscious of the theological method we have absorbed or been taught; which we assume and so actually use.
This book is about the method to use in doing faithful theology: faithful to God, faithful to God’s word.
Faithful theology is a human project that arises from wise reflection on the self-revelation of God … it is always open to be reformed and corrected by that revelation…[hence] the Reformers’ slogan semper reformanda(always reforming).’
Accordingly, Cole persuasively argues that if we are committed to ‘faithful theology,’ there are three normative questions which must be asked:
- The truth question: What ought we to believe? (orthodoxy, right opinion)
- The spirituality question: What ought we to value? (orthokardia, right-heartedness)
- The existential/practical question: How ought we to live? (orthopraxis, right practice of life)
To put it another way, we attend to the head, the heart and the hands.
1. The Word of Revelation
An enduring memory I have of being taught theology by both Graham Cole and Peter Adam during my time at Ridley College, was that the truth of the Bible was never assumed. It was the case that in every lecture; the Bible was opened, the Bible was recognised as God’s word to us, and the Bible was used.
This commitment is evident from the beginning to the end of this book. I give hearty thanks to God that the question I was first taught to keep asking of myself—and everything I heard or read as an undergraduate in the Christian Union—was reinforced for me at theological College. It is the question which every servant of Christ must continually ask of their life and ministry. Not only,
• Do you believe the Scriptures?
• Are you using the Scriptures for life and ministry?
Cole summarises his own theology teacher and later colleague, Broughton Knox:
…our ideas of God are to be found in the self-revelation of God, and the self-revelation of God is to be found in Scripture. Any doctrine…with no biblical warrant [is a] textless doctrine, and not worthy to be called doctrine.
While every theologian will make use of a number of different sources, the faithful theologian will recognise the Bible as the rule of faith and the touchstone of divinely revealed truth. That is, the norma normans (norming norm), must be the written word of God.
“Have many teachers but only one Master.” The evangelical ought to be open to wisdom from any source, yet under the lordship of Christ.
This was the commitment of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who always did his Father’s will, and continually demonstrated this view of Scripture in his own life and ministry on earth. If we submit to the Lord Jesus Christ; who is the truth, and whose words are Spirit and are Truth, we will, like him, submit to God’s Spirit-breathed Bible word (e.g. John 6:63; 14:6; 16:12-15; 17:6-8 cf. Matthew 4:1-11; 22:29-32, 33; Luke 24etc).
Because the Holy Spirit is the primary author of Scripture, faithful theology will …
- rest on the exegesis of each text in its context; reading with both the grain and the goal of the whole proclamation of the Bible (the work of biblical theology);
- see its fulfilment in the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of the Lord, Jesus Christ (e.g. Matthew 5:17-20; 11:11-15; John 5:31-47; Acts 28:21-31; Romans 1:1-6; 16:25-27; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1-4 etc).
- not pit biblical authors against one another.
- use the plain parts of Scripture to interpret those parts which are more obscure (note the Apostle Peter’s warning in 2Peter 3:15-16).
Cole also addresses the heart of the theologian when he writes,
Scripture needs to be read for its sense. Doctrine needs to be grounded on Scripture, but so does the reader. Scripture also needs to be read for spiritual sustenance.
According to the Lord Jesus and his Apostles, Scripture is the spiritual food that sustains us (Matthew 4 cf. 1Peter 2:2). Like the Psalmist, we are to meditate on God’s word—that is, read slowly, and be like ruminating cows in the way that we digest it—returning to and reflecting on Scripture over and over again. And we are to turn God’s words into our words of prayer.
Cole also recommends slow, out-loud reading with close attention. No skimming or speed reading!
2. The Witness of Christian Thought and Practice: Past & Present
Cole rightly observes that no one does theology in a vacuum. Whether it is the translation of the Bible we use, or the songs we sing together at church, or the books we read, or the teachers we are taught by, we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We are inheritors of a rich tradition of biblical exposition, written and unwritten liturgies, prayers, creeds, thought and practice. Cole quotes Stephen R. Holmes who writes that ‘there is no escape from the mediation of our faith by tradition.’
No one does theology in a vacuum … we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.
In view of this reality Cole helpfully affirms that,
… doing theology wisely means learning from the past both positively and negatively. However, in theology tradition can only ever be a norma normata (a ruled norm). Again, in the contest between Scripture and tradition, Scripture constitutes the final court of appeal in an evangelical methodology. Even so, it is theological foolishness to ignore the witness of Christian thought and practice—that is, tradition.
We are not the first generation to follow Christ … we all stand in a tradition of Christian thought and practice…this means that whatever tradition we stand in needs to be open to reform by the word of God in the Scriptures…the ruling norm (norma normans), while tradition is a ruled norm (norma normata).
World, Wisdom and Worship
The three chapters which follow include:
3. The World of Human brokenness
Cole emphasises the importance of knowing the times in which we live and do theology, and the reality of our own struggle with sin. We live outside Eden, in these last and ‘evil days’—the time ‘in between’ Jesus’ resurrection and his certain and glorious return. The reality of sin and evil must not be denied. There is false teaching and God-denying heresy. The need for humility and to be teachable on the part of the theologian; together with the commitment to be ‘always reforming,’ is a non-negotiable.
4. The Work of Wisdom
Faith and reason are not alternatives and the work of reason is directed by the life of faith.
Reason must not be reified as though it were a thing separate from us. Reason does not function on its own in a spiritual vacuum. Persons reason. Persons mount arguments, question or demolish them, and marshal or dismiss evidence. And persons do that either in submission to God or in conflict with him.
It is important to develop tools for wise theological thinking, including: the recognition of doctrinal rank, the role of imagination, the development of control beliefs, the discipline of biblical theology and the power of the question. The fundamental stance of the faithful theologian is one of prayerful dependence upon and reverence towards God. The work of theology is a work of ‘holy reason.’
5. The Way of Worship: Putting it all Together in Thought and Life
Faithful thinking ought not to be divorced from faithful living. We are not mere brains on sticks. We are relational beings.
There is a direct connect between character and insight; life and doctrine (e.g. Colossians 1:9-14; 1Timothy 4:15-16). We speak of the one true God who has revealed himself as Father Son and Holy Spirit; One God in Trinity. And in prayer we come to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. This is the eternal relationship at the heart of the universe; and the reality of the holy God shows us that,
Love, communication, and fellowship of persons have always been at the centre of reality with or without a created order. The highest blessing of the gospel, as J.I. Packer has shown, is that we are embraced in that communion through our adoption as children of God.
It is an astounding miracle of God’s grace to us in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, that his ‘prayer language’—Abba Father—is now our own (e.g. Matthew 6:9f; Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6)!
The whole life of the believer is given over as a living sacrifice to God; this is our spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1-2). This, of course, includes the work of theology. God is not an ‘idea;’ the object of our inquiry, nor is the Bible a mere text-book. He is the great subject who creates out of nothing, who speaks from the pages of Scripture to reveal himself to us, and who takes the initiative to call us to himself; to receive his love, to be conformed to his likeness and to bow before his majesty.
[Theology] is a task to be done in response to the gospel and offered to God in worship…to do theology in this way…outside Eden…also addresses the danger of doing theology as a stimulating intellectual task only, playing with abstract concepts, definitions, and distinctions.’
To use Luther’s luminous phrase, life is lived coram Deo(before God)…doing theology then is a way of loving God with our minds…renewed minds in the Pauline sense (Rom 12:1).
Starting, continuing and finishing well
If you are thinking about going to theological college; read this book before you go. If you are at college now; read it before next semester begins in earnest.
The doctrinal commitments and priorities for life and ministry that are passed on when a young believer is first mentored and trained for ministry invariably exert a strong influence on their lives in the years which follow. Beginning well in the Christian life stands us in good stead. Being trained in godliness, and to rightly handle the word of truth; understanding that our ministries are presented to God now and on the last day (2Timothy 2:14-19), goes a long way towards mitigating the need to ‘unlearn’ unhelpful, unwise, unwholesome and out-right false teaching.
This is what makes short, penetrating, faithful and clear books like Faithful Theology so important; and why as of this semester this volume will enter my reading list for ministry apprentices and senior students at MUCU. In short, if you are thinking about going to theological college; read this book before you go. If you are at college now; read it before next semester begins in earnest. If you have a role in mentoring Christians and training people for ministry; read this and give it to others to read.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Timothy 4:16)
 From Creation and Fall, Temptation, quoted in Graham A. Cole, Faithful Theology: An Introduction, (SST; Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020), p. 62.
 Ibid., p.13.
 Ibid., p.11
 Ibid., p.14
 Ibid., p.15.
 Ibid., pp.15-16.
 Ibid., p. 20.
 Ibid., p.24 and discussion in pp.24-26.
 Ibid., p.28, fn.20.
 Ibid., pp. 30-31 quoting Brian Rosner, the current principal of Ridley College: ‘To sum up, biblical theology may be defined as theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the Church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.’ A helpful new resource connecting the task of biblical theology to preaching is: Tim Patrick & Andrew Reid,
The Whole Counsel of God: Why and How to Preach the Entire Bible, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020).
 Cole is self-described as standing in the tradition of Reformation Anglicanism. The Articles of Religion (1562) which continue to form the doctrinal basis of the Anglican Church, include these words from Article XX, ‘…it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’
 Ibid., p.32.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Ibid., p.50. My emphasis.
 Ibid., p.51.
 Ibid., p.70. My emphasis.
 Ibid., p.85, quoting John Webster.
Ibid, p. 87.
 Ibid. p. 95, and quoting Packer in Knowing God, ‘In adoption, God takes us into His family and fellowship, and establishes us as His children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of this relationship. To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the father is greater.’
 Ibid., p.101.
 Ibid., p.105.