Denver Journal

Denver Journal

He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

08.05.08 | Denver Journal, Theology, John Soden | by Graham A. Cole

    John O. Soden's Review of "He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit" by Graham A. Cole.

    Book-He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

    Graham A. Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007.

    Hardback. 310 pp. ISBN 9781581347920.

    "Why another series on evangelical systematic theology?" asks the series editor, John Feinberg. The answer is very simple: because every generation of Christians must develop their theology from Scripture and apply it to the issues of their own day. While the times change, Scripture remains the same and is always relevant. This is the intent of the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series at its inception: to offer this current generation an evangelical articulation of theology that is both relevant and biblical. So far four volumes have been put into print: The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation by Bruce Demarest; No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God by series editor John Feinberg; To Know and Love God: Method For Theology by David Clark; and most recently He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of The Holy Spirit by Graham Cole. There are still a few more volumes to come on the following topics: Man and Angels, Scripture, Christ, Sin, the Church and Eschatology. The newest is Graham Cole's He Who Gives Life. But what can we make of Graham Cole's work on pneumatology. It was just in the last century Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) asked, Who is Christ for us today? And likewise an analogous question may be asked of the Spirit: Who is the Holy Spirit for us today? And who is he for the Church?

    Writing on the Holy Spirit is notoriously difficult, because the air is so foggy with strange concepts about the Spirit's person and work. Is the Spirit merely here to give good Christians great experiences? What about Holy Laughter? Are people slain in the Spirit? What about speaking in tongues? Is the "baptism of the Spirit" a second blessing? The explosion of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movements this last century has developed a lot of interest in pneumatology and the gifts of the Spirit. Words associated with the Holy Spirit have come to be used in our Christian vocabularies (whether we agree about their definitions is another issue). Ideas like, "speaking in tongues," "baptism of the Holy Spirit," and "new revelations" are said to be gifts from the Spirit for his people. These gifts of the Spirit have energized some Christian groups and horrified others. Cole does not seem to ignore these thoughts when developing this doctrine, but his framework is based on Scripture, not immediate experience.

    Because Cole is writing a systematic theology of the Holy Spirit, he takes great pains to carefully lay out his project. The overarching structure of his work is cumulative in that each chapter develops from the previous ones. In chapter one, Cole gives an introduction that canvases an evangelical understanding of theology and revelation regarding the Holy Spirit. He points out that unless pneumatology (or any doctrine) is rooted in God's self-revelation as found in the Holy Scripture, it has no binding authority on any Christian allegiance. Within this same introduction he starts into a survey of various historical views about the third person of the Trinity, so his readers are aware of past conversations and debates. He also addresses in later chapters some current topics that are being debated, such as the meaning of regeneration, tongues speaking, baptism of the Spirit, and the role of the Spirit in Christian unity. After the introduction he begins his four-part treatment of the Spirit.

    In Part 1 Cole addresses the mystery of the Spirit. The Spirit truly is God's empowering presence, but the Spirit is mysterious because the Spirit blows where he wills and is operating in God's plan, not ours. However, the Spirit is a person. So, we can speak of the personhood of the Spirit, his deity, and his relation to the other persons of the Trinity.

    In Parts 2-4 Cole delineates questions about the Holy Spirit's relation to various topics and then carefully combs the biblical text for the answers. At the end of each chapter, he discusses what he believes the implications are for life and ministry. A few chapters also have excurses at the end, which he uses to elaborate on some specific themes dealt with in the theological formulations. He deals with the elusive nature of the Spirit, whether the Trinity is paradigmatic for Christian behavior, whether Old Testament saints were regenerate, and whether all the gifts of the Spirit are for today.

    Part 2 canvases the Old Testament for how and in what ways the Spirit was at work. Cole develops further the personhood of the Spirit, showing that all work predicated of the Spirit must also be applied to his person. Cole sees the Spirit as intimately involved in creation (Gen 1). The Spirit had a role in God's self-revelation and in God being present with his people. In an excursus, Cole argues that, given the evidence, the Old Testament saints were regenerated by the Spirit, but not indwelt. There is currently a lot of debate about this, but Cole offers this theological opinion that he believes is consistent with the Scriptural testimony although not demanded by it. I believe this debate will continue into the near future. It is by no means settled.

    Cole's study of the Spirit's presence and ministry continues in Part 3, where he addresses the New Testament material. Cole is expansive in this section, because he covers the Spirit's work in Christ and in making Christ known by the Spirit's indwelling presence and empowering of God's people corporately and individually. In the Old Testament, certain individuals were given the Spirit to accomplish God's purposes (e.g. David, the prophets, Samson, et al.). Jesus was anointed with the Spirit, and the Spirit remained on him. Another aspect is that the Spirit not only remained on Christ but it was the Messiah who was prophesied as the one who would bestow the Spirit. Also, Christ bestows the Spirit on his followers, because in the New Testament at Pentecost, the Spirit indwells all true believers in a corporate sense. At conversion people are incorporated into the church and experience God's empowering presence as a corporate reality that works itself out in everyday living. This is why Cole sees the conversion-initiation event as the baptism of the Spirit. And having followed his Scriptural argument I tend to agree with him. If the baptism of the Spirit has plagued you take note to pay careful attention to this section. You may not agree but it will challenge you in ways that only biblical evidence can.

    For God's purposes, New Testament believers are regenerated by the Spirit and indwelt. So the Spirit brings together the people of God, and then sends them out. This is why the Holy Spirit is the primary agent in Christian mission. This view is very counter-cultural, because many think of the Spirit's work mainly in individual existential terms. However, with all the American individualism running around, understanding the Spirit's work is a healthy corrective: the Spirit's work produces a corporate reality with individual implications. Because the Spirit is indwelling all true believers, there are gifts of the Spirit appropriate to the tasks God has for his people. The gifts are for the church and not primarily for individual experiences. But the gifts must be biblically rooted. Paul lists a good number of them in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10: words of wisdom, words of knowledge, gifts of healing, faith, miracle working, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Of the more controversial gifts, prophecy and speaking in tongues, Cole urges caution because Scripture gives every reason for thinking that false teaching and false prophecy will continue to plague the church (256). Regarding the various gifts he reminds us that Christians, properly speaking, are charismatics and yet he urges all of us to be open but discerning. It is important to "test the spirits" to see what is biblically rooted (1 John 4:1).

    Part 4 covers the Spirit's entire ministry as an act of divine selflessness. Cole tries to show the significance of the Spirit as the one who always draws attention to God's purposes and the person of Jesus Christ. The Spirit does not seek to show off and glorify his own person. This should be a corrective to people who think showing the work of the Spirit means drawing attention to the Spirit in all their services. When the Spirit is at work, the church will draw attention to Christ, not the other way around.

    Overall the book is well worth the read for anyone participating in ministry and serving in a local church. The style is accessible to academics, pastors and lay persons. Cole even has a glossary and index at the end. And for only having 310 pages, this text covers a lot of much needed ground. It is good to know that God is at work making a people for his name. God's Spirit is with us and is empowering us for daily living, allowing us to persevere. May Christ be glorified in our lives and in his church by the power of his Holy Spirit.

    John O. Soden
    M.A. Philosophy of Religion Program
    July 2008