Cole, Graham A. Faithful Theology: An Introduction. Short Studies in Systematic Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020, pp. 118, $14.99, paperback.
Graham A. Cole, dean and professor of systematic and biblical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school, opens Crossway’s Short Studies in Systematic Theology with his inaugural volume, Faithful Theology: An Introduction. Along with Oren R. Martin, Cole serves as an editor for the series. In the preface, they note the purpose of this new line of books: “This series … aims to present short studies in theology that are attuned to both the Christian tradition and contemporary theology in order to equip the church to faithfully understand, love, teach, and apply what God has revealed in Scripture” (p. 11).
Cole’s introduction opens with a question: “How are we to get better at talking and thinking about God?” (p. 13). Here he concerns himself with a piece of prolegomena: method—but not just any method. The title of the book reveals his cards here: Cole is interested in faithful theology; after all, why would anyone content himself with anything less? He clarifies, “This book is about the method to use in doing faithful theology: faithful to God, faithful to God’s words” (p. 14). The subsequent chapters discuss five elements of faithful theology.
Chapter 1 argues that “Doing theology needs a secure epistemological base. God’s word written is that base” (p. 37). Following Reformed teaching, he says, “Scripture is vital to doing theology in an evangelical way. Why?’” he asks, “Because God has spoken an unveiled his mind, his will and his ways … Scripture is the Spirit-inspired, inerrant, and infallible crystallization of the divine discourse” (p. 20). Scripture holds ultimacy for formulating doctrine and serves as distributive guideline for faithful theology’s elements in Cole’s account. Yet, this does not lead to a sort of “just me and my Bible” hermeneutic.
In chapters 2–3, Cole demonstrates that “Theological thinking is contextual thinking” (p. 66). He acknowledges “no one reads Scripture in a vacuum” (p. 40). And while “Scripture constitutes the final court of appeal in an evangelical methodology” (p. 41), “Doing theology wisely means learning from the past” (p. 41). Nonetheless, “whatever tradition we stand in needs to be open to reform by the word of God. This is because Scripture … is the ruling norm (norma normans), while tradition is a ruled norm (norma normata)” (p. 52). Scripture’s ultimacy established in chapter 1 determines the “authority” and usefulness of tradition. Cole then situates theology in space and time in our fallen context—what he, harking on Romans 8:22—calls a context of “a ‘groaning’ creation awaiting its liberation” (p. 56). Cole is not entertained by hypotheticals, and in his view, neither is theology. Theological reasoning attends to reality because that is the only domain in which it exists, and this economy includes creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. With reference to the fall, faithful theology requires its practitioner to possess a proper attitude wherein “Virtues play a role in doing theology, and humility is key … The unteachable theologian is an oxymoron” (p. 60).
Chapter 4 posits that wisdom is integral for relating Scripture, tradition, and the context of the fallen world. Part of wisdom’s value is its confession of the Creator-creature-distinction—“God is God and … we are not” (p. 69)—which stems from the “the fear of the Lord” (p. 69; cf. Prov 1:7). What is theological wisdom? Cole answers, “In theology, wisdom is reasoning employed as the servant of Scripture and not as the master of Scripture” (p. 70). Nonetheless, theology employs redeemed reason. Part of reason’s importance for theological inquiry as sapientia or “wisdom” is its utility “to make connections that aren’t foolish” (p. 85).
Chapter 5 discusses “the way of worship” (p. 87). Cole intertwines worship with the elements of faithful theology previously considered. Just like all of life, theology is meant to be an act of worship with “the requisite attitude toward God, which is reverence” (p. 101). Such a posture of theology’s practitioner precedes and impels worship. Theology practiced for the intellect’s sake is not worshipful; theology done for God’s sake is. To conclude his volume, Cole informs his readers that his method outlined in this book is not definitive, but illustrative. A key emphasis of his conclusion, however, teaches “life is lived coram Deo (before God). Our doing theology needs to be offered daily to God which is our reasonable worship … Doing theology then is a way of loving God with our minds … We do theology as disciples of Christ” (p. 105).
Cole’s work instructs the lay to talk about God faithfully, yet it also reminds the most astute theologians of their primary goal in theology. To faithfully “do” theology, one must follow Scripture, be guided by the Christian tradition, recognize our fallen state, use wisdom, and worship God with our everything. Pastors and lay interested in theology will benefit from Cole’s work. The volume enjoys brevity and offers generous accessibility. However, its simplicity does not detract from academic accuracy. Formal students of theology would do well to read this book to be reminded of (1) the content of theology and (2) the goal of theology—God’s glory enjoyed by his saints. Cole’s book was a joyful surprise, covering both the material, methodological, and moral dimensions of theology. Nonetheless, the book leaves one question open for consideration.
Readers may ask: “What role does natural theology play, if it does have a place in ‘faithful’ theology?” There is little doubt to say that in Cole’s program of faithful theology, the claims of natural theology must align with Scripture (p. 92), but a sufficient account of the content and manner of natural theology, as well as examples of natural theology, seem to be wanting (p. 92, n. 16). However, this question or critique is one of omission and bears little to no significant import on the book’s usefulness.
I eagerly recommend this book for at least three reasons. First, though this volume is simple, its historical bearings bring forth riches from the Christian tradition while utilizing trustworthy contemporary voices as guides through the halls of the Christian faith. Those who desire to incorporate church history into Scripture-based theology find an instructive work here.
Second, Cole’s account serves as a great corrective for what some might consider systematic theology’s modus operandi as merely collating Bible verses to form principles and teachings. While there is a place for proof-texting (p. 81), theology is not merely collecting verses and data to form a point or teaching, for theology includes wisdom and “wisdom is not reducible to the accumulation of data” (p. 69). Cole’s treatment of systematic theology bears more fruit, as it captures reason’s place in forming a coherent account of all that must be true
Third, Cole’s work provides a constant and convicting heart check. One who reads this little work is constantly reminded that faithful theology requires its practitioner to be a certain sort of person who exemplifies intellectual and moral virtues, preeminently, humility.
Cole’s short volume contributes well in the recovery of systematic theology. While today’s culture and academic circles often are cold to Christianity and theological studies, Cole’s little book warms and kindles our hearts to worship the triune God who has made himself known in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Bethlehem College & Seminary