Graham Cole is Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. Before that, he was Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at TEDS. He has written several books, and now with with The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation, he has two published within the New Studies in Biblical Theology series.
Although I had been aware of Cole as a theologian and writer, this was actually the first book of his I read. But, it was such an enjoyable experience, before I knew it, I had also worked my way through God The Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (excellent) and He Who Gives Life in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series (likewise).
A big part of the enjoyability is Cole’s clarity of writing. He does this both from chapter to chapter, but often in making clear his assumptions that undergird his study. He does this in the introduction, and then says that
My hope is that by the time the reader closes this study he or she will have a deeper sense of the astonishing providence of God that subtly prepared the way for the mystery of the incarnation, a great appreciation of the magnitude of the divine stooping that in the incarnation saw God weep human tears, and a profounder joy at the depth of the love of God that sent no surrogate as the final revelation but the beloved Son who became flesh (25).
To accomplish all this, in chapter 1 Cole starts with Genesis and God’s preparations that would make the incarnation possible. In chapter 2, Cole traces the idea of an “embodied” God from Abraham on through Moses, Judges, and the former and latter prophets. In chapter 3, maps out the hope of Israel for a Messiah, including some intertestamental reflections. Chapter 4 moves into the New Testament material and chapter 5 takes up Anselm’s question of why God became man. The final full chapter explores the theological as well as existential significance of the incarnation. A conclusion ties all the threads together and then a brief appendix treats the relationship of theological interpretation of Scripture and biblical theology.
Like most all the volumes in this series I have read, this book was richly biblical, theological insightful, and pastorally relevant. Those dimensions are not always present in even proportions, but they are present here nonetheless. Cole takes a significant, yet perhaps overlooked theme and traces it from Genesis to Revelation. He tackles some thorny theological issues, one of which I still wrestle with. In discussing whether or not the appearances of the Angel of The Lord or other theophanies (appearances of God) in the Old Testament are the pre-incarnate Christ, Cole says (after quoting Calvin along similar lines):
The suggestion that the anthropomorphic theophanies were actually appearances were actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Son of God is plausible and the idea is defensible. However, it must be observed that even though this proposition is consistent with the biblical testimony it is not demanded by it (120).
That’s more or less where I land at the moment, though David Murray almost convinced me otherwise. It would seem to diminish the significance of the incarnation in the Gospels if it happened at times in the Old Testament. Also “pre-incarnate” almost doesn’t make sense (think about it for a minute). Christ is either incarnate in his appearance to humans or not, there isn’t really an in-between ethereal state.
Even though it is a kind of side issue to the main study, I was intrigued by Cole’s appendix on theological interpretation of Scripture.He begins by explaining his understanding of the relationship of biblical and systematic theology. Systematic theology functions as a kind of shorthand for theological expressions, and often uses proof texts. As Cole sees it, “systematic theology’s proof texts, however, need to be derived from the application of a sound biblical theology method” (172). Likewise, biblical theology “helps systematic theology get the proportions right in its accents” (173). Cole suggests that “this is an exceedingly important contribution. In my opinion there is a crying need for a systematic theology text to be written that does just that.” Michael Bird has taken this to heart and tried to do just that.
After clarifying all this, Cole then asks how biblical theology and theological interpretation of Scripture are related. He distinguishes them as separate tasks, unlike Brian Rosner who sees them as synonymous. Cole explains, “biblical theology on the one hand helps me to know what I see, whereas the theological interpretation of Scripture helps me to know how to serve the church with what I see as I endeavour to bring the text and the present together in a meaningful fashion” (173). He thus sees the disciplines as complementary and indispensable. Ultimately he says, “when systematic theology uses biblical theology to connect text and present in a normative fashion, we are engaged in the theological interpretation of Scripture” (174).
The upshot of all this is that Cole, in the span of several short pages, explains how to connect systematic theology, biblical theology, and theological interpretation of Scripture in a way that affirms the place of each without eradicating the need for the others. I’ve seen people get burned out on systematic theology and opt to move to biblical theology as their new bread and butter reading. Often, I think this is because they grow weary of the proof texting and want to see more substantial exegetical interactions. And so they should. However, biblical theology isn’t aimed at offering summary statements, and also isn’t aimed at taking those summaries and connecting them to the present like theological interpretation of Scripture should be doing. If you really want to see this all done well, get Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings in the Brazos Theological Commentary on The Bible. Daniel Treier called it the best one in the series at the Southeast Regional ETS meeting. To paraphrase, he more or less said if you want to see theological interpretation done well, read Leithart’s volume. I did that in my quiet time during 1 & 2 Kings this fall, and I would have to agree.
All of this also illustrates why you should pick up every copy of a book in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. Though Cole’s book was focused on a biblical theology of the incarnation, there is always more involved. There are side roads along the way that prove to be fruitful explorations and that only strengthens the overall value of the book. Especially with Christmas right around the corner, you might want to look into adding Cole’s fine study to your library, and maybe even put several more volumes in this series on your Amazon Christmas list that I know you have.
Graham A. Cole, The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation, (New Studies in Biblical Theology). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, May, 2013. 240 pp. Paperback, $22.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!