A Review of “He Who Gives Life” by Graham Cole

Talk about the Holy Spirit can often be muddled and foggy. If He is not as “forgotten” as some claim, ┬áthe doctrine of the Holy Spirit is still not articulated as clearly as the doctrines of the Father and the Son. Contemporary language speaks of “spirit” in more generic mystical terms, far less frequently do academics speak of “The Spirit.” Holy Spirit talk becomes far more subjective and far less helpful for the church today. Graham Cole offers us something different, however, in his own doctrinal work on the subject. He Who Gives Life is a doctrinal survey work grounded in the authoritative Word of God. This work is a great introduction to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit because it focuses on saying nothing more nor less than Scripture says.

As part of the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, this volume, like its companion works, seeks to rework theology from a Scriptural grounding to answer the contemporary questions of our age. It is a work that takes seriously the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, but which also seeks to apply those timeless truths to our current cultural context. Cole, thus, is interested in what Scripture says but he is also well-versed in the contemporary issues and scholarly works of the day. He gives readers a survey of this doctrine that is both committed to a “high view of Scripture” and willing to engage with the “witness of Christian thought” (24-25). What is revealed here, then, is not necessarily something fresh, but it is still something refreshing. While other theologians attempt to develop their doctrine of the Holy Spirit from existential experience, or Eastern mysticism, or psychological theories, Cole returns us to the revelation of God almighty in Scripture. “Without revelation from God,” he writes, “our theology is blind and represents the best human guesses about the divine” (23). Cole wants to offer us something more.

The book is broken down into three sections. Part one deals with the “Mystery of the Holy Spirit,” dealing with the identity of the Spirit. Cole addresses the transcendence of the Spirit as God, and helps readers to navigate the feature of mystery within all doctrinal formulations. He also speaks to the nature of the Spirit within the Triune Godhead. Part two turns attention to the “Ministry of the Holy Spirit,” focusing on the Spirit’s work firs in the Old Testament – specifically His work in Creation and in the establishing and preserving of Israel. Part three shifts focus to the ministry of the Spirit in the New Testament. Cole explores here the role of the Spirit in empowering the Messiah, exploring the relationship of the incarnate Son and the Spirit. In chapter 9 he turns attention to the Spirit’s work within the Church and among God’s people at large. In each section he also navigates a number of relevant excursus and challenging issues related to the major themes of the chapters. So, Cole addresses issues like: the Filioque clause, complimentarianism and the Trinity, regeneration in the OT, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, the continuance of the charismatic gifts, and more. Since the work is a broad survey there are some matters which do not get great detail, at times Cole makes a statement that he does not prove. Length necessitates some level of sacrifice in content.

One of the features that I most appreciated was the author’s irenic approach and theological humility. Cole is gracious and responsible when dealing with the various viewpoints on issues. He presents alternate views in the best light and at times even limits his own opinion on the matter, giving more space for the reader to formulate their own conclusions. He refuses to go further than Scripture allows and is unwilling to demand allegiance to views that cannot be conclusively drawn from Scripture. So, regarding the regeneration of Old Testament believers, Cole is inclined to argue that they were regenerated. But, he sums up his point by saying:

This is a theological opinion (theologoumenon) that, I believe, is consistent with the scriptural testimony although not demanded by it. (145)

Such remarks are representative of Cole’s epistemic humility. He intends to agree with Scripture, not to say more or less than the Word does.

Overall this is an excellent survey work. On particularly issues, like the charismatic gifts, for example, readers will want to read more focused monographs. Yet, as a broad introduction to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit this work should be read and recommended. Graham Cole focuses on a Scriptural formulation to the doctrine which seeks to engage the modern age and the modern questions. While others have left the Word of God for more speculative and syncretistic formulations, Cole’s high view of Scripture safeguards his development of a relevant and yet orthodox doctrinal conceptualization. He Who Gives Life is a great work in contemporary systematic theology.

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