Faithful Theology: An Introduction

Written by Graham A. Cole Reviewed By Chandler Ray Kelley, with Hans Madueme

Many lay Christians struggle to explain their doctrinal beliefs, or they simply doubt the importance of having and maintaining any convictions. However, according to Graham Cole, an ordained Anglican minister and recently retired professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, all Christians are theologians and are called to know God in the right manner. The goal of his recent work, Faithful Theology, is to lay the groundwork for faithful thinking about God “that arises from wise reflection on the self-revelation of God” (p. 14). In the introduction, Cole centers theology around the core priorities of belief (orthodoxy), value (orthokardia), and practice (orthopraxy). He then proceeds to devote a chapter each to five elements of faithful theology.

In the first chapter, “The Word of Revelation,” Cole discusses the means of our knowledge about God—his inspired Word. Cole frames Scripture as “the definitive source for our knowledge of God … the verbally inspired, definitive witness to the words and acts of God … [and] the norm by which theological proposals are to be tested” (p. 24). Throughout the chapter, Cole relates Scripture’s authority and inerrancy to the areas of Christology, hermeneutics (e.g., the self-interpretation of Scripture), and the bearing that authority has on our “operational theology” (p. 32). The second chapter, “The Witness of Christian Thought and Practice,” engages the role of tradition in our theology. Contrary to a strict biblicist approach, Cole defends ancient creeds like the Nicene Creed and the wisdom that “biblical teaching is often captured in terminology from outside the biblical text” (p. 48). As he concludes that chapter, he writes, “We need Scripture to be the final court of appeal because, as we have seen, there are healthy traditions and unhealthy, even toxic, ones for the life of the church” (p. 52).

In the third chapter, Cole weighs the effects of sin on our theological pursuits, and calls our fallen estate the “New Normal” (p. 54; written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic!). He argues that our theology can stray from the truth due to our idolatrous desires and our pessimistic outlook as finite creatures. However, our theology is done within a particular space and time, the groaning creation in these last days. In some sense, this means that our theology will be limited as we await the consummation. With these principles in mind, Cole aptly asserts, “The unteachable theologian is an oxymoron” (p. 60). Chapter 4 explains the role that wisdom plays in the theological journey, including the importance of dogmatic rank, biblical theology, and Cole’s three criteria for wise judgement—that theology done wisely should be scriptural, rational, and livable (pp. 82–83). In the final chapter, “The Way of Worship,” Cole drives home the central point that right doctrine leads to worship, not mere intellectual stimulation.

The most helpful aspect of Faithful Theology is the constant focus on the Trinity and Christology. Simply turning to a few random pages in the book will give readers an idea of how essential these doctrines are to having a genuinely faithful theology. Every chapter includes several considerations of each given topic in relation to the Trinity and Christology. This is important for two reasons. First, readers are introduced to the key tenets of the Christian faith. Not only do they learn why they’re essential, but they also learn to avoid heterodox understandings from the church’s past. Second, by including historical theology and the church’s creeds, Cole exposes readers to the vitality of the “healthy traditions” that are the lifeblood of Christian orthodoxy. A good theologian never does theology in a vacuum (as if that is even possible). Especially in the book’s second chapter, Cole implicitly deconstructs the notion of “no creed but the Bible.” By emphasizing the church’s creeds and councils, he helps readers appreciate their value and significance for maintaining right beliefs about God—Father, Son, and Spirit.

This is a short book, but it is deep and rich. There is little to fault in Cole’s analysis. Some readers may wish for a more explicit defense of Protestant confessions (for example, no Reformed confessions are mentioned). Others may have wanted more intramural discussion of the academic discipline of systematic theology, especially since the volume is part of the series Short Studies in Systematic Theology. However, such worries are likely straining at gnats; keeping the content accessible and adopting a broadly orthodox and evangelical approach are strategic moves that make good sense for this type of introductory volume.

In just over one hundred pages, readers will grasp the basics of Christian dogmatics, its methodology, and its practical dimensions. Cole’s primer serves admirably as the lead volume in the “Short” Studies in Systematic Theology, setting the stage for the later volumes in the series. The book would be perfect for an introductory seminary course or a college upper elective, aiding all who seek to faithfully respond to the self-revelation of God. May all who read this book guard the good deposit of the faith entrusted to them!

Chandler Ray Kelley, with Hans Madueme

Chandler Ray Kelley, with Hans Madueme
Covenant College
Lookout Mountain, Georgia, USA

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