God the Peacemaker: A Review

Released in 2009 as an addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series from InterVarsity Press, Graham  Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom bears the characteristic marks of that series:  attentiveness to pertinent biblical texts, concern for theological articulation, awareness of contemporary  debates, and sensitivity to the dynamics of Christian discipleship.   Each volume of the series unpacks a  particular scriptural theme and, says Cole, this one centers on atonement both broadly conceived as ‘all of God’s  saving work throughout time and eternity’ and more narrowly conceived in terms of its ‘central component’, the  cross (p. 24).

The first chapter frames the atonement with a consideration of the divine attributes, especially righteousness, holiness, and love.  The first and second of these precipitate the need for the atonement while the third precipitates the provision of the atonement.  All three are revealed on the cross and among them there is no conceptual conflict, even if we experience a ‘psychological strife’ in reconciling divine wrath and mercy, which are contingent expressions of holiness and love, respectively (p. 51).

In the face of a culture wherein ‘[m]orality has given way to therapy’ (p. 65) and under the rubric of Pascal’s notion of humanity as the paradoxical ‘glory and garbage of the universe’, chapter two covers the human situation under sin.  Chapter three underscores the need for the atonement by treating the ‘problems’ of sin, wrath (Cole rejects Dodd’s notion of wrath as simply an immanent principle of human history), judgment (Cole diagnoses squeamishness about retribution as a symptom of sheltered suburban existence disconnected from the harsh realities of evil), human hostility, Satan, and the bondage of creation.

The fourth chapter identifies the ‘foundations and foreshadowings’ of the atonement: God’s triune love, the protoevangelium, the Abraham covenant, and the sacrificial system and messianic hopes of Israel.  In chapter five, Cole treats the faithfulness of Christ, from which, he says, flows the obedience of Christ.  Chapter six then emphasizes how victory over sin comes by means of Christ’s sacrificial death, which encompasses satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, and covenant-making.

Moving forward to the aftermath of Christ’s death, Cole handles in the seventh chapter union with Christ (‘the foundation of all the blessings of salvation’ [p. 158]), forgiveness, cleansing, justification (which, for Cole, includes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and yields covenant membership), redemption, adoption, reconciliation with God, reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, and the disarmament of the powers by the forgiveness of our sins (Col. 2:13-15).  Chapter eight enumerates corporate and individual practices of faith ‘between the cross and the coming’, closing with an excursus that distinguishes three commissions: a creation commission (i.e. the cultural mandate), a discipling commission (i.e. the Great Commission), and a moral commission (i.e. Jesus’ twofold Great Commandment), which undergirds the first two.  The final chapter accentuates the glory of God and our sharing in it by serving and reigning in the new creation as the unifying center of the biblical narrative.  The book then concludes with an appendix that comments briefly on various debates in atonement theology, particularly those surrounding penal substitution.  Significantly, Cole avers here that, since the author of Hebrews purposes to ‘leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity’ by unpacking the penal, substitutionary character of Christ’s sacrifice in chapters 6-10, acknowledging penal substitution is a matter of doctrinal maturity for believers.

I’ll post again on this and share some of my reflections and responses, but, for now, anything on Cole’s line(s) of thinking?  If you’re reading in the realm of the atonement, how might this book contribute to the literature on offer?

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4 thoughts on “God the Peacemaker: A Review

  1. Harrisville’s “Fracture” might see SOME “atonement” in the cross; but suggests that 1) the cross otherwise and generally, violated promises that God himself would come down to earth, not to die, but to deliver an ideal kingdom.

    Indeed, the 2) whole idea of atonement, deep down, seems incoherent. If Christ is all or part of God, then how and why does … God “sacrifice” (part or all) of God, to God, to atone for the sins of man?

    At best, it sounds like God slapping his left hand, with his right.

    • Both of the concerns above betray a lack of awareness of important themes in biblical theology and dogmatics. The first needs to grapple with the New Testament’s (arguably justifiable) modulation of the Old Testament promises of deliverance in terms of an inaugurated eschatology. The second needs to grapple with the doctrine of divine simplicity (wherein no person of the Trinity is ‘part’ of God and the Father and Son share one will), the axiom that outward works of God are not divided among the persons, and the human nature of Christ (in virtue of which he serves as the second Adam leading God’s people to righteousness and eternal life by his active and passive obedience).

  2. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (1/4) « scientia et sapientia

  3. Harrisville’s point was that 1a) the partial kingdom of the church(es), and 1b) the eschatological hope of a future one, were a discontinuous “fracture” with the real promises of the Old Testament. Neither of these accomplishments or hopes, were ever quite as good as what the Bible promised, for the coming of God: when God “himself” would live, not die, on earth with us; and deliver a real – not “metaphorical” or “spiritual” – kingdom.

    Given this discontinuity with God – the God of the Old Testament – New Testament claims appear simply illegitimate; as it might seem to readers of Harrisville.

    While 2) if Christ is not part, but is all of God, then how and why, God would kill God, gets even more starkly incoherent.

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