Graham Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom. IVP Academic, 2009. 320 pages.
Introduction and Thesis
In God the Peacemaker, Graham Cole, professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL), has delivered a winsome and compelling presentation of the cross. In a word, Cole’s book could be described as a long meditation on Colossians 1:20, which says that God is reconciling all things in Christ. Cole’s thesis is that the greatest need in the world is shalom, and that God from beginning to end has set out to make peace in the universe. God the Peacemaker unfolds this grand plan of salvation and its central feature—the cross of Jesus Christ.
Cole begins with attention to method (intro.) so that the reader knows exactly how and where the book will proceed. His approach sets the atonement against the backdrop of God’s perfect attributes (ch. 1). In this, he helpfully distinguishes God’s immutable perfections (love and justice) with his contingent ones (mercy and wrath). He presents a balanced view of humanity, stressing the two-fold reality of mankind’s dignity and depravity, what he calls the “glory and garbage of the universe” (ch. 2); and he shows that the ultimate problem in the universe is man’s sin and subsequent estrangement from God (ch. 3).
Even though these introductory chapters are not expressly about the atonement, they form a crucial background. Failure in these areas (God, man, sin) results in misunderstanding the cross. As Cole points out, misdiagnosing the problem results in one of many faulty solutions. Thus, with these biblical doctrines in place, Cole shows how the cross fits into the larger storyline of the Bible.
In chapter 4, Cole moves from inner-Trinitarian relations of the Godhead to their outworking in redemptive history. With poignant selectivity, he traces the ‘peace project’ from Genesis 3:15 through the Abrahamic covenant and exodus to the high point of OT revelation—Isaiah 53. In so doing, Cole prepares the way for examining the NT and asking systematic questions. Staying on task, he moves from biblical theology to systematic theology, drawing from the annals of church history as he goes.
In chapter 5, Cole introduces Christ as the “faithful son.” Contra Adam and Israel, Jesus obeys God the Father. On this point, Cole nuances the doctrine of ‘active obedience’ (115-19). Without denying the Reformed position, he argues for a more fundamental understanding of Christ’s life as one marked by genuine faith, not sheer obedience. He cites Matthew, Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation on the way to arguing that Christ’s obedience is motivated by joyful trust (cf. Heb 12:1-2). In this, “[Jesus] is the paradigmatic believer” (111).
Moving from life to death (ch. 6), Cole expounds the classic Reformed view of the cross (e.g. penal substitution whereby God in his love sends his Son to propitiate his holy wrath). Yet, he links penal substitution with the Christus Victor motif. Putting the cross within the entire framework of the Bible, he demonstrates that the powers and principalities are defeated through the penal substitution of God’s son for sinners. Cole gives an expositional and logically-satisfying synthesis of these two biblical ideas. In chapter 6, he also examines and affirms the complementary ideas of expiation and propitiation.
Cole explains what the cross accomplished in chapter 7. Following Calvin—and the Bible (Eph 1:3-14)— he argues that all the blessings of the cross are dependent upon ‘union with Christ’ (158). Forgiveness, cleansing, justification, redemption, and adoption are purchased by the blood of Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit to those in union with Christ. In the book, he does not explain the relationship between atonement and application, but he divulges in a footnote that he is inclined towards the Amyraldian position (151).
Cole does not stop with the individual benefits of the cross, he also shows that Christ’s death reconciles the cosmos (Col. 1:20). He examines Ephesians 2:11-22 to show how all humanity is reconciled; then he unpacks Colossians 1:15-23 and 2:13-15 to show how the cross defeats the powers and principalities. It is at this point that this reader is left wanting. In both the introduction and conclusion (83, 231), Cole expresses the fact that creation groans and must itself be reconciled by the cross (cf. Rom 8:18-22). Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on this point in the book. Perhaps, this cosmic peace is assumed by the reconciliation of individuals, inter-personal relations, and spiritual warfare, but I was hoping for a greater treatment of how Christ’s death brings shalom to the created order itself. In light of recent attention to environmental concerns, answering ecological questions with the cross in view must be done. Yet, no substantial treatment of Romans 8 is given.
With that negative aside, Cole finishes with an excellent practical section on the intersection of the cross and the Christian life (ch. 8). Appealing to Kevin Vanhoozer’s theodramatic re-presentation of the cross (188)—a description that has much to commend—Cole does a better job to distinguish Christ’s objective work for the believer and his subjective work in the Christian. Likewise, Cole properly maintains the emphasis on faith in the Christian life and not on man’s own virtue and wisdom. In this way, salvation, from first to last, remains monergistic.
For theologians, Cole exemplifies how to move from biblical to systematic to practical theology. From the onset, his aim is well-defined, moving from ‘Big Picture’ to answering particular doctrinal questions, all the while keeping the life of the Christian in view.
God the Peacemaker is also a great book for pastors. The outline and Scriptures referenced in chapter 8 could make a great series outline for pastors wanting to illustrate how the cross impacts daily living. Likewise, Cole broadens our understanding of the scope of God’s ‘peace project.’ Reconciliation is not simply for the isolated individual, it is for the universe (Col. 1:20), and reading this book “doxologically,” as he commends (31-32, 230), will stir affections for the coming Prince of Peace.
Finally, it should be said that Cole’s book is enjoyable to read. His ability to integrate popular quotations and historical anecdotes in his work of theology makes God the Peacemaker accessible to anyone, thus making his book commendable to all.