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Against the Darkness [a review]

A fantastic entry in Crossway's Foundations of Evangelical theology that examines the nature and roles of angels, demons, and Satan in a pastorally sensitive way.

Angels and demons perplex me. At times I am embarrassed that the Bible says enough about them that I can't pretend them away, but not enough to make it clear to me why they actually matter. The lived experience of my life is not functionally impacted by the existence or nonexistence of angels and demons. The Bible doesn't really say that much about them, right? In short, I don't really think about them until I read weird passages like Michael wrestling the devil over Moses' body (Jude 9) or the dissolution of the institution of human marriage in heaven because we will "be like the angels of heaven" (Matthew 22:30). What are we to make of the Nephilim in Genesis 6? Demons are also very weird: how about the ones that get cast out of Graveyard Man and into a herd of pigs who then drown (Luke 8:26-39)? In reality, angels and demons are all over the Bible, it's just that for the most part they're extras in the background and the camera very rarely zooms in on them.

Because of my relative ignorance about angels, demons, and even Satan, I was intrigued to see Graham Cole's entry in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons. The work is straightforwardly divided into 9 chapters: an introduction and a conclusion, two chapters on the identity and work of angels, one chapter on Satan, one on Demons, and then three chapters that cover the intersection of angels/demons with the atonement, spiritual warfare, anthropology, and eschatology. There are a few helpful appendices as well covering topics like Islamic angelology/demonology and how the subject appears throughout church history in creeds, catechisms, confessions, etc.

Well-done Systematic Theology

I'm not holding my cards any longer: I really like this book. I think it's a fine example of a more practical-oriented systematic theology done from an evangelical viewpoint. It engages different "in-house" viewpoints with irenicism instead of needless pugnacity. It engages perspectives outside the Christian faith with respect and clarity. It engages the voices of the church historical without deifying those voices.

What I appreciate most, though, is the manner with which he engages scripture. The de facto model of interacting with scripture in a systematic theology is to make a statement and then support it parenthetically with an array of verses. The upside of this method is that it is compact (and most systematics don't need to get any thicker) while still allowing you to "fact check" the work against scripture. The downside of this approach is that it implicitly puts the Bible in the role of supporting the author's ideas rather than placing the author in the role of distilling conclusions from the work of exegesis. One hopes that when theologians cite scripture, the work of exegesis did happen but not in "real time" (as it were) before the reader's eyes.

Cole consciously chooses to opt for a strategy of citing a passage at length and then articulating its meaning and significance:

The question now becomes, what does sound scriptural grounding look like? For a start, scriptural grounding means exegesis (i.e., legitimately read out of Scripture) not eisegesis (illegitimately read into Scripture). Such grounding can be hard to see in the classic method of dicta probantia (proving statements), when some doctrinal claim is made and texts from Scripture are cited, usually in parentheses at the end of a sentence.... A complementary method is that of contextualized affirmations. A key text which mentions angels is not simply cited but is quoted, placed in its context in its literary unit in its book in the canon in the light of the flow of redemptive history before doctrinal implications are considered. An advantage of this method is that it can show why the chosen text is described as a key one.1

These two approaches are not necessarily opposed to one another, but the end result of quoting the texts at length is a much more inclusive work; it's as if the author is saying, "Come, let us look at the scripture together and then discern what we can, must, and cannot conclude from it." A good example of this approach is from chapter two on the nature and identity of seraphim:

Seraphim

Only one passage of Scripture refers to seraphim per se, but it is a magnificent one. In Isaiah 6:1–4 we find this description:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

These creatures along with the cherubim (more anon) are well described by Noll as "throne angels." They seem to be associated with the glorious presence of God and with purifying fire.2

Perhaps he is able to accomplish this only because there is not much scriptural witness to the seraphim, and it would be harder if the topic at hand were instead the NT's use of the OT. Perhaps not. Either way, it works exceedingly well toward orienting Cole around scripture rather than vice versa.

Grounded and Pastoral

Another fantastic thing about Against the Darkness is that it covers a topic where there is a great temptation to engage in speculation, and while he surveys the more speculative beliefs that some hold, he does not engage in this himself. He will explain why we must stop short of the satisfying conclusions we wish for simply because we do not have enough source material to work with, and he even explains what to make of this peculiar position of believing in angels but not always knowing much about them.

Pastorally speaking, it is not enough to mostly ignore angels because they are mostly background players in the biblical narrative: the Bible does tell us enough to counteract common beliefs like that we will become angels when we die or that each individual human being has an individual guardian angel (and a demon on the other shoulder). The secular non-Christian laughs at these notions as does the enlightened theologian, but the pastor must take them seriously and have a sincere response at the ready for it is human beings that we deal with.

Each chapter is concise, to the point, and concludes with a few words of summary and application. After a few of the chapters he provides excurses on tangential questions like the methodological question of how to read the nephilim in Genesis 6 or the question that naturally arises when we assert that angels are spirits: "What is the nature of spirit?" I deeply appreciate theologians who see the ultimate pastoral end of their work and try to speak to it. While Cole does this, he could be much more forthright about it.

For example, he helpfully asks the question, "What are we to do with contemporary angel stories?"3 Unfortunately, he equivocates when answering, saying that we should "give thanks" for the accounts of angelic experiences and "enjoy" such moving testimonies. That's a cagey, diplomatic answer, because we can respond that way whether the accounts are true or not. He eventually concludes, "Discernment is needed. On the matter of prophetic speech, Paul counsels the Thessalonians to examine all things and to hold to the good and avoid the evil (1 Thess. 5:19-22). His open but discerning approach is worthy of emulation in today's church."4 While I tend to agree with him, a clear answer would have made Against the Darkness much more rhetorically forceful, like, "Yes, angels can still work today and while discernment is needed because some will undoubtedly fabricate their tales of angelic encounters, we should give thanks and rejoice in angelic accounts when we discern them as legitimate."

Conclusion

I am glad to have Against the Darkness in my library. It is helpful, relatively concise, scripturally grounded, and non-speculative. I can easily envision referencing this when talking to others about angels, demons, and the role they play in our world. While the implications he draws could be rhetorically strengthened, I appreciate the fact that he works to get there. I heartily recommend this work.

Notes

  1. Cole, Graham, Against the Darkness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), loc. 307.
  2. loc. 703.
  3. loc. 1875.
  4. loc. 1893.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.