Against the Darkness | Book Review

Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons is the newest installment in Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series. Its author, Graham A. Cole, is dean and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and an ordained Anglican minister. He is author of He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (2007) in the same series.

“Even though the present work addresses a topic in systematic theology,” Graham writes in the introductory chapter, “the shape of the study pays attention to the biblical plotline….” In other words, it “moves through the key motifs of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation” (28). Here are the titles of the book’s nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Angels, Their Kinds, and Heavenly Activity
    Excursus: The Nature of Spirit
  3. Angels, Their Activity on Earth with Individuals and Nations
    Excursus: Angelophany
  4. Satan, the Malevolent Spoiler
  5. Demons, the Devil’s Entourage
    Excursus: Genesis 6:1-4 and the Methodological Question
  6. Jesus, Christus Victor
  7. Spiritual Warfare
    Excursus: How to Test the Spirits
  8. The Destiny of the Darkness and the Victory of the Light
    Excursus: The Archangel Michael and the Man of Lawlessness
  9. Conclusion

Cole writes self-consciously as an evangelical theologian. “Scripture is the final court of appeal in any contest between authorities, including reason or tradition or experience.” It is “the norma normans (the norming norm), while the others are “norma normata (ruled norms). In evangelical theology, as Cole sees it, reason, tradition, and experience have a say, but Scripture has “the final say” (19–20).

C. S. Lewis famously wrote: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them” (quoted on 28). Cole steers between these two extremes in Against the Darkness, affirming the reality of angels and demons but denying them undue importance or attention.

Throughout the book, Cole interacts critically and constructively with theologians throughout Christian history and across the theological spectrum: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, including mainline, evangelical, and Pentecostal/charismatic theologians. This includes Dionysius the Areopagite, Aquinas, and Karl Barth (68–69; 101–102); Amos Yong (113–114); Walter Wink (125–127; 173–175); René Girard (155–158); David Powlison (175–177); Gregory A. Boyd (177–179); and C. Peter Wagner (179–182), among others.

Three appendixes round out the book’s discussion. Appendix One, “The Creation Manifold,” argues that the “fundamental metaphysical distinction is not that between being and becoming, or the infinite and the finite, but between the Creator and the creature” (231). Angels are creations, less supernatural (above nature) than supranatural (beyond material nature). Appendix Two, “Angels, Iblis, and Jinn in Islam,” contrasts Christianity and Islam on the topic, concluding “there is so much in the Qur’an that speaks where Scripture is silent on the matter of angels” (238). Appendix Three, “Creeds, Articles of Faith, Catechisms, and Confessions” quickly doctrinal and liturgical statements on this topic throughout Church history.

I read Against the Darkness immediately after I read Michael S. Heiser’s Angels (2019) and Demons (2020), so it was interesting to compare and contrast the three books, even though Cole could not take Heiser books into account because of publication deadlines. (He interacts with Heiser’s two 2015 books, The Unseem Realm and Supernatural). There are interesting overlaps, of course, since both are drawing on the same biblical passages.

However, the most interesting dispute has to do with Genesis 6:1–4. Heiser interprets “the sons of God” as members of the Divine Council who engaged in sexual intercourse with human women, producing the Nephilim and inciting God’s judgment in the Flood. Cole, on the other hand, interprets the same phrase under the heading of “the ‘religiously mixed races view’ (godly Sethites and worldly Cainites)” (116).

The difference between Heiser and Cole on this topic betrays a methodological dispute between over the value of extrabiblical sources, such as the literatures of the ancient near east and of intertestamental Judaism. Heiser draws heavily on extrabiblical sources, which are speculatively, often wildly so. Cole, on the other hand, argues that “the biblical testimony stands out for its reserve on such matters” (119). Both make detailed cases for their conclusions, but Cole argues that we must consider “comparative difficulties” (138) when assessing those differences. For Cole, views such as Heiser’s raise more or weightier difficulties than views such as his own, which has fewer or lighter difficulties. This should push theologians toward a nonsupernatural reading of “the sons of God” in Genesis 6: 1–4.

I found Against the Darkness to be both theologically informed and practically helpful. Chapter 6, “Jesus, Christus Victor,” helpfully reminds readers that the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Lord are the climax of the biblical story, and that one of the reasons for His work is “to defeat the devil” (162). Chapter 7, “Spiritual Warfare,” then sifts through seven models of how Christ’s followers stand against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

What I most appreciate about Cole’s book, aside from its conclusions, with which I largely agree (though there are notable exceptions), is his catholic spirit and irenic tone. By the former, I mean that he feels free to interact with Christian theologians outside the contemporary evangelical spectrum, without giving up on fundamental evangelical convictions. Moreover, he does so peacefully, not pugnaciously, learning what he can from those theologians, even as he expresses fundamental disagreements with them. Given how polarized public discourse has become, including public Christian theological discourse, this catholicity and irenicism are welcome.

Book Reviewed
Graham A. Cole, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019).

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