Against the Darkness

Avoiding a Blind Spot

Author: Graham A. Cole
Publisher: Crossway
Genre: Theology
Book Review
Specific Topic
Reading Level: Scholarly
Angels, demons, and Satan have been controversial matters throughout history. Cole eloquently puts together the major theological perspectives on the matter as well as his own viewpoint while always keeping it biblical. Cole brings out the personal implications of one's theology about angels, demons, and Satan and how that relates to your beliefs about Jesus. His writing is theologically sound, biblical, exciting, and faithful.
| 10 Minutes

Avoiding a Blind Spot

Noted Christian anthropologist and missiologist Paul Hiebert (1932–2007) identified a blind spot in much of Western Christianity, which he called the “flaw of the excluded middle.” So many Christians in the West live as though the story of creation involved in the main just two important characters, God and ourselves.

The majority world, however, in contrast, has never forgotten that there is another order of intelligent created life playing its role in the story: namely, the angelic order. Hiebert himself, as a Western-trained theologian and as a social scientist—albeit a Christian one—had forgotten this creaturely order. He confesses,

The reasons for my uneasiness with the biblical and Indian worldviews should be clear. I had excluded the middle level of supernatural this-worldly beings and forces from my own worldview. As a scientist I had been trained to deal with the empirical world in naturalistic terms. As a theologian I was taught to answer ultimate questions in theistic terms. For me the middle zone did not really exist. Unlike Indian villagers, I had given little thought to spirits of this world, to local ancestors and ghosts, or to the souls of animals. For me these belonged to the realm of fairies, trolls, and other mythical beings.

In Hiebert’s view, Western Christianity needs to learn from the global south, where, incidentally, the center of gravity now resides as far as the Christian faith is concerned.

A brief survey of references to angels, Satan, and demons found in the indexes and chapter contents in current systematic theologies largely bears out his contention.

The Cambridge Companion to Christian Theology, edited by Colin E. Gunton, is devoid of references to angels, Satan, and demons. Unsurprisingly, Gunton’s The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine is similarly bare of such references. The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology fares no better.

William C. Placher has edited a volume with the title Essentials of Christian Theology. Since it includes nothing about angelology, that subject clearly belongs to the nonessentials as far as this volume is concerned. Daniel L. Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology is bereft of references to the angelic order whether fallen or unfallen.

Alister E. McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction gives no focused attention to angels, Satan, and demons in their own rights, although there is one reference to Satan in the historical material and three pages in relation to the Christus Victor view of the atonement.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s wonderfully creative The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology makes drama the organizing idea. Surprisingly, though, it is drama without conflict. There are no references to angels, or to Satan, or to demons, or to conflict in the work. The latter lacuna is significant since conflict is of the essence of drama.

Even Timothy C. Tennent’s very important and groundbreaking Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology has little on angels, Satan, and demons per se. One would have expected much more on the subject in his chapter on Christology in Africa.

He thematizes Christ as healer and as ancestor but not as Christus Victor per se. This is the case even though he writes,

Fourth, despite the diverse Christological images developed by African writers, a common underlying theme is an emphasis on the power and victory of Christ. . . . Harold Turner, in his Profile through Preaching, has documented this emphasis in the popular preaching of African independent church leaders. He discovered that African preachers often focus on Jesus’ victory over the devil, his works of healing and demonic deliverance, his announcement of deliverance for the captives, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and his resurrection.

For some theologians, a reference to the devil is judged to be actually dangerous.

For example, when Douglas John Hall writes of apocalyptic language he is strident: “When its resort to biblical and medieval imagery (the Devil, Antichrist, cosmic struggle, the Beast and the Dragon, etc.) is not just anachronistic and apologetically irresponsible, it too easily encourages a mood of paranoia and irrationality that is never far from the surface of human social consciousness.”

In contrast, Karl Barth (1886–1968) covered angelology and demonology in depth—over one hundred fifty passages—in his massive Church Dogmatics under the heading of “The Kingdom of Heaven, The Ambassadors of God and Their Opponents.”

Both Millard Erickson and Wayne Grudem likewise avoid the blind spot mentioned earlier. Pleasingly, in both of their systematic theologies there are chapters on our theme. Significantly, some multiauthored systematic theologies also give sustained attention to angelology. Peter R. Schemm Jr., in one such volume, maintains,

The greatest of Christian thinkers have consistently recognized that angels and demons are far more than a divine embellishment designed to make the Bible interesting. Angels are actual beings whose existence affects human life. Augustine’s classic The City of God explains the origin, history, and destiny of two cities and the angelic servants that attend to them—the earthly city under the power of the devil and his minions and the heavenly city ruled by God and his host. John Bunyan’s work The Pilgrim’s Progress features Apollyon as the most formidable foe that Christian encountered. By deception and force, Apollyon tries to turn Christian back to the City of Destruction from which he has come. Clive Staples Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters details the correspondence between the affectionate Uncle Screwtape and another demon, his nephew Wormwood, whose strategy is marked by a consistent yet subtle undermining of the faith of the believer to whom he is assigned.

Whether in apology (The City of God) or allegory (The Pilgrim’s Progress) or fantasy (The Screwtape Letters), the significance of angels both good and evil is accented.

So then what is the balance that is needed? C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) wrote of two errors when it comes to the fallen angels: excessive interest and excessive disinterest. His warning applies to unfallen angels as well.

In a similar vein, J. I. Packer argues, “He [Satan] should be taken seriously, for malice and cunning make him fearsome; yet not so seriously as to provoke abject terror of him, for he is a beaten enemy.” In this study, then, I will endeavor carefully to make it clear when I am merely giving an opinion or speculating—when I have run out of revelatory data.

The need to do so is simple: Scripture is not addressed to the angelic realm; Scripture addresses humankind. This constitutes a difficulty for constructive theology. As Erickson points out, “Every [biblical] reference to angels is incidental to some other topic. They are not treated in themselves. God’s revelation never aims at informing us regarding the nature of angels.”

Content taken from Against the Darkness by Graham A. Cole, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway.



Graham A. Cole
Graham A. Cole (ThD, Australian College of Theology) is emeritus dean and emeritus professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. An ordained Anglican minister, he has served in two parishes and was formerly the principal of Ridley College. Graham lives in Australia with his wife, Jules.



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