Every Christian has a Christology, our own personal understanding of God’s word about his beloved Son. It focuses our worship, inspires our preaching, and gives light and purpose to our daily lives. But with every advance in our understanding comes a passion to know more, and that’s why this new volume from the pen of Stephen Wellum—professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—is so valuable.
God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ aims to do two things: expound classical Christology and demonstrate how it is still justified in the modern world. Based on front-line scholarship, the book will immediately appeal to academic theologians, but it also bears in mind the needs of those just beginning to dip their toes in theological waters.
The book is divided into four major parts. The first three explore key aspects of the warrant for classical Christology—the epistemological warrant, the biblical warrant, and the ecclesiological warrant. The final section addresses modern challenges to historic Christology, particularly recent variants on the kenotic theory of the incarnation.
Confronting Secular Epistemologies
The early chapters offer an excellent overview of modern secular epistemologies, and especially the effect of the Enlightenment and postmodernism. Wellum clearly demonstrates that these can never provide a route to the historical Jesus, since they assume the historical Jesus must be de-supernaturalized.
But it would be hazardous to assume that human reason was well disposed to Christology prior to the Enlightenment. That certainly wasn’t the case in the apostolic era, and the 16th century spawned Socianism as well as Protestant orthodoxy. The carnal mind has always been at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7), and there’s little hope of an epistemology equally acceptable to both believers and unbelievers. As P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921) once remarked, our first duty to the man in the street is to get him off the street. Conversion means embracing a new epistemology.
As an alternative to contemporary secular epistemologies, Wellum proposes a “revelational epistemology” that takes Scripture as God’s Word and interprets it on its own terms. The reference to interpretation is important. Still, as with all aspects of the current interest in hermeneutics, we must be careful not to compromise the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, which insisted so strongly that Scripture’s meaning is accessible not only to the learned but to the unlearned as well.
Christology and the Canon
In the course of developing this theme Wellum identifies, albeit unobtrusively, with those who seek to distance themselves from the theological methodology of Charles Hodge (1797–1878). The Princeton theologian allegedly defined “biblical” as amounting to no more than collecting and arranging texts, with little regard for the overall structure of Scripture. Instead, in the light of the “new” discipline of biblical theology, our exegesis of any particular text must give attention to its place in the Bible’s historical plotline (an echo, perhaps, of the idea that Scripture is the script for a theo-drama?) with its four great movements: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Nor is this all. We must also reckon with three horizons—the textual, the epochal, and the canonical; and with the six biblical covenants—the Adamic, the Abrahamic, the Noahic, the Mosaic, the Davidic, and the New.
These are challenging coordinates for the ordinary Christian reader and, if taken seriously, they’ll add many hours to the already-busy pastor’s sermon preparation. But if valid they have to be taken seriously.
It is of course true that Christ makes sense only within the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. To say that he’s “God” is to say that he’s God in the sense of Genesis 1. But the rigorous application of the “redemptive-historical-eschatological” approach to exegesis still raises questions. Does it reflect the practice of our Lord and his apostles? Which comes first, exegesis or knowledge of the story line? Above all, at the point of entry into the Christian faith, does one need to know the whole previous story line? What, for example, did Paul say to the Philippian jailer by way of clarifying his command to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:25–40)?
Despite the hermeneutical revolution, what Wellum eventually gives us is a brilliant exposition and update of Hodge’s classical Christology. This Christology, we can affirm, is fully necessitated by Scripture. But having raised the question of epistemology, we can’t simply assume the Scripture we’re drawing on is an authoritative divine revelation. We must provide epistemological warrant for the assumption. In the last analysis, assurance of the “God-givenness” of Scripture rests on the witness of the Holy Spirit. Even so, it should be possible for that assurance to explain itself. We can’t simply rest our case on the bankruptcy of non-theistic, non-biblical epistemologies.
Wellum’s discussion of the biblical warrant for classical Christology is followed by a presentation of the ecclesiological warrant, as reflected in the church fathers and the ecumenical councils especially. This discussion comes with the warning that Scripture alone has magisterial authority, but that tradition “functions in a ministerial capacity to aid our interpretation and application of Scripture.”
This is in many ways the core of the book, and both teachers and students will find it invaluable. While such a venture inevitably involves traversing much well-covered ground, Wellum regularly offers fresh insight. He also helpfully lingers over topics to which others have only given a passing nod.
Who and What Jesus Is
One theme that recurs time and again is the distinction between “nature” and “person.” Wellum rightly regards it of pivotal significance, and sums it up neatly: “nature” refers to what Christ is, “person” to who he is. The answer to the what is that Jesus is both human and divine; the answer to the who is that he is God’s incarnate Son.
This distinction allows (indeed compels) us to ascribe to Jesus apparently contradictory attributes—such as omniscience (infinite knowledge) and nescience (lack of knowledge)—while safeguarding that his two natures don’t point to two different individuals or agents. The one person—the Son of God—is the one who says, does, and feels all that Jesus says, does, and feels.
This distinction had clear bearing on the largely ignored 7th-century heresy Monothelitism, which argued that Christ had only one “will” (Gk., thelēma). The core Monothelite argument was that will is a property of personhood, not nature—and since Christ wasn’t a human person he had no human will. Yet if this were the case it would mean, as Wellum points out, that Christ had no real human nature. After all, it’s an essential part of being human that we have desires and make choices; and if in the one person of Christ there were two natures, he must have had desires and made choices according to both natures.
The psychological complexities of this are beyond us, but we can draw some light from the formula of Chalcedon (451), which speaks of the two natures “concurring” (Gk., suntrechō) in the one person of Christ. The two wills—the human and the divine—“run together,” and this is possible because, as Wellum reminds us, our being created in God’s image means there’s a fundamental compatibility between the human and the divine.
Christology and the Kenotic Theory
Another topic over which Wellum lingers is the so-called extra Calvinisticum. The word extra is used here in its strict Latin sense of “outside,” and conserves the truth that the activity of the incarnate Christ wasn’t confined to his human nature. But Wellum points out that the epithet Calvinisticum is misleading. Although John Calvin did deploy the concept, he wasn’t the first to do so, nor was its use confined to the Reformed tradition. (Wellum prefers to call it the extra Catholicum.) Whatever the label, it stands guard over the vital truth that the incarnate Christ was active outside his human body. In particular, even while he was on earth he actively upheld the universe. This has key bearing on the kenotic theory, according to which Christ, in becoming incarnate, laid aside his “omni-attributes.” This implies that (at least for the duration of his kenosis) his activity was limited to the space occupied by his human nature and to the capabilities of that nature. In that case, who was then preserving and governing the universe? Hardly a task for the child in the manger.
Wellum’s treatment of kenoticism offers both an excellent brief historical introduction and a rigorous critique. But what’s new here, particularly to a British reader, is his discussion of the “evangelical kenoticists.” Part of the fascination here is that while the original kenoticists were either German, English, or Scottish, all the new kenoticists seem to be American. And they appear to be divided into two groups: those who advocate ontological kenotic Christology (OKC) and those who advocate functional kenotic Christology (FKC). The former include such names as Stephen Davis and Cornelius Plantinga, and the latter Garrett DeWeese, William Craig, and (with some qualifications) Millard Erickson.
It’s no easy task to give a coherent picture of these new schools, and the book inevitably suffers some loss of momentum in this section. Ontological kenotic Christology advocates argue that, in becoming incarnate, Christ “gave up” or “laid aside” some distinctive attributes of deity. While we’re familiar with this from the original kenoticists, the new school take a further step, suggesting that while such attributes as omniscience may be essential to God simpliciter they need not belong to him as God incarnate. God must be free to choose to be “otherwise.” But how far “otherwise” before he ceases to be God?
Functional kenoticism, on the other hand, contents itself with saying that while the incarnate Son retains his divine attributes, he never (or seldom) uses them. The approximation to orthodoxy, however, is overshadowed by the attempt to overcome the problem of logically inconsistent attributes in Christ. It locates the mind (as well as the will) in the person, not the nature; and since he has (or is) but one person, he has but one mind and one will. This is then followed (in the case of some functional kenoticists) by a most peculiar leap: In the incarnation, the Logos becomes a human soul. This seems to secure the humanity of Christ: he has a body and a soul. But he doesn’t have a human soul. Instead, the Logos becomes the soul of the human body of Christ. This looks like a return to 4th-century Apollinarianism and its denial that Christ had a human soul—an odd development, considering that kenoticism is driven by a concern to defend the real humanity of Christ.
It’s not easy to turn these developments into a gripping narrative, but while the speculations of functional kenoticism clearly depart from classical Christology, and sometimes border on the absurd, it’s important not to overreact. While it’s true the incarnate Christ continued to use his divine powers, we shouldn’t rush to argue that his miracles were performed by the power of his deity. They were certainly his mighty acts, but they were done through the finger of God, the Holy Spirit—and they did not attest to his divinity but his Messiahship.
Nor should we be hesitant about attributing to the Spirit an extensive ministry in the life of Jesus. After all, the very title “Messiah” reminds us that he came specifically as the Anointed One, and this anointing fully equipped him to offer a sacrifice of perfect obedience in his human nature. We shouldn’t confuse this with the reductionism that portrays Christ as merely a Spirit-filled man. The point is simply that at every step in his journey, the incarnate Son was upheld by God the Father through the Spirit.
Finally, we must not overlook that the incarnation did involve a real kenosis. Some theologians of the strictest Reformed orthodoxy (Scotland’s Hugh Martin, for example) were prepared to define this kenosis in terms of his divine attributes being “in abeyance”—not, of course, in relation to his cosmic functions but in relation to the mediatorial ministry he had to perform as the Messiah: incognito, and in servant form.
Overall, God the Son Incarnate is quite splendid. It is a stimulating read, and likely to serve as an indispensable resource for years to come. For many, it will be their go-to Christological guide, and deservedly so.
Stephen J. Wellum. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 495 pp. $40.00.