Classical Christology for the Modern World

Classical Christology for the Modern World: A Book Review

Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016.  495 pp. Hardcover.  $40.  ISBN 978-1-58134-647-3


Every Christian has a Christology, our own personal understanding of God’s word about his beloved Son.  It is what 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 is why this volume from the pen of the Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is so valuable.  It aims to do two things: first, to expound classical Christology and, secondly, to demonstrate that belief in this Christology is still warranted in the modern world.  Based on cutting-edge scholarship it will immediately appeal to academic theologians, but it bears in mind at the same time the needs of those just beginning to dip their toes in the theological waters.


The work is in four major parts.  The first three explore key aspects of the warrant for   classical Christology, and discuss successively the epistemological warrant, the biblical warrant and the ecclesiological warrant.  The final section addresses modern challenges to historic Christology, particularly those posed by recent variants on the Kenotic Theory of the incarnation.


Modern secular epistemologies

The early chapters provide an excellent overview of modern secular epistemologies, particularly the impact of the Enlightenment and Postmodernism, and clearly demonstrate that these can never provide a route to the historical Jesus, basically because they assume that the historical Jesus must be a de-supernaturalised one.  Quirky minds will see a delicious irony in Kant’s quoted definition of immaturity as the inability to use our minds without the guidance of somebody else: few modern theologians would dare to speak without first consulting Kant.


But it would be hazardous to assume that prior to the Enlightenment human reason was well disposed to Christology.  That was certainly not the case in the Apostolic era; and the 16th century spawned Socianism as well as Protestant Orthodoxy.  The ‘carnal mind’ has always been enmity against God, and there is little hope of an epistemology equally acceptable to both believers and unbelievers.  As P. T. Forsyth once remarked, our first duty to the man-in-the street is to get him off the street.  Conversion means the acceptance of a new epistemology.


As an alternative to contemporary secular epistemologies Wellum proposes a ‘revelational epistemology’ which takes Scripture as God’s word and interprets it on its own terms.  The reference to interpretation is important, but as with all aspects of the current interest in hermeneutics we need to be careful not to compromise the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, which insisted so strongly that the meaning of the Bible is accessible not only to the learned but to the unlearned. 


In the course of developing this theme Professor Wellum identifies, albeit unobtrusively, with those who seek to distance themselves from the theological methodology of Charles Hodge who, 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 pay attention to its place in the Bible’s historical plot-line (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 (even though the word ‘covenant’ is virtually absent from the Pauline corpus).


These are challenging co-ordinates for the ordinary Christian reader; and, if taken seriously, they will also add many extra hours to the busy pastor’s sermon-preparation time.  But then, 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 is ‘God’ is to say that he is God in the sense of Genesis 1.  But the rigorous application of the ‘redemptive-historical-eschatological’ approach to exegesis still raises many 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 to the knowledge of Jesus, does one need to know the whole previous story-line?  What, for example, did Paul say to the Philippian jailor by way of clarifying his command to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?


Then, hovering over it all is the fact that, despite the hermeneutical revolution, what Professor Wellum eventually gives us is a brilliant exposition and update of the classical Christology of Charles Hodge. 


This Christology, we can confidently affirm, is fully warranted by Scripture.  The problem is that, having raised the question of epistemology, we cannot then simply assume that the Scripture we are drawing on is an authoritative divine revelation.  We must provide an epistemological warrant for the assumption.  In the last analysis, to be sure, assurance of the ‘God-givenness’ of Scripture rests on the witness of the Holy Spirit but, even so, it should be possible for that assurance to explain itself.  We cannot simply rest our case on the bankruptcy of non-theistic, non-biblical epistemologies.  


‘Traditional’ Christology

The discussion of the biblical warrant for classical Christology is followed by a presentation of the ecclesiological warrant, as reflected especially in the writings of the church fathers and in the deliverances of the great ecumenical councils.  This discussion comes with the warning that Scripture alone has magisterial authority, but we are also reminded 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; and while such a venture inevitably involves traversing much ground that has already been well covered, Wellum regularly offers fresh insight.  He also lingers helpfully over topics to which others have tended to give only a passing nod.


One theme which recurs time and again is the distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘person’.  Wellum rightly regards it as of pivotal significance, and he sums it up neatly: ‘nature’ refers to what Christ is, ‘person’ to who he is.  The answer to the what is that Jesus was both human and divine; the answer to the who is that he was the incarnate Son of God.  It is this distinction that allows, indeed compels us, to ascribe to Jesus apparently contradictory attributes such as omniscience and nescience, while also safeguarding the fact that the two natures do not 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 a 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 was a property of the person, not of the nature, and since Christ was not a human person he had no human will.  But if this were the case, it would mean, as Wellum points out, that Christ had no real human nature.  After all, it is 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 in the meantime we can draw some light from the Formula of Chalcedon, 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 that there is a fundamental compatibility between the human and the divine.


‘Kenotic’ Chistologies

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 was not confined to his human nature.  Wellum points out, however, that the epithet, Calvinisticum, is misleading.  Although Calvin did deploy the concept, he was not the first to do so, nor was its use confined to the Reformed tradition.  Indeed, Wellum prefers to call it the extra Catholicum but, 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 was active as the upholder of the universe.  This, as Professor Wellum points out, has a key bearing on the Kenotic Theory, according to which Christ, in becoming incarnate, laid aside his ‘omni-attributes’.  This would imply that (at least for the duration of his kenosis) his activity had to be 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 is 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 T. Davis and Cornelius Platinga Jr., while among the latter are Garrett De Weese, William Craig and (with some qualifications) Millard Erickson.


It is no easy task to give a coherent picture of these new schools, and the volume inevitably suffers some loss of momentum.   Advocates of Ontological Kenotic Christology argue that in becoming incarnate Christ ‘gave up’ or ‘laid aside’ some distinctive attributes of deity, and while we are familiar with this from the original Kenoticists the new school take a further step by way of explanation, suggesting that while such attributes as omniscience may be essential to God simpliciter they need not belong to him as 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.  This approximation to orthodoxy is overshadowed, however, by Functional Kenoticism’s attempt to overcome the problem of the presence 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 he has a soul.  But he does not have a human soul.  Instead, the Logos becomes the soul of the human body of Christ.  This looks for all he world like a return to 4th century Apollinarianism and its denial that Christ had a human soul: a very odd development, considering that Kenoticism is driven by a concern to defend the real humanity of Christ. 


It is not easy to turn these developments into a gripping narrative, but while the speculations of Functional Kenoticism clearly depart significantly from classical Christology, and sometimes border on the absurd, it is important not to over-react.  True though it is that the incarnate Christ continued to use his divine powers, we should not 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 what they attested was not 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 should not confuse this with the reductionism that portrays Christ as merely a Spirit-filled man.  What it highlights is that at every step in his journey the incarnate Son was upheld by God the Father through the Holy Spirit.


Finally, we must not overlook the fact that the incarnation did involve a real kenosis, and some theologians of the strictest Reformed orthodoxy (for example, Scotland’s Hugh Martin) 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, this book is quite splendid, stimulating as a first-read, and likely to serve as an indispensable resource for years to come.  For many, it will be their Christological vade mecum; and deservedly so.