Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel
The two leading mysteries of the Christian faith – the tri-unity of God and the incarnation and two natures of Christ – present unique conceptual challenges that stretch our thinking to the limit … and beyond. That’s just the nature of the case: we do concede, after all, that these doctrines entail mystery. Indeed, we gladly recognize in our study of God that we are in over our heads – this is one aspect of our worship. Yet we also recognize that although God is incomprehensible we can yet rightly apprehend him insofar as he has revealed himself. This happy pursuit of knowing and understanding God is part of our worship also, and it is the joyful challenge of Christian theology.
A right understanding of the Person of Christ necessarily requires a right understanding of the Trinity. In his new God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ Wellum touches both, but his focus is on the former. Consisting of fourteen chapters his book is divided into four parts, highlighting his agenda to produce a fully warranted, contemporary Christology:
Part 1: Epistemological Warrant for Christology Today
Part 2: Biblical Warrant for Christology Today
Part 3: Ecclesiological Warrant for Christology Today
Part 4: A Warranted Christology for Today
In Part 1 Wellum surveys the philosophical landscape of the past two hundred years in order to demonstrate how the contemporary confusion about Jesus has come about. Much of this survey of intellectual history would serve well as prolegomena to any current theological discussion, but Wellum insightfully highlights its particular relevance to Christology. The net result is an illuminating expose of how we got to where we are and a reaffirmation of the necessity of a genuinely biblical epistemology. The effective Christian theologian must understand both his subject and his audience. Knowing what the Bible teaches about our Lord Jesus Christ is one thing; knowing how to communicate this teaching to the thought structures of today is another. Again, stating our Christological conclusions is one thing; establishing the basis for those conclusions in terms of rationality and coherence is another. Finally, it is one thing to expose the faultiness of contemporary epistemologies; it is quite another to present a coherent biblical epistemology in its place. Wellum helpfully provides all this in order to present a truly contemporary evangelical Christology.
The self-claims of Jesus and the apostolic witness to him are authoritative and definitive in themselves considered, and in Part 2 Wellum expounds these biblical passages helpfully. But the outstanding contribution here is his approach and contention that an understanding of Christ as God incarnate is demanded by the biblical storyline itself. The plotline of redemptive history establishes a structure in which the coming Redeemer is both God and man. Moreover, it is within this metanarrative that Jesus speaks about himself and in which the apostles bear witness to him. That is, Biblical Theology itself necessitates the shape of Systematic Theology for Christology as traditionally conceived. Wellum’s argument here is well-made and establishes a broader biblical grounding for Chalcedonian Christology than is often recognized. The New Testament witness to Jesus – Jesus’ own self-witness and the apostolic witness to him – does not rise out of a vacuum but at the culmination of long centuries of developing promise. Simply put,
the apostolic Christology is concerned with where Jesus came from, why he came, and what he has accomplished in his coming according to the Scriptures. And in short, all of these parts to the epochal-covenantal equation add up to identify Jesus as God the Son incarnate. (p.149)
The early centuries of the church were left to unpack the biblical teaching with respect to specifics – understanding and stating the distinction between nature and person, the relation of the natures to the person and to each other, the will as a function of nature or person, and so on. Important as these questions are in that they bear directly on our Lord’s qualifications as our Redeemer, they are notoriously complex and require careful thought. Even the Chalcedonian Definition itself required further explication. And so in Part 3 Wellum leads us with remarkable clarity through the centuries of this on-going discussion. This venture in historical theology, with its sorting out of heresy from orthodoxy, provides what Wellum calls the Ecclesiological Warrant for Christology. The church has spoken with definitive clarity on these issues, and while her authority is not magisterial but ministerial, the overwhelming consensus enjoyed on these questions testifies to the wisdom of her conclusions and the warranted role of the “guard rails” she has established for all subsequent Christological discussion.
With all this in place, in Part 4 Wellum examines and critiques current versions of kenotic Christology and, in turn, presents and defends an evangelical Christology for the contemporary setting. Here he articulates the structures of a biblical Christology, addresses the major questions involved (including the always favorites, What did Jesus know? and Could he have sinned?), and demonstrates (in answer to critics) the cohesiveness and logical coherence of Chalcedonian Christology. In the end Wellum is able to show that although mystery remains – of course! – our understanding of the person of Christ as traditionally defined by the church is both self-consistent and biblically faithful.
God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ is a major accomplishment and clearly the fruit of years of faithful study and teaching. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through it, and at no point did I find myself wishing for better. I began reading as one already in sympathy with the church’s traditional teaching about our Lord, but as I read along I found my thinking sharpened as Wellum carefully unpacked one issue and biblical passage after another.
The following traits struck me as characteristic of Wellum’s new work overall.
- Informed. Wellum has clearly read widely and deeply, and his grasp of his subject and acquaintance with the related literature are obvious.
- Comprehensive. Of course more volumes could be written, and we would still be left with considerable mystery, given our unique Subject. But Wellum covers the spectrum of issues essential to a responsibly “complete” study of the Person of Christ and natures of Christ.
- Clear and Precise. Wellum’s book is not “entry-level” Christology, and we must grant in any case that consideration of two-nature Christology is mind-bending. The discussion necessarily entails very careful thinking through complex issues. But Wellum understands his subject well enough to communicate complex issues plainly and with precision. Even those new to the discussion will be able to grasp the various concepts at issue.
- Contemporary. Wellum is not stuck in the early centuries or even in the Reformation but addresses today’s issues for today’s audience.
- Faithful. Wellum presents a Christology that accords with all aspects of biblical teaching regarding the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Reverent. Wellum’s book is “academic” in that it reflects excellent research and careful thinking, but it is no less reverent for it. His work reflects one who senses himself not master of but mastered by his Subject.
- Cohesive and Compelling. Wellum’s arguments come together coherently, and his case for Chalcedonian Christology is persuasive. It will be interesting to see how – or if – those with whom he expresses disagreement will respond.
We could scarcely consider a more glorious theme than what is taken up in this book, and doing the theme “justice” would doubtless exhaust eternity (cf. John 21:25). But even after so much has been written on it, Wellum’s God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ is a worthy contribution. It is certainly the most helpful book on the subject I have read to date. Pastors, professors, and other teachers will want it both for the careful articulation of doctrine Wellum provides and for his helpful expositions of all the most important Christological passages (Phil.2, Col.1, Heb.1-2, etc.). Very highly recommended.
Fred G. Zaspel
Note: Check out our interview with Dr. Wellum here.
Buy the books
God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ