Laying out a systematic summary of Christology from philosophical, biblical, and historical perspectives, this book leads to the ultimate conclusion that Christ is God the Son incarnate.
About the Author
Stephen J. Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Stephen lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, Karen, and they have five adult children.
John S. Feinberg (PhD, University of Chicago) is department chair and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of Ethics for a Brave New World (with Paul D. Feinberg) and is general editor of Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.
Read an Excerpt
Jesus of Nazareth has been and still is an enigma to many people. Even though he has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries, a majority of people are still confused regarding his identity. A famous poem once tried to capture something of the enigma and significance of Jesus:
He was born in an obscure village,
Who do we say that Jesus Christ is? The question itself is not new; it has been asked ever since Jesus's earthly ministry. The writers of the four Gospels labored to impress upon us the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, and they persist in pressing the point of his identity: Who is this Jesus? Who is he who is born the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1)? Who is he who announces the dawning of the kingdom (Matt. 4:12–17)? Who is he who resists every temptation of the Devil (Luke 4:1–13)? Who is he who commands wind and water and turns water into wine (Luke 8:22–25; John 2:6–11)? Who is he who pronounces the forgiveness of sins (Mark 2:1–12)? Who is he who raises the dead and rises from the grave (John 11:38–44; 20:1–18)?
Even Jesus himself asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matt. 16:13). Similar to our own day, the responses of the people then were diverse and confused. Some identified him superstitiously with John the Baptist come back from the dead, while others thought of him as one of the great Old Testament prophets. So Jesus asked his disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" (v. 15). Speaking for them, Peter answered correctly, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16). But even then, Peter did not fully grasp Jesus's identity. Immediately after his confession, Peter objected to Jesus's prediction and explanation of his own suffering and death. Peter could not yet conceive of a suffering Messiah, thinking instead of a victorious king. It was not until after the resurrection that Peter and the disciples began to understand who Jesus truly was as the Son and the Messiah. The question of Jesus's identity could not be fully answered until all of the great events of redemptive history were fully aligned with Jesus's own life, death, and resurrection.
Even after Easter, the first-century question remains today, and unfortunately so does the confusion. Similar to the answers of old, a wide variety of responses are given today to Jesus's question about his identity: he is a sage, a prophet, a revolutionary, a cynic, and, for some, simply a failed religious leader. Almost without fail, every Christmas and Easter (at least in North America) popular magazines (e.g., Time, U.S. News & World Report, Maclean's) and cable networks (e.g., A&E, History Channel) devote time to the question, Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Repeated Gallup polls show that people often affirm some kind of belief in Jesus, but probing deeper usually reveals that their belief is ill-informed, confused, and often contradictory to other beliefs they affirm.
For Christians, this kind of confusion and uncertainty is not a benign issue. Scripture presents Jesus of Nazareth as God's own eternal Son and as a man who is appointed by God the Father to judge the living and the dead. As Stephen Clark rightly notes, Scripture is unified in its presentation of who Jesus is. As he notes, despite the diversity of the biblical material, there is a "uniform conviction that Jesus Christ is God and man." In light of Scripture, the church has confessed consistently that to identify Jesus correctly we must affirm that he is the divine Son who has become incarnate, that to know him is life eternal, and that to know him not is judgment unto death. Biblically speaking, getting Christ right is a matter of life and death.
Yet even with this urgency, we must resist the temptation to move directly to the biblical foundations, historical formulations, and contemporary discussions of Christology within evangelical theology. Systematic theology does not merely articulate doctrines in timeless propositions; systematic theology, rather, is best understood as the application of Scripture to all areas of life. This articulation and application involves not only exegesis and biblical theology in light of historical theology, but also the attempt to help the church apply the biblical teaching to our current context. The nature of systematic theology necessitates that we understand our present-day situation and the particular challenges it poses.
In his instructive book Above All Earthly Pow'rs, David Wells makes this precise point, arguing for Christology within a twofold reality: first, "the disintegration of the Enlightenment world and its replacement by the postmodern ethos"; second, the increase of religious pluralism. These two intellectual and cultural developments have posed a number of serious implications for doing orthodox Christology, certainly the most important being the need for a plausible defense of the uniqueness and exclusivity of Jesus Christ in a day of philosophicalpluralism. As Wells rightly notes, our theology must not remain merely internal to the church or to the academy; it must also address and help the church to meet the challenges we face in presenting Christ to a skeptical age that simply regards the uniqueness of Christ as highly implausible.
The conditions of belief in the medieval and Reformation eras have been eclipsed today by an entirely different set of plausibility structures. The contemporary culture does not begin with the basic propositions of Christian theology. The secularization and pluralization of the West has altered the way people think because the conditions of belief have changed. In his magisterial work on the cognitive impact of secularization, Charles Taylor traces these epistemological changes over three distinct time periods, pivoting around the Enlightenment: before the Enlightenment, people found it impossible not to believe the Christian worldview; starting with the Enlightenment, it became possible not to believe in the basic truths of Christianity; three hundred years after the Enlightenment and with the rise of postmodern pluralism, most people find it impossible to believe in the objective truths and ultimate concerns of the Christian worldview. R. Albert Mohler Jr. helpfully summarizes Taylor's argument:
In the first stage there was no rival explanation for any reality — for life, for the past, for the present, or for the future — other than Christianity. But now it is the absolute opposite. Now there are not only alternatives to the biblical worldview available, but these alternatives are declared to be superior. Indeed if nonbelief was an oddity in the first stage — so much that it was considered eccentric and even dangerous — in this third stage it is theism that is considered eccentric and dangerous.
Obviously, what Taylor has observed in Western thought impacts how Christology will be viewed in terms of its plausibility, credibility, and logical coherence. The current conditions of belief also challenge us to think through anew how best to do Christology in order to present Christ faithfully to a skeptical, pluralistic world. It would be unwise simply to work through the biblical, historical, and systematic data of Christology; doing evangelical theology for today requires attention to the specific challenges of the day. At this point, we need to remember Martin Luther's instruction to stand for the truth precisely at the point where it is being undermined and attacked:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is merely flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
Exhorted by Luther and obliged by the nature of systematic theology, we need to probe the plausibility structures that operate today, shaping the way people think. The present conditions of belief do not determine the identity of Christ that comes to us in Scripture. But where the dominant ways of thinking and knowing would make it difficult or impossible to know Christ from Scripture, we need to do some demolition work and construct the Bible's own structure of belief in an open and coherent manner. In short, we need to lay the foundation of epistemological warrant to build an argument for an orthodox Christology for today.
The rest of this chapter will argue that the two major trends in contemporary Christology are causing significant confusion regarding the identity of Christ because they are rooted in presuppositions that inevitably lead away from the true Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture. The epistemological changes in the Enlightenment and in postmodernity have grown throughout the areas of philosophy, science, religion, and hermeneutics to produce a skepticism toward the Bible and a rejection of its ability to identify Jesus accurately. Christology today, then, must address how we can know Jesus before we can say who he is.
Two Major Trends in Contemporary Christology
Throughout the ages, the church's confession has been uniform: Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the eternal Trinity, who at a specific point in history took to himself a human nature and was born as Jesus of Nazareth in order to accomplish our redemption. In the language of the Chalcedonian Definition, our Lord Jesus is God the Son incarnate — one person who subsists in two natures, fully God and fully man — who alone is Lord and Savior and worthy of our worship, trust, and obedience. Even though there have been various naysayers throughout church history, the Chalcedonian Confession remains the classic Christological statement accepted by virtually all segments of Christianity; the church has always confessed this basic orthodoxy as its starting point and touchstone for understanding the identity of Christ.
Today, however, the orthodox Definition is problematic for many. For a variety of reasons, many people no longer consider the orthodox understanding of Jesus's identity to be credible or plausible. Without trying to be reductionistic, we can identify two major non-orthodox trends in Christology today: first, the continued attempt to discover the historical Jesus in distinction from the biblical Jesus; second, the attempt to make Christ fit within the paradigm of religious pluralism. Significantly, although proponents within these trends may differ in their motivation, methodology, and conclusions, the trends themselves lead equally to the same break from the central tradition of the church as summarized by Chalcedon. A brief description of each trend will provide for a better comprehension of the Christological confusion outside of the orthodox confession of the church.
The Paradigm of Historical Jesus Research
Many today seek to unearth the "historical Jesus" or the "real" Jesus of history. Regardless of the specific viewpoint, the approaches in this trend all start with the same assumption: the "Jesus of history" is not the same as the "Jesus of the Bible," let alone the "Christ of Chalcedon." As Francis Watson rightly observes, modern historical Jesus research is part of "a scholarly project operating within a shared paradigm — that is, a set of assumptions, priorities, and methodological tools that inform and direct the process of research." Alongside this particular project, many biblical scholars are utilizing various historical-critical tools to comprehend the literary interrelationship of the Gospels (even the entire Bible) and to discover how the ancient Christian community shaped the oral and written traditions behind the Gospels. As Watson reminds us, "Historical Jesus research is closely related to these other scholarly projects, which together constitute the modern, wissenschaftlich study of the Gospels." Although the proponents may have different goals, they all start with the same working hypothesis that underlies the entire historical-critical approach to Christology: the historical Jesus is not the same as the constructed "Jesus of the Bible" or the "Christ of faith."
According to this kind of historical Jesus research, the Jesus of the Bible is simply the product of the creative imagination of the early church interpreted through the grid of a first-century cultural mind-set, which, for the most part, is not credible to us today. The biblical text in its final form cannot directly warrant our Christological reflection, as the "precritical" era of the church assumed. Instead, we must use critical tools to get behind the documents, peeling off layers of "dogmatic construction and legendary elaboration" that the Christian community has created. The historical-critical research is the only valid way to discover the real Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine.
The historical Jesus research paradigm, then, produces what can be called a critical Christology. The historical-critical methodology it employs takes a critical, suspicious stance toward Scripture and progresses independently of the Bible's own terms. Such a critical approach stands opposite of a confessional Christology that commits to the full accuracy and authority of Scripture. This commitment to the reliability of the Bible's presentation of Jesus includes a rejection of any attempt to reconstruct the "real" Jesus — he has been revealed by God himself in God's own word written to man. But because the historical Jesus research paradigm operates with different theological beliefs, convictions, and worldview structures, it rejects confessional Christology as no longer credible. A critical Christology assumes that Scripture actually obscures the real Jesus and that he can be identified only through historical reconstruction, not revelation.
Within the last thirty years, the historical Jesus research paradigm has been famously epitomized by two examples: The Myth of God Incarnate and the Jesus Seminar. Significantly, both originated in the academic world but had their greatest impact in popular culture.
The Myth of God Incarnate was a 1977 symposium of essays that reflected the entire stream of historical-critical efforts in Christological construction, from the Enlightenment period through the twentieth century. The seven authors had a twofold thesis: first, the real, historical Jesus, was not the Jesus of the Bible, but was a mere man approved by God for a special role; second, the orthodox conception of Jesus as God the Son incarnate is a mythological way of expressing his ultimate value for us. The category of myth was employed to explain that the incarnation language of Scripture was part of a "story composed for the purpose of communicating a truth," not for the affirmation of historical reality. Unfortunately, the authors argued, the church missed the myth and interpreted the biblical language to mean that God the Son literally became incarnate. But any credible view of Jesus today must reject the anachronous metaphysical categories of Chalcedon as the result of an outmoded way of thinking.
From 1985–1991, about two hundred mainline New Testament scholars gathered throughout the United States twice a year as the Jesus Seminar. The Seminar gathered to determine which of the approximately five hundred sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually spoken by the historical Jesus, and which ones were later "put into his mouth" by the Christian community(Continues…)
Excerpted from "God the Son Incarnate"
Copyright © 2016 Stephen J. Wellum.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: EPISTEMOLOGICAL WARRANT FOR CHRISTOLOGY TODAY,
Introduction to Part I,
CHAPTER 1: CONTEMPORARY CHRISTOLOGY,
CHAPTER 2: "BIBLICAL" EPISTEMOLOGY FOR CHRISTOLOGY,
Summary of Part I,
PART TWO: BIBLICAL WARRANT FOR CHRISTOLOGY TODAY,
Introduction to Part II,
CHAPTER 3: THE AUTHORITATIVE STRUCTURE OF THE BIBLICAL STORYLINE,
CHAPTER 4: THE IDENTITY OF JESUS FROM THE STORYLINE OF SCRIPTURE,
CHAPTER 5: THE DEITY OF CHRIST: GOD THE SON FROM ETERNITY,
CHAPTER 6: THE HUMANITY OF CHRIST: GOD THE SON INCARNATE,
Summary of Part II,
PART THREE: ECCLESIOLOGICAL WARRANT FOR CHRISTOLOGY TODAY,
Introduction to Part III,
CHAPTER 7: ANTE-NICENE CHRISTOLOGY: THE NEED FOR ORTHODOXY,
CHAPTER 8: CHRISTOLOGY FROM NICAEA TO CHALCEDON: THE EMERGENCE OF ORTHODOXY,
CHAPTER 9: POST-CHALCEDONIAN CHRISTOLOGY: THE ESTABLISHMENT OF ORTHODOXY,
Summary of Part III,
PART FOUR: A WARRANTED CHRISTOLOGY FOR TODAY,
Introduction to Part IV,
CHAPTER 10: CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES TO ORTHODOX CHRISTOLOGY: KENOTICISM—A MIDDLE WAY?,
CHAPTER 11: EVANGELICAL CHRISTOLOGY AND KENOTIC INFLUENCES,
CHAPTER 12: EVANGELICALS AND KENOTIC CHRISTOLOGIES: A "NEW" AND "BETTER" WAY?,
CHAPTER 13: CHRISTOLOGICAL FORMULATION: THE ORTHODOX IDENTITY OF JESUS CHRIST,
CHAPTER 14: DEFENDING THE THEOLOGY OF GOD THE SON INCARNATE,
What People are Saying About This
"Wellum’s treatment of this glorious subject is comprehensive in scope and is marked by precision, clarity, biblical fidelity, and a close acquaintance with the centuries of discussion surrounding it. It is the most helpful book on Christology I’ve read, and it is a pleasure to commend it to you!"
—Fred G. Zaspel, Pastor, Reformed Baptist Church, Franconia, Pennsylvania; author, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel
“Exploring our Lord’s person and work from a variety of angles, Wellum engages a wide range of issues and conversation partners. Consolidating the gains of evangelical Christological reflection, this volume makes gains of its own, particularly by wrestling clearly and carefully with contemporary trends in biblical studies as well as philosophical, systematic, and historical theology.”
—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story
"This is a clear, comprehensive, and compelling study. It shows Christology to be like a fabric made up of many threads all tightly woven together, a doctrine with presuppositions, connections, and consequences for the age in which we live. This doctrine is here seen in its wholeness, and that is what makes this study so theologically wholesome. It is fresh and excellent."
—David F. Wells, distinguished senior research professor, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; author, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Postmodern World
"In lucid prose, Wellum lays out the contours of a responsible Christology by tracing the arguments of the New Testament through the determinative early centuries of the Christian church, using such discussion as the jumping-off point for broader theological reflection. This is now the handbook to give to theology students and other Christians who want to understand how confessional orthodoxy regarding the doctrine of Christ developed. Highly recommended."
—D. A. Carson, research professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; cofounder, The Gospel Coalition
"How does the church construct its doctrine of Jesus Christ? Biblicism collects the many verses about Christ and develops a doctrine about his person and work without an overarching framework. Liberalism seeks to paint a nontraditional portrait of Jesus in order to engage with some contemporary issue or to promote a specific political agenda. Experientialism picks and chooses concepts about Jesus that conform to and confirm its idyllic vision of him. Wellum rejects these approaches and offers the church a Christology that is at once biblical, historically grounded, philosophically astute, theologically robust, covenantal, canonical, confessional, and devotional. Often as I read God the Son Incarnate, I had to pause to worship the God-man presented in its pages. This book is absolutely brilliant!"
—Gregg R. Allison, Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
"God the Son Incarnate is a masterful work written by one of evangelicalism’s finest theologians. In this substantial, perceptive, and faithful volume, the doctrine of Christ is ably situated in the biblical story, grounded in biblical theology, related to the historical and contemporary context, and synthesized via systematic theology. The result is that pastors, students, and church leaders alike will mature in their understanding and appreciation of Jesus’s life, deity, humanity, unity, and identity."
—Christopher W. Morgan, Dean and Professor of Theology, California Baptist University
"Good theology depends on good methodology, and here Wellum is second to none. After establishing a philosophical backdrop, Wellum employs exegesis, biblical theology, and historical theology to draw out systematic conclusions that apply Scripture to life. And all our doctrine, he observes, prepares us for Christology or is inferred from it. The theology and life of the church makes sense only when centered on Christ, who is God the Son incarnate, the fulfillment of divine desire and the hope of humanity. Working through these pages, the word that kept occurring to me was 'masterful.' If you only have time for one Christology, start here. I commend it without reservation."
—Jonathan Leeman, Editorial Director, 9Marks; author, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love