God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ

The person of Christ is at the heart of Christianity. But who is he? Wellum’s thesis is that Christ is God the Incarnate Son. Although this proposition may seem obvious to believers, but it is a highly complex reality. This book, divided into four parts, is a robust exposition and defense of classical Christology in the face of ancient heresies and modern reconstructions.

Part One: Epistemological Warrant for Christology Today

The question is, (how) can we know today who Jesus is? The first chapter focuses on two epistemological developments that have had an impact on Christology: the epistemology of Enlightenment rationalism and that of post-modern pluralism. The former “limits knowledge to what can be directly experienced by the autonomous human subject as he experiences and interprets the physical world according to the presuppositions of methodological rationalism” (105). It rejects the Scriptures as divinely inspired and inerrant. It has given rise to the quest for the historical Jesus through historical and literary reconstructions (41). The second is a critique of the Absolute Reason of the Enlightenment, but plunges into the abyss of subjectivity. All knowledge is conditioned by the history and culture of the subject (73). Moreover, “there is no ‘real’ connection between language and reality” (105). This leads to a pluralistic Christology, with everyone making up their own ‘Christ’. “Jesus is neither different in kind nor in degree from other religious figures” (76).

The second chapter presents a biblical epistemology for Christology, in opposition to the errors of modernism and post-modernism. This is a “revelational” epistemology that takes its source in God and his Word, “which is necessary and sufficient to justify and guarantee our Christology” (87).  It implies a Christology “from above”, not “from below” (86). The starting point must be God’s self-revelation, not historical-critical research. Wellum goes on to justify the move from canon to concept, which aims at faithfully synthesizing data from Scripture.

Although Wellum deals with epistemology in relation to Christology, it is easy to make connections with other aspects of theology. This section provides a good introductory critique of modern and post-modern epistemology and a good introduction to biblical epistemology. For those who have already studied these subjects, this section can be largely skimmed. Yet the bridges Wellum builds between these subjects and the development of Christology in recent centuries are illuminating and well worth stopping by.

Part Two: Biblical Warrant for Christology Today

It is in this section that Wellum covers biblical data for Christology. This is a rich section, for the author does not simply quote verses to paint a portrait of Christ. Wellum combines exegesis and biblical theology to give a presentation of Christ that takes into account the whole of Scripture.

Chapter 3 presents the internal structure of the Bible according to the great stages of creation, fall, redemption, and inauguration-consummation, and according to the different covenants culminating in the new covenant inaugurated by Christ. Chapter 4 presents Christ in relation to this structure and its “typological dynamics” (109), considering the witness of Christ and the apostles. Wellum does a thorough job of exegesis of key texts, biblical theology, and systematics to give us a rich presentation of the person of Christ in the context of the whole canon and redemptive history. The conclusion of this work is clear: Jesus is both God and man.

The next two chapters deal with the biblical data concerning his divinity through the divine status he enjoys, his works and his titles; then his humanity by presenting the incarnation and the reasons for it: to fulfill our destiny as the image of God and accomplish our redemption in order to lead us with him in the fulfillment of the divine plan for Man.

Part Three: Ecclesiological Warrant for Christology Today

Wellum begins by clarifying the place of the Church’s witness in the theological enterprise. Scripture alone has “magisterial authority”. The Church’s witness only has “ministerial authority”. Thus, “our articulation of the doctrine must be governed by Scripture and guided by the history of the Church” (254). Here, Wellum presents the development of Christology from the postapostolic era to the 3rd Council of Constantinople (681), with particular attention to the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. His presentation is rigorous. Things get somewhat more theologically complex here. Wellum is careful to define terms and concepts, so that a novice in theology should be able to follow along (although you’ll need to hang on tight, and probably re-read some paragraphs several times!).

Wellum presents in chronological order the major figures who have contributed to the articulation of the doctrine of Christ, each time highlighting the ways in which the various Christological heresies have led to an ever clearer and more precise doctrine.  For anyone wishing to study the history of Christology, this section is a must-read. It is also in this section that Wellum introduces key Christological concepts to which he will return in his final part. I’ll highlight the most important and note a few others in passing.

  • The distinction between “person” and “nature”. A person is “an individual substance of a rational nature” (Boethius’ definition). It is the active subject (the “I”) that subsists in a nature. Nature is “the metaphysical location of attributes and capacities, including will, thought, and other psychological components”. A person is not the same as a soul (425). As applied to the Trinity, there is a divine nature in which three persons subsist. As applied to Christology, Christ is a person with two natures.
  • Enhypostasis: the subject of the incarnation is God the Son, who adds to his divine nature a complete human nature (body and soul) (318).
  • This entails that Christ has two wills, the capacity to will being peculiar to a nature rather than a person. This is called dyothelitism. Among other things, it ensures that Christ’s obedience to his Father was indeed a human obedience (since it came from a human will), which is necessary for man’s salvation.
  • The extra Calvinisticum expresses that “in the Incarnation, the Son not only retained his divine attributes but continued to use them in relation with Trinity” (333).

It is truly amazing to see the progressive refinement of Christological formulations up to Constantinople III (681), where dyothelitism was clearly formulated and monothelitism (a single will in Christ) condemned. The achievements of these various councils have been accepted by the most eminent theologians over the centuries. In recent years, however, this classical conception of Christology has been called into question, even by some evangelicals.

Part Four: A Warranted Christology for Today

In this section, Wellum presents the challenges presented by “kenotic” Christologies, within the evangelical movement itself before putting forward a robust presentation of classical (and biblical!) Christology for today.

I shall restrain my presentation to “evangelical” forms of kenotic Christology only, as these are the ones that should concern us most. They fall into two camps, Ontological Kenotic Christology (OKC), and Functional Kenotic Christology (FKC).

The OKC argues that the Son gave up certain divine attributes in his incarnation, in order to experience a truly human life. According to some, the Son regains all these attributes in his glorification. For others, they are left behind forever. In order to allow the Son to remain divine while losing certain divine attributes, OKC has to redefine the doctrine of God, who now possesses accidental attributes (i.e. non-essential; this runs counter to divine simplicity, the unity of His essence, which cannot be cut into slices like a cake). The result is a God other than Yahweh.

Next, OKC redefines a “person” as a “distinct center of knowledge, will, love, and action” (378). Essentially, it places the capacities of nature (will, thought) in the person. This implies a rejection of the extra Calvinisticum, since the Son is now contained in his human body, and the adoption of a social trinitarianism (with, for example, three wills in God). Although the OKC claims to be within the limits of Chalcedon, it has radically redefined its terms.

FKC is less radical than OKC. It contends that the Son stopped using his divine attributes during his incarnation (to varying degrees, depending on its advocates), explaining Christ’s miracles by his anointing with the Holy Spirit. The FKC follows the OKC in its redefinition of person and nature, embracing monothelitism (one will in Christ).

Although these kenotic Christologies claim to provide better explanations of the Incarnation than classical Christology, Wellum demonstrates that they are not. On the contrary, they create more problems than they solve. They are problematic in terms of their doctrine of God and intra-trinitarian relations, their presentation of Christ’s divinity, their understanding of “person” and Christ’s humanity. These Christologies boast of presenting a more human Christ, but this Christ is emptied of his divinity and left half-human, since he does not possess a properly human soul or will.

In the 13th chapter, Wellum formulates an orthodox Christology for our time. This chapter is marked by three assertions that mark the boundaries of orthodoxy (423). First, “the person of Christ is God the Son in eternal relationship with the Father and the Spirit” (424), where we find a defense of the classical definition of “person”. Second, “the divine person of the Son subsists forever in the divine nature and in a full and sinless human nature”. In other words, “the Incarnation is an addition, not a subtraction” (433). Finally, “the divine and human natures of God the Son persist fully and distinctively as he acts through each according to their attributes”. This is the Christ we need for our redemption.

In Short

This book is a masterpiece, worthy of a Christology textbook for Seminaries. His examination of doctrine is thorough, rigorous, coherent, and stimulating. It interacts with theologians past and present at the cutting edge of Christology. If you can only read one book on Christology, I would recommend this one without hesitation. Theologians and neophytes alike will benefit. This review cannot do justice to the quality of this book, still less to the depth of the doctrine and person of Christ, but I hope it has wetted your appetite to dig deeper into this glorious subject!

Wellum, Stephen J. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016.

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