Dr. Stephen Wellum on Teaching and Doing Christology

wellum-christology

We recently featured Dr. Stephen Wellum’s book God the Son Incarnate as our Book of the Week. We were especially impressed by the methodical argumentation of the book, and wanted to ask him some further questions about that, as well as other issues we found intriguing in the book. He obliged us with some serious and helpful answers. Many thanks to Dr. Wellum for the following discussion!

Exegetical Tools

Your book is put together very thoughtfully, with the four parts providing different sorts of warrant for your thesis and protecting from possible objections. How did this book come about, and how did the book develop into its final structure?

Dr. Stephen Wellum

The book was structured according to how I approach the doing of theology and the teaching of systematic theology in the seminary. In thinking through how best to present the glorious doctrine of the person of Christ—namely, who the Jesus of the Bible is and the nature of the incarnation—I wanted to illustrate how to move from biblical text to theological formulation while standing on the shoulders of the Christology of the Church. For the sake of the truth of the Gospel, I am deeply committed to teaching theology and demonstrating to students how to do theology and then actually do it. Too much of our theologizing merely ends in prolegomena, as important as first things are. However, proper theological method must actually lead to the drawing of theological conclusions vis-à-vis other theological proposals and this is especially important in this foundational doctrine of Christ’s identity. Let me explain my thinking in regard to the structure of the book in three points.

First, all theologizing, including Christology, is done within a Christian worldview which is grounded and warranted by Scripture. This is why I argued for a “Christology from above,” and I defined such as approach as beginning with Scripture as God’s authoritative word written. All that we say about Christ must be warranted by Scripture which not only gives us the facts of who Jesus is but also the authoritative interpretation of who he is. We cannot make theological conclusions about Christ and his identity as God the Son incarnate apart from God’s word-act revelation which is fully authoritative and true.

In addition, Scripture warrants what we say about our Lord’s identity in the entire canon. Jesus comes embedded to us within the Bible’s own theological framework, beginning with who the triune God is, the nature of human beings and the human problem, and the entire promise-plan of God as unfolded through the covenants. Our Lord is identified within this storyline and biblical worldview framework and apart from understanding who he is within this storyline, the Jesus we seek to identify will not be the Jesus of the Bible. This is the point I sought to make in chapter 2 of Part 1, and I called this approach not only a “Christology from above” but also “intratextual,” that is, doing Christology by drawing identity conclusions from within the entire canon of Scripture.

Second, before I described my methodological approach to theology (which I argue is what the church has always done under the motto, “faith seeking understanding”), I set it over against the historical critical method of the Enlightenment and what has morphed into what we label the “modern” and “postmodern” world. Acknowledging the problematic nature of these categories, I thought it important to compare and contrast what occurred in the Enlightenment to what orthodox theology has done in laying out a doctrine of Christ. Up until the Enlightenment there was a consistent voice regarding Christ’s identity, namely that Jesus is God the Son incarnate. Yet, in the Enlightenment (and even before) there is a concerted effort to do Christology “from below,” namely from within the confines of the historical-critical method and the worldview(s) bound up with it. Given this methodological shift (tied to entire worldview shifts), it is no surprise that Chalcedonian Christology was rejected and replaced by various aberrant Christological formulations which have continued to our own day. Instead of discussing individual after individual during this time period, I opted to explain why our own day is full of Christological confusion due to this intellectual history. By setting an evangelical, orthodox approach to Christology over against the Enlightenment and its continued effects in non-orthodox theology, I was attempting to illustrate what not to do and precisely what to do in Christological formulation.

In the end, I was seeking to establish that all Christological formulation must be done within an orthodox Christian theology, warranted by Scripture as God’s authoritative presentation of who Jesus is. In presenting Part 1 of the book this way, I am hoping to encourage Christians to think theologically and apologetically about how doctrine is done and ultimately how Christ is proclaimed to our world. In the end, Christians do theology from within a Christian worldview and we do not seek to understand who Jesus in apart from the entire storyline of Scripture and the God-given theological framework of Scripture. In fact, to attempt to do Christology in any other way only leads to disaster, which unfortunately the Enlightenment and contemporary approaches illustrate.

Third, after Part 1, Parts 2-4 naturally followed. Part 2 sought to work through the entire canon of Scripture and give the basic biblical data in regard to Christ’s identity. As stated, Jesus does not come to us in a vacuum but within the entire storyline and theological framework of Scripture and it is important to place Jesus within the Bible’s own presentation. In doing so, I sought to work from OT to the NT, from the Gospels to the Epistles, and to let the Bible speak as to who Jesus is as the eternal Son become flesh; as the divine Son who becomes son, and why it was necessary for the incarnation to take place in order to redeem us from our sin. In Part 3, I then turned to historical theology to learn how our forefathers “put together” the biblical data in such a way as to do justice to the entire biblical presentation of Christ. In moving from Part 2 to 3, I am not suggesting that it is a straight line from our exegesis to theological formulation. Instead, I am attempting to demonstrate that as the Church carefully reflected on the biblical data in light of legitimate questions and heretical formulations, over time a consistent affirmation of who Jesus is emerged which was true to Scripture. This consistent theological formulation is not only represented by the Chalcedonian Definition but also by later Councils which developed Chalcedonian insights. Thus, from the early Church through the medieval era to the Reformation, a consistent understanding of the incarnation resulted, which correctly grasped the biblical teaching in all of its depth and breadth.

Yet, at the end of Part 3, I sought to demonstrate that a mediating view emerged, namely kenotic Christology, which departed from the consistent affirmation of the Church. Unfortunately, the kenotic view also emerged within evangelical theology. After offering a critique of these kenotic views, in Part 4, I sought to state and encourage a classical view of the incarnation for the Church today, arguing that the wisdom of the past is what we should be confessing in our proclamation of our glorious Lord and Savior.

In a nutshell this is how the book was structured. My goal was not only to give a current evangelical formulation of Christ’s identity but to do so in way that is first, faithful to Scripture, second, true to historical theology, and third, an illustration of how to move rightly from biblical text to theological formulation.

ET

The book is good size at 495 pages (including indices), but it seems evident to me you were forced to be selective on some topics and perhaps even to omit sections you would have liked to have in here (e.g., the four apostolic passages on Christology could have been multiplied). If you could have expanded this book further, what else would you have added, or what sections would you have expanded?

Wellum

The final product was quite a bit shorter than the first draft—around 80,000 words shorter! First, Part 1 was greatly reduced as the contemporary context to our doing Christology today was kept to a minimum. In addition, within Part 1 the section on theological method was reduced but my basic methodology and approach was kept, thus laying the groundwork to Parts 2-4. It was thought that too much detail in Part 1 would bog down the reader and result in a volume on intellectual history and theological method instead of Christology. Yet, the basic content of Part 1 remains due to my conviction that our doing of evangelical theology must take into consideration our contemporary challenges and not only consider these challenges, but self-consciously approach theology from within a larger Christian worldview. In our theologizing about Christ and our proclamation of him, we must do so in such a way that we go head-to-head with the worldviews of our day and present the truth of the Gospel within the entire storyline of God’s authoritative Word.

Second, Part 2 was also greatly reduced. If I had more space, I would have expanded this section and this is my only regret about the book. However, although this section was shorter, the basic points remain. For example, you are correct about the four apostolic texts. I would have expanded beyond these four passages. Yet, these texts were carefully chosen to illustrate the overall point I wanted to make: the identity of Jesus is presented to us from within the Bible’s storyline and thus the Bible does not offer merely an ontological or functional Christology but both. Jesus is eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, who, in taking on our human nature, becomes son, that is, becomes man and thus fulfills all of God’s plans and purposes as our new covenant head and mediator. Too many times, evangelical Christology has merely listed all the deity of Christ texts and then the humanity texts, which is not illegitimate. But what I sought to convey is how biblical Christology works. Jesus is the divine Son who becomes son so that in Scripture, we must think of Jesus as Yahweh (and thus fully God), and simultaneously as the greater Adam (and thus fully human). In stating it this way, I am seeking to confirm what David Yeago has taught: theological judgments made by the early church regarding Christ’s identity may be different in terminology but they are exactly the same in meaning and content.

Third, very little was reduced from Part 3 since I wanted to demonstrate from historical theology the consistent affirmation of Christ’s identity. In my own training, historical theology was a weak point, and it was thinking through the classical, orthodox Christology of the Church to Chalcedon and beyond which was most helpful for me. Part 4 was also reduced and if I had more space, I would have developed this section as well. But overall, the basic content of the book remained along with its overall structure.

ET

I was surprised to read about the variants of the Evangelical kenotic positions and some prominent Christian philosophers and theologians who hold to them. Do you think any variants of this position can be considered orthodox Christology? Would any of the councils have deemed the position heretical?

Wellum

This is a tricky question to answer. As I sought to argue in Part 3, there is a consistent affirmation of orthodox Christology until the Enlightenment which I believe is what evangelicals ought to affirm today. The kenotic tradition beginning in the 19th century is an attempt to offer a via media between orthodoxy and Enlightenment liberalism and even within the kenotic tradition there are varieties as evidenced by an ontological vs. a functional kenotic viewpoint. When it comes to the 19th century version of kenoticism and current ontological varieties, I do not see how these views can be reconciled with classical, orthodox Christology. Previous councils would view them as out of bounds.

The functional view is much more difficult to assess because all proponents of this version of kenoticism want to affirm the basic parameters of Chalcedon, yet different definitions of “person” are at debate. What I argue is that the functional kenotic views now popular in certain quarters of evangelicalism are unwise, and that the better path to follow is the classical presentation of Christ. I do think that the acceptance of monothelitism (one will) is out of step with later Councils and this is probably the one area that is most difficult for current evangelical kenotic views to reconcile with the orthodox tradition.

ET

On p. 85, you make a crucial point for your thesis: because current Christological discussions are determined by worldviews and presuppositions, a biblical Christology must proceed from the Bible’s self-presentation of Christ as the only way to identify him rightly.” How might you respond to a modern objector who claims the biblical authors’ worldview was outdated and full of errors, and thus we must use more sophisticated philosophy and worldview to ‘get behind’ the Bible’s worldview to reality?

Wellum

This is an excellent question and a very important one which I seek to tackle in Part 1. Although much needs to be said to offer a robust response, I would say something like the following.

First, everyone has a worldview and no one is neutral in this regard. The objector is simply demonstrating through his claim that the biblical view is outdated and full of errors that his worldview is not the biblical worldview, which is really no surprise.

But, second, this observation only begins the discussion. As Christians we accept the biblical view for a variety of reasons but ultimately based on Scripture’s own self-attestation. The objector too has a worldview, but he needs to explain precisely what that worldview is and the grounds within his view for why he thinks the biblical worldview is wrong. In other words, the objector must warrant why his view is correct and why it can account for the world over against the biblical view. Inevitably this leads us to worldview apologetics where we compare and contrast the Christian worldview with its non-Christian rival and argue that it is only on the basis of the Christian view that we can account for knowledge, meaning, morality, truth, and so on, and that the non-Christian view on its own terms cannot.

Obviously this would involve a lengthy discussion but it does illustrate that all people look at life, including Christology, through a worldview and that we must argue for our worldview. Systematic theology, as illustrated by the doing of Christology, and apologetics are intertwined and ultimately we cannot do one without the other.

ET

You’ve been quite prolific recently (feel free to mention those books if you’d like). What other publications can we expect to see from you in the next 5-10 years?

Wellum

By God’s grace, I am now at a point in my life where I am beginning to take years of teaching and turn that work into various publications. I am very thankful to work at Southern Seminary which not only encourages research and writing but also provides the opportunity to do so. As the Lord allows, I am hoping to build on what I have published. My earlier work, along with my colleague, Peter Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant, came out of the research for this book. In thinking about a biblical Christology I was driven to think in terms of a “whole-Bible” which is Christocentric. In thinking how the Bible is Christocentric, my work on the covenants resulted, along with the edited work with Brent Parker, Progressive Covenantalism.

In April, Zondervan will publish as part of the Solas series my Christ Alone, which builds on this work but develops more the work of Christ, specifically a theology of the atonement tied to the sufficiency of Christ’s person and work. After that I am working on a popular book with a former student, Trent Hunter, on how the Bible fits together, and then a systematic theology which will seek to develop the methodology in this work but now applied to each doctrinal area. These are my most immediate works (plus a few other things).

By God’s strength and grace, my goal is to take what I teach every day in the classroom and make it accessible for others. If my work helps Christians know, love, obey, and glory in our great triune God in the face of God the Son incarnate, I will consider all the hard work worth it. In the end, our aim in studying Scripture and doing theology is to glory in and enjoy our covenant triune God now and forevermore.

Read more about Wellum’s God the Son Incarnate at our post here, or preview and buy it here on Amazon. Also check out my short note on how Wellum’s historical section in God the Son Incarnate reminded me of the time I realized I was a heretic.




Tagged on:
0
0