My first book review for 2017!
Stephen J. Wellum. God the Son Incarnate. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, November 30th 2016. 480 pp.
5 out of 5
This book is a part of Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. I appreciated the series overall and this work on Christology is now among my top favorites in the series. It is quite a meaty work and reading it was no small undertaking. Reading this book makes me appreciate just how much Christian scholarship exists and how much that I still need to tap into. I learned a lot reading this book. In my opinion I think Stephen Wellum’s work is ideal as a seminary text book and for those who desire to seriously study the doctrines related to Christ more deeply. In this review I am going to first summarize each parts and chapters of the book and end with some brief constructive criticisms.
Summarizing the Book
The book is divided into four parts. Part one provides the epistemological warrant to engage in the enterprise of Christology while part two provides the biblical warrant and part three provides the ecclesiological warrant for the final part of the book which presents “a warranted Christology for today.”
I was skeptical of chapter one at first but it turned out to be very good. Here Wellum engages in what he calls “an excavation of epistemology” to show how we have gotten to where we are today with bad Christologies that is epitomized in our society with the Jesus Seminar and the work, The Myth of God Incarnate (one can see the book title God the Son Incarnate is a play on words mimicking that title). Both are examples of the trend in approaching Jesus today of assuming skeptical historical methodology and religious pluralism. But it didn’t come out from nowhere; Wellum looks at the Enlightenment and how it began the shift in epistemology with the introduction of magisterial use of reason versus the ministerial use of reason as practiced by the Reformers. I found it helpful the author’s point that the Enlightenment began the epistemological revolution by changing what society see as plausible structures and eventually what can and can’t be possible or unlikely at all. Wellum points out the three Enlightment principles that the historical-critical method adopts and how it led to skepticism of what’s stated in the Bible. This chapter also looked at three primary influences on contemporary Christology: Kantianism, deism and historical criticism.
Chapter two argues that a “Christology from above” is to be preferred than a “Christology from below.” Here Wellum talks about the criteria/warrant, fact and framework, and sustaining the Christian faith. I was pleasantly surprised that this chapter presents a transcendental argument if you will for a “Christology from above.” Wellum states this explicitly: “To state it in more philosophical language, the authority and reliability of Scripture is the transcendental condition for the very possibility of doing Christology in an objective, normative fashion. Without a word revelation from above that gives the true facts about Jesus and the authoritative interpretation of his identity, Christology loses its integrity, uniqueness, and truthfulness, and it is set adrift in our day to wander into the more of pluralism.” I enjoyed that Wellum even mentioned Greg Bahnsen in the footnotes for further information on Transcendental arguments!
Beginning with chapter three onwards the book transitions to part two of the book that focuses on the biblical warrant for Christology. Chapter three looks at the structures of the Scripture itself with the author noting four epochs and six covenants that is foundational to interpreting the Bible faithfully. Then the thesis of chapter four is that Jesus is God the Son incarnate (the author did say that’s also the thesis for the whole book). Wellum looks at five important aspect in Jesus’ timeline that attests to Him being the Son of God incarnate. Specifically he focuses on Jesus’ baptism, life and ministry, death and resurrection, worshipped received and the kingdom inaugurated. The method of Wellum’s argument is that while Jesus might not have said “I am God the Son incarnate,” yet because He interpreted His works from the framework of the lens of the Old Testament one can’t help but to see Jesus self-identified Himself as God the Son incarnate. Wellum also looks at key passages on the Apostles’ view of Christ. I appreciated how Wellum quoting New Testament scholars in dealing with the Greek text of New Testament passages.
Chapter five looks at the identification of Christ under three basic categories: his divine status, his divine works and his divine titles. Then in chapter six Wellum looks at Christ’s humanity and considers the biblical presentation of the incarnation, the biblical reason for the incarnation and the necessity of the sinlessness of Jesus. I valued the section that discussed Jesus’ internal life of the mind especially with reconciling Jesus’s humanity and Deity. I thought Wellum made a good point in distinguishing Jesus’ supernatural ability to know certain facts that mere humans would not be able to know (such as Lazarus was dead despite being far away, the Samaritan woman having five husbands, etc) in contrast to infinite knowledge. Wellum makes the argument that even in the Old Testament sometimes prophets were able to have supernatural knowledge and it best to understand the supernatural knowledge Jesus had as revelation through the Spirit of God. So these supernatural abilities does not undermine Christ’s humanity.
Personally the part of the book that I learned the most was Wellum’s discussion about the church wrestling through Christology. Wellum does a great work of historical theology within a work on systematic theology in the same way he did a good job with biblical theology in this work of systematic theology; what a rare ability! Chapter seven looks at key terminology for Christological reflections then highlights the emergence of orthodoxy in response to heresies and finally the unique contribution of the Council of Nicaea. Wellum describes various heresies, grouping them as those associated with Judaism, Monarchianism and Gnosticism. I appreciated this chapter in the book since the Council of Nicaea is quite misunderstood in popular culture. Wellum did a good job showing the Council’s contribution towards orthodoxy but at the same time noting how some issues weren’t resolved at Nicaea and won’t be until other councils appeared in church history.
Chapter eight looks at Christology from Nicaea to Chalcedon in three movements. Wellum first describes three developments between Nicaea and Chalcedon then secondly the chapter looks at three false Christologies and finally the chapter looks at Chalcedon and unpacks its significance. I really benefited from this chapter and imagine most Evangelical readers would also as well since I know often we are weak concerning historical theology of things after Nicaea. While I know Chalcedon was important with the doctrine of hypostatic union I valued this chapter explaining the council’s contribution in more details such as how the council argued against docetism, adoptionism, modalism, Arinianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and monphysitism.
Chapter nine of the book looks at Post-Chalcedonian Christology. Here Wellum focuses on four post-Chalcedonian developments in Christology that was crucial in bringing greater clarity to issues left unresolved from Chalcedon. I think this chapter was the chapter that I learned the most new things from. I really enjoyed the discussion on enhypostasia, Extra Calvinisticum and the Monothelite-Dyothelite controversy. I confess I think of these discussion as being that important before until after reading this book and Wellum explaining their significance.
Chapter ten onwards makes up part four of the book which focuses on “a warranted Christology for today.” Part four contains chapters ten through fourteen with chapters ten through twelve taking up the challenges of kenotic Christology, chapter thirteen then presenting a contemporary orthodox formulation of the identity of Christ and finally chapter fourteen address the issue of whether or not orthodox Christology is logically coherent.
Chapter ten gives readers a historical survey of nineteenth century Kenotic Christology. Concerning Continental Kenotic Christology the chapter looked at the views of three individuals that represented the spectrum: Gottfried Thomasius, J.H August Ebrard and W.F. Gess. The chapter also looked at British Kenoticism as represented by Charles Gore, P.T. Forsyth and Hugh Ross Mackintosh. The critique was quite balanced and fair and towards of the chapter the author gives five problems he sees with nineteenth century Kenotic Christology.
Chapter eleven looks at Evangelical theology with Kenotic influences. Here Wellum describes to the readers the views of and Functional Kenotic Christology. He describes how these views are similar and where they are different from each other and where they depart from orthodox classical Christology. Then in chapter twelve Wellum provides a critique of both Ontological and Functional Kenotic Christology.
In Chapter thirteen Wellum work towards a contemporary Evangelical Christology in here his chapter is divided into three categroties: the subject, the meatphysics and the economy of the incarnation. This chapter has one of the best discussion that I have read on nature and person and the distinction between the two though admittedly I found some of the contents in this chapter repetitive of what came before.
The final chapter (chapter fourteen) engages in an “apologetic” concerning biblical Christology. Wellum begins the chapter tackling the question of whether or not orthodox Christology is logically coherent by first outlining the basic charge of various critics followed by a description of how to answer the charge and a response in four points. Here Wellum also discusses about the issue of Christ’s ability to be tempted. He argues cogently for impeccability and I thought he was insightful to note that one’s view of how man’s will is free will (pun unintended) shape how one land concerning Christ being impeccable or not.
In chapter two Wellum ends with the point that he established an argument for Christian epistemology. I wished he fleshed it out some more and while Wellum presents an amazing survey of the flow of epistemology in Western civilization since the birth of Christianity I think the positive argument for Christian epistemology could have been more developed. I do see a role of God’s revelation being self-evidencing and perhaps what I’m looking for is more affirmation of it in chapter two.
While I do believe discussion of theological method is important I felt Wellum’s first few chapters was somewhat of an overkill concerning how much length he devoted in the book to critique the historical flow of philosophy that eventually led the West to reject the biblical presentation of Christ. If I am not mistaken my kindle stated that it was about twenty percent before Wellum got around to touching on the Bible’s view of Christology itself.
There were times that I felt the book was quite repetitive. I felt that with part one of the book. I also felt that this was especially true in part four in which Wellum for the most part was recapping everything that was said in earlier parts of the book.
Don’t let the constructive criticisms fool you: It is a great work of scholarship. It is proof that systematic theology is not just “proof texting” as I sometime hear critics say. Unless Christ returns this book is going to be in the libraries of Pastors, theologians and Christians for decades to come. Even after finishing the book I think this is a great reference to have around to consult in the future.
NOTE: This book was provided to me free by Crossway and Net Galley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.