‘To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.’ So wrote John Henry Newman in his famous essay on doctrinal development. I have critiqued this comment from a confessional Reformed perspective in First Things and will do so again in a forthcoming collection of essays on the Canadian Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan, to be edited by the philosopher R. J Snell. I believe that confessional Protestants do have a good response to Newman on this issue. But after the last six months, I am not sure that the same can be said for Evangelicals. Given all that has emerged in the course of the Trinity debate, the question for them is: Is to be deep in history to cease to be Evangelical?
That is why I want to point Evangelicals towards Stephen Wellum’s new book on Christology. I would say that this is easily the Evangelical book of the year if one is looking for a volume that both makes an important contribution and is likely still to be read with profit ten years from now. Wellum is not one of the high profile Evangelical leaders but, for my money, he is one of their best systematicians and deserves to be widely read and listened to. If one of the key weaknesses with contemporary Evangelicalism is its detachment of biblical theology from dogmatic history, and notions of orthodoxy from church history, then Wellum’s approach is a welcome and necessary corrective.
First, he sets out the challenges to traditional Christology today by looking at the significance of trends in biblical studies since the Enlightenment, and the epistemological and metaphysical challenges that modernity posed for orthodoxy. He also outlines postmodern and postliberal critiques. Second, he discusses the biblical material relevant to Christological discussion. Third, he offers an account – and a remarkably succinct yet thorough account at that – of the development of Christological dogma in the church, culminating in Chalcedon (451) but also addressing post-Chalcedonian developments. This is critical for understanding why the church thinks the way she does. The failure to understand the logic of the historical development of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine is why so much Evangelical theology of the last thirty years has been so poor. Wellum offers a superb example of how a truly Christian theology must address the issue of development. Finally, he looks at modern Christological revisions, particular the kenoticism of Forsyth and others.
Readers may not agree with all of Wellum’s arguments or conclusions but all will come away better informed about the history of Christology and why, for example, dyothelitism, as strange as it first sounds to untrained ears, is so important (p. 348: ‘What is ultimately at stake is the full humanity of Christ and whether Jesus is our all-sufficient Redeemer.’). They will also have seen how systematic theology can be done in a manner which is biblically, theologically, historically, and ecclesiastically responsible.
If Evangelicalism is to have a future connected to historic Christianity, then it will have to do a number of things. It will need to break the nexus of non-ecclesiastical and unaccountable platform, power, and money which currently appears to determine the boundaries of orthodoxy; it will need to recognize that errors on the doctrine of God have historically proved just as lethal to orthodoxy as those on scripture – if not more so; it will need to set its biblical theology in positive relation to systematic theology and the creedal and confessional heritage of the church; and it will need to think long and hard about how orthodoxy is transmitted from generation to generation. As a Brexiteer from the Evangelical world, I myself doubt that it can be done. But if Evangelicals start looking beyond the lighted stage to those like Stephen Wellum, I might well be proved wrong - and happily so, I might add. May his tribe increase.