Today we’ll be introduced to Stephen Wellum, a theologian-professor still very much alive today. Herman Bavinck took us back a couple of centuries, and Nicholas of Myra took us back to the 4th century. But we can’t forget that every generation needs its own theologians to help it navigate the intersection of Scripture and contemporary culture.
In “God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ,” Dr. Wellum writes on a variety of issues concerning the person and work of Christ, or christology. He covers everything from early church councils to modern-day interpretive concerns to redemption.
In one chapter, “The Identity of Jesus From the Storyline of Scripture,” Dr. Wellum traces the awareness that Jesus had of himself throughout the gospel accounts. What did Jesus see has his mission? To whom did Jesus seek to be obedient? How did those delimitations affect what he did and why? To interpret the gospels rightly, we must understand who Jesus understood himself to be.
Wellum begins by writing, “As the Lord of Scripture—both its subject and its object—God has provided and preserved the written revelation of his redemption in a particular form that shapes every reading.” All he means is that to interpret Scripture rightly, we must interpret it on its own terms. This also means that we must let Jesus interpret himself for us; Jesus must be understood in light of what Scripture promises and how Jesus fulfilled those promises. Understanding who Jesus is and what he does is a non-negotiable for the reader of Scripture.
First, to understand the person and work of Christ, we must recognize that he appears at a particular point in the biblical storyline. Jesus is not a last-ditch effort save us or a guy who made the best with what he had. Jesus Christ appears as God in “the last epoch that sees the inauguration of God’s kingdom and the new covenant between God and man with terms for their own reconciliation.” Jesus operated as the Son of God and as the Son of Man with purpose.
“[Jesus] did not see himself and his role in redemptive history apart from all that the triune God had been doing in the world from its original creation.” There always has been and always will be one story of redemption. At times, dividing Scripture into Old and New works against its intended purpose. Scripture as early as Genesis 3:15 looks forward to a savior! While Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, he must be understood to be inseparable from it, as well.
All of Scripture is Christocentric, meaning that “the entire plan of God for humanity and all of creation centers in the person of Christ.”
Also, all of Scripture is Christotelic, meaning that “the entire plan of God moves to its conclusion in Christ" [emphasis mine]. God’s plan unfolds in stages through various covenants, consummating in the new covenant formed in the blood of Christ. The apostles believed they, and by extension we, were/are living in the last days, which Christ inaugurated in his death and resurrection.
Wellum goes on to write about the implicit and explicit claims Jesus made concerning himself. For the purposes of a blog, we will only focus on the implicit claims this week and the explicit claims next week.
The first implicit claim Jesus makes is through his baptism. “Jesus knew that to have the Spirit from the Father for the sake of righteousness signaled that he was the promised Messiah and that the messianic age had dawned—an age identified [...] with God’s sovereign, saving rule.” We’re told in Mark 1:10 that “he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him.” God then spoke to Jesus, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11). Jesus identifies with God the Father through his baptism.
Secondly, Jesus’ life/earthly ministry, namely his teaching and miracles, bear witness to Christ’s divinity. “Jesus’ teaching highlights the authority he shares with God himself. It is through his teaching (in part) that Jesus brings the kingdom of God into this world in ‘this present age.’” Even though the Old Testament presents others who perform great miracles, such as Moses and Elijah, none of them do so with any sense of inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus himself notes the authority with which he teaches when he often says, “I say to you...”
Alongside his extensive teaching ministry, Jesus also shows his authority over nature, which he shares with the Father, in performing many miracles. “The development of the drama of redemption reveals that the Lord alone triumphs over the stormy sea [...] and treads upon its water [...]” (emphasis mine). In his authoritative teaching and his authority over creation, Jesus proves his divinity “by doing what God alone can do.”
Thirdly, Jesus identifies as God by his ability and authority to judge. “Jesus knew that he came as the appointed judge of all humanity and that his verdict assigns every person to either eternal punishment or eternal life.” This authority was given to him by the Father as a necessary correlation of the Son’s kingship over creation.
Fourthly, Jesus’ resurrection is an implicit claim of his divinity. “As he approached his death, Jesus did not view it as martyrdom but as central to his divinely planned messianic mission.” In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus claims that he must die; it is not just a possibility or one way out of many. Jesus died “as a voluntary, obedient act according to the will of his Father that was planned before the foundation of the world.”
In line with the Christotelic thought, Jesus says in Luke 18:31 “that by his death, ‘everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.’” Jesus’ death is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, it brings divine judgment on a fallen world, removes Satan as its prince, and inaugurates Christ’s kingship.
Fifthly, only God is worthy of worship, and Christ permits people to worship him. God says in Isaiah 42:8, “My glory I give to no other.” Worship of Christ, therefore, is either necessary or blasphemy. Wellum notes that Jesus demands worship. “Knowing that the Father had committed divine authority to him to judge as God himself, Jesus also understood the purpose of this power: ‘that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him’ (John 5:23).”
Lastly, by fulfilling all of the above requirements, Jesus implicitly identifies as God by inaugurating the kingdom of God. “It is God who must act in power and grace to save his people, yet he will do so through a human king—and thus the close identification of Yahweh and the king. It is quite revealing, then, for Jesus to appear, knowing these kingdom expectations, and to claim to meet them all.” By his baptism, teaching, performance of miracles, and resurrection, Jesus inaugurates the coming kingdom of God.
Next week, we will take a look at how Stephen Wellum explores the explicit claims made by Jesus about himself. We will also form a summary statement of why knowing exactly who Jesus claims to be matters deeply for our own discipleship.
I want to punch a heretic for Christmas; only punching a heretic will do. Or, "The legend of St. Nicholas of Myra and the elders meeting that went awry."
Today we're hitching a ride in the way-back machine to be introduced to a theologian who knew that some bad ideas are best handled by raining blows down upon heretics.
“He hasn’t changed one iota.” We might say something like this out of frustration or out of joy, depending on the circumstances. But all we mean is that someone hasn't changed very much at all, if the change is even noticeable. An "iota" is a Greek letter, and it looks like this: ι. You can imagine why this nearly imperceptible symbol became a metaphor for petty amounts of change.
The inverse is also true. What might seem like meager differences can veritably change the entire meaning of a word or idea. One letter can make all the difference by completely changing the meaning of a word.
Homoousis or homoiousis. There was, what some might call, a fervid church business meeting about the iota that changes the meaning of those words. But before we take a peek at history, we need to know why those words are important.
In English, those words translate as "same (homo-) substance" or "similar (homoi-) substance." These two words refer to the Son’s relationship to the Father. Here's the question before us: is Christ of the same substance as the Father or not; IE, is Jesus Christ fully God while taking on humanity in the incarnation? Or...not?
One is orthodox and biblical, and the other was condemned in every generation as heresy since the early church. My, how one letter can make a difference.
In our contemporary culture, determining what's true and good is considered an arbitrary task best left in the hands of elitist experts who are better suited than us plebs to decide what truth is. But as Christians, we believe that entire truths hinge on the correct definitions of words, and those truths are true for everyone because they come from God. It is not bigoted or cruel to unflinchingly adhere to God's truth.
So let's look at the Bible. When you read "only Son," that is actually one word in Greek: monogenes. While it's not as common any more, some English Bibles use the word "begotten" instead of "only."
John 1.14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only (monogenes, begotten) Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 3.16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only (monogenes, begotten) Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
1 John 4.9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only (monogenes, begotten) Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
But what does Paul mean when he says, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn (protokos) of all creation" (Colossians 1.15)? Is he teaching that Jesus is created, not eternal like the Father and Spirit?
A bishop by the name of Arius (b. 256, d. 336) determined that monogenes, or only or begotten, meant the Son was brought into existence by the Father at a point in time. What they meant was that Jesus must have been created; he is not co-eternal with the Father, which calls into question his divinity, which calls into question his ability to save sinners.
For context, Jehovah's Witnesses are modern-day Arians. They read Revelation 3.14 (...the beginning of God's creation) as a prooftext that beginning is referring to creation at a point in time. However, it cannot mean this since the Father uses the same language about himself in Revelation 1.8 (“I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”) then by Jesus again in Revelation 22.13 (“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”). A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.
Prototokos does literally mean “first-born,” but it is referring to the birthright and status, not order of birth. The meaning in context is that Jesus has the authority and the rights of a firstborn son in respect to creation. The NIV does a little bit more interpretation but conveys the meaning better than a more literal translation: “the firstborn over all creation.”
All of this led to a debate on whether or not Christ was equal to God. And it all came down to single words! Actually, it came down to the difference of a single letter.
This is not a debate where Christians can agree to disagree. One idea is true, and the other is not. If Christ is not God, then Christianity is paganism.
Welcome to the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Arius had been teaching from the passages listed above what the church had already been rejecting, that Christ was a created being (as was the Holy Spirit). Whatever begotten and firstborn might mean in some contexts, it does not mean created in any of them.
If Christ was created, this meant that even though he existed before the universe and therefore is greater than it, he does not share all the qualities of divinity that the Father does. Hence, homoiousis, of similar substance but not identical, needed to be rejected out of hand based on the biblical evidence.
Here are just a few of the implications of this heresy: Christ was not fully God and therefore did not share in God’s attributes. He may have had heightened senses or abilities in a way similar to angels (or Spiderman for that matter), but he was not divine. If he was not divine, he was not perfectly able to bear the weight of God's wrath on the cross. If Jesus is only like the Father, by extension your sins are not paid for and you still bear the full weight of your guilt before God.
Ultimately it’s lazy interpretation. It ignores the context and tries to fit presupposed ideas into prooftexted passages.
Here is the statement of belief that arose from the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, called the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the virgin Mary.
The same statement was reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. “Before all ages” was added at that time.
So why today? What does this have to do with Christmas?
St. Nicholas was a real person (b. 270, d. 343). He was a bishop in Myra, a Greek city. What follows is more than likely not entirely true, but it's been recorded and passed down for centuries. And I'll be honest, it's a much better story than an anonymous fat man breaking and entering to leave unidentified packages next to your fireplace for your innocent children. The legends of St. Nicholas were not recorded until 1300s, and it changed again later.
At the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the debate got pretty heated. The Roman emperor Constantine had declared the empire to be Christian (cause that's how it works?), so to deal with those in the minority who were teaching error, he convened a council of bishops to settle the matters. (To be clear, it is not that these things weren't decided until the council and big mean men demonized minority positions. It was because there were church leaders teaching against well-settled doctrines that the councils were convened.) Some of the language and behavior was edging on acrimonious. But hey, when the divinity of Christ is called into question by fellow church leaders, that is not the time to be collegial. You fight like men.
In one of the tellings, Nicholas had had enough. So naturally, he stood up, walked across the room, and slapped Arius right in the face. The council is offended, so they strip his mitre and pallium, symbols and vestments of an archbishop. But they were returned when the council was over.
Later, the story is changed to Nicholas punching Arius, also having his mitre and pallium removed, and he is then thrown in jail. But to vindicate him, Jesus and the blessed virgin Mary visit Nicholas in prison. Jesus asks why he’s there, to which Nicholas replies, “For loving you.” Jesus returns his vestments to him, and the council recognizes their mistake.
For some fun, here are some other fantastic tales of ol' St. Nick.
In his day, dowries were still a thing. There was a man with three daughters, but he could not afford three dowries. Nicholas catches wind of his difficulties, and to save the daughters from each becoming a fille de joie to support themselves, Nicholas throws three bags of money into a window under cover of darkness to ensure their safety through matrimony.
St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of the sea and sailors in Greek Orthodoxy. The chronicle goes that while on a boat traveling across the sea with several other mariners, a storm nearly capsized the vessel. Nicholas prayed, and the ship and its occupants were saved.
Dutch setters in America started the tradition of St. Nicholas helping celebrate the incarnation. Like what often happens to fables, they all coalesce into a single narrative when the wider culture accepts them.
Nicholas of Myra was a bastion of biblical truth. Now he's pictured as a cardiologist's nightmare with unfettered access to everyone's house and questionable taste in winter attire.
Here's the point Nicholas was making by (possibly) punching dissenters: the divinity of Christ is a critical component of biblical theology, and it is not an “agree to disagree” issue. Jesus is God and worthy of worship. The efficacy of the crucifixion and the validity of our redemptions rests on the substitutionary sacrifice being both God and man.