Christ Over Doctrine

In its most basic sense, systematic theology, or dogmatics, is the orderly, comprehensive study of the triune God and all things in relation to him. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly answers the all-important question—“What is the chief end of man?”—“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” There is nothing more urgent for humans as God’s creatures than knowing God. And especially for God’s redeemed people in Christ, there is no higher calling than delighting in our triune God in all of his majesty, beauty, and holy splendor. The life and health of the church is directly dependent on our knowledge of God, which is central to the theological task.

But in thinking about the theological task, is it possible to propose a central point around which all theological reflection turns? My answer is yes, and my proposal is that our Lord Jesus Christ is central to all theological reflection. My suggestion is not new to me. In fact, Herman Bavinck made the same point years ago when he wrote: “The doctrine of Christ is not the starting point, but it certainly is the central point of the whole system of dogmatics. All other dogmas either prepare for it or are inferred from it” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, 274).

In our day, Michael Reeves has proposed something similar. As he answers the question of what is central to theology and doctrine, he suggests that “the center, the cornerstone, the jewel in the crown of Christianity is not an idea, a system or a thing; it is not even ‘the gospel’ as such. It is Jesus Christ” (Rejoicing in Christ, 10).

It is crucial to remember that theology is more than a bag of marbles, that is, isolated doctrines that are somehow related to each other. Theology, instead, is more like a beautiful tapestry which finds its coherency in Christ. It is Christ who brings coherence to the whole of theology, and each doctrine cannot be understood apart from him. Let me offer four examples to underscore this point and to illustrate how Christ is central to the theological task.

Four Ways to See the Christ-Centeredness of Theology

1. The doctrine of the Trinity is Christ-Centered.

This fundamental truth about God is ultimately revealed to us by the divine Son’s incarnation. The church confesses that God is triune because Scripture reveals the coming of God the Son as a man in eternal relation to the Father and the Spirit. Christ, then, opens our eyes to see the Father, Son, and Spirit working inseparably, yet distinctly as the one Creator-covenant Lord.

2. The doctrine of humanity is Christ-Centered.

Although we discover much about who we are in creation, we cannot truly understand who we are in all of our dignity and fallen state apart from comprehending the person and work of Christ. In light of Christ, who is the true image of God in relation to the Father and the one who assumes our image in his humanity, we discover in a greater way who we are as created and redeemed by Christ. In Christ, the divine Son incarnate, we discover all that we were created to be and are confident that it will be fully realized in him.

3. The doctrine of salvation is Christ-Centered.

At the heart of Scripture is how God’s eternal plan begins in creation and is consummated in the new creation. Yet we cannot truly understand what salvation is apart from Christ’s person and all-sufficient work. Christ alone makes sense of what salvation is and how we are justified before God and reconciled with our Creator and Lord. We cannot even begin to understand what salvation is apart from him.

4. The doctrine of the atonement is Christ-Centered.

At the heart of Scripture and the gospel is the cross. In his classic work, The Cross of Christ, John Stott argues that we cannot fully grasp the biblical language about Christ’s death and what he has achieved for us as our penal substitute apart from correct conclusions regarding the person of Christ. After surveying a number of options in Christology, Stott draws this crucial conclusion:

If the essence of the atonement is substitution . . . the theological inference is that it is impossible to hold the historic doctrine of the cross without holding the historic doctrine of Jesus Christ as the one and only God-man and Mediator . . . At the root of every caricature of the cross lies a distorted Christology. The person and work of Christ belong together. If he is not what the apostles say he was, then he could not have done what they say he did. The incarnation is indispensable to the atonement.

(159)

By properly understanding the substitutionary death of Christ we gain clarity in all other doctrines—the nature of sin, God’s sovereign grace in sending his Son, along with the wisdom and goodness of the triune God in his glorious redemptive plan to overcome evil and to restore his creation. God’s glory in all his redemptive purposes is not fully known apart from Christ.

Letting the Lordship of Christ Reign

More examples from theology could be given to prove our point, but suffice it to say: Christ is central to our entire theology and is in this sense “over doctrine.” But if this is so, it is not surprising that to misidentify Christ is so serious.

In fact, this is why Jeremy Jackson rightly states that at the heart of all heresy and false understandings of doctrine is a distortion or denial of Christ (No Other Foundation, 31–42). This is why one’s view of Christ and his work is ultimately a test case for our entire theology. The more our Christology is off, the more our theology will be wrong in other areas. “Ideas have consequences,” and the most central “idea” to get right in our theology is Christology.

There are many beliefs that distinguish Christianity from other worldviews, but none as significant as the person and work of Christ. If we misinterpret who Christ is and what he has done in his life, death, and resurrection, then all other doctrines will suffer. Misidentifying Christ will cause confusion in the church and harm our witness in the world. For this reason, the question of Jesus’s identity is not merely academic or something for theologians to ponder; it is a question vital for all people to consider since life and death ultimately hang on it.

This point is so vital to emphasize especially for today’s church. If the latest polls are correct, confusion abounds regarding who Jesus is within evangelicalism.[1] Given this confusion, it is not surprising that the evangelical church is tossed back and forth by every wind of doctrine.

1. For example, see the Ligonier/Lifeway Poll (2022) at https://thestateoftheology.com/ and evangelical responses.

One of the purposes of Christ Over All, therefore, is to respond to this confusion by giving sound theology, especially in relation to Christ and his lordship over all. If the church is to fulfill her calling to know and glorify God, we must return to sound theology, and this must begin with a proper understanding of who the triune God is in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. To that end we labor, and we pray that our Lord might confirm the work of our hands.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).