Three Reasons Every Thoughtful Christian Should Read Wellum’s New Systematic Theology

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Calvin, Aquinas, Turretin. Berkhof, Hodge, Bavinck. Frame, Grudem, Horton. Gratefully, modern pastors have a large swath of insightful systematic theologies to peruse. Some are voices from distant history; other influential works have been written in recent years. We owe a significant debt to these theologians, who ask and answer the kinds of questions that the church in every generation wrestles with for its own edification and the spread of the gospel.

This all begs the question: if we have so much systematic theological material, delivered over many centuries, why do we need yet another one in 2024? Why give time and energy to read Dr. Stephen Wellum’s new systematic theology? Does his work offer something unique? My resounding answer is: “Yes!”

Let me give you three reasons why every thoughtful Christian in 2024 should read Wellum’s magisterial new work.

1. It is a theology considered in light of our present cultural moment and thus functions as a new Christian apologetic.

Dr. Wellum righty says that “systematic theology is never done in a vacuum” (32).[1] He explains that the “theological task is not only to formulate doctrine correctly but also to defend the truth in light of our specific challenges” (32). In the 13th century, Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologica in the context of a scholasticism that demanded the Church defend the reasonableness of the Christian faith to nonbelievers. Three centuries later, Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion to defend the Protestant church as it was being falsely accused and persecuted by its Catholic opponents.

1. All page numbers are from Stephen J. Wellum, Systematic Theology: From Canon to Concept, vol. 1 (Brentwood, TN: B&H Academic, 2024).

Likewise, Wellum seeks to do theology to “help the church fight the battle of our day, which is the battle over whether objective truth is possible and over its epistemological warrant” (34). This battle is over entire worldviews, or social imaginaries. As a result of our current Zeitgeist, historic theology is now viewed with skepticism. In brief, Wellum cogently argues that the Enlightenment sowed seeds of skepticism that cultivated modernity and postmodernity. These seeds resulted in the rejection of sola Scriptura, which in turn led to a rejection of a “theology from above” (36). Today, then, the church must reject doing theology “from below” and instead retrieve again a theology “from above.” Wellum claims that “the church must learn to articulate, defend, and proclaim the truth from a revelational ground, and not a modern or postmodern one” (78).

Today the central debate is whether truth is possible. The plausibility structures have changed with “people no longer thinking that objective truth is possible to attain” (80). Our battle today is over entire worldviews, which demands that theology “must start from the Bible’s own view of reality, knowledge, and moral norms.” (82). Furthermore, we must present the Bible’s view of reality as an integrated, comprehensive “package” because this is the only way for theology to be viewed as plausible in our present cultural moment.

Wellum’s aim in his theological project is not to merely catalogue theological doctrines, but to develop and present an entire counter-cultural worldview—to offer a “theology from above.” This “package” begins with the Triune God and His word-revelation and then showcases a full-orbed picture of God, this world, and the church. For pastors, this sort of approach will prove fruitful for not only teaching Christians how to think theologically, but equipping them to think well as they present this compelling “package” to those outside the church.

2. It is a theology that presents doctrine in a way that respects the Bible’s own theological framework.

This may be viewed as an unfair assertion, as every systematic theologian would claim this goal! However, not every systematic theologian reaches this goal. The reality is that we all bring particular theological frameworks to our doctrinal studies. We may have a dispensational or covenant theology framework. We may lean Calvinist or lean Arminian in our reading of the scriptures. Thus, we may be tempted to overlay the biblical text with our personal frameworks, looking at the text through our pet lenses to confirm from the text already-held beliefs. This can be dangerous.

Wellum speaks candidly: “Scripture already gives us a specific theology and worldview, and our ‘making sense’ of it, that is, the constructive task of theology, must be true to the Bible’s own biblical-theological framework” (394). What is refreshing about this assertion is that Wellum doesn’t deny the existence of pre-existing frameworks. Rather, he contends that the Bible itself has a theological framework that we must discern and then utilize in our doctrinal development.

What is the biblical-theological framework that the scriptures themselves give us? Wellum claims it is first rooted in the four plot movements of the Bible: Creation; Fall; Redemption; New Creation. Broadly speaking, this is the Christian worldview—the Christian alternative to secular ideologies. So, for example, to understand Jesus truly, we must first locate Him within the interpretive framework of Creation-Fall-Redemption-New Creation. Otherwise, “we are left with a Jesus of our own imagination” (426). Thus, Jesus is tied to the Creator God of Genesis 1. He is on the Creator side of the Creator-creature distinction. This is a crucial starting place as we seek to develop biblical Christology.

Wellum takes one step further in seeking to articulate the Bible’s biblical-theological framework. While the Bible’s plot movements offer a wide-angle lens that shapes the Biblical worldview, we must also discern the unfolding of God’s eternal plan from creation to new creation. We do this by zooming in closely on the biblical terrain and examining the Bible’s own content, categories, and intra-systematic structures (484). Wellum states: “our goal is to put together scripture according to its own presentation, content, and categories” (431). He proposes that “progressive covenantalism” is the best way to make sense of the Bible’s own categories for interpreting itself.

What is progressive covenantalism?[2] It is a framework where “scripture presents a plurality of covenants (Gal 4:24; Eph 2:12; Heb 8:7-13) that progressively reveal our triune God’s one redemptive plan for his one people, which reaches its fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ and the new covenant” (431). More specifically “kingdom through the progression of covenants captures the fundamental dynamic at work as God’s redemptive plan unfolds, which starts with Adam and creation and culminates in Christ” (432).

2. For the most thorough treatment of Progressive Covenantalism, please see Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, Second Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

This is perhaps the greatest contribution that Wellum’s systematic theology makes to the modern church. To my knowledge, no systematic theology attempts to recognize the Bible’s own interpretive framework and then apply it broadly to the development of doctrine—using Biblical categories and language and not imposing extra-biblical categories and language. Pastors in particular, whether or not they agree with Wellum’s biblical-theological framework, will benefit from considering Wellum’s contribution.

3. It is a theology that clearly affirms Classical Christian theism at every turn.

Anselm once claimed that “God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived.” Classical Christian theism, which strongly affirms Anselm’s notion, is “marked by a strong commitment to the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternity, and the substantial unity of the divine persons. The underlying inviolable conviction is that God does not derive any aspect of His being from outside Himself and is not in any way caused to be.”[3]

3. Dolezal, James. All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, 1.

In considering again our present cultural moment, it is strange and rather sad to admit that this historic doctrine of God is being assaulted. Today Classical Christian theism is being challenged by what James Dolezal calls “theistic mutualism.” Proponents of this view “insist that God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures.”[4] Christian Classical theism emphasizes that God never changes while theistic mutualism teaches or implies, even in subtle yet problematic ways, that God changes. Manifestations of theistic mutualism have come from even respected reformed theologians who seem to redefine the established doctrines of divine immutability, eternality, and simplicity.[5]

4. Ibid, 1-2.

5. See for example John Frame’s disheartening discussion in his Systematic Theology, 376-377.

In the wake of this, Wellum’s doctrinal development seeks to retrieve, preserve, and present Classical Christian theism at every turn. Near the beginning, Wellum says:

In many ways this work is saying nothing new, and I consider this a strength. This work is not seeking to be novel, but instead faithful to Scripture and classic, orthodox theology. As such, I gladly affirm the “catholic” confessions of the church as true (e.g., the Apostles Creed, Nicaea, Chalcedon) and I am convinced that the “old paths” are what the church needs today, especially in the doctrinal areas of theology proper and Christology (xvi, emphasis added).

Does Wellum walk the “old paths” as he proceeds to develop the doctrine of God? Absolutely. He strongly criticizes open theism as the reduction of God in evangelical theology (546), calling it a “via media between classical theism and panentheism” (546). In stark contrast, his conception of God can be summarized as “the Triune Creator-Covenant Lord” (571–592). Then in chapters 18–19 he begins slowly, meticulously, and brilliantly to explain the attributes of God, beginning with divine simplicity—“God is One” (Deut. 6:4). Each attribute is then treated, grounded first in “the Triune Creator-Covenant Lord” and always with an eye to preserving Classical Christian renderings of the Godhead.

Conclusion

My friend David Schrock once told me: “I believe Dr. Wellum to be the best reader of the Bible we have today.” Having read some of Wellum’s earlier works, and now this, I wholeheartedly agree. The care, precision, and devotion he exhibits is unparalleled. So please take up and read! Here you will find a reliable guide for doing theology in today’s context – a guide that uses the Bible’s theological framework and upholds the “Great Tradition.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Godwin Sathianathan

    Godwin Sathianathan is the Lead Pastor of Faith Evangelical Free Church (Cincinnati OH). Previously he served at churches in Massachusetts and Michigan. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Godwin also earned an MDiv from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and a ThM from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He enjoys training pastors in expository preaching through the Charles Simeon Trust. Godwin and his wife, Jeni, have been married since 2008 and have four children.

Godwin Sathianathan

Godwin Sathianathan

Godwin Sathianathan is the Lead Pastor of Faith Evangelical Free Church (Cincinnati OH). Previously he served at churches in Massachusetts and Michigan. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Godwin also earned an MDiv from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and a ThM from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He enjoys training pastors in expository preaching through the Charles Simeon Trust. Godwin and his wife, Jeni, have been married since 2008 and have four children.