Back to the Barnacles: When Evangelicals don't share a Christology

A while back, I wrote about the problem with a popular evangelical diagram that tries to explain the Incarnation of Christ. And I'm coming back to that today, reflecting on two recent blog posts elsewhere that highlight the problem in practice. (So, I should probably warn you right at the start that this will get theological.)

Then last week I read an excellent short post by David Murray about how Jesus was still God in the tomb. But to my surprise, a few days later I stumbled across a response to David Murray. Justin Taylor had felt the need to call in the aid of Stephen Wellum (Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) to respond to what Murray had written. Now, how often does a prominent evangelical writer feel the need to call in the help of a professor of theology to respond to a 500 word blog post? That rather makes it seem as if he thinks there's something quite significant to respond to here.

But there isn't. (At least not in what David Murray wrote!) Rather, Justin Taylor and Stephen Wellum bring us back to the problem of the barnacles. Wellum's first point isn't so relevant to all this (he basically argues that it's irresponsible to use language in the same way the Bible does, and so wants us always to refer to Jesus as God the Son, rather than God - I find this argument rather problematic, but it's not the subject of what I'm writing about today, so I'll let it be). But his second and third points get right to the heart of the matter.

Wellum's second point, in which he accuses Murray of misstating the doctrine of the hypostatic union, might read rather confusingly - but this is where he states, in theological language, the essence of the barnacle diagram. Wellum's main point here (although, even David Murray in his response says he has difficulty in understanding what Wellum's point really is here) seems to be to draw a distinction between the Person of Christ and His Divine Nature. And that's exactly what the barnacle diagram does. And that's exactly the problem of the barnacle diagram.

You see, at its heart, the barnacle diagram distinguishes sharply between the divine nature of Christ (which is found in the Triune God) and the the person of Christ, which is made up of the divine nature and his human nature added together. That means that Wellum, and all those who hold to the Christology of the barnacle diagram, can keep the divine and human natures of Christ separate and, at times, seemingly far apart, by seeing each as united to the person, rather than directly to each other.

Murray, in his very gracious response, points out that in the rich Scottish theological tradition, there is no distinction between the Person of the Son and the divine nature of Christ. And that's not only true of Scottish theology - that's the historic, orthodox teaching of the Christian Church. This is simply Fifth Council Christology. (Interestingly, both Wellum and Grudem - the source of the barnacle diagram - refer to the Fourth Council's Definition of Chalcedon, but don't make any mention of the Fifth Council).

Wellum's third point builds on this distinction of the Person from the divine nature and ensuing separation of the divine and human natures of Christ. Wellum explains his view of what was going on in the tomb thus:
Christ’s human body is now temporarily separated from him and put in the grave, while he, as the person of the Son, continues to subsist in his human soul and his divine nature
As he somehow manages to keep the human nature and the divine nature separate, he can then also separate off aspects of the human nature as well, so that, in the tomb, it is not full human nature which belongs to Christ, but only a human soul. This still rests on a barnacle diagram approach to Christology, for in that approach, the human nature of Christ is the barnacle. Like a limpet it clings onto the outside of the Trinity.

Yet in the classical approach of Fifth Council Christology, the human nature of Christ is no barnacle. The Person of the Son, in the incarnation, takes to himself true humanity, and so humanity is taken into Godhead, and the Person of Christ - the Person of the Incarnate Christ - the God-Man - is the second person of the Trinity. As the Fifth Council put it:
If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema.
Or, as it has been perhaps more clearly and memorable expressed and handed down:
One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.
And just as one of the Trinity suffered, one of the Trinity was buried, and one of the Trinity lay in the tomb for three days, until one of the Trinity rose again in glory. Or as the Belgic Confession puts it:
So then what he committed to his Father when he died was a real human spirit which left his body. But meanwhile his divine nature remained united with his human nature even when he was lying in the grave; and his deity never ceased to be in him, just as it was in him when he was a little child, though for a while it did not show itself as such. (Art. 19)
So, anyway, the reason I'm writing about this today is not to set out a whole counter-argument to Wellum's arguments, or to respond and defend David Murray (he's already written a very gracious response himself in the comments on Wellum's article), but to highlight the fact that there are implications of the barnacle diagram approach to Christology. The difference in Murray and Wellum's answers to the question of 'Was Jesus still God in the Tomb?' rest ultimately on different approaches to Christology. It's not just a matter of how we draw diagrams!