DR PETER SHEPHERD, a retired priest in the diocese of Blackburn, is a man on a mission. The Church’s traditional Christological teaching is, he repeatedly asserts, nonsense. Advances in biblical scholarship and scientific knowledge have rendered Chalcedonian orthodoxy meaningless, and a radical doctrinal reformulation is required if Christian belief is to make any real contribution to modern thought. It is a bold thesis, laid out across 500 pages of lively, if occasionally rambling, prose.
Shepherd’s central concern is to do justice to the full humanity of Christ — a truth that he regards as consistently obscured by the quasi-Docetic pronouncements of the ecumenical councils. Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, entirely like us — born of an earthly father (most probably Zechariah), seeking to obey God’s will and proclaim God’s kingdom, a human being as human beings were always meant to be.
Jesus did God’s work in such a manner that in him God’s agency was especially visible — he “re-presented” God to us, and only in this limited sense was he divine. The New Testament documents then imposed a later “high” Christology on this simple historical figure.
Shepherd argues his case with honesty and openness. It is clear that his views have come about through heartfelt reflection and careful thought, and I have no intention of impugning the sincerity with which he holds to his position. None the less, his book bristles with problems — not to mention that it is, on any fair reading, heretical.
The root error is an a priori assumption that true humanity and true divinity cannot dwell together without logical contradiction — that they compete over the same space of Christ’s personhood, and elements of one or the other must be shorn for them to fit. But the witness of the New Testament, faithfully articulated at Chalcedon, is, rather, to affirm the truth at both extremes, and to allow those truths to dwell together in the paradox of Christ’s unity — since the mystery of the incarnation is more fittingly expressed by paradox than by a human “logic” that presumes to know better.
With this initial mis-step taken, everything else in Shepherd’s account is inevitably distorted. Christ becomes a mere projection of idealised human potentiality, soteriology becomes defunct, the Trinity becomes a Monad (for there is no eternal “Second Person”, just a man to whom the one God briefly shows favour), and God himself becomes a mutable and hapless figure, who does not know the future.
Instead of presenting the reader with something new, as he had promised, Shepherd in fact serves up something old: a reheated blend of “death of God” existentialism, “myth of God incarnate” liberalism, and process-theology panentheism. The resulting dish is somewhat unpleasant to the taste, and liable to cause indigestion.
The Revd Dr Mark Smith is Chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge.
Questioning the Incarnation: Formulating a meaningful Christology
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