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Christ Unabridged: Knowing and loving the Son of Man, edited by George Westhaver and Rebekah Vince

02 October 2020

Peter Shepherd reads essays reflecting two aspects of belief

THIS extraordinarily rich and enriching book is much more than a traditional study of the person and/or work of Christ. It embraces both the affective and cognitive domains, seeking to grapple with the “whole Mystery” of Christ, and its impact and existential meaning for Christians. This richness is particularly due to the calibre of scholars who supplied the individual chapters.

The book arose from a conference at Pusey House, Oxford, in 2018: “Totus Christus: Knowing and Loving the Son of Man”. This emphasis on the “whole Christ” infuses every contribution. In the introductory words of George Westhaver, the mystery of Christ dead and risen is both “complex and rich enough for unceasing speculation and praise, and at the same time supremely simple, personal and intimate. We apprehend and know this mystery not from a distance, but by responding with love and faith.”

In this study, therefore, the cognitive aspects of belief are complemented by the more affective areas of faith. One of the outcomes of the unhappy fact that the Greek pistis translates both “belief” and “faith” is that Christians often treat the two concepts as identical, arguing that it is faith understood as right belief which is salvific: “You just need to believe as I do, and you will be saved”! Others are more convinced that faith as relationship is far more important than the mere cognitive content of our beliefs, so long as those beliefs are not harmful to others.

This richness continues to be expressed in the variety of discussion: consideration of the implications of Son of Man language; the perennial questions how we can know the ineffable God and how the divine Logos communicates with us; the more specific problem of mediation between God and humankind, and much, much more. Just how is the Divine to be found in the sacraments? How is salvation given to us? Each of us will find chapters that are particularly attuned to our existence.

I would point to Lewis Ayres (whom many of us value for his work on Nicaea) arguing for the complementarity of tradition (“handing on”) and speculation. Simply repeating what has been given to us, without thinking it through anew, is insufficient for a true understanding of God and his Christ. Ayres’s chapter is complemented by an Orthodox view on salvation expounded by Bishop Kallistos Ware.

One of my most satisfying reads, however, was the essay by Rowan Williams, who always inspires and challenges: “We all tend to take for granted that for us to be ourselves it is necessary that somebody else be less than ourselves. Our world is routinely that competitive, struggling, mutually destructive environment which is the effect of creation’s disorder and dislocation. But the way that Christ is a person is a way which means his human identity is, in every encounter and every relation into which it enters, a free embrace of communion, an offering of sharing if we are ready to accept it. Every relationship in which the Incarnate Word is involved is charged with immeasurable potential because of who Jesus is.” Amen, indeed.

The final joys are the poetry, which begins each section, composed by Malcolm Guite; and the closing sermon by Anthony Burton, “The Shape of Hope”, in which we are urged, by way of reflection on the lives of St Benedict and St Gregory, to seek to reconcile that old Christian conundrum: combining action and contemplation. Just as Christology must embrace all aspects of reflection on the Christ, cognitive and affective, so must we be both Martha and Mary.


Canon Peter Shepherd is a former head teacher of Canon Slade School, Bolton. His is the author of Questioning the Incarnation (Christian Alternative, 2018).


Christ Unabridged: Knowing and loving the Son of Man
George Westhaver and Rebekah Vince, editors
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop special price £24

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