The Incarnation: Questioning the Shepherd

I was interested to read in this week’s Clitheroe Advertiser and Times a full page feature about local Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Canon Dr Peter Shepherd. He has written a book entitled Questioning the Incarnation: Formulating a Meaningful Christology. The tome is not published until the end of March, and at £24.99 and over 500 pages, I’ll be neither purchasing nor reading it anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’ve had a sneak preview. The author admits

“I have never been able to accept…that Jesus was the child of a miraculous, interventionist conception”.

In other words, he doesn’t believe the virgin birth- never has done, and, I suspect, never shall. Of the nativity narratives, the only two details he accepts as being historical are that Jesus’ birth actually occurred and that he had a mother named Mary. The rest was made up, perhaps to make metaphorical points about God.

He describes as ‘strictly nonsense’ the traditional view of Christ as a ‘divine man’. To be fair, he goes to say that he doesn’t intend to deny Christ’s incarnation, and the book’s blurb explains that his musings retain a trinitarian basis. 

In his interview with Julie Magee for the Advertiser, he rightly identifies the decline in Christianity in the developed world. He goes on to say “My view is that this decline will not change until as long as the church keeps spouting literal nonsense rather than explaining to parishioners that theological stories are full of poetry and metaphors and should not be taken literally”.

This struck me as rather old-fashioned; I might have expected to read this kind of sentiment in a book published in 1970 rather than 2018. It has all been said before, but back in the seventies, the immediate theological back-drop was one of literalism and traditional theology. In 2018, most free churches and Anglican fellowships have already imbibed deeply at liberalism’s fountain.

In his book, however, he acknowledges that “conservative Christianitys seem to be thriving” (p21). Evangelical Christianity is growing, such as the Pentecostal and reformed churches. The areas of the church that are fading are those of Dr Shepherd’s own persuasion. Odd, then, that he blames the faith’s decline on the very churches which, in his own words, are thriving. If the gospel of liberalism can excite and mobilise the unchurched, why aren’t liberals on the streets sharing their faith?

Shepherd is a highly intelligent man who writes eloquently and I can hardly do justice to a book that has yet to be published. I imagine that he would look down at we at Martin Top for our theological conservatism. Perhaps he has us in mind when he suggests that some Christians “switch their brains off”. Still, I’ve always found that anaemic liberalism satisfies intellectual pride, but does little to convert the heart. As a classic educator, Dr Shepherd explains that he likes to ask questions and get others to think. In the classroom, this is commendable. We come to a point, however, when we actually want the answers. As Keith Green wrote:

You're so proud of saying you're a seeker
But why are you searching in the dark?
You won't find a thing
Until you soften your heart.
La-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la

If the reading public of Clitheroe isn’t excited enough, it’s in for a second treat. Dr Shepherd’s sequel is already in production, entitled Questioning Atonement and Salvation. His books are available on Amazon.