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Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ by Alister McGrath
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Alister McGrath, a widely acknowledged master of contemporary spirituality, has written a profound meditation on one of the most deceptively simple-sounding tenets of the Christian faith, the centrality of Christ in the life of his followers, in Knowing Christ.

Written in an accessible style that will appeal to Christians of all denominations, Knowing Christ aims to stimulate a more direct and intimate relationship between Christ and the reader by engaging not just the intellect but, more important, the heart and imagination. It is a work of spirituality saturated with biblical texts and themes, but it also draws on the rich tradition in art and literature of Christian reflection on the centrality of Christ throughout the ages. The result is a lively, engaging, and always inspiring book of twenty-first century spirituality from one of the world's most popular and respected Christian writers, a book that will strengthen the faith of all who read it.
The Crown Publishing Group; June 2002
ISBN 9780385507219
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Title: Knowing Christ
Author: Alister McGrath

Knowing Christ in Our Minds

God has created us with the gift of understanding, and clearly expects us to use our minds in deepening our grasp of and commitment to the gospel. Knowing Christ is partly about knowing more about Christ--about deepening our understanding of who he is and what he achieved for us.

This is an immensely important theme. Christ demands to be understood. He calls upon us, as he called upon the disciples of old, to tell him and others who we think he is (Mark 8:27). Who is this person who enters into people's lives and so radically transforms them? How can we even begin to offer an explanation of his identity? To grasp who Christ is means appreciating who he is for us, and hence to open the door to spiritual growth in and through him. The greatest minds of the Christian Church have addressed this question down the ages, and constantly found themselves failing to do justice to it. There is always more to Christ than we appreciate. All our explanations and theories can do is give us access to part of the truth. What we see is wonderful; what remains to be discovered is likely to be more wonderful still.

There is more to Christ than our minds will ever be able to embrace. Hilary of Poitiers, a Christian writer of the fourth century, expressed this point well when he wrote: "We are compelled to attempt what is unattainable, to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter. Instead of the bare adoration of faith, we are under an obligation to entrust the deepest matters of faith to human language."

The Gospel writers set us alongside the disciples as they encounter Jesus for the first time and gradually begin to grasp his significance. He enters into their world as a mysterious figure, someone who commands authority. When the apostles heard his call to follow him, they left everything behind and walked alongside him. They did not fully understand who he was or what he had in mind for them, but there was something about him that was attractive and compelling. Leaving behind all that they counted precious, they walked into the unknown future, knowing that it would include the consolation of his presence. They would spend the remainder of their lives appreciating who Christ is and why he is so important.

As we read the Gospels, we realize that we are being set alongside the apostles on their journey of discovery, seeing and hearing the remarkable events which gradually brought them to the electrifying realization that here among them was none other than the Son of God. The Gospels allow us to see with the eyes of the first disciples, taking in with them Christ's encounters with those around him. We can hear the astonishing words of Christ with our own ears, and share in the dawn of faith--the moment when they realized that here, in front of their eyes, was the hope of Israel and the one who held their future in his hands.

What they experienced--and what we can experience through them--was a series of clues, building up to disclose both the identity of Christ and the meaning of their lives. What they saw were brush strokes, individually applied to the canvas yet collectively disclosing a glorious landscape. What they experienced were individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, combining to reveal a pattern, a face--the face of the Son of God, who loves us and gave himself for us. The words and deeds of Jesus flow together, merging and melding to yield a picture of the one who holds the key to life and death, to the riddles and tragedies of our human existence. The greatest puzzle the world has ever known is the identity of Jesus. "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:27-29). To answer this question, we have to put together the many pieces of the New Testament witness to the identity and significance of Jesus and examine the picture they disclose.

So what are these pieces? As I reflected on this question, I found myself trying to lay out on the table of my mind the main themes that I knew had to be incorporated into my understanding of Christ.

First, it was clear to me that the New Testament sees Christ as the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel. As Matthew's Gospel points out so often, Christ is the Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer of God's people. I frequently found myself reading Matthew's account of the birth of Christ (Matthew 1-2) and noting how often the theme of the fulfillment of prophecy is identified as being of importance. However I understood Christ, he had to be seen as part of the long history of a faithful and patient God's relations with his wayward and lost people.

Second, I tried to identify as many as I could of the titles that the New Testament writers use to refer to him, each of which tells us something special about him. He is "Lord"--the same title used to refer to God in the Old Testament. He is both the "Son of God" and the "Son of Man." Occasionally, he is even referred to explicitly as "God." I found myself producing lists of all these titles, and trying to make sense of the immensely complex and rich portrait of Christ that they disclosed. Whatever understanding of Christ I finally arrived at would have to do justice to each of these titles.

One title of Christ that attracted my attention in particular was "Savior." The New Testament regularly speaks of Christ in this way, even in the accounts of Christ's birth. Mary and Joseph were directed to name their child Jesus because he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). The shepherds in the fields close to Bethlehem learned of the birth of the "Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:11). This theme resonates throughout the New Testament. Yet I was aware that only God can save. The Old Testament prophets regularly reminded Israel that she cannot save herself, nor can she be saved by the idols of the nations round about her. It is the Lord, and the Lord alone, who will save her (Isaiah 45:21-22).

I therefore found it exciting and challenging to take in--and try to make sense of--the astonishing fact that, knowing full well that it was God alone who could save, the first Christians had no hesitation in affirming that Christ was their Savior. This was no misunderstanding on the part of people who were ignorant of the Old Testament. It was fundamentally recognition of what Christ had achieved through his cross and resurrection, and a willingness to rethink everything in the light of this knowledge. Who was Christ, if he did something that only God can do? How could I make sense of Christ by taking this astonishing fact into account?

Third, I could hardly overlook the New Testament witness to Christ having been raised from the dead by God. While this event was clearly good news for believers, who will share that resurrection, I could see that it was also of importance to understanding the identity of Christ. For Paul, Jesus' resurrection tells us that he is the "Son of God" (Romans 1:3-4). For Peter, it declares that he is the "Lord and Messiah" (Acts 2:36).

Fourth, I found myself making a list of things that Jesus said and did which cast light on his identity. Mark's account of how Christ healed a paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) seemed especially illuminating to me. Christ declares to the paralytic that his sins are forgiven. This provokes outrage and astonishment on the part of the Jewish teachers of the law, who have been watching him closely. "It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7). I knew that they were right, and that I was confronted with a very important clue to the identity of Christ. One explanation was that he was a presumptuous fool; after all, there are plenty of these around. Another, however, seemed to me to be much more satisfying and challenging--that Christ indeed was justified in making this declaration. Christ had no right or authority whatsoever to speak those words if he was just a human being, like me. Yet Christ declares that he does indeed have such authority to forgive, and proceeds to heal the man (Mark 2:10-11).

Trying to get everything straight in my mind was not especially easy. Yet it forced me to wrestle with the question of how to do intellectual justice to Christ. He demanded to be understood to the limits of my ability. The conclusions that I reached were not startling. Others had reached them long before me, and they can be thought of as representing the settled common mind of Christians down the ages. But it was important for me to reach these conclusions for myself, rather than just passively accept what others had told me.

First, I concluded that Jesus was a genuine human being. He was someone who felt pain, who wept and who knew what it was like to be hungry and thirsty. Yet this insight, on its own, is clearly not enough to do justice to the biblical portrait of Jesus. It is not wrong, but inadequate. For the New Testament insists that Jesus was far more than a human being. God had to be brought into the picture somehow.

So my second conclusion was this. Without in any way denying the real humanity of Christ, I had to recognize him to be the Son of God. The New Testament applies words to him which are reserved for God, and attributes actions to him which are the privilege of God alone. Christ does what only God can do precisely because he is God and has the authority and ability to act in this way.

My two conclusions were the result of a long and passionate analysis of the total person of Christ--what he said and did, what was done to him and how people reacted to him. No other way of thinking about him seemed capable of doing justice to the biblical evidence.

I thus tried to know Christ with my mind, wanting to use my God-given reason to wrestle with the biblical witness to Christ in order to appreciate him fully. Knowing Christ as "true God and true human" might seem like logical weakness. Yet it was clear to me that it was the only way of doing justice to the full significance of Jesus. If we were to give up one of the two insights noted above, we would end up with a much simpler yet ultimately inauthentic view of Christ. For example, it would be a lot easier to treat Christ simply as a human being, and to stop talking about him as God. Yet if Christ was only a human being, he could not redeem us. Only God can save. Nor could Christ reveal God to us. Only God can reveal himself. We would end up with a logically neat understanding of Jesus which distorts his identity and destroys the gospel.

The famous English novelist and amateur theologian Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) stated the situation in words I found memorable and helpful: "If Christ was only man, then he is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if he is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life." Using our minds to understand Christ more fully brings out how we need to affirm the "two natures of Christ," and shows us what we lose if we deny it. But above all, it confirms the coherence of the Christian understanding of the identity of Jesus.

I learned much from this kind of reflection on the intellectual coherence and resilience of the Christian faith. Yet one of the hardest lessons anyone can learn is that our strengths have a deadly habit of becoming our weaknesses. Sometimes the things we do well can be a barrier to personal growth, because they prevent us from looking for other ways of doing things. My strength is my mind. I'm an academic sort of person, who naturally thinks in terms of understanding things--such as following an argument, or establishing the way in which ideas relate to each other. Yet this intellectual asset can easily become a spiritual liability. It led me to think of "knowing Christ" purely in terms of knowing about Christ. I understood growth in faith to mean understanding more about the Christian faith, and especially about its central figure, Jesus Christ. Knowing Christ was nothing more and nothing less than gathering information about Christ. It was about an enhancement of my understanding. This way of thinking came naturally to me as an academic, and I assumed that it was the only and the best way. Yet, far from enriching my life of faith, it deadened it.

After a while, I began to realize that my faith had become stale. What had once been fresh and vigorous was dry and unrewarding. I responded in the only way I knew. I tried to learn more about Christ. I studied the geography of the Holy Land, so that I knew the exact location of all the places of significance to Christ's ministry. I memorized lots of names, dates and Bible verses. I certainly came away from this knowing more about my faith. But it remained detached, dry and dull. I had gained lots of information, but had lost something much deeper and more important--a sense of excitement about Christ. Something was wrong.

On reflection, it seemed to me that knowing Christ with our minds alone can lead us into two difficulties, each of which is a serious obstacle to knowing Christ in all his fullness and radiance.

First, we can fall into the intellectualist trap of thinking that "knowing" is just "knowing about"--the accumulation of facts--and thus fail to realize that knowing is a relational activity. When the King James Bible states that "Adam knew Eve" (Genesis 4:1, 25) and subsequently bore him a child, a rather more intimate encounter is clearly envisaged. We must rediscover the hidden depths of the verb "to know." Christ does not want us to accumulate facts about him. He wants to embrace us and enfold us in his arms. He wants us to know him as Savior, Lord and friend.

Second, we can commit the ultimate sin of intellectual arrogance and assume that, if we can't understand it, it can't be right. We therefore demand that the gospel should be expressed in terms that human reason can grasp. Unintentionally, the gospel thus comes to be imprisoned within the limits of human understanding. Our minds are no longer the servants of the gospel; they have become its master.

From the Trade Paperback edition.