Monday, May 26, 2014

"Know the Creeds and Councils" by Justin Holcomb: A Review

Today's Christianity is directly affected by what earlier Christians chose to do and to believe.

The fact that Christianity developed - that the sixteenth century, for instance, looked very different from the third, and that both looked very different from the twenty-first - can sometimes lead us to wonder what the essential core of Christianity is. As a result, some people decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct "real Christianity" with nothing more than a Bible. But this approach misses a great deal. Christians of the past were no less concerned with being faithful to God than we are, and they sought to fit together all that Scripture has to say about the mysteries of Christianity - the incarnation, the Trinity, predestination, and more - with all the intellectual power of their times. To ignore these insights is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly. (9-10)

Seventeen hundred years ago a bunch of theologians met together to talk about the deity (or lack there-of) of a dead traveling preacher from Nazareth who was good with a hammer. What do I care? What do you care?

In his new book Know the Creeds and Councils Justin Holcomb tells us why. But we should care about more than just the Nicean Creed (which was born out of the above debate) but with all of the major councils and creeds of Christianity. Holcomb offers a helpful, easy-to-read book for the average believer that gives the history, theology, and relevance of these councils, catechisms, and creeds.

The book begins with a helpful introduction differentiating, among other things, the difference between a creed, a catechism, and a council. The rest of the book, apart from a short conclusion, surveys a number of councils and creeds. They are as follows:
  1. Apostles' Creed (ca. 140)
  2. Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed (325)
  3. Councils of Ephesus (431, 449, 475)
  4. Council of Chalcedon (451)
  5. Athanasian Creed (Late 400s to Early 500s)
  6. Councils of Constantinople (381, 553, 681)
  7. Councils of Carthage and Orange (419 and 529)
  8. Council of Trent (1545-63)
  9. Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
  10. Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1563)
  11. Westminister confession of Fatih (1646)
  12. Second Vatican Council (1962-65)
  13. Lausanne Covenant (1974)
  14. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978)
Each of the above receive an entire chapter apart from the final two which are treated together. In each chapter, the author provides the reader with the historic and theological background along with the major characters (like Arius, Pelagius, Athanasius, Augustine, Martin Luther, etc.), with a final word on the relevance of the creed/council/confession.

Perhaps a few examples of their relevancy would be beneficial. Regarding Nicea, Holcomb writes:
If Christianity had agreed with Arius that Jesus could be a lesser God - if it had failed to defend monotheism, if it had fallen into the trench of professing three unrelated deities - it may have dissolved into the religion of Rome and its pantheons of false gods. If the early Christians had lost their nerve and conceded the "lesser divinity" of Jesus, whatever that might mean, then the work of God in Christ for our salvation would have been rendered meaningless. No mere man, nor half god, could possibility intervene to save fallen and sinful humanity, let alone restore all of creation. Only the Creator can enter creation to fix its brokenness and redeem its original, latent purpose. Athanasius explored this truth in On the Incarnation, defending the claim that the Father and the Son share one common substance (homoousios). Only the Creator can recreate. Only the Maker can remake. Only God can save us from our sins.

Because the Father and the Son are one substance, we can also be assured that we actually know God in Jesus Christ. After all, "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being' (Heb. 1:3), and so when we look on Jesus, we look on God. Without confidence that Jesus is God, united in substance with the Father, we could not be sure that Jesus can speak for god, forgive sins for God, declare righteousness for God, or do anything to make us children of the Father. (38-39)
On the Councils of Carthage and Orange regarding Pelagianism, Holcomb writes:
Like most heresies, however, Pelagianism provides easy and attractive answers at great cost. Through Pelagius's God seems more fair, he is certainly much less intimate. (94)
Other examples could be given. Overall, however, Holcomb has written a fairly simple to read book on historic theology. Though some of its content is difficult to grasp, especially regarding the two natures of Christ and the fine tuning between human agency and divine sovereignty, Holcomb presents the issues in an attractive way.

I recommend this book to all pastors and Christians serious about theology. We are standing on the shoulders of many giants and this book is a simple effort to tell that story.


I received this book free from Zondervan as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


I review for BookSneeze


For more:
"Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 3, 1567-1599" by James T. Dennison: A Review
"The School of Faith" by Thomas F. Torrance: A Review 
"For Us and Our Salvation" by Stephen Nichols: A Review
"The Creedal Imperative" by Carl Trueman: A Review 
A Nestorian Heresy?: John Knox & His Rejection of Particular Redemption 
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