Monday, June 23, 2014

"Know the Heretics" by Justn Holcomb: A Review

As Christianity grew and spread, it increasingly came into contact with competing belief systems such as paganism, Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, and others. Inevitably, teachings arose who attempted to solve the intellectual difficulties of Christina faith and make it more compatible with other philosophical systems. In this way, many of the heresies that arose had to do with the identity of Jesus Christ as he related to the God of Israel.

It should be made clear that most of those dubbed heretics were usually asking legitimate and important questions. They weren't heretics because they asked the questions. It is the answers that they gave that are wrong. They went too far by trying to make the Christian faith more compatible with ideas that they already found appealing, especially those of pagan Greek philosophy. Others struggled with Jesus' claims to be both sent from God and one with God. The reactions of the religious leaders in the New Testament to Jesus' claims underline the difficulty of this revelation and point to later struggles about Jesus' identity. (12)

Yet  ever relevant, heresy is a less than cool topic. No doubt political correctness has made talk of personal belief as being "out of bounds" and thus "off limits" worthy of God's wrath. Nevertheless, if Christianity wants to remain pure (and I would argue relevant) then awareness of ancient heresies is crucial. One helpful introduction to classic Christian heresies is Justin Holcomb's book Know the Heretics.

The book survey's twelve heretics: Judaizers, Gnostics, marcion, Docetists, Mani, Sabellius, Arius, Apollinarius, Pelagius, Eutyches, Nestorius, and Socinus. One will note immediately that all but one heretic is pre-middle ages. Each chapter includes the historic background, the heretical nature of their teaching, how the orthodox responded, and why it remains relevant.

This is not an academic work but is written with academic precision. Holcomb is writing to a more general audience as opposed to scholars, yet his discussions of the difficult theology of gnosticism, apollinaranism, nestorianism, etc. is thorough apart from overgeneralizations and misrepresentations. The gnostics, for example, is a difficult heresy to understanding and thus lends itself to oversimplification. The author walks the reader through a fuller discussion of who they were thus allowing him to articulate why the are dangerous. The heresies over the dual nature of Christ are extremely complicated even to seasoned theologians, yet the author manages to lead the reader through some of the political and historic muck.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the book, beyond its historicity and theological precision, regards a major theme in it. Though it might be a stretch to suggest this is the book's main thesis, Holcomb does repeatedly raise the common denominator among most heresies as the search for relevance (as the above quotation shows). After taking apart Walter Bauer's thesis that there were many early versions of Christianity and orthodoxy is nothing more than the side that won the day, Holcomb adds:
In fact, it is the historical redeemer (rather than myth), the centrality of the Bible (over pagan philosophy), and the traditional creed (rather than innovation) that distinguished the orthodox from the heretics. (19)
Regarding Docetism, the author suggests it "developed to make Christianity more acceptable to pagan societies. Many societies, especially those influenced by Greek or Persian dualistic thought view flesh as evil. The very thought of God incarnating as a man was unthinkable." (56) Later he adds, "The root of Docetism was the desire to make Christ more palatable to a world that sees the cross as foolishness." (59) No wonder he sees a connection in the end between ancient Docetism and modern liberalism.

Mani, it turns out, is nothing more than a theological buffet of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions. In an effort to discover the perfect religion that unites all faiths, Mani did the opposite. Pelagianism, too, is guilty of this thesis. Though he doesn't develop this more fully, Holcomb makes the comment that "human beings are born 'with Pelagian hearts.'" Finally, Socinus' elevation of human reason over Scripture and orthodoxy makes him and his theology sesceptical to this tendency. Socinus really is, in many ways, the godfather of modern theological liberalism.

Another point raised in this book worth mentioning is the tendency among the heretics to oversimplify theology. Theology is a difficult science. The doctrine of the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, the relation between divine sovereignty and human agency, are all paradoxical truths. Many of these heresies began with a desire to make Christianity more reasonable and less paradoxical.

Both errors of relevancy and oversimplification of theology remain dual threats to orthodoxy today.

Overall, this is a helpful book that I would recommend. I have now read both of Justin Holcomb's books in his Know Series and both are excellent resources (read my review of his book Know the Creeds and Councils). Though studying the heretics may not sound important or attractive, it is vitally important for the study of theology. Modern heresies, like liberalism and Jehovah's Witnesses, are often nothing more than revamped versions of ancient falsities. Even theologically speaking, there is nothing new under the sun. Remember that the next time another liberal on another "news" show makes another "new" claim. If it sounds familiar, its because it is.


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:
"Know the Creeds and Councils" by Justin Holcomb: A Review
"For Us and Our Salvation" by Stephen Nichols: A Review
A Nestorian Heresy?: John Knox & His Rejection of Particular Redemption
Three Ancient Heresies that Still Live
The Heresies of Benny Hinn
"Heresy" by Alister McGrath: A Review
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