Monday, November 10, 2014

BookPastor >> "Know the Creeds and Councils" (Justin S. Holcomb)

There are many things we can learn from Church history. One of them is the history behind the creeds, the councils, the catechisms, and the confessions of faith. This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on September 19th, 2014.


TITLE: Know the Creeds and Councils (KNOW Series)
AUTHOR: Justin S. Holcomb
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (192 pages).

An anonymous person once said, "History repeats itself because no one was listening to it the first time." It is a way to say that if we do not learn well the lessons of history, we are poised to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This is one motivation for us to learn history, and for Christians, to learn the historical settings and background to the majestic statements of tradition and faith. Four of such majors are ably dealt with in this book: Creeds, Confessions, Catechisms, and Church Councils. Episcopalian Priest, Professor, as well as author, Dr Justin Holcomb guides us through the historical background material, the theological challenges faced, the formation of councils, the interplay of powers in both Church and State, and most importantly, the reasons for the creeds and major theological statements made over the centuries. Some of the creeds mentioned are:
  • Apostles' Creed (ca 140)
  • Nicene Creed (325 AD)
  • Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD)
  • Athanasian Creed (400-500 AD)
  • ...

The introduction is a helpful explanation of what creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils are, each chapter begins with a brief historical background followed by an explanation of what the creed or statement is about. Holcomb then shows us the relevance of the creeds for people then and for us now before concluding with a set of discussion questions and resources for further research. 

It is important to recognize that Creeds and Councils often go hand in hand. You need councils to come together to agree on a creedal statement. Creeds themselves cannot magically appear without much due diligence and faithful study of the sacred documents. According to Holcomb, creeds are fixed formulas based on doctrines derived from Scripture, that mark out the boundaries of faith. Confessions will be the details that describe the tenets of the faith within the creedal boundaries. Catechisms are matters of doctrine and beliefs worded in a Question-and-Answer format. Councils are the authorities charged with the task of crafting out statements on behalf of the community of faith. An important clarification is also made by Holcomb, that creeds are not dogmas schemed into reality by evil councils or extremist people. They are there to defend people from "oversimplification" and heresy, to help us keep the faith. Thus we read about the Apostles' Creed being the oldest, yet the most unifying creed used among the vast majority of people in Christianity. Even today, it is often the basis of Christian unity. The Nicene Creed was urgently set in place due to heresies that threaten to split the Church. A major heresy was Arianism that questions the divinity of Jesus. We also read about how the various councils tackle the host of heretic positions that attack the Trinity, Christ's Identity, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, The Athanasian Creed was a major statement that affirms the Trinitarian doctrine, thanks largely to the contributions of Athanasius. Yet, battles continue to rage. The baton was passed on later to the Cappadocian Fathers who played significant roles in the three council meetings at Constantinople. Closer to the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, the council of Trent met to discuss inner reformation of the Catholic Church, where the limits to the authority of the Pope were deliberated. The catechisms such as the Heidelberg, the Anglican 39 Articles of Faith, the Westminster Confessions, and the modern Lausanne Covenant were also covered, to give readers a broad scope of creedal statements from AD 140 to the present.

So What?

Holcomb's main purpose is to help us understand the importance and the difficult journeys taken by our predecessors to give us the classic creeds of today. It is brief but contains most of the essential stuff for the busy person. It is written in clear everyday language without heavy jargon in order to reach a general audience. It gives us a chronological flow of the major creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils that most Christians will need to know. Above all, Holcomb brings back a renewed appreciation and respect for the creeds that most people use and take for granted. In fact, knowing the creeds and the historical background gives modern Bible readers a bigger and better context when reading New Testament texts, to grapple with the key theological issues of that day, as well as to be thankful for the gifts the Early Church had given us. We are very much a recipient of a lot of their hard work, and we are called to do the same for the next generation and the generations to come. Each generation will need to fight its own battle. The previous generations have done their part. It is time for us to do ours when the appropriate time beckons.

Let me close with the words of one of my favourite professor who has a tremendous regard for catechisms, which he said:

"is designed as a resource manual for the renewal of Anglican catechetical practice. It presents the essential building blocks of classic catechetical instruction: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue). To these is added an initial section especially intended for those with no prior knowledge of the Gospel; as such, this catechism attempts to be a missional means by which God may bring about both conversion to Christ and formation in Christ." 
"Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture .It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it ." (J. I. Packer)

Unfortunately, for those of us from the Methodist or Lutheran traditions among others, other than a passing mention, we would not see much about Methodism or Lutheranism. Nevertheless, this book is still a wonderful primer for anyone wanting to know more about creeds and councils, without having to plow through thick research material. For Holcomb has already done the heavy lifting for us.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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