Saturday, June 28, 2014

Things I Read: Justin Holcomb's 'Know the Creeds & Councils' and 'Know the Heretics'

This review is based on digital review copies provided by NetGalley.

Justin Holcomb's new books from Zondervan, Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils, make good companion pieces for the lay reader who wants greater familiarity with the history of the Christian faith. Creeds and Councils is the stronger work, but Heretics has a more important goal.

I assumed, from certain tell-tale tics of vocabulary and theological emphasis, that the two volumes were aimed primarily at an evangelical-leaning audience. It surprised me to learn that Holcomb is an Episcopal priest; I rather suspect he went out of his way to be accessible to the popular evangelical subculture of the US. (Of course, he might just be more conservative than me. He did get his PhD from Emory, and I was specifically warned off applying there because I would be too radical for them.) In my experience, evangelical Christianity tries to put the Bible above all else. The trouble is, an awful lot of Christian tradition cannot possibly be derived by the individual from scripture alone – for example, the Trinity. Creeds and Councils would be a valuable book for readers in a position like my own of about five years ago: unclear about the relationship between certain church doctrines and scripture, unsatisfied with the answers provided in an evangelical context, uncertain where to look for a history of doctrine that is not geared too specifically toward a single denomination.

It's a nicely laid out book, first explicating the differences between a creed, a confession, a catechism, and a council, and then going on to examine a number of important examples of all four. Holcomb hits all the biggies, from Nicaea and Chalcedon through the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession down to Vatican II (and, somewhat surprisingly to me, the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). Each chapter provides historical background for the creed (or council, etc.) in question, a summary of its contents, an exploration of its theological relevance, discussion questions, and a list of further reading. It's a solid structure that should have particular appeal for evangelicals, with their love of expository preaching. Throughout, Holcomb tries to stress the importance of knowing this history, critiquing those who “decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct 'real Christianity' with nothing more than a Bible” (10). Holcomb's critique has a particularly evangelical flavor to it, focusing on “being faithful to God” (10) and how “Jesus continues to build his church” (22) – not arguments I would personally have used, but appropriate ones for his audience.

Know the Heretics is a more exciting and potentially more challenging idea for a lay evangelical readership. I can't be the only ex-evangelical who has been told not to even read certain books because of their poisonous theological content, and I think it's still a pervasive attitude in certain strands of Christianity that faith is a fragile thing that must be protected from too strong a challenge lest it crumble. The distinction between heterodoxy and heresy is one of the reasons I left an evangelicalism that seemed narrowly prescriptivist for the broad theological tent of Anglicanism, and Holcomb's solid Episcopalian emphasis on that distinction is a crucial contribution to evangelicalism as I experienced it.

Structurally, Heretics is similar to Creeds and Councils, providing background, content, relevance, discussion questions, and further reading for each heretic – Gnostics, Marcion, Docetists, Arius, Pelagius, and so on. However, I have three major reservations about this volume.

First, at an epistemic level, I find Holcomb's truth-claims unsatisfying. Again, this reflects my viewpoint as both an ex-evangelical and a graduate student in theology and philosophy, but frankly any definitive statement of theological truth or falsehood makes me uncomfortable. I am willing to accept value judgments of a given theological statement as good or bad (referring to its intellectual honesty, its coherence, its fruitfulness or harmfulness, among others), but in general I think that to call theology true or false is to make a category mistake. For example, modalism and partialism are models of understanding the Trinity; a model is not true or false, but is misused when it is taken literally or ontologically, rather than being seen as a way of understanding at least one aspect of something bigger than itself. To me heresy is not a matter of giving the wrong answer to a legitimate question, as Holcomb defines it (12), but of elevating the finite to the level of the infinite. (You could also call this the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Or idolatry.)

Second, I find Holcomb's soteriology inadequate, and borderline disingenuous. Substitutionary atonement is throughout presented as the only orthodox soteriology, and is used to bolster Holcomb's Christology: “Only a divine Savior can bear the weight of God's wrath in atonement. Only Jesus as the God-man can satisfy the enormous debt and penalty caused by human sin against God. … Only a divine Savior can pay the costly price for redeeming us from our bondage to sin and death” (97). A major reason for my drift from evangelicalism is my no longer finding substitutionary atonement sufficient. Frankly, I think it's an example of the very fallacy I described in the above paragraph: one specific model of atonement has been concretized above all other models. The anthropocentrism of this soteriology is distasteful to me, especially given than John 1:14 states not that the Word became human (anthropos), but that the Word became flesh (sarx). To me, a good soteriology must stress the redemption of all creation, and thus a good Christology must understand Christ not narrowly as a “God-man” but expansively as Creator-creation. Holcomb hedges the possibility of alternate soteriological models, discussing only Socinus' view (“Jesus' death is only an example,” chapter 12) which is set up as an unacceptably extreme alternative to substitution, instead of a different model that demonstrates a different (but still important) aspect of salvation.

Third, the heretics of the first chapter, whose heresy is summarized as “The old rules still apply,” are referred to unreflectively as “Judaizers.” Christianity's history of antisemitism is such that, if you're going to use a term like “Judaizers” and be unrepentantly supersessionist, you had damn well better acknowledge the embedded anti-Jewishness here and actively combat it. That Holcomb doesn't is not a minor point of theological disagreement but a major and unfortunate misstep.

With these reservations taken under advisement, I do think these two books provide a generally sound and accessible introduction to the history of church doctrine, especially for Christians whose denominational background under-emphasizes the role of tradition and history.