As readers will know, I’m a fan of books that make serious theology, biblical studies, and church history easily available and accessible to people with less time or inclination to read. I’m lucky/cursed to be able to actually enjoy reading really fat books for long periods of time, but I’ve gradually learnt that not everyone is wired that way. That isn’t to say – as I noted in a recent popular post on reading – that people can’t read things they normally wouldn’t, but that we have to be realistic. Zondervan’s ‘Know’ series is a great example of this, though. Short, readable books, attractively produced and very simple, covering things of serious importance.
Justin Holcomb is one of my favourite theologians who is presently alive – an Episcopal Priest, and author of books as diverse as ‘Rid of My Disgrace’, ‘Christian Theologies of Scripture: a comparative introduction’, and today’s offering; ‘Know the Heretics’. This book is a brilliant introduction to the various false teachers who have emerged over the centuries that the Church has been trying to follow Jesus. The word ‘heresy’ and label ‘heretic’ are often over-used in the contemporary church – but they are real terms, about real things, that really matter. Holcomb’s little book is a very helpful look at the historical figures whose influence we feel today, whether we recognise it or not.
If you are thinking this review, or even this book, isn’t for you, and you call yourself a Christian; let me be clear. I’m sorry, but you’d be wrong. This book is one that throws the goodness of God and the glory of the Gospel into stark relief by gently, winsomely pointing out what distortion looks like. I wonder if you’ve ever asked questions like:
Who is Jesus? Is he divine? Is he human? How does he relate to the God of the Old Testament? How do the divinity and humanity of Christ relate to his work in saving humanity? How is the fact that Christ was both human and God connected to how he rescues humanity? What does that rescue look like? How does Jesus save – by example or by some supernatural intervention?
These are the opening words from the author. This stuff matters. Thinking and praying about this stuff matters. And thus, this book matters.
This book is an interesting challenge to the contemporary church. We are, it has to be said, sloppier than we should be with a lot of our theology. There are two heresies which aren’t attached to heretics by name, but are of particular attraction. The first is covered in the first chapter – ‘Judaizers: The Old Rules Still Apply’. This is an easy temptation for a church caught in a culture ‘between the times’, a church that believes in the tension of the Now and the Not Yet of the Kingdom of God. Holcomb’s exploration of this particular heresy is very helpful. The second chapter, ‘Gnostics: God Hides Messages for the Enlightened’ is another heresy that is very easy for the contemporary church to slide into. For charismatics, it is easy to put leaders on pedestals as enlightened people who hear from God ‘better’ than us, better than the Bible. For other evangelicals, it is easy to put excellent preachers and theologians on pedestals, as the people who should do the thinking and interpret God’s Word ‘best’. Holcomb’s work on Gnosticism here is a really helpful tester and taster of what thinking for ourselves in the millieu of the contemporary church might be like.
After these two more ‘generic’ heresies, Holcomb turns his thoughtful attention to Heretics, the people behind some of the most destructive ‘theological’ ideas in Church history. It is important to note, though, that nowhere is Holcomb attacking the person, but rather the ideas that person taught and believed. In the contemporary Church, there is often a great temptation to play the man (or woman!) and not the ball. The same was true in the Early Church – and Holcomb is quick to point this out, that we know of many of these heretics only by the writings of their (victorious orthodox!) opponents. It is refreshing to see the authors charity towards people in spite of their grevious false teaching – a lesson I need to learn myself. One of the best chapters, in my opinion (though, perhaps, because it is something on my mind as a Charismatic in the contemporary church) was his piece on Arius, and the notion of Jesus as a lesser God. Similarly, for many Christians alive today, the chapter on ‘Marcion: Vengeful Yahweh versus Gentle Jesus’ is a brilliant bit of teaching – we very often accidentally separate Father and Son in a well-meaning but misguided quest to make sense of the Old Testament.
Holcomb’s gentle, measured and Orthodox conclusion is worth the price of admission. And probably something I should print out and stick above my computer, or tattoo on the back of my typing hands. His closing words are very helpful:
An attitude of humble, charitable engagement stands in stark contrast to the spirit of theological conflict today. Rather than turning disagreement into division, we should contend for the truth with humility and grace. That’s how Jesus treated us.
This book is very helpful. It is readable, backed up on solid roots, and relevant to much of contemporary Christian life. Each chapter ends with discussion questions – so this could be a great thing to work on with groups of leaders or disciples. The book has two appendices – including a helpful piece on the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed. I can’t recommend it enough. I hope it recieves a wide readership amongst church leaders and disciples of all ages and stages. If we truly understood the Goodness of God and the Glory of the Gospel, we would be better placed to redirect error into worship, heresy into truth, and darkness into life.