by Justin S. Holcomb
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 176 pgs.
Who was Pelagius and why should the members of my church bother to find out? Why should we be interested in Arius’s ideas about Jesus Christ, ideas that were condemned as unorthodox hundreds of years ago? Let’s face it, when it comes to church history, we have to work hard to convince many in the Church of the relevance of the Christian heroes of the past. To attempt a study of the heretics seems to be a non-starter.
Of course, what people want is not always a faithful guide to what they need. And any student of church history knows that one of the best ways to explain what is theologically orthodox is to tell the story of how the church arrived at the position, including (and perhaps especially) walking through the proposals that the church judged to be false.
The heresies of the past were dangerous precisely because they were so accessible and seemingly reasonable. Strange and far out ideas that offer the devotee nothing are typically not much of a threat. The great Trinitarian and Christological heresies found traction because they gave the appearance of coherence and explanatory power. For the unintentional and unthinking back then, the heresies were easy to comprehend and became a sort of de facto position. For the unintentional and unthinking today, they offer the exact same thing. Understanding the ins and outs of Trinitarian theology or the complexity of the hypostatic union is not always easy, but the task is made easier when the Church is clear on what NOT to believe.
To that end, Justin Holcomb has given the church a fine gift. Functioning as a primer on twelve of the most significant heresies in the history of the Church, Know the Heretics covers the Judaizers, the Gnostics, Marcion, the Docetists, Mani and Manicheanism, Sabellius, Apollinarius, Pelagius, Eutyches, Nestorius, and Socinus. Holcomb consistently follows a format of providing the historical background, explaining the heretical teaching, covering the orthodox response at the time, and then discussing the contemporary relevance of the heresy and the appropriate response. Each chapter also includes some discussion questions for group study and a bibliography of recommended resources for those who want to dig deeper.
The agenda for the book is set in the introduction. Any book on Christian heresies requires a working definition of orthodoxy and heresy. After rightly explaining the difficulties in providing such definitions, Holcomb defines orthodoxy as “the teaching that best follows the Bible and best summarizes what it teaches—best accounts for the paradoxes and apparent contradictions, best preserves the mystery of God in the places where reason can’t go, and best communicates the story of the forgiveness of the gospel” (11). Heresy is more difficult to define and identify. Holcomb rightly warns that heresy cannot be the default accusation proffered against those with whom the Christian disagrees. Indeed, the heretics were usually asking “legitimate and important questions” (12). But a line existed that was crossed by the heretics. The apostles and early church believed that the line was defined by “central and orthodox beliefs” (14), those beliefs that “contradicted the essential elements of the faith” (15). But those descriptors do not provide a cookbook approach to identifying heresy. It takes understanding and the better thinkers within the church have always differentiated between the seriousness of theological error. Not every error rises to the level of heresy, but some do. Ultimately, Holcomb suggests that the contemporary church should learn about heresy because our Creator God has mercifully chosen to reveal himself and “it is important to honor that revelation” (19). Further, misunderstanding God will result in a flawed ability to relate to him correctly.
Here are three reasons why I think Know the Heretics is a worthy investment.
1. Utility for the Church
Holcomb makes a compelling case, summarized above, for the necessity of learning from the past. The Church needs to pay attention to the heresies of the past so they can recognize error today. Know the Heretics is written for the Church. The explanations are thorough, yet not burdensome. The organization and discussion questions lend themselves to group study or a good Sunday School resource. Each chapter is brief, about ten to twelve pages. The book is readable and not intimidating. My one criticism of the book is that I wished he would have covered semi-Pelagianism (an issue with which the Church has always struggled) as well as Pelagianism.
2. Breadth of Coverage
Wisely choosing, for the most part, Trinitarian and Christological controversies, Holcomb has chosen to focus on the most important issues that beset the early church and those controversies whose resolution brought the most clarity to the gospel. One will learn to think clearly about the gospel by studying the errors of the Judaizers and Pelagius. Investigating Arianism, Marcionism, Manichianism, and Socinianism will bring illumination to one’s understanding of the Doctrine of God. Focus and discernment will be brought to one’s understanding of Jesus Christ by studying Docetism, Apollinarianism, Eutychianism, and Netorianism. Those are all good things.
3. Growth in Devotion
Here is a wonderful thing about our great Triune God: As we come to know him better, our adoration of him will necessarily grow. One cannot be fickle about our Creator, Redeemer, and King. There is no place for fence-sitting when it comes to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is impossible. To know him rightly is to love him more. Right understanding of God will lead to increased awe and reverence. It can be no other way. Studying the heretics is devotionally powerful because theirs was a deficient view of God, Jesus Christ, and the gospel. The heretics’ error was not in imagining a God who was too great. Their fatal flaws were typically reductionism, confinement, and domestication of God. The Jesus Christ of the heretics could not have saved us in the majestic and wonderful way that the true incarnate Son of God redeemed us and reigns over us. The God of the heretics is too common, too ordinary, and not worthy of devotion, worship, or service. Holcomb’s simple little primer makes this clear.
About Todd Miles
Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).