As the saying goes, “Those who don’t know history will be doomed to repeat it.” Or, to quote a more inspired author, “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is especially true when it comes to the history of Christian theology. There really aren’t any new heresies–just old heresies with new coats of paint. That’s why it’s so vital for Christians to have a good understanding of what they believe and why they believe it. When they encounter new teachers and new teaching, it will help them recognize the true and spot the false.
Justin Holcomb’s short book, “Know the Heretics,” seeks to do just that. Holcomb highlights 12 false doctrines that the Church has faced over the centuries (all but one of them in the first 500 years of the church). Each chapter describes the historical background of the teacher and doctrine in question, why it was heretical, how the Church responded to that doctrine, and the contemporary significance of each heresy.
A Useful Overview…
Know the Heretics provides a pretty good overview of the context and issues at hand with each false doctrine. Holcomb seeks to provide an objective description of each scenario, and makes clear why each doctrine in question was dangerous to Christian belief and understanding. If you don’t know Arius from Athanasius or Pelagius from Polycarp, this book will make you familiar with some of the key figures from the post-Apostolic era. The “Contemporary Relevance” sections were also sometimes helpful in drawing lines to connect false belief across a distance of centuries (though I think Holcomb could have gone farther with this by being more specific about current religions and teachers who espouse the falsehoods examined here).
…With A Questionable Conclusion
The book’s conclusion is a bit more concerning. In the Introduction, 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 forgiveness of the Gospel.” He goes on to distinguish between heresy (compromising an essential doctrine) and heterodoxy (potentially wrong belief about a non-essential doctrine). He states that, in the early Church, there were fervent discussions and even heated arguments between Christian leaders about doctrine, but the charge of heresy was reserved for those who taught things contrary to the essential truths of the faith. Holcomb strongly cautions modern believers against being quick to assign the label of “heretic” to anyone who teach wrong doctrines.
To some extent, I understand and agree with this. There are false teachers who are wolves and heretics, denying primary doctrinal truths and devouring the foolish and untaught. But there are also bad teachers, who are themselves deceived and need further growth, maturity, and training. Bad teachers should be questioned, challenged, even silenced; but that doesn’t mean that these men (or women) aren’t born-again believers, and it doesn’t mean they are beyond hope.
However, in the conclusion of Know the Heretics, Holcomb’s standard for distinguishing between orthodoxy and heresy is the Nicene Creed. He writes:
If a believer authentically holds the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic, no matter how strongly we believe they are gravely in error on the details or on other doctrines. A good shorthand for heresy, then, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?” If the answer is yes, they may still be wrong, and they may be heterodox, but we cannot call them heretics, because they fit within the bounds of historic Christianity.
I have to disagree with Justin Holcomb. While the Nicene Creed was and is useful to the Church, it’s just not sufficient to encapsulate the primary doctrines of the faith. Yes, the Nicene Creed is Trinitarian; and it affirms that Jesus was incarnated, crucified, buried, raised, and ascended. There is some language about one Church and one baptism…and that’s about it.
The Nicene Creed, by itself, is missing a few doctrines that I would call “essential.” Specifically, it does not address the doctrine of man, the doctrine of salvation, or the inspiration of Scripture. While these doctrines will necessarily draw more distinctions than Holcomb wants to, I would argue that they are still primary doctrines of the Christian faith. Just as the church councils convened to address the various heresies of each century, clarifying more and more what Christians believe, it is just as important to articulate essential doctrine now, in our time, as the question of what we believe about the Bible and about sin and salvation are constantly challenged.
Final Verdict: Know the Heretics is a basic overview of heresies in (mostly) the first 5 centuries of the Church that does a decent job of providing historical background. However, it feels watered down when it addresses how these ancient heresies relate to contemporary religions and religious teachings. Ultimately, his very limited definition of “essential doctrine” serves to weaken what could overall be a useful introductory text, and that keeps me from being able to recommend it.
If you’re interested in studying the development of doctrine amid heresy in the Early Church, I would commend to you For Us and For Our Salvation by Dr. Stephen Nichols, which covers much of the same information and includes selections from the primary texts.
Please Note: I was provided a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. The preceding comments are purely my own.