This review first appeared on Lifeway’s Pastors Today web-blog.
Justin S. Holcomb. Know the Creeds and Councils. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 192 pp. $12.99.
“No creed but the Bible” is a common refrain for evangelical church leaders and members during the past few decades. Just the other day at the park a church planter shared with me this same refrain as the center of his church’s vision.
But is this a prudent philosophy? Should we really abandon two millennia of theological development and tradition? In Know the Creeds and Councils, Justin Holcomb an Episcopal priest and professor at both RTS and Gordon-Conwell – referring to the intrinsic value of Church History – graciously says, “To ignore these insights is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly” (10). I agree with him.
In Know the Creeds and Councils, Holcomb sets out to bring clarified perspective of the background, content, and relevance for the essential creeds, councils, confessions, and catechisms of Christian History. In fact, each chapter is structured with that outline: Historical Background, Content, and Relevance.
Know the Creeds and Councils does not attempt to be a comprehensive guide, rather it is an accessible primer for pastors or laypersons, individuals or groups to provide a “deeper and better understanding of how the church has wrestled with major doctrinal questions and has emerged stronger as Jesus continues to build his church” (22).
This study spans Christian History, studying critical documents beginning with the Apostles Creed (ca. 140) and ending with the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (1978), presenting synopses of crucial assemblies like the seven ecumenical councils, and examining vital reformation era statements like the Heidelberg catechism and Westminster Confession. Holcomb’s selection of source material and elucidation of church history indicates sincerity for unity and bias to produce praise of God – both admirable qualities!
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
There is a lot to be said about the merits of Know the Creeds and Councils. If, as many think, there is an increasing biblical illiteracy of membership within broader Evangelicalism, then let’s consider briefly how emaciated people’s understanding of Church History is? This intelligible and concise primer will be a wonderful resource for combating this infirmity within churches! Community groups and bible fellowships will profit by drawing from the well of lessons learned in Church history, and the discussion guide concluding each chapter provides ideal questions to help them drink from this well.
Pastors who utilize liturgy (something I recommend) to express the gospel and provide doctrinal guardrails may use this resource to help their leadership and congregation understand the benefit of confessions and creeds. The same can be said of us today as Holcomb asserts concerning early church leadership: “By sad experience, the leaders of the church found that there were areas in the “rule of faith” that left too much open to personal interpretation” (38). Thus, we need these time-tested statements crafted to withstand confusion or corruption.
Nestled within the pages of Know the Creeds and Councils are accounts of virtuous leaders overcoming enemies of orthodoxy (i.e. Alexander and Athanasius vs. Arius at Nicaea, 33-39), the invisible hand of God’s grace protecting the doctrine of the Church (i.e. Augustine and the Council of Carthage, 88-94), and quests for refined articulations of God’s Word (i.e. Definition of Chalcedon, 55-58). These many accounts illustrate not just the protective dogmatic nature of the Church but also the “common thread of ‘generous orthodoxy’” present throughout church history (83). Notably, throughout Know the Creeds and Councils, Holcomb exhibits where the Church agrees across the board and how she functions ecumenically in spite of remarkable distinctives.
Essential Recommended Helpful Pass It By
Know the Creeds and Councils isn’t some mere fact-finding guide but a faith-forming affirmation of God’s providence over God’s people.