Book Review: Know The Heretics

Know The Heretics, by Justin S. Holcomb

[Note: This book has been provided free of charge by BookLook/Zondervan Press in exchange for an honest review.]

Generally speaking, a book about heresy is the cause for a great deal of chest-thumping and hostility, but this is a rare example of a book about heresy that attempts a very difficult task in marshaling support against certain heresies (by name, this book comments on Gnostics, liberal Christianity, Mormons, and Unitarians as heretical in either one aspect or another), while at the same time holding heresy in such a high regard that the term is not tossed around for anyone who disagrees with orthodox positions but who holds to what the author considers to be a reasonable test of orthodoxy—the holding to the Nicene Creed (presumably with its later additions about the Trinity [1]) and to a general acceptance of the various ecumenical councils of post-Nicene Hellenistic Christianity. While there is a lot that I disagree with in this book, I must honor the noble intent of the author to be nuanced and moderate and yet passionate about better knowing God, while pointing out the pitfalls that led various people into heresy while dealing with such people and the deeply political nature of Christianity at the time in a fair fashion.

As a very short guidebook to some of the most essential heresies in Christianity, this book sticks mostly to early heresies (all of the heresies included began in the first five centuries AD, with one exception: the unitarian heresy of Socinus), and most of these heresies deal with one of two subjects: the nature of God or the nature of salvation (or some combination between the two). The author rightly critiques heresies denying the full divinity and full humanity of God (Arianism, Apollinarius, Eutyches, Nestorius), and deals with the problem of dualism in a thoughtful manner (Gnosticism, Marcion, Docetism, and Mani), but there are some areas where the position of the author is very difficult to maintain as he seeks to weave between two tendencies concerning a view of orthodoxy that leave him little room to maneuver.

To give but one example of many, the author condemns the Judaizing tendency for requiring circumcision for salvation (which tends to a theology by which we earn salvation through merit, which is definitely heretical, and a sort of heresy that is common to Judaism and many religions, including the Roman Catholic Church). The author makes some bogus comments about the Sabbath, failing to understand that the prophetic relevance of the Sabbath means that a seventh-day Sabbath remains for Christians to follow today [2], and then explicitly connects the relevance of Judaism to the merit-based salvation of the Roman Catholic Church as being heretical. Where this becomes problematic is that the author depends for legitimacy on a high view of human tradition that is simply not supported by the course of Hellenistic Christian history (a course that this author honestly explains concerning the drama and scheming of various so-called Church Fathers) while at the same time this honest account tends to undercut that legitimacy by pointing to the very human frailties and political dealings of those whom the author considers as the pillars of orthodoxy.

To his credit, the author does not duck these difficulties. He acknowledges that some people (including this reviewer) may be cynical about questions of orthodoxy because of the politically biased way it tends to be used. He also acknowledges a distinction between heterodox (that is, holding to a minority position that is nonetheless within the bounds of Christian identity) and being heretical (that is, outside the bounds of Christianity), even if that line is hard to define precisely. For honestly wrestling with difficult questions and necessary distinctions, as well as recognizing the tension that exists within Christian thought and practice between law and grace, the human and divine natures of God, the justice and mercy of God, and other related concerns, this author and this work deserve a great deal of praise. For all my disagreements with the author and with his worldview, he nonetheless represents a noble tendency to honestly deal with the historical course of Christianity in such a way that does not lead us to extremist and violent hostility towards sincere but mistaken believers even as we remain passionate in defense of the faith once delivered. In some ways, as this book makes plain, to know the heretics is to know yourself, as the book points out many ways that ordinary and widespread aspects of our contemporary worldview are in fact modern survivors of ancient and largely forgotten heresies. This is not a matter to be taken lightly [3]. For those readers looking for a moderate and nuanced introduction into the question of historical heresies, this is an excellent introduction, even for those who would disagree with its premises.

[1] The subject of the Trinity is something that I have written about a fair bit, as it is a notable point of contention. See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/why-have-a-trinity-anyway/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/on-the-trinity-and-logic/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/book-review-the-21-toughest-questions-your-kids-will-ask-about-christianity/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/no-other-gods-before-me-an-examination-of-henotheism-and-monolatry-in-the-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/the-doers-of-the-word-and-not-the-hearers-will-be-justified/

It should be noted that this book, while it deals in great detail about distinctive views about the relationship between God and man (and it is pretty clear from the scriptures themselves that there are areas of equality between God and man in the possession of the divine nature and also subordination between Jesus Christ and God in terms of role and authority), the book is largely silent about the source of the Trinitarian errors in the first place, and that is a failure to grasp the biblical doctrine of the Family of God, by which human beings are adopted into the Family of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By focusing so much attention on a personal identity of the Holy Spirit, the author (and many of like mind to him) entirely neglect that our lives as believers are the experiences of a new life in the womb, a new life of which Jesus Christ is the first example as the firstborn from the grave, showing a model at how corruptible flesh will inherit incorruptibility when resurrected into the world to come. It is strange, to me at least, how much of the debate between Alexandrian and Antiochene leaders and theologians (which takes up much of the course of this book) occurred in the absence of wrestling with the place of mankind as the future sons and daughters of the Most High, which tends to give a particularly Greek theoretical quality to the many debates and heresies that resulted from those two early rival centers of Hellenistic Christian thought.

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/exodus-231-19-the-relationship-between-the-sabbath-and-justice/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/exodus-31-12-18-the-sabbath-covenant/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/09/matthew-12-1-8-mark-2-23-28-luke-6-1-5-the-lord-of-the-sabbath-and-the-lord-of-sabaoth/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/book-review-sabbath-roots-the-african-connection/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/christ-the-sabbath-and-liberty/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/on-the-relationship-between-the-sabbath-and-liberty/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/there-remains-therefore-a-sabbath-rest-for-the-people-of-god/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/adversus-haereses/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/an-evangelical-tension/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/arguing-with-heretics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/doctrinal-castles-made-of-sand/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/the-perils-of-orthodoxy/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/book-review-spirit-of-antichrist/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/book-review-primitive-christianity-in-crisis/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/pm-dawn-and-the-gnostic-revival/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/the-contemporary-relevance-of-2-and-3-john/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/a-brief-look-at-the-systematic-theology-project/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/on-the-fundamentals-of-theology/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/religious-copyright-infringment-sins-against-man-and-god-an-examination-of-pseudographia-and-pauls-autographs/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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