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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Know the Heretics" (Justin S. Holcomb)

TITLE: Know the Heretics (KNOW Series)
AUTHOR: Justin S. Holcomb
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (176 pages).

Why should anyone be learning about the heretics? Are the heretics really as bad as the word "heresy" painted them to be? Are there any benefits to learn about the history of the fourteen major events that shaped Christianity into what it is today? The answers to these questions are provided in this very illuminating look on the history of the Christian Church as they fought with theological challenges through the ages.

Author Justin Holcomb has wisely acknowledged that heretics themselves are not bad people. In fact, they have often asked the right and truthful questions. They are people who were honest with their doubts and tried to find ways to address them. Unfortunately, it was the answers and conclusions that betray them. The Orthodoxy we have today has gone through the baptism of fire and has engaged the top theological powers through the centuries. As battles are fought through debates, councils, and messages given to the masses, readers of today have lots to be thankful for. In this book, we learn that some errors are more serious than others. We learn about what Orthodoxy (right teaching) is. We recognize that every teacher will have their versions of what is Orthodoxy and what is not. This is especially so in a pluralistic society in which tolerance is urged throughout various beliefs. As far as Holcomb is concerned, there are two major reasons why we ought to study heresy and the history of its development. The first is that amid the ambiguity, there are important truths that are never wishy-washy. God is not some image created in our image, but God is God and we can only discover Him for who He reveals Himself to be. The second is that if we love God, we will seek to know God in all His Truth. Knowing the historical developments of old can help us to appreciate the ways past generations have done just that. Holcomb weaves through the nuances of Orthodoxy, heterodoxy, variants, nuances, and of course heresies. He emphasizes the importance to differentiate between heterodoxy and heresy. The former is a belief that differs from orthodoxy. The latter goes beyond acceptable limits which Holcomb calls "a certain point." What are these acceptable limits?

Holcomb leads us one at time, beginning with the Judaizers where the Jews of old try to hem the early believers in with their interpretation of the Law. They criticize Paul for eating with Gentiles. They insist on circumcision as a necessity for salvation. There is even a confrontation between Peter and Paul internally. The incident enables a greater focus toward Christ as sole requirement for salvation. Then there are the Gnostics that grew into a formidable force by the second century. They created a lot of confusion as they taught people to focus more on Jesus' teaching rather than following Jesus the Person. They emphasize the divide, saying that material things are bad while spiritual things are good. This caused the Church to fight back, and to refute such divisions as erroneous. The modern version of Gnosticism is the New Age teachings like "The Secret," "Da Vinci Code" and so on. With Marcion (ca 85-160), there is a rise of dualism in which Marcion pits the Old Testament against the New Testament; the law and the gospel; the earthly and the heavenly; so much so that the Orthodox response was equally vigorous. Tertullian, Irenaeus, and others fought for the integrity of the Old Testament. The Docetists further developed the dualism of spiritual-is-good and physical-is-evil, imposing this heresy on the Person of Jesus. Thus, in order to let this philosophy interpret the Person of Christ, they are forced to say that Jesus is never fully human, but only appear to be human while maintaining full divinity.  This was strongly resisted by Ignatius of Antioch (ca 50-117) and Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155), Irenaeus, among others. Even today, just like the Docetists, people still tried to modify Christianity to be more palatable to the cultural norms. The third century heretic, Mani teaches a religion that attempts to bring together the best of all religions at that time. He combines Buddhism, Zoroastrianism with Christianity, totally confusing and corrupting the spiritual and physical significance of body and soul. Mani tried to resolve the problem of suffering but in the process compromised crucial teachings of Christianity. In the same way, Sabellius tried to resolve the  puzzle of one God and three persons by teaching God in terms of three different "modes" of God. Tertullian and others played a significant role in the eventual defense via the Athanasian Creed. Some like Arius correctly rejected Sabbellius and offered an equally erroneous proposition, that Jesus is creation rather than Creator. Other heresies include those from Appollonarius, Pelagius, Eutyches, Nestorius, and Socinus. Each of them attack a fundamental doctrine of the faith and demands a forceful response either via a Creed, Council resolutions, or a rebuttal appropriate for its times.

So What?

Why should anyone read this book? I can list several reasons. First, it is a reminder against complacency. Sometimes, we are easily lulled into theological passivity when there is nothing to challenge our commonly held beliefs. Without regular exercise of our spiritual vigilance, we can fall prey to all kinds of heresy even today. Second, we must continue to know what we believe and to affirm our faith through the creeds of old. We also need to study the doctrinal statements on a regular basis so that we do not lose sight of the ancient truths. Our forefathers have fought so hard and we should not let them down by becoming easy prey to all kinds of attacks both overt and covert. Third, we can be more thankful just to know that there are many who have made sacrifices to affirm the truth and to speak out against heresies. Through their examples, we are encouraged to recognized the heresies of our age and to fight our generational battles. We need to remember that as our forefathers are responsible to fight their battles, we too must fight our contemporary battles. Fourth, we can sharpen our own understanding of Orthodoxy. Sometimes, it takes a wake-up call in order for us to be more certain of what we believed. By having the heretics challenge even the minute details, we need an equally legitimate response to explain why we believe what we believe. Indeed, there is a kind of doubt that leads to deeper faith. There is also a kind of blind faith that leads to greater doubt. Care must be taken to make sure that we learn to handle differences with love as well as a firm eye on truth. There is no way we can be united if there is no truth in the first place.

Fifth, it forces us to ask about modern heresies of today. Holcomb has given us several examples. We can learn to question modern criticisms. Some questioning is fair and just. Others are plain mischief and unjust. We need to differentiate between the two. In order to do that, we need to be schooled in Orthodoxy and to be equipped with the tools to respond to heterodoxy as well as heresies.

Highly recommended book!

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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