In the song False Teachers, Christian rap artist Shai Linne characterizes much of the face of 21st century Christianity: “Today the only heresy is saying that there’s heresy.” What an accurate statement of our age. We live in a church age that has been influenced by the influx of postmodernism and has witnessed a word such as “tolerance” take an entirely new definition. For the sake of “unity,” much of the church has dropped the notion of heresy altogether. Calling someone a heretic is viewed as an abominable offense and arrogance of the highest level. Concern for doctrinal accuracy has little to no place in the progressivism of today’s church culture.
On the flip side of this coin of doctrinal precision (or lack thereof) are those camps who readily shoot the words “heresy” and “heretic” like fiery arrows at those who simply disagree with them theologically. There is either total ignorance of doctrine or the patrol of self-appointed doctrine police. Doctrinal error is often either ignored or over-exaggerated.
In the words of Episcopal priest, professor, and author of Know the Heretics, Justin Holcomb, “To some people today, heretic suggests a rebel–someone with courage, the kind of person who can think for himself and stand up to the institutional church. Some Christians simply use the word to refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with their particular version of Christianity” (11). With the reality of these two erroneous approaches to doctrine and heresy, Justin Holcomb has provided a resource that will help Christians better handle old and new heresies alike and learn how to disagree with one another in a gracious, Christlike manner.
Know the Heretics is one of two published installments of the KNOW Series from Zondervan. Holcomb’s other book in this series, Know the Creeds and Councils, was released alongside Know the Heretics. Holcomb, who serves not only as an Episcopal priest, but also as a professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary, has offered in Know the Heretics a short and concise guide to some of the major heresies that the church has faced and combated throughout the centuries.
Holcomb states his purpose in writing in the introduction: “This book aims to provide an accessible overview of some of the major heresies throughout the Christian tradition…I hope that after reading this book you will come away with a greater understanding of the main heretical figures and ideas that have most impacted the history of Christianity” (21).
Holcomb introduces twelve major heresies that challenged the apostolic tradition of the church. He shows how each heretical position was not merely doctrinal disagreement, but an attack on apostolic testimony and orthodox confession of the being of God, the relationship within the Godhead, and the way of salvation.
Know the Heretics is divided into twelve chapters in which twelve heretical figures and/or positions are examined. Each chapter is highly readable mostly because of its division.
Firstly, each heretical position is placed within its historical context. A clear and concise description of the historical background of each heretic or heresy is given.
Secondly, the heresy is described by Holcomb and those who held each heresy. For example, Holcomb describes the error of Marcionism (Chapter 3), but also quotes its strongest opponent, Tertullian, throughout.
Thirdly, Holcomb gives the orthodox response that was given by various church leaders to each heresy. In these sections, Holcomb shows how heresies led to the formulations of some of our most precious doctrines (i.e. the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus, etc.).
Fourthly, and finally, Holcomb closes each chapter with a brief discussion of how each heresy and each orthodox response is relevant to his contemporary audience. In these sections, Holcomb shows where each heresy can be found today. By the end of each chapter, readers will be prepared to identify various heresies in their own time and give a biblical and orthodox response to these doctrinal errors in the various forms they sprout.
While Holcomb does not engage every heresy that arose in the church, he does discuss many of the most crucial heresies that the early church faced. Among the twelve heresies Holcomb addresses, he focuses mainly on those that attack the nature of God, the person of Jesus, the relationship between Father and Son, and the manner in which God saves sinners (12). Most of the heresies discussed arose in the early centuries of Christianity, with the exception of Socianism, which arose in the 16th century.
Know the Heretics is a crucial and timely resource for a church culture that one on hand denies the importance of doctrine and on the other sees heresy in any disconnect between their theological flavor and that of another. I found a couple major strengths in this book (thought there are many more).
Know the Heretics is the product of a vast array of historical research on the part of the author that allows readers to engage with historical documents with regard to heresies without having to do the deep digging. Readers who would normally never glance at a book on the early church fathers are given a highly accessible work that is full of historical integrity. This is especially important when it comes to the heretics themselves. Rather than burning these heretics at the stake, Holcomb shows that even most of them had good intentions when they began down their heretical road. For example, Nestorius in his error concerning the person of Jesus “attempted to form a Christology that upheld orthodox Christian teachings against [Arianism and Manichaeanism] and others like it” (134).
Nestorius, like most of the heretics outlined in this book, did not maniacally trek into heresy, but rather fell into heresy often going “too far” in their attempts to reconcile Christianity with leading philosophies and understand Jesus in relation to the God of Israel. Holcomb’s commitment to historical accuracy and honesty has direct relevance to readers, because he shows how easy and even tempting it can be to drift into heresy.
One final point to make concerning Know the Heretics is the author’s gracious engagement with heresies and heretics. Not only is this a profound example for handling heresies and heretics in our day, but it is a trustworthy manner to handle the history of heretics. Holcomb astutely agrees with both Catholic and Reformed traditions in his division of doctrine into the three categories of heresy, heterodoxy, and orthodoxy. Everything is not orthodoxy, but also everything that isn’t orthodoxy isn’t necessarily heresy. In a book exposing heretics, this was an important point for Holcomb to make.
What’s more, Holcomb makes maybe his most overarching and profound point in the conclusion when he writes, “We must remember that the entirety of what we think Christians should believe is not identical to what a person must believe to be saved. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine” (156). He continues to explain that “the line between heterodoxy and heresy is blurry” (156). Calling for wisdom, patience, kindness, grace, and love, Holcomb urges that Christians do not shout “heresy!” unless there is ample evidence of a denial of the central tenets to Christianity. That is why Holcomb leaves us with a simple guide for seeing heresy: “A good shorthand for heresy, then, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?”
Today heresy is a word that brings out the worst in people and creates a lot of confusion and Twitter battles. Why even fret with doctrine to the point that we call out those who have fallen outside the bounds of Christianity? Holcomb reminds us that “in order to love God we have to know who he is” (156). Orthodox teachings and formulas serve to teach us about the nature and work of God. You will not leave this book with a notebook and pen ready to compile a list of all the “heretics” in your church. Instead, you will leave with a deep sense of gratitude for those men who defended the apostolic tradition of the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus, and the salvation of sinners by grace through faith. And you will also be humbled by your finitude; for just like Socinus, Nestorius, Marcion, and others, we could easily fall into heresy. May we relish the precious doctrines, creeds, and confessions that serve as the grace to keep us within the bounds of historic Christianity.
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