Interview with Justin Holcomb about Heresies and History

Interview with Justin Holcomb about Heresies and History May 12, 2014

Justin Holcomb teaches Gordon-Conwell and Reformed Theological Seminary and he has written two books on Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan, 2014). Here is my interview with him about the books:

Justin, you’re an episcopal priest who is obviously interested in the church’s preservation of its orthodox faith. As an episcopalian, um, well, how is that working out for you?

It is working great for me. The prayer book is packed with orthodox goodness: Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, the Catechism, Thirty-nine Articles, and more. Thankfully, the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed haven’t been move over to the “historical documents” section in the Book of Common Prayer. So, clergy still have to affirm the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers, or else they are basically committing cosmic perjury.

In this “Know” series you’ve got books on heretics and church councils. What led you to write them?

I wrote these books, first, out of personal interest. I wanted to study the stories of orthodoxy and heresy throughout the Christian tradition. Second, I wanted to provide overviews that walk readers through the most important expressions (and denials!) of Christian faith—not with a dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living tradition of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today.

I’ve been interested in heretics and the creeds and councils since I was 17 and left a church that was influenced by the United Pentecostal denomination.  United Pentecostals do not believe in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. They believe in modalism, a heresy that claims that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply different modes, or forms, of God rather than distinct persons.

At 17, I was having intense theological discussions with some of the pastors at this church. I was convinced that what I was teaching at a church study group was considered orthodox since basically the beginning of Christianity. I had to study lots of church history, and particularly the history of creeds, councils, confessions, and heresies.

Additionally, as you pointed out, I serve an Episcopal priest. In the Anglican tradition the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Thirty-nine Articles are very important.  So, these statement have shaped me in profound ways, some of which I am aware of and probably in many more ways I’m not aware of.

Why should Christians be interested in learning about heretics and heresies now?

There are two major reasons. The first is that while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator of the world has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. When we find this revelation distasteful and try to reshape God according to our preferences, we are beginning to drift away from God as he really is. Imagine a friend who ignores the parts of you that he or she doesn’t like. Is that a deep relationship? Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.

The second reason is related to the first. When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. Think of the way that you might have related to your parents when you were growing up. Even if you didn’t necessarily understand the reasons behind boundaries they set for you in childhood, they look a lot different when you are confident in your parents’ love than when you fear or resent your parents. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology such a rewarding (although difficult and dangerous) discipline.

How can church leaders show the relevance of ancient creeds and councils to the contemporary church scene?

Some people decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct “real Christianity” with nothing more than a Bible. But this approach misses a great deal. Christians of the past were no less concerned with being faithful to God than we are, and they sought to fit together all that Scripture has to say about the mysteries of Christianity—the incarnation, the Trinity, predestination, and more—with all the intellectual power of their times. To ignore these insights is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly.

Ancient councils brought together leaders from all over the known world to hammer out issues, such as responses to heretical teachings, that were too difficult for individual pastors or bishops to handle alone. There are seven ecumenical councils through church history. Basically, these councils did lots of the heavy lifting for us and we can reap the benefits of their labor by leaning on their work.

Creeds and catechism are wonderful tools for learning the contours of the Christian faith well. Perhaps, instead of some shiny new discipleship book or program from another celebrity pastor, what we need is more attention giving to these tools handed over through the centuries

Creeds were initially used in baptism, during which the baptismal candidate recited a formula or responded to questions, thereby publicly confessing belief in Jesus Christ. As time passed, however, the creeds also were used to teach new converts the basic elements of the Christian faith. Since the creeds were relatively short summaries of Christian doctrine, they were easy to learn.

A catechism is a book or document giving a brief summary of the basic principles of Christianity in Q&A form. Catechisms represent the practical, “on-the-ground” application of the main teaching agreed upon at church councils and expressed through creeds and confessions. Early Christian catechesis focused on immersion in God’s Word, basic instruction in doctrine, and ethical and moral guidelines.

Who is your favourite heretic and why?

I think Socinus is my favorite, mostly because he was wrong on so many counts. He just loaded up his theology with heresies after heresies. He was so bad he was even condemned by both Catholics and Protestants.

My summary of Socinus’ heresy is “The Trinity is irrelevant and Jesus’ death is only an example.” Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office as the Logos, an office which deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and did not extend to his person, which Socinus argued was not divine. Socinus argued that the ecumenically accepted doctrine of the Trinity could not be defended.

Given his understanding of the radical unity of God and, consequently, Jesus’ merely human existence, Socinus’s view of the atonement logically differed from commonly accepted views. Socinus argued that because Jesus was not divine, his death could not have been intended to make satisfaction (as Anselm argued) or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans (as the Calvinists argued). Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation. Jesus, then, provided the unique and divinely anointed model for humans to imitate.

Recently Diamaid MacCullough gave a paper on “What if Arianism has Won?” How do you think Christianity would be different if its theology was revised to be consistently Arian?

If Christianity was consistently Arian, we wouldn’t have some many well-intentioned but bad analogies of the Trinity.

Seriously, the main way I think things would be different is that if Christianity was consistently Arian, I think the church and other expressions of the Christian faith would be much more hierarchical and domineering.  Let me explain.

Arius argued that the Son is not coeternal with the Father but is the supreme creation. He acknowledged that everyone believed that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the Word. No problem there. The problem lay with Arius arguing that only God the Father is without beginning and that the Son came into existence through the will of the Father.

Arius believed that the Father and the Son are two separate beings and that the biblical model for their relationship is one of eternal subordination: the Father is the one who decides matters and the Son is the one who obeys.

When you have “eternal subordination” as a major point of your doctrine of God, that can’t help but influence how you view and interact with the rest of the world and other people. I think there would be even more misuse of power and authority and that chauvinistic-patriarchy would be even more prevalent in the church.

What church council do you wish you could have been at?

The Council of Carthage in 418. The church articulated its doctrines of the Trinity, God, Christ, and Holy Spirit in the first four centuries after Jesus Christ. But in the fifth and early sixth-centuries, theological anthropology was a major topic of debate.

I like studying theological anthropology and the Council of Carthage and the Council of Orange (529) were the only ones that really dealt with the topic. Also, I am completely annoyed by Pelagianism, perhaps because there is so many warmed-over versions of it floating around today. So, Carthage gets my attention because it outlawed Pelagianism in unambiguous terms.

My summary of Pelagius’ heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.” Pelagius developed an ascetic form of Christianity with an overly optimistic theology of human nature. Pelagius asserted (against Augustine) that humans were not born corrupt but gradually made corrupt after repeatedly sinning.

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God. It is the result of the fall upon humanity (original sin), however, that Pelagius ignores, causing his theology to fall into error. Pelagius argued that there is no such thing as original sin. In no way were humans after Adam guilty of or implicated in his first sin. Adam’s sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Humans by nature have a clean slate — a state of neutrality — according to Pelagius, and it is only through voluntary sin through the exercise of an unhampered human free will that humans are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there is nothing intrinsically sinful about humans even after Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagius didn’t consider humans to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

In short, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death in our place is a supernatural intervention to save us), and justification by faith (the idea that believing and trusting in Christ is the way to salvation).

Your inclusion of the ICBI was an interesting choice. What made you include that “council” in the book?

I included the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as a modern confession, not so much as a council. I stuck to only ecumenical councils in the book.  But in the final chapter, I wrote about two modern confessions: Lausanne Covenant (1974) dealing with world evangelism and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) dealing with biblical criticism.

Both statements did emerge from councils, but the new councils differed from the old ecumenical councils in one important detail, however; they did not consider themselves authoritative. Wary of the abuses of church authority in the past, the councils self-consciously advised their hearers to use their decisions for guidance only, not as dogma.

Clearly, Christian doctrine did not stop developing after the ancient councils and creeds. Although the majority of new confessions of faith came about during the Reformation in order to distinguish Christian bodies from one another and to affirm the historic ecumenical councils, more recent times have seen joint confessions from Christians of all kinds of denominations. Indeed, a new series of movements are calling themselves ecumenical to show that they are attempting to reestablish the unity that has been eroded by the splintering sectarianism of modern Christianity. Just as new dilemmas had prompted the ancient Christians to define their beliefs more sharply, the fresh challenges presented by a well-connected, technologically advanced world have led Christians of all stripes to seek doctrinal unity to address the challenges posed by the modern world.

Two of these challenges include biblical criticism and world evangelism. The late nineteenth century saw the rise of a skeptical academic class that claimed hitherto unknown techniques for unlocking the origins of the Bible. With the Bible being treated more and more like a merely human book, as prone to mistakes as any other human book, various conservative Protestant churches found it necessary to define and defend the inerrancy, or complete accuracy, of Scripture. As a result, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was drafted in 1978 by a gathering of several hundred evangelical church leaders.

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