Some people identify themselves as non-creedal Christians. They reject the historic Christian creeds and confessions in favor of what they might call a more “authentic” or “biblical” Christianity. There are also Christians who have never heard of the description “non-creedal,” but that is functionally what they are. They are not familiar enough with the historic creeds and confessions to learn anything from them.
Justin Holcomb diagnoses the problem of an intentional non-creedal Christianity:
“[S]ome 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.”
Holcomb also wants to help those who are unfamiliar with the church’s doctrinal statements:
“The main difficulty is untangling the language of the church of the past, particularly for those of us who do not have time or energy to devote to historical studies. The goal of this book is to guide readers past that difficulty and to provide an overview of the main historical developments in Christian thought” (10).
Holcomb wrote Know the Creeds and Councils for the benefit of a popular audience. The chapters are short. Each chapter contains four sections: brief historical background, content summary, relevance for today, and discussion questions for whichever creed, council, confession, or catechism it describes.
The book includes 13 chapters:
- Apostles’ Creed (ca. 140)
- Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed (325)
- Councils of Ephesus (431, 449, 475)
- Council of Chalcedon (451)
- Athanasian Creed (Late 400s to Early 500s)
- Councils of Constantinople (381, 553, 681)
- Councils of Carthage and Orange (419 and 529)
- Council of Trent (1545-63)
- Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
- Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1563)
- Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
- Second Vatican Council (1962-65)
- Modern Confessions: Lausanne Covenant (1974) and Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978)
Not every council that ever met and confession ever written is covered. By design, Holcomb only selected a few. It isn’t obvious why the councils are grouped in chapters geographically. This arrangement puts them out of chronological and topical order.
This book is clearly missing a chapter on the Lutheran confessions. In the introduction, Holcomb does describe the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord as prominent confessions and Luther’s catechisms as examples of prominent catechisms. But there is no treatment of their content. Instead, during and after the Reformation period, he covers Catholic, Calvinist, and Anglican confessions. He says that the Heidelberg Catechism is his favorite catechism. It is hard to imagine that a Lutheran reader will be more interested in brushing up on the Lausanne Covenant than the Book of Concord.
A few other details make this book less useful for our congregations. For example, in his discussion of the Apostles’ Creed, he explains that “he descended into hell” does not refer to going to hell and proclaiming his victory over Satan. “[I]t simply meant that Jesus died or passed to sheol (the pit or grave) just as any other person did” (28). Through the book the author sadly makes it clear that he appreciates statements that allow for some doctrinal diversity and limited ecumenism. He makes a distinction between the Bible and “the illumination of the Holy Spirit” (157).
We can appreciate, however, the strong arguments that Holcomb makes for the necessity of the confessions of the past. We can also appreciate the good, concise overviews of historical matters behind councils. And we can appreciate how he explains the relevance of the key confessions for today. Here is an example of “relevance” from the chapter on the Council of Nicaea and Nicene Creed:
“No mere man, nor half god, could possibly intervene to save fallen and sinful humanity, let alone restore all of creation. Only the Creator can enter creation to fix its brokenness and redeem its original, latent purpose. … Because the Father and the Son are one substance, we can also be assured that we actually know God in Jesus Christ. After all, ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Heb. 1:3), and so when we look on Jesus, we look on God. Without confidence that Jesus is God, united in substance with the Father, we could not be sure that Jesus can speak for God, forgive sins for God, declare righteousness for God, or do anything to make us children of the Father” (38, 39).
Know the Creeds and Councils may be a very useful book for Bible class or book club at a Reformed church. For our purposes, however, we could really use a Lutheran attempt at this kind of a book, which teaches the briefest amount of church history a Lutheran needs to know. The Christians whom we are called to serve need us to teach them not to reject orthodox creeds and confessions, either intentionally or functionally. Take encouragement from Holcomb’s work and join him in educating the church about what the Lord has done for her in her history.
Justin S. Holcomb holds two master’s degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Emory University. He is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Central Florida and seminary professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary.