I have to confess, I was a reluctant church history student. Very reluctant. As I began studying at theological college in 2014, I approached church history with trepidation. History was not my forte in high school, having no knack for retaining details of dates, names and places (a friend and I recently considered it a feat that we could recall the simple fact that Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517. This was after a year of studying church history). I knew little about church history and what to make of it in the grander scheme of ministry. Yet as I learned of events over the past 2000 years, each milestone and hurdle illuminated something significant about where our church has come from. Though I would struggle to compile a timeline of church history, the discussion of how each debate unfolded has enriched my grasp of key doctrines.
Which is why I was intrigued by Know the Creeds and Councils. We do not all have time (or memory!) for the detail of degree-level courses in church history, yet we miss out if the lively history of our faith is relegated only to the halls of academia. In Know the Creeds and Councils, Justin S. Holcomb offers an accessible look at key moments in Christian history. Each is presented chronologically, through a consistent chapter structure covering the historical background, content and relevance of each creed or council.
If there is one recommendation I have about reading this book, it’s to do so with friends! In the book’s conclusion, Holcomb explains, “Learning how Christians throughout history have wrestled with the tough questions of our faith gives us a valuable understanding of the Christian faith, increases our dependence on God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and Holy Scriptures, fuels our worship of God, increases our love for each other, and motivates mission to the world.” Surely matters like these are well worth discussing in fellowship, building each other up as you do? The book is designed to be discussed, with a helpful set of questions at the end of each chapter. Learning through discussion of different debates in church history has helped me pin down how events then impact church life now.
Now that you’re (I hope!) sold on the merit of exploring church history, and of doing so in fellowship, here are some brief thoughts on the first two chapters of Know the Creeds and Councils. These cover arguably the most known creeds in contemporary churches, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
The Apostles’ Creed is a snapshot of the early church endeavouring to consolidate the key doctrines of the gospel, compiling a brief witness to the teaching of the apostles. Holcomb suggests that “The Apostles’ Creed is as good a tool as any for finding out what early Christians believed, and to seeing how similar it is to what we believe now”.
The Nicene Creed then built upon this foundation 200 years later, with a fresh focus on the nature and essence of Jesus. It is complex biblical content like this that has necessitated the ongoing weighing of church teaching that we will discover in Know the Creeds and Councils.
The vastness of God’s word and the intricacies of how each part relates beg that Christians devote thought to what it all means. With each of these creeds coming out of a time when mysticism knocked with fervour at the door of faith, early Christians endeavoured to highlight the authenticity of the life and work of Jesus. And don’t we have the same task today? In the Western world of apathy and scepticism, our lives and ministry ought to point others to the real and genuine saviour, the God-man whose life, death and resurrection have real and genuine consequences for us all.
Over the coming weeks we will look at the remainder of the creeds and councils of early church history, then the reformation era and finishing with some contemporary councils of the 20th century. Hope to see you here!