On summer Sunday afternoons, we’d meet up at one of our small-town parks, each bringing what we had -- bats, balls, gloves -- to share as needed.
One park had no diamonds but did have open grassy areas. Bases were often shirts, rocks, or some other found detritus.
Still, we knew we were playing baseball because we had three bases and home, were using baseballs and baseball bats, and agreed that four balls was a walk while three strikes was an out.
Balls could be foul, but usually if you hit you ran. If tapped or the ball was caught, you were out. Otherwise, you were safe wherever you landed.
One Sunday we met up at one of the “real” diamonds out at the county park on the edge of town. There, another group of guys asked if they could join in and play “us” against “them.”
We were game and said sure.
And then something happened.
While “we” were, as usual, casual about the rules, “they” were not.
In fact, nearly every pitch led to a discussion about some technicality of play. The fun was slowly drained away by increasingly heated discussions of the rules.
While “we” wanted to play ball, “they” wanted to win. Or so it seemed.
Heretics, Pharisees, and baseball
In the eyes of our competitors that summer day, we were baseball “heretics.” While to us, they were the “Pharisees” of the diamond. It was not a pretty sight.
When playing ball with our known chums we shared an understood set of “beliefs” and “expectations” about baseball and what we were about.
The other “outsider” team also had their own understood set of “beliefs” and “expectations” about baseball.
Neither side was necessarily wrong, but both sides failed to clearly communicate our “beliefs” and “expectations” from which we could have developed an agreed-to set of ground rules that would have kept everyone happy.
We were all playing baseball and agreed to some generic basics, but the trouble came on the finer points.
It’s not unlike what happens when people from different families get together to play Monopoly or some other board game. It’s amazing to learn the variety of “rules” each insists exists yet are not to be found printed on the inside of the box lid.
The simple reality is that the more people from different backgrounds involved in a game, the more clearly the rules being followed need to be stated.
Field guides for believers
Christianity can often feel like that fun-drained summer baseball game or Monopoly with the neighbors.
The problem isn’t with Christianity, God, faith, or the Bible, but rather what happens when one group of believers comes together to “play” with another group of believers.
Francis A. Schaeffer stated that, “Though genuine Christians may, and in fact do, disagree over certain points of Christian thinking, there are absolute limits beyond which a Christian cannot go and still stand in the historic stream of Christianity.”
He agrees that there is room for variation of expression within these absolute limits, explaining “we should picture a circle within which there is freedom to move.”
Still, there are biblical boundaries that need to be observed.
As author Justin S. Holcomb points out, “If you do not follow the rules, you cannot say you are playing the game anymore.”
As a Boy Scout I always carried a field guide on camping trips that helped me identify local flora and fauna.
If I was uncertain, a quick check of the guide would verify if the plant I’d just rubbed up against was poison ivy or something harmless. Most often the result was I needed to apply calamine lotion!
Justin S. Holcomb has provided two useful references that, together, can serve as field guides to help avoid theological and doctrinal poison ivy: Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics.
Discerning true heresies
When it comes to heretics, anyone who is familiar with the New Testament will have probably heard, at minimum, references to Judaizers and the Gnostics. These are the first two tackled in Know the Hereticss.
Other chapters take on Marcion, Docetists, Mani, Sabellius, Arius, Appolinarius, Pelagius, Eutyches, Nestorious, and Socinus. Within each chapter, there are mentions of additional heretics, showing their relation to the one being discussed.
As Holcomb points out, “Traditionally, a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification.”
The sobering reality is that many if not all of the heretics referenced were at least initially very devout, godly men. Their motives were often rooted in right desires but they strayed from central biblical truths and generally accepted doctrines, or what is known as the “rule of faith.”
As Holcomb states, there, “is often a fine balance between allowing free exploration of who God is and reasserting what we can know for sure, and in the cases presented in this book, the exploration went so far as to distort our understanding of God as he has revealed himself to us.”
This is why it is important to understand heresies and those behind them. Paul warns in Galatians 1:9. “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (ESV).
At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind as Holcomb points out, “the early church did not consider every potential wrong belief to be heretical. Rather, only those beliefs that contradicted the essential elements of the faith were to be labeled heresy, not disagreements on nonessential doctrines.”
We must guard against seriously wrong doctrine while remembering that there is freedom to move within the circle of absolutes.
Councils for the defense
As the Gospel spread, followers of Jesus were birthed across countries, continents, and cultures. The boundaries of those countries and cultures changed over the centuries and pushed against the boundaries of right belief. These realities required clarification and refinement of belief, but always to ensure expressions of the day were totally biblical and within the circle of orthodoxy.
To keep heresies at bay, councils were called, from which creeds, confessions, and catechisms were created. Know the Creeds and Councils addresses several of these in chronological order, reaching from AD 140 up to recent times.
Covered are the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Councils of Ephesus, Council of Chalcedon, Athanasian Creed, Councils of Constantinople, Councils of Carthage and Orange, Council of Trent, Heidelberg Catechism, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Westminster Confession of Faith, Second Vatican Council, Lausanne Covenant, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
Holcomb does an excellent job providing definitions of the four C’s (councils, creeds, confessions, and catechisms).
He explains that “creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways.”
A catechism is defined as “a book or document giving a brief summary of the basic principles of Christianity in Q&A form.”
While the councils “brought together leaders from all over the world to hammer out issues, such as responses to heretical teachings, that were too difficult for individual pastors or bishops to handle alone.”
As Holcomb concludes, “Learning how Christians throughout history have wrestled with the tough questions of our faith gives us a valuable perspective that deepens our understanding of the Christian faith, increases our dependence on God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures, fuels our worship of God, increases our love for each other, and motivates mission to the world.”
Getting to know the Know Series
These two titles mark what appears to be the beginning of the “Know Series” from Zondervan, which implies there will be other titles to come.
Both compact books are intended to provide “accessible overviews” while admitting to not being comprehensive. Each provides similarly structured chapters outlining the basics of their topics and showing how they are relevant for us today.
These books are aimed, as the author states, at “those of us who do not have the time or energy to devote to historical studies,” and they hit that target dead center.
The books are truly complementary with some sections shared verbatim in each. You can choose to read the books cover-to-cover, or use them as a reference to zero in on specific topics of interest.
Each chapter in both volumes concludes with discussion questions and suggested further readings.
The publisher suggests both books could be used in Sunday school or small groups.
When using either or both books in a group, the leader will probably want to be steeped in the topic prior to leading discussion and be prepared to address the more controversial issues that could crop up.
That baseball game years ago could have been a lot more fun had both teams spent a few minutes getting to know each other and clarifying the rules that would govern our game.
We all wanted to play baseball, had very good ideas as to what that meant, and all of our ideas were within the realm of “baseball orthodoxy.”
It’s just that my team wanted to play from a different place in the circle than did the other team.
Our cultures clashed even though our beliefs were solid.
The truth is that we managed to get through the game, working out issues as they arose. It wasn’t always as much fun, was a lot more work, but we managed to play some decent ball.
Too often, though, when it comes to doctrine among fellow believers, it can get touchy.
As Holcomb says, “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.”
As hard as it may be to accept, as Christians, while there are absolute boundaries which must not be yielded, there are many details surrounding our expressions of faith that we can legitimately agree to disagree on.
As Holcomb points out, “The current climate of the church shows that Christians need to relearn the ability to care about right doctrine and have earnest doctrinal disagreements without shouting ‘heresy!’ when we disagree.”
He has done an excellent job providing us two essential resources to aid us in that relearning.
*Just for fun:
About the references in the title, baseball & board games is obvious. Here are the others, which are examples of the cool information you’ll discover in these books:
- Kings & politics: While in modern day USA, we push hard against the mixing of politics and religion, as Holcomb points out, older cultures had different attitudes. Kings got involved with the church and, sadly, even church leaders were forced to maneuver politically.
- Melons & cucumbers: One of the tasks Mani of the Manichaeans set for his followers was to eat melons and cucumbers, among other foods, “to free pieces of God that were trapped in the plants.”
- Torchie the bully: Not only was Nestorius a heretic, he was a firebrand terribly intolerant of other heresies competing with his own. At one point, he “proceeded to burn down a chapel belonging to members of the Arian heresy.” The resulting fire spread to a large part of the city, earning him the nickname of “Torchie.”
- Know the Creeds and Councils Leaders Guide.
- Know the Heretics Leader's Guide.
- “Know the Heretics: A Book Interview with Justin Holcomb” (Christianity Today Online, May 2014).
- “Christian Leaders May Return to Nicaea: What Does It Mean?” (The Atlantic, May 2014).
NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255): I selected these books to review and received them free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Do you believe it’s important to understand heresy? Why or why not? What about understanding the creeds and councils? What can be done to build better unity and cooperation among Christians, even with varying doctrines? What role does Francis A.Schaeffer’s “The Mark of the Christian” play in visible Christian unity? Share your thoughts in the comments!