Book Review

The Swamp Fox

The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, by John Oller ★★★★

This book chronicles a portion of the history of the Revolutionary War that was never taught in school. More lives were lost and more battles were fought in South Carolina than in any other theater of the war, yet scarce mention is made of it in school. Oller, in writing this biography of Francis Marion, had the challenge of contending with the large number of myths that grew up surrounding the swamp fox, such as the near-total mythical presentation of Marion as found in Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot. Oller describes a brief description of Marion’s life before and after the Revolutionary War. However, most of the book involves how Marion became a warrior in the war, and how he rose in prominence to eventually become a brigadier general in the war.

The Revolutionary War was both a rebellion against Great Britain as well as a civil war against the loyalists who wished the 13 colonies to remain a part of the British Empire. Besides the patriots and the loyalists were a substantial number of people who would flip-flop between British and Colonial allegiance, which included a number of folk who would first fight in Marion’s brigade, and then fight for the Crown. Several factors led to this vacillating behavior. First, the US could not afford the war, and thus was only able to pay soldiers as IOUs. Many of the soldiers had families and farms that had to be taken care of, meaning that they would come and go with the army as exigencies allowed. Secondly, soldiers desired to be on the winning side, and so would switch sides as the winds of victory blew one way and then another. Thirdly, a problem especially for Marion, was that Marion refused to allow his soldiers to pillage the homes and farms of loyalists, feeling that it would only further inflame the loyalists’ flames against the patriots. In contrast, Thomas Sumter and most other leaders would allow his soldiers to gain reimbursement for their soldiering by helping themselves with the property of the enemy. Marion maintained strict discipline with his soldiers and yet treated them most kindly, evoking harsh punishment and even the death penalty only to the most flagrant offenders.

The British were another issue. Though they claimed adherence to the Christian faith, their behavior with the treatment of the enemy was no better than the savage Indians or Japanese in WWII. Integrity was not a virtue among the British who often cried foul with any alleged violation of the international laws of war and then felt no compunction to keep those laws themselves. It is a wonder that many of the elites in the young USA desired friendly relations with Great Britain in the postbellum period. It is quite unlikely that Britain has developed virtue following the Revolutionary War, leading me to wonder why the USA wasted effort in saving them from the two major wars of the twentieth century.

It is well known that colonels and generals tend to have strong egos. In the South Carolina campaign, this created the most serious issues. Marion and Sumter did not get along and had completely different approaches to the war. Officers serving under Marion were also a great source of trouble which led to many instances of subordinates failing to properly execute orders from Marion, resulting in many partial victories over the enemy. Only late in the war would Marion allow direct confrontation with the Red Coats; otherwise, he would choose strategic skirmishes, that seemed to harm the British war effort far more than grand-scale direct confrontations.

Marion’s greatest virtue was that of being able to forgive his enemies, and he sought reconciliation and soft treatment for the loyalists with whom he had to battle during the war. Patriots who caused much grief to Marion also were forgiven, and a few of them worked together with him in the South Carolina legislature. Marion truly paints a picture of a virtuous soldier.

This book is a wonderful source to read. Much was not taught in school; as an example, the Revolutionary War persisted for several years following the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Eventually, the patriots were victorious even in South Carolina, driving the British out of the interior of the state, and then out of Georgetown, and ultimately out of Charleston. The book was read entirely while camping at Echo Canyon State Park. My only misgiving with the book is the absence of maps. There were a total of three maps, but many battles and placenames cannot be found within the maps provided in the book. If the author ever issues a second edition, I dearly hope that more maps are also provided.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H.W. Brands ★★★★

I have continued reading biographies of the presidents of the USA and recently reviewed a biography of James Monroe. I have skipped over John Quincy Adams, a one-term president, and now resume with the biography of Andrew Jackson. There are a number of biographies available and the choice of this biography was somewhat arbitrary. It was a good decision, as this book is very readable, though with minor reservations noted below. The next presidential biography will be Polk, and then I will segue into civil war narratives. Because of an upcoming trip to the coast of South Carolina, I will next review a Revolutionary War narrative of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox.

Andrew Jackson was the first truly controversial president, not fitting the mold of the presidents before him. Unlike the six presidents before him, Jackson was not heavily educated and grew up among normal people. He lost both parents at a fairly young age, and at the age of 12, participated in the Revolutionary War, even receiving a saber slash to his head in one altercation with a British soldier. He received a law degree by working in a law office for several years, and then moved from South Carolina to the city of Nashville, which at that time was more a colonial settlement rather than a village or city. Jackson had many struggles in the pre-presidential years and tended to get himself into trouble frequently. His marriage to a lady not yet widowed from her last husband, his penchant for duals which led to multiple bodily injuries that vexed him throughout his life, his tendency to create multiple enemies, and his impulsive spirit all lent to the controversial nature of this person.

Jackson was involved in politics early on and was voted in as senator from Tennessee, only to resign the senatorship after a year of service. This actually happened twice in his life. He eventually was commissioned by the Governor of Tennessee to be the head of the state militia. This became relevant during the War of 1812 when he was deployed on several occasions. Any student of the war of 1812 will realize that it was a poorly planned and executed endeavor, leaving one surprised that the USA came out as well as it did. Jackson’s excursions into western Florida were highly controversial as well as enacted entirely outside of the orders of the military higher-ups, even though it ultimately resulted in the USA purchasing Florida from Spain at a bargain price. The major battle that led to Jackson’s infamy was the battle of New Orleans, where he fought against a general on the British side victorious from the Napoleonic wars and with seasoned professional troops, using a ragtag bunch of militiamen. With good generalship, the battle ended as a terribly lopsided victory for Andrew Jackson.

Jackson returns home after the war, hoping to throw in the towel and retire from public life. The fates would not allow that to happen. He was nominated for president and won the popular vote. The electoral college deemed it to be a tie between him and John Quincy Adams, and after lengthy deliberations and deeming Jackson a low-life outsider not worthy of the presidency, installed Adams. This immediately set Jackson on a 4-year campaign strategy which resulted in him becoming president in 1829, and after winning a second term, until 1837. During his presidency, there were typical accusations of scandal (eg., the Eaton affair) which Jackson weathered without a problem. Jackson’s wife died just before he won the presidency, leaving a dark cloud over his eight years in office. The notable issues of his presidency were a) the Indians, b) slavery, c) Texas, d) South Carolina and the issue of nullification, and d) Biddle and the Bank of the United States.

The Indians: Jackson had both strong support from Indian populations in the South and in Florida, as well as trouble from the ever enduring fear of Indian attacks. To compound matters, those white settlers in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi simply wished the Indians to be gone, even if they adopted the culture and laws of the United States. Jackson suggested a land swap with the Indians, moving them out of sight and out of mind, west of the Mississippi. Thus became the “trail of tears”, and perhaps the South bears more of the blame than Jackson, though Jackson sought eagerly to be as kind as possible with the Indians. It is easy to view this issue from modern lenses where we don’t have to fear daily of our homes being attacked by Indians, our wives being raped, and children being adopted into the Indian family. Even in Jackson’s times, the New Englanders, who had this same problem 100 years ago, were bitterly judgmental, to their own shame. The Florida Seminoles continued unceasing trouble to the white settlers, showing that a clash of cultures had no viable remedy.

Slaves: Jackson owned slaves. He owned a lot of slaves, perhaps as many as 160+ slaves. Even though Jackson saw slavery as an evil, it also served him extreme economic benefit. Regardless of what modern libertarians claimed (that slavery would become economically unfeasible and quickly die out), the opposite was happening. Lost cause advocates falsely deem that the troubles that led to the civil war were NOT about slavery but a host of other issues, including that of tariffs. See below on the issue of South Carolina for more of this. Yet, slavery remained an issue, especially when it came time to admit Texas (and Oregon and California) to the union as states. Perhaps in some macabre sort of way, this issue still hasn’t been resolved in the USA.

Texas: In the battle of New Orleans, Jackson had both David Crockett and Sam Houston as officers in his militia. Crockett went on to die in the Alamo. Houston had a strange personal affair of having his new wife suddenly run off without notice or explanation. Houston, in despair, heads west and ultimately ends up in Texas where he leads troops to victory over Santa Anna. If there was no slave issue, Texas would have immediately become a state, but Texas allowed slaves. Thus, it became its own Republic until a later president could resolve the Texas problem.

South Carolina: Congress imposed import tariffs to encourage people to use products made in America, as well as a means of revenue. This led to a disproportionate disadvantage with the South, who had little to gain by these tariffs. South Carolina then resurrected the issue of nullification of federal law, and spoke of succession from the Union. Jackson, though a Southerner, attacked this possibility with great vehemence, though it took Henry Clay of Kentucky to propose a compromise on the tariff issue that set South Carolina at ease. Issues of nullification still bedevil the USA; aren’t sanctuary cities just another example of nullification of federal law? Some libertarians will claim that the civil war was fought over issues such as tariffs, yet the tariff issue was adequately resolved long before the first shots at Fort Sumter in 1861.

The Bank of the United States: Jackson had no love for the Federal Bank and felt that it served only the interests of the rich, the elite, and the bankers. I have no disagreement with that. When the bank charter expired, Jackson refused to renew it, and requested that the deposits be moved to the state banks. Biddle, the president of the Bank of the US decided to make life as miserable as possible for Jackson by contracting the money supply leading to an economic downturn. Jackson had the guts to hold his ground, eventually leading to moderate economic stabilization. This is a thorny issue which I’m sure will generate comments either in strong support or opposition of Jackson’s actions. Certainly, the libertarian holds up Jackson as a hero to their cause. Yet, I can see both sides of the argument for a national bank. Does not a state bank also guarantee corruption? The utilization of a rare specie (such as gold or silver) to keep bankers honest is a solution for which I would strongly agree. Outside of that, in a fallen world, there will never be a solution for graft and corruption, and that is true of all of government. This doesn’t equate with the call for no government or anarcho-capitalism, the darling of Libertarians, who remain doubly clueless about evil in the heart and soul of all mankind.

I could say much more about these issues, except that the purpose of this essay is to review a book and not to discuss the pros and cons of various issues, such as State/National banks, nullification, slavery, Indians, etc. After all, isn’t the point of reading history is to learn from the mistakes of the past? Outside of Scripture, no approach to life really works. But this begs the question: was Jackson a Christian driven by Scriptural norms? True, Jackson was a Presbyterian, and his wife Rachel was a rather devout churchgoer. But, the question still remains in the bizarre and chaotic life of Andrew Jackson as to what were his primary motivating influences?; the answer is only known by God.

In the beginning, I mentioned that I would discuss some issues with this book. The author seems to be a progressive liberal, yet keeps that disguised in writing this book. The only hints of his liberalism is his portrayal of legislative, judicial, as well as executive mayhem throughout the book. As he might contend, there never was a golden age in America, and thus, the Constitution needs to be viewed as a living document that needs constant correction. In a sense, he is correct, though the Constitution allows for correction in an orderly manner. Advocates of a fluid constitution cannot appeal to the past as proof for their diminishment of the constitution. Some oppose the Constitution on the grounds of theonomistic principles. I will not waste my time arguing against theonomists, equally clueless, as they essentially make themselves out to be God’s spokespeople. Theonomy has been tried many times throughout history with failure. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, but that it establishes a “pope” to declare God’s will in civil affairs. This is an issue that would take great lengths to discuss, and as I said before, this is a book review and not a springboard to a bevy of relevant topics.

A Reformation Debate

A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, Edited by John Olin with a historical forward by Lester DeKoster ★★★★

This book is constructed as follows. DeKoster provides a historical overview of the current debate, followed by the letter that Jacopo Sadoleto wrote to the people of Geneva, and then followed by a rebuttal by John Calvin. The appendix then contains a review (extracted from Calvin’s Institutes) of Calvin’s theology of justification, followed by statements from the Council of Trent regarding justification by faith. The historical setting is 1539, and Calvin is in Strasbourg, having been ousted from Geneva. Knowing of the absence of Calvin and Feril in Geneva, the Catholic Cardinal writes a letter appealing to the folk in Geneva to return to the Roman Catholic church. Geneva, realizing Calvin’s literary skills, appeals to him to write a rebuttal, which he does. Soon afterward, Calvin returns to Geneva to continue a ministry there until the end of his life.

Both Calvin and Sadoleto write eloquently, though both debaters would be labeled a touch prolix by today’s standards. Sadoleto appeals to the absence of salvation outside of the Roman Catholic church, while Calvin rebuts how the Catholic Church has turned itself into a corrupt institution that preaches a false “gospel”.

The appendix is of great value in reminding the reader as to what is at stake in this argument. The vast divide between Roman Catholic thinking on justification versus Reformed/Lutheran thinking on justification will be noted by simply reading the two statements, that of Calvin in the Institutes compared to that as found in the output of the Council of Trent. In the church where I was saved, the doctrine of justification would have fit quite well with the Council of Trent. Over time and much reading of Scripture, my leaning has turned very strongly in favor of the Reformed view of justification. I believe that Luther and Calvin got the essentials of justification correct. Still, there are canons (anathemas) of the Council of Trent which I (and most Protestants) would favorably agree with. There are a few canons that the Protestant Church has not adequately addressed. I refer as an example to canon 21 “If anyone says that Christ Jesus was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey, let him be anathema”. This statement rings loud as a parallel to the Auchterarder creed which was bitterly fought over in Scotland a century later. It reads “It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we are to forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in our covenant with God”. Perhaps the Auchterarder creed was written in the light of and to counter canon 21, perhaps not, yet both statements need much clarification before deeming them most consistent with Biblical teaching.

The Crook in the Lot

The Crook in the Lot: God’s Sovereignty in Afflictions, by Thomas Boston, translated by Jason Roth★★★★★

This is a wonderful book written in the 1700s by a Scottish pastor most well known for his involvement in the Marrow controversy. I obtained this book free from Amazon under the recommendation of D. Davis. Roth does us a wonderful service by translating the text into modern English, allowing it to be read more easily.

Boston first discusses the crook in the lot, by which he is referring to the afflictions that come across the Christian. He advises us on how to understand their intent, that God allows these afflictions to come upon us for our betterment, and how to most gracefully deal with affliction. Scripture offers assurance that afflictions are always temporary, though often not experienced this side of glory. The book’s second half addresses a similar topic in discussing humility and how to walk humbly when dealing with our afflictions.

Boston is a masterful pastor as well as an insightful theologian. Throughout this book, which is primarily devotional, one cannot avoid rich theological lessons on every page. Such pastoral qualities are now quite rare, though I have thankfully been occasionally enriched by such godly pastors, who are about as rare as hen’s teeth. It is uncouth nowadays to speak of afflictions; sermons must have happy tones and speak of the joys of being a Christian. In church services where the primary intent is evangelical, the proper ministry to be congregation goes lacking. Those pastors who imitate Thomas Boston may not grow large congregations, though they would surely grow strong and capable Christians.

This is a book well worth reading, even if one has to pay for it. Roth provides a masterful translation, and rich gems of Scripture will adorn the Christian who reads and hearkens to the message that Boston offers.

The Whole Christ

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson ★★★★

This book discusses a controversy that raged in the early 1700s within Scottish Presbyterianism, reflecting on a struggle to define the nature of legalism and its supposed antithesis, antinomianism within the context of whether or not we can be assured of our salvation as Christians. The Marrow controversy, as it was called, stemmed from the Auchterarder Creed, which stated that one need not forsake sin in coming to Christ. Such a creed, as noted by some contemporary Divines, was terribly worded and lent more to confusion than to offering a statement in support of either solafideism vs legalism/antinomianism.

In discussing the Marrow controversy, Ferguson offers a solution through the union that all believers have in Christ. Ferguson appropriately notes legalism and antinomianism to be bastard twins, originating in the same mistakes in thinking. With our union in Christ, we can have assurance that we are saved and will be among the elect in His kingdom.

There are a few minor problems that I find with Ferguson’s discussion. The first in the title of the book, taken from a phrase by Calvin, “totus Christus”. Yet, the phrase is itself poorly worded, in that it suggests that you can separate Christ into components. Ferguson suggests the tendency to separate the person of Christ from the actions of Christ, which is an impossibility. You either have the whole enchilada, or, you have nothing, though perhaps you have a fake, imitation resemblance of Christ. This is not just a problem with the second person in the Trinity. Even as humans, our identity is formed not only by our physical presentation but also by our actions, accomplishments, personality, and history, which lends a more relevant description of who we are than what our bodies may look like.

Secondly, there is such a tendency among Reformed thinkers to be legalistic-phobic as well as anti-antinomian so that their development of the uses of the law goes by the wayside. If one dared preach imperatives from the pulpit, the preacher would be accused of being a legalist. As a result, preaching against antinomianism will occur resulting in a phenomenon that I call creedal anti-antinomianism but functional antinomianism. To defend solafideism, many Reformed preachers (thankfully, not all!) will do one of several things.

1) The pastor will feel the need to offer great explanation whenever an imperative is preached, almost to the point of deeming the 10 commandments as either not applicable to Christians today, considering them to be only 10 suggestions, or teaching that obedience affects our situation on earth while not affecting our eternal salvation.

2)The pastor will point to two great creeds of Reformed Christendom, the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg catechism suggesting that our obedience to the law is done solely out of gratefulness to Christ for his work for us. That certainly is true, but, is that the whole story? Is there never a sense of obligation or duty that we have to God? Is not the law also a descriptor of the ontologic character of God, a reflection of God’s actual being, with whom we should imitate (Lev 11:44, 19:2, 20:26, I Peter 1:16)?

Those of the Reformed faith will note that salvation by faith alone was how sinners achieved salvation in both the Old as well as the New Testament. Yet, to the careless reader, the OT seems to speak of nothing but law, law, law, while the NT then focuses entirely on grace (of course, leaving out the Sermon on the Mount and most of the teachings of Jesus while on earth). I simply don’t see Scripture that way; instead, I see a moral God who makes moral demands on his children. Too many so-called solafideists have a tendency to view the OT from a neo-Marcionic perspective, as though God either completely changed his personality with the resurrection of Christ, or perhaps it was different gods (father-god vs son-god????) that inspired the OT prophets.

I am not a theologian, as so will refrain from offering a full Biblical solution to this problem. Ferguson, in the same vein as Martin Luther, does not provide a complete solution for the law-gospel tension, choosing instead to weigh in with a solution that allows for a doctrine of assurance, and thus not really giving us the “whole Christ”. I believe that we can hold completely to the doctrine of sola fide and yet also insist on obedience to Christ (the law) as an imperative. These are two truths that must be held in tension, not giving more weight to either one or the other truth, consistent with what my old pastor, JI Packer, and many Puritan Divines taught.

This is a good book, giving me a much better grasp as to the Morrow Controversy and the battles that were fought by Thomas Watson, the Erskine brothers, and other saints of the Scottish Reformed persuasion. Ferguson writes with clarity and facility. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to those with an interest in the doctrines of law and grace. It is a book that a men’s group at church will be working through on alternate Saturday mornings. I don’t believe that the group discussions will change my overall comments regarding this book.

James Monroe: A Life

James Monroe: A Life, by Tim McGrath ★★★★★

This book is one of many biographies that I have completed in the last few years on the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Monroe makes the fifth president that I’ve read. I’ll be skipping John Quincy Adams and going to Andrew Jackson, then Polk, and Lincoln as well as the chronology of other Civil War notables and history of the war. The authors in all the cases so far, present their biography most resembling a hagiography, viewing the world from the subject’s perspective and defending their positions. I suggest this because the subjects of the other biographies I’ve read tend to take a beating, including Washington, and are left as less-than-perfect characters. Hamilton and Jackson are the most frequently attacked, though no founding father has escaped the critical hand of contemporary biographers.

Tim McGrath gives us a picture of a great though flawed fifth president. Perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is best remembered, though Monroe played an enormous part in the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, as well as Florida. Monroe had a somewhat elitist upbringing in Virginia on the farm, becoming a lawyer through the aid of close family members. He fought in the Revolution along the side of Washington and Lafayette but was critically wounded at the battle of Trenton, leaving him on the sidelines for the remainder of the war. After the Revolutionary War, Monroe struggled continuously with his financial situation, while alternating between being a somewhat successful lawyer, running the plantation(s) that he owned, as well as serving stints in politics. He became the American ambassador to France under Jefferson, and then the secretary of state under Madison before being voted in for two terms as president of the USA. At the inception of our republic, civil servants, including the president were woefully underpaid, so that many functions of the president, such as travel or White House dinners with foreign dignitaries, came out of the president’s own pocket. The legislature was rather stingy with funds, including necessities such as maintaining an army and navy or building infrastructure such as roads, for the good of the whole nation. What this all meant was that one had to be a person of means to even survive civil office, not exactly fulfilling the constitution’s preamble of a government “of the people” since it was a government always of the elite.

Besides learning much that I didn’t know about Monroe, I also learned that the government even in the “golden age” of the Republic was seriously disjointed, manifesting extreme disagreements that nearly cost the nation its existence (such as political battles during the war of 1812); infighting, bickering, jealousy, and downright loathing of other political figures were abundant, leading one to wonder how the nation even survived. Indeed, it was not the elitist politicians, most of them truly nominal “Christians”, but the common man and his freedom and faith that allowed our nation to thrive and grow. The rift between the North and the South was quite extreme even at this early time of the Republic, and was over issues such as tariffs and management of the Indians, though the most prominent even back in Monroe’s time was the issue of slavery. Those who argue that the Civil War was not about slavery are deluded ideologues or confused states-rightists, driven more by ideology than an interest in discovering the full historical facts. Slavery was a bitterly hot issue in Monroes’ day, and while most of the early founding fathers (eg. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) owned many slaves and knew that slavery was inconsistent with the ideals of the Constitution, they frequently expressed the wish to eliminate slavery yet had no incentive or reason to do so, so that, when each of the slave-owing president’s died, they did NOT grant their slaves freedom. Such hypocrisy is excelled only by the British, as well as many of our current politicians.

History of the Christian Church

History of the Christian Church, Complete in 8 Volumes, by Philip Schaff ★★★★

This is my second time reading through Philip Schaff’s History, though, this time including the last two volumes that discuss the German and then the Swiss Reformation. This time, I read it in digital format, as I had already given away the hard copies that I had. I actually jumped between two different digital editions as found on Amazon, and both of them were awful. The other edition had huge segments of text dropped, most notably, whenever there was a reference annotation. This edition was poorly edited with numerous spelling errors, little formatting, and no reference links. What a shame.

Schaff’s history has its good and bad points. Schaff seems oriented in the liberal German tradition, having studied under Baur and Harnack. He is Reformed in his orientation. The first time I read through this set was about 30 years ago, back when I was just becoming acquainted with church history. This time, I was considerably more well informed. I appreciated Schaff’s formatting of the book, where he separates political and ecclesiastical history, then discusses historical theology, church life and liturgical practices separately, and short descriptions of the most notable saints.

No history of the church can be written in only 8 volumes. I noted that Schaff fails to discuss many pertinent aspects of church history, including offering sufficient detail of the church councils, omitting a number of the most notable saints of the church (e.g. St. Anthony, the Stylite monks, Theodore of Mopsuesta, etc). The history of the German Reformation was nicely covered as well as the history of Zwingli, but Schaff went crazy on the history of Calvin, and editing should have reduced Calvin’s story by about a half. There is, for example, a fairly lengthy chapter of quotes from people following Calvin’s death, offering praise for Calvin and his ministry; this was totally unnecessary. Lengthy quotes from Calvin’s letters were a distraction, when a short summary commentary should have been offered.

Sadly, Schaff’s History needs an update and critical editing as well as corrections, though I doubt that it will ever be performed. There are really no quality histories of the primitive church to the Reformation that are available that are as complete as this. I’ve looked far and wide and found nothing, so I welcome recommendations. There are excellent texts that address one small aspect of church history, such as the books I had just read on the seven ecumenical councils. Our age seems to put little weight to our historical origins, much to our own loss.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils, by Justin S. Holcomb ★★★

Holcomb is an episcopalian priest who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. This book was written to inform the general church-going public about the creeds and councils. I’m not sure he accomplished his task. The writing is at the 8th-grade level, i.e., fairly simplistic. There are facts that he either got wrong or was confused about. His selection as to which creeds or councils he would discuss is at times a touch problematic. I certainly appreciate that he doesn’t attack certain individuals or groups (eg., the 19-20th century Roman Catholic church) like a vicious Doberman. Unfortunately, the creeds and councils are for Christians of such intense significance that a superficial reading does the reader a disservice. Thus, I would recommend reading the book but only with the understanding that the reader uses this text as a springboard for further study.

Holcomb superficially covers the first 6 councils, omitting altogether the 7th council. Various other minor Western church councils are briefly discussed, such as the councils of Carthage and Orange regarding Pelagianism; unfortunately, the discussion was so abbreviated as to leave the reader more confused than informed. Various Catholic councils were discussed including 1st and 2nd Vatican Council and Council of Trent. The development of the Heidelberg & Westminster Confessions as well as the 39 articles of the Anglican church but nary a mention of the Formula of Concord, the Belgic Confession, and other Reformed confessions. And, no mention of the Anabaptist confessions. The deficits don’t help the reader grasp the dynamics of those who wrote the most popular Reformed confessions.

This book might be best used as a junior high school text, supplemented by teacher insights to “fill in the gaps”. Otherwise, there are better texts to read for understanding the creeds and councils of Christendom.

First Seven Ecumenical Councils

The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, by Leo Donald Davis ★★★★★

Growing up as a child, I was sternly taught that the word “ecumenical” was a bad word and that we just didn’t participate in that sort of thing. Thankfully, time and maturity have corrected that notion, while still acknowledging that “ecumenical” is not synonymous with “truth”.

Davis is a Roman Catholic theologian though he writes a book that may easily be accepted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike; the seven councils referred to in this text were well before the theological crises of the Reformation had occurred, and indeed, at least the first 4-6 councils were found to be acceptable to the Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Davis quotes heavily from the Protestants, and especially such scholars and JND Kelly.

This book starts off a little slow and stodgy, though Davis is highly successful at eventually drawing the reader into the spirit of the age. Better than any of the authors I’ve read on early church history, Davis provides the detailed historical context of each of the seven councils and includes a summary of council conclusions as well as the aftermath of those councils. I am not going to go into blow-by-blow accounts of the councils, as they are too detailed, and anything other than reading the book would do one a disservice.

I find a few details most interesting. First, all of the first councils were initiated by the state, and NOT the church. Politics and religion don’t mix well, a lesson that Luther should have learned and that today’s so-called conservative pundits that identify the USA (or any other country, for that matter, including Belize) as a Christian nation or in need of Christian nationalism surely get wrong. Second, oftentimes we allow the crisis of the moment to dictate our later opinions. A perfect example is the battle between Nestorius and Cyril. Both characters were slimy and despicable in many accounts. Yet, Nestorius is branded as the heretic and Cyril is not. A recently discovered document written by Nestorius and found in Armenia demonstrates that Nestorius mentioned that the Council of Calcedon precisely stated his view. Simultaneously, the entire “heresy” of Monophysitism was generated from the writing of Cyril. Go figure.

This is a wonderful book to read and I enjoyed it from cover to cover, but only after a rough start. If you have any interest in the church, please get a copy and read it!

Truly Divine Truly Human

Truly Divine Truly Human: The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils, by Stephen W. Need ★★★★

Stephen Need is an Anglican priest who has taught for many years at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. This text reflects a strong bent toward the Eastern Orthodox perspective of the seven councils. In this text, Need shows great skill in that of being a teacher and producing a book that is easy to read, with supportive summaries and tables. After a chapter describing the situation before the first council (Nicea), Need walks through each of the seven councils, identifying the theological crisis, and detailing the solutions resolved at the council. He also includes a summary of other church management decisions made at the council, such as prohibitions against the purchase of church office, or prohibitions against bishops moving from one See to another without permission.

I truly enjoyed this book and how Need painted the councils. At a few times, there were comments made leaving suspicion for Need being a liberal in the theological sphere, but that did not distract from the overall quality of the text.