March 2024

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.

Conquests and Cultures

Conquests and Cultures: An International History, by Thomas Sowell ★★★★★

Conquests and Cultures is the last of a series of three books by Thomas Sowell, the first being Race and Culture and the second Migrations and Culture. In Sowell’s words, the overarching theme of this series is to show that “racial, ethnic, and national groups have their own respective cultures, without which their economic and social histories cannot be understood.” In this text, Sowell focuses on British, African, Slavic, and American Indian cultures, though he generalizes a prevailing concept. This concept is that all civilizations have been subject to invasion and conquest, and how conquest has often enhanced a culture, and at other times has destroyed much of that culture. Beginning with the Roman Empire, Sowell demonstrates how countries that had a strong Roman presence have later come out stronger than their non-Roman counterparts, even after the demise of the Roman Empire.

It is hard to give a detailed description of this book, yet it held my interest through all of its pages. It is written from a distinctly conservative perspective, and Sowell uses his expertise in economics to further show how economic policy has affected the rise or fall of various cultures. The book is heavily referenced, and every page demonstrates a plethora of facts and details to support his thesis. I found the chapters regarding Africa and Western Hemispheric Indians to be the most fascinating, and greatly in support of the thesis of the previous book that I had recently reviewed, Not Stolen. You don’t find this stuff in standard textbooks. Reading this book will help round out one’s education with details that would never be taught in a liberal school or university.