Wednesday, April 23, 2008

For us and for our Salvation

Available here.

This little book--172 pages including epilogue, glossary, appendices, and notes--makes for a great weekend read.

A Christian historian, the prolific Nichols discusses how the doctrine of Christ came about in the early church. What could be a boring presentation of those events is presented in a lively, engaging way. Nichols clearly has a heart and a passion for this period (the development of the doctrine of Christ) in history. After all, as the Nicene Creed (325), and the title of this book puts it: the correct doctrine of Christ was needed, given, and defended "For us and our salvation."

If you've ever wondered what went into the forming of the best expression of Christology, viz., the Chalcedonian creed (451), this book will bring you up to speed. The background debates and issues are fascinating. Nichols traces debates about the person of Christ from the time of the apostles up until the 6th ecumenical council (Constantinople III, 680). (Protestants haven't historically recognized councils other than Nicene and Chalcedon as authoritative, but, historically, this council is lumped in as one of the 7 ecumencial councils.) We can see various heroes of the faith dealing with one faulty view of Christ after another. They didn't battle these views for fame or glory (indeed, many of our heroes just wanted to live the quiet life of the philosopher), they battled them because they saw that our very salvation was at stake. Over and over again these faulty views (heresies) affected our salvation in some way. Without a savior, man is lost. Thus, without a correct view of the savior, of a savior who could really save, to be tautological, man was lost. "What becomes evident in all of these heresies is the stumbling block and scandal of the person of Christ" (p. 114). And when the person of Christ is affected so is the (saving) work of Christ. So, a proper understanding needed to be laid out, "For us and for our salvation."

These heroes of the faith dealt with views of Christ that minimized or destroyed his humanity, his divinity, or both (of which Docetism, Arianism, and Eutychianism are respective representatives). It is interesting to note that many of the heresies, especially many of the early ones, attacked the humanity of Christ. This is interesting in light of the claims of many pop "historians" seeking to undermine traditional Christianity (e.g., Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code). They paint the picture that the early church was concerned solely in establishing ("inventing," in their words) the divinity of Christ. But this is far from the truth. And, besides, without a human Jesus, the orthodox argued that human salvation could not be accomplished. So, orthodox Christians have always been concerned to treasure and defend the humanity of Christ. It has been the (neo) Platonists, Gnostics, and Docetists who have denied the humanity. This is ironic since those like Brown seek to put up the Gnostic texts as those the church suppressed in order to hide Jesus' humanity. In actuality, they are the ones who suppressed it. The Gnostics were also chauvinists too. This fact delivers another blow to the fictitious history painted by Brown et al.

But, the church also had to deal with those who sought to undermine the deity of Christ as well. This challenge came in many forms. (It is possible, for our purposes, to broadly place these forms under the title: Arianism.) But, again, the heroes of the faith noticed that if Christ was not human and divine, salvation could not be accomplished. Thus, the orthodox expression of Christ came to be given at Chalcedon. It was there, thanks in part to Leo (b.?-d. 461), that we have the sophisticated expression of Leo's "two natures, one person” view. Jesus was the God-man. He had a divine nature and a human nature, and these existed in one unified person. The fancy expression for this is the "hypostatic union."

Is all of this just relegated to the pages of history? Can this book be relevant for me today? In the epilogue Nichols writes,

"The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds provide the church with the orthodox understanding of the person of Christ. These creeds were not the result of ivory-tower theologians debating subtleties. They grew out of the rough and tumble of controversy and even the persecution that plagued the church. They are the work of the wisdom, patience, and courage of many forgotten figures such as Ignatius, Iranaeus, Basil of Cesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Flavian of Constantinople, and Leo the Great. These men suffered exile, beatings, the smudging of their character, and even, in the cases of Ignatius and Flavian, death for full-throttled commitment to the church getting it right on the person of Christ. And they endured it all because they knew that the person of Christ as everything to do with the church's true treasure of the gospel. Christ is the God-man, they all contended, for us and for our salvation" (p. 143).
After asking how this is relevant for us, Nichols traces the periods of history after the great Creeds and shows how these types of errors (either Docetism or Arianism) came up throughout the history of the church. We see it in our own time too with Jehovah's Witnesses, The Da Vinci Code, and Islam (there are others too). Reading this book, and, even better, reading the heroes themselves, will prepare you for dealing with various heretical views of Jesus. As a wise man once said, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecc. 1:9).

If you do not have the time, desire or interest to make a trip to the bookstore or library in order to read the actual works of the above listed men, a unique feature of Nichols books is that every other chapter consists of readings from the heretics and the orthodox of the period. Nichols presents the debates and history surrounding them in a colorful way in the odd numbered chapters. After each odd numbered chapter, the next chapter is a chapter consisting of the words of the men themselves. Rather than boring (as some might think), these chapters are fascinating mainly because of the preceding chapters where Nichols made the historical debates come alive. As you read these men's words you feel like you're there with them; perhaps even cheering them on (Nichols makes use of the analogy of a Western in this book: good guys, bad guys, and even a corrupt sheriff!) as they write to defend the doctrine of Christ, "for us and for our salvation."


  1. Does the picture of Chirst on the cover bother you?

  2. Why should it?

    (And, when I do a book review, I pate in the cover of the book. The topic of this post isn't about images of Jesus.)

  3. Right, but I think it goes against the 2nd commandment. I even got rid of White's Forgotten Trinity because it depicted Deity as a picture.

  4. Well, I certainly wouldn't want you to go against your conscience.

    So, I can see how the picture would bother *you*.