What was the most important battle in history? Would you say a battle in Ancient Rome, or Ancient Egypt, or perhaps a battle in World War 1 or 2. What if I told you that the most important battle in history was a battle not fought with swords and spears or guns and tanks but it was a battle fought with words. The battle for the person of Jesus.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “For Us and Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church” by Stephen J. Nichols. 176 pages, published by Crossway in August 2007. It’s USD10.99 in Amazon Kindle but it’s free from Faithlife for January.
Reading from the author’s page: Stephen Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow. He holds a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is host of the podcasts 5 Minutes in Church History and Open Book. He is author of more than twenty books, including Beyond the 95 Theses, A Time for Confidence, and R.C. Sproul: A Life and coeditor of Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series.
Today’s book, “For Us and Our Salvation” was written in the wake of the Da Vinci Code, the novel by Dan Brown. The book that was adapted into a Tom Hanks movie got a lot of people excited about the Council of Nicea and Chalcedon. The atmosphere was there was this great revelation, a two thousand year old conspiracy sudden broke, and the true story of Jesus was finally told.
Except the book and the movie was a fictional story built on creative non-biblical and non-historical plot devices that were sold as the gospel truth.
While it is true that there were disputes on the identity of Jesus — from the very beginning until today! — just because something is disputed doesn’t mean it’s a 50-50, even odds, on what is the true story. Isn’t that how the serpent fooled Eve? He did not outright say God was a liar, he just suggested, “Did God really say that?”
In order to clear up disputes on who Jesus was, Christian leaders came together to settle the matter once and for all. They did that in Nicea to give us the Nicean Creed. A couple more councils later, they assembled in Chalcedon to give us the Chalcedonian Creed. Because they felt, as we also do, that it is important to get Jesus right.
Let us open the book.
The Special Sauce
This book has a unique format. The book is worth buying and reading because of the way Nichols organises the book. See if you can detect that unique feature this book offers.
It begins with:
- Introduction: “Who Do People Say That I am?”: Christ’s Crucial Question
- Chapter 1: In the Beginning was the Word: Christ in the Early Centuries
- Chapter 2: In Their Own Words: Select Documents from the Early Centuries
- Chapter 3: The Triumph of Athanasius: The Battle for Christ at Nicea
- Chapter 4: In Their Own Words: Select Documents from the Fourth Century
- Chapter 5: The Wisdom of Leo the Great: The Battle for Christ at Chalcedon
- Chapter 6: In Their Own Words: Select Documents from the Fifth Century
- Epilogue Jesus: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
In Their Own Words
The unique feature is entire chapters dedicated to giving us the original words.
In this age of fake news, where everyone can spin any short video clip or quote to say anything they want, I’ve become more appreciative, sometimes more demanding, to see the primary source. I want to read what they wrote and not what you say they wrote.
The trouble is we don’t have the time and sometimes the brain to gather, filter and read the primary sources. In the appendix to this book, Nichols shares some primary sources for further reading. You can read the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, the first series has 14 volumes, the second series also has 14 volumes. You could read all the primary sources on the Nicene and Chalcedon council or you could read the next best thing.
This book is the next best thing. Nichols selects and extracts and frames the text in the theological and political context. The politics tells us who are the good and the bad emperors, who are friends, who are enemies and who were friends who became enemies. The theological context tells us the finer details of the argument, details that are important but sometimes not easily understood.
Nichols tackles the question of “Who is Christ?” by writing for the modern reader while pointing to the ancient writers. Actually, he goes beyond pointing, as I have told you, half the book are quotes from the ancient writers.
Nichols has written a book that does not assume the reader knows the background nor necessary the scholarly interest. For example, he writes:
A fundamental doctrine of Platonic philosophy conflicts with the doctrine of the incarnation. For Plato, matter is bad, while the ideal is good. The body is bad, while the soul is good and pure. In Greek a catchy little jingle catches this well: Soma toma. Translated, it means: “Body, tomb.” If they’d had bumper stickers, this saying would have been on the chariots of the Platonist philosophers.
Soma Toma. Catchy jingle, isn’t it? You will probably remember that phrase long after this podcast has faded away. Stephen Nichols will later turn his talent of finding catchy little jingles into a podcast. If you haven’t done so yet, I recommend you listen to Stephen Nichols’ “5 Minutes in Church History”. Listening to him there helped me looked forward to reading today’s book.
I tell you this to assure you that if you ever wanted to know about the Council of Nicea, Council of Chalcedon, the controversies and creeds for the Trinity and Christ – Truly God, Truly Man, Stephen Nichols is a good guide.
He knows that reading the primary sources can be intimidating. Every ancient text is preceded by an introduction, and he explains how the introduction works:
Introductions to these texts provide some information on the context of these selections. Notes are also included to help contemporary readers get a better handle on tricky points in these ancient texts. These samples are but the tip of the iceberg of the rich literary legacy of the early church. The early fathers went to great lengths to see that the church thought and believed properly about the person of Christ, so that it in turn accurately and persuasively proclaimed the gospel of Christ.
You never feel like you are reading someone else’s love for ancient word puzzles. It is always tied to the importance of ‘accurately and persuasively proclaiming the gospel of Christ’.
Still Powerful A Thousand Years Later
For example, remember ‘soma toma’? Ignatius has something to say about that.
He [Jesus] was baptized by John, really and not in appearance; and when He had preached the Gospel three years, and done signs and wonders, He who was Himself the Judge was judged by the Jews, falsely so called, and by Pilate the governor; was scourged, was smitten on the cheek, was spit upon; He wore a crown of thorns and a purple robe; He was condemned: He was crucified in reality, and not in appearance, not in imagination, not in deceit. He really died, and was buried, and rose from the dead,
Written nearly 2000 years ago. And we can still feel the force of his words.
Let’s hear from another author. Tertullian!
… if the worker were imaginary the works were imaginary. On this principle, too, the sufferings of Christ will be found not to warrant faith in Him. For He suffered nothing who did not truly suffer; and a phantom could not truly suffer. God’s entire work, therefore, is subverted. Christ’s death, wherein lies the whole weight and fruit of the Christian name, is denied although the apostle asserts it so expressly as undoubtedly real, making it the very foundation of the gospel, of our salvation and of his own preaching.
Still Damning A Thousand Years Later
We don’t just read the words of the great defenders of the faith. We also read the words of the heretics. Is it right for us to call them heretics. Maybe they were misunderstood. Not so, their own words condemn them.
This is a letter from Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia, written around 319AD. I quote:
To his very dear lord, the man of God, the faithful and orthodox Eusebius, Arius, unjustly persecuted by Alexander the Pope, on account of that all conquering truth of which you also are a champion, sends greeting in the Lord.
Arius believes he is unjustly persecuted. But I wonder who believes that they are justly persecuted. That was the greetings. A few paragraphs later, Arius writes:
We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning. This is the cause of our persecution, and likewise, because we say that He is of the non-existent.
Do you hear the error? If you hear it, is it a big deal? Perhaps everybody got bent out of shape over nothing. Nichols does a splendid job explaining the importance of these doctrines, my summary is this: If Jesus had a beginning, then he is not God. He would at most be a demi-God. Nearly God. Nearly infinite. And nearly infinite is not infinite, nearly God is not God.
Let me jump to the practical implication of this. If Jesus is not God, then you cannot worship him, you can honour him, but you cannot worship him. Because we can only worship God, to worship another is to commit idolatry and idolatry is a sin.
Of Two Minds
If you are familiar with apologetics or church history, you would be familiar with Arius and Athanasius. That famous controversy was settled in Nicaea.
In contrast to Arius, most are not as familiar with Apollinarius, Nestorius or Eutyches. I was of two minds on which to choose, so let’s talk about Nestorius.
As Cyril listened to Nestorius, he heard him saying that Christ is two persons, two “he’s.” What Cyril wanted to hear was that Jesus was one “he,” one person. Nestorius so stressed the humanity and divinity of Christ that he veered very near to saying that the two natures are so distinct in Christ that Christ is a divided person, a human person and divine person, that Christ is two “he’s” and not merely two natures. Nestorius would even point to specific instances in the Gospels where the human Jesus was present and to other places where the divine Jesus was present. For Nestorius, it’s not Jesus Christ is. Instead, it’s Jesus Christ are, which is both grammatically and theologically incorrect.
Before this, I never really understood Nestorianism, but thanks to Nichols, now I do. And so I appreciate how Nichols explains these sometimes subtle differences in a clear manner. Do you? Or do you grow weary at what seems like theologians splitting hairs, I repeat myself.
Some bishops in the council of Chalcedon felt as you do. They didn’t want to hear more of this. They just wanted to go home.
They had grown weary of the intricacies of debating Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. This group simply did not want to engage the matter of relating the two natures of Christ. Instead all they wanted to do was to reaffirm the Nicene Creed, suspending the discussion of how the two natures come together. The second group disagreed. They saw the dangers in not trying to somehow express, in language true to Scripture, how the human and divine natures relate in Christ. If not dealt with decisively, this group argued, then even more complex and subtle views would keep popping up. Now was the time to deal with this issue and complete the trajectory started by Athanasius and the Nicene Council by offering a statement of the orthodox view of Christ’s humanity and deity.It would take some work, this group acknowledged, but it was well worth the effort. The second group won out over the first, and the council pushed on.
And thanks to them, we have the Chalcedonian Creed, which I think is a wonderful piece of writing.
Following, then, the holy fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us one and the same Son, the self-same perfect in Godhead, the self-same perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man; the self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the self-same co-essential with us according to the manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten; acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably;
It goes on. I think this creed, and the other creeds, are meant to be read out loud. When you read it, it’s just squiggly lines on paper. But when I read it out loud, there is a sense of declaring Truth to the Universe.
Jesus is truly God and truly man. Acknowledged in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.
I have not yet mentioned Leo the Great. In this book we read the letter from Flavian to Leo asking for advice on how to handle these controversies. And we read the reply from Leo to Flavian, a seven page letter which is printed in full in this book. It’s known as the “Tome”, and it shaped Chalcedonian creed.
Read For Yourself
And this just reinforces what I’ve been saying. There is a difference between Nichols telling us, or me telling you, versus you reading for yourself what Leo the Great wrote and seeing for yourself how familiar the words are that later appear in the final creed.
And if you ponder it for a moment, you appreciate the urgency, the intensity of the moment. The emperors. The bishops. The words flying around.
Basil of Caesarea wrote:
To what then shall I liken our present condition.
Later he continues:
See the rival fleets rushing in dread array to the attack. With a burst of uncontrollable fury they engage and fight it out. Fancy, if you like, the ships driven to and fro by a raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens all the scenes so that watchwords are indistinguishable in the confusion, and all distinction between friend and foe is lost. To fill up the details of the imaginary picture, suppose the sea swollen with billows and whirled up from the deep, while a vehement torrent of rain pours down from the clouds and the terrible waves rise high. From every quarter of heaven the winds beat upon one point, where both the fleets are dashed one against the other. Of the combatants some are turning traitors; some are deserting in the very thick of the fight; some have at one and the same moment to urge on their boats, all beaten by the gale, and to advance against their assailants. Jealousy of authority and the lust of individual mastery splits the sailors into parties which deal mutual death to one another.
There is more. But I have probably read too much.
Settled and Never Settled
I have two more reasons why more Christians should read this book. Especially if you are a nice Christian. Who loves peace. At any cost.
The book will impress upon you the need for Truth and the willingness to fight for it. Especially in the life of Athanasius. If you want the life story of Athanasius, you can read a short biography in John Piper’s “27 Servants of Sovereign Joy”, a book I reviewed two episodes ago. What Nichols books offers over Piper’s book is a study on the controversies themselves.
And what I wish more people would know is this: any one of us can be a heretic. Meaning, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, how sincere you are, it doesn’t matter how much you love God and Men, you and I can still be a heretic because we believe in the wrong things about God. If you believed that Jesus had a beginning, you are a heretic in the eyes of Athanasius, Nicaea and churches today.
Is it possible that you and I are heretics in a belief that we hold? I say this not to drive fear and doubt into your heart, but to drive you and I to the Bible. To constantly check whether our faith corresponds to the Truth revealed in Scripture.
Because regardless of what you believe, you know there are false teachings out there. The heresies that Nicaea and Chalcedon settled were never settled, the heretics talk still spread like gangrene until today.
In the epilogue titled, “Jesus: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” , Nichols offers a sobering summary of what has happened since those early church times. And he tells us frankly, he warns us, “The church is always one generation away from getting it wrong, from taking a misstep.”
And if you need a book to make that point clear, today’s book is as good a book as any.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “For Us and Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church” by Stephen J. Nichols. 176 pages, published by Crossway in August 2007. It’s USD10.99 in Amazon Kindle but it’s free from Faithlife for January.
The next review will be the free book from Logos. That’s After God’s Own Heart: The Gospel According to David by Mark J. Boda. This book is one volume in the “Gospel According to the Old Testament” series. This free book offer will end with January, so if there is even the slightest chance you might read it or refer to it, just get it. And, God willing, after a week, you can listen to my review to know whether the book was worth that one click of the button. Until then, bye bye.