Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith
Reviewed by Kyle A. Schenkewitz, Theological Studies, Saint Louis University
Ronald E. Heine observes a lacuna in undergraduate-focused theology texts. His intention is to provide a “gateway into the beliefs and teachings of the early Christians” that would compliment the growing academic interest in early Christian writers (vii). Heine incorporates the Nicene Creed as the primary expression of classical Christian doctrine, while he also examines other areas of influence upon early Christians such as Judaism and ancient philosophy. He contends that “these classical doctrines, which have defined the belief of the church from its most ancient days, are the doctrines surveyed in this book” (8).
Heine’s explanations and discussions are cognizant of his intended audience and do not assume any prior instruction in Christian theology. When technical verbiage is used he aptly explains why this terminology is important for theological discourse. Heine balances the need for precision and concision in handling theological debates and discourses in ancient Christian texts that often prove cumbersome for students.
Major figures in each chapter are introduced with a brief biographical sketch at the outset. The biographical information provided reflects the figure’s role in the construction of the chapter and is re-configured when a figure appears in later chapters. Heine employs numerous textual examples to aid readers “in coming to grips with the roots of the Christian faith” (viii). Many of the translations are the author’s own and serve as pedagogical tools for critical reading skills and careful analyses of texts. The chapters end with questions for personal reflection or group discussion. These questions lead the reader to evaluate the varying claims presented in the chapter as well as to reflect upon their own understanding of ancient doctrines. The resources for further reading combine secondary literature for consultation as well as expanded translations of the texts covered. In both cases, Heine provides easily accessible references, especially identifying early Christian writings in English translation available online.
The opening chapters establish the foundation for the book’s scope, intent, and the central role of the Nicene Creed. Chapter 1 sets out Heine’s conception of “classical Christian doctrines” (2). By “classical,” he means those doctrines that have endured. Heine defines “Christian doctrine” as “the Christian system of belief” or “the common core of Christian teaching that determines Christian self-understanding” (5). For Heine, the doctrines of the early Christians set the boundaries and defined what were deemed “acceptable and unacceptable views” by most Christians (5). Summaries of acceptable doctrines were contained in the rule of faith and baptismal confessions. Early Christians believed these statements of faith were traced back to the apostles and Jesus’ own teachings. Chapter 2 establishes Scripture as an important source for classical Christian doctrine. The first Christians understood “Scripture” to mean the Hebrew Scriptures because they were Jews by birth. Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures arose from Jesus’ own teaching, because “Jesus himself taught his followers to read the Hebrew Scriptures in this way” (13). In contrast to Jewish contentions about following the Mosaic Law, Christians “considered Christ to have been the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures” and Jesus’ own teachings “were on a par with, or even superseded, the teachings of Moses and the prophets as an authority for his followers” (12). The sources of authority, as evident in Paul’s writings, were the Hebrew Scriptures, traditions about Jesus and sayings of Jesus, and the apostolic office. The Christian canon of Scripture took its shape from these sources of authority as Christian communities used them in worship. In chapter 3, Heine examines the Christian doctrine of one God as an expression of continuity with Judaism. Early Christians were rooted in the stories of God contained in the Old Testament. In Acts 2, Peter’s sermon “about Jesus is grounded in the doctrine of the one God of the Old Testament” (29). Heine follows this theme through the writings of 1 Clement, the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas. The fourth chapter addresses the interaction of early Christians with Greek philosophy. A skillful explanation the role logos played in John’s gospel amid Stoic, Platonic, and peripatetic thought comprises most of the chapter. Heine illustrates the impact of Logos theology in the writings of Justin Martyr and Tertullian. He notes how later Christian thinkers considered the theological accomplishments of the second century as “inadequate,” but fruitful for further consideration in later thinkers like Origen (44).
Chapters 5-10 explore Christian doctrinal debates that precede and culminate in the Nicene Creed. Chapter 5 considers the impact of “monarchian” approaches to explain the Christian view of God “that would not appear to acknowledge two Gods” (47). Heine contrasts the dynamic monarchianism of Theodotus, Epiphanius, and Paul of Samosata and the modalistic monarchiansm of Noetus and Sabellius. Both approaches were “objections to the Logos theology,” but were ultimately insufficient doctrines because they “denied the preexistence of the Son from all eternity with the Father” (55). Origen, the central figure in chapter 6, attempted to answer the question, “What does it mean to call Jesus God?” (55). Heine explains how Origen utilized arguments drawn from philosophy and Scripture to support his claim that “the Son had existed from all eternity with God” (58). Origen’s conception of Christ eternally existing with God was a critique of the Logos theologians and contributed to the view espoused in the Nicene Creed. Heine focuses on the Council of Nicaea in chapter 7. The introduction summarizes the ways early Christians confessed Jesus Christ to be God in the preceding chapters. Heine then presents Arius’ view of the uniqueness of God as “unbegotten” (70). Arius concluded that as “begotten,” the Son “had a beginning” and was not God (70). In response, the Council of Nicaea defined “begotten” in a way that “asserted the full deity of the Son” (75). Heine stresses that the doctrine of Jesus Christ as divine was not the first determination of this doctrine, but “a way to express that view, already long held in the churches, with precision and clarity” (75). Chapter 8 reflects upon the debates Christians had over the nature of Jesus. Heine indicates the difficulty of defining how the divine and human are related in the person of Christ by surveying the debates between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria. Accordingly, in Christ “the divine nature retained its divine qualities and the human its human ones, but they formed one person (prosōpon) and one substance” (88). Heine investigates the difficulty of doctrinal developments concerning the Holy Spirit in the ninth chapter. The role of the Holy Spirit was an important part of the early Christian experience and message. Heine affirms the role of the Spirit in the divine economy elaborated by Irenaeus and Tertullian. The arguments of the Cappadocians – Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus – expressed the divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit as “three individual beings sharing a common substance with a unity of will and action” (102). Chapter 10 articulates God’s relationship to creation with regard to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Heine notes the scriptural ambiguity and ancient philosophical accounts about the source of creation’s material. Heine cites the opposing views of the Shepherd of Hermas, creation from nothing, and Justin Martyr, creation using “unformed matter previously [God] had already created” (110). Tertullian’s argument affirming creatio ex nihilo “became one of the touchstones of adhering to acceptable doctrine” (114).
The final chapters, 11-15, move beyond the creedal doctrines concerning divinity. In chapter 11, Heine ascertains the meaning of Christ’s “work of human redemption” (117), proposing, as the classical Christian view, the “Christus Victor” model, and he illustrates its prevalence in Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom. Chapter 12 defines the church through its identifying marks of faith in Jesus as Messiah, presence of the Holy Spirit, way of life, and observance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Heine highlights the role of the bishop in the church and the Nicene confession of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” (137). Chapter 13 and chapter 14 address baptism and resurrection of the body, respectively. The final chapter, 15, treats the “relatively marginal” topic of belief in the millennial reign of Christ (167).
This book is a welcome resource for undergraduate instruction. Heine combines a straightforward presentation and helpful section headings to keep his readers engaged. At times, Heine indicates his own theological involvement, mentioning “our” New Testament (12) and reflecting “the Christian tradition of which I am a part” (91), but these asides are unobtrusive to the momentum of the argument. The only major flaw of this text for undergraduates is the omission of a map. Otherwise, I anticipate many students and church groups will benefit from Classical Christian Doctrines in the near future.