For Us and For Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church. By Stephen J. Nichols. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. 172 pp., $14.99, paper back.
Stephen Nichols is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), is Research Professor of Christianity and Culture at Lancaster Bible College in Lacaster, PA. He is the author and editor of a number of books. He has the uncanny ability to turn difficult theological and historical issues into things interesting and even exciting for the average Christian reader. His, “Guided Tour” books are helpful introductions to the lives and theology of key Christian leaders in history. Now he is turning to issues of cultural history as well with his recent books on Blues music and his cultural history of Jesus in America. Nichols knows that the study of church history and historical theology is essential to the church and the believer today. His book on the doctrine of Christ in the early church is no exception.
We live in a day of historical anemia. People have absolutely no historical context in which to understand the theological trends of the day. Little do most know that much of what is considered “new” in theological trends and fads is hardly new but generally has been dealt with in the church before simply under different names. That is where looking at the person and work of Christ as discussed by the early church fathers is so important. Much of what we consider orthodox Christology was developed in the early church. The early church fathers had to deal with heresy as they attempted to understand issues like the divine and human natures in Christ, and other theological issues. The title of the book presents the reason why this is important. The true biblical nature of Christ is the basis for our salvation. Without a true picture of Christ, how can one truly be saved? Nichols addresses the importance of studying the fathers on these issues when he writes:
The early church fathers wrestled with the same problems presented by The Da Vinci Code phenomenon and its fanciful speculations about Jesus. They wrestled with the same problems presented by Islam and its adamant denial of the deity of Christ. And they wrestled with the same problems presented by the scholars working in the Jesus Seminar or in Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Judas who quickly dismiss the four canonical Gospels as God’s true revelation to humanity. In the days of the early church, the names of the opponents were difference from those faced by us today, but the underlying issues bear a striking resemblance. When the church fathers responded with the orthodox view off Christ, they did the church of all ages a great service (p. 14).
So, Nichols looks at the early church debates over the person and work of Christ. These were not trivial debates but were at the heart of our very relationship with God and our salvation. While looking at a number of church fathers he addresses the importance of the debates over Christ at the Councils of Nicea and Chaledon and the work of the great Athanasius and Leo. He looks at the theology of the opponents of the orthodox picture of Christ presented in the creeds that developed at the councils, the historical context that these debates occurred, and the major orthodox players who helped to shape what we consider the true picture of Christ today as evangelicals.
The biggest strength of the volume is that Nichols, as a historian, realizes that we cannot simply focus on secondary sources or that even Nichols own analysis is sufficient to understanding these issues. One must look to the original sources. To that end, Nichols offers the original writings of those on both sides of the debates. So you will read the works of Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Tertullian, but you will also read from the Gnostic texts and Arius. It is important to look at both sides to see how ultimately, the church came to the expression of Christology that we consider orthodox today as expressed in the Nicean and Chalecedonian creeds. No one can truly understand the issues unless they look at the writings of the times. This helps but those debates in historical context and helps us to see the importance for us today.
These issues are not just old ones. We are facing the same issues today under new names. Therefore it is important to read the works of the early church fathers who dealt with these issues before. These issues are not tangential to the Christian life. They are at the core! Without an orthodox view of the person and work of Christ our salvation rests on no foundation. Only the God-man Jesus Christ, fully divine, and fully human, has the power to forgive sin and restore fellowship with the Father. Therefore, Nichol’s book is a clarion call to all believers in this day to know in whom they have believed, and are persuaded that He is able to keep that which they have committed unto Him against that day. Our very salvation rests upon the person and work of Christ. May we shake off our theological and historical confusion and look to the Scriptures and the work of those who have gone before us as we seek to live our life for the one that came to save us, Christ Jesus our Lord. This book is highly recommended to that end for everyone who names the name of Christ.