What are the essential beliefs of the Christian faith? Although there is much debate concerning whether it is appropriate to focus on doctrinal formulations in a postmodern age (see Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening), the Christian faith isn’t without doctrinal substance. We might not all agree on the definitions or even the prioritization of these statements, there are certain categories that require our attention. For instance? Who is God? How do we understand the relationship of Jesus to our understanding of God? What of the Holy Spirit or the Sacraments? As Philip Clayton put it, our theology is our world view. Each of us is a theologian, as we formulate our own understandings of God, and view the world through these lenses. There is content to learn, but Clayton asks whether one should be doctrinaire about one’s views. What we believe today, has been interpreted though the lens of history and Christian practice. For us to develop our own understandings of these theological constructs, it would be helpful to reflect on the questions and the answers offered through the course of history. [Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society, pp. 20-23).
Although Ronald Heine comes to the conversation from a more conservative position than Philip Clayton, I believe that his brief primer on Christian Doctrine could be an important resource for this conversation. Heine is Professor of Bible and Christian Ministry at my alma mater, Northwest Christian University and an expert in Patristic theology. Although he has a long history of teaching bible, his scholarly work has focused on the interpretation of scripture during the period of the early church. He has written extensively on one of the most important Patristic biblical scholars – Origen – and that background is of great help to this project.
Classical Christian Doctrine is designed to be a basic text for the study of theology. The author envisions the primary reader to be a college freshman who may have some background in Bible, but little understanding of what emerged from that point on. It should be noted that Heine hails from a tradition, of which I’m a part, that privileges the New Testament testimony. At times it can be almost ahistorical in its attachment to the biblical text, but Heine has a good grasp on the reality that faces the reader of scripture. We don’t come to the text de novo. Our readings are influenced by the interpretations and formulations developed over the course of time. Heine focuses on the earliest period of formulation – the first five centuries of the Christian era – because most of the important doctrinal debates and formulations emerged during this period. One might be able to find the seeds of the Trinity in the New Testament, but it took more than three centuries for Christians to come to an understanding that a majority could embrace – a formulation that was enshrined in the Nicene Creed. That Creed forms the foundation of Heine’s primer, though he must part from it at times to gather all the dimensions of the conversation into his book. The Creed, for instance, says nothing about Scripture.
The book begins with a conversation about the nature of Christian doctrine. He states unequivocally that “all Christians have always held doctrines about Jesus and other topics related to Jesus” (p. 2). We can try to steer clear of the conversation, but we all hold beliefs about such things. Therefore, he insists that it’s important for us to know how these distinctive beliefs came to be. They are classical, because they are the “doctrines that were accepted as true by most Christians before the end of the first four centuries of the Christian era.” He doesn’t deny that there are other interpretations, but for the most part by the end of the fourth century, there was a degree of support for the doctrines defined in the Nicene Creed. They are doctrines, because they are the basic teachings of the faith. In his mind, these form the common core of Christian understanding. Therefore, they serve as boundary markers. One may not agree with the author as to where the boundaries are drawn, but his book can serve as important point of departure in the conversation.
Heine is a historical theologian, and so using the Nicene Creed as a basic skeleton, he explores doctrinal formulations beginning with the way Scripture is understood in the early church and moves through debates over the Trinity, the personhood of Jesus, the nature of the Holy Spirit, creation, redemption, the church, baptism, resurrection, and the millennium. Each idea is explored historically, beginning with the Scriptural affirmations, and then moving forward through the second century, with Justin and Irenaeus being the key figures, and then into the third century, where Tertullian and Origen standout, and then on into the fourth century where we meet Arius, Athansius, and the Cappadocians. Of course, one must venture into the fourth century to encounter among others Augustine.
Heine is clear on his own preferences. He takes the side of Irenaeus over the Gnostics; he notes the problems that Origen poses, even though he believes that Origen is more orthodox than history has accredited him. For those persons interested in the debate over the Trinity, it is helpful to see how this doctrine developed, from second century embrace of a logos theology that seemed to eventuate into two separate gods to third century attempts to find unity between father and son, leading to modalism. It wasn’t until the fourth century, with the debates between Athansius and Arius, that a council could come up with a formula that seemed to preserve the unity of God, while allowing Jesus to be accorded divine status. But even there, the church is not finished. The dominant party might affirm a doctrine of the Trinity, but it really hadn’t dealt with the person of the Holy Spirit (the Cappadocian Fathers offered the formulation that would resolve that debate for the majority) or the relationship of divinity and humanity in Jesus. Chalcedon sought to provide a solution to a debate that pitted theologians from Alexandria and Antioch, with a mediating position offered by Leo, Bishop of Rome.
Some readers might find Heine’s presentation to be a conservative one, and they’re apt to be correct. But it’s not a hard-edged conservatism. One might say that Heine is following the Vincentian Formula – with Vincent of Lerins, he wants to affirm those positions that have been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. There are divergences from the common core, but this formulation offers a point of departure for the conversation. Being on the left of center side of things, I would recommend reading Heine’s book in tandem with Clayton’s. Clayton offers a progressive methodology that can make good use of the materials that Heine presents.
Being trained as a historical theologian myself, I appreciate his approach. I myself learned theology in historical fashion from Colin Brown at Fuller Seminary. I didn’t learn a system so much as developed a method for making sense of the materials of history and scripture. Heine has provided in brief, a resource that makes such theological exploration possible.
Because it is written as a primer, Heine keeps jargon to a minimum, and explains with brevity but with precision the doctrines and introduces us to the participants in the debate. For the most part I found him to be fair. Of Arius, he says, if the controversial theologian had lived a century earlier, there would have been little furor over his formulations. Some would have agreed and others disagreed, but he happened to enter the stage at a time when Constantine was looking for a unified church to be the key to a unified empire. Constantine was disturbed by the divisions in the church and called for the leaders to resolve their differences and make peace. Timing, you might say, is everything.
What makes the book especially useful is the inclusion of excerpts from the various theologians explored in sidebars. In addition, he begins each chapter by identifying the key figures in the discussion of that chapter. Thus, regarding scripture, he focuses on Polycarp, Marcion, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. At the end of the chapter one will find a series of questions and points for discussion, making this useful for a small group church study, and suggestions for further reading.
As long as you recognize the theological vantage point from which the author writes, I think that most Christians will find this a useful read. This is especially true since the church is in dire need of informed conversations about the nature of our beliefs. You don't have to agree with Heine's conclusions to appreciate the importance of the conversation.