Book Review

"For Us and For Our Salvation" by Stephen Nichols

Michael Vendsel
Stephen Nichols
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

As much as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has come under criticism, Stephen J. Nichols argues that it has had at least one salutary effect: "Prior to The Da Vinci Code, you would have been hard-pressed to find many conversant with the Nicene Creed, but now nearly fifty million readers, not to mention masses of moviegoers, know a thing or two about it." As encouraging as that may be, however, Nichols regrets that for the most part "a thing or two" is all people come away knowing, and that they are left with the impression that Nicea imposed controversial and previously unheard of ideas on the church. In For Us and For Our Salvation, he attempts to correct that perception by surveying the development of the doctrine of Christ from the first to the fifth century. His aim is to reassure the reader that the early church gave a strong, united confession of Christ's divinity and humanity, one which was reflected in the creeds but did not originate there.

In the first two chapters, Nichols goes back to the first three centuries. He unpacks the unorthodox views of that time, explaining who the Ebionites and Docetists were, and he tries to show why their views seemed sensible in terms of the Platonism that was current with them. He goes on to discuss the orthodox views of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, and he argues that their ideas are essentially early statements of what came to be expressed in the creeds.

The next two chapters concentrate on the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. Nichols tells the story of the debate between Arius and Athanasius, of the convening of the Council of Nicea, and of the overwhelming vote at that council in favor of Athanasius. He goes on to tell how afterward there was a succession of emperors in favor of Arius, how Athanasius was forced to spend much of his life in exile, and how his view finally came to be accepted again at the Council of Constantinople. Along the way, he introduces the reader to the three Cappadocian fathers-Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus-and explains why they are such a significant part of the story.

In the final two chapters, Nichols focuses on the fifth century and the Council of Chalcedon. He goes through the nuanced differences among Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism, and then discusses the orthodox views of Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Flavian of Constantinople. He puts particular emphasis on Leo, who-even though he was absent from the council-exercised a significant influence on the final shape of the Chalcedonian Creed. He closes the book with a short epilogue, discussing ways in which the early christological heresies have resurfaced in subsequent centuries.

There are several commendable aspects of this survey. Nichols does a nice job of establishing the context and importance of a number of early Church Fathers (and every other chapter is made up of primary sources, so one is able to read the Church Fathers in their own words). Also, he is very open about the way politics influenced the production of the creeds while still emphasizing that they were a matter of repeated consensus-that there were only two votes in favor of Arius at Nicea and that Chalcedon was a unanimous vote of 520.

That said, there are several questions a reader might legitimately have that are not well treated. The book is less exegetical than might be hoped; it spends much more time telling the story of the controversy over Christology than it does explaining the biblical basis for Christology. It would be less suited then for someone with concerns about the fact that the church used non-biblical terms that were loaded with philosophical meaning (which Nichols himself acknowledges). Similarly, the book is less theological than it could be; it spends less of its time explaining why the two natures of Christ are so important, so that one who was puzzled about that question and wondering why these debates mattered would probably do better elsewhere. Finally, the book is not an apology for creeds and councils per se; it spends less time arguing why doctrinal definitions are important, so that someone with the tendency to see religion as divisive and hateful might only have their perceptions reinforced (especially when Nichols points out that Athanasius spent six decades wrangling, in effect, over one letter-whether the relationship between Christ and the Father should be described as homoousion versus homoiousion.)

These should not be seen as faults since no book can do everything, and Nichols' book seems to have the specific aim of alleviating historical worries among those who hold to orthodox Christology and who have some understanding of what is at stake. For that purpose, he has provided a great place to start. For an explanation, however, of the importance of orthodox Christology, a defense of the biblical basis of that theology, or a response to those who are suspicious of things like creeds, it would probably be best to look elsewhere.

Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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