[amazon 0830825320 thumbnail]We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ is the second volume in the Intervarsity Press series Ancient Christian Doctrine. The series of five volumes is a commentary on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The commentary in each volume is drawn from writings from the patristic period of church history: AD 95-750. In series volume 1, general editor Thomas Oden identifies nine purposes for the series. Most relevant of those for SI readers would be “demonstrating the authority of the Nicene Creed; furthering the new ecumenical movement; encouraging and expanding the readership of the fathers among ’ordinary believers’” (vii).
In keeping with the purpose of furthering the new ecumenism, consulting editors for the series and editors of individual volumes represent Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant branches of the church. We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ is edited by John Anthony McGuckin. McGuckin is a priest in the Orthodox Church and teaches at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. He has written extensively on the Orthodox Church and patristic theology. In his introduction he echoes the aims of exposing readers to the fathers, expanding firsthand knowledge of the fathers, and furthering ecumenism (xix, xvii).
Scope & Format
We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ provides commentary on the section of the Creed beginning, “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…” and ending with “and was made man.” Each phrase is given a chapter. Each chapter is introduced with a “Historical Context” discussion in which McGuckin offers background to the issues and disputes that contributed to that portion of the creed. Following that, there is a brief summary of the patristic quotations, and the patristic comments follow. (The series is in basically the same layout as IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.)
Strengths & Weaknesses
When the major contributors of any work are Augustine, Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, the content is going to be strong. This work is no exception. There are places where some comments would seem to “fit” better under other sections of the Creed. But when the feast is as rich as this, one does not complain about the placement of the silverware. When they were not fighting for their own lives, the fathers were fighting for the life of the church. They gave us the terminology of an orthodox understanding of God and Christ. To ignore them is to take one of the “multitudes of easy solutions” in studying Christology and is a “refusal to take God seriously” (180).
Statements like this can put off someone raised with the mantra “the Bible alone is the sole authority,” but they need not be offended. What I so appreciate about the fathers, and what McGuckin does well to identify, is their absolute reliance on Scripture (p. 179). The writings of the fathers continue to survive and thrive because they are so saturated with Scripture. With hearts aflame with love for Christ and minds illumined by Scripture, the fathers show not only how to think and speak but also how to love Christ rightly. One need only read the chapter “For Us” to see this. We Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ moves the reader to love and worship the Lord Jesus Christ.
As an editor, McGuckin does an admirable job introducing each chapter and has helpful footnotes offering definitions and explanations where needed. The teaching of the Orthodox branch of the church is perhaps, more than anything, a liturgical theology, and McGuckin has written extensively on this. So I was not surprised to find quotes from Ephrem the Syrian, but I was surprised at the number of quotations. Though Ephrem wrote for liturgical purposes, it was the more rigorous theological statements of others that provoked my heart to worship.
Beyond this personal preference, there are some problems. Least problematic are errors in citations on pages 57 and 98. More problematic are two areas in which McGuckin allows his Orthodox faith to override the intent of the creed. Under “And for Our Salvation” McGuckin has a series of quotes on “The Economy of Salvation: The Deification of God’s Elect.” Deification is central to the Orthodox concept of salvation. McGuckin drops it like a bomb with no introduction or explanation (though he is often very helpful in his introductions and footnotes). In a work meant to demonstrate and expand the unity of the faith, this is unhelpful. Someone approaching the reading with no understanding of the concept will likely leave with no understanding of it. The Creed did not intend to speak to deification and McGuckin could have refrained from introducing this disputed issue.
Even more troubling is the chapter “From the Virgin Mary.” The point of the statement in the Creed is to emphasize Christ’s true humanity, and McGuckin does include a few quotes demonstrating this. The majority of the section, however, focuses on Mary and the veneration Orthodoxy teaches she deserves. This chapter is more of an exposition of what the Orthodox church believes about Mary than what the patristic church believed about Jesus’ birth from Mary. It is the weakest portion of the book.
Does the book succeed in its aims? In exposing the richness of the patristic teaching on the doctrine of Christ it unquestionably succeeds. But in expanding the reading of the fathers among “ordinary believers” I have serious reservations. How many laymen will spend $30-50 on this volume and $150-200 on the series? Indeed, how many pastors will do so? There are portions of this book and the others in the series available on Google Books; and IVP intends to release the series digitally; but I do not know how helpful those steps are either.
Does it succeed in furthering ecumenism? First of all, fundamentalists (whether ex-, neo- paleo-, young-, etc.) should not immediately dismiss this book or series because of this aim. McGuckin’s introduction contains much that would make the staunchest fundamentalist shout “Amen!” This volume—and the series—do actually show the way forward for successful ecumenism: faith in and obedience to a robust orthodoxy. As the saying goes, “Every heretic has his text.” It would be ideal if we could simply proclaim we believe the Bible and leave it at that. But in the most important doctrinal areas the church would struggle over, that battle was over what the Bible meant, not what it said. Unity can only occur when there is agreement about what the Bible teaches. The ecumenical creeds stake out the boundaries of orthodoxy.
Yet, paradoxically, the Creed itself demonstrates that the Ancient Christian Doctrine series cannot succeed in uniting the church. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, primarily the Filioque clause, actually serves to divide Rome from the East. So as valuable as creeds are, they are not ultimately efficacious. Whatever outward movements toward reconciliation occur, true union will only be achieved by the Holy Spirit uniting the hearts of believers to profess and live the truth of the glorious gospel of God’s salvation in Christ. This was the prayer of our One Lord Jesus Christ, and it should be our as well.
So fear not—this volume will not turn you into an ecumenical compromiser, but it will drive you closer to Jesus. This is a valuable resource for anyone needing an introduction to patristic thought or desiring a deeper understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.
Brad Kelly is a husband and father of three. After graduating from Northland Baptist Bible College he and his wife Abigail served for two years in China as English teachers. They returned to the States to pursue seminary education at Bob Jones University. Currently he is pastor at Banquo Christian Church in Banquo, Indiana.