Know the Heretics

Know the Heretics by Justin Holcomb

“Heretic” is one of those words we struggle to use well. Often times, you see it used in one of two ways—either liberally or ironically. One equates all disagreement with apostasy, the other pretends disagreement doesn’t matter at all.

Both rob the word of its power.

Justin Holcomb understands the seriousness of heresy and what it means to call someone a heretic—it is “a weighty charge that [is] not made lightly, nor [is] it used whenever there [is] theological inaccuracy or impression” (14).

So how do we learn to use this word wisely? By knowing what heresy really is. And so, we have Holcomb’s newly released Know the Heretics. This short book introduces readers to several heresies that have threatened the church throughout history, and how the controversies surrounding each—whether it be the requirement to obey the Law, the existence of original sin, or the Trinity itself—helped shape the church as it is today.

Learning from the past to understand the present

It’s tempting to pretend that ancient heresies don’t matter anymore because, well, they’re ancient. But this tendency is our chronological snobbery at work. We like to think we’re beyond the problems of the ancient world; that because we are so much more advanced, we couldn’t possibly fall prey to the same errors our spiritual forbearers did.

You know what they say about those who ignore the past, right?

That’s why we need a book like this one. “This book is a case study of fourteen major events when the church made the right call—not for political or status reasons… but because orthodox teaching preserved Jesus’ message in the best sense, and the new teaching distorted it,” Holcomb writes (12).

These case studies confront readers with our core problem: apathy. Take Sabellianism—a form of Modalism—for example. The reason this error gained ground so easily wasn’t because it was intellectually sound or vigorously defended. It gained ground simply because we have a tendency to be apathetic. The idea of the Trinity as best we understand it from Scripture—that there is one God who exists in three persons (Father, Son, Spirit)—is one of the chief areas in which our apathy reigns.

It’s not that we don’t care, though. It’s just that the idea of the Trinity is too hard for us to comprehend fully. “Compared with the idea that God is merely one, the orthodox answer might seem overly complex and philosophical, or an unnecessary later addition to the authentic Christian faith” (85).

So we wind up not thinking about it too much, and use really bad analogies to describe it—often ones that themselves find their roots in Sabellianism. But, as Holcomb notes, “Trinitarian theology…takes seriously the idea that God has revealed himself in Scripture and wants to be known, and that he has revealed himself in a certain way” (85). And so, the Bible forces us to answer the question of whether or not God is one or three.

Just as practically, having a sense of the Trinity better helps us respond to the claims of other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, who actually view biblical Christianity as Sabellian:

Since many of the errors that these groups ascribe to mainstream Christianity are actually Sabellian in nature, it is useful to know the middle road that orthodox doctrine strikes between unity and distinction. Being able to articulate concisely what the Trinity is, how it makes the best sense of Scripture and how it affects our salvation and the worship of God can be valuable in witnessing to others as well as developing our own relationship with God. (86)

The Trinity also helps us see the power of the gospel at work—in fact, it’s safe to argue that without the Trinity, there is no atonement. Only if Christ is God as well as man could He pay for the sins of the world. Without the three persons of the Godhead agreeing from before the foundations of the world to redeem and rescue sinners, we’re left with a deficient view of the gospel that sees it as some sort of back-up plan.

These are the truths we ignore at our peril.

Understanding God’s purposes in heresy

Reading Know the Heretics is equally disheartening and encouraging. It’s disheartening simply because it’s easy to see the heresies of the past still making the rounds in our day, in one form or another, as (mostly) sincere people ask sincere questions, but accept wrong answers. These lies continue to be propagated, and men and women continue to be lead astray, thinking they know God when they are in fact rejecting Him.

But it’s also encouraging because, in learning more about the heretics of the past, readers gain greater insights into God’s purposes in allowing these aberrant teachings to exist—to strengthen the Church’s understanding of the truth about—and love for—God. “In order to love God, one must know who God is… right belief about God—orthodoxy—matters quite a bit” (156).

  • Without the Marcionites, we may never have formally developed the canon of Scripture.
  • Without the many heresies surrounding the nature of God and Christ, we might never have had the doctrine of the Trinity clarified.
  • Without the Pelagian error, we might not have as significant an understanding of the grace of God in saving sinners.

In that sense—and in that sense alone—we should be thankful the events and teachings Holcomb describes, not because falsehood is praiseworthy, but because the truth about God is.

Particularly valuable for those taking their first steps into studying church history, Know the Heretics offers powerful insights into the past and practical relevance for today. Read it carefully, learn from the past, and be encouraged for the future.

Title: Know the Heretics
Author: Justin Holcomb
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books including the Big Truths Bible Storybook, Epic Devotions, Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty, and Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World. His next book, published by Lexham Press, will release in Spring 2023.

Reader interactions

10 Replies to “Know the Heretics”

  1. Carole McDonnell May 21, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Looks like a well-written book. Am trying to see if I should review this or the know the creeds books. I’m just afraid this is those closed-within-Christianity conversations kinda books, though. The best apologetics book I ever read was The Christ of Every Road by E Stanley Jones and it really connected to people in a kind of post-Christian world. I might read this though.

  2. […] Justin Holcomb. Know the Heretics. Reviewed by Aaron Armstrong. […]

  3. Andrew Patton May 7, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    “There is nothing new under the sun.” Time and again, I see Protestants adamantly insisting that Nestorianism is sound doctrine, not realizing that to deny that Mary is the Mother of God is to deny that God truly died for us, for while a Nestorian believes in the divinity of Christ, he has not considered that if the divine and human natures of Christ are not united to the point that it is proper to call Mary the Mother of God, then neither could the divine nature of Christ truly suffer death, and the Precious Body of Christ is reduced to a mere meat puppet.

    1. I’ve seen very few examples of Protestants insisting Nestorianism is sound doctrine (though sadly, I can’t say I’ve seen no examples of this). Holcomb’s chapter on Nestorius is quite good, incidentally.

      Regarding calling Mary the mother of God, as long as the one using the term is clear that he or she is referring to the incarnation, personally I don’t really have any issue with it. That said, I prefer borrow from Elisabeth and refer to her as “the mother of my Lord,” (but it’s not something I’m particularly interested in fighting about with anyone).

      1. Andrew Patton May 8, 2014 at 3:17 pm

        If you haven’t seen many examples of it, you haven’t been looking hard enough. Yes, “Mother of God” is a reference to the Incarnation and only the Incarnation, but neo-Nestorians call the title, “Mother of God,” idolatrous, insisting that she was only the mother of Christ’s human nature, just as the Nestorians of old did.

        1. Maybe so. It certainly hasn’t been on my radar as an issue, I’ll say that. Could you point me in the direction of an individual you would consider a neo-Nestorian?

    2. Wesley Woods May 9, 2014 at 9:14 am

      i would say the seemingly insisting that Nestorianism is sound doctrine by protestants is most likely their dis-stain for anything that sounds Catholic. the more problematic heresy that they inadvertently promote is modalism. they try to defend the trinity by using a modalist analogy one God yet three titles like you could be a father, son, and brother at the same time. after studying theology at college i find that understanding and communicating the trinity following the eastern fathers beginning with three persons in one God than one God in three persons sounder mostly its emphasis on the three persons. the protestants insist that they go by the bible only not realizing that the different heresies came from the bible itself.

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