Truly Divine and Truly Human: The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils
by Stephen W. Need
(SPCK Hendrickson, 2008)
181 pages, $16.99
Classical Christian faith is making a comeback. A new ecumenism is taking shape that is very different from the old ecumenism connected with the World Council of Churches. People from virtually all denominations are longing for theological truth and stability and are rediscovering classic Christian texts. This is evidenced in part by the enormous demand for ancient Bible commentaries from evangelical publishing houses—such as the multivolume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (published by InterVarsity Press) and the Brazos Theological Commentary on Scripture (Baker). So what lies at the theological heart of classical Christian faith that makes it so important to the modern world? The answer is found in this book: the identity of Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior.
The author, Stephen Need, is dean and professor of New Testament and early Christianity at St. George's College, Jerusalem. In clear and simple language, he surveys the complex and formative period of the Ecumenical Councils (A.D. 325-787), when the church was facing serious challenges to its belief in the full divinity and full humanity of Christ. The Ecumenical Councils were gatherings of bishops from across the Roman Empire ("ecumenical" meant "empire wide" back then, not like the World Council of Churches today). They met in order to discuss and bear witness to the church's faith and practice. These crucial councils defined "orthodoxy" for all historic Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. Without promoting his own agenda, Need challenges readers to consider whether the pronouncements these councils made are dead letters or living testimonies to the apostolic faith.
In one way or another, all the Ecumenical Councils focused on the meaning of salvation through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first two councils at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) answered the question, "What is the relationship between the Son of God and God the Father?" From these two councils we get the Nicene Creed, which contains the historic definition of Trinitarian faith.
The third through sixth councils answered the question, "How can the eternal Son of God also be the human son of Mary?" The Council of Ephesus (431) rejected teachings that split the human and divine natures of Christ, and it declared Mary the Theotokos, or "God-bearer": the One whom she bore was none other than the eternal Word of the Father. The Council of Chalcedon (451) affirmed that Jesus Christ was "one Person in two natures"—still considered the best explanation of orthodox Christology for all Bible-believing people today. The fifth and sixth councils (553 and 680) affirmed that Jesus had both fully human and fully divine wills, united harmoniously under the leadership of the Father's will.
Finally, the seventh council (787) answered the question, "What are the artistic (iconic) implications of God becoming human in Christ?" This council concluded that only God can be worshiped, but icons (pictures) can be honored because "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1.14).
Truly Divine and Truly Human is an important book, therefore, because it deals with central and abiding issues of Christian faith: the Trinity, Christology, and iconography. The author walks us through the major theologians and issues of the period, as a tour guide would lead a group of travelers through a foreign country. He takes us to the main spots without getting bogged down in too many names, dates, places, and events along the way. The book is ideal for classroom use or for laypeople who want to do serious reading about the theological work of the great Ecumenical Councils. If I could have made a suggestion to the publisher and author before they released the book, I would have recommended that they include a number of pictures or icons that could illuminate the text and invite the reader to enter more fully into the world of the early church.
The one theological concern I have with this book is that the author backs away from connecting the Christ of the Ecumenical Councils with the Christ of the New Testament: "Thus, the New Testament evidence indicates that while the first century Christians thought of Jesus as Lord, Saviour, Son of God … they did not yet think of him specifically as having 'two natures', divine and human, as the Council of Chalcedon was to do in 451. In New Testament times, the 'high' language had perhaps better be put in the category of poetry rather than philosophy or history." I disagree with this conclusion because I think there is a fundamental unity between the New Testament and Ecumenical Councils, even if those councils used a different vocabulary to communicate the apostolic faith. The Christian leaders who gathered at the councils were not innovating but simply interpreting the apostolic faith given supremely in Scripture and passed down in the church's worship and tradition.
The New Testament is not the author's main focus, however, and his treatment of the Ecumenical Councils is historically and theologically sound. So despite this caveat, I highly recommend the book as a simple and substantive resource for introducing people to the fascinating story of how Christians came to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as both "truly divine" and "truly human.
Bradley Nassif is professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University, Chicago, and a member of the CHRISTIAN HISTORY advisory board.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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