As a small group leader, I have searched for a book to provide a basic knowledge of early Christian doctrine, how it developed, and how it remained true to the New Testament. While I could reach for my Jaroslav Pelikan books, something more simplistic is needed for those small group meetings. My fantasy book needs to provide a short synopsis of doctrinal development, maybe something along the lines of what J.N.D. Kelley does in his larger book, but in a smaller time frame. I’d also need a book that causes discussion by asking questions. It is possible Ronald E. Heine’s latest work, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith, not only fulfills my wishlist, but also does so in ways far better than I could have imagined. After all, Heine not only does all of the things I asked for, but places it on the system of the creed.
Classical Christian Doctrine is patterned on the Nicene Creed, a pattern the author uses to shape the internal structure of the book around fourteen points of doctrine. The first chapter is his thesis, his definition of classical doctrine that he defines as “those doctrines the church accepted in the first four centuries of its existence and gave expression to primarily in the Nicene Creed.” (8) He, of course, means the Creed of 381 drafted at Constantinople, rather than the actual Nicene Creed of 325. After this defining moment, Heine gives us the source of doctrine, Scripture. This is the only doctrine not expressly mentioned in the Creed he reminds us, because the discussion of what was and what was not Scripture had generally taken place in the centuries before the drafting of the Creed. Following this are chapters on God, Christ, the Spirit, the Church, and the Resurrection — the total of the Creed. How simple the picture the doctrinal concern of the early Church is revealed to be.
Each chapter begins with a box indicating the major personalities. There are also other boxes throughout the chapter where one of those personalities are allowed to speak. For instance, Irenaeus gives us the argument for the universal (catholic) belief of the Church as coming from the Apostles and not the gnostics on page 7 — his words taken from Against Heresies. Or, in another instance, Heine gives us the Creed of 381 (25), but uses the Orthodox version, sans the filioque of the Western Church. Finally, each chapter closes with several discussion questions and resources for further reading. One of the more important parts of this book is Heine’s discussion of heretical or outside groups. For instance, he discusses accurately, succinctly, and in a charitable manner gnosticism, monarchians, and other separatists. He doesn’t accept them, of course, but gives the reasons the Church moved away from the heretical groups.
This is an excellent resource, giving a solid foundation for any group wishing to know not only the early doctrines of the Church, but how the Church achieved them. He approaches the doctrines as the early Church would have, without historical criticism, but through the theological reception of the Scriptures, Old and New. He uses the primary texts from the primary theologians to accomplish this task. Because of this, the modern reader can get a better grasp of how these doctrines came to be without the aid of modern academics.