Heine, Ronald E.
Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. Pp. x + 182. Paper. $21.99.
With thanks to Baker Academic for this review copy!
For years I’ve been looking for a way to introduce important doctrines to my local church in an easy and accessible way; in fact, my pastor recently asked me to start preparing a course on essential Christian doctrine. Time has never permitted me to create my own course, but thankfully, now I won’t have to. Ronald E. Heine, professor of Bible and Christian ministry at Northwest Christian University, has done all of the heavy lifting in his Classical Christian Doctrine.
This slim volume is laid out in a very sensible manner. Heine begins with asking exactly what “classical Christian doctrine” is, to which he answers “the Christian system of belief or the common core of Christian teaching that determines Christian self-understanding—that is, what it means to be Christian” (5). The “classical” qualifier denotes the first four centuries of the Christian era, as this is when “all the major doctrines of the church were set forth” (4).
After this it’s a pretty straightforward narrative beginning with a discussion of Scripture, which is the source of Christian doctrine, and going through the patristic period discussing the doctrines of monotheism, Logos theology, the various monarchian heresies, eternal generation, ecumenical councils and the disputes over Christology that necessitated them. Heine discusses the doctrines of the Father and the Spirit along with his chapters on Christology, which also delves into the work of Christ, namely concerning redemption. Ecclesiology, baptism, resurrection, and eschatology all follow. It has all the markings of a condensed systematic (patristic) theology, and that’s a good thing pedagogically speaking.
What makes this volume so handy is its layout, along with Heine’s deft authorial hand. Concerning the layout, every chapter begins by noting the key players in the items under discussion. Sidebars with various quotations from these patristic sources appear throughout each chapter in order to add a bit of context to what Heine is saying. And each chapter is closed out with a list of points for discussion and a list of resources for further reading. As far as Heine’s abilities as an author are concerned, he has my admiration and respect. He summarizes a wealth of material masterfully while managing to hit on all of the most important points without ever getting unnecessarily technical.
If there’s anything to fault him on it’s in perpetuating a narrative of the so-called Arian crisis that has been challenged in recent history in the works of R. P. C. Hanson; Rowan Williams; John Behr; Lewis Ayres; and Khaled Anatolios to name a few. Basically Heine paints Arius as being a bit more important than he probably was. The heresy that bears his name found its most ardent proponents in people that came well after Arius and held positions higher in the church than presbyter. But it was refreshing to see Heine note the emphasis on salvation that was at the root of the debate over the Son’s relationship to the Father. Too often that gets passed over in treatments of the subject.
In all I think that anyone looking for an introduction into the world of patristic theology and doctrine will do very well to begin with this book. I plan to make use of it when I get around to introducing the essential doctrines to my church. It’s certainly not the final word on the subject, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Heine is to be commended for packing so much into so small a space without leaving the reader feeling cheated. At no point did I think he should have addressed this event or that one even when I know much more happened than has been said. The point, however, is not to give a church history, but rather to outline essential doctrines, and on this point Heine succeeds.