Book Review: Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness
Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness, edited by Timothy George, Dean and Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, is a powerful and insightful contribution to the recent evangelical conversations regarding ecumenism, authority, trinitarianism, and creeds. Originally a compilation of papers delivered at a theological conference held September 28-30, 2009, at Beeson Divinity School Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith boasts a long list of heavy-hitting contributors, such as, Thomas Oden, Gerald Bray, Frank Thielman, and Timothy George to name a few. However, all sixteen contributors to this volume are excellent scholars who have crafted thoughtful articles from diverse perspectives within evangelicalism.
Recognizing evangelicalism as legitimate heirs of the apostolic faith, this project attempts to ask and answer the question, “What relationship does evangelicalism have with the Nicene Creed?” To answer this question the book proceeds in three distinct sections, Identity, History, and Practice.
The Identity section, the strongest portion of the book, attempts to identify the apostolic tradition by tracing its theological heritage. Thomas Oden voices a clarion call, arguing for the confessional nature of evangelicalism. He argues that the Nicene faith is indeed the apostolic faith that was once delivered (Jude 3). Perhaps the strongest chapter, The Gospel Promised by the Prophets: The Trinity and the OT by Mark Gignilliat, offers keen analysis into the exegetical heritage of the early church. Gignilliat proposes that the composers of Nicaea were the rightful heirs of the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments. He further argues that, “Trinitarian theology is first and foremost exegetical theology” (25). Therefore, the Nicene Creed was not a battle against the OT, but a battle for the OT.
The History section, also presents several helpful chapters, specifically the first, by Carl Beckwith entitled “The Reformers and the Nicene Faith: An Assumed Catholicity.” Beckwith demonstrates that despite the frequent references of evangelicals to the Reformed principle of sola scripture, the Reformers surely understood themselves to be heirs of Nicene-catholicity (72). Perhaps the most provocative chapter, “The Nicene Faith and the Catholicity of the Church,” by Steven Harmon, argues that free-church evangelicalism can act as a “free-church magisterium” (87). This insightful and challenging chapter may act as a foil for evangelicals who are experiencing a crisis of authority and are looking to other traditions for authorial comfort. Matthew Pinson also provided an encouraging chapter arguing for the confessional nature of the Arminian Baptist tradition. Although I was not ultimately convinced by the historiography of his chapter I was very encouraged by his desire to see the Arminian Baptist tradition return to confessional theology.
The final section, pertaining to the Practice of the Nicene faith, offers several insightful essays relating to the practice of confessional, trinitaran theology within evangelicalism. In David Nielson’s chapter entitled “The Nicene Faith and Evanglelical Worship,” he proposes that there is a direct relationship between doctrine and doxology. Although this chapter was helpful Nielson could have gone even further by demonstrating the relationship between doctrine and doxology. I did appreciate his emphasis on recovering the centrality of the ordinances in worship services. Mark DeVine’s chapter offers a scathing critique of the Emergent Church movement regarding its false dichotomy between “doing” and “believing.” For DeVine, “To the extent that emerging churches fail to come to grips with the intrinsically believing and confession character of Christianity, their drift away from anything recognizably Christian seems inevitable” (p. 184).
Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith is a gift to the evangelical tradition. A strong list of competent and thoughtful scholars has offered the contemporary church a way forward. According the Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith the way forward is to go back to the apostolic faith, the faith offered to us in the Nicene Creed. This book is not exhaustive, it is not meant to be, but I do hope that it is one of the first, in a long line of books, that calls the evangelical church back to her theological foundations that are found in the apostolic faith of Nicaea.
Thanks to Baker for my review copy.