Truly Divine & Truly Human: The Story of Christ and The Seven Ecumenical Councils

Need, Stephen
SPCK (2008)
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The problem with doctrine is that it dies on the lips and never reaches the heart, just as statute fails to re-kindle the fire that lay, centuries before, behind its creation. Who can honestly say that their heart is inflamed during the recitation of the Nicene Creed which isn't, strictly speaking, the Nicene Creed at all and certainly should not be confused with the Creed of Nicaea.

Stephen Need's book on the theological development of Christianity, seen through the Ecumenical Councils, answers both of my opening points: it re-connects us with the passion through a careful presentation and assessment of the data; we can feel why theological controversy was the major topic of discussion in the grocery stores of 4th Century Constantinople. The book falls nicely into a space between the impenetrable and the superficial, neither patronising nor self-regarding, a good summary for the academic and starting point for the non professional enquirer.

The Councils were all concerned, one way or another, with the phenomenon of Jesus (Christology): some thought he was purely divine, others purely human but it was those who thought he was both who faced the most difficult theological challenge. The theological fusion which ultimately became Christian orthodoxy is included in Need's title but it's working out into "Two natures, one person" was fraught with pitfalls from the political to the deeply theological. Need emphasises the political need for Christian unity to underpin the unity of the Byzantine Empire but he does not attribute conciliar pronouncements to imperial pressure; and he tends not to see individual Councils as neatly separated: Nicaea (321) and Chalcedon (451) might have been massive landmarks in our attempt to find language to describe in incarnate Jesus but they left many questions unresolved and frequently resulted in more controversy than that which they had been convened to resolve.

Need might have made more of how we might understand the language of the Councils today when he intriguingly explains that words had different theological meanings in the two protagonist Dioceses of Alexandria and Antioch which supplements Vico's observation that words change their meaning through time; and he might have helped us to see how the doctrine we have inherited might somehow lead us back to theology in the forge of the postmodern age; but that does not detract from the simple excellence of this book.