The Saints' Guide To

Knowing The Real Jesus

by David MillsCharis, 2001 168 pages, $9.99 Available in bookstores or call (800) 486-8505

“What is the good of words,” G. K. Chesterton once asked, “if they aren't important enough to quarrel over?” He further noted that “the Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about.” It is an observation that David Mills, senior editor of Touchstone magazine, has taken to heart in writing this pithy and challenging book. His goal, Mills writes, is to “explore the early Christian saints' passion for saying exactly the right things about Jesus. They cared about distinctions and fine points of wording to which few today outside a seminary give two seconds' thought.”

When it comes to discussing God, faith and salvation, a flawed tolerance is often esteemed over clarity and firmness to the point where truth inevitably yields to relativism. “To us the early Christians' attitude seems—let us be honest—really, deeply, seriously ... weird. It's not practical. It majors in the minors. It quenches the spirit. It's unkind. It's divisive.” Yet, Mills points out, the early Christians were right and we are wrong. Words matter because they point to the real Jesus, and paint a correct picture of who he was, what he did and what he continues to do. Without the right words, we encounter a false Jesus.

In the early centuries of the Church, theology was a dangerous discipline. Insisting on a certain word over another could lead to exile and even death. As Mills shows, the turmoil surrounding the Arian heresy, which held that Jesus was a lesser god than the Father, bears witness to the vital nature of words. “For the earliest Christians, getting the words right was a matter of salvation.” Many accepted martyrdom rather than accept the wrong words. For us, words are often cheap; for the early Christians, words were often priceless. In a chapter titled “Words to Die For,” Mills introduces readers to Gnosticism, the most pernicious of the early heresies. We meet Marcion, a “Catholic” whose clever attempts to subvert Scripture to his false ends were apparently quite successful.

These false teachings were, however, rejected by those who knew the right words, read Scripture with the mind of the Church and looked to the apostolic teaching for guidance. The Rule of Faith, passed along by the Apostles and their successors, was a sure, clear portrait of him. “We find the early Christians asking for a Rembrandt,” Mills writes, “where we would settle for connect-the-dots.” These portraits were defended with intense vigor. There was no dialogue with heretics; rather, they were condemned in no uncertain terms and even described as serpents or agents of Satan. This probably offends us, Mills notes, but likely for the wrong reasons. The early Christians warned of incorrect words because those words proclaimed a false Christ and placed souls in danger of damnation.

“If you want to hear the Word of the Lord, you will want to hear it within his body,” writes Mills. “If you don't want to hear it within his body, you probably don't really want to hear it.” It is just one of many timeless challenges in this timely book.

Carl Olson is editor of Envoy magazine.