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Who Is Pope John XXIII and Why Is He Relevant? Justin Holcomb Explains in "Know The Creeds and Councils"

Categories Theology


On Sunday Pope Francis presided over a first-of-its-kind joint canonization of two former 20th century popes, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.

While Protestants may be unfamiliar with their contributions, a student of history will recall how John XXIII was responsible for ushering the Catholic church into the modern era. He convened one of the most significant councils since the Council of Trent, Vatican II.

Given John XXIII’s sainthood bestowal, I thought it appropriate to revisit this historic council using a new book designed to help illumine such historic Church movements, Know the Creeds and Councils.

Justin Holcomb’s accessible overview of the development of Christian thought insists ”Today's Christianity is directly affected by what earlier Christians chose to do and to believe." (9) He traces the contours of these beliefs and their development by outlining three aspects of key creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils: historical background; key outcomes; and contemporary relevance.

Let’s see how Holcomb executes his tracing efforts by considering John XXIII’s monumental contribution to the development of Christianity.

Historical Background

When he was elected “[John XXIII] was seen merely as a caretaker pope.” (143) He was neither the immediate nor obvious choice having won the vote only after 11 failed attempts. Yet he would not be content to housesit the Holy See; within three months he unexpectedly called a churchwide council.

In many ways his council was “a hundred years in the making..." In 1870 Pius IX convened Vatican I to “critically examine itself in order to revitalize its witness” after events led to the collapse of Christendom. (141)

In the 1960's many wondered if the Catholic Church could address 20th century realities, including the rise of communism, the atomic age, post-WW II devastation, and the rise of democracy.

Like Pius IX, Vatican II was John XXIII’s response to these cultural and historical shifts.

Key Teachings and Reforms

Three ideas symbolized John XXIII’s goals: aggiornamento (updating); ressourcement (return to sources); and doctrinal development. These goals led to four major reforms:

  1. Ecclesial Life. The council brought reform to the church’s everyday life when they gave bishops the authority to use the common language of their church members, retaining Latin only for the Catholic Mass. They also highlighted the importance of Scripture through a lectionary and emphasis on preaching.
  2. Doctrine of Revelation. A key doctrinal development extended the two-source theory of the Council of Trent, presenting “Scripture and tradition less as the two places where revelation can be found than as the two tools that believers use for revelation.” (145)
  3. Nature of Bishops. Following the pattern set by the early church, Vatican II gave bishops more authority in their own regions to make decisions best for their people. This amended the prevailing assumption they were merely “the hands and feet of the pope.” (146)
  4. Relation to Other Religions. The council also sparked major reform by opening dialogue with other religions. While they still held that Christ was the only way, truth, and life, the council also stated other religions “express truths or partial truths about God that the church itself affirms…” (147)

Contemporary Relevance

What relevance does Pope John XXIII's Vatican II reforms have for the 21st century church, especially for many of us Protestants?

While some saw the council as a break from the past leading to a “crisis of authority,” others saw it as a positive development. “[T]he efforts of the Catholic Church to become more involved in the lives of the laity and to interact with other religions was generally appreciated.” (148)

Another relevant development stems from Vatican II’s signaling of a formal end to the Counter-Reformation, which has fostered more dialogue between Catholics and Protestants.

Perhaps for us non-Catholics the most important thing we can learn from John XXIII and Vatican II is their “urging for Christians to be the church in the world in a relevant and faithful way.” (148)


Pope John XXIII often said, “The church’s teachings remained, but its understanding and formulation had to be changed.” (144) While some may disagree with the final outcomes of his monumental updating effort, it’s clear his Vatican II indelibly marked the Catholic Church, if not the world-wide church, by prodding them to adapt to cultural and historical changes.

At the end of each chapter Holcomb provides a series of discussion questions. I’ll leave you with his final one on this council:

Recognizing that the church lives in history and culture, how do you think the church should adapt to changes in culture and history? What do you think is not changeable? (149)


Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at

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