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In chapter 24.1 of his authoritative book on the fourth century Arian Controversy - The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God - Bishop RPC Hanson discusses how the various parties in that controversy used the Bible to defend their positions. He concludes with an overview of the approach to Scripture of these parties.

Tradition

Concerning tradition, Hanson notes:

“There is some truth in [the] assertion” that “Arians clung blindly and woodenly to Scripture whereas the pro-Nicenes were ready to accept Scripture within the context of tradition and a broad philosophical outlook” (RH, 827).

This comment reveals something about Hanson’s own hermeneutical preferences. As a bishop in the Church of Ireland, he condones reading Scripture “within the context of tradition.” But, to cling to Scripture as the only basis for doctrine, he rejects as a blind and wooden approach to Scripture.

If we then remove Hanson’s own hermeneutical preferences from the comment above, we see that the Arians clung to Scripture while the pro-Nicenes were ready to accept Scripture within the context of tradition. Hanson explains why the pro-Nicenes appealed to tradition:

“The pro-Nicenes were always a little apprehensive of entering the ground of Scripture in encounter with the Ariansm ‘because … their language tended to support the archaising theology of the Arian'. The pro-Nicenes were in consequence much readier to appeal to tradition.” (RH, 847)

He also explains what "tradition" means in this context:

"The pro-Nicenes did indeed appeal to 'the tradition of the Fathers', very often meaning the creed N [the Nicene Creed]” (RH, 828)

The pro-Nicene were unable to appeal to ‘tradition’ earlier than the Nicene Creed because the controversy was essentially about the words ousia, homoousios, and hypostasis in the Nicene Creed and, as Hanson states, these were “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy” (846) and, therefore, not supported by earlier ‘tradition’.

Sola Scriptura

While the pro-Nicenes appealed to ‘tradition’, the Arians insisted on Scripture as the only norm of faith. For example:

“The pro-Nicenes often remark on the invariable demand of the Arians for Scriptural proof, and how they accuse the champions of Nicaea of introducing the non-Scriptural term homoousios into the creed!” (RH, 827)

“'We do not call the Holy Spirit God' says an Arian writer, 'because the Bible does not say so, but subservient to God the Father and obedient in all things to the commands of the Son as the Son is to the Father.” (RH, 830)

Maximinius - a famous later ‘Arian’, “is more explicit: 'the divine Scripture does not fare badly in our teaching so that it has to receive improvement from us.” (RH, 831)

But the pro-Nicenes also at least attempted to find their theology in the Bible:

“The pro-Nicene writers are equally insistent upon the unique position of Scripture as a norm of faith.” (RH, 827)

“A number of passages from pro-Nicene writers can be produced which make them seem as devout observers of the text of the Bible as any Arian. … Earnest but futile attempts are made to prove that the Bible really does use the word ousia or substantia.” (RH, 829)

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture. The Greek speakers cannot pretend that ousia appears in either Septuagint or New Testament, but they rack the Bible to find examples of hypostasis, and when they find it do their best to make the context appear relevant.” (846)

Hanson concludes:

“The best that can be said for this kind of juggling is that it showed the almost desperate desire of the theologians to base their doctrine on Scripture.” (847)

The pro-Nicenes attempted “to read their doctrine into the Bible by hook or by crook” (848).

So, both sides in the Controversy accepted the principle of sola scriptura. Hanson explains:

“In this matter they were of course only reproducing the presuppositions of all Christians before them, of the writers of the New Testament itself, of the tradition of Jewish rabbinic piety and scholarship.” (849)

Sola scriptura, therefore, is one of the principles which all sides of the Controversy inherited and accepted. The difference was that the pro-Nicenes were less successful in showing that their doctrine is Biblical.

The Problem

Hanson explains what the pro-Nicenes did wrong. He refers to both sides of the Controversy when he says:

“The impression made on a student of the period [Hanson himself] that the expounders of the text of the Bible are incompetent and ill-prepared to expound it.” (RH, 848)

“It was … the presuppositions with which they approached the Biblical text that clouded their perceptions.” (RH, 849)

“It was … the tendency to treat the Bible … apart from … the 'oracular' concept of the nature of the Bible.” (RH, 849)

”The very reverence with which they honoured the Bible as a sacred book stood in the way of their understanding it.” (RH, 849)

The Solution

Hanson also offers a solution:

“The defenders of the creed of Nicaea … were themselves engaged in forming dogma … pro-Nicenes recognized that in forming their doctrine of God they could not possibly confine themselves to the words of Scripture, because the debate was about the meaning of the Bible, and any attempt to answer this problem in purely Scriptural terms inevitably leaves still unanswered the question 'But what does the Bible mean?'” (848)

“If the long and involved dispute resulted in leading figures like Athanasius to some extent standing back from the Bible and asking what was its intention, its drift (or skopos), instead of plunging into a discussion of its details based on an imperfect understanding of them, this was a gain and not an unworthy attempt to evade [avoid, dodge] the strict meaning of Scripture.” (849)

Partisanship

This analysis of the arguments from Scripture during the fourth century Arian Controversy may surprise many readers. Hanson begins chapter 24 by saying that, thus far in the book, he had refused to take sides. He is hesitant to take sides because “the subject of the Arian controversy has suffered from a great deal too much partisanship [bias] at the hands of those who have written about it” (page 824). Hanson states that the “conventional account of the Controversy ... is … a complete travesty.” He concludes: “The diatribes of Gwatkin and of Harnack can today be completely ignored” (page 95).

This is confirmed by the 2001 book by Archbishop Rowan Williams (Arius, Heresy & Tradition). It shows, due to new information about the fourth-century Arian Controversy that has become readily available during the 20th century, that the latest books on this subject paint a very different picture of that Controversy.

The Question

Following the principles mentioned above, I propose that Christian doctrines may be categorized as follows:

(1) Doctrines that explain the Bible using the Bible’s own words;

(2) Doctrines that use non-Biblical words to describe things stated by the Bible;

(3) Doctrines that say things that are not in the Bible but that do not necessarily contradict the Bible; and

(4) Doctrines that contradict the Bible.

I would assume that scholars would be able to significantly improve on my proposed categories, but if we accept these four, my question is twofold:

(a) Which of these categories of doctrines would be allowed by the Protestant principle of sola scriptura?

(b) Given the analysis above of the role of Scripture on the development of the Trinity doctrine, to which category should we allocate the Nicene Creed? And, consequently, would the Nicene Creed be acceptable within the principle of sola Scriptura?

See here for a copy of chapter v24.1 of Hanson's book.

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    All Protestants should wholeheartedly endorse the Nicene Creed; those who do not are considered by Protestants to be heretics. You can follow sola scriptura and still be a heretic.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 7 at 6:35
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    Overall this question feels too long and broad. Can you try editing it to condense it down to something more focused?
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 7 at 6:36
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    I’m voting to close this question because the proposal is unworkable.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 7 at 8:40
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    @Andries No, Protestants don't consider people who reject Sola scriptura to be heretics. It depends on what other doctrines they believe. I don't really understand what it would mean for the Nicene Creed not to comply with Sola scriptura. Sola scriptura is a methodology, and it can be applied to any doctrine. Sola scriptura has nothing to do with banning any terminology. The question still seems 3 times too long to me.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 7 at 9:36
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    @Andries Sola scriptura is the methodology Protestants use to answer theological questions. Catholics use a different methodology but arrive at some of the same answers - particularly on the core doctrines concerning the nature of God and Christology. Nor do Protestants reject tradition in its entirely. Protestants reject any idea that tradition can have equal authority to scripture, and they dispute many specific traditions. But other traditions, such as the Nicene understanding of the Trinity, are still strongly endorsed by Protestants.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 7 at 12:11

3 Answers 3

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Luther is historically credited with the idea of "Sola Scriptura" (although earlier people used the principle extensively such as Wycliffe, and others). However, when Luther concluded his famous speech at the Diet of Worms he said something similar to:

Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

Note that even Luther agreed that scripture must be used with reasoned arguments.

Wesley modified the approach and effectively renamed it (for him) as "Prima Scriptura" and used his "Wesleyan Quadrilateral". This essentially mean that he had four principles of which the first was and most important was the authority of Scripture.

The other three were Tradition, Reason, Experience. For a brief summary and references see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesleyan_Quadrilateral

Thus, tradition should not be ignored and should not dominate but the primacy of scripture must prevail.

I would add at least a fifth to Wesley's quadrilateral, that of what is now loosely described as the historical-grammatical method. The best example of this are the great evidence-based lexicons such as BDAG which attempts to understand the idiom and meaning of words, phrases and customs (including idiom) based on their local use at the time. Without such resources, exegesis would be impossible.

The Creeds

While I am in broad agreement with the Nicene creed (and some others), there are several statements in them that I struggle with. Recall that, ultimately, the Nicene creed (and others) was a compromise statement in some areas and was far from final - it was later refined by several subsequent councils that often debated very fine points of doctrine that, in some cases, the Bible says nothing about. The members of these councils, it appears to me, often forgot Paul's maxim, “Do not go beyond what is written.” 1 Cor 4:6. On some matters we must be content to remain ignorant.

Thus, if one truly believes in the principle of "Sola Scriptura" or "Prima Scriptura", then what a creed says, no matter how correct, is rather secondary to what the Bible teaches (but it should not be ignored). The big problem with creeds is that they have two unfortunate effects - they distract from the Bible and confine what people believe and thus tend to supplant the Bible. It is much better to be able to quote the Bible - we have much more to learn from the Bible yet (John 16:12). Let's just study what the bible says and teaches.

The creeds were man-made documents that were imperfect and had flaws (as pointed out above). I am happy to accept a creed generally so long as I am also permitted to have some reservations about a few of its statements. Further, I do not wish to be confined by a creed because with growing Bible knowledge I may discover that something of what a creed says is either incomplete or just wrong.

Creeds are extremely useful for making a clear statement about what people believed and taught at the time.

Footnote

When one takes an overview of the great debates over the nature of Christ that occurred between the 4th to 8th centuries, and then compares them to what the Scriptures actually say, very little was actually learned from what the scriptures teach. These debates taught more about what to avoid that what we should know. Too often they were trying to deduce something about which the Scriptures are silent.

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Most Protestants accept the Nicene Creed. It's one of the most accepted creeds in the Christian world.

Those that do include:

  • Anglicans and Episcopalians
  • Lutherans
  • Methodists
  • Christian Reformed

The question of "should they" depends on whether you accept their beliefs or not, which this site is not a place to discuss.

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It's a very interesting question and after reading Bishop Hansen (Bishop Jon Paul Christian Hansen?) I question why the Protestant church accepts the creeds so readily.

However, against the backdrop of Bishop Hansen's Catholic theology, it does revive Reformation tensions. So caution must be urged, for example,

Arians clung blindly and woodenly to Scripture

"Blindly" contradicts scripture from a Protestants perspective at numerous points across the bible. Bishop JC Ryle would be the counter point to Bishop Hansen, albeit he was writing around a century ago (?).

Anyway, both the Nicene and Apostles Creed are widely used across the Anglican community without question, so essentially the Anglicans have adopted a pro-Nicene theology. However, the charismatic protestants I'm less sure.

Following from @Dottard, personally, I find a sub-sentence of the Apostles creed difficult

he [Jesus] descended to the dead.

Compared with Luke 23

43 Jesus answered him [the penitent thief], “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Spoken as both Jesus and the thief were dying on their crosses.

I would be particularly unhappy if "the dead" was translated as "Sheol" because then there would be no metaphor in "descended to the dead" it would be a straight contradiction against scripture, in my opinion (I've a feeling it might be). At best the Apostles Creed contains ambiguous language.

Whilst the Apostle's Creed is widely recited Prima scripture would be the position across numerous Protestant Anglican churches (not all by any means) when an instance such "descended to the dead" is raised. I'm speaking from personal experience having raised this issue.

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