Should a Protestant accept the Nicene Creed?

Summary

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.

Hanson comments as follows on the use of the Bible in the fourth century:

“All parties to the controversy shared very much the same exegetical assumptions” (RH, 825).

“Nobody rejected allegorization altogether” (RH, 828-9). “But when all is said and done, it must be conceded that the Arians are less inclined to use allegory than the pro-Nicenes” (RH, 830). The risk of allegory is that “it tends to read meanings into the text which … are simply not present in the text” (RH, 829).

“There is some truth in [the] assertion” that “Arians clung … to Scripture whereas the pro-Nicenes were ready to accept Scripture within the context of tradition and a broad philosophical outlook” (RH, 827). ‘Tradition’, for the pro-Nicenes, very often means the Nicene Creed (RH, 828).

While the pro-Nicenes appealed to ‘tradition’, the Arians insisted on Scripture as the only norm of faith. They “invariable demand … Scriptural proof, and … accuse the champions of Nicaea of introducing the non-Scriptural term homoousios into the creed” (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” (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” (846). “It showed the almost desperate desire of the theologians to base their doctrine on Scripture” (847).

So, both sides in the Controversy inherited and accepted the principle of sola scriptura. The difference was that the pro-Nicenes were less successful in showing that their doctrine is Biblical.

The reader may be surprised by this analysis of the fourth-century Arian Controversy because, based on information that has become available over the last about 100 years, the latest books on the subject paint a very different picture of that Controversy. Hanson states that the “conventional account of the Controversy … is … a complete travesty.”

Hanson describes the error of the pro-Nicenes as follows:

“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).

Hanson’s solution is that “the … pro-Nicenes … in forming their doctrine of God … could not possibly confine themselves to the words of Scripture” (848). He says that “to evade [avoid, dodge] the strict meaning of Scripture” what is required is “standing back from the Bible and asking what was its intention, its drift (or skopos), instead of plunging into a discussion of its details.” (849)

This article concludes that to use words that are not in the Bible is acceptable, on condition that the concepts are in the Bible. But the concept that the Son is of the same substance as (homoousios) the Father is not in the Bible and not consistent with the doctrine of sola scriptura. Protestants, therefore, should not accept the Nicene Creed.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


Purpose

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.

The purpose of this article is not to consider individual verses but to show from Hanson’s conclusions that the Arians applied the principle of sola scriptura – similar to modern Protestantism. The pro-Nicenes, on the other hand, attempted but failed to show that “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (page 846) were really to be found in Scripture.

Unless otherwise indicated, all references in this article are to pages in Hanson’s book.

Approach to Scripture

The Same Exegetical Assumptions

The first important principle that Hanson mentions is that “all parties to the controversy shared very much the same exegetical assumptions” (RH, 825). For example:

“They all expected to find direct prophecies of Christ in all parts of the Old Testament” (RH, 825).

The key-text, Proverbs 8:22 … was allowed by everybody to refer to Christ” (RH, 825).

This includes the perhaps two most famous pro-Nicenes, Hilary and Athanasius (RH, 825).

Allegory

Concerning the use of allegory, Hanson wrote:

“Almost everybody … rejected the excessive lengths to which Origen had brought the art of allegorizing. … But nobody rejected allegorization altogether.” (RH, 828-9)

“But when all is said and done, it must be conceded that the Arians are less inclined to use allegory than the pro-Nicenes” (RH, 830).

As Hanson notes, the risk of allegory is that “it tends to read meanings into the text which … are simply not present in the text” (RH, 829).

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 Arianism ‘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 mentions another area in which the pro-Nicenes did their best but failed to reconcile their doctrine with the Bible:

“We have seen several examples of similar exegetical contortions in the work of Athanasius and Hilary when they are dealing with the human limitations of Jesus Christ” (RH, 826).

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 Arians did certainly tend to regard themselves as the party who kept to the Bible in contrast to the pro-Nicenes who added to it or distorted it.” (RH, 830-1)

A Complete Travesty

Readers who are used to the conventional account of the Arian Controversy may be surprised by this analysis of the Arian Controversy. This is because, Hanson states in another article, the “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is … a complete travesty.”

Hanson begins chapter 24 by saying that, thus far in the book, he had refused to take sides. As shown below, in this chapter he does provide his personal opinion and explains why he accepts the Nicene Creed. But 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). He concludes: “The diatribes of Gwatkin and of Harnack can today be completely ignored” (page 95). These are two prominent books on the Arian Controversy that have been published around the year 1900.

As a 2001 book by Archbishop Rowan Williams (Arius, Heresy & Tradition) shows, given the new information about the fourth-century Arian Controversy that has become readily available during the 20th century, the latest books on this subject paint a very different picture of that Controversy. For example, Williams states:

“’Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy … based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius” (RW, 82).

Conclusions

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] (must be) 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)

Should a Protestant accept the Nicene Creed?

Following the principles mentioned above, Christian doctrines may be divided into the following four categories:

(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 propose that the Protestant principle of sola scriptura would only allow doctrines in the first two categories. The important point is that doctrines teaching things that are not in the Bible would not be accepted, irrespective of whether they are true or false.

The question then is, given Hanson’s analysis of the role of Scripture during the Arian Controversy, to which category should we allocate the Nicene Creed?

Since it borrows words from pagan philosophy (ousia, homoousios, hypostasis), it cannot be allocated to category 1.

Even if it uses words that are not found in the Bible, if the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is in the Bible, it should be allocated to category 2. However, Hanson admits that the pro-Nicenes failed to find this concept in the Bible:

He stated that the pro-Nicenes attempted “to read their doctrine into the Bible by hook or by crook” (848). And,

“They rack the Bible to find examples of hypostasis, and when they find it do their best to make the context appear relevant” (846).

In another article, Hanson admits that “the doctrine of the Trinity is a development” as opposed to “an interpretation of the Bible.”

Since the concept that the Son is of the same substance as the Father is not in the Bible, the Nicene Creed falls in the third category above – of doctrines saying things that are not in the Bible. It follows that the Nicene Creed is not acceptable in the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.


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