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.

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).

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.

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).


With respect to allegory, Hanson says:

“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).


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 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)

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)

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 fourfold:

(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?

(c) And, consequently, would the Nicene Creed be acceptable within the principle of sola Scriptura?

(d) In another article, Hanson claims that the Trinity doctrine, although not in the Bible, is the inevitable consequence of other principles that are in the Bible, namely, of monotheism and the worship of Jesus. If that is correct, would the Trinity doctrine be acceptable given the principle of sola scriptura?

  • 3
    This would be a good question for the Christianity Stack Exchange. This Stack Exchange focuses on questions about the Bible.
    – David D
    Jan 6 at 15:10
  • The principle of "sola Scriptura" has been much debated - it evolved considerably between Luther and Wesley. Calvin never really used it but based much of his ideas on Greek logic, philosophy and tradition. I suggest you look at Wesley's more nuanced explanation of these ideas - those of Athanasius and Arius were too simplistic and still too muddied by Greek philosophy.
    – Dottard
    Jan 6 at 19:45
  • 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.
    – Dottard
    Jan 6 at 19:49
  • 1
    There should be no objection to the first category you name among adherents to sola scriptura. Beyond that, it's a matter of private interpretation. Even using words that the Bible does not use can mean that one is not interpreting the Bible correctly. For example, many claim that "Trinity" is taught in the Bible, even though the word itself is not there. But is it? In fact, the Bible does not teach the Trinity dogma--that comes strictly from tradition and the interpretation of the Nicaean Council of AD 325 along with that of Constantinople in AD 381.
    – Biblasia
    Jan 7 at 1:51
  • 1
    @Jesse - I have placed an answer to the question of CSE.
    – Dottard
    Jan 9 at 1:34

1 Answer 1


Even in sola scriptura attitude it is impossible to avoid the principles that are presupposed before even taking the scriptura for consideration, even if we do not name those principles with philosophical jargon. For example, the principle of non contradiction is presupposed in discussion of any meaningful text or event.

Thus, in a question "should we give coin to Caesar or not?" is implied the principle of non-contradiction, for it is impossible to do both giving and non-giving simultaneously. Therefore, if, say, Nicaeans would have hypothetically posited as one of the statute of the Council, say a 358th statute, that "The Bible adheres to the principle of non-contradiction", even if the term "principle of non-contradiction" (Αρχή της μη αντίφασης) is nowhere found in Bible, it will be utterly preposterous to say that the 358th virtual Nicaean statute is non-Biblical.

Moreover, if one aspires to explain Bible through Bible, without a recourse to a plain logic and common sense, unavoidably stupidities and chaotic contradictions driving man's mind to a schizophrenia ("split-mind" literally) will follow. For instance, one exegete will say that Bible implies not-killing by "you shall not kill", and another exegete will say that, on the contrary, God orders to kill even helpless people whose fighters are ready to surrender and offer a ransom, like in the case of Saul, who defied this order of God and was deprived kingship as a retribution for this defiance. Who will be right? A third exegete who would say that God changes His mind on this issue from time to time?

Revelation never abolishes common sense but supplements it, and since common sense is best expressed with a technical language in Greek philosophic tradition, then Revelation and philosophy should necessarily be united, whatever solascripturist may say in opposition, for they also will lay down their opposite thoughts in a philosophical language and dialectical terms, which is unavoidable.

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