Debunking the Protestant “T” word: An edifying tale, part I

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon of the First Council of Nicea

Once in a while I get to talk to a group of Protestants about one of our shibboleths, the “T word”–that is, tradition. And I make the case that tradition is not the sort of extra- and anti-biblical “rules of man” thing that they think it is. It’s not “stuff added to the Scripture to which the consciences of good Christians have been bound by an evil hierarchical church.”

In fact, tradition has been for 2,000 years the stuff of the faith of quite possibly the majority of world Christians. And it was the stuff of the faith of almost every Christian not just before the Reformation, but right through the Reformation, including the thought and commitments of Luther, Calvin, and other great Reformers. Calvin’s Institutes are full of footnotes to the church fathers. Why do that if Scripture is your only authority and is perfectly clear on all matters? Because the teachers of the historic church are a great resource. They are “the tradition,” passed down to all generations, which acts as a hermeneutical aid to the understanding of Scripture and of all things Christian. The confessional documents of 16th and 17th-century Protestantism likewise functioned as a tradition–a help and guide when confronting the complexities and ambiguities of the Christian Bible.

In short, “Sola Scriptura” for the Reformers meant, not Scripture read without the aid of any wise teachers from the past, but Scripture as final, ultimate, norming authority, read with the aid of “the tradition,” insofar as that tradition did not seem to contradict the sense of Scripture and did not add to Scripture.

I like to enter the topic of tradition through a story about a key event in the early church. This was a 4th-century event which, though most Protestants don’t know it, still shapes their belief today, on the vital matter of the nature of God as Trinity. Here is part I of my talk on the “T” word and the Council of Nicea:

The Council of Nicea and the “T” word

Today we’re going to talk about one of the crucial events of the church’s first few centuries, and how it relates to the “T” word that makes Protestants uncomfortable—that is, “Tradition.” I hope by looking at the first general council of the church, held at Nicea in Asia Minor in 325 A.D., we’ll see two things: First, how tradition—that is, the faithful gathering around Scripture to interpret it and pass on its truth—is important, even to modern Protestants. And second, how God works in very human processes to guarantee that his truth will live on in his church.

In this season of overheated political rhetoric, it’s worth remembering: Everything is politics, but politics isn’t everything. And when we talk about “tradition,” including Christian tradition, we’ve unavoidably entered the realm of politics. What is tradition? Tradition is what the church has decided to hand down (the word means “to hand down”!) as the authentic, apostolic truth. Has that process of “handing down” been a transparently divine process, where the church reached instant unanimity in their decisions, shared the kiss of peace, and went home rejoicing? If you’ve seen any group of people involved in a decision-making process, you’ll have a pretty good picture of the early church councils, where some of our key beliefs—like the Trinity and the two natures of Christ—were clarified from Scripture. There were special interest lobbies. There were power plays. There were noses that got out of joint. There were probably even the ancient equivalent of negative ads! In short, the momentous event in the early church that I’m going to try to unfold for you now was just as political as any election race. But . . . but . . . though everything is politics, politics isn’t everything. I hope you’ll sense that the Holy Spirit was at work in these events, too.

Today we’re going to talk a bit about the very first council of the whole church, East and West, to decide a major matter of Christian doctrine. The question on the table was whether Jesus Christ, the Son, is just as divine as the Father. Though we now take this belief for granted, it was by no means obvious to every early Christian. Their religion, after all, had arisen out of the fiercely monotheistic faith of the Hebrews, who had died by the thousands to protect their right to worship only One God. So how could Christians, who said they worshipped that same God, now affirm that their faith’s central figure, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, was an equal member of a Trinity that includes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

To most of us, the Trinity may seem an obvious fact. But, again, it wasn’t obvious to many Christians in 325 A.D., when the Council of Nicea was convened to discuss the matter. No, in the years leading up to the council, in the leading Eastern imperial city of Alexandria, Egypt, a huge conflict had arisen at the popular level over the nature of Jesus’ divinity. The rival parties scrawled graffiti on walls, wrote nasty pamphlets, launched lawsuits and countersuits, rioted in the streets, and even engaged in a sort of “singing gang war” around the dockyards of this major trading city. I’m not kidding! One gang was singing a popular song about how there was a time when the Son did not exist (in other words, he was a “creature,” a created being like us). The other posse sang about how the Son always existed—he was divine just like the Father. This was politics at its most basic: grass-roots agitation through “rap music.”

Again, we may have a vague and idealistic view of what those early councils were like. Certainly, in retrospect, the Council of Nicaea seems a mountain in the landscape of the early church. But for those involved, it was more like an emergency meeting forced on hostile parties by the Roman emperor, designed to stop an internal fight. And in fact, the council didn’t even stop that fight—which continued until the next council, at Constantinople, in 381. After Nicea, many of the same bishops who had signed its creed appeared at other councils, often reversing their previous decisions for political reasons. Not clarity but controversy marked their decision-making process, and at times it threatened the very unity of both the church and the empire.

This article is continued in “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ Word part II: How to spot a heresy,” “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ Word part III: What was the beef at Nicea?,” “,” and “.”

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