This article is continued from “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word: An edifying tale, part I,“ “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 “Debunking the Protestant “T” word part IV: How sausage was made.”
So now in conclusion: Some of you may be inclined to say: “All I need is my Bible, and I know everything about God and Jesus and salvation that I need to know.” I hope you’ll see the moral of this story about the Council of Nicea. The doctrine of the Trinity—that is, the doctrine that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all uncreated, all co-eternal, all equal in divinity—is, in one sense, all over the Bible. But in another, very literal sense, the Trinity is never mentioned even once in the Bible. Nor is the exact nature and relationship of the “two natures of Christ”—his divine nature and his human nature. Those were clarified at later councils. Nor will you find in the Bible every detail of the right way to run a church—including church government, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and so much more. (That’s why there are so many denominations!) Nor, of course, does the Bible contain instructions about what job each of you should take, or who you should marry.
You can and should ask the Bible each of those kinds of questions. But it’s not a great idea to just ask the Bible. In fact, I’d put it this strongly: The bigger your question, the more important it is that you check your interpretation against those of other wise, discerning Christians. And on the very biggest questions—the questions at the heart of our faith—it is absolutely essential that you refer to that “T” word that makes Protestants so uncomfortable. I mean the church’s historical Tradition. Early bishops. Early councils. Important documents describing early worship and church discipline, like the Didache or the Apostolic Constitutions. Or if you don’t personally check those teachers and documents, you’d better hope your leaders have done so. Otherwise, how do you know you haven’t got hold of something that sounds fine and Biblical, but in fact is a partial truth . . . just partial enough to be seriously wrong?
At this point, some of you with a little historical knowledge (which, like any other form of knowledge, is a dangerous thing) will be saying: Aha! But the Protestant Reformers didn’t do that! They believed in the principle of Sola Scriptura—the notion that the Bible is our only authority. Calvin and Luther didn’t go running to the church fathers and the early documents to make sure that what they were teaching was right, did they??
Well, as a matter of fact, they did. For example, in John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, you’ll find hundreds of references to the writings of early Christians—the so-called “church fathers.” When Calvin, Luther, and the rest talked about Sola Scriptura, they most certainly did not mean that the church ought to pitch out the window all of the teachings of its wisest scholars, pastors, and bishops since the days of the apostles. They did not mean “Nuda Scriptura”—the Bible naked, by itself; just you and the Bible in a room, alone, with no guidance on how to interpret it. They meant that Scripture was the most important authority—the final authority. They meant that if you find someone teaching something that doesn’t square with the testimony of the whole canon of Scripture, you’d better beware. But they didn’t indulge in the kind of individualistic, rationalist mode of Bible reading that unfortunately so many evangelicals practice today.
Is everything we read in Scripture straightforward? Do we know how every bit fits with every other bit? No. Let’s be honest! Some parts, on the face of them, need more interpretation than others. So it’s crucial to understand that when we read the Bible, we do so as part of a 2,000-year-old conversation about what all its bits mean in relation to each other and in relation to human life: past, present, and future. It is the same conversation that those bishops entered when they sat down at the emperor’s summer palace some 1700 years ago to try to understand the Bible’s witness on the relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father. That’s what we mean by Tradition. And even we Protestants need it!