A Necessary tradition

I would like engagement in this topic mainly from protestants as I feel this is most challenging to them in proposing that there is a tradition which is not explicit to scripture but is nonetheless of necessity for the Christian who calls himself or herself “right believing.”

That is we all confess the trinity and recognise it as being found in scripture, but in a conversation with someone the other night who confessed the trinity and confessed to be a biblical Christian I asked them a simple question. Is the son of the same substance as God the father, by that I mean the classical doctrine of the trinity espoused at Nicaea, the fathers Athanasius, Basil, Gregory and more and which has more or less been settled doctrine for every church regardless of it’s opinion of other churches.

Within the conversation I could not get a straight answer to this question in the affirmative, rather I only got bible quotes and strict insistence on being loyal to the bible. Quotations regarding the son, his greatness, the father and the spirit but no answer to my actual question. I have no doubt this individual was loyal to the bible and I doubt we really disagreed on the substance of the faith, but with the refusal to admit Christ was of the same substance as the father( substance can be understood here as Ousia, not a material substance but rather that which composes an entity, i.e. the Ousia of God is perfect divinity which is eternal, all powerful, simple and unlimited and beyond material matter and purely spiritual) I have to question that person’s understanding of the trinity.

It seems to me that it is required as a matter of one’s orthodoxy, in a general sense, at the bare minimum requirement of what it requires to be called Christian. One cannot at the very least deny this proclamation of the fathers and the councils. That this has become a measuring pole for one’s trintarian beliefs; confessing there are three distinct persons (Hypostasis) who share the same substance (Ousia). I am not saying every layman needs to go into the depths of this doctrine but what church, be it lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Pentacostal, Orthodox, Oriental, Catholic and etc would tolerate someone denying the equality of the substance which is the Father’s and the son’s? None in my mind. All these, which comprise the majority of Christendom, confess it.

Yet it seems to me that this is not a biblical doctrine strictly speaking. In that we have no talk of essences or hypostasis of the father and the son and the spirit and their relation. Much less do we have any semblance of the idea of Homoousious (same substance). This isn’t to suggest the doctrine is unbiblical, clearly it is based on the bible and worked from the bible as those fathers and no doubt many protestants will contend. They worked from the scripture primarily but they came to conclusions which were not directly expressed within the word itself, rather they saw this as the substance behind the words of the Bible itself.

We can see the difference in language alone when we compare the ante Nicene fathers to the post Nicene fathers, when Christians were more concerned with systematizing their doctrine in response to Arians. The ante Nicene fathers did not so much care to define or speak like us, though their trinitarianism is brought out in the consequences of how they spoke concerning Christ being the wisdom of God and the salvation of God.

Now if my argument is true, that the bible strictly speaking doesn’t directly say but rather implies the language of same substance, and if that language is understood via interpretation and indeed with the help of a philosophical tradition, then it is not strictly speaking the scripture becoming the standard by which we judge the faith. It is the interpretation of scripture, a subsequent tradition which is clearly marked in time and not directly apostolic that has become a universal standard for Christian orthodoxy.

So, is this trinitarian tradition of understanding and interpreting the scripture necessary? Must one confess they (The Persons of the trinity) are of the same substance and not deny it? Now I will clarify my point is not to say the trinity is unbiblical (I beg no one accuse me of this), for it as a doctrine makes the best sense of the scriptures and I have no doubt the writers would confess it as we believe it today. But I only point out this, could one still be an orthodox Christian, deny they are of the same substance (Heteroousious) or say something like they were of a similar substance (Homoiousious) but then say; “I believe in One God, I also believe in the Father the son and the Holy spirit. The Father is the prime mover, the son is the very radiance of the father who the father creates and saves through, and the spirit his very energy poured out on the believer”?

From my perspective as an orthodox we are required to do two things, more or less, when entering the church, confess the creed and curse Satan. We don’t merely confess the creed because it is merely what scripture teaches, but because it is the authoritative definition of the church about God and his relationship to man.

If you force them to accept your interpretation of various verses, are you not then making the interpretation the authority instead of the word which can be potentially read otherwise? Again I am not arguing that scripture necessitates that view, but I am wondering how in the worldview of sola scriptura the trinity could ever be a necessary doctrine. I cannot conceive of it being so.

Since non-Catholic churches have varying uses of sola scriptura, their position on the creeds will vary as well. Lutheran churches kept and cherish a large deposit of tradition from the Catholic church, and our usage of sola scriptura reflects this. We use that principal as a “backstop” if you will - if a creed or doctrine is contrary to the Scriptures you must not make it dogma. A tradition can be of immense value to the life in Christ even if it is not spelled out in Scripture - Lutherans just refrain from making it mandatory.

In the case of the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, Lutherans confess these as accurate expressions of Biblical teaching - part of the ancient tradition:) of the Church.

You will find many evangelical Christians affirm the Trinity but have a hard time with explaining it since they have essentially divorced Scripture from the Creeds. That is a very sad situation indeed. As an Anglican I affirm the ecumenical Creeds of the ancient church. Many Presbyterians do too. But Baptists? Not so much

So you would maintain that we have to confess the Father, Son and Spirit are of the same substance despite the bible not explicitly saying so? My argument is not that the bible doesn’t lead to this or that it is wrong, only to suggest that this subsequent definition of theology has become the standard by which people are reckoned Christians. That is a necessary tradition of understanding which is not an option.

So how can a sola scriptura church force someone to accept that definition? Which is a product of the tradition of the church reflecting on scripture.

I would argue that we can demonstrate that the Father and the Son are of the same substance from the Scriptures. But is it possible that whomever you spoke with did not know what you meant by substance, in a Nicean sense? I’m just curious.

I’m sure they didn’t and while I’m sure you can put together your case that the father and the son are of the same substance it seems rather clear to me that it is not explicit in scripture. Rather we have to argue based on the implications of certain verses in order to arrive at our doctrine. That is there is One God in the scripture and the father and the son and the Holy spirit are God. We then ask how we preserve monotheism in these three and then we go beyond scripture saying that is in the essence of God where Monotheism lies.

What you are doing in accepting the formula Homoousious is accepting an idea which while based on the bible is not explicit to the bible. The question is then how can it be mandatory to confess it? I offered an example of someone who says they believe in One God and they believe in the father son and spirit, why is that not enough? It seems to me the authority of the church is essential in order to have a confession like this, to go beyond scripture.

Actually, it’s quite explicit in Scripture. I haven’t done any recent searching into it, however, off the top of my head I can think of Hebrews 1:3 (which uses the Greek word hypostaseos). Most translations use substance in this passage.

Arians can interpret that in light of their own doctrine mind you as could any modalist. Which is my point, you interpret this differently, why should your interpretation be the standard by which someone’s orthodoxy is judged? Is that possible? It doesn’t seem to me explicit from that one verse alone that the son is the same substance as the father, rather the express image of his person is the phrase used. We build a much complicated case in proving Christ divine from the scriptures than from one verse alone.

Your best bet there would be to see St. Athanasius’ very long responses to the Arians when they attempted to use passages of Scripture to confirm their own doctrine. Since there was no Nicene Creed at the time Athanasius’ was engaging in those early debates, you can bet he didn’t appeal to the Nicene Creed as an authoritative interpretation of the biblical text.

I’m pretty sure, since he was a deacon at the time of the council, that he wrote after the Nicene creed was formulated (Could be wrong as I’m going from memory). In fact he was one of its chief defendants. But that’s precisely my point. Why should the Arians have been kicked out of the church or deemed heretical for a different understanding scripture than the party that came to dominate and its theology took precedence? If scripture is the standard by which we must appeal to and tradition while helpful is in an ultimate sense unnecessary or not in of itself an expression of truth, why do we have to confess the creed either directly or by attesting to its substance as most protestants who reject creeds do?

I’m well aware of the fathers who appealed to scripture, I read them constantly but what did they have to do? They had to think about things that weren’t really thought about before. Preserving monotheism, making sense of the salvation which Jesus offers. could that salvation be real salvation if Christ was not fully God? The begotten son of God? God from God? Light from Light? They also had influences more than the scripture, a philosophical tradition, Origen and the fathers before them (basil is quite insistent on the fathers before him being a standard in particular). They had to theologize and in the course of the debate they triumphed and became the standard for all of western and eastern Christianity judges by.

Here is where I see the conflict between the sola scriptura model. That it seems to me their theological reflections, even if you agree with them, cannot be the standard by which Christianity judges. It must be the scriptuire. But you cannot read the scripture without interpreting and thinking upon it. You will in course of reading it ultimately be forced to define positions or leave things vague and can any defined position which results out of the collective or individual thinking of people be a standard which cannot be contradicted? If we view the bible alone as the ultimate standard it cannot. I asked a question before, could one be orthodox and say: “I believe in God, but the son is not the same substance as the father. Rather there is One God and there is the Father the son and the spirit. If I choose not to define this theology who are you to force Homousious on me? A phrase not in the sacred word.”

The only way around is to say that the bible directly attests to the doctrine of the trinity in a clear an unambiguous form. That doesn’t seem the case to me. In my discussions with Arians and people who deny the divinity of Christ they have a totally different understanding of those verses. I am not saying they are equally valid, they are not. They are wrong. How do I know they are wrong? Because the church has said they are wrong. The scriptures also say they are wrong, even if they misinterpret every verse in them. The thing is, the scripture cannot speak for itself sometimes. There are required the Gregory Naziansus’ and and Athanasius’ of the world in order to correct falsehood.

I believe that the doctrine of the trinity is shown in scripture and I believe that Jesus is one in essence with the Father. I don’t believe, though, that one must have this particular understanding of the trinity to be saved. The bible states that we must have faith in Christ as our savior to be saved. Most christians believe in the trinity because that’s what they were taught, but wouldn’t be able to go through the scriptures, and extract and blend all the verses which are used to bring about that conclusion. It’s apparent that most of the early christians did not understand the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That’s why I’m not into denominations. They put together a list of the way they interpret certain doctrines and don’t allow for any freedom for their members to study the scriptures with an open mind, and maybe come come up with a more convincing interpretation. God looks at the heart of a person–how sincerely he believes in him, loves him and follows him. I assume we won’t have to pass a test on doctrine before we are allowed to enter the pearly gates.

Many Catholics have a hard time explaining the Trinity as well, due to the Trinity being God. God is tough to really explain because He’s quite beyond words. All we can be certain about God is what has been revealed about Him.

That being said, I think it comes down mostly to language. To be honest I don’t really hear the word “substance” being thrown around much in my Church, or other Evangelical Churches. For the most part we use the word “persons” to define the Trinity. Three distinct persons, One God.

The issue with trying to define the Trinity is that we want to be very clear that there is only One God. Just One. We don’t want to leave any confusion.

So when a layperson walks in and asks about the Trinity and we use a vocabulary with words like substance, persons, natures, etc, it is confusing. What’s even more confusing is when we start using Greek and Latin words. Not all newbies to Christianity are scholars.

So in the end, there’s One God; and God has chosen to reveal His Son, who is also fully God, but had to come to Earth fully human to complete the will of God and be the ultimate sacrifice. While we say that Jesus is not the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit Jesus or the Father, we believe in One God, revealed in different natures.

God is big, beyond our comprehension, and therefore His definitions are complicated.

Indeed, i am not requiring all Christians confess a specific knowledge of the doctrine, indeed many don’t while holding to a basic outline of the doctrine itself which is sufficient. But It seems to me at the very least we cannot deny that understanding which was coined by these fathers in particular.

Again the doctrine is biblical, but its specific form in which it is defined really is not. What I am arguing is that the bible points to the substance of the doctrine behind its words, it doesn’t directly tell us that doctrine like say, Jesus being the reason man can be saved. But I find interesting that you don’t like denominations and yet you agree with the creed and the basic statement of Christianity that the persons share the same substance in the trinity.

Would you accept someone who doesn’t hold to the same substance as a fellow Christian? Not someone who doesn’t understand it fully, but rather someone who directly goes against that traditional teaching? Would they still be a Christian in your eyes?

If that person believed Jesus was the son of God–the savior, that he was saved through his atoning sacrifice and had given his life to Jesus, then I would consider that a person a christian brother or sister. I don’t believe that one must see it that particular way in order to be a christian. I think that a more concise understanding of doctrine is important as we mature in our christian lives, but some people don’t mature in that way as much as others. I’m into understanding scripture to the fullest. Others may not be, but they are heavily into serving others’ physical needs or some other facet of the christian life.

I’ve pondered these questions the same as you have and understand you’re reasoning. My take on it is that once we become followers of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth of salvation. The scriptures verify the divinity of Jesus and other fundamental truths. If a person gains a different understanding from them, then I don’t believe they’re in the Spirit. I feel that God reveals first what we need to become his followers, then gradually opens up the more obscure truths as we seek after him. Some christians achieve more understanding than others because they seek him more intensely.

I think it would be helpful to go back and re-read post #2. If you’re considering Lutheranism to be a “sola scriptura church,” (I don’t know whether you are or aren’t, but since it’s really their slogan…) then you’ve simply misunderstood sola scriptura. It’s best to try to understand each specific Christian historical tradition on its own terms and not throw everything into a sola scriptura blender.

Each Christian historical tradition draws a different border around what they consider to be valid church teaching/Tradition, or to use an often misunderstood Catholic word, “magisterium”. For example, just because Luther asserted that popes and councils can err and have erred doesn’t mean that he was asserting that they’ve all erred.

I agree with this, but only if you mean we canNOT have a contradicting understanding of the creed’s definition of the Trinity.

The bible states that we must have faith in Christ as our savior to be saved.

The Bible says this for sure, but the Bible expresses what saving faith is in quite alot more depth. For example, Jesus Teaches, in His own words, those who will be saved will be the ones who, after He Himself judges their deeds, He has found love for one another and the Will of the Father.

Most christians believe in the trinity because that’s what they were taught, but wouldn’t be able to go through the scriptures, and extract and blend all the verses which are used to bring about that conclusion.

Most Christians do not believe in Scripture Alone, meaning most Christians don’t believe Scripture alone expicitly defines the Holy Trinity. Yet, most Christians believe Scripture is able to lead to our repentance and salvation and that God is a Father who manifests Himself in Jesus and their Holy Spirit.

It’s apparent that most of the early christians did not understand the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That’s definitely NOT apparent to me. The doctrinal definitions of the Trinity were not to reveal something new, but to Confirm what was revealed to His Church from the Apostolic Ministry. They were as much of a defense against false teachings as a Teaching for the faithfull.

I assume we won’t have to pass a test on doctrine before we are allowed to enter the pearly gates. I agree. Our test will be our works, no matter how much we know, or don’t know about the mysteries of God. But knowledge of God is knowing His mercy and desire to be profoundly united to Him through faith. This knowledge should never be shunned.


I would like to congratulate you on having the longest post that I have ever read straight through. Normally when I read long posts I see “blahblahblah … something important… blah blahblah…”, but yours was concise. :thumbsup:

I tend to agree with lek on this one. I would completely agree if he changed “early christians” to young christians. I also agree with dronald.

Granting that lutherans view tradition as “helpful” “useful” and “important” how have I misunderstood sola scriptura? Could a lutheran say in good conscience that tradition is as necessary as the bible? Could any protestant for that matter? I don’t think so. If I have that wrong I would like to hear the justification and explanation. However if I understand sola scriptura, i understand it thus: the view that scripture is the highest authority above any tradition. That if tradition should contradict the clear word of God, then we must prefer scripture over men, despite how many in the past and currently agree with it. Do I have it wrong?

The question is this, is it necessary to confess something beyond scripture, ie the Homoousious doctrine concering Christ and the father. The automatic response is “Yes because it’s found in scripture,” and then you proceed to interpret a variety of verses which would imply and make more sense in this framework. Yet the fact remains the term isn’t used in scripture and the scripture on this point can and has been interpreted in any number of ways.

How does a sola scriptura church, require belief in this doctrine of the trinity, when the specific definition of it is not found in the scripture? Is the trinity a necessary tradition of understanding the scripture? Something while relying on scripture is nonetheless outside of the canon of scripture? Something which took time to develop (and this cannot be disputed when we look at the history)?

That’s a fair statement but its good to consider just how vague the idea Jesus being the son of God is. What does he being saviour mean? Just how does the father relate to the son? Is the Son God? I’m not condemning you but I look at Christianity from the perspective of Nicaea, that is my tradition, the tradition of Athanasius, Basil and many others.

It seems to me that while it is good to believe Jesus is the saviour the son of God, it is even better to believe and understand just how great of a saviour he is. That being God, he became incarnate, the ineffable entering into Creation for the sake of the created, to not only atone and pay the price of sins but to forever join man to God and show the human and divine can be united.

I suppose my question is addressed more to the protestant who has a more acute knowledge of the doctrine of the trinity. That this is not mere theoretical knowledge for merely the sake of intellectual fulfilment, but that it puts our entire lives in the context of the God who became man. That is why I find this theology absolutely necessary.

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