Blogging the Institutes | 1.13.5 | Different Terms; Same Truth

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

Different Terms; Same Truth

If the various theological terms that have been coined over the years were not invented rashly, then we need to be careful not to hastily discard them. I actually wish that some of the terms could be buried if everyone agreed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, and that the Son is not the Father, and the Spirit is not the Son. I don’t want to argue over terms. The church fathers were consistent in writing about the truth, but they weren’t always consistent in the terms they used. The terms used by the various ecumenical councils and defended by Hilary are somewhat strange! St. Augustine’s views are extravagant sometimes! How different are the Greeks and the Latins!

Let’s look at one example. The Latin church translates the word homoousios as consubstantialis (consubstantial). They meant that the Son and Father were one substance, having substituted the word “substance” or “essence.” Jerome, in his letter to Damasus, claims that it is profane to affirm three substances in God. But in Hilary, he mentions over one hundred times that God is three substances. Jerome is greatly confused by the word Hypostatis! He believes there is something sinister in saying that there are three Hypostases in God. He truly believes that such an expression is not right. He did hate the Eastern bishops, though, so it’s hard to know if he said this because he really believed it or just wanted to make them seem suspect. He asserts that ousia means Hypostatis (substance). But such an assertion is easily refuted by looking at the word’s common use.

Augustine is more moderate. He says that although the term Hypostatis is new to Latin ears, he is tolerant to its usage. Socrates, in his Sixth Book of the Tripartite history, says the term had been improperly applied by the unskillful. Because of his struggle with heretics, Hilary felt he needed to introduce new terms but apologizes for doing so. After he writes about the Father, Son, and Spirit, he admits that all further inquiry into who God is transcends words, the use of our human abilities, and even our minds. In another place, he congratulates the Bishop of France for not writing a new confession of faith but merely receiving the ancient confession of the church. Augustine says something similar: the term had been taken out of the realm of mere human experience and applied to God to try to express something which our minds cannot fully grasp.

The examples of the church father should be warning to us not to criticize right away those who deviate from term which we come up with provided they don’t reject the terms out of pride and also consider that new terms may have been needed to be coined. Mere acceptance of the terms does not necessarily mean somewhat does not follow Arius or Sabellius. Arisu will say, “Christ is God.” But then he will say that the Son was made and had a beginning. He will say that Christ is one with the Father but then whisper that Christ was “made one” with God, just like us albeit with special privileges.  But if you use the term “consubstantial” you will immediately rip off his mask and expose his heresy. Sabellius will say that Father, Son, and Spirit will indicate some distinction within God. If you say that God is three, then he will cry out that you are making three gods! But if you say that there is a, “Trinity of persons in one divine essence,” you will express in one word what Scripture says and shut him up!

If some object to these terms, they will not be able to deny that when “one” is spoken of is means a unity of substance. When “three” is spoken of in one essence, it means the three persons of the Trinity. When the church confesses these truths without equivocating, then we don’t have to dwell long on the terms. But I have learned my lesson over the years that those who claim wrangle over terms usually have some ulterior motive. Therefore, it’s wise to provoke them to object to the terms so we know exactly what we’re dealing with.

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