Blog 21: 1.13.4 - 1.13. 7

Rick Phillips

Having defended the use of technical theological language as an aid to our understanding of Scriptural doctrines like the Trinity, Calvin in 1.13.4 argues that accurate theological terminology helps us to "unmask false teachers."  Precise terminology nails us down as to what we are really saying, with the effect that false teachers are unable to "evade [truth] by their shifts."  In characteristically colorful language, Calvin points out that "these slippery snakes glide away unless they are boldly pursued, caught, and crushed."  Calvin could hardly speak in a more timely way for us, since false teachers today hate nothing more than the confessional theology of the church.  Why?  Because it requires them to state their teachings plainly, affirming or denying clear propositions.  Calvin points out that it was only this approach that enabled the early church to nail down the evasions of Arius and defeat his heresy.  Despite the complaints that such an approach enshrines human formulas over God's Word, the reality is that only by means of clear confessional theology is the church able to defend the truth of Scripture.

Calvin then cautions lest we should be overly devoted to mere words, when it is the truth of the ideas that really matters.  Terminology must be a servant of truth, never the master.  Thus, in 1.13.5, Calvin relates how numerous orthodox theologians of the early church wrestled in their varied approach to terminology, but who because of the orthodoxy of their ideas were able to come to eventual accord.  Remembering that our definitions are more apt for guarding against error than in containing all truth, we avoid a wrongly severity in our devotion to terminology.  Everyone who engages in theological dispute should be obliged to read this paragraph of Calvin's for the wealth of wisdom it contains. 

Calvin then, in 1.13.6, specifies his own terminology in treating the Trinity, informing us that for him "subsistence" correlates to the three divine Persons, while "essence" refers to the one divine "being".  Each subsistence (person) shares the same essence (being), while possessing individual qualities that differentiates itself from the other subsistences.  Thus the word "God" is applied equally to all three persons of the Godhead, while each of the persons is distinctively and uniquely Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. 

Turning to focus on the eternal deity of the Son in 1.13.7, Calvin begins by appeal to John's description of God the Son as "the Word" in John 1:1-3.  Since Genesis 1 tells us that God created all things by his Word, and since John tells us that that divine Word in creation was personified in God's Son, we must therefore agree that Christ is coequal with God in eternity and divinity.  Here we see Calvin practicing the very procedure he earlier applauded: sorting carefully through the Scriptural data so as to detect theological statements that can properly affirm truth.