‘Substance’? ‘Hypostasis’? But Those Words are Un-Biblical!

MostHolyTrinityStudying church doctrine can be a challenging endeavor for many of us, even those of us with a deep knowledge of Scripture and a desire to grow deeper in the faith. One issue that comes up frequently for students of a more Biblicist bent is: why all of those goofy, non-biblical words?

I mean, if you’re not familiar with, say, trinitarian theology you end up with all kinds of Greek and Latin words like ‘substance’ or ‘hypostasis’, ‘persona’, and later on, ‘perichoresis’, and so forth. They start to make sense once you’ve read someone explain them about 20 times. Thing is, though, most of those words don’t show up in our translations of the Bible, and when they’re there, they seem to be used in different ways. Or, heck, the word ‘trinity’ doesn’t show up at all. Shouldn’t we be ‘biblical’ in the way that we speak and think of God? How can we do so with terminology taken from surrounding Greek and Latin philosophy and thought?

Calvin tells us that he wrote the Institutes partially so that he wouldn’t have to go into extended doctrinal discussions in his commentaries. Welp, that didn’t really slow him down from writing 4 or 5 pages on John 1:1, expositing the text and defending it from various heretics old (Sabellian, Arian), and new (Servetus.) In the middle of this fascinating discussion, he touches on the issue of non-biblical language.

Now, conservative Reformer that he is, not given to excess or speculation, you might think he would want to do away with all of this jargony mess. Thankfully, he was smarter than that:

I have already remarked that we ought to be sober in thinking, and modest in speaking, about such high mysteries. And yet the ancient writers of the Church were excusable, when, finding that they could not in any other way maintain sound and pure doctrine in opposition to the perplexed and ambiguous phraseology of the heretics, they were compelled to invent some words, which after all had no other meaning than what is taught in the Scriptures. They said that there are three Hypostases, or Subsistences, or Persons, in the one and simple essence of God. The word; ὑπόστασις (Hypostasis) occurs in this sense in Hebrews 1:3, to which corresponds the Latin word Substantia, (substance) as it is employed by Hilary. The Persons (τὰ πρόσωπα) were called by them distinct properties in God, which present themselves to the view of our minds; as Gregory Nazianzen says, “I cannot think of the One (God) without having the Three (Persons) shining around me.”

–Commentary on John 1:1

He points out what Fathers like Athanasius and Augustine had before him: heretics can use ‘Biblical’ language too and use it in ‘ambiguous’, ‘perplexed’, and non-Biblical ways. For that reason, the Fathers were compelled to take language and deploy new words in order to save the meaning of the Biblical record. These were new words used to say more clearly in a foggy and confused time, what Scripture was saying. They did not do this at random or haphazardly. Nor did were they careless to leave undefined, or distinguish the sense in which they used the term from other possible senses.

I think it was N.T. Wright who somewhere used Copernicus as an analogy: say Copernicus had never given a term to his system at which the sun was the center of the universe instead of the earth, and 200 years later someone came along and dubbed it ‘heliocentric.’ Have they misrepresented Copernicus by using that new term that he did not? By no means. They simply gave it a new name in order to keep it clear. In the same way, the Fathers of the Church, guided by the Spirit, in conformity with the Word, developed ways of speaking that preserve and protect the content of Scripture even when not directly drawn from it.

This is the truth that Calvin recognizes and calls us to appreciate here. For that, thoughtful students and spiritual descendants ought to be humbly grateful: both for the work of early teachers like the Fathers, as well as for faithful preservers of the tradition like Calvin.

Soli Deo Gloria 

For more similar thoughts check out:

B.B. Warfield on the ‘Unbiblical’ Doctrine of the Trinity
Vanhoozer and Calvin on the Creeds and Scripture