Calvin argues in this section of the Institutes for the necessity of employing theological terminology as it relates particularly to the doctrine of the Trinity in the context of this section (as that was the larger subject he was addressing), so as to establish the orthodox doctrine against heretical views of the Trinity (Sabellianism, Modalism, i.e. modern day example: Oneness Pentecostals such as T.D. Jakes’ ministry). And yet at the same time he gives warning to those who would go too far in minutely looking for a heretic under every rock where a mere word wasn’t used, employed by men, but press people for what they mean and see if it is orthodox. I believe people will find this to be a very balanced perspective on the subject of the employment of theological terminology.
The terms Calvin uses as examples, in our day at least, are probably not the best examples for the average person. You don’t have to know what they mean right now to understand what he’s trying to communicate, just go with it. But he still makes his point, arguing from church history that terms are important in one sense (for distinguishing meaning and beliefs), and yet in another sense they are not important (and even explains at the very beginning of this section how he wishes we didn’t have to use them at all), that so long as people are believing orthodox truth, the term itself is unimportant. It’s the content of the teaching/belief/doctrine that matters. Unfortunately though, because of heresy and the number of errors that abound in opposition to Biblcal truth, put forward by Satan, terminology for stated beliefs is one of those “necessary evils,” so to speak, that we must make use of to combat the errors.
Many would do well to listen and apply what Calvin has to say concerning this, namely, if someone doesn’t like a label or particular title, you can defend it’s use in order to distinguish the belief from other doctrines that are unbiblical. But don’t bludgeon people over the head with a mere label as if they don’t believe it if they don’t take the label itself. Just ask people to explain what they mean and what they believe concerning a particular doctrine. I believe this could adequately apply to the use of the term Calvinism: I believe that it should be used to distinguish against the Arminian understanding of how we are saved, and should itself be studied to see how rich are the blessings that are ours through the work of Christ. Yet at the same time, if someone doesn’t want the label, that’s fine, so long as they adhere to it’s doctrinal content and study it’s truth intently in the Scriptures.
Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence.
I am not so minutely precise as to fight furiously for mere words. For I observe, that the writers of the ancient Church, while they uniformly spoke with great reverence on these matters, neither agreed with each other, nor were always consistent with themselves. How strange the formula used by Councils, and defended by Hilary! How extravagant the view which Augustine sometimes takes! How unlike the Greeks are to the Latins!
But let one example of variance suffice. The Latins, in translating “homo-ousios” used “consubstantialis” (consubstantial,) intimating that there was one substance of the Father and the Son, and thus using the word Substance for Essence. Hence Jerome, in his Letter to Damasus, says it is profane to affirm that there are three substances in God. But in Hilary you will find it said more than a hundred times that there are three substances in God. Then how greatly is Jerome perplexed with the word Hypostasis! He [Jerome] suspects some lurking poison, when it is said that there are three Hypostases in God. And he does not disguise his belief that the expression, though used in a pious sense, is improper; if, indeed, he was sincere in saying this, and did not rather designedly endeavour, by an unfounded calumny, to throw odium on the Eastern bishops whom he hated. He certainly shows little candour in asserting, that in all heathen schools “ousia” is equivalent to Hypostasis – an assertion completely refuted by trite and common use.
More courtesy and moderation is shown by Augustine, (DeTrinity. lib. 5 c. 8 and 9,) who, although he says that Hypostasis in this sense is new to Latin ears, is still so far from objecting to the ordinary use of the term by the Greeks, that he is even tolerant of the Latins, who had imitated the Greek phraseology. The purport of what Socrates says of the term, in the Sixth Book of the Tripartite History, is, that it had been improperly applied to this purpose by the unskillful.
Hilary (De Trinitat. lib. 2) charges it upon the heretics as a great crime, that their misconduct had rendered it necessary to subject to the peril of human utterance things which ought to have been reverently confined within the mind, not disguising his opinion that those who do so, do what is unlawful, speak what is ineffable, and pry into what is forbidden. Shortly after, he apologises at great length for presuming to introduce new terms. For, after putting down the natural names of Father, Son, and Spirit, he adds, that all further inquiry transcends the significance of words, the discernment of sense, and the apprehension of intellect. And in another place, (De Conciliis,) he congratulates the Bishops of France in not having framed any other confession, but received, without alteration, the ancient and most simple confession received by all Churches from the days of the Apostles. Not unlike this is the apology of Augustine, that the term had been wrung from him by necessity from the poverty of human language in so high a matter: not that the reality could be thereby expressed, but that he might not pass on in silence without attempting to show how the Father, Son, and Spirit, are three.
The modesty of these holy men should be an admonition to us not instantly to dip our pen in gall, and sternly denounce those who maybe unwilling to swear to the terms which we have devised, provided they do not in this betray pride, or petulance, or unbecoming heat, but are willing to ponder the necessity which compels us so to speak, and may thus become gradually accustomed to a useful form of expression.
Let men also studiously beware, that in opposing the Arians on the one hand, and the Sabellians on the other, and eagerly endeavouring to deprive both of any handle for cavil, they do not bring themselves under some suspicion of being the disciples of either Arius or Sabellius. Arius says that Christ is God, and then mutters that he was made and had a beginning. He says, that he is one with the Father; but secretly whispers in the ears of his party, made one, like other believers, though with special privilege. Say, he is consubstantial, and you immediately pluck the mask from this chameleon, though you add nothing to Scripture. Sabellius says that the Father, Son, and Spirit, indicate some distinction in God. Say, they are three, and he will bawl out that you are making three Gods. Say, that there is a Trinity of Persons in one Divine essence, you will only express in one word what the Scriptures say, and stop his empty prattle.
Should any be so superstitiously precise as not to tolerate these terms, still do their worst, they will not be able to deny that when one is spoken of, a unity of substance must be understood , and when three in one essence, the persons in this Trinity are denoted. When this is confessed without equivocations we dwell not on words. But I was long ago made aware, and, indeed, on more than one occasion, that those who contend pertinaciously about words [I assume he means both those who rigidly adhere to terms and those on the other end of the spectrum who rigidly oppose them] are tainted with some hidden poison; and, therefore, that it is more expedient to provoke them purposely, than to court their favour by speaking obscurely.