Our next installment in our series from Zacharias Ursinus’s teaching on the doctrine of God (see also part 1 and part 2) is his defense of the traditional theological explanation against the detractors of his day. You will notice that the Reformed churches were opposed by the “biblicists” of their day. Ursinus does respond by defending the tradition, but he does so not merely for the sake of tradition but because he believes the tradition as received is itself biblical. ~.ed
IS IT PROPER THAT THE CHURCH SHOULD RETAIN THE TERMS, ESSENCE, PERSON, AND TRINITY?
Heretics, formerly, already opposed the use of these terms, because they are not found in the Scriptures. We, however, correctly retain the form of speech used by the church in her early and purer days, by holding fast to these terms:
- Because, although they are not found in the Scriptures in the very same syllables, yet words and forms of speech of very close affinity and similarity, yea, such as certainly signify the same thing, are found in the Scriptures; as where it is said, for instance, in Ex. 3:14, “I AM that I AM: he said, thus shalt thou say, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Again, it cannot be denied that the name Jehovah corresponds with the word Essence. So the word Hypostasis is used for person in the Epistle to the Hebrews 1:3, “Who being the express image of his person.” Neither does the church call the persons, the Trinity, in any other sense than that in which John says, “There are three that bear witness in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” (1 John 5:7.)
The object of interpretation requires that the words of Scripture should be expounded to those less learned by other words signifying the same thing and taken from common use; otherwise, all interpretation would be taken away, if no words but such as are found in the Scriptures were used. It is proper, therefore, that the church should invent and use such forms of speech as express significantly the sense of Scripture, and her own understanding of it.
Because the frauds and sophisms of heretics, which they generally attempt to cover with the words of Scripture, are the more easily discerned and detected, if the same things are expressed in different words. And it is on account of the brevity and perspicuity of these words and phrases, that heretics are not able to conceal their impositions and sophisms. If there were a full consent or agreement concerning the thing itself, there would be no difficulty about the use of the words. We abhor a logomachy or contention about words. Neither is the church at controversy with heretics and sectarists merely in regard to words, but it is concerning this doctrine, that the Eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God; and yet neither is the Father or the Son, the Holy Ghost; nor is the Holy Ghost the Father or Son, &c. Were it not that heretics hold this doctrine in abhorrence, they would also easily admit the words. But they object to the use of the words because they do not receive the things expressed and signified thereby.
From these things we may easily answer this objection: Words which are not in the Scriptures, are not to be used in the church. These terms, such as Essence, &c., are not in the Scriptures. Therefore, they are not to be used. We reply to the major thus: Those things which are not in the Scriptures, neither as to the words nor as to the sense, are to be rejected. But in relation to the terms Essence, Person, and Trinity, as far as the things themselves are concerned, they are in the Scriptures, as hath been shown. Again, terms that are not found in the Scriptures must not be retained, if we are sure the omission of them will not endanger that which is expressed by them. But heretics seek nothing else than with the terms to reject the doctrine, or at least corrupt it.
It is also objected to the use of these terms, that they breed contentions. To this we reply that it does this only by accident, and with contentious heretics.