William Cunningham on Theological Language and the Judgment of Charity

Sometimes theologians and Bible students are uncomfortable with the use of non-Biblical words (i.e., theological statements and formulations that are the words of men rather than the explicit words of God). The fact that most of these theologians also teach/preach in non-Biblical words lessens to a great degree their objection. But this statement by William Cunningham regarding the use of the term “homoousios” in the Nicene Creed and in the debates over Arianism (the view that Jesus was the highest creature, rather than fully divine) helps us to see how important and useful it is for us to use non-Biblical theological language:

“We are told by Athanasius, that when they commenced their deliberations they had some intention of embodying their decision upon the doctrines of Arius in the words of Scripture; but that, upon more careful consideration, especially of the fact that Arius professed to receive all the statements of Scripture as well as they, that he put his own construction upon them, and gave an interpretation of them in accordance with his own views, they directed their attention to the object of devising certain statements, which should be possessed of these two properties: first, that they accurately embodied the substance of what Scripture teaches upon the subject; and, secondly, that they involved a denial or contradiction of Arian views so clearly and explicitly, that no Arian would receive them, and which should thus be accurate tests of truth and error upon the subject. This was the object they aimed at, and I am persuaded that in this object they substantially succeeded…

“The Arians of the fourth century professed to dislike the Nicene Creed for this, among other reasons, because it deviated from the language of Scripture, and introduced new words and phrases which the word of God has not explicitly sanctioned; and many since have continued to object to this and other similar documents on the same ground. The objection is a very frivolous one; and when it does not proceed, as it too often does, from a dislike to the doctrines which the creeds and confessions objected to inculcate, is founded upon very obvious misapprehensions. So long as men, all professing to take the Scripture as their rule, deduce from it opposite doctrines, or put inconsistent interpretations upon its statements, it will be indispensably necessary, if they are to attempt to ascertain how far they agree with, and how far they differ from, each other, that they employ, in expressing their convictions, words different from those which are used in Scripture.

“It may be objected, that this implies that men can form or devise more clear, explicit, and unequivocal declarations of doctrine than the word of God furnishes. It must be admitted that this is implied in it; but it may also be maintained, that this is, in a certain sense, true, without any disparagement to the word of God, and its perfect sufficiency for all the objects which it was designed by its Author to effect. Different doctrines are revealed in the word of God with different degrees of clearness and fullness; and it was manifestly not God’s purpose to make His word so clear and explicit, in regard to all the doctrines it contains, as to preclude the possibility of men possessed of intelligence and substantial integrity taking different views of the meaning of some of its statements. Men of talent, learning, and piety have denied that the New Testament teaches the doctrines commonly called Calvinistic; but no sane man has ever yet denied that the Westminster Confession teaches these doctrines – a fact which may fairly be regarded as establishing the conclusion, that in some sense the latter teaches them more clearly and explicitly than the former. It is possible for men to ascertain whether other men agree with them in holding Calvinistic doctrines, and it is desirable and important that this should be ascertained; but this manifestly cannot be done while they confine their communications with each other to the use of mere scriptural language.

“So, in like manner, when Arius broached the doctrines that have since been called by his name, it became necessary for the church in general to make it manifest whether or not they approved of his views; and if not, what they regarded to be the doctrines really taught in Scripture upon the point, as distinguished from, and opposed to, his errors. Arius professed, as they did, to believe all that was said in Scripture concerning the Son; and hence it became necessary that, if Arianism was to be condemned, and the truth opposed to its errors to be fully and explicitly set forth, other words than those contained in Scripture should be employed – words which, beyond all reasonable doubt, should convince all men competent to judge of them, that those who adopted and concurred in them, denied that the Son was a creature, or had a created and inferior nature; and, on the contrary, maintained that, while undoubtedly a distinct person from the Father, He was possessed of one and the same divine nature, and yet was not a second or distinct God. This they professed to do, by asserting that He is of one and the same substance with the Father; and the history of the Arian controversy, lasting as it did during the greater part of the fourth century, proves that they succeeded, to a very large extent at least, in the object they aimed at… (Historical Theology, Volume I, 286-288)

Cunningham also points out how important it is to be charitable toward those who may disagree with us in semantics but agree with us in substance, citing the way Athanasius viewed those who disagreed with the word “homoouios” yet believed the truth it sought to convey:

“Athanasius has the following statement upon this subject, which is honorable to him, and fitted to teach us a useful and important lesson. ‘This,’ says he, ‘may suffice for refuting those who assail the Council of Nice, and attack all its proceedings. But with respect to those who receive the other decisions  of the council, but have a difficulty about the homoousios, we ought not to treat them as enemies: for we are not to identify them with the Arians, or to proclaim open war against them, but to discuss the matter with them as brethren, because they have really the same doctrine as we, and dispute only about words; for since they profess that the Son is of the substance of the Father, and not any other substance – that He is not a creature, but the true and natural offspring of the Father, and that He existed with the Father from eternity – they are not far removed from the homoousios.’ It was certainly an act of great weakness – originating, probably, to some extent in pride or prejudice, not very creditable to the parties themselves, and decidedly injurious to the interests of truth – that men who honestly believed all this should scruple about the word homoousios; but cases of an analogous description have occurred in all ages in which there has been anything like free investigation. They have occurred not only in regard to this doctrine, but also in regard to others; and where the cases really are analogous – i.e., where there is good ground to think that the substance of the true scriptural doctrine is honestly believed – they ought to be spoken of and treated in the way of which Athanasius has here set us an edifying example.” (Historical Theology, Volume I, 293)

May the Lord enable us to speak the truth clearly – even in non-Biblical words – in love.


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