Today is the commemoration of two of the three Cappadocian Fathers: St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen (St. Gregory of Nyssa has theoretically slipped off to January 10, although my breviary makes no mention of this). I do not know why I feel compelled to mention this here – perhaps because I studied them during my last winter semester.
Anyway, in the 4th century, the Cappadocians helped develop the theological language used to talk about the Trinity. In particular, we get the Greek terminology of one, “ousia and three hypostases.” The trouble is that when you literally translate them into Latin, you get something like, “one essence and three substances,” which is slightly confusing. So the Latin Church used the terms one, “substantia and three personae,” which is where our English, “one essence, three persons,” derives from. At least I hope I’m getting my etymology right; it’s been a while.
Now, some characters tend to disparage the Nicene and post-Nicene eras of the Church as being the time when things really went off the rails: theologians exchanged the language of the Bible for that of Greek philosophy, and the Church began to replace authentic faith with an obsession with doctrinal definitions and anathemas.
I tend to disagree – first of all, Church Fathers like the Cappadocians were pastors who saw themselves primarily as providing Scriptural commentary and tending to the needs of their flocks. And, furthermore, if Christianity is indeed capital T Truth, then it must be capable of being expressed in a variety of different forms, including philosophical categories. Indeed, Aquinas argued that if we took this criticism to its logical conclusion, we’d be unable to talk about the Faith in anything other than the Biblical tongues – so forget your RSV and NAB translations – if you don’t know Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, you’re out of luck.
Also, a little intellectual precision never hurt anyone. It’s always good to come to a better, more rigorous understanding of what, exactly, you believe in, and what is and is not compatible with that. Christianity has Mystery at its heart, but mystery is not a synonym for mushy and vague.