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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism


Written by: Christopher Bellitto

The very word theology means words or talking about God and derives from two pagan Greek words: theos (god) and logos (word). How, for example, could anyone describe how bread and wine become Jesus' body and blood, or how Jesus can be fully human and fully divine but still remain one person? How is it that Jesus was dead but is now alive? What words could adequately capture the essential mystery of the Trinity: that God is one and three at the same time?

These were the challenges that the Church's first bishops and councils had to meet. In order to explain Christian dogmas, they drew on Greek (and, over time, Latin) words, demonstrating again the enormous influence that this ancient philosophical and intellectual context played on early Christianity. After several centuries of discussion and debate, the complex and kind of hybrid Greek concept homoousios was finally chosen at the first Nicene Council (325) to describe how Jesus, as Son of God, is "one in being" or "of the same being" or "of the same substance" as the Father.

It took a Latin word, trinitas, probably first used by an apologist named Tertullian in the 2nd or 3rd century to describe how the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) are co-eternal and co-equal. This concept of trinity allowed theologians at the first council of Constantinople in 381 to describe the simultaneous one-ness and three-ness of Father, Son, and Spirit, each a separate and distinct person at the same time unified. Other Greek words were pieced together to describe Jesus' unique state as fully human and fully divine yet still only one person ("hypostatic union") and Mary's role as the mother of God (Theotokos). Both terms were championed at the Church council of Ephesus in 431, representing the fact that over 400 years after Jesus, Christianity was still relying more on Greek than Latin terms to define herself.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why was family lineage important to Christian identity? How did the word laos later transform to reflect a greater population?
     2.    Who are apologists and what is their message? Describe a notable apologist.
     3.    What is theology? How did it help to separate a Christian identity?
     4.    What is meant by the concepts homoousios and trinitas?


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