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Anyone who has studied the history of the Orthodox Church might be surprised by the precision of language used in dogma. For example, many of the theological arguments during the fourth century were about the word ὁμοούσιος (homoousios — of one essence) as it was used in the Nicene Creed. St. Athanasius the Great was exiled seven times because he insisted on its use. To the modern American mind, this might seem excessive, if not ridiculous. [Indeed, we live in times where language seems to be purposely imprecise. Try nailing down a definition of social justice, for example.]

This precision wasn’t necessarily what the Orthodox Church wanted to do, but it became necessary because various heretical views forced such precision. St. Athanasius did not want to use ὁμοούσιος in the Nicene Creed because it is not found in Scripture; however, the language of Scripture allowed two people who had very different understandings of who Jesus Christ is to say the Creed and appear to be of one mind when they clearly were not.

We get a glimpse of these battles over language in the eighth chapter of the second book of St. Ambrose’s treatise On the Holy Spirit:

But what wonder is it if foolish men question about words, when they do so even about syllables? For some think that a distinction should be made and that God should be praised in the Spirit, but not with the Spirit, and consider that the greatness of the Godhead is to be estimated from one syllable or some custom, arguing that if they consider that God should be glorified in the Spirit, they point to some office of the Holy Spirit, but that if they say that God receives glory or power with the Spirit, they seem to imply some association and communion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In the end, though, this precision of language is an excellent thing. By providing clear-cut choices, the Orthodox Church defends and maintains human freedom. If we know precisely what is and isn’t the Orthodox Church’s understanding of Jesus Christ, then we are free to accept or reject that understanding.

To give a counter-illustration, let us take the aforementioned phrase social justice. Ask ten different people what they think social justice means, it is very likely that ten different definitions will emerge. If we do not know precisely what social justice means, then how can we know whether or not we can support or oppose it? When asked if I support social justice, I am always having to answer, “I don’t know, what do you mean by social justice?” If we don’t have a precise definition of what it is, our freedom of choice is denied because there is nothing to choose from.

Ultimately, St. Athanasius won the argument over the use of ὁμοούσιος precisely because it helped people understand whether or not they held to the faith of the Orthodox Church — it allowed them to choose.