The Trinity and The Athanasian Creed

6 June 2004 is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a doctrine beyond the grasp of our finite minds - it is a great mystery. It is the affirmation of a "tri" "unity" in God. It is an affirmation of the fact that God is both three and one.

The Truth of the Trinity

The old formularies of the Church of England are quite clear about the Trinity. Article I of the Thirty-nine Articles says this: "in unity of [the] Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost [Spirit]." The Trinity is implicit in The Apostles' Creed we say at normal morning and evening services; and even more so in The Nicene Creed we say at Holy Communion services. It is affirmed in the most detailed way, however, in The Athanasian Creed. That creed is seldom said because it is so detailed. Nevertheless as Article VIII of the Thirty-nine Articles says: "The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius' Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture."

So what does the Bible teach about the Trinity? It certainly teaches "trinitarian" doctrine. Jesus taught that his disciples were to baptise "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." And notice, he said "name" not "names". But the Bible is clear that God is a transcendent God, the almighty God, who passes our finite understanding. Isaiah 55.9 says, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." So at the same time as we affirm the Trinity, it must always be kept in mind that there is so much we do not understand about
the nature of God - his eternity, the fact that he is all-knowing, and his providence and sovereign ordering of history and individual life. J.I.Packer puts it like this:

"how the one eternal God is eternally both singular and plural, how Father, Son and Spirit are personally distinct yet essentially one (so that Tritheism, belief in three gods who are not one, and Unitarianism, belief in one God who is not three, are both wrong), is more than we can know, and any attempt to "explain" it - to dispel the mystery by reasoning, as distinct from confessing it from Scripture - is bound to falsify it. Here, as elsewhere, our God is too big for his creatures' little minds."

The truth of the Trinity is confirmed in three ways. First there are the facts of history as we can see them in the Bible. These force us to make a Trinitarian confession. In the bible you see a man who was God, but praying to his Father. Then he promised that he and his Father would send "the Counsellor" - the Holy Spirit to continue the divine ministry. Secondly there is the experience of Christians "worshipping God the Father above you and knowing the fellowship of God the Son beside you, both through the prompting of God the Holy Spirit within you." Thirdly, there is, as we have said, the Bible itself. The Bible teaches that there is a co-operative activity of the Three in our salvation. See Romans 8.1-17; Ephesians 1.3-14; and many other passages including 2 Corinthians 13.14:

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

It is, therefore, sad that The Athanasian Creed is often neglected. So, at least, on Trinity Sunday we should remind ourselves of it.

The Athanasian Creed

What then does the creed say? Here is a modern translation by C.H. Turner and it is based on the revised Latin text:

"Who ever desires to be saved must above all things hold the Catholic faith. Unless a man keeps it in its entirety inviolate, he will assuredly perish eternally.

Now this is the Catholic faith, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, without confusing the persons or dividing the substance. For the Father's person is one, the Son's another, the Holy Spirit's another; but the Godhead of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is one, their glory is equal, their majesty coeternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, such also the Holy Spirit. The Father is increate, the Son increate, the Holy Spirit increate. The Father is infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite. The Father is eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal. Yet there are not there eternals, but one eternal; just as there are not three increates or three infinites, but one increate and one infinite. In the same way the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; yet there are not three almighties, but one almighty.

Thus the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Spirit God; and yet there are not three Gods, but there is one God. Thus the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, the Holy Spirit Lord; and yet there are not three Lords, but there is one Lord. Because just as we are obliged by Christian truth to acknowledge each person separately both God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the Catholic religion to speak of three Gods or Lords.

The Father is from none, not made nor created nor begotten. The Son is from the Father alone, not made nor created but begotten. The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son, not made nor created nor begotten but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less, but all three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal. Thus in all things, as has been stated above both Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity must be worshipped. So he who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity.

It is necessary, however, to eternal salvation that he should also faithfully believe in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now the right faith is that we should believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is equally both God and man.

He is God from the Father's substance, begotten before time; and he is man from his mother's substance, born in time. Perfect God, perfect man composed of a rational soul and human flesh, equal to the Father in respect of his divinity, less than the Father in respect of his humanity.

Who although he is God and man, is nevertheless not two but one Christ. He is one, however, not by the transformation of his divinity into flesh, but by the taking up of his humanity into God; one certainly not by confusion of substance, but by oneness of person. For just as rational soul and flesh are a single man, so God and man are a single Christ.

Who suffered for our salvation, descended to hell, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, sat down at the Father's right hand, whence he will come to judge living and dead: at whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies, and will render an account of their deeds; and those who have behaved well will go to eternal life, those who have behaved badl to eternal fire.

This is the Catholic faith. Unless a man believes it faithfully and steadfastly, he will not be able to be saved.


A number object to those very last words, which in the old Book of Common Prayer translation are: "which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly". I find C.S.Lewis helpful over this: "The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters ... who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion, ... to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought."

Surely once a year we ought consciously to think about these things. That is because we cannot honestly escape what The Athanasian Creed summarizes. Its doctrines are statements that follow the facts and the mystery of God rather than explain them. They are like fences that surround the truth. They rule out wrong beliefs such as there being three gods or one God playing three roles. They help preserve the biblical revelation and stop the erosion of a living faith in Jesus Christ. The Trinity is the presupposition behind everything else - not only in the Bible but the universe. For the name of our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; but, in the words of The Athanasian Creed we must not "confuse" the [three] persons or "divide" the [one divine] substance.

(The above is an abbreviation of the Coloured Supplement for May 1997)

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