The Trinity and the Athanasian Creed (again)

25 May 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 Catechism

For many Christians the doctrine of the Trinity is something they readily affirm and say they believe. But they prefer not to think about it too much. That is dangerous. It is a way of letting in heresies that can eventually destroy their faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord.

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].

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly taught in the Catechism (the Catechism used to be learned by heart by those being confirmed, and it also used to be taught in Church Schools to the children who attended.) The doctrine is summed up there in these words:

First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world.

Secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind.

Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost [Spirit], who sanctifieth me, and all the elect people of God.

That is to be the response of the candidate to the question put immediately after they have recited the Apostles' Creed. The question is:

What doest thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy Belief?

The creed is, therefore, taught as "Articles of Belief".


The Creeds

The word "creed" comes from the Latin word credo. The creeds are in fact summaries of Christian belief. They started life as tools in the early church for the "follow up" of new converts and probably were used at baptisms. The creeds are thoroughly "trinitarian" in content and shape.

There are hints of credal formulas in the New Testament itself. 1 Timothy 3.16 is an example:

Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.

It was not unnatural, therefore, that Christians continued to draft short summaries for new converts. Because of specific controversies and certain specific denials of biblical and apostolic teaching these early creeds focused on the Trinity. And there are three basic creeds, the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds.

At Jesmond we say The Apostles' Creed at normal morning and evening services. This was not composed by the twelve apostles. It was probably written in the generation after the apostles in the second century. But it is called the "Apostles" creed as it teaches concisely the apostolic teaching about God that you get in the New Testament.

The creed we recite at Jesmond at Holy Communion is The Nicene Creed. It is a little longer than The Apostles' Creed, and it gets its name from the Council of Nicea in AD 325. At that Council the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ was reaffirmed in the wake of the Arian controversy. Arius was a presbyter of Alexandria who denied Christ's deity; and his teaching was ruled heretical at Nicea. So in The Nicene Creed we say that Jesus is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father".

The third creed, The Athanasian Creed, we never recite together in our services. But it is important we do not neglect it. Unfortunately it is often forgotten, yet it is included in the Book of Common Prayer and so should be part of Anglican consciousness.

Who was Athanasius? He was the Bishop of Alexandria that almost single handed at one point was responsible for the defence of biblical faith against Arianism. But he did not write the "Athanasian" creed. The situation is similar to the case of the "Apostles" creed. This creed echoes the biblical orthodoxy Athanasius stood for just as the Apostles' Creed echoes the orthodoxy the Apostles stood for.

And why should we and other churches recite these creeds? The answer is that they rule out all sorts of errors that contradict the plain teaching and implication of the bible. And these errors, sadly, so easily and regularly surface. They have done so throughout church history. We can assume they will do so in the future. They are doing so today!


The Bible and the Trinity

The official teaching of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England regarding the creeds is definite - Article VIII:

The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's 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.

That last phrase of Article VIII is what is important. The creeds are to be believed because "they may be proved ... by ... holy Scripture."

What then does the Bible teach?

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:

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", that must always be kept in mind. 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

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 praying to his Father. And 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. This also confirms that confession - 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 "Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius" is neglected. It is the affirmation of Trinitarian orthodoxy; and it should be said, according the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, on Christmas Day, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Trinity Sunday and some other occasions as well.

But some modern Christians are embarrassed by this creed because they do not like the doctrine about the Godhead and the person of Jesus Christ that it teaches. It has now been completely omitted from the modern Alternative Service Book.


The Athanasian Creed

What then does the creed say? Three years ago I wrote on this creed in a Coloured Supplement and gave you, more or less, the traditional translation from the Latin. Here, however, is a more recent 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 badly to eternal fire.

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


Others

The opposition to this creed not only comes from its content but also from its second sentence. In its defence I like to quote C.S.Lewis:

I will not labour the point that [this] work is not exactly a creed and was not by St Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words "which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" [BCP] are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame.

But C.S.Lewis is not the only champion of The Athanasian Creed. The great Duke of Wellington remarked that he had come to the conclusion that "every word of it was borne out by Holy Scripture". Another supporter was Bishop Seabury. Writing to his friend Dr Parker on 29 December 1790 he said this:

With regard to the propriety of reading the Athanasian Creed in Church, I was never fully convinced. With regard to the impropriety of banishing it out of the Prayer-book I am clear.

Surely once a year we ought consciously to think about these things. That is because we cannot honestly escape what this creed summarizes and teaches. 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) that would deny biblical revelation and destroy a living faith in Jesus Christ. Some argue that these concepts in the Athanasian Creed are 5th century Greek philosophical concepts; and modern people don't need them. This is quite untrue. There are no particular philosophical doctrines in the Athanasian Creed. They are all theological. Yes, certain words are used like "person" and "substance". But these were words in common speech. The technical uses of these and similar terms came from Christian use in theological debate.

Yes, there is a problem for human language - it is the amazing fact that God himself was born at Bethlehem and walked and taught in Galilee and died on the cross and rose on Easter Day. It was not somebody else, a different person named Jesus. Yes, it was God the Son who was born of Mary, not God the Father. But when we face this fact - so clear from the pages of the Bible and proved in experience - this ceases to be a problem. Rather it is the presupposition behind everything else. This is the ultimate reality. And the reality is this: the Old Testament makes it quite clear that there is only one God. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus who prayed to his Father is himself prayed to by his disciples. Without any feeling of inconsistency these monotheistic Jews believed Jesus to be divine.


Conclusion

Let me close with another quote from J.I.Packer. He makes the following observation:

the basic assertion of this doctrine is that the unity of the one God is complex ... [There] are not three roles played by one person (that is modalism), nor are there three gods in a person (that is tritheism); the one God ("he") is also, and equally, "they" and "they" are always together and always cooperating, with the Father initiating, the Son complying, and the Spirit executing the will of both, which is his will also ... The practical importance of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it requires us to pay equal attention and give equal honour, to all three persons in the unity of their gracious ministry to us. That ministry is the subject matter of the gospel, which, as Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus shows, cannot be stated without bringing in their distinct roles in God's plan of grace (John 3.1-21).



Back to top