The Four Ecumenical Councils and the Athanasian Creed

The Councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus

June sees the anniversary of the conclusion of the first post-apostolic, world-wide, Council of Church leaders. It was convened in the winter of 324AD in Nicea (in modern Turkey) and dealt with a serious heresy.

The first great heresy in late New Testament times was that of the Gnostics who denied that Jesus Christ had come in human flesh (see John’s letters). Then came the Marcionites in the second century. These people denied the unity of the Old and New Testaments. But now in the fourth century there was a denial of the unity between God the Father and God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. It began with Arius, a clergyman from Egypt. He and his followers were too literalistic in their interpretation of the Bible. They read Proverbs 8.22 which says of Wisdom, “the Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old.” Then they said, rightly, that this points to Jesus Christ as the divine “Wisdom” or ultimate “Word” of God. But their conclusion was that there was a time when he “was not”. They held that the text taught that Jesus was a created being; he might be the best created being but he was not truly equal to God the Father; and, as the Son, he was subordinate not only in ministry but in essence.

However, on the 15 June 325 at the Council of Nicea the majority of the Nicene Fathers were in line with the principle expressed in Article XX of the Church of England that we should not “so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another”. Thankfully, they sided not with Arius, but with his great opponent, Athanasius. They affirmed the truth now stated in the Creed, named after the Council of Nicea, that Jesus is “of one being with the Father”, or, as the old Book of Common Prayer translates it, “of one substance with the Father”. The original Greek word was homo-ousion, “of the same, or identical, being or essence or substance”. Others had wanted homoi-ousion. The additional “i” or iota, meant, “of like being” and so (as the philosophers put it) denied any “numerical” identity (i.e your car is that same one you were driving yesterday); the iota only affirms “qualitative” identity (i.e. your car is the same as mine). Thomas Carlyle was, surely, right to comment that one iota marked the difference between paganism and Christianity.

The work of the Council of Nicea was completed at the Second Ecumenical Council that met in Constantinople in 381 when the Church leaders clearly affirmed the full deity of the Holy Spirit. The next Ecumenical Council, the Third, met in Ephesus in 431. Of great importance there was the affirmation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “mother of God” or Theotokos (the Greek word for “bearer of God”). This phrase can be much mis-understood, hence the reluctance of some to use it. However, it expresses a vital truth. It rules out the teaching of yet another errant clergyman, Nestorius, and the idea that Mary simply gave birth to a “human” baby. It affirms that Mary while giving birth to a truly human baby was also giving birth to one who was God, the Son. People, of course, cannot take the phrase “mother of God” and then wrongly think of Mary as the life-giver to almighty God himself!

The Council of Chalcedon and the Athanasian Creed

The Council of Ephesus was dealing with the issue of Christ’s nature as both human and divine. The Church’s common mind on that, to be in conformity with the Bible and the Holy Spirit’s guiding, was defined in 451 at the Fourth Ecumenical Council meeting in Chalcedon. The Church was then fighting not only Nestorianism, which emphasized the full deity of Christ as God’s revelation and Jesus’ full humanity, but at the cost of Jesus Christ becoming almost two persons – a divine Christ and a human Jesus (a heresy that attracts liberal theologians in the modern period). This was in contrast to the error of Apollinarianism and the followers of Apollinarius (a heresy sometimes attractive to conservative Christians). Here the problem of how Jesus Christ could be both fully God and fully man was resolved by denying that Jesus had a human “soul”. That non physical side of our lives (variously described as the soul, spirit or mind) was replaced in Jesus, it was being taught, by the divine “Word”. So Apollinarians emphasized the unity of Christ’s person but at the sacrifice of his human nature. Jesus Christ, as it were, had a divine centre that controlled a physical body. The Word become flesh but not human. Another person who sacrificed Christ’s human nature in the interests of Christ’s unity of person and deity was Eutyches whose teaching suggested that Jesus’ humanity had been swallowed up by his divinity.

Against all of these ideas and teachings the Council of Chalcedon in 451 affirmed that Jesus is one person in two natures. But the Council of Chalcedon produced the great consensus of believers not only on the person and natures of Jesus Christ but also on the divine Trinity. And it gave rise to the Athanasian Creed that expresses this consensus, the most theological of the three fundamental creeds (the Apostles and Nicene being the other two).

However, the Athanasian Creed’s doctrines are statements that follow the facts and the mystery of God rather than try to explain them (so we have to hold in tension facts that are beyond our finite understanding). This Creed forms a boundary or fence around the truth. Its teaching is important for what is being ruled out. For example, the Creed rules out tritheism (that there are three gods), unitarianism (that there is one God who is not three and Christ not divine) and modalism (that the one God is simply plays three roles), as well as well as the heresies already outlined of Nestorius, Apollinarius and Eutyches.

The text of the Athanasian Creed

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

“Whoever desires to be saved must above all things hold the Catholic (or Universal) faith. Unless a man keeps it in its entirety inviolate, he will assuredly perish eternally (see the ‘Conclusion’ below). 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 [uncreated], the Son increate, the Holy Spirit increate. The Father is infinite [Latin, ‘inmensus’], 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 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.”


With regard to the first paragraph (and in the old BCP translation of the Latin it reads, “Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly”), C.S.Lewis helpfully said the following: “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.”

Back to top