Nicea, Athanasius and His Creed

Trinity Sunday is 11 June 2006. The old Book of Common Prayer encourages the use of the Athanasian Creed, a creed based on the Bible, on Whitsunday and Trinity Sunday. But few churches ever now say this Creed in public, as at first it seems a little difficult. However, to make up for that at JPC, I like to write about it from time to time and provide a copy of the text for reading.

Nicea and the Trinity

We need to start with the Council of Nicea in AD 325. This was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church. At stake was the divinity of Christ. The issue was this: was the Church going to follow the historic facts regarding Jesus in, what someone has called, all their “dizzying and unfathomable truth”? Or was the Church going to refuse to face those facts? Were the Nicene Fathers going to say something that was more comfortable and more understandable - namely that Jesus was not truly divine and but was himself a creature and there was a time “when he was not”? Or were they going to follow the Apostles and the trinitarian faith of the Bible and confess him as, yes, fully a man, but also as their Lord and God?

The Bible makes the “tri” “unity” in God clear. He is both three and one. Jesus had told his disciples to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28.19) - note "name", not plural “names”. The Trinity is, of course, a mystery beyond our understanding. But this is no different from other divine realities such as God's eternity, his infinity, his being all knowing and his providential control of our free actions. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55.9). The facts given us by the New Testament Apostles, who were eyewitnesses from the time of Jesus himself, point inescapably to God's essential three-in-oneness. The Apostles show that the Jesus who was prayed to, prayed to God as his Father. He also promised that he and his Father would send “another Counsellor” to continue his divine ministry after he left this world. The Trinity is also seen in our salvation - the Father planning it, the Son dying for us and the Spirit making it real in our lives (see 2 Corinthians 13.14; Ephesians 1.3-14; 2 Thessalonians 2.13ff; 1 Peter 1.2). God's grace in Christ's incarnation, especially in his death and resurrection, emphatically revealed the one God to be plural. And that plurality was explicitly taught by Jesus himself, as being one with God while fully human (see Luke 24.39; John 10.30).

The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds

At Nicea the Church Fathers voted not to follow Arius, a revisionist (or heretical) clergyman. Arius led those wanting to interpret Jesus in the light of contemporary wisdom and deny his full divinity and say he was created. Thankfully, the majority of the Nicene Fathers followed his opponent, Athanasius. The fundamental issue can be seen in a phrase in the Nicene Creed that we say at Holy Communion. We say 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 homoousion, “of the same or identical being”. Others had wanted homoiousion. The additional “i” or iota, meant, “of like being”. That failed to say Jesus was divine, but only godly or “godlike”. So it was rejected. Thomas Carlyle was, surely, right to comment that one iota marked the difference between paganism and Christianity.

What followed the Council of Nicea was similar to what has followed the last Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1998 (in 1998 there was a clear decision that homosexual sex was not right because the Bible forbids it). The revisionist (or heretical) elements in the Church in the 4th century then were (and in the 21st century now are) defying the agreed decisions. Athanasius found things very hard. It has been said that the history of the years after Nicea is little more than a history of the persecutions of Athanasius. Richard Hooker, the Anglican Reformer, wrote: “this was the plain condition of these times: the whole world against Athanasius, and Athanasius against it.” As today, many of the Bishops caved in. But God was in control. By the time of the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 the truth had prevailed. The final consensus is reflected in the Creed named after Athanasius, our Athanasian Creed. This is the most theological of the three basic creeds (the Apostles' Creed being the earliest and simplest). Its doctrines are statements that follow the facts and the mystery rather than try to explain them. They form a boundary or fence around the truth. They are important for what is being ruled out, for example, tritheism, that there are three gods or Unitarianism, that there is one God who is not three and Christ not divine, or modalism, that the one God is simply playing three roles.

The Text

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, 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 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.”

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