The Athanasian Creed is the third of the historic orthodox creeds - the others being the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed (which we say at Holy Communion Services). The Athanasian Creed maps out the Bible’s teaching on the divine Trinity and the person of Jesus. It does not map out Jesus’ redemptive work. Perhaps this omission and its long length is why it is seldom said publicly in churches. But its truths are vital. I, therefore, like to write about it from time to time and provide a copy of the text for reading in private. In previous years I have often quoted C.S.Lewis to help over the Creed’s opening, which many find difficult. This year I want to quote him on background issues as well - and first with regard to theology itself.
The importance of theology
After giving a lecture during the Second World War, Lewis tells of an airman who got up and said he was not interested in theology. “I’ve no use for that. But I know there is a God. I’ve felt him alone in the desert at night - the tremendous mystery. Little dogmas and formulas [such as the Athanasian Creed] to anyone who’s met the real thing seem so pedantic and unreal.”
How did Lewis’ respond? In summary, he said this: “the man probably had a real experience of God in the desert; and when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he was really turning from something real to something less real.” Lewis then provided a helpful analogy: “In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something more real to something less real - turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. A map is only coloured paper. But it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach. Only while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. And if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. Well, theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines aren’t God: they’re only a kind of map. However, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. Vague religion – feeling God in nature - is so attractive. It’s all thrills like watching waves from the beach. You won’t get to New Foundland, however, by studying the Atlantic from the beach; and you won’t get eternal life by just feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. True, neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. But you won’t be very safe if you go to sea without a map.” All this is so relevant to the Athanasian Creed. It is a map of the truth following the bibilical facts. It does not seek to explain them; but it helps us avoid certain errors. And this Creed is especially important for helping us avoid Trinitarian heresies that deny the Trinity, namely the truth that God is one God in three Persons.
The importance of the Trinity
The three main Trinitarian heresies are: tritheism (the claim that there are three Gods), Unitarianism (the claim that there is one God who is not three and Jesus Christ is not divine), and modalism (the claim that the one God is like an actor playing three parts). Some reach these conclusions because for them the Athanasian orthodoxy is just inconceivable. But they fail to realise that what is inconceivable is not always unreasonable or false. It can be true but beyond our understanding. How could this be the case with the Trinity? C.S.Lewis, again using analogies of which he is a master, suggests the following.
He begins by saying that there are people today who say they believe in God but not a personal God. This is because they believe the “mysterious something” behind all things must be more than a person. C.S.Lewis responds by saying Christians agree. But these others who say God is beyond personality, so often end up with an impersonal “something” ; and this “something” ultimately absorbes all, including people, like drops of water slipping into the ocean and ceasing to exist. It is only Christians who have any idea of how human persons can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves – “in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before.”
Lewis then talks of three dimensions “left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down” (he insists, you have to think carefully about this but it may be of help to some). He explains that if you are using only one dimension, you can only draw a straight line. If you are using two, you can draw a figure - say a square (made up of four straight lines). But if you have three dimensions, you can then build a solid body, say a cube; and a cube is made up of six squares. He then says that “the Christian account of God, involves that sort of principle”(with God on an altogether different level to us). “The human level is like a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings – just as in two dimensions (say a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but there you find them combined in new ways which we, who don’t live on that level, can’t imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course, we can’t fully conceive of a Being like that. Just as if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space, we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get some sort of faint notion of it.”
The text of the Athanasian Creed
What then does the Athanasian Creed say? Here is a modern version from An English Prayer Book:
“Whosoever wishes to be saved before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic (or Universal) faith, which faith, if anyone does not keep it whole and unharmed, without doubt he will perish everlastingly (see the ‘Comment’ below). Now, the Catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the divine being. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit, but the Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is all one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son and such is the Holy Spirit: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite [Latin, ‘inmensus’], the Son infinite, and the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal; and yet they are not three Eternals but one Eternal, just as they are not three Uncreateds, nor three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite. In the same way, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty; and yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods but one God. Thus the Father is the Lord, the Son is the Lord, and the Holy Spirit is the Lord; and yet not three Lords, but one Lord. Because, just as we are compelled by Christian truth to confess each Person singly to be both God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There are three Gods, or three 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 no before or after, no greater or less, but all three Persons are coeternal with each other and coequal. So that in all things, as has already been said, the Trinity in Unity, and Unity in Trinity, is to be worshipped. He therefore who wishes to be saved let him think thus of the Trinity.Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he should faithfully believe 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 both God and man equally. He is God from the Being of the Father, begotten before the worlds, and he is man from the being of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, having both man’s rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards his divinity and inferior to the Father as regards his humanity; who, although he is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, however, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by the taking up of humanity into God; utterly one, not by confusion of human and divine being but by unity of Christ’s one Person. For just as the rational soul and flesh are one man, so God and man are one Christ; who suffered for our salvation, descended to the realm of the dead, rose again the third day from the dead, ascended to heaven, sat down at the right hand of the Father, from where he will come to judge the living and the dead; at whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account for their own actions, and those who have done good will go into life everlasting and those who have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith which, if anyone does not believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”
On the Creed’s first sentence, C.S.Lewis makes the following observation: “The operative word is keep; not acquire … 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.”