Skip to comments."The Athanasian Creed: Incomprehensible?" (Sermon for the Holy Trinity)
Posted on 06/10/2017 6:05:06 PM PDT by Charles Henrickson
The Athanasian Creed: Incomprehensible?
Today is Trinity Sunday--or, more properly called, the Feast of the Holy Trinity--and as such, this is the one day in the year when we confess the Athanasian Creed. Actually, we believe, teach, and confess the Athanasian Creed 365 days a year; its just this is the one day in the year when we speak it aloud in church during the service.
You see, the church confesses three ecumenical creeds: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. They are called ecumenical creeds, because they are held all across Christendom.
The Apostles Creed is the most ancient of the three, emerging very early in the first couple centuries of the Christian church. The Apostles Creed sums up the teaching of the apostles as found in the pages of the New Testament. It was, and still is, the creed that is used at baptisms. It is the creed that Luther uses in the Small Catechism in the six chief parts of instruction and in the daily prayers. So the Apostles Creed is meant to be the Christians daily companion in faith and life.
The Nicene Creed was adopted in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea as a corrective response to the heresy that was then threatening the very foundation of the Christian faith. The heretic Arius was gaining a lot of followers by saying about Christ that there was a time when he was not. In other words, Arius denied the divinity of Christ and said that he was a created being and not fully God. But that false teaching would undermine and destroy the entire Christian faith, for if Jesus were only a man and not true God also, he could not save us from our sins. Therefore, the Council of Nicaea came out with a creed that strongly emphasized the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made. And so the Nicene Creed marked off orthodox Christian teaching over against dangerous heresy. This is why we generally confess the Nicene Creed during the Divine Service, to say that we all here are in agreement with the true faith, before we come to the Lords altar.
So thats the Nicene Creed, which will lead us in turn to the Athanasian Creed. At the Council of Nicaea in 325, there was one man in particular who stood out as the most able and staunch defender of the faith, and that was the bishop of Alexandria, a man by the name of Athanasius. St. Athanasius was a great theologian and a real hero of the faith, who thought deeply and wrote persuasively on the person of Christ and on the doctrine of the Trinity. So while St. Athanasius himself may not have written the Athanasian Creed, it does reflect his influence and is named in his honor.
Since the Athanasian Creed is the creed that goes into the most depth and detail on the doctrine of the Trinity, it is fitting then that we speak it aloud on Holy Trinity Sunday, as we have done once again today. Now when I talk about depth and detail on the doctrine of the Trinity, Im not kidding! The Athanasian Creed is much longer than either the Apostles or the Nicene--thats why I had you sit down when we read it, and we read it responsively.
And this creed is quite meticulous--painstakingly so--in the careful distinctions it draws among the three persons of the Trinity. For example, the section we read that goes: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite. Whew! Now there are some heavyweight terms, thrown together in close proximity. And there is sentence after sentence like that, all these careful distinctions. And the effect can seem rather mind-numbing.
On that point, the older English translation read, the Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Ghost uncreate; the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. Which led the witty British writer Dorothy Sayers to comment: the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible--the whole thing incomprehensible! Thats how Miss Sayers thought the average person would describe the Athanasian Creed: The whole thing incomprehensible! Meaning, they would find the intricate language of the Creed to be rather overwhelming and impossible to understand.
But is it? Should we dismiss the Athanasian Creed as some old relic of incomprehensible theological jargon? No, I think not. On the contrary, the doctrine that this creed confesses--the reality of the triune God it confesses--is absolutely essential to our salvation.
So if youll turn back now to page 319, lets take another look at the Athanasian Creed. It begins, in verses 1 and 2: Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.
First of all, dont be afraid of the word catholic. Its a good word. The word catholic literally means according to the whole. In this context, it refers to the orthodox Christian faith, as it has been taught rightly in all times and in all places. It does not mean the Roman Catholic Church, headed up by the pope. The catholic faith is the same thing as saying the Christian truth. So we in our church hold the catholic faith. And its a good thing we do.
Why? Because this is the faith that saves, the only faith that saves. Because it is faith in the only God who is--the only God who exists, and the only God who can save us. There is no other god, only the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God in three persons, Holy Trinity. So to believe in some other god is to believe in no god at all. There is no other god who can save you, save you from perishing eternally. This God can, and he does.
Continuing in verse 3: And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. Now the whole long section that follows, verses 4-26, is designed and structured to balance these two aspects of God: the Trinity of persons, in verses 4-18, and the Unity of substance, in verses 19-26. So there are three distinct persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And yet there is only one God. Three persons, one God. One God, three persons. This is how God has revealed himself to us in Holy Scripture. The Trinitarian nature of God is a truth that transcends the ability of our finite reason to comprehend. How this can be? But it is. This is who God is. And this is the God who saves.
How does God save? This is where the section on Christ comes in, verses 27-39. This is the heart of the Gospel: the person and work of Christ, the only Savior of mankind. He is the eternal Son of God, who came in the flesh, incarnate, both true God and true man. That is the person of Christ. What about his work? In verses 36 and 37, the Athanasian Creed reads much like the Apostles and Nicene. It says that Christ suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
Only Christ, the God-man Savior, could do this great work for you! It took the death of Gods only Son to cover the sins of the world. His holy blood, poured out on Calvarys cross, is the great price that paid for your forgiveness. Your sins are wholly atoned for, covered completely, washed away forever. Jesus paid it all. Take refuge in him. And by his victorious death and resurrection, Christ has conquered death and the grave for you! He has defeated the forces of hell, proclaimed his victory there. Jesus has risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now is seated at Gods right hand, the place of all honor and authority. Christ your Savior now is governing all things for the good of his church. The world is not spinning out of control. No, it is heading toward a goal: the end of this age, when Christ will return and inaugurate the age to come. And meanwhile, Jesus is with us all the days until then.
When Christ comes again and he judges the living and the dead, what will happen on that day? The Creed tells us, verses 38 and 39: At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. Dont let this scare you. Let this give you hope! For you will stand acquitted on the Day of Judgment, not guilty for Jesus sake. Your sinful deeds will not be recounted on that day. For they have been forgiven, remembered no more. Only your good works will be cited, as evidence of a living faith. Remember the story of the sheep and the goats, from Matthew 25. It is faith in Christ that will save you, a faith given to you as a free gift in your baptism and nurtured every week here by Word and Sacrament.
At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. Again, dont let this scare you. Let this give you hope! For here is the resurrection of the body and eternal life. This is the goal we are headed for, and it is already guaranteed by the sure promise of God.
The conclusion, verse 40: This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved. But for you who do believe this catholic faith, you will be saved! You will be raised to life, with a glorious immortal body, in a restored creation, and we will live forever with our God and with all his saints of all times and all places.
So is this Athanasian Creed so incomprehensible? No, Id say the doctrine it confesses is pretty indispensable! What is incomprehensible, in the best sense of the word, is the great mystery of the triune God and his amazing love for us! Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! Oh, the breadth and length and height and depth of his love! Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us.
Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite. In the same way, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; and yet there are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God. So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord; and yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord.
Just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so also are we prohibited by the catholic religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords. The Father is not made nor created nor begotten by anyone. The Son is neither made nor created, but begotten of the Father alone. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding. Thus, there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before after another; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal, so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped. Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.
But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity. Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ, who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead. At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.
This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.
Thank you for the well-written exposition of the Athanasian creed.
A great book based on certain parts of the Athanasian Creed, on the Trinity, by Dorothy L. Sayers:
Thanks for posting this!
It’s my understanding that Christianity has abandoned the Athanasian Creed since it was determined to only extend to the 10th century therefore cannot be authored by Athenasius .... and therefore the author is entirely unknown?
Just a simple question from an LDS member that believes in Christ and the bible, but rejects the imposition of the various creeds on the bible message/teachings .... and no they aren’t the same. as in Mark 13:32 which states:
“But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in the heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.
Since God the Father has knowledge that the Son doesn’t have .... the Athenasian, Apostolic and Nicean Creeds are in error. It is a fatal conundrum. The Arians had it right all along.
My church, the Lutheran church, confesses the three ecumenical creeds as true expositions of Holy Scripture, and thus we reject the heresies of Arianism and the LDS church.
Who aren't the same? The Father, The Son, The Holy God? Who ever said that they are? One God, three distinct Persons. Matthew 13:32 contradicts nothing in the creeds, because no Christian Church that I'm aware of teaches that The Trinity is indistinct. They are one God, but three Persons, in a way we are not fully capable of comprehending.
If only some guy in the 1800's had put a rock in his hat and held it over his face to divine a definition fully explicable to the human mind.
Save for re-reading.
The Arians had it right all along...if man’s smarts could approach the unfathomable mystery of God. But man has a pathetic, darkened intellect with which to try to see truth, and a weakened will with which to love God and do His will.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6
The relationship between God and Christ is only a mystery because the various creeds define it that way Believe in Christianity does not require belief in the Creeds. The Creeds were made by uninspired men.
Arian/Athanasian street fight!!!
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