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Equal in Glory, Coeternal in Majesty

What can we learn from the Athanasian Creed?

The Athanasian Creed or Quicunque Vult was once, alongside the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, considered one of the three great creeds of the early church. It has found almost universal acclaim in the Western Church being accepted as ecumenical by the Roman Catholic Church and received as authoritative in confessional Protestantism (The Book of Concord, The Belgic Confession, The Thirty-Nine Articles, etc.). However, in the previous century, the creed has almost entirely dropped out of the consciousness of the church liturgically and academically.

The creed was likely written in the 5th century, and quickly became associated with the hero of orthodoxy Athanasius. This confession of faith sets forth the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation in stark relief. The first mention of this creed comes in a sermon collection compiled by Caesarius of Arles, which expresses its fundamental purpose as catechetical: “It is necessary, and incumbent on them, that all clergymen, and laymen too, should be familiar with the Catholic faith, … for we ought both ourselves frequently to read it and to instruct others in it.”[1] Although it has fallen out of use because of its precision and insistence on proper Trinitarianism for salvation, the Athanasian Creed is a sure guide to order and to chasten our reflection on the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit in line with the catholic tradition.

There is much talk in scholarly circles about the renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity in the 20th Century with figures such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner re-calling the academic, theological guild to the centrality of God’s triune nature and identity as the essence of the Christian confession. However, this renaissance has often strayed widely from the paths of the catholic tradition. Additionally, this renewed interest in the doctrine would scarcely be observed in many churches. The doctrine of the Trinity is passed by in preaching, goes often unnoticed in liturgies, and is even occasionally passed off as too complicated to be understood by the congregation and the pastor alike. On the opposite side of neglect is infelicitous use of the doctrine to illuminate other doctrines, which often deform the basic confession of the faith. In the attempt to make the doctrine of the Trinity “practical” we conform it to our own needs.  For instance, several evangelical scholars have pressed, perhaps unwittingly, for a neo-subordinationism to score point in debates over gender relations in the church. The desire to render the doctrine of the Trinity useful can quickly fall prey to instrumentalizing the Triune God, which is nothing less than idolatrous.The desire to render the doctrine of the Trinity useful can quickly fall prey to instrumentalizing the Triune God, which is nothing less than idolatrous. Click To Tweet

The Primacy of Worship in our Trinitarian Reflection

The Athanasian Creed is driven not by the quest to find useful doctrine nor to determine how God must be. Rather the contemplation of the Triune God begins in worship seeking salvation. “We worship one God in Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity.” If one desires to be saved, that is, enter into holy fellowship with God the Father, Son, and Spirit by His work, then we must address Him, adore Him, and worship Him as He is. The emphasis on worship and salvation comes at the beginning, middle, and end of the Creed, weaving together the confession of God in himself and God with us in Christ with the thread of human wonder and adoration. “Thus in all things … both Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity must be worshipped.” Reflection on the triune God is fundamentally for no other end than that we might know our Creator and Redeemer and worship him in truth. The confession of God as one-in-three and three-in-one is nothing less than obedience to the first commandment.

The knowledge of the Trinity is knowing the God who has revealed himself to be triune through the revelation of the Father by the Son and through the Spirit. For this end, the creed sets forth the stakes of trinitarian doctrine in the so-called damnatory clauses, which have caused much controversy regarding the Creed in the past century and a half. Is it appropriate to say with the Creed that “one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully?” Yes, and we must since salvation is nothing less than the communion of sinful humanity with the Father, Son, and the Spirit. As Wilken notes, “All the damnatory clauses in the phrase must be seen in light of the central conviction that the purpose of intellectual formulation is to aid us in adoring and worshipping God more fully and with all our being.”[2] Coming to know the Triune God is far more than intellectual knowledge but comes as the gift of salvation itself. The Athanasian Creed is driven not by the quest to find useful doctrine nor to determine how God must be. Rather the contemplation of the Triune God begins in worship seeking salvation. Click To Tweet

The Grammar of the Trinity

Since the purpose of our confession of the Trinity as an act of worship is that we might speak rightly of the God who has revealed himself, we should learn the grammar of this speech. How are we to form words which can, however inadequately and analogically, do justice to the triune God? What are the rules for proper utterances about this one? Since the knowledge of the infinite, uncreated God is by definition beyond our finite, created minds, we must learn both through affirmation and negation what sort of speech and thought is appropriate for God’s revelation of his inner triune life. Like learning any grammatical system we must learn through exposure and repetition, noting proper positive utterances (kataphatic statements) and proper negations (apophatic statements). The Athanasian Creed alternates affirmations and denial seeking to inculcate true speech about God and guiding away from and guarding against false teachings.

The Athanasian Creed begins by expressing the fundamental confession of the unity and trifold personhood of God: “Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity.” It then sets forth the key errors that orthodox confession seeks to avoid “confusing the persons or dividing the substance.” The Creed warns of the ditches of modalism, seeing the different persons as merely for our benefit, and tritheism, in which the persons are conceived of as independent supreme beings. The catholic faith must reject both heresies and hold to the antinomy of the one who is three and the three who are one. “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.” The rest of the section on the Trinity in the Creed clarifies this basic confession through repetition. “Like a good catechist the author of the creed used repetition to impress its teaching on the mind.”[3] This allows us to specify in what sense the one is three (according to person) and the three are one (according to essence).

The oneness is not merely similarity but a complete unity of essence. “Such as the Father is, such is the Son, such also the Holy Spirit.” In other words, whatever it is to be God is possessed by each of the Triune persons. The Creed then expands this grammar to the attributes of uncreatedness, infinity, and eternality. These are the fundamental attributes that relate to God’s being in se in distinction from his creation. He has no origin and is transcendent over time and space. However, even though it is appropriate to ascribe these attributes to each person, “Yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal, etc.” These phrases are introduced by the Latin “et tamen,” “and yet,”  which is used four times throughout the Creed. This demonstrates a fundamental rule of trinitarian grammar; we cannot be content to speak only of the one or the three. We must continually move from the one to the three and the three to the one. “Thus the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Spirit God; and yet there are not three Gods, but there is one God.” There is one God, and yet God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Creed proceeds to clarify the threeness of God by confessing the personal properties or divine relations, which is our halting way of distinguishing the three persons in their undivided unity. If the three persons have all properties in their common essence; how are we to speak meaningfully about the distinction of persons given that we normally would consider the sharing of all properties to be identity without distinction. The personal properties are eternal relations between the persons such that they are both distinguished from and defined by the other persons. “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.”

The unbegottenness of the Father, the begottenness of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit are ways of expressing that the triune relations of Father, Son, and Spirit is not something that comes into being through creation or in time. But the Father is eternally the Father of the Son, the Son is eternally Son of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds as the Spirit of both Father and Son. These relations are further qualified to avoid any attribution of temporal order or preeminence. “In this trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less, but all three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal.” The divine relations are a theological means to ensure that we avoid thinking of the persons merely as some sort of mask taken up in time or titles incidental to God’s identity. In revealing himself as the triune God, the eternally unbegotten Father, the eternally begotten Son, and the eternally processing Spirit is not giving us an approximation of who God truly is but is demonstrating to us in human speech God’s ineffable being as Trinity. In revealing himself as the Triune God, the eternally unbegotten Father, the eternally begotten Son, and the eternally processing Spirit is not giving us an approximation of who He truly is but is demonstrating to us in human speech… Click To Tweet

The Complementary Mysteries of Trinity and Incarnation

The Athanasian Creed is unique amongst the Creeds of the Church in setting forth both the orthodox confession of the oneness and threeness of God with theological rigor and the person of Christ in detail. The dogmatic connection between the doctrines of the Trinity, Christ, and Salvation must be seen together. “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 oneness of person.” This confession deftly sets forth classical orthodox Christology by affirming the two natures and one person of Christ. The divine nature of the Son is none other than that which he shares with the Father and the Spirit, and His one person is none other than the eternal person of the Son begotten by the Father.

This Trinity-informed Christology avoids two errors: first, a Christomonistic devotion and view of salvation, which often smuggles in a sense of tension between the work of the Father in sending and Christ’s life and work as sent; second, an abstract devotion to the Triune God as intellectual curiosity without connecting the triune being to the triune work of redemption through the sending of the Son to redeem. The second of these errors is likely less pronounced, but can be seen in a sort of pride in comprehending the doctrine of the Trinity as merely a point of intellectual sophistication rather than a commitment to a living faith that worships Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity as revealed through the Son, sent by the Father, in the Spirit to bring about the eternal plan of redemption in time. Reflection on the Triunity of God is not a higher form of Christian devotion as if one moves beyond the incarnate Son in time to God in se, as if the mission of the incarnate Son was some sort of ladder to be disregarded once the heights had been attained. The work of Christ must be seen in trinitarian context and the Trinity in light of the incarnation and work of the Son. These are mutually illuminating mysteries.

A faithful confession

As Scott Swain reminds us: “Learning to know the triune God, to receive the triune God, to rejoice in the triune God—and learning to help others do the same—is an end in itself, because the triune God is the ultimate end of all things.”[4] While the Athanasian Creed is largely forgotten in much of the Church today it is an indispensable resource from the Church’s past to spur us to such a faithful confession of the God who has revealed himself as Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity.

 


Endnotes

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, The Athanasian Creed (New York; Evanston: Harper & Row, 1964), 36.

[2] Robert L Wilken, “Introducing the Athanasian Creed,” Currents in Theology and Mission 6, no. 1 (February 1979): 9.

[3] Wilken, 8.

[4] Scott Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 22.

KJ Drake

Dr. K.J. Drake is Assistant Professor of History at Redeemer University in Hamilton, Otario. He is the author of The Flesh of the World: The extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy.

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