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Councils & Creeds: The Athanasian Creed

We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.

Today we continue the series with a look at the Athanasian Creed.

Background

The Athanasian Creed is refreshingly straightforward in its presentation of the Trinity, in particular. By 1090 AD the great theologian Anselm held the Athanasian Creed as part of the Tria Symbola; the three great Creeds of the Christian Faith (The Apostles’, The Nicene, and The Athanasian Creeds). According to Martin Luther, the Athanasian Creed was “the most important and glorious composition since the days of the apostles.” John Calvin also counted it among the three great creeds.

The Creed

The Creed consists of 42 articles (I’ve removed the numbers to aid in reading) and can be divided into three sections: [1] the Trinity, [2] the Two Natures of Christ (as defined and defended at Chalcedon), and [3] the condemnations or “anathemas” defining the boundaries outside which is no longer orthodox faith.

It reads:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all 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, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.

As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; and yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; so are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; there are three Gods or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither 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 none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the reasonable 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 the dead; He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies; and shall give account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

Why it Matters

Christian faith is not merely a matter of the heart. As thinking creatures, we will be held accountable for giving intellectual expression to our belief. Creeds like this serve as a healthy check that we’re believing what Christians have always believed about God, Christ, The Trinity, eternal life, and other fundamentals of the faith. But for all of the theological statements, there is a wonderful richness and joy found in right-thinking about the God we love and serve. As revealed in Scripture (and articulated by the Creeds), the Father sends the Son; the Son reveals the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son to comfort, teach, and guide in the truth. How much richer is our Christianity, our prayer life, our love for God, ourselves, and for our neighbour when we seek to better know and understand each member of the Trinity rather than merely “love God”. The Athanasian Creed helps us see each Person of the Godhead, gives us insight into their mutual loving relationship, and helps us to realise that salvation is actually an invitation by this God for us to enter into the eternal joy that is the Trinitarian life.

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