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The Theology of the Ancient Creeds Part 4: The Athanasian Creed

  • Greg Uttinger,
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The Athanasian Creed

Though it bears the name of St. Athanasius, the Athanasian Creed comes to us from another hand and a later era. Its actual author is unknown, but the Creed seems to have originated in Gaul or North Africa in the middle of the fifth century. It stands in the tradition of St. Augustine of Hippo and borrows freely from his writings. It echoes, too, the victories at Ephesus and Chalcedon. Though the Creed was not the product of a church council, it was used extensively by the mediaeval church in the West and later was generally adopted by the churches of the Reformation. Because the Creed teaches the procession of the Spirit from the Son as well as the Father, it has been used in the East only slightly and in altered form.

The Creed consists of two sections, the first on the doctrine of the Trinity, the second on the Incarnation. Each section begins with a warning that right belief in these doctrines is necessary to salvation. The Creed ends with a similar warning. These so-called "damnatory clauses" have themselves often been condemned, not so much because their critics disbelieve the specifics of the faith, but because those critics seem offended at the idea that God might actually tie heavenly salvation to the acceptance of specific dogmas.1

The Creed, of course, does not require every Christian to fully understand the complexities and implications of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Yes, an ignorant believer may speak in, say, Sabellian terms because he has not been taught better. He may in his ignorance compare the Trinity to an egg or a tree. The Creed is not addressing such ignorance; it is addressing outright rejection of the truth by those who have every reason to know better. There are sins of the intellect, and the Creed makes this very clear.2

The Creed declares:

Whoever 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 Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty.
And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and Holy Ghost 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 we are forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be 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 Ghost 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 Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and coequal, so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore, that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believes faithfully 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 the 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 be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ:
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the 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 sitteth 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 an 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 and firmly, he cannot be saved.

The Creed rejects both Sabellianism and polytheism with the words, "Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance." Likewise, it affirms the Incarnation with a formula that strikes at both the Monophysite and Nestorian heresies: "One altogether: not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person." Though the Creed avoids the controversial word "theotokos," it gives us the Christology of Ephesus and Chalcedon in no uncertain terms. But it is in the earlier section on the Trinity that the Creed goes beyond the work of the ecumenical councils into a more mature theology.

Mature Trinitarianism

The Athanasian Creed is far more thorough and detailed in its doctrine of the Trinity than is the Nicene Creed. Whereas Nicea and Constantinople confessed the true deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, they left room for the subordination of the Son to the Father and of the Holy Spirit to both. The heresies that plagued the early church all required some form of subordination of essence within the Trinity. That is, they each sought to diminish the deity of the Son and the Spirit. The Father was "really" God and the Son and the Spirit were lesser emanations or projections. Such an understanding of God was necessary, so the heretics claimed, to avoid a return to polytheism and to guard the dignity of the Godhead and the rationality of Christian theology.

But subordinationism, in fact, constitutes war on God. It strikes at the communion and communication that exists within the Trinity, leaving God silent and remote. It eviscerates the saving power of the Son, making Him one son among many possible sons. Subordinationism leads necessarily to the fragmentation of truth, to salvation by works, to alternate messiahs, and to the deification of the State. "The inevitable outcome of all subordinationism is another savior."3

The Athanasian Creed affirms the equal deity of all Three Persons. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are coequal in nature, majesty, and glory. Each possesses the divine essence in its fulness. Each Person is truly and fully God. Only by their personal properties may they be distinguished: the Father is "made of none, neither created nor begotten"; the Son is "of the Father . . . not created but begotten"; the Holy Spirit "is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding." To this description of the Trinity the later Protestant confessions have added little. For example, the Augsburg Confession (1530) says:

We unanimously hold and teach, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Nicea, that there is one divine essence, which is called and which is truly God, and that there are three persons in this one divine essence, equal in power and alike eternal: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. All three are one divine essence, eternal, without division, without end, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, one creator and preserver of all things visible and invisible. The word "person" is to be understood as the Fathers employed the term in this connection, not as a part or a property of another but as that which exists of itself.

And the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) tells us:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

We must be careful, however, not to think that our confessions have netted all there is to say about God, let alone all that God knows of Himself. For example, "One God, three Persons" does not mean that we have a three-headed God, three separate personalities that share some abstract substance in common. God is simple in His essence and has no parts. There are not three wills or three intelligences in the Substance of God, but each Person possesses all the divine attributes fully and equally. Or to look at the doctrine from another direction, Scripture speaks of the one God ("one Substance") as "He," not as "It" or "They"; and unless the three Persons are making reference to one another, God says "I," not "We." Clearly, our formulas — as crucial as they are — do not exhaust the mystery of the Godhead.

Implications and Applications

The exact nature of the Trinity lies beyond human reason. This much should be clear. Nonetheless, we confess the doctrine as truth because God Himself has revealed it in Scripture. From this and more generally from the doctrine itself we may draw some important lessons.

First, it is plain that we do not need to understand a thing exhaustively in order to understand it truly. God knows Himself and His world exhaustively, and He tells us true things about both in Holy Scripture. In that way He enables us to build our knowledge of the world upon the sure foundation of His own omniscience. We may speak of God and the universe meaningfully without having to know everything about it ourselves.

Second, we may expect that the mystery that surrounds the doctrine of the Trinity will appear in every discussion of God's Being and works. Human reason cannot scale infinity or measure out eternity. Reason must stumble when it aims at complete understanding of Deity, but it will serve well when it humbly receives the statements of Scripture as truth. We must confess that we believe many deep and profound things, not because we can fit them all together, but simply, "Because the Bible tells us so."

Third, we have in the Trinity a pattern for the communal life God intends for His people. For we are members of a single body (1 Cor. 12) and we are called, in all our diversity, to mutual love, fellowship, and service within the framework of covenant law. We are neither drones absorbed into a hive nor wandering stars lost in the void. Our lives and gifts are significant precisely because we belong to something — to Someone — greater than ourselves. The church, like the Trinity, is One and Many, and we maintain the balance between the two poles by faithful obedience to God's every word. Scripture gives us freedom within form, liberty under law, love without selfishness.

Fourth, we can begin to answer the problem of the One and the Many in its more general form as well. The Biblical doctrine of the Trinity implies the equal ultimacy of the One and the Many in both God and His creation. God is One; God is Three. In God unity and diversity are equally real and ultimate. The same is true within the world He has made. Unity and diversity, form and freedom, the group and the individual, constancy and change, overarching meaning and individual fact, all alike have their place in God's order. God ordains the circling years and the repetitive seasons. He creates cell and body, organism and ecosystem. He ordains the still greater unity-in-diversity of family, commonwealth, and church. He gives us fantastic diversity and startling individuality in the context of total meaning. We are not left with pantheistic stagnation or isolated fact. Our options are not tyranny or anarchy (or dialectical mix — a little tyranny with a little anarchy). Trinitarian Christianity gives us true meaning for all the particulars and true liberty under God's covenant law.


In the closing chapter of Perelandra, C. S. Lewis speaks of creation, directed by overruling Providence, as "The Great Dance." The metaphor is apt. In a ballroom dance or a folk dance, each participant is responsible for his own role. He cannot see the whole, let alone shape the whole. But as he dances his part well, as he submits himself to the rules of the dance, he helps to create a thing of wondrous complexity and great beauty. Such is the universe, and such is the church. But the root of this all lies in the inner life of the Triune God. The Athanasian Creed — and indeed any statement of Trinitarian faith — may seem intricate, repetitive, and belabored, but the Faith such statements delineate is the very foundation of communion, liberty, beauty, and joy.


1. Schaff, having expressed his own dissatisfaction with these clauses, records the bolder complaints of other writers. See Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. I (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990 reprint), 40n.

2. See the discussion between the young man and the theologian in C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1946), 39ff.

3. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (N. p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1968), 94.

  • Greg Uttinger

Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.

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