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True Confessions: The Athanasian Creed

Note: This article is slightly adapted from its first printing in The Banner(June 2010). Used by permission.

If you’ve ever recited the Athanasian Creed in a worship service, please send me an email to tell me about it!

In truth, I’ve never heard this creed used in church, and it’s not difficult to see why. Even a quick glance shows you that in addition to being much longer than either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, this creed is also sufficiently repetitive as to get tedious.

But wait: this incredibly long creed has a brief introduction and an even briefer conclusion. The opening states that the faith professed here needs to be kept “whole and unbroken”—and if anyone fails to do so, that person will “perish eternally.” Then at the very end we read, “This is the catholic [universal] faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.” That’s a real zinger!

If it seems a bit on the severe side, that’s doubtless a reflection of the fact that the Athanasian Creed centers on the two biggest teachings the early church had to tackle: the nature of God and the nature of Jesus Christ.

No matter which religion you’re talking about, it’s clear that knowing your God is about as important as it gets. If atheists are correct and there is no God, then religion is just what atheists claim it to be: deluded silliness. Then again, if there is one true God, not only is religion warranted, there is also no more important pursuit than determining who God is.

But putting it that way sounds a little dry, so let’s warm things up and remind ourselves that, for Christians, it’s not just a matter of right knowledge but of love. We are to love the Lord our God with everything we’ve got. And when you love someone, you want to know everything about your beloved.

Believe it or not, that’s the aim of the Athanasian Creed: to help us know our beloved God better.

Specifically, this creed wants us to understand the sublime mystery of the Trinity. Our God is just one God, but he exists as a community of three persons. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have absolutely everything in common—each is uncreated, immeasurable, eternal, almighty, even as each person of the Trinity is properly seen as the true God and Lord of the universe.

But for all they have in common, they can be distinguished too.

The Son, not the Father or the Spirit, was the one who became human inside the womb of Mary. The Spirit, not the Father or the Son, was the one poured out in power at Pentecost. This is the God we love.

The other main concern of this creed is to help us understand the Savior we love. Here too we have to wrap our minds around a mystery: Jesus is just one person, but he is both divine and human. As divine, the person who was born of Mary in Bethlehem existed from all eternity. But his human nature did have a starting point when the virgin Mary became pregnant by the power of God.

Yet Jesus is not a hybrid, he’s not a mixture, and he’s not two different persons. He is one person who is both divine and human. Both. That’s the Savior we love.

Someone once said that the gospel message is like a body of water. In one sense it’s shallow enough for a baby to splash around in without danger of drowning. In another sense it’s a vast ocean into whose never-ending depths a person could dive forever. Our Christian faith, in other words, is both as simple as saying, “Jesus is Lord!” and as mysteriously complex as a statement like the Athanasian Creed. It’s both. Just like God: both one and three. Just like Jesus: both one and two.

These may not be simple ideas. But they are glorious ones because they come from the One who loved us while we were yet sinners and whom we now get to love back forever and ever.

The Athanasian Creed: A Litany

Scott Hoezee remarks that he has never heard the Athanasian Creed recited in worship, probably because its length can make it rather tedious. To help make the creed more accessible for use in worship, Leon Johnston has created the following litany by dividing it between various readers and the congregation. Johnston is pastor of Wolf Creek Community Church, Lacombe, Alberta.

—JB

Leader: Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally. Now this is the catholic faith:

All: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.

Reader 1: For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another.

Reader 2: But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

Leader: What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated.

The Father is immeasurable, the Son is immeasurable, the Holy Spirit is immeasurable.

The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal.

All: And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being.

Reader 2: So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.

Leader: Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being.

Reader 1: Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God.

Reader 2: Thus the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord. Yet there are not three lords; there is but one Lord.

All: Just as Christian truth compels us to confess each person individually as both God and Lord, so catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords.

Leader: The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone. The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone. The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; he proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Accordingly there is one Father, not three fathers; there is one Son, not three sons; there is one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits.

Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.

So in everything, as was said earlier, we must worship their trinity in their unity and their unity in their trinity.

Reader 1: Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the trinity.

But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully.

Now this is the true faith:

All: That we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and human, equally.

Reader 1: He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity.

Reader 2: Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one.

He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person. For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and human.

He suffered for our salvation; he descended to hell; he arose from the dead; he ascended to heaven; he is seated at the Father’s right hand; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

At his coming all people will arise bodily and give an accounting of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.

Leader: This is the catholic faith: one cannot be saved without believing it.

For Discussion
  1. The Athanasian Creed states: “This is the catholic [universal] faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.” Is the creed claiming too much for itself? Does it have the right to demand this level of adherence to its teaching? Does this rule out salvation for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and others who do not espouse the doctrine of the Trinity as we do?
  2. Do you agree with Hoezee that “knowing your God is about as important as it gets”? How is the God revealed in Scripture different from other gods? How is that God similar to other gods?
  3. Can we love someone we do not know? How well do we have to know someone to genuinely love him or her? How well do we need to know God?
  4. What “traction” does an understanding of the Trinity have in our daily life?
  5. The Athanasian Creed confesses that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. Does that make any practical difference to us? Suppose he was only God or only human. How would it matter?