Feast of the Holy Trinity _ Athanasian Creed (LSB, p. 319)
Zion Lutheran Church, Dexter, Iowa & St. John’s Evangelical-Lutheran Church U.A.C., Casey, Iowa
The Revd Jeffrey M. Keuning
Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. [Amen.]
To-day is Trinity Sunday, and every Lutheran knows what that means: it’s the day we recite that long creed with the funny name. Please turn in your hymnals to the Athanasian Creed on page 319.
It’s not uncommon for people to groan or roll their eyes when they think of this creed—maybe you’re one of them, groaning inwardly even now. Why do people have this attitude? Well, people think:
• it’s long
• it’s got a strange name that’s hard to remember how to pronounce
• it’s repetitive
• it’s confusing
Let’s dispel those ideas this morning, and talk about why the Athanasian Creed was written, why we confess it, what it confesses, and why we ought to know it better than we do. Martin Luther thought highly of the Athanasian Creed. He said of it: I doubt whether, since the time of the Apostles in the New Testament Church, a more important and glorious creed has been written. (W 6:2315) High praise, indeed. So, let’s take a more careful look.
First, it’s length. To be sure, it is longer than either of the other two creeds we use—the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. However, you’ll spend more time watching commercials during a half-hour television program than you will confessing the Athanasian Creed. And, by the way, Hey Jude by the Beatles lasts a full three minutes longer than the time it takes to confess the Athanasian Creed.
The Athanasian Creed. What is a creed, anyhow? And why confess a creed? Some churches say they have no creed. Why do we?
Every church has a creed. Every person has a creed. A creed is simply a statement of what one believes. It comes, as many things in the Church do, from the Latin. The Latin word credo means “I believe.” In their Latin forms, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds start out with the word credo: Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentum. I believe in God the Father Almighty. So a creed is simply a statement of what we believe. It points out the distinction between those who hold the true faith and unbelievers.
There are creeds in the Bible—a number of them. Deuteronomy 6 records the creed of the Israelites: Hear, O Israel, the LORD, our God, is one Lord. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, St Paul writes: I brought to you what I received—something very important: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor15:3–4). It sounds an awful lot like a portion of the creeds we’re familiar with, doesn’t it?
Even churches that say they have no creeds really do. They might not subscribe to any formal creed, like we do. They say, We believe the Bible. And if you press them: What do you believe about the Bible?, you’ll often find out that they have a list of the Ten Most Important Teachings of the Bible, or something like that. Well, that’s nothing more than a creed. But it’s a creed that only their congregation or maybe their denomination confesses.
We subscribe to what are called the three Ecumenical Creeds. That is, creeds that were at one time confessed by the whole Christian Church and still are confessed by the majority of the Christian Church.
Next, we see that it’s called the Athanasian Creed. What’s with the weird name? It’s named after a man named Athanasius, who was one of the key figures at the Council of Nicaea in 325. This council was convened by the emperor Constantine, where all the leaders in the Church, all the bishops, came together to answer a question that was plaguing the Church and causing unrest in his empire: who is Jesus?
A man named Arius had been teaching that the Son of God was a god, but not the God. He was not eternal, Arius said; He was created. He was not fully equal with the Father, according to Arius; but subordinate to Him. Athanasius, not even yet a bishop, but only the assistant to the bishop of Alexandria, became one of the great defenders of the faith. He was a small, dark-skinned man whom his opponents called the Black Dwarf, but he was a giant of a theologian, and contended for the biblical doctrine against the Arian majority.
Athanasius prevailed, and the Christian Church confesses the biblical teaching to this day in a creed formulated at Nicaea in 325: the Nicene Creed. Athanasius and his contention for the truth are the reasons you confess that Jesus is ‘God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made’ and, most importantly, for this was the very area of contention, ‘being of one substance with the Father.’
By the way, the Arian heresy didn’t go away. Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably the most prominent Arian heretics in our day. So, this creed we confess to-day is named for Athanasius, though it was not written by him. It dates to the fifth century, in the Roman province of Gaul, what is to-day France. The barbarian invaders—the Goths—held to the Arian heresy, and this creed was written to combat their false theology.
By the eighth century, the emperor Charlemagne decreed that all churchmen had to learn it. At a synod in Rheims in 852, an ordinance was passed requiring the clergy to memorize it, grasp its meaning, and be able to expound it in popular language.
Having a better understanding of the name of the creed, let’s look at its content. We’ll use the numbers the hymnal has helpfully provided.
Let’s read together paragraph 1:
1 Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.
The first thing that leaps out at us is that word catholic.
(Explain meaning of catholic. Maybe translation sequence? Viz.: καθολικος –> catholicam –> kristliche –> christian [Ap, Nic]) καθολικος –> catholicam –> catholic [Ath])
Let’s read again, 1 and 2:
1 Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.
2 Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.
Why? Why is this so important? Because it’s necessary to believe in the true God. There is only one God and He does not tolerate false gods. He says in Isaiah: I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols (Isa 42:8).
Well, what is the substance of this saving faith in the true God? It’s summarized in 3–4:
3 And the catholic faith is this,
4 that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
Heresy in the Church generally comes in two forms: attacks on the Trinity or attacks on the person of Jesus Christ. The first part of the Athanasian Creed is going to deal with the Trinity. Notice that this summary negotiates a path between two ditches of heresy on either side:
• confusing the persons; that is, failing to distinguish between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and
• splitting up the Godhead, so that there are three Gods (this is, by the way, what the Muslims accuse Christians of)
Notice how 5 & 6 develop this central path of truth further:
5 For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another.
6 But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
The next portion of the creed is going to explain in detail, that God is one, and that each of the persons of the Trinity is fully God. Let us read 7–18.
7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit:
8 the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated;
9 the Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite;
10 the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal.
11 And yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal,
12 just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite.
13 In the same way, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty;
14 and yet there are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
15 So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God;
16 and yet there are not three Gods, but one God.
17 So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord;
18 and yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord.
Why the repetitiousness? It seems tedious. It’s written this way to smoke out heretics. It’s designed so that heretics cannot weasel their way around the true biblical doctrine.
The section we just read confessed the unity of the Godhead, and the fact that all three persons of the Godhead are truly God. You might guess that the following section would show how the three Persons are distinguished. And you would be right.
19 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.
20 The Father is not made nor created nor begotten by anyone.
21 The Son is neither made nor created, but begotten of the Father alone.
22 The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding.
23 Thus, there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
24 And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another;
25 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.
Note that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinguished from one another, but not separated.
Finally, this section of the creed is once again summarized:
26 Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.
But, it’s not enough just to believe the Trinity. You are saved by the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Himself says in John 14: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. I said earlier, that heresy comes in two basic forms: attacks on the Trinity or attacks on the person of Jesus Christ. And so, the next portion of the Athanasian Creed deals with Jesus. Remember, this section was written against heretics, false teachers, who taught either:
• that Jesus was not truly God, or
• that He was not really a man.
This section of the creed sounds more familiar, more like what we know from the other creeds, with a bit more explanation of the incarnation:
27 But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
28 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.
29 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:
30 perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh;
31 equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity.
32 Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ:
33 one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God;
34 one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
35 For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ,
36 who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead,
37 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.
38 At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds.
39 And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.
Ooh, that part rankles a bit, doesn’t it? After all, we are Lutherans, we don’t believe in salvation by works. What is meant here?
John 6 records that, when the crowds came to Jesus, they asked Him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Faith in Christ is counted for a good work in the eyes of God.
Lastly, another section that may raise some eyebrows:
40 This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.
The negative statements are called ‘Damnatory Clauses,’ and are similar to those of St Paul in Galatians 1:8-9—But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Why have creeds?
They confess the true God, the One who made us and redeemed us. More here: redemption by the cross, etc.
Proper confession is necessary, so that we can be certain that all our sins are forgiven, in the Name of the Father, and of the T Son, and ofthe Holy Ghost. [Amen.]
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. [Amen.]