Athanasian Creed + Commentary

I really like this creed. I add a commentary, which I hope clarifies it. We the church today ignore it at our peril, particularly the American church.

It was not written by Athanasius (c. 296-373), but it looks like an expanded version of the Nicene Creed (AD 325), so evidently it was named after him or in honor of him. Its date ranges from the latter half of the fourth century or fifth centuries (350s to 450s+) and not later than the sixth century (500s). But to narrow down the range, parallels between the creed and the letters coming out of the Council of Constantinople in 381 confirms the period 381-428.

The creed is also called Pseudo-Athananian Creed or Quicunque Vult. named after the opening line “whoever wishes” or “whoever wills.” It was originally written in Latin and translated into Greek.

Works Cited (and scroll down to NIDCC)

Eastern Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants accept it (but see no. 23).

Incidentally, the word catholic comes from the Greek word for universal. It is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church.

Read the creed, and there’s no shame in your game if you have to read it five or ten times before things click!

Here are Scriptures (and no doubt others not included in this long list) that they used to build their creed:

2. Two Natures in One Person: He Was Human and God

Now let’s look into their deductions from these Scriptures, boiled down in this remarkable creed.

I write my commentary as a student, only to learn. I’m not an expert.

I add emphasis in bold font to show the two main sections, the Trinity and Incarnation:

1.. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [universal]  faith;

2.. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

3.. And the catholic [universal] faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

4.. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

5.. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.

6.. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

7.. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.

8.. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.

9.. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.

10.. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.

11.. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.

12.. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible,

13.. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.

14.. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.

15.. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;

16.. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

17.. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;

18.. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.

19.. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

20.. So are we forbidden by the catholic [universal] religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.

21.. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.

22.. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.

23.. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

24.. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

25.. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

26.. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

27.. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

28.. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

29.. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

30.. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.

31.. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.

32.. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.

33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.

34.. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.

35.. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.

36.. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.

37.. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;

38,, Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;

39.. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;

40.. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

41.. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;

42.. and shall give account of their own works.

43.. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

44.. This is the catholic [universal] faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

Commentary

Lines 1-2

1.. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [universal]  faith;

2.. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

I analyze these lines in my closing thoughts. Is a formal knowledge of this creed necessary for salvation?

Line 3

3. And the catholic [universal] faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

It introduces the topic in the first section: the Trinity.

Lines 4-5

4.. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

5.. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.

We don’t divide the substance or essence or nature of God (as line 4 says), and we don’t confuse or confound or merge the persons, who are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is very important. Don’t divide the substance into three parts, as we will see in Lines 16-20.

In the following image F = Father; S = Son; and HS = Holy Spirit. However, the image is wrong because the substance has been divided into three parts:

Remember line four. Don’t confound the persons, which is not done here, for the persons are kept distinct. But also don’t divide the substance, which is (wrongly) done here. This is tritheism (three gods). The correct Trinitarian doctrine rejects it.

Line 5 is also important, for you must keep the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit distinct. Don’t confound or merge them. So combining lines 4 and 5, we get:

Substance = indivisible

Persons = distinct

Line 6 to 10

6.. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

7.. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.

8.. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.

9.. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.

10.. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.

Line 6 begins the proclamation of the substance (essence or nature), going all the way to line ten. The creed is merely stating that the three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) share those listed divine attributes, together, as one in substance or essence or nature. But in the next section (Lines 11-20) we will learn that they are not three Gods or three Almighties or three Lords. Thus, the three persons, who must not be confounded or fused together, do share those attributes that are “contained” within one indivisible substance. Once again: the substance / essence / nature is not to be divided, but the three persons (the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit) are to be distinct and separate without confusion or being merged together.

There are three persons (The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), but not three Gods or Lords or Almighties (and so on). See the illustration, next.

You may want to study this image for a few minutes (take as long as you need). This image keeps the three persons distinct:

I really like the triangle superimposed on the circle. The three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are distinguished by the circle with the words “is not.” The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit; the Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit; and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Further, each person is in a separate corner of the triangle. Therefore, the three persons are distinct, yet each person shares the same substance or essence called God.

Evidently the creed requires us to believe that whatever is not a person belongs to the substance. We distinguish the persons, but not divide the substance.

What a Divine Attribute Is

Lines 11-20

This is the heart of this first section on the Trinity.

11.. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.

12.. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible,

13.. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.

14.. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.

15.. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;

16.. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

17.. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;

18.. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.

19.. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

20.. So are we forbidden by the catholic [universal] religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.

The three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) share the same substance / essence; therefore, remember the rule: don’t divide the substance. Three persons share the same “Godness,” “Lordness,” and “Almighty-ness” (and so on), but there are not therefore three Gods or three Lords or three Almighties.

As just noted, the creed evidently requires us to believe that whatever is not the person belongs to the substance. We distinguish the persons, but not divide the substance.

Why are there not three gods?

Here is an illustration from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (p. 321, Fig. 14.4). It is the right way to understand the Trinity:

Note that three persons (F, S, HS or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are within one God, sharing the same essence. The one God (= the circle), monotheism, and all three persons are contained in it. Each person is equal to the whole being of God. The dotted lines keep the persons distinct, but they also are dotted to indicate interpersonal relationship between the three persons. The substance is not divided, but shared by all three persons, equally.

As usual, don’t push illustrations too far. They are merely designed to help guard against misunderstanding and to clarify.

Now let’s apply it, as the creed says:

The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God ≠ Three Gods, But = One God. That is, the three persons are contained within the One God. Don’t divide the substance (Godness) by creating three circles, and keep the three persons distinct by keeping them in one circle and drawing the dotted lines!

God the Father is holy, God the Son is holy, and God the Spirit is holy ≠ Three Holy Gods, But One Holy God. That is, the three persons are contained within the One Holy God. Don’t divide the substance (God and the attribute of holiness) into three circles, and keep the three persons distinct!

What a Divine Attribute Is

As usual, don’t push the illustrations too far, because we are talking about the Ultimate Being: One God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. who equally share the same substance and attributes.

Lines 21-23

21.. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.

22.. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.

23.. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

They describe the relationship between the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is not made nor created, nor begotten. The Son is also not created or made, but is of the Father and begotten, which means that the Father generates the Son in his personhood. The Spirit is not made or created, but proceeds from the Father and the Son in his personhood.

The main point is that the Father is the “source” of the person of the Son and the person of the Spirit, but the Father did not make or create either the Son or the Spirit. The Son and Spirit are co-eternal with the Father (see lines 6 and 10). The generation is eternal, without beginning. Anything that is eternal cannot have a beginning. Anything that does not have a beginning is not made or created. Therefore, the Father, the Son, the Spirit are not created or made, but are co-eternal.

Also, they are co-equal in their substance / essence.

I like what professional theologian Donald Frame says of “begotten.” “‘Begotten’ is little more than a synonym for “Son” (p. 494). In affirming we don’t know the details, Frame also says, “A certain amount of reverent agnosticism is appropriate here” (p. 495). No, this is not agnosticism that doubts God’s existence, but the kind of agnosticism that keeps quiet about such heavenly matters like eternal generation or being begotten.

Personally, I like to simplify things. The Scriptures reveal the Father and the Son, not to give us a headache, but so we can relate to them. We can have a personal relationship with the Father as intimately (and more so) as we have with our own father. And we can relate to the Son as the Messiah and Lord, who has a unique relationship with the Father. The Son reveals the Father. The title Father is more personal and revealing than “God.”

Bottom line: let’s have a relationship with the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit), since they are revealed in Scripture in those two (three) persons, for our relational benefit.

The Trinity: What Does ‘Only Begotten Son’ Mean in John 3:16?

Note: as to Line 23, the Eastern Orthodox church says that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father.

Line 24

24.. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

This would be a very odd tritheism. Three Fathers? No. Three Sons? No. Three Holy Spirits? No. You must keep the three persons distinct, but don’t ignore the other two persons and don’t multiply one person into three.

Lines 25-27

25.. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

26.. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

27.. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

In their substance / essence, there is no hierarchy, as if the Father has a greater share of the substance or existed before the Son and Spirit. No one of the three persons is greater or prior to the other in their substance. Not any one came before the other two. All three persons are co-eternal and consubstantial or co-essential (share the same substance or essence). (But see the next major section: the Incarnation.) Therefore, the three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), logically, can be worshipped equally.

Line 28

28.. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

I share my thoughts about this section, in my Closing Thoughts section, below.

Line 29

29.. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It introduces the next major section: the Incarnation.

Lines 30 to 37

30.. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.

31.. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.

32.. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.

33.. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.

34.. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.

35.. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.

36.. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.

37.. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;

Line 30 now begins the topic of the Incarnation and states that the Lord Jesus Christ is both God and man. Let’s see how the creed unpacks this statement.

Line 31 says that during his incarnation Jesus’s divine nature is shared or participated in, with his Heavenly Father, while his human nature is shared or participated in, with his human mother, Mary.

Line 32 says that therefore Jesus is true God and true man, and his human nature is described as a reasonable soul, which existed in a body of flesh.

Line 33 says that when Jesus was incarnated, he did not lose his divine substance / essence / nature, but was still co-eternal and co-equal with the Father. But as a man, in his human nature, Jesus was inferior to God the Father.

4. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Took the Form of a Servant

Line 34 says that he is God and man, true, but his dual natures do not entail or require two persons. He is one person, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. He has two natures (divine and human) and they are in one person.

Begin a series, here:

1. Two Natures in One Person: Key Terms and Concepts

Line 35 says that God did not transform or convert to flesh, but his human nature was added to his divine nature. At the Incarnation, the eternal Son kept his divine nature which he shared in eternity with his Father and the Spirit and merely added a human nature from Mary.

Line 36 says that his two natures / substances / essences (divine and human) are not confounded or merged or fused together. And his personhood (Jesus the Messiah from Nazareth—a real human being) is not divided in two, as if there are “two Jesuses,” or two persons named Jesus, but there is only one person, named Jesus .

Two natures: divine and human

One person: Jesus

2. Two Natures in One Person: He Was Human and God

Don’t make a category mistake and fuse together the two natures and divide the one person into two persons.

Imperfect illustration: When you are born again by the word of God, the Spirit lives in you. You partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Now you have two natures in you: divine (generated by the Spirit) and human. Yet you are still one person–you! This illustration is imperfect because our human nature is degraded with sin, but the point is still serviceable: two natures contained in one person.

Yes, this theology about one man goes in the opposite direction to the Trinity. In the Trinity, we keep the persons distinct and don’t divide the substance. Here with the Incarnation, we keep Jesus’s personhood unified and one, and we divide the nature in two (human and divine)!

Line 37 is an analogy. As humankind is body and soul yet one person, so also Jesus is divine and human yet one person. The illustration under line 36 comes close. We can understand the theology that Jesus is two natures in one person, in a weak and imperfect way.

Line 38-43

38.. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;

39.. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;

40.. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

41.. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;

42.. and shall give account of their own works.

43.. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

These lines are easy to comprehend, since they tell the story of Jesus from his death to resurrection and ascension and his Second Coming and judgment of humanity. The Scriptures testify everywhere that this section is obviously true; it is the main message of the New Testament. So no comment is needed here.

Instead, here are some links:

Why the Cross?

9. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Died for You

10. Do I Really Know Jesus? Did He Descend into Hades to Preach?

11. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Was Resurrected from the Dead

12. Do I Really Know Jesus? What Was His Resurrected Body Like?

13. Do I Really Know Jesus? His Resurrection Changes Everything

14. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Appeared to His Disciples

15. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Ascended into Heaven

17. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Is Seated at Right Hand of Father

Bible Basics about the Final Judgment

Ten Biblical Truths about Your New Body

Everyone Shall Be Judged by Their Works and Words

Bible Basics about Hell

To sum up lines 38-43, this verse comes to mind:

16 Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16, NIV)

The Incarnation is a great mystery.

Line 44

44.. This is the catholic [universal] faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

See my thoughts in the next section.

Final Thoughts

I like the creed because it is good to feel connected to our Christian forebears and spiritual ancestors. It gives me a bigger perspective than my narrow, modern American Christianity.

However, I can’t agree with Lines 1, 2, 28, 29, and 44, which say that belief in this creed is necessary for salvation. No. Instead, the Scriptures clearly teach that all you have to do to be saved is, by his grace, to call on the name of the Lord and declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (i.e. vindicated him) (Rom. 10:9-11). And you must be born again (John 3:3, 7; Titus 3:5).

Here are important verses that teach us how to be saved. Does anyone see the formal doctrine of the Trinity, as outlined in the Athanasian Creed, in them?

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (Rom. 10:9-10, NIV)

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31, NIV)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, […] And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. […] I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:1, 11-12, 13, NIV)

We must believe and trust in Jesus’s Lordship, Sonship, and Messiahship. Believing that he was raised from the dead implies that he is the ascended Lord, Son, and Messiah. The Father vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead after his seeming defeat on the cross. When we believe and trust in him from the heart, we are saved.

But we must also be careful not to deny the premises in the Athanasian Creed, either (except Lines 1, 2, 28, 29, 44!).

Instead of basing your salvation on knowing the creed by your intellectual prowess–out of reach for many people (and me too)–you look to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in relational terms. You enjoy a relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Spirit. So you experience the Trinity, by your walk (life) in his grace and your faith.

So let’s be pastoral and teach the Church to have a relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14, NIV)

Enjoying this experiential relationship, the laity will not be prone to deny the Trinity. If someone wants to go deeper than this relationship and explore the doctrine of the Trinity more formally, then great! But his salvation does not depend on his formal knowledge of this wonderful and necessary and indispensable doctrine. His salvation does not depend on his knowledge of what the substance is or what a person is, for example. Rather, his salvation depends on the grace of God and a living faith and abiding relationship and union with the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Experience the Trinity!

And read the creed!

RELATED

Statements of Faith: Apostles Creed and NAE

Nicene Creed

Supplemental Statement of Faith: Two Historic Creeds

Definition or Creed of Chalcedon

Athanasian Creed + Commentary

SOURCES

https://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html

Works Cited (see Grudem, pp. 319-21, 2nd ed. for the correct image)

 

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