Trinity Sunday and the Athanasian Creed

Today is Trinity Sunday when the Church focuses on the Triune nature of our God.  It’s also the one day that most of the Western Church uses the Athanasian Creed to confess her faith.  So, it’s worth looking into this Creed more closely.

First, though, the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed form what are called the Three Ecumenical Creeds, which simply means that most of the Western Church uses these Creeds, particularly Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians, and Presbyterians.

If you take a look at the Apostles Creed, you’ll notice that it is fairly short; it summarizes what the apostles taught as they travelled out into the world following Pentecost.  The apostles’ teachings, which were given to them by Christ himself, formed the norm and rule of faith in the early New Testament Church.

Thus, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that God the Father created all things and sent His Son to die for us; that His Son rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and will come again; that the Holy Spirit calls together the Church as a communion of saints; and that we look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

But, there arose disputes in the early New Testament Church.  What it means that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Is he somehow lower than the Father?  Is he less “God” than the Father?

Therefore the Church came together to formulate the Nicene Creed in order to clarify the teaching of the Church on this subject.  The Creed confesses that Jesus as the Son of God is the same “God” as the Father.  He isn’t a different God or a different type of God; he’s the same God as the Father, being of one substance with Him.   And not only is He true God of true God, begotten not made, but He is also the one through whom all things were made, just as the apostle John says in the beginning of his Gospel.  Jesus Christ is the Word of God through whom God created all things in the beginning when He spoke forth His creation.  We see this in Genesis chapter 1; God speaks forth His Word and His Word creates.  He is an active, creating Word who came in the flesh for our salvation.

But later, a new dispute arose in the early Church over what it means that Jesus is the Son of God through whom all things were created.  In the third century a bishop named Arius taught that the Father was somehow “more God” than Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  He taught that the Father first created the Son and then the Son created all things.

In this teaching, Arius thought that he was being very pious.  Do you see why?

Well, Arius thought that he was “protecting” the Father from the material world.  You see, if the Son is the same type or essence of God as the Father, and the Son became man, then the Son combined his infinite divinity with finite humanity.  God became flesh and dwelt among us, getting dirty, tired, thirsty, hungry, tempted, even being born of a woman.

Arius considered this a defiling of the divinity, so he sought to “protect” the Father’s honor by saying that although the Son Jesus Christ is divine, he is a lower type of divinity than the Father; and so according to Arius, the almighty, eternal God did not unite himself with mortal, finite humanity.

You’ll see this argument still today in some church bodies, particularly with regards to the Sacraments; the argument questions how or why our holy, infinite God could or would place himself under the created bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  Why would the Almighty God Himself come into our fallen world?  Well, you see in the Nicene Creed why: he came to us and continues to do so for our salvation.

So, against Arius there arose another bishop named Athanasius who defended Jesus’ divinity by declaring Arius’ teaching wrong.  Athanasius said that Jesus is every bit as much God as the Father.  He said that although it is hard for us to believe that the eternal, Almighty God would descend to us to become flesh and blood and unite himself with our humanity as one person, Jesus Christ – although this is hard for us to understand, comprehend, or believe – this is exactly what God did.  God Himself came to us to save us.  This argument carries forth what the apostle John had said: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:1-3,14).

How amazing is this!  That the almighty, eternal God lowered himself to take on the form of a servant to suffer and die for us.  He came to us to reconcile us to Him through the forgiveness of sins that he gained for us on his cross.  God did it; the one who created us and all things died for us to recreate us again in His image.  The Creator of all things came in the flesh to redeem His creation from sin and death and is returning at the end of the age to restore all things to perfection.  And he is with us even now in the waters of Baptism, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, and the word of Gospel that is proclaimed, precisely because our Jesus Christ is Immanuel – “God with us.”

And so the Creed that bears Athanasius’ name seeks to proclaim the wonder of this faith.  It was written specifically agains the Arians to counter their beliefs.  And so the Athanasian Creed says that the God we worship, the one who created all things, the one who redeemed all things, and the one who does all things according to His will, is one God in three persons.  He is a Trinity: three Persons making up One God.  Each person of the Trinity is unique, but they are one God, not three Gods, and they are of one nature or substance or essence.  So, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all separate persons, but they are together one God, sharing the same substance, nature, or essence that you might label “Godness.”

And they are all equally God, it’s not like you put the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together and end up with some super-God, like they’re Power Rangers.  Rather, they are all equal; neither one is by nature above or below another, they are all equal in the Godhead.  They all share the same glory, they are all uncreated, they are all eternal, they are all the incomprehensible God.  They are all the one Almighty Lord God.  And yet, it is not one God who simply displays himself to us in three different ways, like an actor changing his masks on the stage; no, it is one God who is composed of three separate persons.  So, we worship one God who is a Trinity, not three Gods or one God who is simply pretending to be three different people.

But, the Creed goes on to say that while the Father is neither created nor begotten, the Son is begotten of the Father.  The Creed makes the distinction that the Son is neither made nor created, but begotten.  What does this distinction mean?  Well, you make or create something that is of a different nature, or essence, than yourself, but you beget something that is of your same nature or essence.

So, we make cars and create art, but we beget children.  And so I am a human, just as my father is human.  He begot a human, not a monkey or a Toyota.  And his father before him was a human, not a monkey.

Likewise, our Heavenly Father begot the Son who is God, just like him; they share the same essence – “Godness.”  So, the Father begot the Son, but the Father made and created the world, because the world is not God; it has a different essence or nature.  And not only that, but the Father created all things through His Son, since His Son is His Word, as I mentioned earlier and as we see in Genesis and in John’s Gospel.

And then the Creed says that the Holy Spirit is neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.  This just means that the Holy Spirit is sent forth by the Father and the Son to accomplish God’s good, gracious, and holy will.  And what is His will?  It’s that all people will know the Father through the Son, Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.

Do you see then that all three persons of the Trinity are working together for your salvation and for the restoration of all creation?  Truly, God is not only with us, but he is also for us, acting for our salvation.  The early Church called this the Divine Economy, which just means the way in which God has chosen to act for our salvation: the Father sending the Son to die and rise for us, and the Holy Spirit gathering us together in faith in the Son.

And so, concerning the Holy Trinity, we find that all three persons of the Trinity are coequal and coeternal, because they are all God and exist outside of creation and time; they are uncreated and timeless.  The Holy Trinity is one God, because each Person of the Trinity has the unique essence of being God, and yet they are three separate persons, each having His own identity.

This truly is a mystery that we as created beings, bound by space and time, can not quite understand.  But, the important point of the Creed is that it is upholding the true teachings of the apostles concerning God, given to them by Jesus Christ himself.  The Creed attempts to counter the false teachings of people who say that Jesus is somehow less than fully divine, which is what Arius said and is what Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons continue to say today, and what many in our day and age more subtly say.

So, when we say that Jesus is God, what we mean is that he is Yahweh, the Triune God revealed in the Old Testament to the Israelites as the great “I am;” the God who created all things and who became incarnate for our salvation; the God who came to His people in the Old Testament as “the angel of the Lord.”  So, you see that your God is a God who acts for you and is with you.  The next time you read the New Testament, look at how many times Jesus answers a question with “I am” – he is calling attention to his identity as the God “Yahweh;” the same God that the Israelites – the Church – had always known has now come in the flesh.

And so what a great miracle and act of God’s love that Jesus Christ gave up his body and shed his blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  He didn’t have to do this, he could have let us die in our sins and be separated from him for eternity.  In the hardness of our sinful hearts, this is probably what we would have done to someone who had wronged us.  And yet, God desired to redeem you from sin and death in order to reconcile you to Him, because you are his creatures whom He loves.

The Creed closes by elaborating upon this point, that God came to us in the flesh, both true God and true man.  Jesus Christ has both natures united in his one person.  He is not half God and half man; he is fully God and fully man, both at the same time.  Similar to how the Trinity is one God in three persons, Christ is one person with two natures.  Some in the early Church, such as a man named Nestorius, and some still today, speak of Jesus Christ as if he is two separate people, one God and one human.  And so they’ll point to passages in the Bible and say, “Here is the man Jesus doing this act,” or “Here is the God Christ doing this act.”  Others, like the so-called monophysites, said that the human and the divine were combined in Christ into some new third substance that is a mixture of the two; like when you take bananas and strawberries and blend them together into a shake that’s some weird mixture of the two.

But, what the Creed is saying is that these two views are wrong; Christ has both natures at the same time, not separate and not mixed.  The Creed says that Jesus Christ is one person who is both fully God and fully human, 100% each, at the same time; his divine and human natures are not combined into some third nature that is neither fully God nor fully human, and he is also not separated out into two separate people.

But, what’s the point of all this?  What is the importance is of all this finely tuned argumentation that’s in the Creed?  Well, what the Church is trying to get across is the wonder and importance of what God has done for us in Christ.  God really did become incarnate as a man, it wasn’t some trick to the eyes and it wasn’t some fiction; Jesus Christ, as the eternal Word of God, through whom all things were created, came down in the flesh and was born of the virgin Mary of the Holy Spirit.  The eternal, infinite God became bound by time and space.  And he did this for you so that he could reconcile you to Himself through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.  The same God who created you and all things came in person, in the flesh, to save you and all things from sin and eternal death and to remove evil from his good creation.

Remember that Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the beginning and brought sin and death into the world, as well as alienation from God, from each other, and from creation itself.   We are born into this rebellion and can do nothing to save ourselves from it or reconcile us back to God.

So, Christ came to undo this rebellion as the perfect Adam, the perfect man.  Christ, as the perfect man, fulfilled God’s Law on your behalf, and he died on your behalf, not for his sins – for he was sinless – but for your sins.  He came to redeem you from sin and eternal death, and reconcile you back to God and to each other and to restore all creation.  And, in fact, only God can do this, because this reconciliation depends on the forgiveness of sins that only God can give as the one who was wronged.

So, in Jesus Christ’s very person we see the human and the divine reconciled to each other, and he gives this reconciliation to you through his death and resurrection.  God unites man and God in Christ, and unites man with each other in the bride and body of Christ – the Church, the communion of saints.

And the Creed closes with the sure hope of our faith that Christ will return and raise all the dead.  And then it has a curious statement that says that the resurrected “… 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 seems like an odd statement.  Doesn’t St. Paul say in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Paul says we are saved by grace through faith, apart from any works of our own.  And even our faith is a work of God, lest we boast.  But the Creed says that when Christ returns to raise us from the dead, we will give an account of our works and the good will go to everlasting life and the evil will go into everlasting fire.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when Christ returns, if I have to rely upon my own works, I am scared and worried.  I haven’t done enough good things to be saved.   In truth, none of us have.   And I’ve done a lot of things wrong, as have we all.  If we rely on our own works to be saved, how can we ever know we’ve done enough?  And how can we ever do enough to be saved?  For, as I mentioned, God is the one who was wronged by Adam and Eve’s rebellion, a rebellion into which we are born and therefore for which we bear the consequences, which is death.

Think of it this way, if I do something to you to wrong you, I can’t come to you later to tell you that you’re going to forgive me because I deserve to be forgiven, and I can’t earn your forgiveness through something that I try to give to you.  In order to be forgiven, the one who was wronged must do the forgiving.  And then to be reconciled, the one who did the wronging must receive the forgiveness of the one they wronged.

And so with God, we have wronged him through our inherited sin from Adam and Eve and through our actual sins we’ve done in this life; we are doubly damned.  And we can offer nothing up to God to make Him forgive us.  And so we rely on the free forgiveness of sins that God has given us through Christ, a forgiveness that He gives us purely out of His grace and mercy due to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  This is called grace, because we didn’t earn it, it’s a gift; Christ earned it for us and gave it to us.  Other places in the Bible call it our inheritance, because an inheritance is a gift which comes to us at the death of another; in this case at the death of Christ.

But, it takes one to forgive and two to reconcile.  So, God has freely forgiven us through Christ.  But, what of the reconciliation that takes this forgiveness and applies it to us to bring us back to God?  Well, God has done that as well.  He has reconciled you to Him by bringing you to faith through the working of His Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament.  God has forgiven you freely of your sins and he has brought you to trust in this forgiveness by bringing you to faith in Christ.  God has done it all.  It takes two to reconcile, but God has accomplished both ends of the equation, forgiving your sins through Christ and then reconciling you to Him through the faith that He works in you.  And so, you have been called by God Himself to trust in Christ for your salvation.  Do you see again that every person of the Trinity is working together to save you through this Divine Economy?

And this salvation does not leave you in the state you were in before.  Christ’s reconciliation makes you new people; you are no longer the dead sinners you were before, but now you are alive in Christ.  As long as you are in this life, you will continue to struggle with sin, but now you are no longer owned by sin, death, and the devil, but rather you are owned by Christ; you are His.  You have been transferred from Satan’s domain to Christ’s domain.  And so, no wonder then, that the works you now do through Christ are good works, because you are his people.

Christ compares this to a vine that produces good fruit.  In John chapter 15, Christ says that he is the vine and that through faith you abide in him as do branches on the vine.  And so, as branches on the vine of Christ through faith, you naturally produce good fruit.  It is just what you do as a result of who you are.  But, those who are not grafted onto the vine of Christ through faith wither and produce bad fruit.

And so when the Creed talks about Christ judging us for our works, this is what it means.  Those who produce good works have done so because they have faith in Christ; they are the good branches on the vine who, according to their new nature as Christ’s people, naturally produce good fruit; good works flowing from faith.  Conversely, those who produce evil works have done so because they are apart from Christ; they have no faith, and so everything they do, not matter how good it appears to the rest of the world, is evil, because it is done without faith; dead works flowing from unbelief.

When I quoted from Ephesians 2:8-9 earlier, I purposely left out verse 10, although it logically concludes these verses.  Verses 8 and 9 say that we are saved by God’s grace apart from works and that our faith is also a work of God, whereby he reconciles us to Him.  Verse 10 tells us what happens next: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  It’s like what Christ says about the vine and the branches.  So, just as Christ bears the name of His Father, so too do we bear the name of Christ.  Christ gives us His righteousness just as a vine feeds the branches.

And this is because God has made us new creations in Christ.  You were baptized into the name of the Triune God.  Just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created all things in the beginning, so too is He making you a new creation in Baptism.  He speaks you into His salvation through His Word.  He called you into this new creation and promised you that you will dwell with Him for eternity.  And to uphold this faith in you, He gives you Christ’s body and blood each week at His altar; God comes to you in person.  God is continually acting for you on your behalf, because He loves you through Christ.  He is “God for us” and “God with us.”  The eternal, almighty God, who exists outside of creation, has taken note of you and saved you through Christ; He has given you His name as your loving Heavenly Father.  How amazing and wonderful is this!

And so, on this Trinity Sunday, despite all my words, ultimately we are still left with the mystery of the Trinity.  But, what we do know is that we worship one God in three persons.  And we know that this God whom we worship created all things from nothing and that He as the creator is separate from His creation, yet loves and tends it.  And we know that God created all things good, but that his creatures rebelled against Him and brought sin and death into the world.  And we know that God acted and is acting even now to redeem His creation from sin and death and reconcile us back to Him.

In the beginning, God dwelt with Adam and Eve in the garden before their fall into sin, and He intends to dwell with you again for eternity through the forgiveness of sins.  And He has forgiven your sins through Christ, and reconciled you to Him through the faith that the Holy Spirit has worked in you through Word and Sacrament; a faith that trust’s in Christ’s righteousness for your salvation.  And we look forward to Christ’s return when we, both body and soul as whole resurrected people, will enter into the presence of the Lord to dwell with Him for eternity in His restored creation, just as He has intended for us all along.

And until that day, we have the Lord even now dwelling in our midst in the Church through His Word and Sacraments, because He is “God with us.”  And we have the command and promise of Christ to carry us through until His return where he says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  Amen.



(Image information:

Detail from Cotton Faustina manuscript B. VII, folio 42v, showing a “Scutum Fidei” or Shield of the Trinity triangular diagram, with a representation of Christ on the cross.

This is part of a ca. 1210 illustration to the Compendium Historiae in Genealogia Christi by Peter of Poitiers (or Petrus Pictaviensis).

The Latin text on the shield in the image includes the words or scribal abbreviations for “PATER” (the Father), “SPIRITUS SANCTUS” (the Holy Spirit), and “FILIUS” (the Son) in the three outer nodes, and “DEUS” (God) in the center node. The text in the links connecting the outer nodes to each other reads “NON EST” (Is not), while the text along the links connecting the center node to the outer nodes reads “EST” (Is).

This is the chronologically earliest known version of the Scutum Fidei or Shield of the Trinity diagram.

By Unknown (13th century scribe) – British Library, Public Domain,