Athanasian Creed: A Review

Who am I to “review” the Athanasian Creed?

I do not review it on my own authority. I review it on the authority of the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and of the Christians, churches, and councils that preceded the production of the Athanasian Creed.

I make two assertions:

1. It is impossible for someone to promote the Athanasian Creed if he knows what the Nicene Creed teaches.
2. The number of Protestants and Catholics who know what the Nicene Creed teaches are very, very few.

We’ve discussed the Nicene Creed over the last few days. Let’s look at the Athanasian Creed today. It is wordy and repetitive, so we’ll just address parts of it today. The whole text is all over the internet. For example, it’s at theopedia.com or at christian-history.org (my site). If you want to read the whole thing, you’ll need to read it there.

The Athanasian Creed begins by saying that anyone that does not hold to the Catholic Faith as described in the creed, they shall “without doubt” perish eternally. In that case, if the Athanasian Creed is indeed accurate, then the bishops who formed the creed of Nicea went straight into the fires of Hades.

For the sake of brevity, I am going to have to leave out lots of words in my quotes from the Athanasian Creed. Feel free to go check the entire text of the creed against my abbreviations. You will find the abbreviations accurate.

Athanasian Creed: We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity.
Nicene Creed: We believe in one God … and one Lord … also in the Holy Spirit.

Athanasian Creed: So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three lords, but one Lord.
Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God … also in the Holy Spirit.
Scripture: For us there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6).

I hope you can tell the difference in terminology here.

One can argue that this is just semantics, but wrong semantics lead to wrong teaching, which leads to wrong believing and wrong obeying.

I can tell you one major negative result of the ideas inherent in these statements from the Athanasian Creed, which is that most Christians have forgotten that the Son is really the Word of God.

No, I mean really the Word of God.

Let’s dispense with the word “Word,” just for a moment. The Greek word Logos is a much bigger word than “word.” It’s definition is far wider. Here’s Tertullian’s best shot at explaining what the Logos might be inside of God by comparing it with logos inside of us.

Observe, then, that when you are silently conversing with yourself, this very process is carried on within you by your reason, which meets you with a word at every movement of your thought … Whatever you think, there is a word … You must speak it in your mind … Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second person within you, through which in thinking you utter speech … The word is itself a different thing from yourself. Now how much more fully is all this transacted in God, whose image and likeness you are? (Against Praxeas 5)

Tertullian actually discusses the word Logos and argues that it is better translated “Reason,” but he also chooses the translation of Logos, as do most early Christians, based on the specific work that God is doing through his Logos.

When the Logos was inside of him, then he was Reason. He was the thoughts and ideas of God as explained in Tertullian’s example above. When he was ready not just to plan, but to do, then he birthed his Logos as his Son. From then on the Logos would not just be Reason, but he would be Word, for God does all things by speaking. His first words were, “Let there be light,” or, more precisely, “Light, be!”

In this very real sense Jesus was God’s Word. We say it, and we find ways to express it, but most of us have never heard that he was literally the Word of God. We have never heard that the very fact that God spoke in Genesis was a testimony to the pre-existence of the Son of God, the divine Logos, born before the beginning.

And of course we don’t think about that truth because we have forgotten, or never heard, that the Son of God was begotten of God before the beginning. Even that great and simple truth has escaped us.

How many times have I seen a Christian squirm when a Jehovah’s Witness pointed out that Jesus is called the firstborn over all creation? Many. We try to remake the word to mean the one with priority or the ruler over all creation, but the word remains, giving us fits.

Yet if we were merely to believe our inheritance, the faith that has been passed down to us, then we would rejoice over that verse and others as testimonies of the faith of the apostles.

If you read the Athanasian Creed earlier, then about now you should be pointing out to me that it confirms that the Son is begotten, while the Father is unbegotten. In fact, it points it out more than one time.

This is true, but we do not repeat the Athanasian Creed today. Some know about it, but only some, and only a rare few have read it. The part we know about is right at the beginning: “We worship one God in Trinity.”

That, in itself, is not false, We should worship one God in Trinity. One God the Father, from whom is one Lord, the Son of God—truly divinity from divinity and light from light, sharing one divine substance with the Father—and from whom proceeds one Spirit.

We have also managed to remember that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but that is mentioned in the Nicene Creed as we know (and recite) it today. Also, the Scriptures are much more vague about the person of the Holy Spirit (though not vague at all about his role), so he seems, if I may, different than the Father and the Son.

The Son, however, is active and personal. He speaks in audible words. Even under the old covenant, before his birth as a human, he appeared and was visible and touchable.

When we are not reminded that he is the divine Logos, born of the Father before the beginning, we forget. Most western Christians have forgotten. We wonder in what way he is different or distinct from the Father. What does he do that the Father does not do?

He is equal to the Father, we are told, which is true in divinity, but not at all in role. The Son does the will of the Father, not vice versa. The Son is sent by the Father. In fact, we read that the Son is sent by God. You will never read that the Father is sent by anyone, and you will certainly not read that the Father is sent by God. The Son is never spoken of as the Father’s God, but the Father is spoken of as the Son’s God regulary. Even in Hebrews 1:8, where the Son is addressed as God, even there we read that “your God” is sending him.

I’ll quit there and leave you to compare the one creed with the other.

Athanasian Creed
Nicene Creed

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7 Responses to Athanasian Creed: A Review

  1. Tuomas Nurmi says:

    Well, you were the one, who said: “we have never heard that the fact God spoke in Genesis is a testimony for the pre-existence of the Son.”, so I assume you include yourself to the lot. However, around here are plenty of folks, who have speak about it a lot, so I’m simply pointing out, that your generalization is not that valid. For me, for one, it was a true revelation that here are bible reading Christians, who don’t readily take it as obvious that this passage argues for the pre-existence of the Son. Apparently we haven’t been talking with the same people 🙂

    As for meaning of words, I’d have to disagree with you here, on the basis of linguistics. More precisely, what is the context? The general context of words is language, and word do have meaning in that context. For example, we might say that in the English “God” means the supreme being who was in relationship with Abraham Isaac and Jacob, but in some other language it’s just babbling. As for the name of the Lord, this get’s a bit more complicated – many biblical scholars claim that the very word YHWH has the property of being divine in itself, and not just point to something divine. Generally the translations of the Name are not considered divine, but still mean that same divine thing.

    Now it boils down the to question what does that that word mean, and in terms Niceacum, what does it mean that we have “one Lord, Jesus”? There are at least two possible interpretations to this: 1) Jesus is the Lord in the sense of YHWH. 2) Jesus is the Lord in some other sense. Athanasian Creed takes the first view, which what Paul said, as I have elsewhere argued.

    In fact, from a slightly different point of view, this question goes right into the heart of the Nicean Creed, and why it was created in the first place: the Arian controversy, which culminated in that one-word (homoousian) fight about the unity between the Father and the Son. In essence it means that the expression “one god, the father, and one Lord, Jesus” does not mean that they would be different, but that they are the same. The fact that the Scriptures calls the Son YHWH, alone should pretty much settle it for Athanasius’s (the person) side.

    (AFAIK this particular argument was not used in the original debate, which isn’t much of a surprise, given the difficult relationship Christian had with Jews…)

    So, yes, I find statements similar to those in the Athanasian creed in the arguments used to defend the Nicean creed.

  2. Tuomas Nurmi says:

    I’ve gone back to the Athanasian creed a few times, and I think it does pretty good job at describing both trinity and incarnation. As for the opening condemnation, I interpret it meaning that the people, who formed this creed, consider people of their time, who have studied and understood it and firmly disagree with it, to be heretics without the guidance of the Spirit. The actual judgement belongs to the Son, of course. I say: “of their time”, because this confession – too – was born in a historical context, with many kinds of teachings pressing against it. Therefore it – too – does better work at saying what is not right, than making an actual positive statement. (I’ve been thinking of writing a positive account of Christianity myself, but…) That being the case with the creed, we should first understand properly the heresies it addresses, and how those heresies were understood by the people of the era. Etc. I think that in the academic circles that’s called history 🙂

    As for the semantics here, I still think you have misunderstood the word “Lord”. Claim that it would be a personal title of the Son is unbiblical, and thus the creed says correctly that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all YHWH. The most difficult of these to prove is the last part, but Paul wrote to Corinthians that He, too, is LORD, so even a claim that the Holy Spirit would not be LORD contradicts the Scripture directly.

    Second, there’s the question what does the “God” mean? If we look at the Greek context, the most obvious thing would be to say that the Father is the god (in cultural terms) of the Christians. But because Father is a person, and not ontological being separate from the Son, from the unity of these two it follows, that they are of the same godhead (what an ugly, but useful term). Thus we should say that in terms of our actions, we are to show our respect to god to the person of Father, but following from their unity, it would be wrong to say that Holy or Jesus are just not as divine (having the the nature of god).

    But this is just my understanding about how the 5th century folks understood the word “deos”. I’m not a historian.

    BTW, our experience about Christians remembering if Jesus is the word of God is different. The same people I mentioned to be fans of Luther have taken this topic to the point of arguing that a printed copy of a Bible translation has – in a sense – an *ontologically* divine nature. The exact argument is hard to refute. With background around Christians like that, it’s hard to remember to say trivialities of type “Jesus is Logos.” After all, while *you* may have never heard that the fact that God spoke in Genesis is a testimony for the pre-existence of the Son, around here it has been banged in the heads with the Bible for centuries 🙂

    More interesting (=less self-evident) topic is the living word, “Rhema”, with it’s contemporary charismatic applications…

    • paulfpavao says:

      I am having to guess quite often at where you are coming from. I am not sure who the “you” is that has “never heard that the fact that God spoke in Genesis is a testimony for the pre-existence of the Son.” I’m not sure why you’re bringing it up, nor do I see that it is relevant to anything that has been said by anyone on this topic. Maybe you can explain.

      Also, I told you that the word kurios does not convey any sort of divine meaning. Only the context can make it convey divine meaning. In response, twice now, you have given an example where what I said is true, but acted like you were disagreeing or correcting. I didn’t even answer the second one, figuring it wasn’t worth continuing whatever miscommunication we’re having.

      Finally, you can run all over the Bible and find this vague reference or that vague reference about all the persons of the Trinity referred to as God or all of them referred to as Lord, but by doing so, you are ignoring the main point. The main point is that when it boils down to a statement of faith, for us there is but one God, the father, and one Lord, Jesus the King. That is what Paul said, and that is what was decided on at Nicea. You can disagree with it, but trying to bolster up the Athanasian Creed by hunting around for some reference to the Holy Spirit as Lord, then worse, translating Lord as YHWH, accomplishes nothing. The Athanasian Creed stiil differs from Scripture and from the Nicene Creed.

      Look at those statements in the Athanasian Creed. Do you find any statements like that in Scripture? In the early Christian writings? In the Apostles or Nicene Creed?

      No. You can run around and pluck a verse here and a verse there and claim that gives you the right to put those verses together and talk about the Trinity in a way that contradicts the way Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians talked about the Trinity, but the fact remains that there is a noticeable difference between the way the Scriptures refer to God and to the persons of the Trinity than the way the Athanasian Creed does.

  3. paulfpavao says:

    Cure. I really like that word. May you receive that grace from God, as well as the one these comments are talking about.

  4. Jim Needler says:

    I am on my third go around with treatment…..diagnosed in Jan. 2006….. been in remission twice, came back in March 2014…..I am currently on a new drug (approved in Feb 2014 for CLL) that may be able to cure it…..no, I am not that Jim Needler…..I am a school teacher in Indiana.

  5. Jim Needler says:

    I have followed you since your sickness…..mainly because I have CLL…..really appreciate the deep thinking that goes into your posts…..God bless…..

    • paulfpavao says:

      Wow. I hope you’re doing well. When I was first diagnosed I knew almost nothing about leukemia except that it had to with the blood. I wasn’t even sure it was a cancer. Then I was told about acute and chronic leukemias, and “acute,” my friend said, was the bad one. When I saw the hematologist, he said, “Oh, it’s definitely acute.”

      Then he told me the dangers of the treatment. “The nice thing,” he said, “is that if you make it through the marrow transplant, you’ll be cured.”

      “Cured?” I asked. “I thought it was incurable.”

      Now I know, it is curable. With acute leukemia I got to roll the dice once, I got beaten nearly to death by chemicals, but now it’s gone. With chronic leukemia, unless they come up with something new, it never goes away, right? How are your treatments going? Do you have a treatment that’s keeping it under control?

      One more question, are you the Jim Needle Conspiracy that comes up on a search engine search? I looked you up because I was wondering if you were the Jim from “Not for Itching Ears,” but a singer got most of the returns on Yahoo!.

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