Quicunque Vult is the Latin name for the Athanasian Creed. It’s from the first words, “Whoever will”. “Whoever will what? Be saved, that’s what. In summary, “whoever will be saved…” and not “perish everlastingly” must worship “one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” Doesn’t that make your head spin? How about when we pray that 14th century Collect and say that God has given us “grace…to worship the true Unity in the power of Your divine majesty”? If it doesn’t spin then, it will when we get to the Proper Preface and say “we worship the Trinity in Person and the Unity in Substance of Majesty coequal.” No wonder in Contemporary Worship of all flavors there is rarely any mention let alone emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity, and so Reformed scholar Michael Horton concludes: In their rush to “dispense with formal structures, many churches today leave this central article out in the cold as an abstraction that fails to touch and shape their lives each week" (Christian Faith, 278). C.S. Lewis says it’s worse than that: “at each step in the process of refinement our idea of God contains less… and we reach at last mere zero and worship a nonentity” (Miracles,144).
As head-spinning and mind-boggling as the Trinity is, you deny the Trinity you lose your soul. The person who thinks the confession on our money or in our pledge is adequate denies the Trinity. “In God We Trust” and “one nation under God” can be and is confessed by Deists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, and Mormons. These don’t believe and some actively deny that God is 3 Persons in 1 divine essence. Even some Christians who will say they believe in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, really believe in 1 God who has 3 different modes or masks. The one God is sometimes Father, sometimes Son, and sometimes Spirit. This isn’t the faith that saves. This is a 2nd century heresy called Modalism.
Deny the Trinity and you lose your soul, and the usual sticking point with reason is the Man Jesus. But Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn 14:6), and, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (Jn 5:23) and John says, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father” (1 Jn 2:23). These are quite clear. You can speak about God, confess to believe in God, but without the Man Jesus, God the Son, you worship not the Trinity. “Outside of Whom [Christ] no other God is to be worshipped or sought” (LW 12, 352). A knowledge of God apart from Christ is “’a knowledge of the wrong side of God’” (Luther in Pieper, I, 389).
Deny the Trinity and you lose your soul, but try to understand the Trinity and you lose your mind. This is Spock in the original Star Trek looking at the Medusan ambassador without a protective visor and going insane at the sight. Or if you prefer Stephen King’s The Jaunt. A boy wants to experience teleportation without the safety precautions of being sedated. His look into eternity renders him insane. Or how about the woman in a 1915 novel who learning of the suicide of the man she loved tried finding comfort in an omnipotent deity. She made no fuss, no protests, but she went completely mad ending up in an institution where sitting motionless she uttered over and over in Latin: Credo in Unum Deum Omniptentem, “I believe in an omnipotent Deity” (Ford, The Good Soldier, 269-70). Luther speaks of this as the Hidden God. “It is enough to know simply that there is a certain inscrutable will in God, and as to what, why, and how far it wills, that is something we have no right whatever to inquire into, hanker after, care about, or meddle with, but only to fear and adore” (LW 33, 140).
This is basically what the Lord tells us in Is. 55. "’My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts’” Or the 2 revelations from Isaiah that Paul combines into one: “What no eye has seen and no ear has heard and no human mind has conceived — that is what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). We can know some things about God through natural revelation. Every blade of grass bears the inscription: “God has made me.” But no blade of grass, nothing in nature, bears the inscription, “The 3 Persons of the Godhead made me” (Pieper, I, 399). We can only know the Triune God by what He reveals to us in His Word. We know there that the Father begets, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit proceeds. Human reason can’t explain what those words even mean, but only confess that’s what God has revealed.
The Early Church struggled to confess this. Gregory of Nazianzus said, "'No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One.' Thinking of the 1 without the 3 leads to Arianism ..., and thinking of the 3 without the 1 leads to tritheism…" (Horton, Christian Faith, 282). But we can’t make sense of how the Father can be God, the Son be God, and the Spirit be God and yet there are not 3 Gods. We can only say what Luther said to Zwingli: God is above mathematics.
This is Tertullian’s famous: credo quia absurdum, or impossibile“, “I believe because it is absurd or impossible.” (Christianity and Classical Culture, 223-224). This is really 2 lines of 1 work that have become conflated and distort his actual argument (Chesterton, Collected Works, Vol. XX, 595, fn. 2). He means the Christian faith must be divinely revealed because no human could reason himself to the Triune God, the Man who is God, or the God who gives His only beloved Son to live perfectly, be damned terribly, and to die horribly to redeem His fallen creation. That’s so absurd to reason; it’s impossible to make up. Paschal, centuries later goes here to. He said that the greatest distinguishing feature of divine revelation of God “is that our imagination gets lost when thinking about it” (Pensees, I, XV). Centuries later, Chesterton too gets “here” saying of the Trinity: “this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart” (Orthodoxy, 46). Or does it?
Denying the Trinity is to deny the God who would save you. Trying to understand the Trinity, far from quieting your heart, unhinges your mind. The answer is as we’ll sing in our last hymn: “Holy Father, holy Son,/ Holy Spirit, three we name Thee,/ Though in essence only one;/ Undivided God we claim Thee/ And, adoring, bend the knee/ While we own the mystery.” We “own the mystery” not in the sense possess or dominate but in the formal sense of admitting, acknowledging, or recognizing. All the babies around here give us the perfect picture David does: “Lord, my heart is not haughty, and my eyes are not proud. So I do not intrude into great matters or into things too wonderful for me. Instead I have soothed and quieted my soul. As a nursed child rests with its mother, like a nursed child my soul rests within me” (Ps. 131). Or as Luther says of Rom. 11: 33-34: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how untraceable His ways!” Luther says here the Spirit puts His finger to our lips and gently says, “Hush. No more questions.”
The Trinity, that God is 3 in 1, is a formula not a picture. As H2O gives you the facts about water but not a picture of an ocean, lake or river, so 3 in 1 gives you no picture of God but confesses the Mystery. And based on what we said earlier about only knowing God in the Person of Jesus, every time we try to snap a picture of the Triune God, Jesus jumps into the frame. Paul says as much. God gives us the light of the knowledge of His glory where? In our thoughts, dreams, notions of Him? No, “in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). The true God’s inscription is only on Christ’s face and it reads, “God so loved the world.”
This is not to say the Trinity is a doctrine you can downplay let alone not teach or confess. Late 16th century Lutherans believed that the OT inferred the Trinity with enough clarity for a man, even a Jew, to be convinced of the doctrine without the Scripture of the NT. “They even went so far as to say on occasion that the knowledge of the Trinity was necessary for salvation also in the Old Testament" (Theo. Post Ref Luth II, 132-3). You can’t think that the Trinity is a doctrine invented by the Early Church. You find the Trinity all throughout Bible. In Genesis 1 God the Father creates, God the Spirit hoovers over water; God the Son (the Word) speaks. In Numbers 6 the Lord commands that His name (singular) be put on His people and tells Aaron to say what I still do today: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make His face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace” (Nu. 6:24-26). Judaism’s Great Shema is Trinitarian: “The Lord, our God, the Lord, is One” (Deut. 6:4). 3 Persons 1 God. And Jesus command is to Baptize in the name (singular) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
If we could comprehend God in the categories of His creation. He would be a man, not God (Luther on Worship, 85), a creature not the Creator. Likewise, if I could get my head around God, He wouldn’t be anything more than a Big Man. However, what we emphasize when thinking about God is not His mystery. That we own not teach. For us, Luther’s hymn "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice" shows where the teaching of the Trinity belongs in systematic theology. "Teaching about the Trinity concentrates on nothing but the gospel, on how liberation took place: the freedom that Christ acquired and brought to us, which He promises and imparts to us through the Holy Spirit by the Word" (Luther's Theology, Bayer, 224). Luther could even be more succinct than this. He could sum up his entire teaching about the Trinity with: "’The Son through the Spirit of His Father unites me to Himself..'" (Peters, Creed, 37).
We say in our Lutheran Confessions that the 2 great mysteries of the Christian faith are the Holy Trinity and after that the Person of Jesus. God and Man in one inseparable Person. We say that in the second mystery is our only comfort, life, and salvation (FC, EP, VIII, 18). “Whoever will be saved” must own the first but trust the second. In the first is revealed the God we can’t get our head around; in the second is revealed the God who gets His nail-pierced hands around us and says, “Let Me introduce you to My Father.” Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Holy Trinity (20210530)