The Athanasian Creed
On Trinity Sunday we confess the Athanasian Creed. Along with the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, its one of the 3 ecumenical or world-wide creeds all Christians confess. First came the Apostles in the 200s, then the Nicene Creed about 325, and finally the Athanasian at the end of the 400s. The Apostles Creed summarizes the Christian faith. The Nicene confesses the faith against those who dont believe Jesus is true God. The Athanasian Creed fleshes out the doctrine of the Trinity. Most know it for its length, but its meant to be more than long.
Its meant to be scary. Unlike the creeds we confess every Sunday this one openly ties our salvation to believing it. Its Latin name Qui-cun-que Volt comes from the first line and means Whoever wishes. Whoever wishes to be saved must believe the faith confessed in this creed. Find anything like that in the other two?
The Athanasian Creed makes 5 specific statements about salvation. Whoever will be savedit is necessary that he hold the catholic [that is, the universal] faith. Except everyone do keep [this faith] whole and undefiled without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. Hethat will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. It is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, the creed closes: This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly he cannot be saved. Clearly, pointedly salvation for Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, and all non-Trinitarian faiths is absolutely rejected. Is that scary or what?
Thats not nearly as scary to me as the two verses before the last. Like the Apostles and Nicene Creed its says Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, but then the Athanasian goes into downright scary details: At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and 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. Go ahead; take a minute sift through your works of just last week. Put them on the scales of judgment. On the right are your good ones; on the left are your evil. Which side outweighs the other? Scary, huh?
The Athanasian Creed is meant to be scary. It offsets the two constant drumbeats one of the world, the other of the false church. Everyone goes to heaven when they die, says the world. And the false church says, No matter what sin youre engaged in abortion, living together, lying, stealing, homosexuality, prejudice, pride, doesnt matter. Jesus matters, and He gets everyone into heaven. The Faith of the Church denies this, and thats scary.
However, the Athanasian Creed isnt only meant to be scary but salutary, beneficial. It tells us salvation isnt a matter of feeling or experiencing but a matter of believing. I have lots of feelings. Sometimes I feel saved, forgiven, on my way to heaven; other times I feel lost, guilty, on my way to hell. Sometimes, rarely but sometimes, I experience the presence of God, the joy of God, the certainty of being His child, but most of the time, I dont experience Baptism as anything other than water, Absolution as any thing other than words, and Communion as anything other than bread and wine.
This Creed says whoever will be saved holds, keeps, thinks, believes what God has revealed. It says nothing about feeling forgiven, saved, or experiencing the Holy Trinity. Thanks be to God. In a world awash in feelings where experience is the foundation of truth, the Athanasian Creed expresses the ancient faith in terms of objective, outside of me facts. How salutary!
This Creed is salutary because it focuses on what God has revealed, and admits that God in His essence is incomprehensible, not just God the Father, but all three Persons of the Trinity. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. Bothered by the Air France jet falling out of the sky? Wonder about the intractable pain of yourself or another? Frightened because you cant figure out what God is doing in these days when financial institutions, industry, and government are shaking? Do you expect to comprehend the incomprehensible? Do you expect God should only do things that make sense to you? If He did, there certainly would be no incarnation, no cross, no punishing of His holy Son in place of a world of sinners that hated Him.
Now were to the Gospel reading. We should not presume to see or believe in God, His kingdom or salvation, apart from the Man Jesus. Do you see that this is also what the Athanasian Creed confesses? After speaking about the Trinity, it says nothing individually about the Spirit as the other creeds do. No, it moves to a detailed confession of the Person and Work of Jesus. From of the mystery of the Trinity which no man can get his head around, the Athanasian Creed goes to Jesus, the Man we can touch, taste, see, hear, and smell even today in His Sacraments.
The Athanasian Creed is meant to be scary and salutary, but its not meant to be saving. Jesus does that. See how Jesus calls Nicodemus to Himself. He tells this teacher of Israel who is too proud to come to Him by day that he cans see God or His kingdom apart from the miracle of Baptism that Nicodemus had rejected. Nicodemus thinks hes making a big confession when he says that Jesus is from God and that God is with Him. Jesus says, You dont know what youre talking about. Youre blind to spiritual things because you rejected Johns Baptismal waters which rebirth people spiritually.
Those statements are to Nicodemus what the Athanasian Creed is to us. They knocked the sarcasm right out of that proud church leader. From the sarcastic, Surely a man cant enter a second time into the womb to be born again, Nicodemus collapses into, How can these things be? Its just too big for Nick even as the Trinity is too big for us. We will come away from the Athanasian Creed with our mind reeling if we end with the mystery of the Trinity rather than the revelation of Jesus.
This is where Jesus takes Nicodemus too. Jesus tells Nicodemus you cant see God or what He is doing because you dont have the Spirit. Jesus goes on to tell Nick that the reason He is able to speak of heavenly things while on earth is because He, the Man Jesus, is in heaven even as He stands on earth. Our insert leaves off the last part of a verse. Only the King James keeps it. Its not because the Greek text doesnt have it. No, its because it blows the mind. Jesus says, No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven even the Son of Man who is in heaven.
Note well, its not that God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is in heaven. He always had been. No, the startling thing is that the Man born of Mary is. The Athanasian Creed confesses this mind blowing truth. Although [Jesus] is God and Man, He is not two, but one Christ; one, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by taking the humanity into God. In heaven where Seraphim have to cover their eyes before the mystery of the Trinity, where the 4 living beings covered with eyes chant endlessly Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord God Almighty, the Man Jesus is. Its like when explorers find a cave of buried treasure. Only one can slide down the rope; the others eagerly call to him, Tell us what you see?
The Man Jesus in the midst of the counsels of the Holy Trinity tells blind Nicodemus what He sees, and its startling. He sees Himself on a cross for the same reason Moses put the bronze serpent on a pole in the wilderness. The people had complained that Moses and God were evil. They had brought them out of Egypt for the purpose of killing them in the wilderness. Its a great sin to call good evil; its a greater sin to call God evil. They did and God sent poisonous snakes to bite them. Many of them died. The people repented of speaking against Moses and God, and asked God to take away the snakes. He didnt. Instead He commanded Moses to make a bronze snake; set it on a pole; everyone who was bitten and looked at it lived. Jesus says that heavens counsel is that He be hung on a cross so that anyone bitten by sin, death, and the devil may see Him and live.
Eternal death is the judgment hanging over all sinners. Its the message that every plane crash, every illness, every economic crisis preaches into the listening soul. You deserve to die in time and eternity for your unbelief, for your sexual sins, for your defense of your sinfulness. But rather than have that happen, the Holy Trinity sent the Second Person into the womb to do, to believe, to live as you cannot. And as the thing that saved the Israelites looked liked what was killing them, so God made the holy, perfect Man, Jesus to be sin. All those things you deplore, lament, and cant stand about yourself, were placed upon Jesus, and nailed to the cross with Him as He suffered, bled, and died to turn Gods wrath away from you. Look and live. Look at the mystery of the Trinity and you will get lost. Look at Jesus crucified and you are found.
But what about the scales where your evil works far outweigh your good? What does Jesus see in heaven pertaining to this? He tells Nick that the Triune God sent the Son into the world to save the world not to condemn it. Before weighing our sins and good works, the first things the Holy Trinity put on the scales of justice were the world on one side and Jesus on the other. The Trinity chose to save the world and damn Jesus. All our evil works were placed on Jesus and all His good works were placed on us. What good works did Jesus fail to do? What evil works did Jesus not pay for? We will answer for our sins on the Last Day by pointing to Jesus even as Israel answered for theirs by pointing to the serpent.
What people forget is that the Athanasian Creed means to confess that there is a day of reckoning, but it isnt meant to tell us how we are to reckon. Jesus does that by telling us the Triune God did, does, and wishes to reckon, to count, to see sinners in, by, and through the Son. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Trinity Sunday (20090607); John 3: 1-17