The Athanasian Creed is named after the great champion of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius (AD 293–373). In the previous article on the Nicene Creed we mentioned the contribution of Athanasius and his defense of the Trinity against Arius.1 But Athanasius did not write this creed and in fact it deals with controversies that arose and were settled long after his death. Another name for this creed is Symbol Quicunque. This name comes from the opening words of the creed: “Quicunque vult salvus esse” (“Whosoever will be saved”). It dates not later than the sixth century and its origins are unclear.
In contrast to its history, the content of the confession is wonderfully clear. Structurally the creed is composed of forty-four carefully formulated articles that can be divided into two sections, the first dealing with the One-God-in-three-persons (Trinity), and the second, with the person of Christ.
The Holy Trinity
Articles 3–28 set forth the orthodox confession of the Holy Trinity. Both the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds leave undefined the interrelations between the three persons of the Godhead. The Athanasian Creed, drawing on the theology of Saint Augustine, defines for us more precisely the absolute unity of the Divine Being and the tri-personality of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It excludes any attempt to subordinate the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both (subordianism), by affirming the full equality of all three persons:
(6) But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.
(10) The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
(11) And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal.
(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.
(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 religion to say: There are three Gods or three Lords.
God is one God in three persons, and each person expresses the fullness of the Godhead and possesses all the divine attributes. The term persona does not mean manifestation, nor does it mean independent, separate being or individual. These views would lead either to the heresies of Sabellianism or tritheism.2 Philip Schaff describes the interrelations of the three persons of God as confessed in the creed beautifully when he says: “The divine persons are in one another, and form a perpetual intercommunication and motion within the divine essence. Each person has all the divine attributes that are inherent in the divine essence, but each also has a characteristic individuality or property that is peculiar to the person and cannot be communicated; the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten, the Holy Ghost is proceeding. In this Trinity there is no priority or posteriority of time, no superiority or inferiority of rank, but the three persons are coeternal and coequal.”3
The truth just stated is far greater than we can ever comprehend or adequately express in words. Augustine articulated this human insufficiency well: “God is greater and truer in our thoughts than in our words; he is greater and truer in reality than in our thoughts.”4
The Person of Christ
The second part of the creed (Article 29–44) succinctly formulates the orthodox doctrine concerning the relationship between the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Without hesitation, the creed affirms that in the incarnation there was a union of two distinctly different natures, the divine and the human, each complete in itself, without either losing its identity. It says:
(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 the 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 the 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;
The human nature and the divine nature are combined, and yet Jesus still is only one person. The difference between the two natures is maintained, while at the same time the creed affirms the single personhood of Jesus Christ. In this way all the old heresies about Christ are beautifully denied:
The creed thus repudiates the teaching that Christ had but one nature (Sabellianism), or that the human nature was incomplete (Apollinarianism), or that the divine nature was inferior to that of the Father (Arianism), or that in the union of the two natures, the identity of the one was lost so that the result was simply one nature (Eutychianism).5
And to this we can add that the heresy that separated the two natures of Christ and denied their unity in the one person, called by the church Nestorianism, is also denied.
So we see that this creed with clarity and forcefulness sets forth the biblical teaching that the church has confessed concerning the Trinity and the incarnation. These doctrines are not peripheral to the Christian faith but at the heart of our faith. If they were to be denied or tampered with, then our salvation would truly be in peril. It is from this perspective that the controversial damnatory clauses at the beginning and the end of the two sections must be understood (cf. Articles 1–2, 28, 44). The intent of these statements is not that one must understand all the theological details to be saved or that one must express himself only in the language of the creed. But as J. F. Johnson explains: “What was intended is the fact that the Christian faith is distinctly Christocentric, trusting Christ as Savior. The church knows no other way of salvation and therefore must reject all teachings which deny his true deity or his real incarnation.”6
1. See John Piper, Contending for our All, 2006:35-75 (Crossway) for a brief biography of Athanasius and his struggle for the faith.
2. Sabellianism, also known as modalism, said that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were but three different names, faces or modes of the one God that revealed himself successively first as Father, then as Son and finally as Holy Spirit. Thus they deny the three persons of the Godhead. Tritheism denies the unity of God and says that we have three gods, the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Each one is unique and distinct.
3. The Creeds of Christendom. Vol. 1: The History of Creeds. Baker: 1998:38.
4. Quoted in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom. Vol. 1: The History of Creeds. Baker: 1998:38.
5. J.F. Johnson. Athanasian Creed. In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ed. by Walter A. Elwell. Baker, 1984: 94.
6. Athanasian Creed. In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ed. by Walter A. Elwell. Baker, 1984: 94.
Rev. Jacques Roets is the pastor of Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.