The Athanasian Creed confesses the Church’s belief in the Trinity. What is the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity, and what does that mean for our Life Together?
At many LCMS churches on the Sunday after Pentecost, the congregation will sit for the creed instead of standing. Instead of turning to the Nicene Creed or loosely holding their bulletin, they will turn to a page in the hymnal used only once a year. As they speak of their faith in the Holy Trinity, pastors and people alike will not close their eyes or look at the altar; everyone will be reading the words. They will be reading the words because the creed they are speaking is used so infrequently and is so lengthy that few (if any) have it memorized. It’s the Athanasian Creed.
And it is a doozy—repetitive, long, intricate and so confusing that often words of explanation are offered in the bulletins or before the creed is recited. But it’s thorough, detailing who the Holy Trinity is and what He isn’t, and that is why it’s used.
But using it may give the impression that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is an intellectual puzzle, an academic exercise in logic and definitions. It can give the impression that the Holy Trinity can only be understood by intellectual giants, that most of us are so bewildered by Him that we don’t even want to think about it.
Yet God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34) and does not reveal Himself in ways that only geniuses can understand. While there are specific ways we can refer to our triune God, while there are facts to know and memorize, God is more than something mentally to be grasped and understood. There is another way of understanding the Holy Trinity who speaks to us and relates to us in a fundamental way.
Created to be together
God made human beings to have relationships with one another. When Adam had no mate, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). He created the woman so that man would have a relationship with another, so that he would have someone to love and serve. He created that couple, and every couple since, to have a relationship with others as well.
In fact, our existence is established with others. God created the womb to be the perfect environment for growing a new life. But life beginning inside the mother also reveals something profound: We are created to be together, to live together, to have life together, so much so that God forms us and gives us life inside of another human being. The couple—the husband and wife—were not created to be alone but to bear children when God allows it. Once the child is born, he or she remains in a community, broadened to parents and siblings and extended family.
Relationships with others continue in every way throughout our lives, and it is within those relationships that our faith expresses itself, where it is put to the test. It is only with others that our love can be expressed and used, that we can be forgiven and strengthened. Love demands another to love.
God creates a community because He is a community. He creates us with others because He is with others. He is not alone. He is One but also Three: the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
The relationship of the Trinity
In all three creeds we recite—the Apostles’, the Nicene and the Athanasian—we confess that the Son of God is begotten of the Father. This does not mean that the Father reproduced Himself to form the Son in a biological way, like a father begets a son in our lives, but the First Person of the Trinity’s relationship with the Second is like that of Father and Son. And it always has been that way, because the Son is eternally present.
The Nicene Creed confesses it this way: that the Son of God was “begotten before all worlds.” In other words, the Son has existed with the Father since eternity. That is hard to imagine—impossible, really—but the fact remains that before the beginning of time there was Father and Son, together one God, yet in a relationship to one another like that of Father and Son.
The creeds also express the relationship between the Father and Son together and the Holy Spirit. But in this relationship, the Nicene Creed confesses that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Again, it is impossible for us to imagine what this means or looks like. But it does affirm that there is a relationship between each of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
God is love
Scripture testifies to this “inner relationship” of the Trinity. We can see this relationship that is at the heart of the Godhead when St. John writes, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is more than a warm and wooly feeling, more than a vague and emotional statement. It is at the heart of who God is. In order to love, there must be someone to love. St. Paul refers to this in the famous passage from 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4–5).
In other words, love is always directed at another person. It is always a denial of oneself in favor of the other, their interests and their life and being. In this sense, self-love is an oxymoron, like saying “married bachelor.” We cannot love ourselves if we truly understand what love is. Love is always about the other.
If God is love itself, then God must have another to love. It is not enough to say that He loves His creation. He does, but if that is the only “other” that He loved, then before creation, God would not have been love. No, if God is love in its perfect and biblical definition, then love also describes His relationship with Himself. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. In other words, God is One, but since God is love, He loves within Himself, in the way of the Holy Trinity.
When we confess the Athanasian Creed, we also see that God is never alone. God Himself is a community, a relationship. He is One but also Three and always One in Three and Three in One. This love of God passes to us who have been created in His own image, who were also created in a community with Him and given a community with one another. We, too, are created to express our love not by ourselves, not by looking in a mirror, but in community with spouse and children, friends and neighbors.
Uncreated, infinite, eternal
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is more than an academic principle, more than just a set of facts to be memorized and recited. It is more than something strane and odd and hard to understand. God is the foundation and source of life and being and creation. And God is relationship—one God, three persons, each relating to and loving one another . . . and loving us.
Even when the Son of God became a man, He reflects and teaches this inner life of God—this community of God, the relationship He has with the Father—and relates it to us. He says that He is One with the Father, that we may be One with Him (John 17:22). He says the Word He speaks is not His own but was given by His Father (John 14:10). Jesus’ ministry was centered on glorifying His Father in allowing Himself to do what the Father sent Him for. But it is double-sided: All that Jesus said and did was for us and our salvation.
Jesus does the Father’s will and speaks the Father’s Word completely and faithfully and obediently and lovingly. And what He speaks is life-giving and eternal. What the Father has, the Son gives, and it is eternal life. You could even say He gives Himself. He is life and love, and He gives Himself to those who hear, to those He calls, to those who listen to His Word.
About the Author: Rev. Christopher Hall is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Enid, Okla.
> Did you know? The church has been confessing the Athanasian Creed since the fifth century.
> Did you know? Many churches confess the creed on Trinity Sunday, when the Church specifically reflects on this great mystery.
> “[The creeds] are glorious confessions of the faith, brief, devout, and founded on God’s Word” (FC SD 4).
The Athanasian Creed
Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.
Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.
And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another.
But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite.
In the same way, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; and yet there are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God;
And yet there are not three Gods, but one God.
So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord;
And yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord.
Just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so also are we prohibited by the catholic religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords.
The Father is not made nor created nor begotten by anyone.
The Son is neither made nor created, but begotten of the Father alone.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding.
Thus, there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And in this Trinity none is before after another; none is greater or less than another;
But the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal, so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped.
Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.
But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man.
He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity.
Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ,
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds.
And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.
This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.
—Lutheran Service Book