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On Trinity Sunday, we recite the Athanasian Creed and say things like, ‘the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God, in three persons and three persons in one God, neither confusing the the persons nor dividing the substance.’ But really now, how relevant is that to the war in Afghanistan and the economic collapse of Greece?
Today, the goal is simply to declare that, ‘the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is all one; the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.’ Seems kind of out of touch with the problem of unemployment and the price gas doesn’t it?
Today, we talk about the fact that ‘the Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten; the Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created but begotten, the Holy Spirit is of the Father and the Son, neither made nor crated nor begotten but proceeding. But how does that address the big issues of our day like affordable health care and same-sex marriage and my problems and my goals in life?
We are surrounded with gods of our own making, god’s whom we have created. Everyone wants a god who is practical, a god that we can use, use to fix the economy, use to fix the marriage, use to win the election, use to solve my problems. We even think that if we believe in the Triune God that the Athanasian Creed spells out in it’s incredible detail that then we won’t have such great problems and we’ll make it through this troubled world unscathed. How’s that for practical?
If the truth be told, the problems that we think are our problems are not really our problems from God’s point of view. After you’ve worked out all of your problems and reached your goals, there will be new problems and new goals. The bar keeps moving higher and the troubles keep coming.
But God will still be there, unmoved, unchanged, undeterred. He is before all things and He will be after all things. He’s got the whole world in His hand. He works all things according to His purpose. And He loves you.
Truth be told, there is nothing more irrelevant than a religion that tries to be relevant. And there is nothing more relevant than the irrelevancy of the Triune God. “Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic faith. Which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally.” How’s that for relevant?
“And the catholic faith is this…” “Incomprehensible.” Not ‘three incomprehensibles’ mind you, but ‘one incomprehensible.’ No one ever said this was going to be easy.
You should know however, that the ‘catholic faith’ was not always ‘incomprehensible.’ There was a time when the Trinity was comprehended perfectly. Adam and Eve ‘neither confused the persons nor divided the essence.’ And neither of them ever graduated from high school, let alone college or seminary. It just came natural.
It’s not that God got more complicated as time went on. God has not changed. ‘The Father eternal, the Son eternal and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet not three eternals but one eternal.’ It’s that Adam because He wanted to be ‘like God.’ He was just trying to be practical and make God more relevant to his life you know.
And so when we say that ‘the Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit is incomprehensible’ there is a sort of reminiscence of former times as well as a confession of our guilt.
I’ve heard it said, and I know that I have said too, the Athanasian Creed is a hard and Creed to say. But I’m beginning to wonder if that may not be more of an indictment against the shallowness of the way we think and talk about God than about the full-bodied and grand way that we should talk about God. We’re perfectly comfortable talking about ‘god however you imagine him to be,’ or ‘the big guy upstairs.’ We’ve forgotten how to talk about ‘the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit… the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal… the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity’. Like I said, the problems that we think are our problems are not really our problems from God’s point of view.
The good news is, by His death and resurrection, Jesus has made all things new. If we hold this ‘catholic faith’ until the end, we WILL comprehend the incomprehensible. Paul puts it like this, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1Cor. 13:12). Even now, in our baptism, all of our sin has been removed from us as far as the east is from the west. But as long as we are in this world, sin’s baggage still hangs on us and we need say things that are over our head just to keep our head on straight.
As long as our sin still hangs on us and our gods still surround us, its necessary to map out the boundary lines as clearly as possible and know where they are. As detailed and complex as the Athanasian Creed is, it’s purpose is NOT to solve the mystery of God. It’s purpose is to mark the boundary lines as clearly as possible so that we remain in the mystery and so that we keep the false gods out. St. Augustine once said, “If you cannot discover what God is, then at least be careful to understand what He is not.”
Three Boundary Lines / Tests
There are three boundary lines in particular that this Creed wants to mark as clearly as possible so that we may STAY WITHIN the boundaries where we’re safe; so that we may DEFEND the one true faith against all the false gods we have created; and so that we properly SHARE the only faith by which anyone is saved.
In other words, this Creed, just like the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, tell us how to ANALYSE what others say about God and TALK to others about God. Every statement in the Creeds is like a TEST by which we can determine if the information coming in and going out is in harmony with the Scriptures.
A. 1st Test:
The first test is this: however we talk about God, we are not to talk about God as if there were three Gods. Any talk of God as more than One crosses the boundary line and should set off alarms.
So, when you hear talk about the forces of good and evil, the almighty ‘ying and yang’ that hold the world together, what the philosophers call, DUALISM, let the alarms go off and do let it in and don’t be sending any speech like that out.
So when you hear talk about lots of gods, you’ve got yours, I’ve got mine, and they all get along together and share the power to rule the world just fine, what the philosophers call POLYTHEISM, let the alarms go off. When you hear talk about how we all have a god inside of us that we just need to get in touch with so that we too can be gods, run away and lock the doors.
Neither of these issues was the problem that prompted the Athanasian Creed however. The Church wasn’t being threatened from the outside but from the inside. A Christian pastor, a Bishop actually, named Arius, was not content to live with the ‘mystery’ of an ‘incomprehensible’ God. He began to talk about the Trinity as three separate gods, each with it’s own role and function, but three not one, and not even equal, not even in full agreement with each other. Arius’ theology is sometimes called, TRI-THEISM, ‘three-gods.’ That’s categorically different than TRINITY, ‘tri-unity,’ three PERSONS in one God.
In our day, you can still hear the Arian heresy from the ‘corporation of the Latter Day Saints” – the Mormons. They use the word “trinity,” but even they say they don’t mean the same thing as the Christian Church does. When you read their literature, it’s clear that they talk about God as a ‘tri-theism’ and not a ‘trinity.’
So, the first test is this, “We cannot by the catholic faith say that there are three Gods or three Lords.”
B. 2nd Test
The second test is this, however we talk about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, do not talk as though there were only ONE PERSON and no real distinction between them.
God is not a QUICK CHANGE ARTIST who sometimes appears as ‘almighty Father,’ sometimes ‘incarnate Son,’ and sometimes the ‘force be with you.’ The name for this heresy ‘modalism.’ God appears in three different ‘modes,’ but there is only one person. This is the way you hear god-talk from Jews, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses. But not Christians.
Neither can we divide the persons of the Trinity so that they neatly add up to ONE. The Father is not 1/3 God, the Son 1/3 God, the Spirit 1/3 God. Each person is fully God, and the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Father. And there is only One God.
‘The catholic faith is this, there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.’ You can tell them apart but you can’t pull them apart and you can’t have one without the other. To have one is to have all three.
The 2nd boundary line is, “We worship one God, in three persons and the three persons in one God, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.”
C. 3rd Test
The third test has to do with the way that we talk about the 2nd person of the Trinity in particular. However we talk about the 2nd Person, we are not to talk as though He were God OR. He is fully God AND fully man.
“For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.”
Here’s were we get to the cross and resurrection, which all true ‘God-talk’ always has to get to. The entire triune Godhead points us to 2nd person. The question is, who was crucified, died, buried, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven? Was it man? Or was it God? And the answer is BOTH.
If it was one OR the other, you and I are still dead in our sins and without hope. Lot’s of people can’t live with the mystery that Jesus Christ, fully God, died on the cross. God died? How ridiculous is that? No, how mysterious and wonderful is that.
Only God could pay the price for the sin of the whole world. But to be fair, man is the sinner and man must be punished. And so He became man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and THE MAN bore the punishment in His human body on the cross for all men.
The Son is fully God and fully Man. Not half and half. When Jesus died on the cross, God died for you. The Father didn’t die and the Spirit didn’t die. Don’t confuse the persons. But the Son died and the Son is fully God, not 1/3 God. Don’t divide the substance. “For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.”
It’s a mystery. Don’t try to solve the mystery, or make something relevant or practical out of it. Just worship it it and enjoy it. And celebrate the fact that God has taken you into it. But stay within the boundaries.
“For this is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”