Holy Trinity Sunday – A LSB #’s 507, 644, 506
Text – Matthew 28:19
Go therefore & make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit.
The Athanasian Creed: Incomprehensible?
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday the one day a year when we confess the Athanasian Creed out loud. We believe, teach & confess what it proclaims 365 days a year, but since it is rather long we speak it line by line just this one Sunday. The true Christian church has three ecumenical confessions: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, & the Athanasian Creed.
We call them “ecumenical” creeds, because they are held to be true across all Christian denominations. If fact, if a church body refuses to confess even one of these creeds, we should be very careful in looking at what they teach & what they practice.
The Apostles’ Creed is the most ancient of the three, emerging very early in the time after Christ. This creed sums up the teaching of the apostles as found in the pages of the NT. It has always been the creed that is used at baptism. It is the creed that Luther explains in the Small Catechism. The Apostles’ Creed is meant to be our daily companion in faith & in life.
The Nicene Creed was adopted in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea as a corrective to the heresy threatening the foundation of the Christian faith. The heretic Arius was gaining many followers by saying about Christ that “there was a time when he was not.” In other words, Arius denied that Jesus is God, & said He was only a created being, like we are.
That false teaching undermines & destroys everything that Christ taught. If Jesus were only a man, & not true God as well, He could not save us from our sin. Therefore, the Council of Nicaea came out with a creed that strongly emphasized the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ: “…the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.” The Nicene Creed marked off orthodox Christian teaching over against dangerous heresy. We typically confess the Nicene Creed during the Divine Service, to say that all of us here are in agreement with the true faith, before we come to the Lord’s altar.
The Nicene Creed then leads into the Athanasian Creed. At that Council of Nicaea there was one man in particular who stood out as the most able & staunch defender of the faith. He was the bishop of Alexandria, a man by the name of Athanasius. He thought deeply & wrote persuasively on the person of Christ & the doctrine of the Trinity.
While he did not write the Athanasian Creed, it does reflect his influence & is named in his honor. Since it goes into the most depth & detail on the doctrine of the Trinity, it is fitting that we speak it aloud on Holy Trinity Sunday.
When I say “depth & detail,” it’s no lie! The Athanasian Creed is longer than the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds combined. That’s why you get to be seated as we read it, & we do so responsively. This creed is meticulous – painstakingly so – in the careful distinctions it draws among the three persons of the Trinity.
For example: “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. Yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated & one Infinite.”
Those are heavyweight theological terms, packed together in close proximity. There’s sentence after sentence like that – all of them careful distinctions. The effect of reading can be mind-numbing. On that point, the older English translation read: “The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Ghost uncreate; the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” Which led the witty British writer Dorothy Sayers to comment: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible – the whole thing incomprehensible!” That’s how Miss Sayers thought the average person would describe the Athanasian Creed: “The whole thing incomprehensible!”
The intricate language of this Creed is overwhelming & difficult to understand. Should we expect the Creator of the universe to be simple for us to comprehend? Should we dismiss the Athanasian Creed as an old relic of incomprehensible theological jargon? Not if we understand that the reality of the triune God it confesses is absolutely essential to our salvation.
Let’s take another look at the beginning of the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole & undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.” Those are rather blunt statements.
First of all, don’t be afraid of the word “catholic.” It literally means “according to the whole.” In this context, it refers to the orthodox Christian faith, as it has been taught rightly in all times & in all places. It does not mean the Roman Catholic Church, headed up by the pope. “The catholic faith” is the same as saying “the Christian truth.”
We, in our church, hold the catholic faith. That’s a good thing, because this is, according to Jesus, the only faith that saves. It is faith in the only God who is, the only God who exists, the only God who can deliver us. There is none other, only the triune God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. One God in three persons – the Holy Trinity.
To believe in any other god is to believe in no god at all. There is no other god who can save you, save you from perishing eternally. This God can, & He reveals Himself in three persons. Continuing in verse 3: “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity & Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” The whole section that follows, verses 4-26, is designed & structured to balance those two aspects of God; the Trinity of persons, & the Unity of substance. There are three distinct persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Yet, there is only one God. Three persons, one God; one God, three persons. This is how God revealed Himself to us in Holy Scripture.
The Trinitarian nature of God is a truth that transcends the ability of our finite reason to comprehend. That is a jarring thought only if we overestimate our own intellect. How does this God save sinners? That’s where the section on Christ comes in, verses 27-39 – the very heart of the Gospel: the person & work of Christ, the only Savior of mankind.
He is the eternal Son of God, who came in the flesh, true God & true man. That is the person of Christ. His work is laid out in verses 36 & 37 which read much like the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds:
Christ “suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the 3rd day from dead, ascended into heaven, & is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the living & the dead.”
Only Christ, the God-man Savior, could do this great work for you! It took the death of God to cover the sins of the world. His holy blood, poured out on Calvary’s cross, is the great price that was paid for our forgiveness. Our sins are covered completely, washed away forever. Jesus paid it all. Take refuge in Him whenever anxiety causes doubt & fear.
By His victorious death & resurrection, Jesus conquered the grave for you! He has defeated the forces of hell & proclaimed His victory there. Christ is risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, & seated at God’s right hand, the place of all honor & authority. Christ your Savior is now governing all things for the good of His church.
Though it appears to be, the world is not spinning out of control. Jesus is guiding it
toward His goal: the end of this age, when He will return & inaugurate the age to come. Meanwhile, Jesus is with us all the moments & days until then. When He returns to judge the living & the dead, what will happen on that day? The Creed tells us, at verses 38–39:
“At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies & give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, & those who have done evil into eternal fire.” Don’t let this scare you. Let this give you hope! For you will stand acquitted on the Day of Judgment – not guilty on account of Jesus’ work.
Your sinful deeds will not be revealed on that day. They’ve been forgiven, remembered no more. Only your good works will be cited, as evidence of a living faith. Recall the story of the sheep & the goats, from Matthew 25. It is faith in Christ that will save you, a faith given to you as a free gift in your baptism & nurtured every week here by Word & Sacrament.
“At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies & give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, & those who have done evil into eternal fire.”
Again, don’t let this scare you. Let this give you hope! For here is the resurrection of the body & eternal life. This is the goal we are headed for, guaranteed by the sure promise of God.
In conclusion, verse 40: “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully & firmly cannot be saved.” But for you who do believe this catholic faith, you will be saved! You will be raised to life, with a glorious immortal body, in a restored creation. We will live forever with our Creator God along with all His saints of all times & all places.
This is the Athanasian Creed. The Biblical teaching it confesses is indispensable! What is incomprehensible, in the best sense of the word, is the great mystery of the triune God & His amazing love for us! “Oh, the depth of the riches & wisdom & knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33a ESV) Oh, the breadth & length & height & depth of His love! Blessed be the Holy Trinity & the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us. Amen.
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord; she is His new creation by water & the Word. From heaven He came & sought her to be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her, & for her life He died. Though with a scornful wonder the world sees her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?” & soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song. Amen. LSB 644:1, 3.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet