explaining the “blessed trinity”: why the athanasian creed matters
michael agapito | OCTOBER 7, 2019 | 5 MIN READ
I once overheard a young woman at the coffee shop table behind me sharing her faith with someone.
“Do you know what the Trinity is?” she asked.
“Well, there are three different…parts of God.”
I cringed, bit my lip, and went back to drinking my coffee. Unbeknownst to her, the young lady had made a common mistake for many Christians: She had unwittingly lapsed into heresy while attempting to describe the Trinity.
You may have heard various analogies used to explain the Trinity, such as: “The Trinity is like the three different states of water: liquid, ice, and vapor.” Or maybe you’ve heard that the Trinity is like a three-leaf clover or the different parts of an egg. What many people don’t realize is that most of these analogies (if not all) are akin to the ancient heresies that the early church had dismissed centuries ago.
But if none of these analogies are appropriate to describe God, then what is? Enter the Athanasian Creed.
Trinity in Unity, and Unity in Trinity
The Athanasian Creed was not written by Athanasius, an early Christian who did combat heresies about the Trinity. Although its precise origins are unknown, it has long been recognized as a standard of Christian orthodoxy. It is found in many Protestant confessions: The Book of Concord (Lutheran), the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion” (Anglican), and even an early Baptist confession. It is by far the longest and most comprehensive of the ancient creeds, and it can be pretty overwhelming at first glance.
But don’t let its length scare you! The substance of the Athanasian Creed can be summed up in one main idea: “The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. BUT the Father is NOT the Son, the Son is NOT the Spirit, and the Spirit is NOT the Father.” Every line of the Creed’s first half spells this principle out in great detail. A helpful visual that captures this concept is the so-called “Shield of the Trinity.”
One of the earlier lines introduces and captures this idea both beautifully and succinctly: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confusing the Persons, nor dividing the Essence.”
“Confusing the Persons?”
The Creed reminds us that we must not confuse the Father with the Son, the Son with the Spirit, or the Spirit with the Father. That would be to commit the heresy of modalism.
Modalism was an ancient heresy that claimed that God is only one person who “shows up” as the Father, Son, and Spirit — somewhat like an actor wearing different masks. The famous (or infamous ) “God is like three states of water” analogy falls into this category. But the early church quickly realized that in Scripture, God is not just one person.
For example, the early church recognized that when Jesus is baptized in Scripture, the Father blesses him, and the Spirit falls upon him (Matthew 3:13-17). Jesus prays to the Father (Matthew 26:39) and even cries out to him (Matthew 27:46). He promises to send the Spirit, described as “another Advocate,” who comes from the Father (John 14:16). There is a distinctiveness between each Person of the Trinity.
Modalism is a common error. I know I unknowingly espoused modalism until college, when I was gently but promptly corrected by an older, wiser Christian. For example, some Christians will pray, “Dear Father, thank you for dying for us on the cross…” But it was the Son that died on the cross, not the Father!
“Dividing the Essence?”
The Creed also reminds us that we must not “divide the Essence,” which is saying that there are parts to God. That would be to commit the error of partialism. The three-leaf clover or egg analogy falls in this category. Instead, all three Persons are simultaneously and equally (albeit mysteriously) the one, true God. That is, all three Persons of the Trinity share the same qualities, attributes, characteristics, and “essence” that makes each of them God: uncreated, unlimited, eternal, infinite, almighty, etc. The Creed goes on to say that their glory is equal and their majesty co-eternal.
For example, in Matthew 28:19, we are told that each Person shares the same divine name (which was treated with the utmost reverence by Jews). We know all the fullness of God dwells in Jesus (Colossians 2:9). And we know that both the Son and the Spirit share in the same title as “Lord” (Philippians 2:5-11, 2 Cor. 3:16-17) and are worthy of worship.
Thus, to say that any Person of the Trinity is only a “part of God” is to say that he is only “part God.” But Scripture attests that each Person is fully God in himself.
“Not three Gods, but one God…”
Finally, if it wasn’t obvious enough, the Athanasian Creed goes at length to make it clear that — in agreement with Deuteronomy 6:4 — there is only one God:
We must acknowledge God’s “oneness” as much as his “threeness.” A verse that paints this beautifully is John 1:1 — “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” The preexistent Word was simultaneously God and “with God.”
My favorite hymn growing up was “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which sings, “God in three Persons— blessed Trinity.” To this day, a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery envelopes me as I hear those words. It’s because we worship a God who transcends our comprehension and understanding. Jesus says in John 17:3 that eternal life is to know the one true God, and knowing God entails knowing about him. The creeds give us the language to speak about God accurately, and in doing so, they allow us to know him more intimately.
Notice what the Athanasian Creed doesn’t do. It does not try to explain the Trinity (like so many of our analogies do). It simply aims to describe the Trinity by giving us the proper vocabulary to use. It merely tells us what we can or cannot say when talking about God. Try picturing the shield of the Trinity as a platform that you are walking on: Anything outside of it is out of bounds, and if you step off, you will fall into the slimy vat of heresy.
The early church was not trying to be novel. They weren’t trying to be more creative than Scripture. They described what they recognized in Scripture as truth, and were content to leave it at that. We would be wise to follow in their footsteps. So the next time you or someone else wants to give an analogy for the Trinity, consider using the language that the church has used for centuries.
And finally, instead of regarding the Trinity as alien territory reserved for ivory-tower theologians to explore, consider the words of an early 17th century Baptist confession: “…and we worship and adore a Trinity in Unity; and a Unity in Trinity, three Persons, and but one God; which Doctrine of the Trinity, is the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable Dependence on him.” Amen.
The following is the text of the Athanasian Creed:
* “Catholic” here means “universal,” not “Roman Catholic”
Author’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles that explore historical creeds and confessions of faith throughout the history of the church. Here, we explored the first half of the Athanasian Creed, which deals with the Trinity. The second half of the Athanasian Creed discusses the Person of Christ, a topic that we will turn to in the next article when we discuss the “Chalcedonian Definition.”
Michael Agapito is the Resident Director at University Baptist Church, ministering to the students at the University of Illinois. He is also a seminary student, pursuing a Masters of Divinity in the hopes of becoming a pastor. He has a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois and M.A. in Counseling from Wheaton College. Michael has been happily married since last July to his wife Amy, who is his partner in ministry and biggest cheerleader.