Recently I stumbled upon the offerings of a recently retired pastor from a denomination that has historically Reformed roots. I thought I would interact somewhat with the the musings of this honored retiree. I have deleted portions that were descriptive of the gathering described. The context is a Episcopalian Church service the retired minister (RM) had attended.
Retired Minister (RM) wrote,
It being Trinity Sunday the priest in a strong and affirmative voice read the Athanasian Creed … I had never heard it read aloud in worship before. Frankly, I was appalled.
The Athanasian Creed is part of my tradition (Reformed), one of three ecumenical creeds (along with the Apostles’ and the Nicene)…. by now it is almost never recited or even referred to in worship, a ghost of the past, buried in the back of hymnals, hymnals that in many churches, if they have them at all, are never opened…
We have hymnals. We open them weekly. As a congregation we together confess Christ weekly, in a responsive fashion from either the Confessions (3FU) or the ecumenical creeds as found in the back of the hymn books. A brief explanation is then given after the Congregational Confessional recitation. The old creeds are not everywhere forgotten and the back of some hymnbooks, where the saints who have gone before reside, are still visited. Though, on the whole, I’m sure the retired minister is probably correct. It is likely the case that not only is the laity unfamiliar with what lies buried in the back of those hymnals, but I would guess the Pastorate likewise is clueless. I would argue that therein is one reason why the contemporary Church is so inert.
I will simply raise some questions that occurred to me when I heard the creed read aloud in worship and let you answer them.
Fair enough. RM provides the questions and Bret provides some answers.
RM wrote quoting the Athanasian Creed,
Here’s how the Athanasian Creed begins (in the Book of Common Prayer translation): “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.” My own denomination has given the creed a more modern translation, which reads better but seems also designed to take some of the edge off the language of the creed. It reads in the part I just quoted: “Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally. Now this is the catholic faith: that we worship one God in trinity, and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.” This seems to obscure the flow from the desire for salvation to the requirement for salvation, which is, according to the creed, adherence to the catholic faith; and which, strengthening the point, must be kept “whole and undamaged” (integram inviolatamque); which the creed defines as worship of the Trinity, “neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance (Neque confundentes personas, neque substantiam separantes). In other words, if you don’t have the right view of the Trinity, you will perish eternally.
Here’s my first question, one that came unbidden to me as I listened to the reading of the creed: isn’t this salvation by theology?
As personal belief is always inclusive of and is embracing some kind of theology we would have to ask, with more then a little incredulity, if what is being suggested by RM is that salvation has nothing to do with belief? (i.e. — Theology?)
If salvation doesn’t have some relation to proper belief (theology) then what are the parameters for membership in the covenant community?
If salvation does not bear relation to Trinitarian theology then why aren’t Mormons saved? Why aren’t JW’s saved? Why aren’t Socinians saved? Why aren’t Sabellian Modalists saved? Why aren’t Arians saved? (All Trinitarian Heresies.)
Now, of course we are not saved by perfect Theology, or by a perfect understanding of the Trinity. (Who then could be saved if perfect theology was required to be saved?) However even Jesus taught that there was correspondence between Salvation and Theology when He said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”
Now, all the Athansisan creed requires is that our knowledge of God includes his Trinitarian reality. Surely, a retired minister of a storied Reformed denomination would not suggest that epistemologically self conscious Unitarians like Servetus could be saved or epistemologically self conscious polytheists can be saved?
RM continues to ask probing questions,
And, if so, just where is this taught in the Scriptures?
I’m not sure what is being asked in terms of what is being sought.
I don’t think he is asking where in the Bible the Trinity is taught.
Maybe what is being asked is, “where is salvation by theology taught in Scripture?”
If that is what is being asked then I would offer passages like John 17:3 cited earlier. Jesus said that eternal life (salvation) is knowing God. Scripture teaches that God is Trinitarian. Hence, one can not know God if one does not know Him according to His Trinitarian reality.
Or maybe what is being asked is, “Where does the Scripture teach that the Trinity must be embraced in order for one to be saved.” The answer to that question, I think, would be, “which member of the Godhead would we delete the ascription of deity from all the while still believing that we could remain Christian?”
If we don’t embrace the Trinity, how is Christianity still Christianity? And if Christianity is no longer Christianity then how can we speak in terms of a salvation that is Christian?
To which the answer would be … “And this is eternal life that they may Know thee, the Only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”
And, further, what kind of God would punish his creatures eternally for failing to get an abstruse theological point right? What sort of justice is that? What sense does it make?
The Trinity is an abstruse theological point?
I’m sure the Sabellians, the Arians, the Modalists, the Socinians, and any number of assorted heretics throughout Church History will be glad to hear that the Trinity is not a theological point worthy of getting wrong or right.isn’t
One wonders what other abstruse theological points are not worthy of a creature being punished eternally for failing to get? Why aren’t the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection, or the Ascension, or Pentecost, the Deity of Christ, Justification by Faith alone, Original Sin, Imputation, or any number of other core Christian doctrines also abstruse theological points that can be dismissed as points over which a nice God would never punish His creatures eternally? One wonders, what theological points in Redemptive history aren’t abstruse so that they really aren’t necessary to believe since a nice God won’t throw body and soul into hell for failing to get abstruse theological points?
Question — What Kind of God would punish his creatures for failing to get an abstruse theological point right?
Answer — A Just God?
Maybe the only creatures who will be punished eternally are those people who think abstruse theological points have eternal implications.
RM continues citing more of the Athanasian creed,
But this is only the beginning of the creed. It has two parts, the first a sort of puzzle poem to the Trinity:
The Father is uncreated,
the Son is uncreated,
the Holy Spirit is uncreated.
The Father is immeasurable,
the Son is immeasurable,
the Holy Spirit is immeasurable.
The Father is eternal,
the Son is eternal,
the Holy Spirit is eternal.
And yet there are not three eternal beings;
there is but one eternal being.
So too three are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings;
there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.
And on it goes, ending the first part with, “Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the trinity.” The creed then turns to the two natures of Christ… As it does it doubles down on the theme that salvation depends on having the right theology. Again I quote from the older translation: “Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation : that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess : that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds : and Man of the substance of his Mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man : of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.” Once again the argument is that salvation requires right thinking, and right thinking requires the right view of a certain theology. What of those Christians who lived in the four centuries before the time of the Council of Chalcedon? Were they saved like Abraham by a grace extended to those who lived before the revelation of the Trinity and the Two Natures? Is this what Jesus came to call us to: the right theology of the incarnation? Just asking.
Are not those with greater light more accountable than those with lesser light? Doubtless those with lesser light will be held to a standard not inconsistent with God’s full revelation but still as those who had less light. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required. Those Christians who lived with lesser light and still threw themselves upon Christ’s mercy, trusting Christ alone for salvation, will doubtless be saved. But living in a time of less light is no excuse to us who live in a time of more light to suggest that doctrines like the Trinity are inconsequential and shouldn’t be taught as a core doctrine of the Christian belief paradigm.
I might ask if Jesus is calling us to a wrong theology of the Incarnation? Is Jesus calling us to ignore the doctrine of the Incarnation as inconsequential and abstruse? Since the work of Christ is related to the right doctrine of the Incarnation, I do think that Jesus is calling us to a right theology of the Incarnation.
Does our Retired Minister have doubts about the Trinity? The Two Natures of Christ? The doctrine of the Incarnation? Doubtless he is perfectly orthodox on these matters but just wonders if the Church is majoring on the minors when it teaches Christian doctrine.
The creed ends this second and last section with another warning in the case that the hearer has missed the first two: “This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.” … I wondered for a moment whether in that little church (where the Creed was read) at that moment I was witnessing the death of a creed. And I wondered if it mattered.
The death of the Athanasian Creed may not matter, but when “Christians” quit confessing and believing the truth contained in the Athanasian Creed eventually, someday, one might find that it matters a great deal more than they thought.
Really, it is more than a passing strange Christianity for one to deny the necessity of affirming the Trinity, for one to deny the necessity of affirming the Virgin Birth, for one to deny the necessity of affirming the hypostatic union of Christ? Surely the Christian faith is more than that, but just as surely it is never less than that. Just as surely, not everyone in the pew is going to be as conversant with these doctrine as Doctors of the Church, but that fact doesn’t make these great theological truth any less important or necessary.