Tony and the Athanasian Creed (2)

Hilary of PoitiersAs I mentioned briefly in a previous post, there have been some who have accused me of trintarian heresy —not just error or heterodoxy, but damnable heresy— as a result of some concern (note that I did not say objections) I have expressed regarding the Athanasian Creed and its use in Reformed theology. While I cannot address everything in the depth I would like to in blog posts, I would like to provide some explanation. These posts are not intended to be comprehensive, rather they are intended to be short introductory reference posts for me to refer to rather than rehearsing things each time the issue comes up.

If you are planning on quoting me in these posts, please also provide a link to the article for context. One of the concerns I have is that those who have unjustly opposed me (there are those who have been mature and have had adult discussions and have still come away with concerns regarding my position, that is not who I intend to refer to) will use these posts to cherry pick quotes out of context. I began with what I think are the least controversial and complex reasons, and will now proceed to the more controversial and complex ones.


This post will be much more technical, so please bear with me. The trinitarian terms enjoyed a development which begins before the rise of Christianity and continued well into the 5th century (and in many ways, continues today). Of particular note is the development of the terms ousia and hypostasis. Originally, in their use in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy the terms shared a broad overlapping semantic range. This use was adopted by early Christians as they sought to explain how God the Father, and Jesus Christ, were both to be said to be the one God. This is why we see in the original creed put forth at the Council of Nicaea in 325 that it was said that anyone who claimed that “[the Son] is of another substance” or “[the Son] is of another essence” are “condemned by the holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The first clause says hypostasis and the second says ousia.

In the way that we use the word hypostasis now, it would be heretical to say that the Father and Son are the same hypostasis. That is because in the time intervening the Councils of Nicaea and the Constantinople (381) there was significant development in how these terms were used. Michael Horton in the Christian Faith and Pilgrim Theology has an excellent discussion of this development. I would encourage you to check out the details (278 – 282 and 94 – 97 respectively). This development happened primarily in the Greek speaking portion of the Church and was lead by the Cappadocian Fathers.

Ultimately, and this is important, the word ousia came to refer to the way that God is unified, to the way that God is one. The word hypostasis came to refer to the way that God is three, to the way that the divine persons are diverse. In the Latin speaking west there were various translations which were used to refer to these concepts. Ousia was often translated as substantia or essentiaHypostasis on the other hand was more difficult to translate, and was variously translated as persona or substantia depending on the context.[1] As you can see, the word substantia was used in reference to both terms, which as you can imagine gave rise to all kinds of confusion in the west. The Reformers, seeing this confusion, coined a new Latin term, subsistentia, to stand in for hypostasis which we translate as subsistence.

Before we can get to the Athanasian Creed, we have to talk a little about Calvin and Jerome.

Calvin, in his section on the Trinity in Institutes of the Christian Religion makes a very interesting comment. As a brief aside, one of my readers reminded me that Calvin himself refused to sign the Athanasian Creed as a symbol of orthodoxy due to the anathema clauses I discussed in the previous post. He argued that there may be various ways to correctly articulate the Trinity, and to force someone to hold to one extra biblical way as opposed to another was unacceptable. This is not unlike the argument I have made.

In I.xiii.5 Calvin notes that Jerome “says it is profane to affirm that there are three substances in God.” Now, without understanding the linguistic issues I discussed above, we might readily agree with this. However, Calvin is not commending Jerome for his insight, he is chastising him for his error. Jerome, you see, is confused about the word hypostasis. Jerome thinks it is a reference to the way that God is one, but it is in fact a reference to the way that the persons are diverse. Calvin goes on to say “Then how greatly is Jerome perplexed with the word Hypostasis! He suspects some lurking poison, when it is said that there are three Hypostases in God.”

Jerome reads the translations of the Greek theologians and believes that they are saying that there are three ousia in God, because he doesn’t understand the distinction between hypostasis and ousia that was developed by the Cappadocians.

Why am I talking about Jerome? Well, Jerome was writing toward the end of the 4th century through the beginning of the 5th century. Calvin also notes that Augustine is not as confused as Jerome was, but he was indeed still not clear. The point is that Latin theologians from this era struggled to understand the primarily Greek theology of the Trinity which was the official orthodoxy of the Church, as defined by the Nicene Creed.

As I discussed in the previous post, we don’t know much about the author of the Athanasian Creed. You know what we do know though? He was a Latin writer, who was writing sometime during the beginning to middle part of the 5th century. In terms of theological acumen, we can assume his understanding of things is closer to Jerome or Augustine, than it is to Basil or Hillary.

Lets get to the actual creed now.

There are two areas of the creed that I think may be effected by this.

The first is found near the beginning of the creed.

That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons (personas); nor dividing the Essence (substantiam). For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead (divinitas) of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one.

I’ve included some of the key Latin terms. One of the things that happens, is that the translators try to help you by interpreting some of these terms. Because of this they do not translate things as literally as they could. I will provide a more literal translation.

That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons (personas); nor dividing the Substance (substantiam). For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Divinty (divinitas) of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one.

Now, this section can go one of two ways, we can read the Latin personas as a straight forward translation of the Greek hypostasis, and the Latin substantiam as a straight forward translation of the Greek ousia. If this is what is going on, then this is a perfectly orthodox and quite good summary of the theology of the Nicene Creed. However, the phrasing of the last sentence may mitigate against this. The translators believe that divinitas is a reference to the single divine nature which they share, which is why they translate it as Godhead. Again, if this is correct then we have no problems. However, if instead the term refers to an attribute or characteristic, then we run into issues. If the author is confused, as Jerome and Augustine were, about the use of the term hypostasis then the Creed becomes quite problematic. Note, there was a perfectly good word (essentiawhich does not run into this equivocation problem, but the author opted for the more equivocal word.[2]

That brings us to the second potentially concerning part of the Creed.

Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.

The Creed goes on to include other similar listings. Assuming this is an articulation that correctly understands the hypostasis / ousia distinction, this is a beautiful articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity. The point is relatively straight foward, albeit infinitely complicated. The divine nature which the Father possesses, is one and the same divine nature which the Son and Spirit possess. Thus the “uncreatedness” of the Father, or the “unlimitedness” of the Son, or the “eternality” of the Spirit… are one and the same with the “uncreatedness”, “unlimitedness”, or “eternality” of the other persons. Another way to say this is exactly what was said in the previous section. The divinity of the persons is one. The Creed goes on to say “So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.”

Now, if this is what the Creed is affirming, I fully agree. This is what I mean when I say that I affirm the substance of the Creed, but I am not sure if I affirm the form (language) of the Creed.

The problem is that the author here is saying that there is one substantia in the Trinity. Which is true. However, we have seen that Latin theologians may be thinking that this means that there is one hypostasis in the Trinity. The author here basically is saying that when we apply an attribute to the persons of the Trinity as person, that we are speaking truth. However, we must acknowledge that those persons have that attribute because of a shared underlying reality. The nature of what that underlying reality is what is in question here. If the author is clear about the hypostasis / ousia distinction then we have no problem. If, however, like Jerome and Augustine and many other Latin theologians… this Latin theologian is not clear about that distinction, then we may have a problem. What about the adjective “hypostatic?” Can you substitute that into his formula?

The Father is hypostatic, the Son likewise, and the Spirit likewise… but there is only one hypostasis.

This gets to the fundamental issue… that is a sentence that we could very easily see Jerome write. If we could easily see Jerome write it… then it is also the case that another Latin theologian like the author of the Athanasian Creed may fall under the same confusion. Had the author of the Athanasian Creed used the unequivocal term essentia we would not be having this discussion… but he didn’t.

I noted above that I think these sections may be effected by this confusion. I simply don’t know. And I don’t think that we can know. When we read Jerome, we can look at what he says in other places and come to a conclusion that although he was a little confused, he is still orthodox. We can come to these conclusions with even more certainty with Augustine. We have other writing by these men (and most other Latin theologians) to give us context and clarify their meaning. We simply do not have this with the author of the Athanasian Creed. For centuries people believed this was written by Athanasius, so they assumed he meant the same thing that the Cappadocians meant, (ironically, this wouldn’t have been a great assumption anyway depending on when he wrote… he used the word hypostasis the way it was used in the anathemas discussed above, as a synonym for ousia until it was decided at a synod in 367 that the Eastern Church would use the word hypostasis to refer to the diversity, and ousia to refer to the unity), however this was a faulty assumption. The author shares more in common with Jerome than he does with Athanasius, with Augustine than he does with Basil. Linguistically, we are on solid ground to assume that he shared some of the same linguistic confusion that Jerome and Augustine did.

So, when I say that I affirm the substance of the Creed insofar as it is the same substance as the Nicene Creed (381), I say so cautiously because I’m not sure we can know if it does affirm the same substance. We can assume it does, and I’m okay with that. However, I would much rather appeal to a Creed which we do know the substance of, and which does have ecumenical origins and authority. In general, I’m a cautious theologian, and this is a reflection of this.

As I close, I want you to imagine a scenario. I recognize that it is an unlikely scenario, but just stick with me for a second.

Imagine we discovered a document which was written by a modalist. Someone who affirms that there is distinction between what we see as the Father, Son, and Spirit. Someone who would refer to that distinction as three personae. This person would say that while it is true that the Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, and the Spirit is eternal, that these three personae are only one eternal substantia. Now, imagine that in this same document, it is revealed that this modalist is also the author of the Athanasian Creed. That would be a devastating blow to the consistency and history of the Church’s confession.

Now, as I said, I recognize that this is a remote scenario. However, because we don’t know anything about who the author is, and do not know anything more than the latest possible date it could have been written… we cannot with certainty rule out this possibility.

I don’t think that a modalist wrote the Athanasian Creed,[3] and I think that the substance of the Creed is indeed orthodox. And I affirm that substance. However, because of the uncertainty… I have concerns. These concerns lead me to rely more on the Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Definition.


  1. See Shedd, William. Dogmatic Theology. Third Edition. Edited by Alan Gomes. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003, 229-235 for a more detailed linguistic and lexical discussion of these terms.
  2. Shedd notes on 231 that the reformers and protestant scholastics preferred the word essentia rather than substatia, because even when we get to the Reformation the word substantia “logically implies accidents or unessential properties.” This is exactly the confusion which was happening in the 4th and 5th century among Latin theologians, so it is clear that this issue was not fully resolved by the time of the writing of the Athanasian Creed.
  3. It should be noted that I think in general there is a tendency to overemphasis the unity of the Godhead over the diversity of the persons in Western Christianity. This tendency lends itself to a modalistic confusion. We may feel as though modalism, also known as Sabellianism, is gone, however it “has remained a recurring challenge throughout church history.” (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 95) The tendency to treat the divine nature as “some subsistent thing that stands behind or above the person and so leads to tetratheism or Seballianism” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:299) is real, and we must be aware of it if we are to properly safeguard ourselves against it.

One thought on “Tony and the Athanasian Creed (2)

Comments are closed.