Tony and the Athanasian Creed (3)

As 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 then proceeded to the more controversial and complex ones.


Today will close out this brief series, and I hope that it has helped to clarify where my concerns and questions regarding the Athanasian Creed lay. To conclude, I want to bring this full circle to a few things I said in the previous two posts.

As imperfect and growing creatures, we must always be testing our theology and ideas against the truth of Scripture. Additionally, we must recognize that when we interpret Scripture, that we are interpreting Scripture. We are imperfect interpreters, and for this reason God has given us the wise counsel of others. We would do well to take advantage of this blessing which God has given us in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith.” (Eph 4:11-13, ESV) As such, I reached out to a man I deeply respect and from whom I have learned more than I can recount.

Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is an expert in patristic theology, especially in the area of Trinitarian and Christological development in the concilliar period (4th through 6th centuries). More than that, he was my professor during seminary and taught me almost everything I know about the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and the patristic era. Even more than that, he is a mentor and friend.

I reached out to him to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and he graciously took time to read my posts and offer some clarification for me. With his permission, I want to offer some excerpts from his emails.

Your main point is exactly right, but it should apply to even the Nicene Creed. Nothing outside of Scripture is INHERENTLY authoritative. (Emphasis his)

As I said in my first post, the authority of the Athanasian Creed can only ever be a ministerial authority. That is, it can only ever have an authority that is derived from the Scriptures (the only magisterial authority Protestants recognize). Insofar as it agrees with Scripture, it is absolutely authoritative. Insofar as it disagrees with Scripture, it must be abandoned. Don here agrees with that point, and I think a good argument can be made that even the authors of the Nicene Creed would have agreed with that point.

Regarding the second blog, in short, what you think the Athanasian Creed may be saying (and which you correctly find acceptable) is what the Athanasian Creed IS saying. (Emphasis his)

In my second post, I argued that if the Athanasian Creed was saying what the Nicene Creed was saying, then I affirm it. I also noted that I believe that it is saying what the Nicene Creed is saying, but simply cannot have the same kind of certainty with the Athanasian Creed as we can with the Nicene Creed. I still think that is the case to a certain extent, since we have no knowledge of who composed it, or when it was composed. However Don helped me clarify a few things that I was lacking a full view of.

Jerome’s and Augustine’s problems with the Greeks had to do with the fact that they did not realize the Greeks had changed the way they used the word hypostasis. If Athanasius had been around to respond to them, he could have easily cleared up the whole problem, just as he had cleared it up at Alexandria in 362 when he “canonized” the new use of hypostasis.

But the point is that after the year 381, you get this kind of confusion only when Latins read what the Greeks write. When Latins write on their own (as in the Athanasian Creed), they have clear distinctions which govern their use of the terms, distinctions that go back to Tertullian. And when Greeks write on their own, they NOW have clear distinctions, forged by Athanasius (and to a lesser degree, the Cappadocians). So each side knows what it means, but the Latins don’t know what the Greeks now mean, because they confuse that with what the Greeks would have meant if they had been using the same word 100 years earlier.

Don explains that works of Latin theology were internally consistent, and works of Greek theology were internally consistent. The only time there was confusion was when Latin theologians (like Jerome and Augustine) read Greek theology. I think by extension that we may see some of these same kinds of problems when Greek theology was translated into Latin, but he did not confirm that. I think that a flaw in some of my thinking was that although I was vigorously arguing that the Athanasian Creed was written in Latin, in my mind I was still treating it as though it was translated from a Greek original. Had that been the case, I think my concerns probably still hold some force.

Bottom line: Your concerns about the Athanasian Creed are not justified, in my opinion. It is saying what you think it needs to say, not what you fear it might be saying. And you are right about what it needs to say, so there is no problem here with your Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Don, as an expert in the field —linguistically, theologically, and historically— has no concerns regarding the nature of the theology in the Athanasian Creed. He does say, in a subsequent email, that the approach of the Athanasian Creed in describing the Trinity is different from the approach of the Nicene Creed. “Instead of describing persons in relationship to one another, it describes the association between each person and the essence. In that way, it is too much like the later Western language for my taste, but it isn’t wrong per se.” This was a sort of follow-up to an earlier statement “that modalism lurks in the background of all discussions of the Trinity.” He didn’t say it, but I think that this especially is the case in western (Latin) Christianity. Fred Sanders observes something similar in an article he wrote discussing the two Creeds.

I am happy to take the correction of my friend and mentor, although he and I are in agreement that in terms of authority in the Church, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed are not on the same level in regards to “normative value.” That said, I still believe that because of the uncertain origin and —in my estimate— inappropriate anathema statements, that we as Reformed Protestant would do well to make our appeal to document with a verified composition, ecclesiastical and ecumenical origins, and a greater level of normative value.

I will note that Don here also explicitly affirms that my Trinitarian theology is fully within the scope of Christian orthodox belief (he is making this assessment not just on these posts, but on a three-year academic relationship and ongoing conversations).

That is not to say that the Athanasian Creed does not have a tremendous teaching value. In fact given what Don says above regarding the meaning of the Athanasian Creed, I think that it is one of the clearest articulations of Divine Simplicity we find in the early Church, and serves as a tremendous tool in refuting the error of those who affirm the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son (and Spirit).

I appreciate everyone who has taken time to read my work, and hope that this settles the issue. I also want to say a special thank you to Don for taking time to correspond with me on this subject.


I would highly encourage my readers to check out some of Don’s published writings. I’ve listed them below starting with the most accessible, proceeding to the more technical:

Additionally, Don has authored a book, which takes a different approach on language studies, that I would highly recommend for anyone going into seminary. Greek operates differently than English, and understanding the underlying structures and concepts of Greek and Latin before starting to memorize forms and paradigms will pay dividends.

He also has written a number of articles, most interesting to my audience may be an article submitted to Participatio in which he discusses the concept of extra nos justification in the work of Cyril of Alexandria.

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