Arthur Middleton on the Trinity as expressed in the Athanasian Creed

When the Book of Common Prayer was commonplace in most parishes, during sermons bored choirboys could be found browsing the Quicunque Vult. It is also known as the Athanasian Creed, though it is not a creed nor by Athanasius. The Book of Common Prayer requires that it be said at the daily offices on certain feast days rather than the Apostles’ Creed. I wonder how many priests obey this rubric; I do myself.

The Trinitarian section forms an elaborate and carefully articulated statement. The fundamental idea is that, as understood by catholic Christians, the Godhead is at once a trinity in unity and a unity in trinity. More precisely, the Godhead, while one indivisible substance, is simultaneously three persons. The paradox is that the threeness of the persons does not violate the oneness of the substance, while the oneness of the substance in no way impairs the real distinction of the persons. This doctrine is expounded in a sequence of carefully ordered movements.

First, in verses 3-6 the two apparently contradictory truths which are to be held in tension are set down. We are briefly warned against, on the one hand, confusing (i.e. obliterating the distinction between) the three persons and, on the other, dividing or splitting asunder the one indivisible substance. The conclusion is drawn that, since Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while distinct persons, possess and actually are one and the same Godhead, each must have exactly the same glory and majesty as the other two.

Secondly, in verses 7-14 the creed develops this theme by analysing the various attributes applicable to the Godhead and so to the three persons. Since Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each fully God, each can properly be described (as God is described) as increate, infinite, eternal and omnipotent. Each, we might say in rather different language, is the Godhead in its fulness existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore each must have whatever attributes the Godhead Itself possesses—increatedness, infinity, eternity, omnipotence. Nevertheless we should beware of concluding that there are therefore three increates, three infinites, three eternals, three omnipotents. Clearly there cannot be for, while the Godhead is three persons (i.e. has three forms of presentation) it is one and the same Godhead which is exhibited in each, the divine substance or essence being absolutely indivisible.

Reflection along these lines leads to the conclusion, set out in verses 15-20, that Christian Trinitarianism offers no loophole to tritheism. Each of the three persons is, of course, God and Lord in as much as each of them is the one Godhead, which is God and Lord, existing in a particular mode of presentation. But one cannot deduce from this that there are therefore three Gods and three Lords. The fundamental principle is that the Godhead which presents itself, severally and simultaneously, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is one and indivisible.

Wherein then do the three persons differ? And if their substance, essence or being is identical, in virtue of what are catholic Christians justified in regarding them as really distinct? Apparently everything that can be said about any one of them can equally be said about the other two, so that we might think it reasonable to infer that any one of them might be indifferently designated by the name of any other, so that there would be three Fathers, three Sons, three Holy Spirits. This problem is dealt with in verses 21-24, which are concerned with what are technically called the divine relations. The three persons are identical in substance and they are identical in attributes, but they differ—and this is the one and only respect in which they differ—in the relation they bear to each other as a result of their different modes of origin within the divine substance which they are. Thus, the Father derives his being from none; he is neither created, like everything that exists outside the Godhead, nor begotten, like the Son. In contrast, the Son derives his being from the Father alone, not by creation but by generation. The Spirit derives his being from the Father and the Son, not by creation nor by generation, but by procession. Since these relations are peculiar to each of the persons, and since, we may add (the thought is implicit in the creed) they are real and permanent, we are entitled to affirm that the three are really distinct from each other, and that each is unique as a person.

The two following clauses make the further point that, despite their differences of origin within the one divine substance, none of the three persons is prior to or greater than any other; all three are coequal and coeternal. The reason is, of course, that each is the one indivisible Godhead, the differences indicated having to do merely with its several modes of presenting itself. As a result, catholic orthodoxy adores the Trinity in unity and the unity in the Trinity.