You’re standing in a crowded walk-way. Someone comes up, looks right at you, pushes you aside, then walks past.
You say to them, “Hey, I’m a person, not an object!”
A person is a relating being—a living being who relates, connects, and holds conversation with other relating beings. It’s inappropriate to treat a person like an object.
Our moms, dads, and elders teach us to say things like please, thank you, excuse me, and I beg your pardon. These are not empty phrases. They express the dignity of personhood.
Each year, many Christian pastors are faced with a personal decision: should I have our congregation recite the Athanasian Creed or not? I remember saying this creed as a teenager at Trinity Lutheran Church. From my perspective: it. went. on. for. ever.
Along with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the Athanasian Creed is one of the three most widely accepted summaries of the truth about God revealed in Jesus and recorded in the Bible.
These creeds are important expressions of the Christian Faith. Lutherans hold them in common with many other Christians, including about 1 billion Roman Catholics.
The creeds are not replacements of the Bible. They are responses.
Lots of people read the Bible. And lots of people have come from the Bible with lots of crazy ideas (think, David Koresh). Early on, followers of Jesus said, there’s a right kind of response to the Bible and a wrong kind.
One of the earliest and most concise responses to the Bible is the Apostles’ Creed. Most Lutherans say versions of this Creed every Sunday. Sometimes we say an expanded version called the Nicene creed. And once a year, we sometimes say the super-expanded version, the Athanasian Creed.
The key to understanding the Athanasian Creed is the word “person.”
In the Creed, a person is a relating being.
Another important word is “uncreated.”
These words capture two basic Christian convictions about reality. We can express these convictions with two questions.
- (1) How many kinds of reality are there—1 or 2?
- (2) What determines how reality goes—persons or things?
For question (1), the Creed answers, “There are two kinds of reality: created and uncreated; or more simply: Creator and creation. For question (2), the Creed answers, “Persons decide how reality goes, not things; and not just any persons, but three, divine, uncreated Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
By answering these questions with the Creed, we’ve contrasted the Christian view from others. Christians confess that the most important thing about the universe is not that it merely contains objects pushed around by unchanging forces. This is the view of Fatalism, which the church rejected.
In Fatalism, things are in charge.
Along with rejecting a Fatalist view, the Church also rejected a Pantheist view. Pan-theism says that there is only kind of reality. It collapses the distinction between Creator and creation and says that everything is God.
Pan means “all,” so Pan-theism says All is God and God is All.
Note that “God” from a strict Pantheist perspective is impersonal. You wouldn’t talk with or listen to this sort of God, at least not in a personal way. It’s not like a beloved child relating to a loving father. There’s no love or trust. It just Is. Everything is God.
Really, everything is God? Even mosquitoes, acid rain, and mass murderers? Maybe David Koresh really was God? Not a lot folks can handle strict pantheism. So, we’ve got another perspective that says, “No. There’s got to be a higher reality, something above the chaos.” They’ve posited an “ideal reality” that is constant and true, while the “material reality” is changing and unreliable. While not pantheism, it’s still a form of fatalism, because things are still in charge—whether unchanging ideals in the higher realm, or mosquito slapping in the lower.
In the Creed, the Church confessed that the most important thing to know about the universe is that it was created and is presently ruled by a Person (well, three Persons, but more on that in a moment). By saying that reality is ruled by a Person, we’ve just crossed an important line. We’re no longer in Fatalist territory. We’ve entered the Voluntarist realm.
Voluntarism comes from the Latin word for “will” or “purpose.”
To have a will is to be a person. To be a person is to have a will. If a person is in charge of reality, then things happen because some person willed them. Things don’t happen by blind fate. In a voluntarist view, everything is personal.
Now the big question is, which person or persons decide how reality goes?
In the Creed we confess three of them—three eternal, uncreated, divine Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who are so united in essence, love, and will that they are not three eternals, not three uncreateds, not three divines. Three divines would amount to many gods, or Poly-theism.
Polytheism is an interesting option. From this perspective, personal gods do get to decide how reality goes. But, there’s no One Creator God who’s above all. Remember Greek Mythology? Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the other Olympians were always fighting for supremacy. Zeus might have been king, but he wasn’t really in control. He had to contend with the will of the others. None of them were beyond suffering. None were above-it-all. Even cunning humans could outsmart them or manipulate them.
Since a polytheist has no above-it-all category, they must say there’s only one kind of reality.
For Polytheism, life is a battle of wills.
The god-persons may be stronger than human persons, but they suffer just like us. And since no person is really in charge, Polytheism often collapses back into Fatalism, where things rule the day.
Christians are neither fatalists nor polytheists. They are Mono-theists.
Monotheists confess a Creator God who is truly above-it-all.
Christians share this in common with Jews and Muslims. And yet Christians are different. With the Creed, we confess that the Father is God. The Son is God. The Spirit is God. But, the Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Father. And the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son.
This is a correction of an early Christian confusion called Modalism, which taught that there is only one Divine Person who appeared in different modes, like how H20 can appear sometimes as water, sometimes vapor, sometimes ice. Against Modalism, the Church confessed that there are three divine Persons, who share one divine Essence.
Maybe this analogy from the early church will help:
You are a particular human person; you are one-of-a-kind; you’ve accumulated a peculiar set of experiences. The same is true with me. You and I are distinct from one another. We each are unique, personal, relating beings. And yet we share the same human essence. There are not two or three kinds; there’s just one human essence, which we share. Something similar can be said about divine essence: three Persons, who share a one-of-a-kind, altogether incomprehensible one-ness.
Let’s review. Against Pantheism and Fatalism, Christians confess that the creation is distinct from the Creator. It is not chance that rules the universe, but three uncreated, divine Persons. Against Polytheism the Creed confesses that these three are truly One. Against Modalism, the Creed confessed that the One God is truly three distinct Persons, who created the world and filled it with human persons.
The most dangerous thing about being a human person is that we like to think we are the only persons around—that we are the measure of all things, the masters of our destiny. If that is true, it leaves us with two dehumanizing options.
One the one hand, if we’re the only persons, it must be up to us to rule the world and make it bend to our will. We could call this option Humanism. On the other hand, if we’re not able to do this, the universe must rule us. We aren’t really persons anymore. We are collections of particles driven by forces—“victims of the night, the chemical-physical kryptonite.” We call this option Materialism.
Materialism says things are in charge and strips away the dignity of personhood.
Humanism flexes human will without answering to God.
If we tell ourselves we’re the only persons around, we Humanists would be condemned to pretending to be Creators. But, what if we fail to bend reality to our will? What if we’re controlled by the materials of our environments and bodies? What if we die? Then we Materialists would be condemned to serve Things as though they were gods. Now we’re back to Polytheism, on the road to blind fate.
For centuries, Christians have been confessing the Athanasian Creed because it summarizes the truth of the Bible. With it, we say what God has done to save us from two kinds of dehumanizing slavery: (1) from trying to be God on the one hand; (2) from losing our personhood to fate, on the other.
Through the Son and the Spirit, the Father makes us fully personal by bringing us to relate to Him in fear, love and trust.