The Athanasian Creed compared to Eastern Orthodoxy

INTRODUCTION

Purpose

The purpose is to explain both the Athanasian Creed and Eastern Orthodoxy by comparing them.

It first analyzes and summarizes the Athanasian Creed (AC), excluding its ‘anathemas’ at the beginning and the end, and also excluding the section on the incarnation.

It then compares this summary to the ‘Monarchy of the Father’ of the Eastern Orthodox Church, using particularly the Catechism of the Orthodox Faith and a talk on the Trinity by the well-known Fr. Thomas Hopko

The purpose is not to criticize any of these views, but to understand.

Christianity began in the East.

Eastern Orthodoxy claims to uphold the earliest views. 

Most theologians of the first centuries were from the Eastern Roman Empire:

“The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (Hanson, p. 170)

The Arian Controversy

The Athanasian Creed and Eastern Orthodoxy reflect two camps in the fourth-century Arian Controversy.

The Arian Controversy also began in the East. For example, the Nicene Council of 325 was attended almost exclusively by delegates from the East:

At Nicaea, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

In the fourth century, while the Western Church was mostly pro-Nicene, the Eastern Church was mostly anti-Nicene. The pro-Nicenes in the East were primarily the Cappadocians, but they were in dispute with the Western pro-Nicenes in what is known as the Meletian Schism.

However, while Muslim military conquests in later centuries weakened Christianity in the East considerably, the Western Church in Rome grew in prominence and remained a powerful force throughout the Middle Ages. For that reason, the theology of the church in the Western world today has been mostly inherited from the Roman Church. But to understand the dynamics of the fourth-century Arian Controversy, it is important to take note of the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

ATHANASIAN CREED (AC)

Not Athanasius’ creed

The Athanasian Creed (AC) was not compiled by Athanasius or by a church council.

It was formulated by unknown authors somewhere in the fifth or sixth centuries. Nevertheless, it remained the primary formulation of the Trinity doctrine throughout the Middle Ages and even until today.

The one God is the Trinity.

The three Persons are one God and a single undivided substance.
AC: 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.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. 

This clause makes three parallel contrasts:

          • One God in Trinity,
          • Trinity in Unity;
          • Three Persons, one undivided Essence

In other words, it contrasts the “one God,” which is the “Unity,” and an undivided Substance, with the “Trinity” of three “Persons.”

The one God – In contrast to the Nicene Creed, which identified the ‘one God’ as the Father, the AC identifies the ‘one God’ as the Trinity.

One substance – In contrast to the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed, which means ‘same substance’ and which may be understood as saying that Father and Son are two distinct substances of the same type (Read More), the Athanasian Creed uses the more specific phrase “nor dividing the essence,” which means that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single undivided substance. 

The Persons are ontologically equal

They are equal in Godhead, Glory, and Majesty.
AC: But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. 

‘Glory’ and ‘majesty’ point to ontological equality, as opposed to functional (role) equality.

They are a Triune God.

All three Persons are God but there is only one God with one mind and will.
AC: 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. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.

So likewise the Father is ALMIGHTY; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.

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.

So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.

This continues to explain the Persons as equal. The attributes ‘uncreated’, ‘unlimited’, ‘eternal’, and ‘almighty’ point to ontologically equality.

Since each Person is uncreated, unlimited, eternal, and almighty, each is a God. Three Persons who are each infinite and almighty are logically impossible, for each would limit the others. But the Creed here repeats the strong emphasis on the oneness of the three Persons already stated in the first clause. The one single substance and the strong emphasis on one-ness imply that the three Persons share one single mind and will. (Read more)

Only the Father exists without cause.

While the Father exists without cause, the Son and the Spirit exist from the being of the Father.
AC: The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

All three Persons are not made nor created. But they differ:

          • The Father exists without cause.
          • The Son exists because He was begotten by the Father.
          • The Holy Spirit exists because He proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The Father is the Ultimate Cause or Source. Both the Son and the Spirit come out of the being of the Father. The Spirit also proceeds from the Son but, because the Father begot the Son, the Ultimate Source remains the Father.

The Son is part of the Father.

The Creed implies and Athanasius and Tertullian said that the Son and the Spirit are part of the Father’s substance.

In the Athanasian Creed, the three Persons are one God, and the ‘one God’ is the Trinity. The question is, how are the three Persons one God?

If Father = Son = Spirit, that would be Modalism, where the Father, Son, and Spirit are three names for the same one Entity. So, I want to assume that Father, Son, and Spirit are not simply three names for the same Entity, but that differences exist between them.

The Creed also says that the three Persons differ. For example, the Father begat the Son. So, while the Father has a Son, the Son does not have a Son. Such differences exclude Modalism.

The following suggests that the Son and Spirit are part of the Father:

Firstly. the Creed says they are one undivided substance. (“nor dividing the Substance”). It also says that the Father is the Source and Origin of the Son and the Spirit. The ‘undivided substance’, therefore, is the substance of the Father. With the Son begotten and the Spirit proceeding, that Substance remains undivided. This means that the Son and Spirit are part of the Father’s Substance; the Son is part of the Father.

Secondly, that is also what Athanasius taught:

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

“The Son is in the Father ontologically.” (Hanson, p. 428)

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (Ayres, p. 113)

“Athanasius’ argument speaks not of two realities engaged in a common activity, but develops his most basic sense that the Son is intrinsic to the Father’s being.” (Ayres, p. 114) (Read More)

If the Athanasian Creed is supposed to reflect Athanasius’ theology, which it probably does, it would be fair to conclude that the Son and Spirit are part of the Father.

Thirdly, Athanasius was the norm of Western pro-Nicene theology and that theology relied heavily on Tertullian, who also said that the Son is part of the Father.

“The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole.” (In Against Praxeas 9, Tertullian).

The Persons are functionally equal.

None is before or after or greater or less.
AC: And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.

This qualifies the differences mentioned in the previous clauses, saying that, although the Father is the only One who exists without a cause, all three Persons are coeternal and coequal.

Some argue that the Son and Spirit are equal in substance (ontologically) but subordinate in role or function. In the Athanasian Creed, however, they seem to be equal also in role: “None is greater, or less than another.”

The one God is the Trinity.

Since the Son and Spirit are part of the Father, the ‘one God’ is the Trinity.
AC: So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.

The creed ends where it began: “We worship one God in Trinity.” The AC identifies the ‘one God’ as the Trinity because the Son and Spirit are part of the Father:

“The Father … the Son … the Holy Ghost … are not three Gods; but ONE GOD.”

Summary of the Creed

The Persons are equal. All three are infinite, eternal, and almighty. All three exist without cause. They are equal in Godhead, Glory, and Majesty. They are coeternal and coequal, not only ontological but also functionally.

The Persons are one. They are one single Almighty God and Lord with one mind and will in one undivided substance.

The Persons differ, for the Father is the Source of the Son and Spirit. Therefore, the Father has a Son but the Son does not. To say that they are one but also differ seems like a contradiction.

The Son and Spirit are part of the Father because (1) the Father is the Origin of the Son and the Spirit and (2) the three Persons are one undivided substance.

EASTERN ORTHODOXY (EO)

The remainder of this article discusses Eastern Orthodoxy (EO) by comparing it to the Athanasian Creed.

The Father is the Ultimate Cause.

In EO, as in the AC, the Father is the Origin and Cause of all things, including of the Son and the Spirit:

“God the Father is cause and origin of His Word (or Son) and Wisdom (or Holy Spirit)” (Catechism, question 90).

“All then that the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their very being” (EO Catechism, question 90).

“The Monarchy of the Father” is the principle that “God the Father is neither begotten nor proceeds from any other Person, he is the cause, source and principle” [of the Son and of the Holy Spirit]. (EO Catechism, question 94).

“When the Son says that the ‘Father is greater than I am,’ (John 14:28) he is referring to the fact that the Father is the cause and origin” (of Himself) (EO Catechism, question 95).

The Spirit is from the Father alone.

While, in the AC, the Spirit is from the Father AND the Son, in EO, the Spirit is from the Father alone.

Jesus said that He will send the Spirit from the Father. (John 15:26) In the Creed of Constantinople of 381, the Spirit is from the Father alone. However, in the AC, “the Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son.” (‘Filioque’ is the Latin for “and the Son.”) EO objects that this denies the principle that the Father is the ultimate cause and origin. In EO, the Spirit proceeds from God (the Father) alone. EO does not deny that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, but explains that the Spirit is Christ’s because the Father gave Him the Spirit:

“The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. That is why we orthodox is against the filioque in the creed (‘and the Son’ – Athanasian Creed). … We claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together.” (Hopko)

“So Jesus can say, ‘I will send you the Spirit’, because the Spirit is his Spirit, but it’s the Spirit of God that is in Jesus because he’s the Son of God. The Word of God and the Spirit of God are both of God. … The Father is the source of the Spirit and of the Son: the Son.” (Hopko)

The three Persons

While the AC describes the three Persons as ontologically “one” (one single substance), in EO, they are three distinct but ontologically equal and inseparable substances.

For much of the Arian Controversy, the terms ousia (substance) and hypostasis (distinct existence, e.g., a person) were used as synonyms. (Read More) So, to say that they are three substances means that they are three distinct existences; three Persons.

Are distinct substances.

EO teaches that the Son and Spirit are distinct substances (hypostases or Persons) with three distinct minds.

“There are three ‘Whos’; He who is the Father, He who is the Son and He who is the Holy Spirit. They are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.” (Hopko)

Furthermore, while the emphasis on one-ness in the AC implies one single mind, the emphasis on three-ness in the EO implies three distinct minds and wills.

Are distinct Beings.

EO does not refer to a “triune God” but to a tri-personal Godhead, meaning three distinct Beings united in agreement.

The term “triune God” means one God consisting of three Entities. But Eastern Orthodoxy believes that the ‘one God’ is the Father, who does not consist of three Entities.

EO does not refer to the Trinity as “God” but as “the tri-hypostatic Divinity” or as “the tri-personal Godhead.” A hypostasis is a distinct existence. “Tri-hypostatic Divinity” means three distinct divine existences (three divine Beings), united in agreement but not in substance. For example:

“In Eastern Orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic Divinity. There is no tri-personal God.” (Hopko)

“The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity – the tri-personal Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.” (Hopko)

Are ontologically equal.

In EO, as in the AC, the Son and Spirit are ontologically (in terms of substance) equal to the Father.

While the AC emphasizes one-ness of substance, EO emphasizes sameness of substance:

“The Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father.” (Hopko)

“God the Father … His Word (or Only Begotten Son) and Spirit … are uncreated and co-eternal, co-equal in the fact that they belong to the category of creator, not creature.” (EO Catechism, question 90)

“He (the Son) is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. … of one very same essence (ousia) – one same being or divinity with God the Father Himself’” (Hopko).

The Son and the Spirit are “co-eternal and co-uncreated with the Father” because of their “ontological or essential equality” which was “expressed … by the expression ‘homoousion’” (EO Catechism, question 95).

“This only begotten Son is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God.” (Hopko)

Are inseparable.

While the AC describes Father, Son, and Spirit as literally one, EO describes them as inseparable:

“God the Father is thus always with and inseparable from his Only-Begotten Son and Holy Spirit” (EO Catechism, question 90).

“This … is the mystery of the Trinity, that God the Father is always with His Word (or Only Begotten Son) and Spirit.” (EO Catechism, question 90)

“With Him (God) were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom … He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, ‘Let Us make man after Our image and likeness…’ (Genesis 1:26)” (EO Catechism, question 90, quoting St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV:20).

God the Father is thus always with and inseparable from his Only-Begotten Son and Holy Spirit (EO Catechism, question 90).

Ontological Subordination

Although EO explains the Son and Spirit as ontological equal, there are signs of ontological subordination as well:

Firstly, it presents them as eternally functionally subordinate, which implies ontological subordination.

Secondly, in EO, the Father is the cause and origin and the Son and Spirit have the same divinity as the Father, which means that they received their being and existence from the Father’s. Conceptually, they are portions of the Father’s uncreated substance.

Thirdly, EO never says that the Father is homoousios with the Son. It always says the Son is homoousios with the Father, which implies some kind of subordination:

“The church fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the theologian, would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. The reason is that the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed). He is a divine Person “from” the one God.”

Functional Subordination

While the AC presents the Son and Spirit as functionally equal, in EO, they are functionally (in terms of roles) subordinate:

The Son and the Spirit are “co-eternal and co-uncreated with the Father” because of their “ontological or essential equality” … However, “this does not negate different roles or functions.” (cf. 1 Cor 11:2-3; 15:27-28) (EO Catechism, question 95)

“The one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.” (Hopko)

This is not regarded as heresy, for the definitions in theological dictionaries of unacceptable forms of Subordinationism are careful to define it, not as all subordinate, but specifically as ontological subordination, namely, in terms of:

          • “The divine essence” 1Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, eds., “Subordinationism,” in Dictionary of Theology (2d ed.; New York: Crossroad, 1981) 488 or
          • “Essential divinity” 2Frances Young, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983) 553

Jesus is God qualitatively.

EO does refer to the Son as ‘God’, not to identify Him as the ‘one God’, but to describe Him qualitatively as divine.

The Bible sometimes refers to the Son as ‘God’. EO interprets this as meaning that the Son has an “uncreated divine nature.”

“In the Holy Scriptures, God (theos) is generally used in the personal sense of the Father. There are also passages where Jesus Christ is called ‘my/our God’ and theos in the sense of … uncreated divine nature.” (EO Catechism, question 93)

In other words, Eastern Orthodoxy believes the Scriptures use the word theos (God) in two senses:

        • When referring to the Father, it uses theos in a “personal” (definite) sense to identify the Father as the ‘one God’.
        • When referring to Jesus, it uses theos qualitatively to describe Him as uncreated and divine.

EO also refers to Jesus as theos (God) in a qualitative sense to say that He is uncreated and divine:

“When it is said that ‘Jesus Christ is God’ or that there is ‘one God in three Persons’, we (Eastern Orthodoxy) use the word God in the qualitative sense of ‘uncreated’ or ‘divine’.” (EO Catechism, question 93)

For example, EO translates John 1:1c as “and the Word was divine:”

“In John’s gospel, in the beginning, the Logos was with God, and ‘the Logos was divine’. All things came to be through Him (John 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences to show that the Logos is really divine with the same divinity as the Father.” (Hopko)

The qualitative use of theos when referring to the Son confirms that EO thinks of the Father and Son as distinct substances (hypostases).

The Father alone is the ‘one God’.

The word ‘God’ is translated from the Greek word theos, which is also used for false gods and even for Satan.

The Greeks used the word ‘theos’ for their gods. Generally, the Jews in Jesus’ day spoke Greek and the authors of the New Testament used the same word in the Greek text of the New Testament for the God of the Bible. But it had a wide range of meanings. For example, the New Testament also uses theos for God’s people, the gods of the nations, and even for Satan. In such instances, theos is translated as “god.” (Read more)

To specifically identify the one true God, the New Testament sometimes adds the word ‘one’ and refers to the ‘one God’.

Given the wide range of meanings that the word theos has, the authors of the New Testament sometimes added words such as “true” or “only” to theos to identify the God of the Bible. Perhaps the most important such phrase is “one God” for it connects with the Old Testament Shema, “Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4).

While, in the AC, the ‘one God’ is the Trinity, in EO, since the Father is the Source, the ‘one God’ is the Father alone.

“It is critically important to note that, in the Bible and, therefore, in the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed (325) and Creed of Constantinople (381), the ONE GOD in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The ONE GOD is God the Father. In the Bible, the ONE GOD is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.” (Hopko)

“The ONE GOD is the Father of Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is ‘God from God; true God from true God.’” (Hopko)

In these quotes, Hopko claims that EO follows the Nicene Creed, which says:

“We believe in ONE GOD, the Father almighty.” (Nicene Creed)

Hopko also claims that, in the Bible, the ‘one God’ is always the Father. For example:

          • “God is one” (Mark 12:28-30; James 2:19; Gal 3:20);
          • “The one and only God” (John 5:44);
          • “One God” (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6);
          • “Only God” (Jude 1:25; John 5:44; 1 Tim 1:17); or
          • “Only true God” (John 17:3).

The Athanasian Creed is Modalism.

Eastern Orthodoxy regards the Athanasian view that the Trinity is the “one God” as Modalism:

“The other terrible error is usually called Modalism. This is where people say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity” (Hopko).

Modalism is another name for Monarchianism, of which Sabellianism is a refined form. In these views, there is only one hypostasis (only one distinct existence). However, there are different explanations of how the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to that one distinct existence.

CONCLUSIONS

In the AC, the “one God” is the Trinity. In EO, the “one God” is the Father.

In the AC, there is no subordination. In EO, the Son is ontologically equal but functionally subordinate.

In the AC, the Persons are a single undivided substance (hypostasis) with a single mind. Similar to in Tertullian, the Father is the entire substance and the Son and Spirit are part of Him. In EO, the Persons are three distinct but equal and inseparable substances and minds.

While the Creed follows Western pro-Nicene theology, of which Athanasius was the norm, Eastern Orthodoxy follows Eastern pro-Nicene theology, as exemplified by Basil of Caesarea. See – Meletian Schism.

OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, eds., “Subordinationism,” in Dictionary of Theology (2d ed.; New York: Crossroad, 1981) 488
  • 2
    Frances Young, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983) 553

Your comment is important.

TABLE OF CONTENTS