Whoever Will Be Saved...
Ours is an age of tact and acceptance. The Athanasian Creed, traditionally used on Trinity Sunday, is anything but tactful or accepting. It says those not holding to the faith it confesses "will perish eternally," "cannot be saved." The Athanasian Creed doesn't say, "It would be a good idea," or, "probably you should," or "it is suggested that." It uses words like, "cannot," "shall," "compelled," and "necessary." Strong words, aren't they? Do you know why they're so strong? Do you know what the Athanasian Creed is so unbending, so dogmatic, so adamant about? You should.
This creed, which dates to the 4th century, is a statement of faith about the Trinity accepted in all of Western Christianity. It's about the teaching that God is 3 distinct Persons in one, divine Being. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet there is only one God. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, yet as the Athanasian Creed says, "They are not 3 God's but 1 God." Now I realize that this teaching might not thrill you, and it may scramble your brains, but whoever will be saved cannot deny it.
You cannot be saved if you deny the teaching that God is 3 distinct Persons in one, divine Being. The Jehovah Witnesses do this. From their own writings we read that Satan is the originator of the Trinity doctrine; Jesus is not One God with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not a Person of the Trinity but God's Active Force. Mormonism also denies that God is Triune. From their own writings we read that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost cannot be one in essence, and that they are not one God, but three Gods.
Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons are not the only open deniers of the Triune God. Islam, Judaism, Unitarianism, Christian Science, Sceintology, Hinduism, and Buddhism all deny the Trinity. Therefore, all these faiths fall under the condemnation of the Athanasian Creed: Whoever denies the teaching of the Trinity "without a doubt he will perish eternally."
Not only blatant deniers of the Triune God are condemned, so are popular deniers: people who for the sake of popularity won't confess that the only true God is the Triune God. They won't speak of God as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for fear of offending, so they leave their confession of faith as simply, "I believe in God." But the Athanasian Creed condemns this saying, this sort of minimal confession is outside of the catholic, that is universal, Christian faith.
It's very easy to be a popular denier of the Trinity. "In God we trust," is printed on our currency. In our Pledge of Allegiance we say, we're "one nation under God." And our Declaration of Independence simply refers to "Nature's God." Christians, of course, only trust in the Triune God; they recognize that the only God our nation is under is the Holy Trinity, and they believe the only God of nature is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. While some of our founding fathers were indeed Christians and meant to refer to Him, and while President Eisenhower certainly meant to refer to the Triune God when he had "under God" included in the Pledge, that is not whom those refer to today. Likewise, when politicians today say, "God bless America" or speak of "praying to God," they don't mean the Triune God.
Let me restate that. Perhaps in their hearts they do mean the Triune God, but no politician, no government official will publicly say that. Popular opinion would not let them. No Jehovah Witness, Mormon, Jew, Unitarian or any other denier of the Trinity would vote for a politician who publicly said there is only one true God, the Triune God. Likewise none of these groups would permit God's name to be on our money, in our Pledge, or on our government documents if they thought "God" referred only to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
We don't want to be popular deniers of the Trinity. So while we use money, say the Pledge, and support politicians who confess a generic God, we don't want to water our confession down. We don't want to buy into the idea that any God exists outside of the One revealed in Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Whoever will be saved cannot deny the Trinity blatantly, popularly, or even casually. We casually deny the Triune God anytime we think of God according to our thoughts and opinions rather than believe in the God Scripture reveals. People do this when they call the Triune God by names He hasn't revealed in Scripture. For example, nowhere does God call Himself the "nameless One of a thousand names." He doesn't call Himself the "Grand Artificer" or "Great Architect of the Universe." Nowhere in Scripture does He say to call Him, "The Great Spirit in the Sky," "a Higher Power," or even "Supreme Being." Nowhere does God say you can call Him "Mother," "Daughter," or "goddess."
When we call upon God using names He has not revealed to us, we're calling upon strange gods. When we casually think of God according to our image of Him rather than according to His revelation of Himself, we're making a god in our image. That's why the Athanasian Creed confesses only the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That's why it's so precise in its language. "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 Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor begotten but proceeding...He therefore, that will be saved is compelled to thus think of the Trinity."
By now, some of you are uncomfortable. The doctrine of the Trinity has always bugged you to begin with. 3 Persons yet 1 Being, not 3 gods but 1, not 1 Person but 3. And now you're afraid the Athanasian Creed is sending you to hell. However, please note; the Athanasian Creed damns those who deny that God is Triune. It sends no one to hell who doesn't understand the Trinity. No one is damned for not being able to explain it. The Athanasian Creed states that whoever will be saved must believe in the Trinity not explain it or understand it.
Folks no one, not you, not me, not a seminary professor is able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. One great teacher of modern Lutheranism, Dr. Pieper, said that he didn't know what it meant to say the Father begets, the Son is begotten, or that the Holy Spirit proceeds. We are only confessing what the Scriptures first say to us. Luther himself said beget "is the kind of word which cannot be understood or comprehended by human reason." A human being trying to understand or explain the Triune God is like a man born blind trying to understand or explain colors.
Isn't this how it should be? If science fiction writers can think up beings that baffle our minds and intrigue our imaginations, certainly the true God is far beyond our creative and conceptual abilities. If science fiction can think up beings who are incomprehensible, surely it shouldn't seem strange for the true God to be unexplainable and inscrutable.
There is never going to come a point when you're going to be able to explain or understand the Triune God. We're like people born blind, and the Triune God is multicolored. We blind people can only repeat what the multicolored God first says about Himself. If God didn't reveal Himself in Isaiah 6 on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple, we wouldn't think of Him that way. If God didn't reveal Himself in Ezekiel 1 as sitting upon 4 living beings, each with 4 faces and 4 wings, running to and fro like bolts of lightening, we couldn't think of Him that way. If God didn't reveal Himself in Revelation as a Lamb having been slain yet living, with flashes of lightening and peals of thunder coming from His throne, surrounded by 4 living beings crying nonstop, "Holy, Holy, Holy," who among us could have dreamed it up?
The Triune God is an utter mystery to us lowly humans. If God did not reveal it, we couldn't have made it up, and since God hasn't explained it, all we can do is confess it. That's all the Athanasian Creed does; it confesses the Triune God. It doesn't explain how or why He is this way only that He is. We confess a mystery we can't analyze or explain but only adore.
The Triune God is a mystery, a deep mystery. Deep things can give you the creeps. A pit that is called bottomless make me shudder if I try to think to the bottom. A deep river or lake gives me the chills if I think about its depth. The deep mystery of the Trinity can do the same thing. That's why Scriptures don't point you to the mystery of the Trinity. They bid you to follow God's revelation of Himself from Son, to Father, to Holy Spirit.
St. John tells us that no man has seen the Father at any time, but the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known. "I and the Father are one." "He who has seen Me has seen the Father," declares Jesus. Luther said, "Outside of Christ, no other God is to be worshiped or sought." He went on to say that any knowledge of God that came outside of Christ was "knowledge of the wrong side of God." This means only in Jesus can the Triune God be safely known, approached or believed.
This is amazing but true. All the fullness of the Trinity dwells bodily in the Man Jesus according to Colossians. The Jesus you have known from your earliest days, the Jesus you first called on in bedtime prayers, the Jesus you first knew loved you is all you need to know of the Triune God. That's what Jesus is trying to get across when He says all that belongs to the Father is His. And that's why Jesus says the Holy Spirit takes from what belongs to Him and gives it to you. Jesus is our contact point with the Trinity.
When you think of the Triune God, do what Scriptures do; focus on Jesus. In the Baptism of Jesus, when all 3 Persons of the Trinity appear at once, the Scriptures focus on Jesus. The Father speaks from heaven about Jesus and the Holy Spirit descends from heaven and lands on Jesus. From Isaiah to Ezekiel, to Daniel, to Revelation when Scripture takes us to heaven it always shows us not just a mysterious Beings dwelling in light unapproachable, or a consuming fire, but a Man: one like unto a Son of Man, the Lamb, Jesus.
This Jesus, the One who has borne all your griefs and carried all your sorrows, the One who shed His blood to cover your sins, the One who healed your wounds with the stripes His back suffered, this Jesus is the One who teaches you to call God, Father; this Jesus is the One who teaches you that the Holy Spirit is your Comforter sent from the depths of the Godhead.
The Trinity is a profound mystery. So Jesus doesn't point you to the mysterious deep waters of the Trinity in order to get close to God; He points you to the shallow waters of Baptism. He doesn't point you to the words of theologians and intellectuals, but to the simple direct words of Scripture that the Lord your God is One, and He is Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus doesn't ask you to stretch your neck or your mind up to heaven to get to God; no, in the simple Bread and Wine of Holy Communion, God the Son comes down to you bringing all the fullness of the Godhead. No wonder angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven gather here with us.
Whoever will be saved must believe in the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed helps us to confess this mystery, but it is Jesus who enables us to believe it and to not be afraid of it. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Holy Trinity (6-10-01) John 16:12-15