The Confession of Christ (Part Three): Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The Church had safeguarded the teaching about the deity of Christ and the confession of the Holy Trinity at Nicaea. For some believers, however, the problem of God as “wholly other” or as an absolutely transcendent Being remained. For them, the union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ compromised God’s transcendence.
At the beginning of the fifth century, a group arose, led by Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, who taught that the Son of God in heaven and the man Jesus of Nazareth were actually two distinct persons. Although these two persons were united in Jesus Christ, they remained separate and distinct entities. Thus, for example, the Virgin Mary could be referred to as the mother of the man Jesus, but not as the mother of God. To deal with this problem, the Council of Ephesus in 432 declared that in Christ there is a divine and human nature united in the one person of Christ “without confusion” and “without division”. In other words, we can find the fullness of God in the man Jesus. To give full expression to this mystery, the council gave to the Virgin Mary the designation of Theotokos – “the God-bearer”. This is still the manner in which Mary is referred to in the Eastern Church, while in Western Christendom Mary is still often spoken of as the mother of God.
The last Christological controversy arose immediately after the decision at Ephesus. Pious people began to put forward the theory that in Christ one may only find divinity with the human nature being essentially non-existent. Thus, behind the facade of a man, there was no true humanity. In this system of thought, Christ feigned human responses – hunger, fatigue, emotion – for the benefit of his observers. Despite showing such human responses, however, he was not truly a man. Those putting forth this idea were called Monophysites (from the Greek, “one nature”). Another Church council was called, this time at Chalcedon in 451. The assembled bishops issued a formula declaring that both a human and divine nature existed in Christ in their entirety. God had truly appeared in a real man with a nature like ours. For Jesus, as for us, the hunger was real, the emotions were real, the suffering was real. In other words, if you wish to know what God is like, look at Jesus Christ.
The decisions and terminology of these two councils, Ephesus and Chalcedon, were included by an anonymous Western theologian in the document that has come down to us as the Athanasian Creed. Although it was not written by the great fourth-century defender of orthodoxy, it was so called because it included many of the fourth and fifth century conciliar concepts. With the Apostles Creed, the Athanasian Creed does not have the sanction of an ecumenical council, relying on its traditional use and acceptance, mainly in the West. In fact, the text of the creed came down to us in Latin, with its first words, “Quicunque Vult” (“Whosoever will”) being used to identify it. Nevertheless, it is without doubt one of the ages most precise documents concerning the person of Christ. It has been used for various festivals and celebrations of the Church throughout Western Christendom. Owing to its length and polemical quality (it is the only creed to include anathemas) it is used much less often than the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed.
THE ATHANASIAN CREED
WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.
Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholick 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.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
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 incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
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 Catholick Religion: to say there be three Gods, or three Lords.
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.
And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.
So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;
One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.
Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.
The councils of the Church sought to defend and define key articles of the faith in regard to the person of Christ. The Council of Nicaea in 325 was concerned with his divinity; that of Ephesus in 432 was concerned with his unity; and that of Chalcedon in 451 spoke concerning his humanity. It is noteworthy, however, that these councils expressed themselves in what have become liturgical documents – meant for use not just in the study of theology, but for worship. One of the earliest known hymns that we possess outside of the New Testament, “Joyous Light” (Phos Hilaron) says it best in its praise to Christ, the joyous light of the holy glory:
Joyous light of the Holy Glory of the Immortal Father
Heavenly and wholly Blessed, Jesus Christ.
Having come to the setting of the sun
We see the evening light
We praise the Father and the Son
And the Holy Spirit of God.
It is right that you be praised
At all times with holy sounds
Son of God, the giver of life
Therefore the world glorifies you.