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What’s Wrong with this Picture? Why You Need More Nicaea in Your Trinitarianism

With Trinity Sunday upon us. Bloggers and Facebook friends turn to the Athanasian creed or the “shield”diagram (see above) or the “one being three persons” summary to commend the doctrine to the rest of us. The theology in these is true but it misses something important. In this post I want to offer six reasons why we should make time to remember the older Creed of Nicaea.

From Nicaea to Arles What’s the Difference?

Before I offer my reasons. Let me highlight the difference by quoting the opening lines of two documents. The first is from the Niceno/Constantinopolitan creed of 381 (NCC)—the great orthodox creed formulated by two ecumenical councils to combat Arianism. The second is the so-called Athanasian creed (AC)—an anonymous confession (i.e. not by Athanasius; not an ecumenical creed) originating from Gaul somewhere around 500AD.

Here’s the start of the Nicene Creed (NCC)

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father; through whom all things were made.

And here’s the start of the Athanasian Creed (AC)

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. 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 coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.

Notice first the similarities. Both insist on the unity of essence between the persons of the Trinity and both distinguish the persons. These are both orthodox documents.

Both creeds insist on the unity of essence between the persons of the Trinity. But the Nicene creed begins with the person of the Father and explains the Son’s divinity in relation to him

But the Nicene creed begins with the person of the Father and explains the Son’s divinity in relation to him—the Son is one with God and equal with God because he is from God. We hear that he is: Son … begotten … Light of Light … true God from true God. The Athanasian confession, on the other hand, begins with the bare fact that the Godhead is one and three. It does talk about the begetting of the Son later on in the document but only as a note in passing.

I want to argue that the Nicene approach gives us more information and we should prefer it (and not just because it’s a genuine creed). Here are the six reasons.

1. It follows the order of revelation

The Old Testament prepares the way for us to understand the Trinity showing God the Father (c.f. John 8:54) working through his Word and Spirit. When the New Testament comes along it radicalises our understanding of these realities by showing us that God’s Word and Spirit aren’t just inseparable aspects of his existence—they’re also persons. They too are capable of relationship and worthy of worship as God because they belong to the same reality as God the Father.

The NCC follows this New Testament pattern. It begins with God the Father and shows that there is another who comes from him and who fully shares in his reality and work. Jesus is a Son and he is the one through whom all things were made. The Creed, in particular, takes its cue from 1Corinthians 8 which puts it like this:

…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1Corinthians 8:6)

2. It fits with the biblical descriptions of the eternal Son

The Bible continually describes Jesus in terms that emphasise his relationship to the Father. He is God’s Word, Son, Image, Radiance and Stamp. These terms each pick up different aspects of his identity, but they all indicate that the Son is fundamentally from the Father and defined by him.

This, as we have already seen, is how the NCC introduces Jesus to us. The AC doesn’t tell us much about that relationship—it mostly focuses on their distinction and oneness.

3. It helps us see the relationship between Jesus humanity and his Sonship

The Old Testament doesn’t just prepare the way for the Trinity by speaking about God’s Word and Spirit, it also introduces us to creatures who act for God: prophets who speak his words; priests who mediate his holy presence; kings who rule on God’s behalf.

When Jesus come along we discover that he’s God’s true prophet, priest and king—and he’s the perfect person to perfect these things because of who he is eternally. He’s the perfect prophet because he’s the living Word of God. He’s the ultimate priest because he alone knows who and what God really is (John 1:18). He’s the true king because he’s God’s natural heir and co-creator (Heb 1:2).

In other words, Jesus’ human offices fit with his eternal relationship to the Father.

4. It can help us explain the Trinity

The fact that Jesus’ humanity and sonship fit together can help us explain the Trinity.

When the Jewish crowds move to stone Jesus for blasphemy in John 10:31-39, his response is to point to Psalm 82:6 where God calls human (or possibly angelic) rulers “gods”. Jesus’ point is that seeing God’s agents as exalted is not necessarily blasphemous. When they act for God, rulers and judges are godlike because they share in what God is doing. How much more then—goes the implied argument—is Jesus worthy of being called God’s son.

If he called them ‘gods,’ … what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (vv35-36, NIV)

This template can help us speak to Muslims or other theists who believe that God rules the world through deputies and speaks through prophets. Although they might not realise it, they already accept part of the logic of the Trinity: God’s work and words can be refracted through other persons without dividing our worship or creating an idol.

5. It helps us avoid making the Trinity into a Person

One danger with the “one being, three persons” summary is that (though it’s true) it can easily be misunderstood as “one person, three persons”—as if the “being” of God were a super-person in whom we also find the Father, Son and Spirit. You can see the risk of this in the diagram above where we see—not three circles, but four.

The “one being, three persons” summary can be misunderstood as “one person, three persons”—as if the “being” of God were a super-person in whom we also find the Father, Son and Spirit.

Biblical trinitarianism doesn’t need to add a meta-entity because it shows the persons dwelling in each other. It depicts the Father living in the Son by his Spirit, empowering and directing him (Luke 4:14,18; John 3:34-35). It depicts the Son living in the Father, sharing in everything that he is and does (John 14:10-11).

The Nicene Creed fits more closely with this pattern by beginning with the Father and showing the Son as from him.

6. It reveals the Father’s role in salvation

If all we know is that the Trinity is “one being and three persons”, it’s quite difficult to see how the Father and Spirit save us. We either say that they also died on the cross because God is one—which would be a sort of modalism—or we’re left with impression that only one of the three actually did anything for us.

But the Bible says that the Father saved us by sending his Son:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:9-10)

Because there is a natural order in the Godhead, the one act of salvation was fulfilled in different ways by the divine persons in different ways. The Father saved us by initiating the act and surrendering his Son; the Son saved us by doing the Father’s will; the Spirit (though this is less clear) saved us by directing and enabling Jesus to complete his mission (c.f. Acts 10:38; Heb 9:14)

Back to Nicaea – Back to the Bible

Both the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds say true and good things about the triune God. But although it comes earlier (and is mercifully shorter), the Nicene creed says more. It better reflects the patterns of Scripture and (because of that) can do more to help us understand and defend the doctrine of the Trinity. Why not spend some time reading it and thinking about it this Trinity Sunday?

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