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A FEW REMARKS ON THE ATHANASIAN
My object is to say a few words on one or two points in this Creed, on which explanation may tend to remove difficulties and misapprehensions which perhaps obstruct, in some minds, its cordial acceptance.
The general scope of the Creed is twofold : to set forth the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the Incarnation. The latter, however, is less elaborately dealt with than the former: as so dealt with it is not the subject of very much controversy or difficulty among Churchmen in these days, and I do not purpose to advert to it. It is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and what are commonly called the Damnatory Clauses, at which men stumble : and on these I have to venture a few observations.
They will not be in vindication of the Scriptural · truth of the doctrine of the Trinity. I am addressing
Churchmen, by whom the doctrine is received, who test their belief by Scripture, and who mostly hold that in fact nothing can anywhere be found more plainly and more explicitly set forth than this great truth is in the Bible. Starting indeed from the fundamental axiom of the Unity of God, it is difficult to say, of the two opposite heresies of Arianism and Sabellianism, whether the one, when confronted with such texts as John i. 1, or the other, with such as John xvii. 5, be the more violently repugnant to the word of God.
Nor is it needful to dwell on that shallow misconception, more common perhaps formerly than at the present day, that the Creed is an attempt to explain the inexplicable. It is evidently no such thing. In that part of it which relates, not to the Trinity, but to the Incarnation, there is one verse which suggests some sort of analogy to the doctrine, in the natural constitution of man. But this is the only verse in the whole symbol which in any way resembles an explanation. The Creed states the doctrines, positively and in some fulness of detail ; but it does not attempt to explain them, following herein the guidance of Scripture, in which no such attempt is to be found.
No doubt it states the doctrine in terms which are not precisely the same as those of Scripture. It must be so from the nature of Creeds, which are a summary of doctrine, setting forth formally what is informally taught in the Bible; and from the occasion and history of the later Creeds in particular, which were framed to meet erroneous opinions arising subsequently to the Bible being written. What we maintain is, that the Creed only asserts what is necessarily involved in the Scriptural doctrine.
It is, however, manifest that we must assume, and it is important to bear in mind, that the dogmatic expressions of the Creed must be construed in the most exact conformity with the terms of revelation. The unfathomable nature of God, we believe, is made known to us only so far as is needful for our salvation ; and to attempt, on any part of the subject, certainly not the least on that of the Trinity in Unity, to go beyond what is either distinctly revealed, or properly involved in
what is so revealed, would seem a flagrant instance of being “wise above what is written."
Now the doctrines, simply put, appear to be this : that the Godhead is in one sense One, in another Three : not that “one” can ever be the same with "three," but that which is one in one sense may well be more than one in another. In this, so stated, there seems nothing by which men would be deterred from accepting the doctrine. But to secure this it seems essential that the statement of it should be closely and strictly limited, according to Revelation, to the sacred name of God. It is this Nature of which we learn that it has this threefold unity: and it seems material to bear this in mind in construing some of the clauses in the Athanasian Creed.
In the first place, some of these clauses are obviously elliptical, and the ellipsis must be supplied. We read that there are “not three uncreate, eternals, incomprehensible, Almighties :” but “one uncreate, eternal, incomprehensible, Almighty.” Now these are adjectives : and the question occurs, with what understood substantives do they agree? To which I venture to reply that it must be clearly remembered that that substantive is, and is only, the sacred name, God. For it is plain on the face of the Creed that there are three eternal, &c. Persons : and if we chose to supply the ellipsis with the word Person, it is obvious that the document would contradict itself.* Similarly, when it is said that there
* It is well known that it is questioned whether the word Person be the correct one to be used. This, however, though not an unimportant point, is a verbal one: nor does it seem of great moment in respect of the reception of the doctrine in the
are “not three Lords, but one Lord,” it must be understood that here “ Lord” is strictly and exclusively synonymous with “ God.” And of the statement that each Person is God, and yet there are not three Gods, but one God, it needs only to be said, that it is hardly more than a mere repetition of the words of Scripture : and that it does not appear how human language could admit of any further elucidation of it than this, that when the distinct Person is spoken of as God, the sacred Name is not then to be so understood as to exclude the coequality of other Persons.
Bearing these remarks in mind, and repeating what was above said, that the Creed does not in fact state any thing but the strict and full Scriptural doctrine of Trinity in Unity (which I do not set about proving-it would lead to superfluous length—as it may be assumed as generally admitted among Churchmen), it does not appear why what are called the “ damnatory clauses ” should be objected to when appended to this formulary, unless it is meant that no such clauses ought to be appended to any formulary. This probably is the position taken by most of the objectors : and I will advert to it immediately. It is possible, however, that some persons may not go to this extent; but, for example, would not scruple at such words in reference minds of men. The difficulty does not turn upon that : and we must remember that we are limited by the necessary imperfection of human language in dealing with such a subject. All we can do is to devise the best term we can which shall be as nearly adequate as possible to represent the relation and the intercourse between the Holy Three, as we find it in Scripture, without trenching on the other part of the doctrine, that of the Unity of God.
to the Apostles' Creed. This view, if such there be, seems to proceed on the misconception above indicated. It is grounded on the doctrine of Fundamentals : as if the Apostles' Creed was all fundamental, and the Athanasian was not. Now the difficulty of accurately stating and mapping out that doctrine is well known.* But if done at all, is there any Churchman who will be content with it if the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity be left out ? And I hardly think that any one will claim for this or for any other human document (when salvation is made dependent on its acceptance), more than this, that the substance of the doctrine as there laid down is essential. It cannot be meant that no one may entertain the opinion that words and expressions in it might advantageously be altered.
It would seem that the appearance of those clauses in this place and no other, is hardly more than an accident. It must, I think, be understood that throughout her declarations of doctrine, the Church implies and intends that, in essential points (whatever they are), we are bound to accept them as conditions of salvation.
Why not? Wherein does this go beyond the words of our Lord Himself, “ He that believeth not shall be damned ?”f In what way can this and similar texts be interpreted, unless at least fundamental and essential doctrines are understood as that which must be the subject of the required“ belief ?"
It is needless to go into the disputed questions, whether and how far any belief is voluntary or invo
* See Palmer's Treatise on the Church, Chap. v. Appendix, on the Doctrine of Fundamentals, Vol. i. p. 122.
+ Mark xvi. 16.