“This Is the Catholic Faith” (Athanasian Creed)

The Holy Trinity
Sunday, June 12, 2022

“This Is the Catholic Faith” (Athanasian Creed)

Did you know that we Lutherans are catholic? We are! In fact, you just said so. You did, just now when we all confessed the Athanasian Creed. Don’t worry. I’ll explain. And so our theme on this Holy Trinity Sunday: “This Is the Catholic Faith.”

Yes, it’s Trinity Sunday, that one Sunday of the year when we haul out that big, long creed with the funny name and say it in church. But at least I let you sit down for this one! This creed is called the Athanasian Creed. It’s named after the great church father from the fourth century, St. Athanasius. He didn’t write it, but it represents his teaching as the leading confessor of the faith during a time of great controversy. That crisis concerned the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and that’s why we confess it on this day. By the way, we speak the Athanasian Creed out loud only one Sunday of the year, but we believe, teach, and confess it every day of the year. It is one of the three great, historic, ecumenical creeds–along with the Apostles’ and Nicene–held by all of Christendom around the world.

Let’s start with a little background on this St. Athanasius fellow. He lived during the fourth century–that’s the 300s–in Alexandria, Egypt, on the coast of north Africa. When Athanasius was a young man, there was a man named Arius, who was teaching some things about Christ that were not true–in fact, so not true that they would undermine the whole Christian faith. Arius taught about Christ that, quote, “there was a time when he was not.” That was Arius’s slogan. If you were a follower of Arius, you would have had the bumper sticker on your chariot: “Christ: There was a time when he was not.” What Arius meant by that was that Christ, the Son of God, was not truly divine in the way that God the Father is divine. No. God’s Son was a created being. “There was a time when he was not.”

And Arius gained a lot of followers. He could cherry-pick some Bible verses out of context that seemed to support his position–for instance, where Jesus says, “The Father is greater than I,” and things like that. But if you take away Jesus’ divinity from his person, the whole Christian faith falls apart. For only one who is true God could rescue us from our sins, conquer death for us, and give us eternal life. Only the precious, holy blood of God’s own Son is strong enough and powerful enough to atone for the sins of the whole world and give us perfect forgiveness and righteousness–which is what Jesus Christ, true God and true man, has done for us.

Well, Arius’s false teachings were gaining traction, but people were recognizing how destructive this heresy was. So a council of the whole church was called at Nicaea in the year 325 to deal with this issue. The result was the Nicene Creed, which confesses the truth about Christ, over against Arius’s heresy. That’s why you have phrases in the Nicene Creed like, ‘God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom”–that is, by Christ–“all things were made.” All those phrases were included to teach the true divinity of Christ.

Young Deacon Athanasius was at the Council of Nicaea, and he strongly supported this confession of the true faith against the Arian heresy. Afterward, Athanasius became the Bishop of Alexandria. But it was a long and tough battle. Athanasius suffered much in contending for the truth. Thank God, though, the truth of God’s Word prevailed.

Heresies that would undermine the person of Christ and the reality of the Holy Trinity have always been a threat to the church. They come in different forms, different packages. For instance, today we have the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses spreading their lies and denying the truth about Christ and the triune God. And so it was, after the time of Athanasius, other heretical teachings about the Trinity and the person of Christ were going around. And this is how the Athanasian Creed came into being. This creed goes into the most depth and detail to make absolutely clear the truth that we teach and the errors that we reject.

Confessing the true faith–this is what the Athanasian Creed does. And this is where the term “the catholic faith” comes in. Did you notice that as we read the creed? The phrase occurs several times. Right off the bat: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.” Then, “And the catholic faith is this.” A little later, “the catholic religion.” And then at the end, “This is the catholic faith.” Did that make you jump a little bit? It shouldn’t. “Catholic,” in this sense, is a good word. It does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Rome, led by the pope. No, “the catholic faith,” in the sense that we say it in the creed, simply means the true faith, the orthodox faith, that is, the right-teaching faith. The word “catholic” literally means, “according to the whole”: in other words, that which has been held in common by the church at all times and in all places.

And so we Lutherans are catholic Christians! Don’t be afraid of that word; it’s a good one! We hold the catholic faith. We haven’t come up with anything strange or new. We confess the Christian faith as it has always been held since the beginning of the church. It’s biblical, it’s Christian, it’s historic. This is the catholic faith.

And what is essential to the catholic faith is the nature of the one true God as triune: One God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is who God is. There is no other. This is the only God who can save you–and he does! The Father, out of his great love for us sinners, sent his only Son into the world to do precisely that–to save us. Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, lived, died, and rose again to accomplish our salvation. And the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, delivers the goods to us, through the gospel means of Word and Sacrament, so that we believe in Christ and receive his gifts of forgiveness, life, and everlasting salvation. This is the catholic faith.

Now besides that word “catholic,” there may have been another part of the Athanasian Creed that got your attention and raised an eyebrow. It comes near the end, where it says about Christ: “At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.”

Now that may sound strange to your Lutheran ears. “Is that saying that we earn our way into heaven by our good deeds? That’s not what I was taught!” No, that’s not what you were taught, and that’s not what the creed is saying. It’s not saying that you earn eternal life by your works. Rather, it’s saying that your good works will be cited as evidence that you had a living faith in Christ. And it is Christ alone, his good works, that will save you.

What the Athanasian Creed is saying here is the same as what the Bible teaches. In fact, the creed is even quoting Jesus himself! In John chapter 5, Jesus says that when he comes again, the dead will rise, “those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Likewise, in Matthew 25, Jesus says that at the final judgment your good works will be cited–“I was hungry and you fed me,” etc.–your works will be brought forth as examples to show that you had a living faith in Christ.

And dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is who you are! For in your baptism, God has gifted you with the Holy Spirit, through whom you are a new person in Christ! You do have a living faith in your Savior, nurtured by your regular use of Word and Sacrament. You do live a life of love and good works. Your faith shows through in your life. Thank God for that! And you can rest secure with complete confidence that you will enter into eternal life, not because of your scorecard, but because of the merits of Christ Jesus your Savior!

So these two things in the Athanasian Creed– the word “catholic” and this part about “those who have done good”–these are nothing to be scared of. On the contrary, these are things to rejoice in! “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us.”

Dear friends, today on this Feast of the Holy Trinity, “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” The Holy Trinity–one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–this is the only God there is. And thank God this is so, because this is the God who has made himself known to us through his Word. This is the God who saves us. And this is the God we gladly confess in the three ecumenical creeds, the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian. My fellow Lutherans, this is the catholic faith!

Published in: on June 11, 2022 at 1:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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