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The Creeds

( Originally Published 1888 )



Close together in the Prayer Book stand two venerable Creeds, or short Confessions of Faith, which are used interchangeably in public worship,—the Apostles' and the Nicene. These two Creeds are always said to embody the substance of Christian belief, and in the Protestant Episcopal Church there is no standard of doctrine whatsoever beside them. The Church in England at the time of the Reformation, following the Reformed Churches of the Continent, adopted a code of thirty-nine articles, which have no doubt often hampered her progress and disturbed the consciences of her clergy compelled by law to subscribe them. The organizers of our Church, knowing that however unnecessary these articles might be, or however faulty in expression, still, like the Catholic Creeds them-selves, they contained the substance of all true religious belief, decided to retain them in the Prayer Book as an historical document, not to be formally subscribed by ministers or people, but rather to indicate the close relationship between the Church in England and America.

There seems no sufficient reason, as we regard them, why the broadest thinker should not feel able to subscribe them as a whole, but in point of fact they stand in the back of our Prayer Book as a witness to our spiritual descent as Churchmen, a document serving to remind us of the crisis the Church went through in the sixteenth century, and of the debt of religious freedom we owe the English Reformers.

The only doctrinal standards we have are contained in the two Creeds, the shorter of which, from a legend that each of the twelve Apostles contributed a clause, is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, the longer, made in its original form by the Council of Nicea in the year 325, and afterward added to, the Nicene. The Apostles' Creed was probably formed by combining the various simple Confessions of Faith used in the Early Church by those who were admitted to baptism, and it came into general use in the Latin Church ; while the Nicene, formed on the basis of an' earlier Creed in use in the Church in Palestine, and, much more than the Apostles', the product of speculative thought, became distinctively the Creed of the Eastern Church.' " But there is one point," says Dean Stanley, " which the two Creeds have in common. It is the frame-work on which they are formed. The frame-work is the simple expression of faith used in the Baptism of the early Christians. It is taken from the. First. Gospel, and it consists of `the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

At first it was common to use simply the name of Christ in the profession of Christianity, but that was soon superseded by the Trinitarian formulary found in the twenty-eighth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, and in the second century the latter became universal. The use of this formulary in baptism antedates all the discussions recorded in Church History concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, which, last, in the latter part of the fourth century, became fully settled as a symbol or mode of expression of the belief of the Church. The history of these discussions is instructive, as showing how impossible it often is for people of mystical and speculative, and people of logical and practical tendencies of thought to under-stand each other. The heretics of that early time were often heretics simply because a different philosophical training had made it impossible for them to enter into all the subtle-ties of the thought of their orthodox opponents, while many of their persecutions were the result of the failure of the Church party to see the difference between religion and their peculiar thought about religion.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the framework of the Creeds, but it is not a doctrine originating with or peculiar to Christianity. Triads and Trinities belong to many of the religious and philosophical systems of earlier and later times, and the Trinitarian symbol of Christianity we may with little hesitation trace immediately to a Greek source.

The following paragraph from a little book called " The Keys of the Creeds " is very suggestive, as indicating some of the steps by which the symbol reached the early Christian Church.

"The School of Alexandria added a new Trinity to those already received in Egypt.

This new Trinity was based on an analysis of the functions of the individual man. Every living being consists of a trinity; the individual self ; the mind ; and the life . . . projecting the individual man into the ideal, and divesting him of limitations, the Neoplatonists presented their Trinity as consisting of three Persons, of whom the first was unity, infinite and perfect, but capable of generating existence. The second person was subordinate to the first, but was the most perfect of all generated beings. It was called the Intelligence, Wisdom, or Word,—Logos, a Greek term, by a happy coincidence signifying both reason and speech. The third person was the universal Spirit, Soul, or Life. It was only through the Word that God the Father could be known, as a man's mind can only be known 'through his speech. The Word was thus the interpreter or Mediator between God and man. The leading apostle of this philosophy was a Jew, named Philo, who was born about B.C. 30.1 He was at once an enthusiastic disciple of Plato, and an ardent Jew after the pattern of the later and more spiritual type. His countrymen, growing inspiritual graces since the captivity, had long been familiar with the idea of the Logos, whom they personified under the name of Wisdom."—(" Keys of the Creeds," p 87.)

However the number three first came to be used as a mystic or sacred number, its use as such is very ancient, and is intended to convey the idea of completeness. In Christianity it denotes the completeness of the nature of God and His relations with mankind, and so impossible does the ordinary mind find it to symbolize God under the figure of unity alone, and so naturally does the idea of completeness take shape as three foldness, that there seems little probability, no matter how far or fast scientific thought may progress, that the Christian symbol of the Trinity shall disappear. Not more from regard for an ancient and venerable symbol, than from a sense of its value in keeping before the minds of men the largeness and richness of the divine nature and revelation, do Christian thinkers hold and value it.

This deeper and profounder significance of the doctrine of the Trinity was felt by the Alexandrian theologians and by Athanasius, the great champion of Catholic orthodoxy. But in the Latin Church the doctrine soon hardened into what seems very like belief in three gods, and in the popular Calvinistic theology of New England there can be no doubt that a be-lief very nearly allied to heathen polytheism prevailed. The popular mind conceived of a God of justice, a God of love, and another God, subordinate to these two, on whom they both relied to carry out their plans. The Unitarian protest-ants, keenly alive to the outrage Calvinistic theology had done to the divine truths written in man's intellect and heart, yet blind to the evolution of religion, and the intrinsic value of the religious symbols Calvinism had either perverted or thrown away, and lacking the catholic spirit of the older churches of Christendom, cast this symbol aside as a sign of unenlightened thought, and from that time to the present they and their descendants have done without it.

So far from being a sign of narrow or mistaken thought, the Trinitarian symbol is undoubtedly a great help and stimulus to pro-found and rational beliefs concerning God ; and even the Unitarian body, which in many places has outlived much of the aggressive spirit with which it naturally began, and has mellowed and softened with time, has quite ceased to protest against it.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis or framework of the Creeds, although the symbol is nowhere directly referred to in them. Saying them we confess our belief in _God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and this is the sum of our statement of belief, for the latter clauses of the Creeds, which relate to the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins, are still further declarations of belief in the Holy Spirit, the third Person in the Trinity. We believe in one God in three Per-sons ; but what do we mean by the word person as applied to God? We clearly do not mean that God is a person as we are persons. A Being whose nature has no limitations, to whose attributes of thought and will there are no bounds, must be very far removed from us, with our imperfect thought and feeble power of will and many limitations. The personality of God, like our own, is based on conscious thought, intelligence, and implies the power to will, but in God thought and will are perfect and complete. Yet God exists not in solitary infiniteness, lonely perfection of personality, but in self-manifestation, in relations. There are mysterious depths of being in Him that we have received only Taint suggestions of, but if He existed in cold, abstract unity we could never know Him at all. He would forever remain to us the incomprehensible and unthinkable source from which all things proceed, never to be named nor known,—an Infinite Father, but an Infinite Silence as well. God cannot exist in absolute mystery. His nature requires self-revelation, and He has revealed Himself. Speech has come out of the Silence, and that speech, God's thought, the Logos (both reason and speech)—all of God that can be named and known,—is the Revelation of the Son. In humanity that revelation is most intelligible, most complete, and in Jesus, the Christ of history, it culminates, and at last is grandly summed up.

Nor can God cease to create. From Him continually comes forth creative and sustaining power. He causes death, and out of death brings nobler forms of life. He hath created the heavens and stretched them out; He hath spread forth the earth and that which cometh out of it; and still the creation drama ceases not, for He giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein. Along with the speech of God goes ever the manifestation of His power, which is the revelation of the Spirit.

Thus we have God in three persons or characters, back of and revealing itself through each of which, is the Divine Personality, the Infinite Intelligence. Back of the Silence is God, back of the Speech is God, and back of the Power is God.

Canon Liddon, " Bampton Lectures," p. 49, says : " That three such distinctions (having their basis in the Essence of the Godhead) exist, is a matter of Revelation. In the common language of the Western Church, these distinct Forms of Being are named Persons. Yet that term cannot be employed to denote them without considerable intellectual caution." The Latin word persona, as is well known, originally meant the mask or character the player on the stage assumed, but in time it came to denote an individual of a species. Thus, when it was finally used in theology to represent the original Greek word hypostasis, which meant not an individual of a class, but a Distinction in the Essence of God, it could not fail to mislead. " The conception of species," Canon Liddon says, " is utterly inapplicable to that One Supreme Essence which we name God."

There are many aspects under which this three foldness of God's nature, and so the doctrine of the Trinity which beautifully yet feebly tries to express it, may be regarded. Dean Stanley says that the whole faith of Natural Religion, the faith of the Natural Conscience, is indicated by the name of the Father; Historical Religion, or the Faith of the Christian Church, God in history, in man, and above all in Jesus Christ, by the name of the Son ; and Spiritual Religion, or God in our own hearts and spirits and consciences, by the name of the Holy Spirit.

Wherever among men we find any sense of awe or mystery, any aspiration of soul after truth and goodness, any dissatisfaction with that which is low, base, vile, any—however feeble—groping after spiritual light, we have the rev-elation of God the Father. Wherever we find the human feeling of the brotherhood of mankind, wherever in men's natures, we see reflected the wisdom and strength and forbearance and tenderness of God, or find the spirit of loving, religious sympathy drawing people together in organized societies for worship and charitable works, we have a revelation of God the Son. Wherever we find men conscious of a power of righteousness within them, struggling to free their natures from captivity to sin, pleading with them to be true to duty, to follow charity and faith and patience, honesty and purity and love with all men ; wherever in the Church we see a spirit of earnest faith that triumphs over false and narrow prejudices and keeps religious life in its true place, above form, we have a revelation of God the Holy Spirit. It would be hard to see how the world could do without either view of God. Dean Stanley says : "To acknowledge this triple form of revelation, to acknowledge this complex aspect of Deity, as it runs through the multiform expressions of the Bible, saves, as it were, the reverence due to the Almighty Ruler of the universe, tends to preserve the balance of truth from any partial or polemical bias, presents to us not a meagre, fragmentary view of only one part of the Divine mind, but a wide, Catholic summary of the whole, so far as nature, history, and experience permit. If we cease to think of the Universal Father, we become narrow and exclusive. If we cease to think of the Founder of Christianity' and of the grandeur of Christendom, we lose our hold on the great historic events which have swayed the hopes and affections of man in the highest moments of human progress. If we cease to think of the Spirit, we lose the inmost meaning of Creed and Prayer, of Church and Bible, of human character and of vital religion."

In 1860, Charles Kingsley, who, with Maurice and others, was deeply distressed over the failure of the Tractarian leaders, such as Pusey and Newman on the one side, and the Evangelical leaders on the other, to point out the deeper principles and make clear the rational basis of religious thought, wrote his novel "Yeast." The book traces the intellectual and moral development of Lancelot Smith, a young Englishman, educated under Evangelical influence, and now skeptical of his early mistaken opinions. At one of the crises of his life he is found in St. Paul's Cathedral talking with an Asiatic-Christian philosopher. " Who is He to whom you ask me to turn?" Lancelot says. " You talk to me of Him as my Father; but you talk of Him to men of your own Creed as the Father. You have mysterious dogmas of three in one. I know them—I have admired them in all their forms, in the Vedas, in the Neo Platonists, in Jacob Boehmen, in your Catholic Creeds, in Coleridge, and in the Germans, from whom he borrowed them. I have looked at them, and found in them beautiful phantasms of philosophy—all but scientific necessities,—but " " But what ? " answers the sage. And Lancelot says : " I do not want cold, abstract necessities of logic ; I want living, practical facts. If those mysterious dogmas speak of real and necessary properties of His being, they must be necessarily interwoven in practice with His revelation of Himself." Then the Christian philosopher says, in substance, for we do not quote the words : Have you not felt the necessity for an All-Father, the Father of Per-sons, and so Himself the source of personality, the fulfilment of our fitful and broken dreams of power, wisdom, creative energy, love, justice, pity? Have you not always been conscious of the imperfections of your own, the common manhood, and in your own consciousness always been holding, perhaps unconsciously, to a perfect human ideal, a perfect sonhood, a perfect human expression of the God above and the God in humanity ? And have you not, in all your failures to keep your life a perfectly united life, in all your ignorance, passion, want of will, in all the confusion and helplessness of your soul, felt the need of a Divine Spirit to unify and give order to that which was so con-fused and helpless?

The doctrine of the Trinity Kingsley means to say is just what we would find any such doctrine, full of vitality, and richly suggestive of all the deepest and tenderest in human thought concerning God and the soul's life in God.

As a matter of fact, the threefold revelation of God, having come to the world slowly and in the fulness of time, not only can never be lost, but belief in it is in no sense limited even now to those Christians who retain the Trinitarian symbol. Opposition to the symbol first arose because its rich and beautiful significance had been obscured and hardened, but for this mistake the Latin Church and the Calvinists should be rather pitied than blamed, and it is clear that Christians of today are in no wise responsible for it. Therefore to keep up and apologize for divisions in the Household of Faith on the plea of an old-time abuse of the doctrine of the Trinity, is not only foolish but wrong. The cause of the breach between Unitarian and Trinitarian is no longer, what it once was, a radical difference of conception of divine things, for both have grown wiser and more enlightened in half a century, and both may now, if they will, worship with the same venerable forms and express their faith by means of the same time-honored symbols.

As to the doctrinal symbol of the Trinity, since every truly religious man is of necessity a Trinitarian, there is reason to believe that in time even it shall be restored to its wonted place in the regard of all Christian men. The fact that we now need to make clear to ourselves is that we all believe in God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Sometimes as we think about Him He appeals to us most in one aspect, sometimes most in another, but from no thought of ours about Him is either aspect wholly absent. When we pray, it is with the sense of either His Fatherhood, His Sonhood, or His Spirithood present with us, and in our dark and sorrowful hours one thought or the other about Him is sure to give us peace. Sometimes we need to be awed with the majesty and mystery of God; some-times to be soothed and cheered with the tenderness and patience and pity of God ; some-times to be quickened and strengthened with His indwelling Power. Sometimes we need to make clearer to ourselves not only that God is great and perfect, but that He is the source of all human greatness and goodness ; sometimes to fix our minds less on theology and meta-physics than on homely virtues and homely tasks and the Christian courtesies and kindnesses that make life sweet and pleasant ; sometimes to feel not the stirring within us of great powers, but the quickening of weak faith and desire for the right, and the enlightenment of darkened conscience.

All these thoughts and many more are enfolded in those richly suggestive, yet brief and comprehensive symbols, the Creeds of the Church. When we use them, we must remember that they mean to express all the most true and inspiring facts of divine and human life and the relations between God and man. In the various parts of the Prayer Book, sometimes the prayers are addressed to the Father, sometimes, as in most of the Litany, to the Son, sometimes to the Holy Ghost, and this richness and variety in the devotional spirit of the Prayer Book is one thing for which we should most highly love and value it. The aim of the Trinitarian symbol itself is to keep religion from becoming barren or perverted, and, as with all religious symbols, its power to do this is the true measure of its worth.



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