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The Trinity in the Confessions

It is probably better for the sake of background and comparison, that we call attention to the ecumenical confessions concerning the Trinity at this stage of our discussion. These are actually mentioned in another connection in Article IX. But it is well to mention them here, in order that we may see our own Netherland Confession in its relation to these creeds. Incidentally, it would be beneficial that not only our Apostles’ Creed, but also the. Nicene Creed and the so-called Athanasian Creed be printed in any future edition of our liturgy. These confessions belong to us in common with the entire Christian church; they are truly ecumenical in character. They are mentioned in our Belgic Confession, moreover; and this mention has no significance for Reformed believers unless they have access to these creeds. And, besides, most of our people have no easy access to the confessions in question. It would be very appropriate, therefore, if these creeds would be included in the future. Besides, their formulation is worthwhile studying.

The first of these creeds mentioned in Article IX is the Apostles’ Creed, well-known to us all not only because of its liturgical use in our churches, but also because it forms the basis of the discussion and teaching of a large section of our Heidelberg Catechism. It is to be remembered, however, that the Apostles’ Creed, at least in the form in which we have it, was not first in order of time, and did not come into general use in the form in which we have it until about the eighth century. Because it is well known, we need not quote it here. But because this creed did not especially come into being through a process of controversy, but rather grew up in the consciousness of the church, it is interesting to trace its history, and to observe how from the beginning there was a Trinitarian consciousness in the church. We quote the account of Philip Schaff in “Creeds of Christendom,” Volume I, pp. 16, ff.

“As to the origin of the Apostles’ Creed, it no doubt gradually grew out of the confession of Peter, Matt. 16:16, which furnished its nucleus (the article on Jesus Christ), and out of the baptismal formula, which determined the Trinitarian order and arrangement. It can not be traced to an individual author. It is the product of the Western Catholic Church (as the Nicene Creed is that of the Eastern Church) within the first four centuries. It is not of primary, apostolic, but of secondary, ecclesiastical inspiration. It is not a word of God to men, but a word of men to God, in response to his revelation. It was originally and essentially a baptismal confession, growing out of the inner life and practical needs of early Christianity. It was explained to the catechumens at the last stage of their preparation, professed by them at baptism often repeated, with the Lord’s Prayer, for private devotion, and afterwards introduced into public service. It was called by the ante-Nicene fathers ‘the rule of faith,’ ‘the rule of truth,’ ‘the apostolic tradition,’ ‘the apostolic preaching,’ afterwards ‘the symbol of faith.’ But this baptismal Creed was at first not precisely the same. It assumed different shapes and forms in different congregations. Some were longer, some shorter; some declarative, some interrogative in the form of questions and answers. Each of the larger churches adapted the nucleus of the apostolic faith to its peculiar circumstances and wants; but they all agreed in the essential articles of faith, in the general order of arrangement on the basis of the baptismal-formula, and in the prominence given to Christ’s death and resurrection. We have an illustration in the modern practice of Independent or Congregational and Baptist churches in America, where the same liberty of framing particular congregational creeds (‘covenants,’ as they are called, or forms of profession and engagement, when members are received into full communion) is exercised to a much larger extent than it was in the primitive ages.

“The first accounts we have of these primitive creeds are merely fragmentary. The ante-Nicene fathers give us not the exact and full formula, but only some articles with descriptions, defenses, explications, and applications. The creeds were committed to memory, but not to writing. This fact is to be explained from the ‘Secret Discipline’ of the ante-Nicene Church. From fear of profanation and misconstruction by unbelievers (not, as some suppose, in imitation of the ancient heathen Mysteries), the celebration of the sacraments and the baptismal creed, as a part of the baptismal act, were kept secret among the communicant members until the Church triumphed in the Roman Empire.

“The first writer in the West who gives us the. text of the Latin creed, with a commentary, is Rufinus, towards the close of the fourth century.

“The most complete or most popular forms of the baptismal creed in use from that time in the West were those of the churches of Rome, Aquileja, Milan, Ravenna, Carthage, and Hippo. They differ but little. Among these, again, the Roman formula gradually gained general acceptance in the West for its intrinsic excellence, and on account of the commanding position of the Church of Rome. We know the Latin text from Rufinus (390), and the Greek from Marcellus of Ancyra (336-341). The Greek text is usually regarded as a translation, but is probably older than the Latin, and may date from the second century, when the Greek language prevailed in the Roman congregation.

“This Roman creed was gradually enlarged by several clauses from older or contemporaneous forms, viz., the article ‘descended into Hades’ (taken from the Creed of Aquileja), the predicate ‘catholic’ or ‘general,’ in the article on the Church (borrowed from Oriental creeds), ‘the communion of saints’ (from Gallican sources), and the concluding ‘life everlasting’ (probably from the symbols of the churches of Ravenna and Antioch. These additional clauses were no doubt part of the general faith, since they are taught in the Scriptures, but they were first expressed in local creeds, and it was some time before they found a place in the authorized formula.

“If we regard, then, the present text of the Apostles’ Creed as a complete whole, we can hardly trace it beyond the sixth, certainly not beyond the close of the fifth century, and its triumph over all the other forms in the Latin Church was not completed till the eighth century, or about the time when the bishops of Rome strenuously endeavored to conform the liturgies of the Western churches to the Roman order. But if we look at the several articles of the Creed separately, they are all of Nicene or ante-Nicene origin, while its kernel goes back to the apostolic age. All the facts and doctrines which it contains, are in entire agreement with the New Testament. And this is true even of those articles which have been most assailed in recent times, as the supernatural conception of our Lord (camp. Matt. 1:18Luke 1:35), the descent into Hades (camp. Luke 23:43;Acts 2:31I Pet. 3:19, 4:6), and the resurrection of the body (I Cor. 15:20, sqq., and other places).”

Such, then, is the history of this beautifully simple little creed which still has a large place in the hearts of God’s children. And this history shows very plainly that from earliest times the confession of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ was Trinitarian, so thoroughly Trinitarian that the whole arrangement of the Apostles’ Creed is determined by it. The background of the Nicene Creed we shall not give at this time.

That background lay in controversy, and the discussion of this matter belongs to Article IX. We will quote it here, however, and that in its enlarged and revised form, which dates not from the Council of Nicea, 325 A.D., but from the Council of Constantinople, 381 A.D. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. It is as follows (in its Western form):

“I 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; 

God of God, 

Light of Light, 

Very God of very God, 

Begotten, not made, 

Being of one substance with the Father; 

By whom all things were made; 

Who, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, 

And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, 

And was made man; 

He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; 

And suffered and was buried; 

And the third day he rose again, 

According to the Scriptures; 

And ascended into heaven, 

And sitteth on the right hand of the Father; 

And he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; 

Whose kingdom shall have no end. 

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, 

The Lord, and Giver of life; 

Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; 

Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; 

Who spake by the Prophets. 

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church; 

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins: 

And I look for the resurrection of the dead; 

And the life of the world to come.”

Finally, Article IX makes mention of the Athanasian Creed, now generally conceded not to be Athanasian, and sometimes referred to as the Symbolum Quicunque. Its Trinitarian section is as follows:

“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 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 coeternal, 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 there are not three eternals: but one eternal. As also there are not three untreated: nor three incomprehensibles, 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 Catholic 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: nor 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 another: none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as 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.”

—H.C.H.