[The so-called Athanasian creed] is usually not now said in churches. One reason for this is suggested by my own experience the last, and only, time I tried to get an Anglican congregation to recite it aloud in church. When they got to the phrase, ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible… and yet there are not three incomprehensibles’, they all burst out laughing. The whole thing was just too incomprehensible, and so the Trinity still seems to many people. (p. 234, link and emphases added)
I think he means to put an emphasis on “seems”, for in his view, the doctrine is comprehensible enough, for he goes on to explain the doctrine of three persons in one substance as asserting that
…there are three different aspects of the one divine being, that none of them can be collapsed without remainder into the others, and that all of them together are necessary to an adequate idea of God. …[And these are] God as transcendent abyss, God as particular yet unbounded intelligence, and God as the immanent creative energy of being… (235-6, emphases added)
The three persons identified with three aspects of God – this is a version of what I call FSH modalism. Admittedly, Ward pulls his punch – just before he says this is “One way of putting [the doctrine] today…”, but it seems to be his preferred way, as he expounds it and no other in this book.
A bit further on, he makes another interesting comment that ties in with a previous discussion here:
Jews and Muslims, and other believers in God who reject the idea of the Trinity, could, in my experience, be quite sympathetic to this interpretation of the Trinity, if the qualifications required by the acceptance of the analogy were kept firmly in mind – though they might still reject the idea that Jesus is the unique personal form of God. (237)
Back to the famous creed – the “Athanasian” creed is often taken, by philosophers and sometimes by theologians, as being THE definitive statement of “the” doctrine of the Trinity, or at least, as the hard core which all future elaborations or developments must include. And yet, as Ward points out, and as my own experience suggests, this creed plays little role in the life of Christian people, whether in liturgical or devotional contexts. So some questions for our readers:
- Has any church you’ve been a part of regularly recited or read aloud the “Athanasian” creed?
- Have you ever heard a sermon or homily on that creed?
- Do you consider that creed an important spiritual document (as opposed to a theoretical one) – one which is either essential to, or at least importantly aids Christian spiritual development?
My own answers: no, no, and no.