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Hallo again to all.

'He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity'.

So a sentence towards the end of the Athanasian Creed has it. To which we can only respond feebly, 'Oh dear'.

Trinity Sunday is often accompanied by sermons simplistic or abstruse, to the befuddlement of many in the pews. It's not likely that many parish churches still recite the Athanasian Creed (aka Quicumque vult), but the propositions asserted in that stern and solemn creed are the concentration of our understanding — or lack of understanding! — of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

We're not alone in our befuddlement. Dorothy Sayers has written:

'In my childhood, I remember feeling that this verse formed a serious blot upon a fascinating and majestic mystery, It was, I felt, quite unnecessary to warn anybody that there was "one Father, not three fathers, one Son, not three sons, one Holy Ghost, not three holy ghosts." The suggestion seemed quite foolish. It was difficult enough to imagine a God who was Three and yet One, did anybody exist so demented as to conceive of a nine fold deity? Three fathers was a plurality excessive even to absurdity. I found myself blushing faintly at the recitations of words so wildly unrelated to anything that the queerest heathen in his blindness was likely to fancy for himself'.

'Blushing faintly' is likely the normal Anglican reaction.Diamonds are forever

Essentially, the Athanasian Creed was drawn up to solve a problem. In fourth century Alexandria, the eponymous Athanasius was in the midst of an intense theological war with a younger upstart cleric named Arius. Arius couldn't sign on to the idea of the son of God being equal to the Father. 'A creation', blogged Arius, 'is less than its creator. The Son is less than the Father that 'begot' him. In the Beginning was the Creator God and the Son did not exist'.

To make sure his ideas went viral, he set them to rap music, then known as sea shanties. The workers at the port of Alexandria started chanting and humming his catchy theological ditties, and soon those spread to the workers in other Mediterranean hubs of commerce. 'Arius apps' were being downloading to iPhones all through the known world. Arius was no longer an upstart young cleric causing trouble on his own, but the leader of a formidable TAC (theological action committee) that would challenge the party of Athanasius.

The success of the sea shanties (and their theology) wasn't at all helpful to Athanasius, since as far as we know, he wasn't gifted in his ability to promote maximum market penetration for his theological position of the Son being equal to the Father. At the time of the First Council of Nicaea, called together to sort all this out, Athanasius was a deacon. But he was one determined deacon. The Athanasian party more or less triumphed at the Council, and what we know as the Nicene creed was a deliverable, so to speak, from that great convocation. And the Nicene Creed foreshadowed the Athanasian Creed itself, developed some centuries later by an unknown ghost writer (scholars argue about its actual author).

Following the Athanasian-party success at the first Nicene Council, years later, Athanasius was appointed Archbishop of Alexandria. Yet the Arians had continued to amass their power base, as a number of influential bishops found the Arian position intelligible and sensible. And Athanasius, who seems to have been theologically and politically pugilistic, wasn't helped in his cause by being banished four times from Alexandria through the political plotting of his Arian enemies. Keeping his episcopal title throughout all his banishments, he added another one, becoming known as Athanasius Contra Mundum, ready to stand alone against all the world in his position. (No doubt his followers wore t-shirts with that motto.)

Eventually (and with more shouting and arguing and politicking and banishments over more decades than we can imagine) the Arians completely lost the theological battle. The articulation of the Son as equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit as equal with them became the received teaching of the early Church. So, in a sense, the strange and solemn passages of the Athanasian Creed are set out to answer clearly an opponent who is no longer 'in the room'. But the assertions are what we hold to be true, even if we do not now feel the need to shout it definitely and frequently. We may conclude that it is up to God to determine who will be saved and that is His business to determine how closely a soul's worth is measured by a right belief in the Trinity. We don't cavil at the Creed, for it states what the Church teaches and articulates — as much as it can be articulated — about a relationship of love, energy, and action, beyond human comprehension. But at the last it is a mystery, and creeds must stop there.

So we'll wear the Athanasius Contra Mundum t-shirt and we'll recite, rarely and when asked, his eponymous creed. But we'll confess that we're more puzzled than enlightened by theological attempts to unravel a mystery. The Trinity isn't a doctrine but a love song, some wise preacher once said, to which we add a hearty 'Amen'.

Which makes us think of an obscure pop song made (more or less) famous by musician Peter Gabriel, called 'The Book of Love'. The Trinity is a book of love, as is the blessed Bible. And we're all still too young to understand either of them fully.

The book of love is long and boring;
No one can lift the damn thing.
It's full of charts and facts and figures
And instructions for dancing.

The book of love has music in it.
In fact that's where music comes from.
Some of it is just transcendental;
Some of it is just really dumb.

The book of love is long and boring,
And written very long ago.
It's full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes,
And things we're all too young to know.

Think of the Athanasian Creed as instructions for dancing. Even Arius, author of sea shanties, would like that.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

3 June 2012

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