How The Athanasian Creed Can Help Contemporary Evangelical Theological Discourse

33. Equal to the Father, as touching his deity: and inferior to the Father as touching his humanity (Aequalis Patri secundum divinitatem: minor Patre secundum humanitatem)—Athanasian Creed.

Yesterday, in our Reformed confessions course, we were considering Belgic Confession articles 18 and 19 on the incarnation and the two natures of Christ. One of the best ways to understand what the Reformed confess under these heads of doctrine is to consider the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451) and the Athanasian Creed. As we worked our way through our shared inheritance from the church universal, we came across article 33 of the Athanasian Creed as quoted above.

Sometimes known as the Quincunque Vult, from the first two words of the creed (“Whosoever will [be saved]”), Athanasius himself did not write the Athanasian Creed. That was determined definitely by G. Vos in the early to mid-1640s. The date of the creed is uncertain. It has been dated from the early fourth century to the ninth century. It seems to me most likely that it was written after Chalcedon but there is no strong reason to date it long after the late fifth century. It is widely taken as a good summary of the teaching of the ancient church on the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology. It was warmly and enthusiastically received by Luther and it is received by the Reformed churches as an ancient, ecumenical creed. In Belgic Confession, art. 9 we confess: “in this matter we willingly accept the three ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian—as well as what the ancient fathers decided in agreement with them.”

As we considered art. 33 of the Athanasian it was impossible not to reflect on the contemporary morass concerning the so-called “eternal subordination of the Son.” Now, just what that expression signifies has been hotly debated. E.g., Wayne Grudem in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood. Foundations for the Family Series (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), denies that it entails the ontological subordination of the Son. Yet, it has frequently seemed to orthodox critics of the doctrine that it does entail more than the voluntary submission of the Son to the Father and that, at least in some cases, it entails the eternal subordination of the being of the Son to the Father.

One of the functions of the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions of the churches is to provide us with basic doctrines, distinctions, and vocabulary. In every enterprise there is always to be learned a grammar, a logic, and a rhetoric. There is the stuff to be learned (grammar), an explanation of how the stuff works (logic), and how to speak about the stuff (rhetoric). This is true whether we are learning how to fix engines or to do theology.

Further, we owe special respect to the ecumenical creeds because they represent not only the express ancient consensus of the church but the express judgment of the church about particular issues. The ecumenical creeds do not speak about everything. E.g., they do not say, “baptism grants new life ex opere” as many assume (regarding the Nicene Creed). They do confess what all Christians must believe, as the Athanasian says: “whosoever will be saved must thus believe.” The confession of the Reformed Church has a similar function. Where it speaks, we are bound. Where it speaks it gives us a vocabulary, a rhetoric.

That is my interest here. My thesis is this: had the formulators of ESS and EFS (eternal functional subordination) been more cognizant of the language of the Athanasian Creed, we might have avoided a great deal of confusion.

Article 33 of the Athanasian gives us guide rails here. Christ is God the Son incarnate. He is one person with two distinct natures. To use the language of Chalcedon:

to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son…

The two natures never become one nature (monophysitism or miaphysitism) but also remain distinct. Yet, Christ is one person.

In that light then, the Athanasian requires us to affirm  “according to deity,” Christ is “equal to the Father.” According to his human nature, however, Christ may be said to be “minor Patre.” Minor is rightly translated “inferior.” I have already catalogued some notable interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3 on this topic. As Charles Hodge observed, it is Christ as the God-Man (Theanthropos) in view. The Logos, the second person of the Trinity, as such, is not in view.

In this respect, it was probably not wise for advocates of complementarianism to ground their view in the eternal intra-Trinitarian relations. According to the Reformed doctrine of the eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), wherein the Father is said to have given to the Son a people and the Son is said to have volunteered to be the Substitute, Mediator, and Redeemer of that people but that obedience was with the incarnation in view. The same is true with mission (sending) of the Son.

Consider an unintended outcome of the controversy over ESS/EFS: More than a few people have eschewed the adjective complementarian since it is perceived to carry with it potentially heretical connotations and because it has become identified with patriarchalism, in which females are said to be ontologically (i.e., in their being) inferior to males. This is unfortunate because, as a matter of universal sense perception and experience, the two sexes are complementary of one another and they are so by divine design (See Gen 2:18–25).

The Athanasian Creed gives us a categorical distinction. With respect to the deity we say one thing. With the respect to the humanity we say another. That distinction should have a chastening effect in what we say.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. >>>Athanasius himself did not write the Athanasian Creed. That was determined definitely by G. Vos in the early to mid-1640s. <<<

    Can you clarify this? Vos was the early 1900s. And you have dated the creed in the 4th-9th century. What is the 1640s a reference to?

  2. Dr. Clark, you collect excerpts of theologians who held to the republication of the CofW on Sinai. Did you know Herman Bavinck held to it also? In his Reformed Dogmatics.

    “Even more, as a human being Christ was certainly subject to the law of God as the rule of life; even believers are never exempted from the law in that sense. But Christ related himself to the law in still a very different way, namely, as the law of the covenant of works. […] He submitted himself to the law of the covenant of works as the way to eternal life for himself and his own.” Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three, page 379

    The context of the passage is Sinai, if my memory is correct.

  3. This train of thought has been my own as well. The Athanasian Creed presents in my opinion the earliest and ultimate “gospel issue”
    It encompasses those who would even be on the edges of orthodoxy with respect to the Reformed confessions who themselves confess the ecumenical creeds. In other words, the catholic church has explicitly stated that any system of doctrine that rejects the Trinity cannot be a repository for the gospel. Where the Trinity is, the gospel no matter how obscured will be there also because the Triune God is the object of saving faith.
    It could be that in order to convince the unconvinced that complementarianism is a gospel issue, modifying the doctrine of the Trinity was precisely what was needed to achieve the desired end.

Comments are closed.