“Man can perceive only the hem of the garment of the Triune God. The cherubim cover the rest with their wings.” ~ Athanasius
Reading this quote is like listening to Luther teach. It’s great. He does an excellent job explaining some of the distinctions that must be preserved in order to still have the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This quote also illustrates why you need to be careful about the way you speak, and also why the doctrine of the Holy Trinity matters at all: because if you aren’t careful, you can end up no longer praying to or believing in the one true God, who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes we wonder if truths as foundational as these need to be repeated so often…the answer is a resounding Yes!, when so many are willing to speak differently than the Scriptures do. Be warned: this quote is some pretty heavy theological lifting, but it’s rewarding if you’re up for it. Enjoy.
“The author uses the word “made” only once, saying: “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the Breath of His mouth.” He mentions three distinct Persons, namely, the Lord, His Word, and His Breath; and yet he does not set up more than one Creator, without any differentiation. All things are made. By whom? By one Creator, who is Lord, Word, and Breath. The Lord does not do His own work separately, the Word does not do His own work separately, and the Breath does not do His own work separately. All three distinct Persons are but one Creator of the work of each. And each one’s work is that of all three Persons as that of one Creator and Master. For as the Lord creates the heavens, the Word creates the same and no different heavens, and the Breath creates the same and no different heavens. It is one essence that creates, and it is one creation that all three Persons create. And again, just as the Lord creates the host of the heavens by His Spirit (as the text says: “And all their host by the Breath of His mouth”) thus the Breath creates the same and no other host of the heavens, and the Word creates the same and no other host of the heavens.
Therefore a Christian must here take careful note not to mingle the Persons into one Person nor to divide and separate the one divine essence into three Persons, as Athanasius sings in his Creed.30 For if I ascribe to each Person a distinct external work in creation and exclude the other two Persons from this, then I have divided the one Godhead and have fashioned three gods or creators. And that is wrong. Again, if I do not ascribe to each Person within the Godhead, or outside and beyond creation, a special distinction not appropriate to the other two, then I have mingled the Persons into one Person. And that is also wrong. Here the rule of St. Augustine is pertinent: “The works of the Trinity toward the outside are not divisible.”31 The works performed by God outside the Godhead must not be divided, that is, one must not separate the Persons with regard to the works and ascribe to each its distinct external work; but one must distinguish the Person within the Godhead and yet ascribe, externally, each work to all three without distinction.
Let me illustrate this with an example. The Father is my God and Creator and yours, who created you and me. This same work, your creation and mine, was also performed by the Son, who is also my God and Creator and yours, just as the Father is. Likewise, the Holy Spirit created the selfsame work, that is, you and me, and He is my God and Creator and yours as well as the Father and the Son. This notwithstanding, there are not three gods and creators, but one God and Creator of us both. With this creed I guard against the heresy of Arius and his ilk, to keep me from dividing the one divine essence into three gods or creators and to help me retain in the true Christian faith no more than the one God and Creator of all creatures.
On the other hand, when I go beyond and outside of creation or the creature and move into the internal, incomprehensible essence of divine nature, I find that Holy Scripture teaches me—for reason counts for nought in this sphere—that the Father is a different and distinct nature from the Son in the one indivisible and eternal Godhead. The difference is that He is the Father and does not derive His Godhead from the Son or anyone else. The Son is a Person distinct from the Father in the same, one paternal Godhead. The difference is that He is the Son and that He does not have the Godhead from Himself, nor from anyone else but the Father, since He was born of the Father from eternity. The Holy Spirit is a Person distinct from the Father and the Son in the same, one Godhead. The difference is that He is the Holy Spirit, who eternally proceeds both from the Father and from the Son, and who does not have the Godhead from Himself nor from anyone else but from both the Father and the Son, and all of this from eternity to eternity. With this belief I guard against the heresy of Sabellius and his ilk, of Jews, Mohammed, and all others who presume to be smarter than God Himself. Thus I refrain from jumbling the Persons together into one Person, but I retain, according to the true Christian belief, three distinct Persons in the one divine and eternal essence, all three of which are, over against us and all creatures, one God, Creator and Worker of all things.
Perhaps all of this is too abstruse or subtle for us Germans and should, more reasonably, be confined to the universities. But since the devil whips his tail about in these last days and would fain stir up all sorts of heresy again; and since the world, even aside from this, hankers and longs to hear something novel and is weary of the salutary doctrine, as St. Paul prophesied (2 Tim. 4:3); and since the door has thereby been left open for the devil to bring in what he will: it is useful and necessary that at least a few, both laymen and scholars, especially pastors, preachers, and schoolteachers, also learn to reflect on such vital doctrines of our faith and to express them in German.32 But may he for whom this is too complicated stay with the children and confine himself to the Catechism and pray against the devil and his heresy, against the Jews and against Mohammed, lest he succumb to temptation.
(30 A reference to the so-called Athanasian Creed’s “without confusing the Persons or dividing the divine Substance.”
31 Cf. Augustine, De Trinitate, II, ch. 5, sec. 9, Patrologia, Series Latina, XLII, 850.
32 On the difficulty of Trinitarian terminology in German, see, for example, Luther’s Works, 34, p. 202.)
Luther, M. (1999, c1972). Vol. 15: Luther’s works, vol. 15 : Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Last Words of David, 2 Samuel 23:1-7 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (15:301). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.