Sound Words

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Tim. 1:13-14

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod might be the only church that still follows the Trinity Sunday practice of reciting the Athanasian Creed. I’ve never run across it anywhere else and a good number of ministers outside of the LCMS I’ve mentioned it to have never heard of the creed itself. Part of my fascination was simply the language. As a geeky kid, once a year saying something like “the Father infinite, the Son infinite and the Holy Spirit infinite” was an impossible invitation to mystery. I imagine every kid who ever liked math and ran across the Athanasian creed was invited to ponder the infinite. And how I can give you a perfectly valid proof that is completely understandable in simple language that one infinity is bigger than another infinity. (Observe that the numbers 1, 2, 3… and so on are infinite. Observe that 1.1, 1.2, 1.3…and so on are also infinite. The 2nd infinity is bigger than the first. And you can intuitively grasp that.  But what the hell does it mean that one infinity is bigger than another infinity?)  “And yet there are not three infinities, but one infinite.” There are three infinite persons, but there is only one infinite God.

It is not meant to be understood.  If we could understand it, it wouldn’t be God. He is meant to be adored.

And yet in our hearts we have a desire for understanding. The apostle Paul certainly understood that. “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…(Philippians 3:10).”  It is this tension that makes Paul’s letters still sing today. Whatever he was facing he was constantly searching for a way to describe what God is and what he is doing for His people. The way of Love: “I will show you a still more excellent way.  If I speak in tongues of men and of angles, buy have not love…(1 Cor 13).”  The mystery of God’s election and Israel: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.  Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God…(Romans 11:32-33).” The way of a man and a woman: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church…(Ephesians 5:32).”  As Paul more or less rightly bragged, “if anyone has reason to boast, I have more (2 Cor 11, Phil 3).”  Yet Paul reaching to know God, always returned to adoration. All theology ends in doxology.  He is meant to be adored.

So what we have in the creeds, and I would say especially in the Athanasian Creed, is a sound pattern of words. And in a religion where one infinite person of the Trinity is sometimes called “The Word of God,” words are important. There is a reason Satan is always changing the definitions of words, attempting to confuse things that God made plain. The creeds are a sound pattern of words. When Satan, the World or our own flesh want to pull some tricky business with us, the creeds are a light in a dark place. When our brains are tired of thinking, the creeds guard the good deposit given to us. They are not The Faith.  They are not the love in Christ Jesus.  They are not even the Holy Spirit that dwells within. These things – faith, love, Spirit – are more important. But faith, love and even the Spirit express themselves in words.  And these are a pattern of sound words.

When our own words fail us, the Scriptures promise that the Spirit intercedes. Think of the creeds as part of that intercession. A pattern of sound words leading us back to adoration. A theology in short, so that we can sing the doxology. Praise God from whom all blessing flow.  Including words…like “this is the catholic faith.”

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