The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith
LW 34:199-207, 228-229
Luther and the reformers thought of themselves as rebels only against the errors and tyranny of the papacy’s church, but considered themselves members and staunch defenders of the universal church of Christ. Melanchthon in March, 1537, wrote a treatise explaining why the Protestants were not participating in the Council of Mantua summoned by Paul III. He wrote, “We embrace and defend with our whole hearts the concord of the universal church of Christ, but the name ‘church’ must not be ascribed to the pontifical errors and tyranny.”* Luther, like Melanchthon, consistently emphasized the agreement of the evangelicals with the early church and dissociated them from heretics of all times and kinds. In antithesis to both sect and papacy, Luther frequently referred to articles of faith clearly grounded in the Scriptures and held by the whole holy Christian Church. Georg Spalatin informed the Elector on April 25, 1537, after a visit in Wittenberg, that Luther was busy writing a short work on the three oldest Christian confessions of faith. The printer, Hans Weisz of Wittenberg, was involved in financial difficulty and the publication of The Three Symbols was delayed until the beginning of the following year.
In this exposition of the creeds, Luther wished to elaborate on the brief theses in the first part of his Smalcald Articles “on the lofty articles of the divine majesty.” Consequently, he centered attention largely on the Trinitarian mystery and the person and work of Christ. The Apostles’ Creed was the most excellent, he felt, for it summarized briefly and correctly the articles of faith. The Athanasian Creed could be thought of as a protective symbol for the first. The third, the Te Deum laudamus, is the church’s great canticle of thanksgiving to God. From early times this so called Ambrosian hymn was considered a classic expression of the Christian faith and was placed on a par with the liturgical confessions. It was also known in reference to its contents as the “hymn in honor of the Holy Trinity” and as the “hymn of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine,” because of a legend that at the time of St. Augustine’s baptism in 387, Ambrose intoned the hymn and sang it alternately with Augustine. Its composition is attributed by Irish traditions to Nicetas, probably with reference to the bishop of Remesiana, who died between 335 and 414. He may very well have made the definitive arrangement of the hymn. The Te Deum was especially dear to Luther, who had translated the hymn into German verse almost a decade earlier. The three attacks upon Christ’s person and work had been the denial of his deity, his true humanity, and his full soteriological significance. Luther met each assault and concluded with the text of the Nicene Creed.
The translator has not followed the rendering of the creeds as found in liturgical usage or in the English editions of the Book of Concord, but has followed an independent course.
The original text of this translation, based on the Wittenberg edition, is to be found in WA 50, (255) 262 283. Other editions are EA 23, (251) 252 281; Johann Georg Walch ( ed. ) , D. Martin Luthers sämmtliche Schriften (1st ed., 24 vols.; Halle, 1740 1753), X, 1198 1231; and St. L. 10, 992 1019.
* C.R. 3, 322, No. 1543b.
Although I have already taught and written a great deal about faith—what it is, what it does—and although I have also published my confession1 of what I believe and where I intend to stand, still the devil keeps hatching new plots against me. Therefore I have decided in addition to publish the three symbols (as they are called) or creeds together, in German, the ones which hitherto have been kept, read, and sung in the whole church, so that I may again bear witness that I hold to the real Christian Church, which up until now has preserved these symbols or creeds, and not to that false, arrogant church which is indeed the worst enemy of the real church. That one has set much idolatry next to these beautiful creeds, just as in ancient times the people of Israel set up many idols in valleys, on hills, under trees,2 next to the beautiful divine service instituted by God, and the temple—and nevertheless claimed to be the real people of God and, using that excuse, persecuted and slew all the prophets, and finally the Lord Christ himself also.
The first symbol, that of the apostles, is truly the finest of all. Briefly, correctly, and in a splendid way it summarizes the articles of faith, and it can easily be learned by children and simple people. The second, that of St. Athanasius, is longer and for the benefit of the Arians.3 It expands more amply the one article, namely, how Jesus Christ is God’s own Son and our Lord, in whom we believe with the same faith with which we believe in the Father, as the text reads in the first symbol, “I believe in God,” etc., “and in Jesus,” etc. For if he were not very God, he would not have to be honored with the same faith as the Father. This is what St. Athanasius argues and emphasizes in his symbol, which is, as it were, a symbol in defense of the first symbol. The third symbol is said to be of SS. Augustine and Ambrose, and is supposed to have been sung at the baptism of St. Augustine.4 Whether that is true or not—and it does no harm whether one believes it or not—it is nevertheless a fine symbol or creed (whoever the author) composed in the form of a chant, not only for the purpose of confessing the true faith, but also for praising and thanking God.
But let me not be criticized too sharply for having translated the words increatus and immensus as ungeschaffen [“uncreated”] and unmeslich [“boundless”]. I was well aware that this is awkward German, and not unaware of what ungeschaffen signifies in Upper Germany;5 but I really had no other choice, and I refuse to be put out of countenance merely because such good words as ungeschaffen, etc., have come into bad usage. If anyone thinks he can do better, by all means let him do so and then see whether he will be without his judges and critics.
The first creed or symbol is the common confession of the apostles, in which the ground for the Christian faith is laid. And it goes thus:
I believe in God the Father, almighty creator of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, descended into hell; arose from the dead on the third day, ascended to heaven, is seated at the right hand of God, the almighty Father; from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, one holy Christian Church, the community of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the flesh, and an eternal life, Amen.
The second creed or symbol is called the Creed of St. Athanasius and was written by him against those heretics called Arians. It goes thus:
Whoever will be saved, before all things he must hold the real Christian faith.
Whoever does not hold the same wholly and purely, without doubt he will be eternally lost.
This, however, is the real Christian faith, that we honor one single God in three Persons and three Persons in one single Godhead.
And do not mingle the Persons or divide the divine substance.
The Father is a separate Person, the Son is a separate Person, the Holy Spirit is a separate Person.
But the Father and Son and Holy Spirit is one single God, equal in glory, equal in eternal majesty.
Such as the Father is, so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit.
The Father is not created, the Son is not created, the Holy Spirit is not created.
The Father is boundless, the Son is boundless, the Holy Spirit boundless. [“Boundless” [unmeslich] here means “whose substance and power has no end, dimension, or number.”]
The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal.
And yet there are not three eternals, but one Eternal.
Just as there are also not three uncreated ones or three boundless ones, but one Uncreated [“Uncreated” [ungeschaffen], “whose substance has neither beginning nor end” or “who can be no creature.”] and one Boundless.
Therefore also the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty.
And yet there are not three almighties, but one Almighty.
Also the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God.
And yet there are not three Gods, but one God.
Therefore the Father is the Lord, the Son is the Lord, the Holy Spirit is the Lord.
And yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord.
For just as we must according to Christian truth confess each Person to be God and Lord by himself,
Thus we cannot in Christian faith name three Gods or three Lords.
The Father is of no one, neither made nor created nor born.
The Son is of the Father alone, not made or created, but born.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and the Son, not made or created or born, but proceeding.
So there is now one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And among these three Persons none is the first, none the last, none the greatest, none the smallest.
But all three Persons are together equally eternal, equally great.
So that, as is aforesaid, three Persons are honored in one Godhead, and one God in three Persons.
Whoever now wishes to be saved, he must think thus of the three Persons in God.
It is, however, also necessary for eternal salvation that one truly believe that Jesus Christ, our Lord, is actual man.
So this is now the real faith, which we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is God and man.
He is God born before the world from the nature of the Father; he is man born in the world from his mother’s nature.
A perfect God, a perfect man with rational soul and human body.
He is equal to the Father according to his Godhead; he is inferior to the Father according to his humanity.
And although he is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ.
One, not that the Godhead is transformed into humanity, but that the Godhead has put on the humanity.
Yes, he is one, not that the two natures are mingled, but that he is one single Person.
For just as body and soul are one man, so God and man are one Christ.
Who has suffered for the sake of our salvation, descended into hell, on the third day arisen from the dead,
Ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God, the almighty Father,
From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
And at his arrival all men must arise in their own bodies.
And must give an account of what they have done.
And those who have done good will go into eternal life, but those who have done evil, into eternal fire.
That is the real Christian faith; whoever does not believe the same firmly and truly cannot be saved.
The third symbol or creed, ascribed to SS. Ambrose and Augustine, is the Te Deum laudamus.
God, we praise thee, Lord, we praise thee.
Eternal Father, the whole world honors thee.
All angels, heaven, and all mighty ones,
Cherubim and seraphim sing to thee loudly without ceasing:
Holy, Holy, Holy is God, the Lord Sabaoth.
Heaven and earth are full of thy glorious majesty.
The glorious assembly of the apostles praises thee
And the worthy company of the prophets,
Also the host of pure martyrs;
The holy church praises thee in all the world,
Thee, Father, who art of infinite majesty,
Also honors thy real only Son,
And the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.
Thou art, O Christ, the King of honor,
Thou art the eternal Son of the Father,
Thou didst not shun the womb of the Virgin, to become man and redeem us.
Thou hast conquered the sting of death and opened heaven to believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father
And wilt come as judge, as faith hopes.
So we pray thee, come to the aid of thy servants,
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Help, so that we receive the gift of eternal glory together with thy saints.
Help thy people, Lord, and bless thine heritage.
Lead them and raise them up eternally.
We praise thee daily,
We praise thy name ever and eternally.
Graciously protect us, Lord, this day from sins.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us.
Let thy kindness rule over us, as we set our hopes on thee.
We set our hopes on thee, Lord; let us never be confounded.
I have perceived and noted in all histories of all of Christendom that all those who have correctly had and kept the chief article of Jesus Christ have remained safe and secure in the right Christian faith. Although they may have sinned or erred in other matters, they have nevertheless been preserved at the last. For whoever stands correctly and firmly in the belief that Jesus Christ is true God and man, that he died and has risen again for us, such a person has all other articles added to him and they firmly stand by him. Therefore, what St. Paul says is quite certain, that Christ is “capital wealth,”6 base, ground, and the whole sum, around and under which everything is gathered and found, and in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and understanding [Col. 2:3]. Christ also says himself, “He who abides in me, he it is that bears much fruit” [John 15:5]; “he who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters,” etc. [Luke 11:23].
For thus it is decided (so speaks St. Paul) that in Jesus Christ the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily [Col. 2:9] or personally, in such manner that whoever does not find or receive God in Christ shall nevermore and nowhere have or find God outside of Christ, even though he should go beyond heaven, below hell, or outside of the world.7 For here I will dwell (says God), in this humanity, born of Mary the virgin, etc. If you believe this, then good for you; if not, then have your own way, but your lack of belief will change nothing herein. And Christ will indeed remain in spite of you, together with all his believers, as he has remained heretofore, against all the power of the devil and the world.
On the other hand, I have also noticed that all error, heresy, idolatry, offense, misuse, and evil in the church originally came from despising or losing sight of this article of faith in Jesus Christ. And if one looks at it correctly and clearly, all heresies do contend against this dear article of Jesus Christ, as Simeon says of him, that he is “set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against” [Luke 2:34]. And Isaiah [8:14] long before proclaimed him a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling. For whatsoever stumbles, certainly stumbles on this stone, which lies in everyone’s way and is rejected by the builders, as he himself shows in the one hundred eighteenth Psalm.8 In his epistle, St. John also gives no other or more certain sign for recognizing false and anti-Christian spirits than their denial of Jesus Christ [II John 7]. They have all wanted to reap honor at his expense and have instead garnered shame from it.
If they now rap on the Scriptures saying there is one God, so let us rap thereon in turn, since the Scriptures indicate just as strongly that in this one God there are more than one. Our scriptural texts are as valid as theirs, because there is not a superfluous letter in the Scriptures. But we will not submit to their attempts to interpret our Scriptures, because they have neither the right nor the might to do it. They are God’s Scriptures and God’s Word, which no man is supposed to or can interpret. If they say, “The Scriptures teach one God,” well, we simply confess this and by no means “interpret” it. When we, however, say, “The Scriptures teach (as we have cited them above) that there is more than one in the single Godhead,” at this point they want to interpret the Scriptures and not simply confess them. Yes, what devil has commanded them to start interpreting here, inasmuch as it is no less God’s Scriptures here than where it teaches of the one God? They want to interpret our scriptural texts and we are not to interpret their scriptural texts? Rather let them leave the Scriptures uninterpreted on both sides, as we do, and simply confess that there is one God and yet more than one Person in the Godhead, because the Scriptures obviously teach both things. But enough for now. Let us in conclusion add to these three symbols also the Nicene Symbol, which, like the Athanasian, is directed against Arius. It is sung in the mass every Sunday.
The Nicene Symbol
I believe in one Almighty God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, of everything that is visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who was born of the Father before the whole world, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, born, not created, of one substance with the Father, by whom all was created, who for us men and for our salvation came from heaven and became incarnate [“Incarnate” [leibhaftig] having received or assumed a body, or, translated into plain German Incarnatus, means “made flesh” [eingefleischt].] by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and became man, also crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and on the third day rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.
And in the Lord the Holy Spirit, who makes alive, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and together honored, who spoke through the prophets:
And one single, holy, Christian, [“Christian” [Catholica] can have no better translation than “Christian,” as was done heretofore. That is, although Christians are to be found in the whole world, the pope rages against that and wants to have his court alone called the Christian Church. He lies, however, like his idol, the devil.] Apostolic Church.
I confess one single baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and wait for the resurrection of the dead, and a life in the future world, Amen.
I shall at this time cite nothing from the New Testament, for in it everything about the holy divine Trinity or Threefoldness is clearly and powerfully attested to. In the Old Testament this is not so clearly underlined, but is nevertheless powerfully indicated.
1 Luther is here probably referring to the third part of his confession on the Lord’s Supper in which he made a complete confession of his faith. He permitted Wenceslaus Link in Nürnberg to publish it in 1528. It was reprinted with some alterations in 1543, 1544, and 1545. Cf. WA 50, 262, n. 1.; WA 26, 250ff., 490ff.
2 E.g., Deut. 12:2 13; 33:29; Isa. 36:7; Jer. 19:5; 32:35; Ezek. 6:3 6; Hos. 10:8.
3 The followers of the heretic Arius ( d. A.D. 336 ) who contended that Christ was not true God, and that there was no Trinity.
4 Cf. pp. 199 200.
5 According to Grimm’s Wörterbuch the South German dialectical meaning of ungeschaffen is “deformed.”
6 Heupt gut in the original involves allusions difficult to reproduce in translation. Taken by itself heupt, meaning head, alludes to Christ as “the head over all things” (Eph. 1:22). However, when used in the compound noun, heupt gut, it means capital over against income and interest.
7 Cf. Ps. 139:8 9.
9 Ps. 118:22. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”