04 April 2019

Lenten Study Group 2019:
3, The Athanasian Creed

Trinitarian truths expressed in in a stained-glass window in Michaelhouse, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Lent Study Group 2019:

The Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick

3, The Athanasian Creed,

8 p.m., 4 April 2019


Four Lenten study evenings are taking place in the Rectory at 8 p.m. on Thursdays in Lent. These evenings are open to all parishioners and friends:

1, Thursday 21 March: The Apostles’ Creed;
2, Thursday 28 March: The Nicene Creed;
3, Thursday 4 April: The Athanasian Creed;
4, Thursday 11 April: The 39 Articles.

At one time, it was expected that all members of the Church would know and be able to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed.

These were once the minimum requirement for Confirmation, and to ensure everyone could learn them by rote then were often painted on boards behind the altar or on the east end walls in parish churches.

Today, few people may know the Apostles’ Creed by heart, and fewer still may know that while the Apostles’ Creed has its origins in the confession of faith required in the Early Church in Rome for Baptism.

How many people know, for example, that we use the Apostles’ Creed at Morning Prayer and Baptism, and it is the Nicene Creed that we use at the Eucharist or Holy Communion?

The Preamble and Declaration (see Book of Common Prayer, pp 776-777), which could be described as the constitutionally foundation document of the Church of Ireland, says that the Church of Ireland shall ‘shall continue to profess the faith of Christ as professed by the Primitive Church.’

This evening we are looking at the Athanasian Creed. Although it is not found in the New Testament, Anglicans have always accepted it as one of the ‘Ecumenical Creeds,’ alongside the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

So, this evening we are looking the Athanasian Creed, its origins, how we use it, asking how it differs from the other Creeds, looking at its strengths and its weaknesses, and looking at how it is used.

The ecumenical creeds as we understand them within the Anglican tradition are three in number: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed.

But, while we call these three creeds ‘ecumenical,’ in reality there is only one ecumenical creed, the Nicene Creed.

Saint Athanasius … but did he write the Athanasian Creed?

Introductory illustration:

The novelist and Anglican spiritual writer, Dorothy Sayers, wrote a humorous essay, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ (Dorothy L Sayers, Creed or Chaos, London: Methuen, 1947), on the relevance of Christian doctrine to real life. In that essay, she drew up a kind of questionnaire with the sort of answers she felt ordinary people would give to questions like this. She wrote:

Question: What does the Church think of God the Father?

Answer: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment. He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgment and miracles, distributed with a good sense of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to, and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Son?

Answer: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man and God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it’s best to apply to him.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?

Answer: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit Sunday. There is a sin against him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.

Question: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?

Answer: ‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’ – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life and reality.

Incomprehensible? Nothing to do with daily life and reality? Are these some of the difficulties you could imagine when it comes to thinking and talking about the Trinity?

The formulation of the Athanasian Creed:

The Athanasian Creed, also known as Quicunque Vult is focused on the Trinitarian doctrine and Christology. The Latin name, Quicunque vult, is derived from the opening words, ‘Whosoever wishes,’ or ‘Whoever will be saved.’

This creedal statement was traditionally ascribed to Saint Athanasius (ca 296-373), who succeeded Alexander as Patriarch of Alexandria. But it is a Western document, probably written around the year 428, and is used only in Western Christianity.

It sets out the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, adding a list of the most important events in Christ’s life. It also includes anathemas against those who do not subscribe to its creedal statements and definitions.

This creed has been used since the sixth century. It is the first creed in which the equality of the three persons of the Trinity is explicitly stated. It differs from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and Apostles’ Creed in the inclusion of anathemas, or condemnations of those who disagree with the creed.

The Athanasian Creed was designed to distinguish Nicene Christianity from the heresy of Arianism. A medieval account says Athanasius of Alexandria, the famous defender of Nicene theology, as the author of the Creed. According to this account, Athanasius composed it during his exile in Rome and presented it to Pope Julius I as a witness to his orthodoxy.

The theology of the creed is firmly rooted in the Augustinian tradition, using exact terminology found in Augustine’s On the Trinity (415).

The Athanasian Creed was used in a sermon by Caesarius of Arles, and resembles the works by Vincent of Lérins, indicating it may have been written in southern Gaul, perhaps in the late fifth or early sixth century AD, at least 100 years after Saint Athanasius. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Athanasian Creed date from the late eighth century.

Today, church historians accept that the creed was not written by Athanasius, that it was not originally called a creed at all, nor was the name of Athanasius originally attached to it.

The name of Athanasius seems to have become attached to the creed as a sign of its strong declaration of Trinitarian faith. The reasons for rejecting Athanasius as the author include the following:

It was probably written originally in Latin, while Saint Athanasius wrote in Greek.

Neither Athanasius nor his contemporaries ever mention the Creed.

It is not mentioned in any records of the ecumenical councils.

It appears to address theological debates that developed after Saint Athanasius died in Alexandria in 373, including the place of the filioque in the Creed.

Its statements on the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son could not be accepted in any Orthodox tradition.

It was widely circulated among Western Christians, but was not used in the East.

The content and structure of the Athanasian Creed:

I remember a time when the Athanasian Creed was used on Trinity Sunday in parishes in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.

But in recent years, this Creed has been relegated to a place in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland between the Catechism and the Preamble to the Constitution.

It is in a difficult place to find, between pages 771 and 773, and there are no directions about when or where it might be used.

So how do we explain the Holy Trinity, a key understanding of God, in a world that today finds it difficult to wrestle with deep and often abstract philosophical concepts?

How do we explain, or even introduce, the topic of the Trinity in a way that people can understand without being boring?

The Athanasian Creed is not the most popular of creeds nowadays, nor is it the easiest to understand.

The Athanasian Creed is composed of 44 rhythmic lines, appears to have been intended as a liturgical document – that is, the original purpose of the creed was to be spoken or sung as a part of worship. The creed itself uses the language of public worship, speaking of the worship of God rather than the language of belief (‘Now this is the catholic faith: We worship one God’).

The Athanasian Creed is usually divided into two sections: lines 1-28 addressing the doctrine of the Trinity, and lines 29-44 addressing the doctrine of Christology.

Enumerating the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the first section of the creed ascribes the divine attributes to each individually. So, each person of the Trinity is described as uncreated (increatus), limitless (immensus), eternal (æternus), and omnipotent (omnipotens).

While ascribing the divine attributes and divinity to each person of the Trinity, and so avoiding subordinationism, the first half of the Athanasian Creed also stresses the unity of the three persons in the one Godhead, thus avoiding tritheism.

Furthermore, although one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other. For the Father is neither made nor begotten; the Son is not made but is begotten from the Father; the Holy Spirit is neither made nor begotten but proceeds from the Father – Western churches include ‘and the Son’ (filioque), a concept which Eastern and Oriental Orthodox reject.

The Christology of the second section is more detailed than that of the Nicene Creed, and reflects the teaching of the First Council of Ephesus (431) and the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Athanasian Creed uses the term substantia (a Latin translation of the Nicene homoousios: ‘same being’ or ‘consubstantial’) not only with respect to the relation of the Son to the Father according to his divine nature, but also says the Son is substantia of his mother, the Virgin Mary, according to his human nature.

The Creed’s wording, therefore, excludes not only Sabellianism and Arianism, but the Christological heresies of Nestorianism and Eutychianism. The final section of this Creed also moved beyond the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed in making negative statements about salvation: ‘They that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.’

The use of the Athanasian Creed:

The Athanasian Creed is widely accepted among Churches in the West, including the Roman Catholic Church and some Anglican churches and Lutheran churches, where it is considered part of Lutheran confessions in the Book of Concord.

The Athanasian Creed has never gained acceptance in the Orthodox Church, where it is seen as an unorthodox fabrication that contains the filioque clause.

In the mediaeval Church, this creed was recited following the Sunday sermon or at the Sunday Office of Prime. The creed was often set to music and used in the place of a Psalm.

In successive editions of the Book of Common Prayer from 1549 to 1662, its recitation was provided for on 19 occasions each year, a practice that continued until the 19th century, when vigorous controversy regarding its statement about ‘eternal damnation’ saw its use gradually decline.

The Book of Common Prayer includes the Athanasian Creed (see pp 771-773), after the Catechism of 1878 and before the Preamble and the 39 Articles. But there are no rubrics about when and how it should be used.

The Athanasian Creed is still included in The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (see pp 771-773) but has been edited for inclusion by the Church of England in Common Worship as an ‘Authorized Affirmation of Faith’ (see p 145).

The Episcopal Church in the US States has never provided for its use in worship, but added it to its Book of Common Prayer for the first time in 1979, where it is included in small print in a reference section entitled ‘Historical Documents of the Church.’

Can you imagine situations or occasions on which you would use it? Can you ever remember it being used?

The mediaeval fresco of the Holy Trinity in the south choir aisle in Lichfield Cathedral … severely damaged by 17th century Puritans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Last year I took a photograph of a fresco on the wall of the south choir aisle in Lichfield Cathedral depicting the Holy Trinity. This scene, showing the Trinity flanked by two censing angels, was painted sometime between the 14th and mid-15th century. This painting was damaged severely by the Puritans in the religious strife later in the mid-17th century. But it is still possible to look closely and to see how it originally depicted the Holy Trinity..

As I look at it closely, I can just make out the representation of God the Father seated on a golden throne, clad in a red robe.

He is holding his crucified Son, God the Son, Jesus Christ, before him. Originally, this fresco would have shown a full depiction of the Crucifixion. However, all that can be seen today are the legs of Christ, with his feet nailed to the Cross.

God the Holy Spirit, traditionally depicted as a white dove, is now missing from this painting because of Puritan vandalism. But originally the Holy Spirit was placed in this painting between the heads of God the Father and God the Son.

What this fresco teaches me is that we can always catch glimpses of God. When we see the work of Christ, we see the work of God the Father, and so on. We may not always see how the Holy Spirit is working in us, or in others, but we still know that God is working in love in us and in others.

And the best way we experience that is being open to the love of God and in loving others.

The late Thomas Hopko (1939-2015), a renowned Orthodox theologian, has argued that if God were not Trinity, God could not have loved prior to creating other beings on whom to bestow God’s love … if God were not Trinity, God could not have loved prior to creating other beings on whom to bestow God’s love.

This love or communion of God as Trinity is extended to us in the communion of the Church. It is not just the Trinitarian faith into which we are baptised, but also the love or fellowship of the Trinity.

That message of love at the heart of what we believe and experience in the truth of the Holy Trinity was explained in a very non-dogmatic, non-doctrinal, non-philosophical way by three students at the Graduation Ceremony in Coláiste na Trócaire in Rathkeale last year when they read this:

I believe …

That our background and circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we become.

That no matter how good a friend is, they’re going to hurt you every once in a while and you must forgive them for that.

That just because someone doesn’t love you the way you want them to doesn’t mean that they don’t love you with all they have.

That true friendship continues to grow even over the longest distance, same goes for true love.

That it’s taking me a long time to become the person I want to be.

That you should always leave loved ones with loving words. It may be the last time you see them.

That you can keep going long after you think you can’t.

That we are responsible for what we do, no matter how we feel.

That either you control your attitude, or it controls you.

That heroes are the people who do what has to be done, when it needs to be done, regardless of the consequences.

That my best friend and I can do anything or nothing and still have the best time.

That sometimes the people you expect to kick you when you are down will be the ones to help you get back up.

That sometimes when I’m angry I have the right to be angry, but that doesn’t give me the right to be cruel.

That it isn’t always enough to be forgiven by others. Sometimes you have to learn to forgive yourself.

That no matter how bad your heart is broken, the world doesn’t stop for your grief.

That you shouldn’t be so eager to find out a secret, it may change your life forever.

That two people can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different.

That your life can be changed in a matter of hours by people who don’t even know you.

That the people you care about in life are taken from you much too soon.

And I realised then that their teachers had taught them so much about the truth that lies behind everything we try to teach about why the doctrine of the Holy Trinity matters now more than ever in the Church.

An image of the Trinity in Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece

Closing Prayer, The Collect of the Day, Trinity Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.

Appendix 1:

The Athanasian Creed, the Book of Common Prayer (the Church of Ireland), pp 771-773:

[The numerals are inserted to indicate the traditional division into 44 clauses or statements]:

[1] Whosoever will be saved:
before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
[2] Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled:
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

[3] And the Catholic Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
[4] Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.
[5] For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son:
and another of the Holy Ghost.
[6] But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one:
the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
[7] Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.
[8] The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
[9] The Father incomprehensible; the Son incomprehensible:
and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
[10] The Father eternal; the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.
[11] And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.
[12] As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated:
but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
[13] So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty:
and the Holy Ghost Almighty.
[14] And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.
[15] So the Father is God; the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.
[16] And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.
[17] So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord.
[18] And yet not three Lords: but one Lord.
[19] For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity:
to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
[20] So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion:
to say, there are three Gods, or three Lords.
[21] The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.
[22] The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created; but begotten.
[23] The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son:
neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
[24] So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons;
one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
[25] And in this Trinity none is before, or after other;
none is greater, or less than another.
[26] But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.
[27] So that in all things, as aforesaid:
the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
[28] He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

[29] Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation:
that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[30] For the right Faith is that we believe and confess:
that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
[31] God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds:
and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
[32] Perfect God, and perfect Man:
of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;
[33] Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead:
and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
[34] Who, although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;
[35] One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh:
but by taking the Manhood into God;
[36] One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.
[37] For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man:
so God and Man is one Christ:
[38] Who suffered for our salvation:
descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.
[39] He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father, God Almighty: [40] from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead.
[41] At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies;
[42] and shall give account for their own works.
[43] And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting:
and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
[44] This is the Catholic Faith:
which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end.

The Visitation of Abraham or the ‘Old Testament Trinity’ … a fresco in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, interprets a Trinitarian and Eucharistic theme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Next Week (11 April 2019): the 39 Articles.

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