Is The Athanasian Creed Relevant Today?

A fundamental Creed few know

Anglican tradition says on Christmas Day, Epiphany, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday plus on a number of Saints’ Days, at the main service …

“… shall be sung or said … instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius” (Book of Common Prayer, 1662).

There follows in the Prayer Book a creed that is seldom said today. But why? One answer is that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, we regularly use, are much shorter and were elaborations of the basic, very short, earliest creed or confession “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10.9). Originating as baptismal creeds, such creeds simply had to be used in the baptisms of new converts as the early church was expanding. The Apostles’ Creed was used in early Western churches, the Nicene Creed in early Eastern ones.

However, the Nicene Creed not only served the early Church in missionary mode, it also served to exclude, as the Church grew, false teaching, not least Arianism. Arius taught that Jesus was not our eternal God come in the flesh, but a lesser being created by God. That is why the Nicene Creed says that Jesus was “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.”

But what did that really mean for the man, Jesus of Nazareth? It soon was a subject of debate and conflict. But, happily, such Trinitarian issues (one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the Christological debates on Jesus’ person and nature led, in the providence of God, to a sufficient conclusion at the A.D. 451 Council of Chalcedon. That result was expressed in the council’s classic Chalcedonian definition which echoes our so-called Athanasian Creed. “So-called” because it is not written by Athanasius but can be said to reflect his views as developed by Augustine!

Yes, this creed is the fullest of the creeds in its theology. But in this “untheological age” it is being neglected. So from time to time, without apology, I include the creed in a Coloured Supplement. Some people have argued that we can ignore it because it is expressed in terms of Greek philosophy. But that is wrong. No philosophical doctrines are being adopted or assumed. It is entirely theological.

E.L.Mascall

Yes, terms are used which philosophers use, but they are words used in common speech such as “being” and “person”. Any technical usage such words come to have, comes not from philosophy but Christianity and faithfulness to the Bible. As E.L. Mascall writes of that Chalcedonian definition to which this creed is related and is true of this creed:

“[it] is remarkably free from technicalities. It is somewhat repetitive, for the sake of emphasis and in order to exclude specific errors; but its positive assertion is simple in the extreme. It is that the Lord Jesus Christ is one person, and that he is truly and perfectly God and is truly and perfectly man. It is not denied that this is a great and wonderful mystery or that it raises deep and perhaps insoluble problems for the human mind; but the statement itself is … lucid.”

And, yes, importantly as Dorothy L. Sayers once said: “the Christian formula is not: ‘Humanity manifests certain adumbrations of the divine’, but: ‘This man was very God’.”

But, no, our creed is not an exhaustive theological account of the incarnation. Little is said about Jesus’ great work of saving us from sin through his death. In Mascall’s words, like the Chalcedonian definition, “it was a response to certain false views about the constitution of Christ, such as that he had no human soul, that the subject of his human life was not the Eternal Son, that his human nature had no distinct reality, and so on.”

The text of the Athanasian Creed

What then does the Athanasian Creed say? Here is a modern version from An English Prayer Book:

“Whosoever wishes to be saved before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic (or universal) faith, which faith, if anyone does not keep it whole and unharmed, without doubt he will perish everlastingly (see the ‘Comment’ below). Now, the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit, but the Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is all one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son and such is the Holy Spirit: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite [Latin, ‘inmensus’], the Son infinite, and the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal; and yet they are not three eternals but one eternal, just as they are not three uncreateds, nor three Infinites, but one uncreated and one Infinite. In the same way, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty; and yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods but one God. Thus the Father is the Lord, the Son is the Lord, and the Holy Spirit is the Lord; and yet not three Lords, but one Lord. Because, just as we are compelled by Christian truth to confess each person singly to be both God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, there are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is from none, not made nor created nor begotten; the Son is from the Father alone, not made nor created, but begotten; the Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son, not made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity there is no before or after, no greater or less, but all three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal. So that in all things, as has already been said, the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, is to be worshipped. He therefore who wishes to be saved let him think thus of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he should faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, the right faith is that we should believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and man equally. He is God from the being of the Father, begotten before the worlds, and he is man from the being of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, having both man’s rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards his divinity and inferior to the Father as regards his humanity; who, although he is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, however, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by the taking up of humanity into God; utterly one, not by confusion of human and divine being but by unity of Christ’s one person. For just as the rational soul and flesh are one man, so God and man are one Christ; who suffered for our salvation, descended to the realm of the dead, rose again the third day from the dead, ascended to heaven, sat down at the right hand of the Father, from where he will come to judge the living and the dead; at whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account for their own actions, and those who have done good will go into life everlasting and those who have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith which, if anyone does not believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”

A Comment by C.S.Lewis

On the creed’s first sentence, C.S.Lewis makes the following observation: “The operative word is keep; not acquire … but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters ... who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion, ... to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought.” So, is the Athanasian Creed relevant today? Yes, surely it is.

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