Question: What is the Athanasian Creed, and why does it matter?
Today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. Across the western branch of Christ’s Church, preachers went through the annual tradition of scratching their heads and trying to figure out what to say about that most sacred mystery of God’s existence. Every analogy falls into heresy, and even the our best words fall short. It’s a daunting Sunday to climb into the pulpit. (And I should apologize to my supply preacher for putting him in that position.)
Scripture itself provides relatively little information on the nature of the Trinity. We are sent to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We see all three persons at work in the cosmos from Creation and through to the consummation of all things. And Saint John tells us that the Logos is God and with God from the beginning. But how does that whole three-in-one one-in-three thing work?
Blessedly, the Spirit has led the Church to craft statements of faith we now call the ecumenical creeds. Among them is the oft-neglected Athanasian Creed, a lengthy discourse on the nature of the Trinity and Christ’s ministry.
So what does this creed say, why does it matter, and why do we so often ignore it?
Short Answer: The Athanasian Creed is a bit like the Holy Roman Empire: neither Athanasian nor a creed. Discuss.
Long Answer: The so-called Athanasian Creed is more properly called the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed (“Falsely Attributed Athanasian Creed”) or, better yet, Quicunque Vult (“Whoever Wills,” from its opening line, “Whosoever will be saved,” or “Whoever desires to be saved…”). But, because it is more commonly known by the Athanasian title (and because it’s easier to type over and over again), that’s what we’ll use for the duration of this article.
Why do scholars believe the creed was falsely attributed? A few key reasons.
Athanasius was a Greek theologian who lived and wrote in the fourth century; the credal document attributed to him was written in Latin at some point in the fifth century. While both Athanasius’ writings and the creed set out to defend Nicene theology (those beliefs clarified and codified by the Council of Nicaea, which also gave us the Nicene Creed), Athanasius never mentions having written the document. Moreover, the Athanasian Creed develops a Latin theological theme — that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (in Latin, “and the Son” is a single word: filioque). This phrase was originally omitted from the Nicene Creed but inserted by western Catholics circa 580. (The controversy, however, predates the Council of Nicaea). It was and remains one of the main theological issues dividing the Greek East from the Latin West, and it’s unlikely that a Greek-speaking theologian would have used professed a divisive Latin article of faith.
So the Athanasian Creed isn’t Athanasian, but how is it not a creed? And I must confess, I’m fudging a little here; creed has two uses. The more generic is a “statment of faith,” and Quicunque Vult is certainly that. When we think of the ecumenical creeds of the Church, though, they have a common oral usage in the liturgical life of the entire Church. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are clear statements of faith designed for recitation before the community (“I believe…”) or with the community (“We believe…”). The term creed is taken from the first Latin words of both these recitations: credo (“I believe…”). The Athanasian Creed, by comparison, reads more like a (rather poetic) theological tract. Moreover, it was used sparingly in the liturgy. Whereas the Apostles’ Creed was an essential part of the baptismal liturgy and the Nicene Creed became a fixture of the Mass, the Athanasian Creed was said only during the liturgical hour of Prime on Sundays (daily in some areas), and only in the Latin-speaking world. This usage virtually assured that only clergy and monastics would be familiar with the Athanasian Creed. Which is to say, the Athanasian Creed is a statement of belief, which we may call a creed, but differs greatly in form and usage from the two other ecumenical creeds.
There are parts of the Athanasian Creed which have proved surprisingly controversial. As preachers turn to it in preparation for this Sunday, a number of ELCA clergy have balked at certain parts of the language, some going so far as to question whether we should retain the document as a valid and authoritative statement of the Christian faith and the Lutheran tradition or change our ordination vows to exclude fidelity to Quicunque Vult.
Some of my colleagues have rejected the document for its usage of the term catholic:
Whoever wants to be saved
should above all cling to the catholic faith.
But what do we mean by catholic? This translation has agitated the Lutheran tradition in the US ever since we stopped professing faith in “one holy Christian church” and resumed the use of the other c-word, which literally means universal. In a tradition that long defined itself by being “not Roman Catholic,” any hint of “Romish popery” set off alarm bells. It’s certainly an uncritical, knee-jerk reaction, so let’s do a little criticism. Our faith is universal, that is, catholic. The entire Church acknowledges certain theological truths — that is the nature of our faith. As some are fond of saying, “We’re catholic but not Roman.” This is neither a pledge of allegiance to the Pope nor an adoption of the Council of Trent but rather an expression of common Christian belief held together across time and space.
Others have reacted to the next clause:
Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.
To paraphrase one pastor, do we really believe that those who don’t hold the faith “inviolable” will go to hell?
And to that point, I would suggest we need to more carefully examine the language of the text. “Perish eternally” may mean a Dante-esque hell of fire and brimstone — or it may be a more annihilationist view of hell. I’m not here to debate the various views of hell. What I would point out, though, is that the early Church wrote much about hell, and we can no more disregard the Athanasian Creed than we can the writings of Saints John Chrysostom or Augustine of Hippo. We have applied thoughtful exegetical methods to Jesus’ words in the Gospels, to the writings of Saint Paul, and to the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. Surely if those interpretive approaches are sufficient for the words of Christ or Sacred Scripture then they will suffice for this Creed.
Still other pastors have objected to the use of faith. These clergypersons have suggested that the Athanasian Creed, with its language of holding certain dogma “inviolable” and “cling[ing] to the catholic faith” result in a sort of works righteousness.
To be sure, there are parts of the Church in which right knowledge is equated with salvation. Take, for instance, the resurgent pseudo-Calvinism of John Piper and Albert Mohler; in their estimation, salvation depends on an ability to comprehend the Gospel — by which they mean a specific view of penal substitutionary atonement. Anyone incapable of understanding that one point of theology is at risk of eternal damnation (and to be sure, these fundamentalists mean eternal conscious torment).
But that’s not how the Church catholic understands faith. Faith is not a human work but a divine work. It is given to us by the Holy Spirit. As Luther wrote in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with [her] gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith, just as [she] calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
(As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is so fond of reminding us, the Small Catechism isn’t just for teenagers. Our clergy would do well to spend a little more time with it as well.)
And here, I’m going to say something controversial, something that would get Luther’s blood boiling: Luther’s writing on faith is exactly what Wesley, Erasmus, and Augustine might call prevenient grace — God’s love which surrounds humanity and allows us to embrace God. Our faith is not our own work, the fruit of mental agreement, but rather a result of our answering the Spirit’s call. (And had Father Martin spent less time crafting insults and lobbing ad hominem attacks, perhaps he would have seen that commonality in his dialog with Erasmus.)
Why is any of this important? Sure, the Athanasian Creed is one of the three ecumenical creeds in the Book of Concord, meaning it has confessional status for Lutherans. Yes, Lutheran pastors vow to teach in accordance with these confessions at our ordinations. And yes, the Athanasian Creed clarifies the mysterious nature of the Trinity. But there’s more to it than that.
The Athanasian Creed is a justice issue. Because it sheds light on who God is, it reveals who we are to be and how we are to live. In recent years, the nature of the Trinity has been twisted and abused to misogynistic ends. I mentioned in my Trinity sermon last year that fundamentalists have put forward a heretical argument of the Trinity, arguing that sons are subordinate to fathers, therefore the Son is eternally and functionally subordinate to the Father. Never mind that this claim is already condemned as heresy. They twist this theology-from-below (reading human relations into the divine relationship) into an argument that wives must be subordinate to husbands and, in more extreme cases (e.g., John Piper, that wolf) that all women should be subordinate to men. The Athanasian Creed argues against that; indeed, it makes clear that not only are all three persons are almighty, “equal in glory, coeternal in glory,” “no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themslves, coeternal and coequal,” and explicitly only “subordinate to the Father in humanity” (i.e., not eternally subordinate).
Bad theology perpetuates abuse. A robustly orthodox theology reveals only the divine truth of God’s self-giving love. Pastors who would seek justice, then, have little choice but to embrace the teachings of the Church, to wrestle with them when necessary, and to steadfastly proclaim our faith from the pulpit and through our actions, in thought, word, and deed.