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The Athanasian Creed

Here is a wonderful example of a chanted Athanasian Creed:


Introduction

Once a year Trinity Sunday comes around to mark the beginning of Trinitytide, that long chunk of time where green is worn and the work of the Holy Spirit in the growth of the church is celebrated which stretches all the way until Advent. On this Sunday there is a unique liturgical change. The creed changes from something short and pithy to a long and complicated creed filled with complicated terms and harsh phrases. This "new creed" is called the Quicunque Vult, or "Athanasian Creed."

This creed has a long history within the Anglican Liturgical and theological heritage. Traditionally, Anglicans recited this creed not just once a year on Trinity Sunday, but we recited it 19 times in Morning Prayer and the Eucharistic Liturgy. Further, in the Roman church, there was the practice, before the revisions of Pope Pius X in 1911, of reciting the Creed every Sunday at the canonical hour of Prime.

Today, unfortunately, the creed is little known and little used. It truly is a hidden gem of Trinitarian and Incarnational theology. So, to aid in your reflection on this ancient creed of the church this Trinity Sunday (and Lord-willing to spur you to a greater use of it) I will here provide an explanation of it that I pray will be helpful to all. This will be useful not only for Anglicans reciting the Athanasian Creed this Trinity Sunday, but it will be an aid to all those wishing to dip their toes into the water of Trinitarian and Incarnational doctrine.


The Athanasian Creed

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 Spirit.

(6) But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit 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 Spirit.

(8) The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Spirit uncreate.

(9) The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.

(10) The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.

(11) And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.

(12) As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensibles, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.

(13) So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit 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 Spirit 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 Spirit Lord;

(18) And yet they are 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 Spirit 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 Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

(25) And in this Trinity none is afore, nor after another; none is greater, or less than another.

(26) But the whole three persons are co-eternal, 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 must 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 made 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 is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.

(35) One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God.

(36) One altogether, not by the 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 the Father, God Almighty;

(40) From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

(41) At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;

(42) And shall give account of 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.

An Outline

In Order to aid in the understanding of the creed, and to provide points of division for explanation, below is an outline that I wrote up of the Creed:

An Exhortation to Faithfulness (v. 1-2)

This work begins with what is a sort of "exhortation" or what could be phrased as a "warning." It says that whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. This sort of bluntness can be shocking to modern ears who are washed in a culture of pluralism and crypto-universalism. To make such a judgment on the state of another soul is considered inappropriate and even immoral within the church of our day, to say that except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly is scandalous in our context.

Historically, this caused quite a stir within the Anglican Communion. Many in the 19th-century did not like the language of damnation within the creed, regarding it as too harsh. Unfortunately, their impiety won out and the Athanasian Creed was "dethroned" liturgically by the 19th century. If you look within the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, for example, the Athanasian Creed is not even printed within it.

There was quite the push back to this, including those within the Oxford Movement. They even dedicated a tract to this question in the Tracts for the Times: Richard Nelson II: The Athanasian Creed. Even though the modernists ultimately won out, "let God be true and every man a liar." For, the damnatory clauses within the Athanasian Creed are in line with scripture (See: 1 John 2:22-23) and the ancient tradition of the church catholic as is seen in the universal reception of the Athanasian Creed (even being used by the east minus the filioque).


The Trinity: A Summary of the Doctrine (v. 3-6)

This section explains the Catholic Faith which is held to be necessary in the first two verses of the Creed. Note that "catholic" is not identified with "Roman Catholic," but is a word that refers to the faith of the universal church as enshrined in the ancient councils and creeds of the church.

There are two parts to this Catholic Faith, first that we worship one God in Trinity, and second, Trinity in Unity. This sets before our eyes the mystery of the oneness and threeness of the Holy Trinity, that simultaneously as we contemplate, worship, and confess the unity of God, that the "Lord is One," so too do we confess that the "Lord is three" in different respects, yet always in unity.

This idea is expressed by St. Gregory of Nazianzus

"No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light."

Then, the two chief errors made in the doctrine of the Trinity are set forth. The first error is that of confounding the persons and the second error is that of dividing the substance. The first error refers to those who "confuse" or "mix" or "refuse to distinguish between" the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This would be a heresy like Modalism which believes that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three modes of being "changing into" one another.

The second error refers to those who turn the "distinction" into a "division" positing not only a difference in personal subsistence between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost but a difference of substance between the three. An example of this heresy is that of Arianism which affirmed that the Son is ὁμοιούσιον (homoiousian) with the Father, that is, He is of a like substance with the Father, yet not of the same substance. This is a dividing of substance.

Then, the Athanasian Creed gives a summary of the sense in which we say one and the sense in which we say three. First, in regard to the oneness of God, there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son and another of the Holy Spirit. A person is an "incommunicable, individualized subsistence of a rational nature." This threeness is distinguished from that they are all one. This "oneness" is in that of substance/essence/being. The Trinity is one substance that subsists in three incommunicable, individualized, rational natures.

I will now illustrate this relational between personal threeness and substantial oneness (for a defense of Trinitarian Analogies see my article, Can we use Trinitarian Analogies?). Two illustrations used by St. Augustine (de Fid. et Symb., 17.) that express this idea are as follows. First, it is as a root, tree, and fruit, there are three "parts" of the whole tree, the tree proceeding from the root, and the fruit from the tree. Second, it is as a fountain, stream, and lake, which all share the same substance of water.

Although these give us a glimpse of the oneness and threeness of the Trinity, their limits must be demarcated. For, it must not be used in the sense of a 1-to-1 impress of the true nature of the Trinity, but just an analogy highlighting certain features of it. Where it falls short is that it makes too strict of a division between the three persons, tempting towards tritheism. To remedy this, we must realize that unlike the analogies given there is an interpenetration of the entire substance in each person, a perichoresis, that is, "dancing around" of the persons. Where the Father is, there is the Son and the Holy Ghost.


The Unity of the Trinity: Attributes (v. 7-12)

In this section, the Creed begins to go into what exactly we mean by "one substance/essence/being." It describes this oneness as follows, such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. Here, their unity is loosely defined, it may be rightly asked "well, how then are they one?" This could be taken in a number of senses, a unity of Being, of substance, of genus (category), of person.

It goes on to tell us precisely the sense it defines the Trinity's unity in by saying The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Spirit uncreate. It is saying that the Trinity's unity can be found in a unity of attributes. It speaks of three attributes, first that they are uncreate, second that they are incomprehensible, and third that they are eternal. These three attributes are not accidental. These three attributes are explicitly incommunicable, that is, that they are attributes which only exist in an absolute sense in God. This is to counter the Arian claims that there was a time before the Son (eternal) and that the Son is the first creature of the Father (uncreate).

Then, the Creed becomes more explicit in the unity of the Trinity. That they are not three eternals, uncreatd, incomprehensibles, but are one eternal, uncreated, incomprehensible. This may sound confusing, but what it is saying is that their set of attributes is not only the same in the sense that I and you may have the same set of attributes (equality), but they truly have one set of attributes (substantial identity). The same eternality that the Father has, is the exact same eternality that the Son and Spirit have, not an equal eternity, but the same eternity, they all share the fullness of one eternity. They have an identical substance. They are truly one in that sense.

The Unity of the Trinity: Titles (v. 13-20)

Next, the Creed goes into the titles, being, "whatness" of God and how that is one. In the previous section, we saw that they are unified in those specific attributes which may be predicated to each person of the Godhead, but now we see that their unity is on a more fundamental level of the oneness which is of the specific being.

There are many titles that we can give God, and the Creed specifically mentions three: Almighty, God, and Lord. It specifically gives these titles to each of the three persons of the Godhead: the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty, and the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord. Each individual person is given that title, every person by himself to be God and Lord.

But, on the other hand, while this title is given to each individually, they are not given separately. They all share the title of one almighty, God, and Lord. It is expressed thus in the Creed: And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty...they are not three Gods, but one God...they are not three Lords, but one Lord.

The Trinity of the Unity: The Processions of the Godhead (v. 21-23)

Thus far, the Creed has been burning in into our minds that God is one, that within the Godhead, the three persons are substantially unified. Now, in this section, the Trinity of this Unity is explicated. The question may arise in the reader's mind, "Well, if the persons of the Trinity are identical in respect of substance, how then are they distinguished?" This section gives us the answer the this question, that is, in their processions and relations. Now, it must be said before we begin that these processions are eternal, they are not in time, this is the eternal relations between the three subsistences of the one substance. These "origins" ought not to enter our minds as "how were they created?," but as "how are they related?"

First, the Father's relation. The Father's relation is described thus, made of none, neither created nor begotten. The first two made of none and neither created is going to be something shared by the Holy Ghost and the Son, but the unique personal attribute of the Father can be expressed in two ways nor begotten in relation to himself, or as Monarch/Source in relation to the Holy Spirit and Son (although this is not explicitly mentioned in the Creed). The Anglican Theologian, The Rev. Dr. Francis J. Hall describes the particulars of this doctrine thus,

"In the first place, the principle of origin in the Trinity is absolutely one, and is seated in the Father...The other divine Persons proceed from Him, but He proceeds from none. Each divine Person is Θεός [God], for each possesses the divine essence, and without confusion contains the other two; but the Father is Αὐτόθεος [God of Himself]...the second particular, that neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit is Αὐτόθεος, for each derives His essence—His being God—from the Father...their being God is due to their proceeding from the Father; but they are as truly God as is the Father, because the very essence of the Father is fully and eternally Theirs. They are coeternal and co-equal with God the Father." (Francis J. Hall, The Trinity, Dogmatic Theology, 239)

Second, the Son. This line begins with describing the Son as of the Father alone. We ought not to understand this in the sense of creation, for the next phrase denies this when it states not made nor created. How then is the Son of the Father? The next phrase answers this question but begotten.

This language of begotten is not of our common, everyday language. Usually, the only setting in which we hear it is in church, for instance in John 3:16, Christ is described as the "Only begotten Son." The word begotten strictly refers to the relations of paternity and filiation, that is, fatherhood and sonship. It is the relation which a Son (begotten) has to a Father (begetter). A Father begets a Son.

The question may arise in your minds, "well, if the Father begets the Son, would that not make the Father prior to the Son in time?" God forbid! This was an argument that was used by the Arian heretics in the 4th century to overthrow the doctrine of the equality and eternality of the Father and the Son.

To understand how we can say that the Son is begotten, we must understand something called "analogous language." When we use two words that are the same they can have three types of relations to one another. The first is that of equivocal, that is, the words sound the same, but have no relation to one another, an example of this is in the word "address." Address can either refer to a location where someone lives or can be a verb wherein someone "addresses" someone. These two terms have no relation to one another, but merely sound alike. Second, we have univocal language, where identical realities are referred to. An example of this is in the word "white." A white house and a white mouse are both referring to the same quality inherent in the subject "whiteness." Now, there is a third category of language between the two, that is, analogical language. Take the word "paper" for instance. If I say that someone has "paper hands," I refer to someone who sells stocks quickly without sticking it out. There is some relation between "paper" (its weakness) and their "hands" (weakness). Paper is not being used univocally, because I am only referring to a certain aspect of "paperness," that is, its weakness.

You may be wondering at this point how this helps, but the implications are immense. When we speak of begotten we are only using it in an analogous sense, we are not carrying along all the baggage that comes along with the term (such as temporal concerns), but are highlighting a certain aspect which human begottenness and Divine begottenness share. That is, they share a relation of origin. Just as a son is of their father as to their origin, so also is God the Son "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God."

Third, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit as to origin is of the Father and of the Son. The next sentence qualifies this, with three denies, the first two, neither made, nor created, is shared with the description of the Son, but the last one distinguishes him from the Son, that is, nor begotten. Rather than the specific procession which is described as begotten, the Spirit is proceeding. This is often described as "spiration" or "breathing." The Spirit in the eternal relations of the Trinity is breathed out from the Father through the Son. Since, as we have seen, the Father is the sole source, principle, and monarch of the Godhead, therefore the Spirit is breathed out from Him, and the Son participates in that it is through Him.

To illustrate these relations we may use the same illustration as given above. There is an upper pool, a river, and a lower pool, which all existed from eternity. From the upper pool (the Father) flows water (substance) to the river (the Son), and from the upper pool, through the river flows water to the lower pool (the Spirit). Again, do not take this analogy too far, heed my warning above.




The Conclusion Drawn (v. 24-26)

In this section the conclusion of the previous section is drawn out, that is, that there is one Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and not three Fathers, Sons, Holy Spirits. The purpose behind looking at the processions in God is to show that fact, that even though they are one substance, they are still truly three, distinct persons, set apart by their various relations to one another.

Then, the Creed reiterates the section about the Unity of the Trinity to make sure that we know that even though they are distinct, that they are still equal. It denies that there is any before or after, greater or lesser. It affirms that they are co-eternal and co-equal. This is important to recognize when specifically looking at the processions of God. The reason is that using much langauge as "procession" or "monarch" can give the idea of a procession in time or of an inequality amoungst the persons, yet the Creed warns us of this danger and rebukes it.

A Conclusion to the Section on the Trinity (v. 27-28)

The section on the Trinity concludes by reiterating two things that have been stated before. First, it draws our minds to contemplate both the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity, that is, we must before all things keep both aspects of Trinitarian doctrine in mind. The Oneness and the Threeness cannot be seen apart from one another, but come together. Then, it reiterates that He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. It gives a final impression on our minds of the solemnity of doctrine presented and its necessity.



A Summary of the Incarnation (v. 29-30)

For a more in depth view of this topic see my article on the subject: Impassible Suffering: The Suffering of Christ in St. Cyril of Alexandria


In verse 29 there is a conscious shift from the discussion and explanation of Trinitarian doctrine to a discussion of the person of Christ with the word furthermore. It begins just as the previous section on the Trinity began, that is, with saying that it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It then gives the bare bones definition of the doctrine which we must believe and confess, that is, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man. What follows in the remainder of the Creed is an explanation of this fundamental fact that Christ is God and man.

The Twoness of Christ (v. 31-33)

The Creed first focuses on the "twoness" of Christ. That is, His Godhead and manhood. First, it focuses on His Godhead. That is, that He is God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds, Christ has the substance of Godhead. That is, He has the fullness of the attributes of God, and His Divine "origin" (to speak analogously) is of the Father in eternity begotten before all worlds. This is set in contrast to his manhood where He is made of the substance of His mother, born in the world. Notice the parallelism set here begotten vs. made, of the Father vs. of His mother, before the worlds vs. in the world. That one Son who experienced the former is said in time to experience the latter.

These two natures (substances) are then set in contrast to one another. First, He is perfect God, that is, that He has the fullness of the attributes which He had as God. Then he is described as perfect man, and two things are spoken of as being true in this estate. First, he has a reasonable soul, this is added to refute the heresy of Apollinarianism, the denial of a true soul to Christ. Second, He is described as having human flesh, that is, that he has a real human body in opposition to Docetism who denied his true human flesh.

Then, it speaks of His relation to the Father in this state of true manhood and true Godhead. In this the idea of "dual predication" is introduced, that is, that we may describe Christ's one perfect in two different manners according to those two united susbtances (natures) that He has. First, in regard to His Divine nature He is still equal to the Father as touching His Godhead. Second, in regard to His Human nature He is inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.

The Oneness of Christ (v. 34-37)

The Creed then switches over from a focus on the Twoness of Christ to a focus on the Oneness of Christ. It says Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ. When we speak of this oneness we can speak of it in two ways, first a oneness of person (which will be spoken of later in the Creed) and a oneness of subjectivity. The oneness of subjectivity is an important topic to focus on here. When we speak of a single "subject" we are saying that when we speak of dual-predication as before we are not saying "this happens to Christ's human nature" or "that happens to Christ's Divine nature," rather, we say "this happened to the single person of Christ ACCORDING TO His Divine or human nature." When we predicate different things to Christ according to His natures we are predicating them to one Christ. Therefore, we may truly say such things as "God died" or "God was born," and this is the basis for calling the Blessed Virgin Mary the θεοτοκος (mother of God).

Next, it speaks of the particular way in which this union of natures happened and continues to be in the one person of Christ. The Creed makes two denials about this union. First, it says that He is One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh. This denies that Christ stopped being God in the incarnation, that when "the Word became flesh," it is not speaking of a transformation of one state into another, but a taking upon of another nature, that is flesh. Second, it denies a confusion of substance. That is, Christ retains two true and distinction natures, Divine and Human, not one mixed nature of Divinized man. So, Christ, according to His human nature still has the limitations of manhood.

Then, two affirmations are made. First, that this union is achieved by taking of the manhood into God. The way that the incarnation happened is thus, first we have the second person of the Trinity. The second person of the Trinity took upon Himself a human nature alongside his pre-existent Divine nature, with the human nature being "attached" to the Divine person (the fancy word for this is enhypostasis). Therefore, we do NOT say that Christ is a human person (that would be the heresy of Nestorianism), rather we say that Christ is a Divine person with a human nature. The state of existence is then described, that this is by unity of person. The "twoness" of Christ is found in his two distinct natures, the "oneness" is found in the fact that He is one Divine person.

To top it off there is an illustration given by the Athanasian Creed which reflects the writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria. That is, as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ. When we think of this ineffable mystery we ought to think about it as ANALAGOUS to the union yet distinction we have between our soul and flesh.


Conclusion

In conclusion, St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his compendium theologicae, "Faith is a certain foretaste of that knowledge which is to make us happy in the life to come…Our Lord has taught us that this beatific knowledge has to do with two truths: namely, the divinity of the Trinity and the humanity of Christ. That is why, addressing the Father, he says: This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. All the knowledge imparted by faith revolves around these two points, the divinity of the Trinity and the humanity of Christ. This should cause us no surprise, for the humanity of Christ is the way by which we come to the divinity. Therefore, while we are still wayfarers, we ought to know the way leading to our goal. In the heavenly fatherland adequate thanks would not be rendered to God if men had no knowledge of the way by which they are saved. This is the meaning of our Lord’s words to his disciples: Where I am going you know, and the way you know." Therefore, meditate on these truths of Trinity and Incarnation, for this is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

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