At Jesmond Parish Church over the last three months on Sunday Mornings we have been thinking about the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. We ended the series of sermons last week with Article VIII that is entitled Of the Three Creeds and which says this:
"The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture."
Of those three creeds, the Athanasian Creed is unique to the Church of England. This, says one commentator on the Articles, " … was probably due to the desire of our Reformers to emphasize the importance of instruction and the necessity of an intelligent, clear, full faith. Up to that time [of the Reformation] the Creed had been used as a Canticle [a said or sung doxological hymn or psalm]."
Be that as it may, it is to have its place as a Creed – a confession of faith – in the Church of England; and according to the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer the Athanasian Creed is to be said, among other times, at Easter. However, that tradition is seldom kept for two reasons: one, it is very long, and, two, it is capable of being misunderstood if without explanation. So for these reasons, occasionally I write about it and provide a copy for reading.
But how did these creeds come about in the first place?
"Two thousand years ago in Israel, the man who is God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, led his followers into a life-giving relationship with himself and his divine Father, and was executed for being a revolutionary. Risen from the dead, he charged his followers to make disciples throughout the whole world, promising that he would be with them and equipping them for their mission with his Holy Spirit. The New Testament presents the essential witness and teaching of Jesus' first emissaries, the Apostles, who proclaimed his truth with his authority. The faith of Christians today, as in every age, is shaped and defined by this apostolic account of Jesus Christ. Within a century of Jesus' earthly ministry, Christian congregations could be found from Spain to Persia, and from North Africa to Britain. By this time, the catechumenate for would-be Christians (from the Greek katecheo meaning "I instruct") – a period of 1-3 years' instruction leading to baptism at Easter - had become established Christian practice. This pattern of Christian disciple-making continued for some centuries before falling into disuse, as nominal Christianity increasingly became a universal aspect of Western culture."
So begins the Introduction to the new Anglican Catechism of ACNA (the Anglican Church in North America), To Be A Christian; for the Creeds would have all played a part in that catechizing. Those early Christians were facing intellectual challenges from the pagan and other-faith worlds, as Christians down the centuries, including today, have always had to face. But when the fundamentals of the faith were under attack on four key occasions in the first five centuries, the world-wide leaders of the Church met to pray, study and discuss the problems. They wanted to come to a common mind that was in line with the Apostolic teaching of the Bible. And as a result of those meetings or "Councils", we have the Creeds expressing that common mind.
The first of those Councils was at Nicea in 325 and repudiated Arianism – a heresy that denied Christ was truly God incarnate (come in the flesh). The second was at Constantinople in 381 that confirmed Nicea on the person of Christ (as is reflected in the Nicean Creed we say at Holy Communion). The third Council was at Ephesus in 431. That repudiated Nestorius' view; and used the term 'God-bearer' not to deify Mary the mother of Jesus, but to indicate that the baby born was truly God as well as truly man; he was not, as Nestorians said, a man who somehow had a divine alter ego, so almost two persons - Jesus the Man and Christ the divine.
The fourth Council was at Chalcedon in 451. This made clear that both the opposite error, namely that Christ was more divine than human and Nestorius' view were wrong! The Council at Chalcedon then saw the forging of the great consensus of believers not only on the person and nature of Jesus Christ (one person in two natures) but also on the divine Trinity. And the Athanasian Creed expresses that consensus.
It needs to be noted, therefore, that the Athanasian Creed's doctrines are statements that follow on from the facts and the mystery of God rather than try to explain them (so we have to hold in tension facts that are beyond our fiinite understanding). This Creed forms a boundary or fence around the truth. Its teaching is important in what is being ruled out. For example, the Creed rules out Tritheism (that there are three gods), Unitarianism (that there is one God who is not three and Christ not divine) and Modalism (that the one God simply plays three roles), as well as the heresies of Nestorius and his extreme opponents.
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."
On the Creed's first sentence, C.S.Lewis writes:
"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."
And, also remember, with regard to the last sentence, "believing" is not the same as "imagining or understanding."