In the ecclesiastical calendar we have just entered the period that, prior to the unfortunate liturgical reforms of the last century, was known as Trinitytide (1) in which each Sunday until the one prior to Advent and the start of the next church year is numbered down from the octave day of Whitsunday, Trinity Sunday. (2) It is traditional, on Trinity Sunday, to recite the third of the ecumenical Creeds, the Athanasian Creed or Quicumque Vult. (3) The other two Creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan are in much more frequent use. The Apostles is traditionally used in the sacrament of baptism and in the Divine Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Vespers). The Nicene is traditionally used with the sacrament of Holy Communion. For many parishes, however, Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in which the Athanasian Creed is ever heard, and for many more, it is not heard even then. Indeed, liberal elements within the Anglican Communion have long sought to have this Creed expunged altogether. The Creed, however, which, whether it was penned by St. Athanasius of Alexandria or not, dates back to the early centuries of the Church in its undivided state, (4) is part of our Catholic orthodoxy and, being affirmed in eighth of the Thirty-Nine Articles is also part of our Protestant orthodoxy. (5)
The unpopularity of the Athanasian Creed among liberals, is not merely due to its affirmation of doctrines they don’t believe in. Liberals don’t believe in the deity, virgin birth, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of which are found in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as well. The difference is that the Athanasian Creed threatens everyone who rejects these truths with damnation. The opening words of the Creed, from which the Latin title is taken, are:
Whosoever will be saved : before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled : without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons : nor dividing the Substance.
After this introduction the Creed proceeds to identify the three Persons of the Trinity, to assert the unity, equal Glory, and co-eternal Majesty of the Godhead, and to make clear, at great length, that while everything that God is – uncreated, incomprehensible, eternal, Almighty, Lord – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each are, we must avoid drawing from this either of the two errors identified in the preface. The Father is not the Son, nor is the Holy Spirit either the Father or the Son – to assert otherwise is to confound the Persons. Yet there are not three Gods, but only One God, nor is that One God a composite of the Three Persons, each possessing a portion of the Godhead, but rather each possesses the Godhead in its entirety, and each is fully God in His Own right – to assert otherwise is to divide the Substance. The section on the Trinity concludes by asserting:
He therefore that will be saved : must think thus of the Trinity.
The Creeds anathemas must, of course, be understood as applying to those who willfully reject these truths, not as requiring a Th.D and/or the ability to articulate and defend these truths as a prerequisite for salvation. (6) Even with this qualification, however, these statements would not be acceptable to those who believe only in God’s love and not His wrath – in other words, who believe in an idol of their own manufacture rather than the One True and Living God. (7)
What the author(s) of the Athanasian Creed understood, but which so many today do not, is that the Trinity is essential to the Christian Gospel of salvation. It is not uncommon to hear the following objection raised to the Gospel: “it cannot be just for God to punish Jesus for our sins so that He can forgive us of them.” This objection can only be formed in a mind that has, in the language of the Athanasian Creed, divided the substance. Which is one reason why St. Athanasius and the other orthodox bishops at the First Council of Nicaea insisted that Jesus’ relationship with the Father be described by the word ὁμοούσιος (of one Substance) rather than ὁμοιούσιος (of similar substance).
We can say of two human beings that they possess the same nature. Indeed, we can say the same thing of two members of any species. In doing so, we are saying that the individual examples of the species, each possess the nature of the species. What we mean by this, however, is that the nature of species is fully duplicated in each member of the species. What orthodoxy asserts of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an even closer relationship than this. Each possesses the full Substance of God, but there can only be one Substance of God with no duplicates, because unity is an essential attribute of God. Therefore the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit possess the same Substance of God. They are three distinct Persons, but are the same One God.
The vicarious Atonement of Jesus Christ which accomplished the reconciliation of a Just and Holy God with sinful and rebellious man must not be understand – and cannot be understood – as involving a third party. It is not that God made an innocent third party pay the penalty for our sins. Rather, it is that He paid that penalty Himself. To do so, He had to become one of us, for it was only as a man that He could pay the penalty. He was fully man as well as fully God, which is why the second section of the Athanasian Creed, which is about the Incarnation, Person, and Work of Jesus Christ, comes with the same set of warnings and anathemas as the first section.
It is a shame that the Quicumque Vult is not used more often than it is. It would go a long way towards clearing up much of the muddled thinking of our own day.
(1) Together with Epiphanytide these make up what is called “Ordinary Time.”
(2) Churches that follow the reformed liturgy count down from Whitsunday/Pentecost instead.
(3) In addition to Trinity Sunday, the Book of Common Prayer (1662) assigned the Athanasian Creed to be used in place of the Apostles’ Creed at Morning Prayer on Christmas Day, Epiphany, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, and the Feast Days of Saints Matthias, John the Baptist, James, Bartholomew Matthew, Simon and Jude, and Andrew. It is also the traditional Creed for the Office of Prime.
(4) St. Athanasius’ authorship was generally accepted until half way through the seventeenth century when it was challenged by Dutch theologian and classical scholar Gerardus J. Vossius. Vossius argued that the lack of attribution of this Creed to St. Athanasius in ancient authors and the language and style of the Creed itself argue that it was written in Latin in the West rather than in Greek in Alexandria. Some attempted to go further and argue that it was written much later, closer to the time of the Great Schism, but these arguments have been much less persuasive than Vossius’ in that there is evidence of the Creed’s having been in use liturgically since the sixth century.
(5) The Thirty-Nine Articles are the Protestant confession of faith of the Anglican Church. Affirmation of small-c catholic orthodoxy – including all three ecumenical Creeds – is a mark of the orthodox Protestant confessions, including the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Lutheran Formula of Concord and the Reformed Second Helvetic and Belgic Confessions. The confessions generally begin with these affirmations before affirming the doctrines of the Reformation. The first eight of the Thirty-Nine Articles, culminating in the affirmation of the Creeds, are the small-c catholic Articles. The Formula of Concord affirms the Creeds as the second article in the Rule and Norm section at the beginning of the Solid Declaration and the Lutheran Church re-emphasized the importance of the Creeds by placing them at the beginning of the Book of Concord. It is part of the ninth Article of the Belgic Confession.
(6) C. S. Lewis argued that they were warnings against apostasy in his preface to the 1944 translation of St. Athanasius’ The Incarnation of the Word of God by A. Religious of C. S. M. V. Walter Hooper retitled the preface “On the Reading of Old Books” for inclusion in his posthumously edited anthology of Lewis’ apologetic writings, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1970)
(7) See my previous essay, “The Wrath of God”, about how the “wrath of God” is not an emotional response to sin but the expression of God’s justice – part of His immutable character – towards sin, and how those who reject the wrath of God – and therefore His justice – ultimately compromise the love of God by reducing it to an empty sentiment.
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