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Athanasian Creed

Short, clear exposition of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation

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Athanasian Creed, the, one of the symbols of the Faith approved by the Church and given a place in her liturgy, is a short, clear exposition of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, with a passing reference to several other dogmas. Unlike most of the other creeds, or symbols, it deals almost exclusively with these two fundamental truths, which it states and restates in terse and varied forms so as to bring out unmistakably the trinity of Persons in God, and the twofold nature in the one Divine Person of Jesus Christ. At various points the author calls attention to the penalty incurred by those who refuse to accept any of the articles therein set down. The following is the Marquess of Bute’s English translation of the text of the Creed:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is all One, the Glory Equal, the Majesty Co-Eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father Uncreate, the Son Uncreate, and the Holy Ghost Uncreate. The Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible. The Father Eternal, the Son Eternal, and the Holy Ghost Eternal and yet they are not Three Eternals but One Eternal. As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not Three Almighties but One Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not Three Lords but One Lord. For, like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, there be Three Gods or Three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father, and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is One Father, not Three Fathers; one Son, not Three Sons; One Holy Ghost, not Three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Coeternal together, and Coequal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting Salvation, that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.

God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of His mother, born into the world. Perfect God and Perfect Man, of a reasonable Soul and human Flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His Manhood. Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but One Christ. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into Flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by Unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one Man, so God and Man is one Christ. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into Hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.

For the past two hundred years the authorship of this summary of Catholic Faith and the time of its appearance have furnished an interesting problem to ecclesiastical antiquarians. Until the seventeenth century, the “Quicunque vult”, as it is sometimes called, from its opening words, was thought to be the composition of the great Archbishop of Alexandria whose name it bears. In the year 1644, Gerard Voss, in his “De Tribus Symbolis”, gave weighty probability to the opinion that St. Athanasius was not its author. His reasons may be reduced to the two following: first, no early writer of authority speaks of it as the work of this doctor; and secondly, its language and structure point to a Western, rather than to an Alexandrian, origin. Most modern scholars agree in admitting the strength of these reasons, and hence this view is the one generally received today. Whether the Creed can be ascribed to St. Athanasius or not, and most probably it cannot, it undoubtedly owes its existence to Athanasian influences, for the expressions and doctrinal coloring exhibit too marked a correspondence, in subject-matter and in phraseology, with the literature of the latter half of the fourth century and especially with the writings of the saint, to be merely accidental. These internal evidences seem to justify the conclusion that it grew out of several provincial synods, chiefly that of Alexandria, held about the year 361, and presided over by St. Athanasius. It should be said, however, that these arguments have failed to shake the conviction of some Catholic authors, who refuse to give it an earlier origin than the fifth century. An elaborate attempt was made in England, in 1871, by E. C. Ffoulkes to assign the Creed to the ninth century. From a passing remark in a letter written by Alcuin he constructed the following remarkable piece of fiction. The Emperor Charlemagne, he says, wished to consolidate the Western Empire by a religious, as well as a political, separation from the East. To this end he suppressed the Nicene Creed, dear to the Oriental Church, and substituted a formulary composed by Paulinus of Aquileia, with whose approval and that of Alcuin, a distinguished scholar of the time, he ensured its ready acceptance by the people, by affixing to it the name of St. Athanasius. This gratuitous attack upon the reputation of men whom every worthy historian regards as incapable of such a fraud, added to the undoubted proofs of the Creed‘s having been in use long before the ninth century, leaves this theory without any foundation.

Who, then, is the author? The results of recent inquiry make it highly probable that the Creed first saw the light in the fourth century, during the life of the great Eastern patriarch, or shortly after his death. It has been attributed by different writers variously to St. Hilary, to St. Vincent of Lerins, to Eusebius of Vercelli, to Vigilius, and to others. It is not easy to avoid the force of the objections to all of these views, however, as they were men of worldwide reputation, and hence any document, especially one of such importance as a profession of faith, coming from them would have met with almost immediate recognition. Now, no allusions to the authorship of the Creed, and few even to its existence, are to be found in the literature of the Church for over two hundred years after their time. We have referred to a like silence in proof of a non-Athanasian authorship. It seems to be similarly available in the case of any of the great names mentioned above. In the opinion of Father Sidney Smith, S.J., which the evidence just indicated renders plausible, the author of this Creed must have been some obscure bishop or theologian who composed it, in the first instance, for purely local use in some provincial diocese. Not coming from an author of wide reputation, it would have attracted little attention. As it became better known, it would have been more widely adopted, and the compactness and the lucidity of its statements would have contributed to make it highly prized wherever it was known. Then would follow speculation as to its author, and what wonder, if, from the subject-matter of the Creed, which occupied the great Athanasius so much, his name was first affixed to it and, unchallenged, remained.

The “damnatory”, or “minatory clauses”, are the pronouncements contained in the symbol, of the penalties which will follow the rejection of what is there proposed for our belief. It opens with one of them: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith“. The same is expressed in the verses beginning: “Furthermore, it is necessary” etc., and “For the right Faith is” etc., and finally in the concluding verse: “This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved”. Just as the Creed states in a very plain and precise way what the Catholic Faith is concerning the important doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, so it asserts with equal plainness and precision what will happen to those who do not faithfully arid steadfastly believe in these revealed truths. They are but the credal equivalent of Our Lord’s words: “He that believeth not shall be condemned”, and apply, as is evident, only to the Culpable and the willful rejection of Christ’s words and teachings. The absolute necessity of accepting the revealed word of God, under the stern penalties here threatened, is so intolerable to a powerful class in the Anglican church, that frequent attempts have been made to eliminate the Creed from the public service of that Church. The Upper House of Convocation of Canterbury has already affirmed that these clauses, in their prima facie meaning, go beyond what is warranted by Holy Scripture. In view of the words of Our Lord quoted above, there should be nothing startling in the statement of our duty to believe what we know is the testimony and teaching of Christ, nor in the serious sin we commit in willfully refusing to accept it, nor, finally, in the punishments that will be inflicted on those who culpably persist in their sin. It is just this last that the damnatory clauses proclaim. From a dogmatic standpoint, the merely historical question of the authorship of the Creed, or of the time it made its appearance, is of secondary consideration. The fact alone that it is approved by the Church as expressing its mind on the fundamental truths with which it deals, is all we need to know.

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