Church history has left us with three ecumenical creeds recited by the communion of saints throughout the centuries. While most are familiar with the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed often remains shrouded in obscurity. As the longest, most repetitive, and least used, it’s no wonder it’s not a fan-favorite among churchgoers! Our pious sensibilities can only handle so much tedium, especially if we don’t know why we are committing ourselves in the first place. This is probably why the only time some churches read the Athanasian Creed is once a year on Trinity Sunday (which we just celebrated two Sundays ago). Not knowing why or what we are doing in church is a quick way to breed contempt for even the best practices. So why the Athanasian Creed? And what is it?
Contrary to what we might assume, Athanasius didn’t actually write the creed that bears his name. In fact, the true author remains unknown. What is known is that it originated in southern Gaul (modern-day France) in the late 5th century. This places its writing a century and a half after Athanasius died and on the other side of the Mediterranean. The earliest documentation of the Athanasian Creed comes from the sermons of Caesarius of Arles who preached the basics of Christianity using the creed as a foundation.
Contrary to what we might assume, Athanasius didn’t actually write the creed that bears his name.
Over the next 300 years, the creed would experience a great deal of popularity, showing up in sermons, psalters, and the monastic morning prayer services. It held such prominence in the Church by the time of the Reformation that it was considered equal to the Apostles and Nicene Creeds as a confession of the true, catholic and apostolic faith. For this reason, the Athanasian Creed makes an appearance in the Lutheran Confessions alongside the other two to demonstrate the unity of the reformers with the historic and catholic faith.
On its own terms, the Creed of Athanasius is a reaffirmation and clarification of all the early Church councils and the Nicene Creed which fought tooth and nail to preserve the orthodox faith against heretics like Nestorius, Arius, Eutyches, Apollinaris, Sabellius, Macedonius, and Paul of Samosata. Athanasius may not have written it, but its words encapsulate everything he stood for. The two primary targets of the Athanasian Creed are the heresies promoted by Nestorius and Arius.
Arius could easily be considered the godfather of all heretics with most heresies tracing back to him. He is known for denying Christ’s divinity in order to maintain the oneness of God over and against the threeness of God. Contrary to Scripture, Arius claimed that Christ was a creature of God and not God Himself. While He shared in god-like qualities, the Father and the Son did not share the same “substance” to use the language of the creed. For this reason, the first half of the Athanasian Creed is devoted to expressing the oneness of God according to His “substance” and the threeness of God according to His “persons.” You have to feel a measure of sympathy for the creedal authors because they were given the monumental task of clearly expressing one of the greatest mysteries in the whole Bible! God is one, and God is three.
This creed is no mere squabble over words. Salvation is on the line.
The last half of the Athanasian Creed is aimed squarely at Nestorius who denied that the second person of the Trinity is true God and true man united in the person of Jesus. Nestorius wanted to keep Christ’s divinity as far away from His humanity as possible because of the scandal that divinity would have anything to do with humanity. It’s widely held even today that the finite cannot contain the infinite. The Old Testament emphasis on the separation of clean and unclean, the sacred and the profane also presents a problem for Nestorius when it comes to Jesus’ divine and human natures. But as the creed says, it is not that divinity was transformed into humanity, but that God took up humanity into himself. As the Servant Song of Isaiah 53 beautifully states, He carries our humanity and our infirmity in order to redeem humanity and conquer our infirmity.
For a history lesson this all seems well and good, but what about for today? Why celebrate Trinity Sunday and why recite a creed that’s over 1500 years old? Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself or, as theologians have often said, every heresy was thought up in the first 300 years of Christendom. Since the early days of the church, we have simply been recycling, rebranding, and repeating the same old errors. The close of the Athanasian Creed also speaks volumes as to why we ought to hold fast to this confession: “This is the catholic faith; a person cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” This creed is no mere squabble over words. Salvation is on the line. God has put His word into your ears so that you would believe it in your heart and confess it with your mouth. It is then, by God’s grace alone, through this faith alone, in Christ alone, we are saved, and so we confess.