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Athanasian Creed

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Athanasius I

Athanasius of Alexandria was traditionally thought to be the author of the Athanasian Creed, and gives his name to its common title.

The Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult) is a Christian statement of belief, focusing on Trinitarian doctrine and Christology. The Latin name of the creed, Quicumque vult, is taken from the opening words "Whosoever wishes." The Athanasian Creed has been used by Christian churches since the sixth century of the common era. It is the first creed in which the equality of the three persons of the Trinity is explicitly stated, and differs from the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds in the inclusion of anathemas, or condemnations of those who disagree with the Creed.

Widely accepted among Western Christians, including the Roman Catholic Church and liturgical Protestants, the Athanasian Creed has been used in public worship more and more infrequently in recent years. The creed only gained limited and occasional acceptance among Eastern Christians.

Origin

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-basic

The Shield of the Trinity, a visual representation of the doctrine of the Trinity, derived from the Athanasian Creed. The Latin reads: "The Father is God, The Son is God, The Holy Spirit is God; God is the Father, God is the Son, God is the Holy Spirit; The Father is not the Son, The Son is not the Father, The Father is not the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit is not the Father, The Son is not the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit is not the Son."

A medieval account credited Athanasius of Alexandria, the famous defender of Nicene theology, as the author of the Creed. According to this account, Athanasius composed it during his exile in Rome, and presented it to Pope Julius as a witness to his orthodoxy.[1] This traditional attribution of the Creed to Athanasius was first called into question in 1642 by Dutch theologian G.J. Voss,[2] and it has since been widely accepted by modern scholars that the creed was not authored by Athanasius.[3] Athanasius' name seems to have become attached to the creed as a sign of its strong declaration of Trinitarian faith. The reasoning for rejecting Athanasius as the author usually relies on a combination of the following:

  1. The creed originally was most likely written in Latin, while Athanasius composed in Greek.
  2. Neither Athanasius nor his contemporaries ever mention the Creed.
  3. It is not mentioned in any records of the ecumenical councils.
  4. It appears to address theological concerns that developed after Athanasius died.
  5. It was most widely circulated among Western Christians.[4][5]

The use of the Creed in a sermon by Caesarius of Arles, as well as a theological resemblance to works by Vincent of Lérins, point to Southern Gaul as its origin.[6] The most likely time frame is in the late fifth or early sixth century of the common era - at least 100 years after Athanasius. The theology of the creed is firmly rooted in the Augustinian tradition, using exact terminology of Augustine's On the Trinity (published 415 c.e.).[7] In the late 19th century, there was a great deal of speculation about who might have authored the creed, with suggestions including Ambrose of Milan, Venantius Fortunatus, and Hilary of Poitiers, among others. [8] The 1940 discovery of a lost work by Vincent of Lérins, which bears a striking similarity to much of the language of the Athanasian Creed, have led many to conclude that the creed originated either with Vincent or with his students.[9] For example, in the authorative modern monograph about the creed, J.N.D. Kelly asserts that Vincent of Lérin was not its author, but that it may have come from the same milieu, namely the area of Lérins in southern Gaul.[10] The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Athanasian Creed date from the late 8th century.[11]

Content

The Athanasian Creed is usually divided into two sections: lines 1-28 addressing the doctrine of the Trinity, and lines 29-44 addressing the doctrine of Christology.[12] Enumerating the three persons of the Trinity (i.e., Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), the first section of the creed ascribes the divine attributes to each individually. Thus, each person of the Trinity is described as uncreated (increatus), limitless (Immensus), eternal (æternus), and omnipotent (omnipotens).[13]. While ascribing the divine attributes and divinity to each person of the Trinity, thus avoiding subordinationism, the first half of the Athanasian Creed also stresses the unity of the three persons in the one Godhead, thus avoiding a theology of tritheism. Furthermore, although one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other. For the Father is neither made nor begotten; the Son is not made but is begotten from the Father; the Holy Spirit is neither made nor begotten but proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque).

Didactic as its content appears to contemporary readers, its opening sets out the essential principle that the Catholic faith does not consist in the first place in assent to propositions, but 'that we worship One God in Trinity, and Trinity and Unity'. All else flows from that orientation.

Its teaching about Jesus Christ is more detailed than in the Nicene Creed, and reflects the teaching of the Council of Ephesus (431) and the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451). The 'Athanasian' Creed boldly uses the key Nicene term homoousios ('one substance', 'one in Being') not only with respect to the relation of the Son to the Father according to his divine nature, but that the Son is homoousios with his mother Mary, according to his human nature.

The Creed's wording thus excludes not only Sabellianism and Arianism, but the Christological heresies of Nestorianism and Eutychianism. A need for a clear confession against Arianism arose in western Europe when the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, who had Arian beliefs, invaded at the beginning of the 5th century.

The final section of this Creed also moved beyond the Nicene (and Apostles') Creeds in making negative statements about the people's fate: "They that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire." This caused considerable debate in England in the mid-nineteenth century, centred around the teaching of Frederic Denison Maurice.

Uses

Trinity knight shield

Detail of a manuscript illustration depicting a knight carrying the "Shield of the Trinity."

Composed of 44 rhythmic lines, the Athanasian Creed appears to have been intended as a liturgical document - that is, the original purpose of the creed was to be spoken or sung as a part of worship.[14] The creed itself uses the language of public worship, speaking of the worship of God rather than the language of belief ("Now this is the catholic faith: We worship one God"). Among medieval European Christian churches, this creed was recited following the Sunday sermon or at the Sunday Office of Prime.[15] The creed was often set to music and used in the place of a Psalm.

Early Protestants inherited the late medieval devotion to the Athanasian Creed, and it was considered to be authoritative in many Protestant churches. The statements of Protestant belief (confessional documents) of various Reformers commend the Athanasian Creed to their followers, including the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Bohemian Confession and the Thirty-nine Articles. [16] Among modern Lutheran and Reformed churches adherence to the Athanasian Creed is prescribed by the earlier confessional documents, but the creed does not receive much attention outside of occasional use - especially on Trinity Sunday.[17][18]

In Reformed circles, it is included (for example) in the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia's Book of Forms (publ. 1991). That said, it is rarely recited in public worship.

In the successive Books of Common Prayer of the reformed Church of England from 1549 to 1662, its recitation was provided for on 19 occasions each year, a practice which continued until the nineteenth century, when vigorous controversy regarding its statement about 'eternal damnation' saw its use gradually decline. It remains one of the three Creeds approved in the Thirty-Nine Articles, and is printed in several current Anglican prayer books (eg A Prayer Book for Australia (1995)). As with Roman Catholic practice, its use is now generally only on Trinity Sunday or its octave.

In Roman Catholic churches, it was traditionally said at Prime on Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost, except when a Double feast or day within an octave occurred, and on Trinity Sunday. In the 1960 reforms, it was reduced to once a year on Trinity Sunday. It has been effectively dropped from the Catholic liturgy since Vatican II, although it is retained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It is however maintained in the Forma Extraordinaria, per the decree Summorum Pontificum, and also in the rite of exorcism, both in the Forma Ordinaria and the Forma Extraordinaria of the Roman Rite.

In Lutheranism, the Athanasian Creed is -- along with the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds -- one of the three ecumenical creeds placed at the beginning of the 1580 Book of Concord, the historic collection of authoritative doctrinal statements (confessions) of the Lutheran church. It is still used in the liturgy on Trinity Sunday.

A common visualisation of the first half of the Creed is the Shield of the Trinity.

References

  1. Phillip Schaff, The Creeds of Chistendom, (Harper Brothers, 1877) 1.4.5; available online (retrived May 4, 2009).
  2. Michael O'Carroll, "Athanasian Creed" in Trinitas, (Wilmington, Delaware:Michael Glazier, 1987).
  3. Frederick W. Norris, "Athanasian Creed" in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd edition, ed. Everett Fergusen (New York:Garland, 1997).
  4. Concordia Triglotta, Historical Introduction, St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921, p. 13.
  5. Michael O'Carroll, "Athanasian Creed" in Trinitas, (Wilmington, Delaware:Michael Glazier, 1987).
  6. Frederick W. Norris, "Athanasian Creed" in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd edition, ed. Everett Fergusen (New York:Garland, 1997).
  7. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Charles Scribner, 1910) available online (retrieved May 7, 2009).
  8. See Samuel Macauley Jackson, et. al. eds., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion, (1914) "Athanasian Creed," (online) for examples of various theories of authorship.
  9. Athanasian Creed. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 07, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/40585/Athanasian-Creed.
  10. J.N.D. Kelly, The Athanasian Creed, NY: Harper and Row, 1964.
  11. Celia Chazelle (October 1997). "Archbishops Ebo and Hincmar of Reims and the Utrecht Psalter". Speculum 72 (4): 1056. 
  12. Philip Schaff uses this classic division in his consideration of the Creed: The Creeds of Chistendom, (Harper Brothers, 1877) 1.4.5; available online (retrived May 4, 2009).
  13. Athanasian Creed, lines 8,9,10, and 13, respectively. See the side by side English and Latin in vol. 2 of Shaff's The Creeds of Christendom, [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds2.iv.i.iv.html online)
  14. Phillip Schaff, The Creeds of Chistendom, (Harper Brothers, 1877) 1.4.5; available online (retrived May 4, 2009).
  15. Philip Pfatteicher, Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship, (Minneapolis:Augsburg, 1990), p. 444
  16. Augusburg Confession, art. 1 references the Nicene Creed, but uses the language of the Athanasian: e.g., "There are three persons, coeternal and of the same essence and power." Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Summary 2. Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 11. Belgic Confession, Article 9. 39 Articles, article 8. Bohemian Confession (1575), Article of faith 2.
  17. For example: the congregational constitution guidelines (pdf) for the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, and the beliefs of the Reformed Church in America (both retrieved May 6, 2009)
  18. Philip Pfatteicher, Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship, (Minneapolis:Augsburg, 1990), p. 444

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