The Athanasian Creed, Brief Thoughts

The Athanasian Creed is known for its very thorough Trinitarian statement. But the Creed also contains a high Christology. “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.” a The Creed was early attributed to St. Athanasius, but that attribution has since the 17th century been disputed. It is widely accepted now that Athanasius did not pen the Creed, though the Creed reflects much of Athanasius’ Nicene theology.

The Creed begins with these perilous words:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

This harsh expectation for salvation implies, according to Philip Schaff, a precise knowledge of doctrine in order to be saved. Schaff was critical of this language and there have been others who have shared this criticism. For instance, here is a short description from the Creed:

The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.

This, according to some historians, would place too great a demand on the laity. Some have seen this to be a strict demand that cannot be met, except for those grounded in historical Christianity. Indeed there is some truth to this skepticism. A modern look at our landscape would conclude that not only do evangelicals speak very little about the Trinity from the pulpit, but have little knowledge that such a Creed even exists.

My own reading of the Athanasian Creed and its history is more in line with Greg Uttinger who stated:

The Creed, of course, does not require every Christian to fully understand the complexities and implications of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Yes, an ignorant believer may speak in, say, Sabellian terms because he has not been taught better. He may in his ignorance compare the Trinity to an egg or a tree. The Creed is not addressing such ignorance; it is addressing outright rejection of the truth by those who have every reason to know better. b

As Trinity Sunday approaches, let us not be those who speak in ignorance, but those who confess this Creed and live out this Trinitarian faith.


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