originally printed in Cross†Way Summer 2004 No.93
could be excused for forgetting that the Church of England receives
and believes three Creeds.
The third, the Athanasian Creed, has been virtually erased from
most churches and dropped from
modern liturgy books (except of course An English Prayer Book
- Church Society/OUP 1994).
This third creed has faced many problems. First, because, despite
its name it has long been
accepted that it does not seem to have been produced by Athanasius.
Secondly, it is rather too long
and even when all churches used the Book of Common Prayer (BCP)
most did not use the
Athanasian Creed on the 13 Sundays which the rubrics require.
Thirdly, it is too definite in its
pronouncements and finally because of its language of damnation.
This last problem, surrounding the statements made about salvation,
is a major stumbling block and
not simply to theological liberals.
At the beginning, twice in the middle and once at the end the
Creed makes assertions of what it is
necessary to believe in order to be saved. If we assert that
salvation comes through faith in Christ
alone then surely this Creed is going too far. It seems to
be saying that unless you hold particular
views about particular doctrines, such as the Trinity, then
you cannot be saved. This seems to make
our knowledge rather than Christ the grounds of our salvation.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the Creed seems
to require us to accept truths which
are far more detailed than we read straight from the pages
of Scripture. How can we expect to say
that we fully accept and believe what is said in this Creed?
Should we send all enquirers to do a
theology degree in order that they can fully hold this faith?
One solution to this problem is to draw attention to the fact
the Creed does not say that we must
believe this faith, but rather that we must hold it. C.S. Lewis
no less in his introduction to a
translation of Athansius' Incarnation of the Word sought to
defend the statement:
The operative word is keep; not acquire,
or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact,
is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about
those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have
misunderstood and refused to accept him, but of those who having
understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under
the sway of sloth or of fashion or any
other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian
modes of thought. They are a warning
against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief
however brought about, are
necessarily exempt from blame.
The problem with this position is that the Creed does in fact
use the word believe, twice. The
difficult clauses from the BCP translation are as follows:
will be saved : before all things it is necessary that he hold
the Catholick Faith.
He therefore that will be saved : must think thus of the Trinity. Furthermore,
it is necessary to everlasting salvation : that he also believe
rightly the Incarnation of
our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the Catholick Faith : which except a man believe faithfully,
he cannot be saved.
A further argument that has been advanced concerns translation.
Our BCP is based on a Latin text.
The argument is that this particular Latin text was a translation
of a Greek text by people who
thought that the Greek was original (Athanasius wrote in Greek)
whereas it appears that the oldest
form of the Creed was in fact Latin, a different Latin version.
Confused? I have not been able to
confirm the details of this argument. Nevertheless, it does
not help greatly since as Anglicans we
have been bold to affirm that this Creed 'may be proved from
by most certain warrants of holy
Scripture'. Is Article 8 wrong? Should we change it?
The Creed is certainly difficult at first sight but it is worth
reflecting on the nature of saving faith.
Reformed Christians has always distinguished three dimensions
to saving faith; Knowledge
(noticia), Assent (assensus) and Fiducia (faith=trust).
These three aspects of faith are illustrated in John chapter
14. There we find Jesus speaking to His
disciples about who He is. That is, He is speaking about the
facts of our faith, the knowledge that
underlies saving faith. Jesus then asks Philip directly if
he believes this (Jn 14.10). This is when
knowledge becomes personal. I as an individual must own these
facts; I must assent to them. But
Jesus begins the discourse by telling the disciples, do not
be troubled, 'believe also in me'. Some
modern translations do render this 'trust also
in me'. This is where saving faith goes beyond mere
assent, it involves us actually casting ourself on the Saviour,
clinging to Him as the sole grounds of
salvation. It is a relationship of trust and dependence, like
little children (Mk 10.15).
Saving faith is only saving faith when it is owned and turns
into a real relationship of trust and
dependence. But underlying it is a bedrock of facts. Sadly,
there are people who believe it is
possible to have faith without facts. Faith becomes some abstract
virtue, the opposite of doubt, but
they would see the attempt to tie faith to facts as a contradiction.
This is not biblical faith. True
saving faith is based on facts.
The Creeds are concerned primarily with knowledge.
In liturgical useage they are to be assented to
(for which reason the 'I believe' format is far more appropriate)
but they are first and foremost
statements of the grounds of our faith.
The act of believing is simple, it involves assent and trusting
in Christ. But should the facts of our
faith also be plain and simple. Do the Creeds actually create
a barrier to real faith? Consider one of
the key facts with which the Lord Jesus confronted Philip. Do you not believe that I am in the
Father, and the Father in Me?
Jesus said this to you would you assent to it? If not then you
do not truly believe in Him. But if
you do assent to it, can you say that you really understand
it? Certainly you can say the words, you
might even have a decent shot at explaining it, but do you
really understand its depths? We accept
its truth because this is what Jesus actually taught and demonstrated.
But, surely we can do no
more than scratch the surface of what this incredible truth
means, and yet, if this statement were not
true our faith would be futile, built on sand. More importantly
for our purpose if we refuse to
believe and hold onto this truth, no matter how much beyond
our understanding it may be, our
salvation actually crumbles. It was for this reason that Athansius
and others fought hard to uphold
the Nicene Creed and indeed the truths which are reflected
in the Creed that bears Athansius' name.
What does it mean to say Jesus is in the Father and the Father
in Him? The Scriptures reveal and
the church came to accept and to teach that the Father, the
Son and the Holy Spirit are one, and yet
distinct. The first half of the Athanasian Creed sets this
out in elaborate (almost painful) detail. It
is possible to fall from this path in many places.
err by asserting that Christ is not divine. This makes Christianity
idolatrous as many have
accused it of being. But also it means that Jesus is simply
one of us, He is no more able to save than we are. He could be
a good example (but, since in this case he had decieved people,
not be a very good example). He could certainly not be the
suppose you assert that there are three deities; three Gods called
Father, Son and Spirit. (This is Arianism.) If this were so,
how can the Son be the Saviour? The Saviour must be one with
the Father because 'none other could create
anew the likeness of God's image for me except the Image
of the Father, none could render the mortal immortal except
the Lord Jesus Christ who is Life itself'
(Athanasius : The Incarnation 20.1)
Suppose, in contrast, you assert that God is One and that the
Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, are
merely manifestations of the One God. (There are many variations
on this theme including
Monarchianism and Sabellianism.) This view makes a mockery
of the language of scripture and
was condemned in the early Church because it means that God
suffered and died on the cross. But
it also presents us with a God who we cannot truly know because
He is first one thing and then
another. Each encounter is with a character, a persona, not
with the real thing. Moreover, the love
of the Father for the Son becomes simply love of self.
The Athanasian Creed teaches forcefully and at great length
that we worship one God in three
What are we then to conclude about Jesus, if He is truly
divine, the Son of God, in what way is He
human? This is dealt with in the second half of the Athanasian
If Jesus is not human at all then how can He save us? Since
He cannot represent us, He is not the
second Adam. If Jesus is human and divine in what way do the
human and divine come together in
Perhaps the eternal Son takes over and replaces part of the
human being in the union. The chief
theory in this camp being that the divine mind replaced the
human one (Appolinarianism). But the
resulting being is less than human, He is not one of us. How
can the divine mind have truly known
temptation? He cannot save us. Moreover, this view encourages
people to think that the human
mind is not important in salvation.
A further view is that in the incarnation the divine and human
nature become merely one nature
(Eutychianism). However, this means that salvation does not
involve the saving of human nature,
but its destruction. This view rears its head in many forms
of mysticism both ancient and modern.
Through this minefield the Athanasian Creed treads upholding
that there is in Christ 'perfect God,
and perfect Man', 'yet he is not two,
but one Christ.'
The only Saviour
The argument of the Christians in the early centuries was that
all these alternative views were not
just inadequate, but that they were contrary to Scripture and
that they changed the nature and fact of
salvation. Therefore, to assert some of the alternatives is
to actually trust in a being who is not able
to save and, in fact, does not exist.
If the Lord Jesus Christ is not God, the eternal Son of God,
fully man and fully divine, as the
catholic faith asserts Him to be, then He is not able to save
us. To deny and to turn away from this
truth is therefore to deny the very grounds of our salvation
and so we cannot be saved.
Therefore, although the language of the Creed is strong and
perhaps unpalatable to modern
Christians, the Creeds reminds us of truths which we must not
forget; we can only be saved
because our faith rests on a Saviour who is able to save; the
Lord Jesus Christ who is in the Father,
and the Father in Him.