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The Creed Of Saint Athanasius

A learned Professor once attacked the use of Creeds in Worship with the
bitter words, that "they combine the maximum of offence with the
minimum of worship." This utterance might be discussed by comparing
the use of a Creed in the worship of God, with the statement of the
merits and action of a great man.

I have often heard people praise the Professor whose words we have just
quoted. Suppose that a number of people were assembled together, and
one in the name of the rest were to speak to the Professor of his great
talents, his immense usefulness, his upright life, his loveable
character, his services to education, we should not be offended, even
if we were not fully aware of all that he had done for humanity. We
should not say that there was any minimum of praise, nor any maximum of
offence. It would not be an act chargeable with these faults, unless
we did it in the midst of those who disputed his eminence.

The House of God is a place where we ought to assume that the
revelation of God is the foundation of worship. Hence a Creed which
recites the substance of that revelation should fairly be assumed to
express the convictions of all present.

The two Creeds, known to us as The Apostles' Creed and The Nicene
Creed, are evidently free from the charge of offence or lack of
worship. They take so little account of matters of opinion,--they deal
so entirely with the facts of Revelation, that it is hard to conceive
any other kind of words so free from the kind of charge which the
Professor brought against Creeds in Worship.

But it will be necessary to examine more at length the position of the
Creed which is called Athanasian, and to enquire what defence may
fairly be made, if it is the form against which the Professor really
brought this charge. For it must be acknowledged that many thoughtful
men do stumble at this Creed. To them it is an offence, because it is
often assumed that it is the expression of opinion about those who do
not accept the doctrines which it contains.

1. Now in reciting the Athanasian Creed, a congregation is not
attempting to deliver its opinion: we are reciting the assertions which
are implied in the Bible, concerning the Being of God, and the
Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Let us emphasize this point. The Athanasian Creed has a different form
from the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. You could not fairly describe it
as "a loving outburst of a loyal heart," as Bp Harvey Goodwin described
the Apostles' Creed. Gloria {117} Patri is indeed added at the
close, thereby marking it as a Psalm or Hymn in its use in Church[1].

We think that in its form, fairly considered, it is the reflective
utterance of a Christian, who is meditating on the Being and Personal
Nature of the Godhead. As I read or say it, I am, as it were,
balancing the statements which limit my conception of the truth. On
this side I may go so far, and no further; on that side I am limited to
that expression. Between these two--including these truths--the fact
of Godhead is to be considered, and my worship is to be directed.
Hence we can see that, like the other Creeds, it deals with the
revealed facts of God's existence.

2. Notice that in the Creed it is the existence of GOD which is
defined. Faith does, in other forms, enter upon a consideration of
doctrines which introduce Man to our view.

Predestination and Election,
Justification by Faith alone,
Assurance and Perseverance,
Original Sin,
Sacramental Grace,
Sin after Baptism,

and other facts and truths, on which Revelation has thrown the
only true light, are dealt with, for instance, in the Articles and
Homilies. And the Bible is the Court of Appeal in all such
perplexities. But it is no disparagement to the importance of those
truths, if we acknowledge that they do not appear in our Creeds.

The Creeds are the respectful reply of the Christian to God's
disclosure of Himself to His children. One (the Apostles' Creed) is
the reply of the Christian as such. Another (the Nicene) is the reply
of the Christian after careful self-examination. And this Third is the
reply of the Christian Student, as he meditates upon the furthest
extent of our knowledge of God.

3. But it will be said, "The Nicene Creed partly, and the Athanasian
Creed altogether, are not, in their origin, utterances of peaceful
meditation, but, rather, of polemical controversy. Heated contentions
and bitter strife are called to our minds by their terms, and not the
atmosphere of the heaven of heavens."

It may help us to a right use of the Creeds in worship, if we think of
these controversies as the meditations of a very large family. When a
deliberation can be held in a room, we can quietly put forward a
suggestion, quietly find out what fault there is in it, and as quietly
substitute a better statement than the first, guarded from the error
into which we were likely to fall. But when the family which
deliberates is distributed around such a space as the Mediterranean
Sea, the voices are apt to become loud and harsh: instead of tentative
suggestions, diffidently put forward, we are likely to hear dogmatic
assertions, made with {119} all the energy of the human lungs. The
voices which arose from the members of that Parliament of the Faith
present a greater variety of languages than the tongues at Pentecost.
In the Church's Meditation on the Being of God, and on the Person of
Jesus, we hear the Spaniard, the Gaul, the Welshman, Italian, Greek,
Syrian, Armenian, Alexandrian; there are voices from Arles, and from
Carthage, as well as from Samosata on the Euphrates, and Jerusalem on
its holy hill, and Caesarea on the sea-shore. We have to regard the
Mediterranean Sea as the Council Table, with chairs at the back for
such as could not find places on its shores. Three continents faced
one another at an oval table, 13,000 miles in circumference. Even in
thoughtful meditation, a voice must be raised to be heard in such a
conference. This will to some extent explain how it happened that men,
whom we account orthodox, are occasionally found uttering what we will
call suggestions, unorthodox in character.

I. About God's Being.

1. The Jew. There is but One God.

2. The Ebionite. Then Christ is but a Man divinely endowed--the only
man so divinely endowed.

3. St John. No! He is the Word. By Him all things were made; the
Word was God and was made flesh.

4. The Sabellian. Then perhaps,--God being One and being made
flesh,--the Word, and the Holy Ghost, are but manifestations of God.


5. The Catholick Church. No! They are Persons. A Father and a Son
are different persons.

6. The Arian. Then, if the Father is a real father, and the Son a
real son, perhaps the Father was before the Son, and the Son was made.

7. The Catholick Church. This will not do; because the Sonship would
not be real sonship unless the Godhead were equal. The Godhead of the
Son must be the same Godhead as that of the Father.

8. Macedonius. But at any rate the Holy Ghost may be a creature, or
a manifestation of God the Father.

9. The Catholick Church. That will not do either; for His Personal
Being and Godhead are implied by some verses; and in various passages
He is ranked with the Father and the Son.

10. The Semi-Arian. Then you really say that there is an actual
equality of the Three Persons, and yet that there is but one God?

11. The Catholick Church. Yes! That is the Catholick Faith.

Of course this is but a rough specimen of the dialogue which was
conducted by the Church with the various guessers at great Truths, who
debated, disputed, and dogmatized, during the early centuries. I have
left out all the other controversies, and some parts of this, in order
to present a fairly clear view. But you will observe that the order
followed in History has a good deal of the natural course of argument
and meditation: and that it is not a very foreign idea that these
heresies are the loud thinking {121} of a mighty host, as it outgrows
its childhood, and comes to years of discretion.

I will yet more briefly indicate the course of Historical meditation on
deep things, by treating similarly one of the other great
controversies, viz. that concerning the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus

II. About the Two Natures of our Lord.

1. The Jew. We bear witness that Jesus of Nazareth died at Jerusalem.

2. The Catholick Church. And we aver that He rose again from the
dead, and was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

3. The Gnostic. Probably He was one of the Aeons of whom our
forefathers have told us--the leading emanation from the Most High.

4. The Catholick Church. He is no Aeon, Manifestation, nor Creature.
He is God as truly as He is man.

5. The Manichaean. Then, of course, if He was God, He could have
nothing really material about Him. Matter is evil.

6. The Catholick Church. On the contrary He had a body like ours.

7. The Docetae. No! That was only in appearance. You must leave
out all about His Baptism, Circumcision, and Crucifixion. They were
only pretence.

8. The Catholick Church. Not pretence at all, but real. He derived
Very Manhood from the Blessed Virgin Mary, as truly as He derived Very
Godhead from God the Father.

9. The Arians. Perhaps He took a human body, but not a human soul.
"The Divine Word was in the place of the soul."

10. Nestorius. Perhaps if these things be so--since He derived the
Person of God from God, and the Person of man from Mary--then we must
not say that He was one Person, but two.

11. The Catholick Church. These ideas are contrary to the Truth: for
(Council of Ephesus 431) Christ was but one Person, in whom two natures
are intimately united, but not confounded.

12. The Eutychians. Granting there were not two Persons, we suppose
that there were not two Natures. We hold that there was but one Nature
mono physite (mono physis)--originally two distinct natures, but,
after union, only one: the human nature being transubstantiated into
the divine.

13. The Catholick Church. This also is faulty. For (Council of
Chalcedon 451) in Christ, two distinct natures are united in one person
without any change, mixture, or confusion.

14. Honorius Bishop of Rome and the Monothelites. Then perhaps the
human will of Christ was subservient to the Divine Will, so as always
to move in unison with it.

15. The Catholick Church. (3rd Council of Constantinople 680--6th
General Council.) No! You would destroy the truth of His humanity.

It is obvious that we are here returning to some part of the earlier
errors, and that everything possible {123} had been suggested, and
settled. Even orthodox people, who incline to hold that Christ's human
knowledge was divinely acquired, or His human temptations divinely
resisted, are but repeating the errors of old days.

Thus the Controversies, however disfigured by excess of language and
temper, &c. are the meditations of the Church on the Nature of Her Lord
and Her God.

Some of them are perhaps too much of the disposition of S. Thomas, who
must push his hands against the scars of the Lord's Body; but the Lord
has ever been patient towards the devout and warm-hearted men, who
share with S. Thomas, not only his doubt, but that devotion which
destroys intrusive impertinence.

The following interesting argument as to the date of this "Creed" is
worthy of study.

The Athanasian Creed appears on the scene at the close of these loud
meditations. It is unconscious of the theory that Eutyches started,
because it uses phrases which he might have perverted, e.g.

One, not by conversion &c.
As the reasonable soul &c.

Thus its date is given by internal evidence as previous to 451.

The same sort of argument may apply to Nestorius, who was condemned
431. But this is more doubtful. It insists on "one Son, not three
Sons"--but says nothing of "one Son, not two Sons" which was the
Nestorian error.

These two points may be summarised.

Monophysites (condemned 451 at Ephesus) insisted on One Nature, to
defend One Person:


Nestorians (condemned 431 at Chalcedon), who insisted on Two
Natures almost, if not quite, to the assertion of Two Persons.

[Transcriber's note: refer to Footnote 1 on page 176 referring to an
error in the above two paragraphs.]

The date is limited in lateness by the above. It must have been before
the middle of 400-500, i.e. before the complete development of the
controversy condemned in 451.

And it could not be earlier than 416, because it plainly condemns
Apollinarians, who denied a human Soul to Christ, and said the Godhead
was in place of a human soul (360-373): and because several of S.
Augustine's expressions appear in it, whose books on the Trinity
appeared about 416, and later.

Moreover the 'Filioque[1]' appears in it, and S. Augustine was the
first to give this prominence.

Thus the date is fixed between 420 and 440.

And it is Latin, in the construction of its Sentences, not Greek; and
Gallic, in its first reception, and chief, earliest, and most numerous,
MSS and commentaries.

The Roman Church did not adopt it till 930, though Charlemagne
presented it to the Pope in 722.

Thus Waterland dates it in France between 420 and 431. Within those
dates the authors possible are, not Athanasius, for he died about 373,

Hilary of Arles, Bp. 429-449.
Victricius of Rouen.
Vincentius of Lerins, 434.

These arguments apply, however, not to the Creed as it now stands, but
to the documents from which it was compounded, and to the language
which it has retained.

This Psalm, or Creed, or discussion of the Creeds, appears to be formed
by the union of two documents, one of which was a discussion of the
nature of God, and the other a discussion of the Person of Christ. An
article by Professor Lumby in the S.P.C.K. Prayer Book will be
accessible to all our readers. The former document occupies 28, and
the latter, 14 verses.

The doctrine that there is a God, and particularly that there is but
one God, may be called the Catholic Religion, in a very wide sense: for
it is held by Jews, Turks, and many others who are not Christians.

The Christian Verity is the Truth that God was made man, that Jesus is
God and Man, yet not two, but one Christ. This involves the Doctrine
of the Holy Trinity.

The Catholic Faith includes both the Catholic Religion and the
Christian Verity.

vv. 9 and 12: the word incomprehensible is the Latin word
immensus, elsewhere rendered infinite. (See Article I.) vv.
21-23 show that there are statements which can be made of each Person,
which cannot be made of the other Persons of the Godhead: 6-18 have
been showing that there are statements which can be made of each
Person, which can also be made of the other Persons--statements
involving Godhead. 24-27 state the inference which is to be drawn from
the former verses, an inference previously stated in 3-5.


v. 31. The word Substance occurs frequently in the discussion of the
Godhead of our Lord, and also in the debates about the Holy Communion.
Substance is the Essential Existence: it has no necessary connection
with ideas like 'hard' and 'soft,' 'heavy' and 'light'; if we are
thinking of a spirit there is no question of Matter, for the Substance,
i.e. the Essential Being, of a spirit is not of the nature of Matter.
The phrase in the Nicene Creed Being-of-one-substance-with (the
Father) is a translation of the word Consubstantial.

The name Quicunque Vult, by which this psalm is sometimes mentioned
is from the first words of the Latin original Quicunque vult salvus
esse=Whosoever will be safe. This phrase "be safe" occurs again in
verse 28, and again in the last verse of the psalm, where quam
nisi--salvus esse non poterit should be translated which except a man
have believed faithfully and firmly, he cannot be safe. The
substitution of another idea--"be saved,"--is of the nature of an
addition to the meaning.

The addition is, however, independently stated in verse 2.

These verses are to be understood, like the Bible statements of similar
character, as the warning which overhangs all our actions. They say
nothing of what allowance God makes for involuntary ignorance,
prejudice, difficult perplexities, and other infirmities. They declare
our responsibility when we look up to God, and reflect on our own
actions, or on God's Being.

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