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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