The Athanasian Creed

Canon Michael Hull, our Assistant Priest, writes:

Each of the three creeds we use in our Episcopal worship is a way of expressing our belief in the Trinity. The Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, occasionally known as the ‘ecumenical creeds’, are mandated for worship in the Scottish Prayer Book: the Apostles’ Creed at Morning and Evening Prayers, the Nicene Creed at the Communion Office and the Athanasian Creed is prescribed for Trinity Sunday (pp. 41–44). The Athanasian Creed, only for Trinity Sunday, is rare in our liturgy and relatively unknown, but it is most worthy of our attention because it is the first Creed to explicitly state the equality of the Trinity’s three-in-one, that is, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571) mark the prominence of the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds in Anglicanism by noting they ‘ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture’ (Art. VIII). 

The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial to our reception of God’s revelation of Himself. The first five centuries of Christianity saw a vast amount of theological speculation around the Persons of the Trinity, especially Jesus, who is both God and man (Gal. 4.4). Holy Scripture tells us that Jesus is born of a woman (Matt. 1.18–25; Lk 1.26–38) and concomitantly is the Son of God (Matt. 16.15–16). Yet, Scripture does not use the term ‘trinity’; likewise, many of the terms theologians use (e.g. the Greek hypostasis or ‘substance’ and ousia or ‘person’) appear rarely in the Bible and have wide semantic ranges. Our human, finite minds are challenged in contemplating the revealed truths of infinite things such as the two natures in Jesus (human and divine) and the relationship among Father, Son and Holy Ghost. As creatures, though, we innately long to know as much as we can about our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. St Paul is spot-on in Romans 8 to speak of all creation groaning in eager expectation for God’s revelation in Christ. God has revealed Himself both in natural revelation (the created order) and in supernatural revelation (the Holy Bible). There is no further revelation due before the Second Coming of Christ (1 Tim. 6.14; Tit. 2.13). No wonder we Christians, from the first century to the twenty-first, seek to express ourselves as clearly as we are able about God. We strive to articulate our belief in God as a Trinity and a Unity without confusing the Persons or their relationships.

Expressing belief accurately is one reason the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, although not written for our liturgies per se, gradually became prominent in them. The Athanasian Creed, though, seems to have been crafted for liturgical use. It is 44 rhythmic verses in Latin. Though it bears his name, it is only tangentially connected to St Athanasius of Alexandria, who wrote in Greek and died in the East in 373. It is likely attributed to him because he was a staunch defender of doctrine balancing the Unity and Trinity in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost without falling into heresy that diluted divine revelation. Most scholars think the Athanasian Creed is a product of theological speculation in Gaul as the Creed’s liturgical use is traceable to the sixth century in southern France. Most scholars agree, at least since the late seventeenth century, that this is the case because the Athanasian Creed answers doctrinal controversies that arose after Athanasius’ death, because it was surely composed in Latin, not Greek, because it is first mentioned in Gaul, and because it bears close resemblance to St Vincent of Lerins (d. 445) ‘Excerpta’. Thus, its composition is most likely no earlier than the first quarter of the fifth century even if its ideas were crafted and honed in expression from the first century until then.

The Athanasian Creed has been used in Western Christianity’s worship and theology for 1500 years. It is a darling of the Reformation. Key Protestant confessional documents include the Athanasian Creed, for example, the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Bohemian Confession and, of course, the Thirty-nine Articles. 

The Athanasian Creed is also called the ‘Quicunque Vult’ from the first two words in Latin: ‘Whosoever would be saved needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled without doubt he will perish eternally’ (vv. 1–2). Belief ought to be predicated upon revealed truth. That truth may be gauged by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture. And though we use it seldomly in liturgy, the Athanasian Creed has much to say to us in terms of our belief about the Trinity.

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also the Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.