my little problem with the Athanasian Creed

Discussion in 'Liturgy, and Book of Common Prayer' started by Rexlion, Jul 2, 2022.

  1. Rexlion

    Rexlion Well-Known Member

    Posts:
    3,417
    Likes Received:
    1,756
    Country:
    USA
    Religion:
    Anglican Christian
    A portion of T h e . A t h a n a s i a n . C r e e d (copied from the 2019 BCP)

    Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary
    that he hold the Catholic Faith.

    Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled,
    without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
    And the Catholic Faith is this:
    That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
    neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
    For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son,
    and another of the Holy Ghost.
    But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son,
    and of the Holy Ghost, is all one,
    the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
    ......
    And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other;
    none is greater, or less than another;
    But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together
    and co-equal.
    So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity
    and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
    He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
    Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation
    that he also believe rightly the Incarnation
    of our Lord Jesus Christ.​

    I certainly believe in the Trinity. I believe in the substance of this Creed. However, I do not believe that salvation hinges crucially upon a correct Trinitarian understanding. I don't believe that there is some sort of "theology 101" test that one must pass in order to be admitted into God's grace. I believe that God does indeed save some people who have a mistaken, incomplete, or uninformed view about the nature of Jesus.

    What of the woefully misinformed Jehovah's Witness or LDS member who, despite bad teaching, truly trusts in Christ's redemptive sacrifice and not in his own works? What of the resident of China who has no Bible and little or no religious instruction, and who has never been exposed to the issue of Trinitarianism (or for that matter the doctrine of the virgin birth), but who nevertheless has simple faith in Jesus Christ? What of the modalist who believes Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God but doesn't understand that they are three Persons?

    I can appreciate how this Creed came about and the Arianism that was being taught against. I can understand how needful it was to have such a statement at the time it was formulated. Yet I ask whether they didn't (to borrow a movie title) go "a bridge too far" when they said that belief in God's Trinitarian nature is necessary to salvation.

    I find no such qualifier in the Bible. Jesus said many times that we must believe in Him, but He did not go around calling Himself "the Son of God", nor did He teach outwardly on the Trinity. The epistles didn't overtly take on the task of teaching that Jesus is the second Person of the Godhead either, let alone overtly state that holding such a belief is a prerequisite to becoming a spiritually regenerate child of God.

    Our parish has included the recitation of the Athanasian Creed during the last two Trinity Sunday services. Each time, I have been troubled by this particular portion of the Creed. My feeling is, how can I honestly recite something I don't believe?

    What do you think?
     
    Tiffy, Annie Grace, Clayton and 2 others like this.
  2. Invictus

    Invictus Well-Known Member

    Posts:
    2,093
    Likes Received:
    1,071
    Country:
    United States
    Religion:
    Episcopalian
    The intuition you are describing is the classic objection to the Athanasian Creed. It was quite common in the Church of England in the 18th and 19th centuries, and incidentally is the main reason the Episcopal Church has never listed it among the “Ecumenical” creeds or treated it as an authoritative statement of faith.

    That being said, I happen to rather like the Athanasian Creed, and believe as Samuel Seabury did that its omission from American Anglican practice is regrettable. I have found Newman’s defense of it in The Grammar of Assent to be most helpful in answer the sorts of internal objections you mentioned.
     
    Rexlion and Anglican Observer like this.
  3. Anglican Observer

    Anglican Observer Member

    Posts:
    16
    Likes Received:
    27
    Country:
    Canada
    Religion:
    Christianity
    I understand your concerns with the Athanasian Creed and found it troubling when I first encountered it and like @Invictus I happen to be fond of it.

    I personally understand the warnings as being against willful rejection of the faith or abandonment of the same. I think this is also keeping in line with Article XVIII. The "presumptuous" (as defined in the context of the article) are to be had accursed but this does not include the "non-presumptuous". The article leaves this latter part an open question but it certainly makes a stern rebuke against those who would overtly presume to attribute salvation to anything else other than Jesus. I think we can be hopeful in God's mercy towards those in ignorance or afflicted with infirmity but it is a rather different story for the willfully obstinate. I think the declaration appended at the bottom of the Creed in the Canadian BCP 1962 (copied below) says it much better than I can. I hope it helps.


    For the removal of doubts, and to prevent disquietude in the use of the Creed commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, it is solemnly declared: 1. That the Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, does not make any addition to the Faith as contained in holy Scripture, but warns against errors which from time to time have arisen in the Church of Christ.
    2. That as holy Scripture in divers places promises life to them that believe, and declares the condemnation of them that believe not, so the Church in this Confession declares the necessity, for all who would be in a state of salvation, of holding fast the Catholic Faith, and the great peril of rejecting the same. Wherefore the warnings in this Confession of Faith are to be understood no otherwise than the like warnings in holy Scripture, for we must receive God’s threatenings, even as his promises, in such wise as they are generally set forth in holy Writ. Moreover, the Church does not herein pronounce judgement on any particular person or persons, God alone being the Judge of all.
     
    Rexlion likes this.
  4. Matthew J Taylor

    Matthew J Taylor Member

    Posts:
    76
    Likes Received:
    62
    Country:
    Scotland
    Religion:
    Free Church of England
    The Damnatory clauses are not used in the Free Church of England but the rest of the creed is maintained since we affirm its definition of the trinity.​
     
    Rexlion likes this.
  5. Stalwart

    Stalwart Well-Known Member Anglican

    Posts:
    2,710
    Likes Received:
    2,502
    Country:
    America
    Religion:
    Anglican
    I think your question is more than just about that clause, but about all of theology and doctrine as such. Can a person be saved if he doesn’t hold to such and such point of doctrine, etc. It’s not just about the Trinity; the same could be said about the Sacraments, or justification, or the Incarnation, etc. Or any of the early heresies like Docetism, Marcionism, Arianism, Aerianism, etc.

    The traditional answer is: it depends on the culpability of the person in lacking the doctrine. If they lack it because of willful rejection, then indeed they can’t be saved, because they reject what God teaches. If they lack it because of miseducation or ignorance, like the thief on the cross, then it will not be held against them (although they still run the grave risk of danger, and have to learn the truth as quickly as possible).

    In that distinction between ignorance and rebellion lies all the difference. And the Athanasian Creed doesn’t intend to speak on that distinction, and certainly not to obliterate it.


    We should be very careful with making such statements. On the one hand, it is true that Jesus most of the time spoke in parables, as the most effective mode of communication, so as he himself says, some things were veiled which were indeed true.

    But — that’s a long way from saying that the Scriptures don’t teach the Trinity. Every one who has gone there in short order ended up in progressivism (the church makes things up), and apostasy.

    Nor is it factually true. Not only did Jesus have moments where he pulled back the veil and revealed that he and the Father were one, or that one can’t get to the Father without him, or that we should baptize the world in the name of the Trinity; but the whole New Testament speaks of him in ways that pertain to God, as in the Prologue of John, in the Epistles, and most awfully in the book of Apocalypse/Revelation.

    More than that, the Old Testament is filled with Trinitarian theology, starting from the first line of the first book of Genesis, down to the Holy Ghost filling Samson, Jesus in the fire of the book of Daniel, and many other places including of course the Messianic prophecies themselves.

    The Trinity is the primary subject of the Bible. When St Athanasius and the other Church Fathers defended the Trinity, where do you think the grounded it? In their own power to declare something? No they weren’t Romanists. They to a man, without exception, take who you wish, St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Cyril, defended it it from the word of the sacred scriptures.
     
  6. Ananias

    Ananias Well-Known Member Anglican

    Posts:
    728
    Likes Received:
    623
    Country:
    USA
    Religion:
    ACNA
    That describes about 75% of the everyday Christians in America (and maybe the world).

    Catechesis should be the first step in entering the Church as a member -- if not before baptism, then immediately after.
     
  7. Invictus

    Invictus Well-Known Member

    Posts:
    2,093
    Likes Received:
    1,071
    Country:
    United States
    Religion:
    Episcopalian
    Well said, @Stalwart. Some of the best (and earliest) examples of ascription of the divine nature to Jesus can be found in the Pauline epistles, in which OT/LXX passages that apply to the God of Israel are ascribed to Christ without qualification. @Rexlion I believe a series you may have posted some time back contained some of those quotations. “Is Jesus Almoghty God” or something similar to that may have been the title of it. Anyway, the Athanasian Creed isn’t demanding that people intellectually grasp “three-in-oneness”; it’s demanding that we believe the things we confess in the liturgy:
    Referring to God as Father,
    Referring to Christ as the Son of God,
    Ascribing to the Holy Spirit the action of God in reconciling us, etc.
    These are things that are easily recognizable and comprehensible, and that even children would recognize as absent if they suddenly disappeared. This was Newman’s argument in The Grammar of Assent, the best written defense of the Athanasian Creed I’ve ever personally read. It is also referring to people who are in the Church; the condemnation is directed toward Christians who knowingly and actively reject the Creed’s content. It’s not saying the average Joe who’s never been properly catechized is required to understand all that stuff in order for God’s grace to be effective for him. That’s my understanding, anyway. In any case I think it’s a good discussion to have. :thumbsup:
     
  8. CRfromQld

    CRfromQld Moderator Staff Member

    Posts:
    173
    Likes Received:
    86
    Country:
    Australia
    Religion:
    Anglican
    It seems that the church father Tertullian (AD 160–225) was the first to apply the term Trinity to God.
    So all through the New Testament people were saved without a formal doctrine of the Trinity. However New Testament writers mention all three Persons of the Trinity together numerous times, so an understanding was there and taught. What was, and is, required is to accept Jesus as the Christ, repent of your sins, be baptised, and follow Jesus.
     
    Rexlion likes this.
  9. Rexlion

    Rexlion Well-Known Member

    Posts:
    3,417
    Likes Received:
    1,756
    Country:
    USA
    Religion:
    Anglican Christian
    Good comments from all, thanks. :yes:

    If I'm understanding everyone correctly, the basic analysis appears to be along these lines: the 'necessary to believe' clauses can be construed to mean something less objectionable than what they seem (on their face) to mean.

    I suppose we will be called upon to recite this creed every Trinity Sunday, at least for as long as the present rector is with us (which, I hope, will be for many years to come). I will think on what you all have written. Ultimately, either I must get comfortable with the suggested alternate interpretation of the clauses :hmm: or I will simply have to "zip my lips" :zipped: when we get to those parts of the creed. The bulk of the creed presents no problems for me, after all; I believe on its face what it says about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead.
     
    Invictus likes this.
  10. Stalwart

    Stalwart Well-Known Member Anglican

    Posts:
    2,710
    Likes Received:
    2,502
    Country:
    America
    Religion:
    Anglican
    Just apply it to the rest of Christianity. None of Christian doctrine is optional. Like, at all. Yet from the patristic era onward (really from the thief on the cross in the new testament!), there has been made a powerful allowance for faithful ignorance.
     
  11. Rexlion

    Rexlion Well-Known Member

    Posts:
    3,417
    Likes Received:
    1,756
    Country:
    USA
    Religion:
    Anglican Christian
    You make it sound so incredibly easy, as if everyone should have simply seen the Trinity as the obvious truth. But you forget the Arians, who made up perhaps 80-90% of the "Christians" during the first centuries A.D. You forget all the people who even today belong to "churches" (I use these terms loosely and generically), people who possess Bibles (not sure if they read them), but who neither understand nor believe in the Trinity. And this is what has happened after Jesus and the Apostles, and after the distribution among the churches of the gospels and epistles. Considering all of this, the idea that the Trinitarian nature of God was more or less obvious to O.T. Israelites, or that "the old Testament is filled with Trinitarian theology," is absurd. The reality is more like, there are hints and fragments scattered about in the O.T. like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle mixed in with a huge pile of unrelated cardboard pieces, and using hindsight we think the O.T. people should have seen the finished puzzle picture!
     
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2022
    Invictus likes this.
  12. Phoenix

    Phoenix Moderator Staff Member Anglican

    Posts:
    174
    Likes Received:
    186
  13. Rexlion

    Rexlion Well-Known Member

    Posts:
    3,417
    Likes Received:
    1,756
    Country:
    USA
    Religion:
    Anglican Christian
    I finally had the opportunity to converse with my rector about this. He pointed out that the "Athanasian Creed" was not written with the intention of being a "creed" in the same sense as the other creeds. With the Apostles' Creed, the person reciting it begins by saying, "I believe...." The people reciting the Nicene Creed state, "We believe..." These were meant as statements of faith to be said aloud, during which the person is (or should be) confessing his faith: what he, personally, believes.

    The "Athanasian Creed" was not meant to be a personal confession of faith. It was written as a teaching tool; it was meant to be read or said among Christians: by Christians, to Christians. It confirmed and reinforced the orthodox Trinitarian belief held by Trinitarians (which reassured them that they were doing the right thing to stand firm in their understanding of the Godhead) while it also served as a correction and warning to anyone leaning toward Arianism.

    Thus, the beginning and ending statements were never meant to apply to the "heathen" (unbelievers). Reciting those portions is not a denial of the fact that God can save individuals who lack proper Trinitarian understanding; it is instead addressed to individuals within the Church (broadly speaking) as a way of teaching the proper doctrine.

    That explanation helped me quite a bit. I want to recognize @Invictus for alluding to this in his post (#2) wherein he wrote, "the Episcopal Church has never listed it among the “Ecumenical” creeds or treated it as an authoritative statement of faith." :tiphat:
     
    Invictus likes this.