The Athanasian Creed

I don’t usually post things on Sundays, but I think this one might not be inappropriate. If you attend a liturgical church, you probably used the Athanasian Creed today. (You can see the insert for the upcoming Lutheran Service Book here. We used it this morning. Here is another version.)
In our undogmatic age, this confession makes people uncomfortable. With words like “must”, “whole and undefiled”, “necessary”, and “the catholic faith is this”, the questions will inevitably arise: “Wait, don’t we believe in grace alone? What’s with this Law language?” Perhaps “worst” of all are these sentences: “At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.”
These are good questions that deserve answers (if they are genuinely being asked), but the asking of them should not determine whether we retire this elderly creed or not.

I had a friend in college who said he didn’t like the Athanasian Creed because of that second-to-last sentence in the Creed. I can understand it coming from an undergrad, but when Ph.D.’s who are on LCMS clergy rosters say it, we’ve got a problem.
On a certain e-mail list, a professor (not at an LCMS college–anymore, anyway) said that after earning his degrees, he found the statements in the Creed “confusing and misleading.” Well, who doesn’t, at least as far as “understanding” the Trinity goes? But what is misleading or confusing about confessing one Father, one Son, and one Spirit; but not three Fathers, three Sons, or three Spirits? Or what is confusing and misleading about confessing the Father, Son, and Spirit all to be God, but not three Gods? The Athanasian Creed simply says what God has said or revealed about Himself in short statements that are, admittedly, beyond our finite understanding.
As for the claim that this is only a Western confession, I certainly hope that our friends in the East could confess this along with us, whether they’ve ever officially endorsed it or not (except for the part about the Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son, of course!).
But all that is prolegomena to the most distressing part, heard from both my friend and the professor. That is, that the final section is contrary to the chief article of the faith, i.e., Justification by Grace through Faith alone. It is axiomatic that Lutherans who confess this Creed do not believe in justification by works. The problem with denying that statement in the Creed is that the professor thereby denies the words of Jesus Himself. I suppose it’s not enough to claim that Paul contradicts himself with regard to the Law; now Jesus (the Author of the faith, need it be said?) contradicts the chief article of the faith!
The Creed simply reproduces John 5:29. (Or is that an interpolation?) It condenses Matthew 25, and especially v. 46 (certainly the most “Jewish” of the Gospels).
Or see Revelation 20:12-13. (Oh yeah, that’s an antilegomenon…)
It is the bane of those who reduce the Christian faith to their version of the Gospel that anything and everything that doesn’t fit the system is automatically ruled out of bounds.

So what do Lutherans do with verses like the above and the final part of the Athanasian Creed? It is actually very simple. We will be judged by our works. The difference between those who in the Book of Life and those in the lake of fire is simply this: the evil works of those whose names God has written in the Book of Life have been swallowed up by Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are gone. When we are judged, we will be judged righteous for the sake of Jesus’ righteousness. Therefore, all our “good” works will really be seen as good, because all Jesus’ works were and are good. For those not covered with Jesus’ righteousness, even their good (in the eyes of the world) works will be judged evil because of their sin.
No, the Athanasian Creed cannot be pulled out and “confessed” once a year merely for the sake of the liturgical calendar. But neither can the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds simply be spoken every Sunday without constant reexamination.
The lack of instruction (or, dare I say it, indoctrination?) in some places seems to be the root of all sorts of evil.
With proper explanation, the Athanasian Creed can be what it was intended to be: a teaching of the proper understanding of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation in the face of all manner of heretical teaching.
May the Lord preserve us from rationalism in all its forms!

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us, Thy servants, grace, by the confession fo a true faith, to acknoweldge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the Divine majesty to worship the Unity, we beseech Thee that Thou wouldst keep us steadfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities; who livest and reignest, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.*

[Update (7 years later!): There is also a modern misunderstanding with phrases in the Creed such as: “Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.”  This sounds, to our ears, as if all that is required for salvation is getting our thoughts right, or thinking correctly, about God.  I don’t know the Latin, but this cannot be the meaning of the Christian faith.  Right knowledge, even Scriptural knowledge, cannot save by itself, since the Devil and his demons know all of it.  I think the key to this problem is found in the phrases right before the previous quote (v. 25 in Lutheran Service Book): “the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped.”  The imperative can mislead, but only one who is righteous by faith alone can worship the Trinity, since outside of Christ, the Trinity is unknowable, let alone worshipable for sinners.  Worship comes as one trusts the Triune work of God in Jesus, and not before or outside of that trust.  Such trust is truly “right thinking” in the terms of saving faith.  The Devil may have true knowledge, but he cannot (will not) worship.  Further, the last part, “whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved,” does not refer to belief as a work that the human does “faithfully and firmly.”  That is impossible, and it would mean no one would be saved.  It is faithful and firm not because the individual has faithful and firm faith, but because Christ is always faithful and firm in His saving work for you.  Look at Christ, not yourself!]


*While this Collect is a bit ponderous, I think it captures the mood of the Feast well.

5 thoughts on “The Athanasian Creed

  1. I can’t find a rubric for using the Athanasian Creed in any way on Trinity Sunday in any Anglican or Roman source. For sure this is a American Lutheran custom though most of our churches disregard the actual rubric and use it to replace the Nicene Creed.

    I haven’t been able to determine if anyone outside American Lutheranism uses this hymn on Trinity Sunday. By the way it looks to me like the reason for this is a tract Luther wrote where he included the Athanasian Creed and Te Deum alongside of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. That trace influenced the BofC so that the BofC may be the only confessional document to place the Athanasian Creed into this kind of a category. I am not sure about all that. But it certainly isn’t understood by the Roman Church they way it is understood among us – as a creed. And it isn’t used even as we use it as a sequence hymn, even though I do think it has been used historically by Rome as a canticle. That is all a little sketchy. Sorry. I am running on memory here and not too confident.

    Anyway, I think it is probably a stretch to say “if you attend a liturgical church” you did this. Unless by that you only mean a liturgical Lutheran church.

    For all of that, I enjoyed the post and right explanation of what has been for some (also me in the past) the troubling last stanza.


  2. Interesting. Thanks for the comments. You’re right, I didn’t really have anyone other than Lutherans in mind with regard to attending a liturgical church. Perhaps Joel or Dana would be willing to comment on what their church does, or what they are taught about the Athanasian Creed.


  3. Petersen:

    The following is the rubric from the Book of Common Prayer (1662):

    “Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.”

    The 1662 BCP is still the official, legal liturgy of the Church of England, although I believe most English parishes use a more modern prayer-book called Common Worship. I don’t have a copy of Common Worship, so I don’t know whether the Athanasian Creed is prescribed in it (although I doubt it).

    The Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church in the United States has never included the Athanasian Creed (although the very high-Church parish I belonged to 25 years ago when I was still an Episcopalian recited it on Trinity Sunday every year anyway).

  4. Just came across your blog and found it very interesting! Thanks.

    A few comments, though:

    While Chris (comment #3) is correct that the Episcopal prayer book doesn’t mandate use of the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday, it nonetheless is included on page 864 along with the Council of Chalcedon’s definition of the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.

    Also, the collect for Trinity Sunday specifically addresses the One God as Trinity, instead of addressing the Father through the Son as in every other collect (and as in your edit). “Through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord,” etc. is left out for that reason.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. Good point. I changed the ending. The problem I was having was that The Lutheran Hymnal simply says, “who livest, etc.”, so I wasn’t sure about how it should end.
    And thanks for visiting.


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