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§ 10. The Athanasian Creed.


I. Comp. the general literature of the Three Creeds noticed p. 12, especially Lumby and Swainson.

II. Special treatises on the Athanasian Creed:

[Venantius Fortunatus (Bishop of Poitiers, d. about A.D. 600)]: Expositio Fidei Catholicae Fortunati. The oldest commentary on the Athanasian Creed, published from a MS. in the Ambrosian Library at Milan by Muratori, 1698, in the second vol. of his Anecdota, p. 228, and better in an Appendix to Waterland's treatise (see below). But the authorship of Ven. Fort. is a mere conjecture of Muratori, from the name Fortunatus, and is denied by modern critics.

Dav. Pareus (Ref.): Symbolum Athanasii breviter declaratum. Heidelb. 1618.

J. H. Heidegger (Ref.): De Symbolo Athanasiano. Tur. 1680.

W. E. Tentzel (Luth.): Judicia eruditorum de Symb. Athanasiano. Gothæ, 1687.

Jos. Anthelmi (R. C.): Disquisitio de Symb. Athan. Paris, 1693.

Montfaucon (R. C.): Diatribe de Symbolo Quicunque, in his edition of the works of St. Athanasius. Paris, 1698, Tom. II. pp. 719-735.

Dan. Waterland (Anglican): A Critical History of the Athanasian Creed, etc. Cambridge, 1724, 2d ed. 1728 (in Waterland's works, Vol. III. pp. 97–270, Oxf. ed. 1843), also re-edited by J. R. King. Lond. 1871. The fullest and most learned treatise on the subject, but in part superseded by recent investigations.

Dom. Maria Speroni (R. C.): De Symbolo vulgo S. Athanasii, two dissertations. Patav. 1750 sq.

John Radcliffe: The Creed of St. Athanasius, illustrated from the Old and New Test., Passages of the Fathers, etc. Lond. 1844.


Philip Schaff: The Athanasian Creed, in the 'American Presbyterian Review,' New York, for 1866, pp. 584–625; Church History, Vol. III. pp. 689 sqq.

A. P. Stanley (Dean of Westminster): The Athanasian Creed. Lond. 1871.

E. S. Ffoulkes (B. D.): The Athanasian Creed: By whom Written and by whom Published. Lond. 1872.

Ch. A. Heurtley: The Athanasian Creed. Oxford, 1872. (Against Ffoulkes.)

Comp. the fac-simile edition of the Utrecht Psalter (Lond. 1875), and Sir Thos. Hardy (Deputy-Keeper of the Public Records), two Reports on the Athanas. Creed in Connection with the Utrecht Psalter. Lond. 1873.

The Athanasian Creed is also called Symbolum Quicunque, from the first word, 'Quicunque vult salvus esse.'7070   It first bears the title, 'Fides sanctæ Trinitatis,' or 'Fides Catholica Sanctæ Trinitatis;' then (in the 'Cod. Usserius secundus') 'Fides Sancti Athanasii Alexandrini.' Hincmar of Rheims, about A.D. 852, calls it 'Sermonem Athanasii de fide, cujus initium est: "Quicunque vult salvus esse."'

I. Its origin is involved in obscurity, like that of the Apostles' Creed, the Gloria in Excelsis, and the Te Deum. It furnishes one of the most remarkable examples of the extraordinary influence which works of unknown or doubtful authorship have exerted. Since the ninth century it has been ascribed to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, the chief defender of the divinity of Christ and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (d. 373).7171   According to the mediæval legend, Athanasius composed it during his exile in Rome, and offered it to Pope Julius as his confession of faith. So Baronius, Petavius, Bellarmin, etc. This tradition was first opposed and refuted by Gerhard Vossius (1642) and Ussher (1647). The great name of 'the father of orthodoxy' secured for it an almost œcumenical authority, notwithstanding the solemn prohibition of the third and fourth œcumenical Councils to compose or publish any other creed than the Nicene.7272   Conc. Ephes. Can. VII. 'The holy Synod has determined that no person shall be allowed to bring forward, or to write, or to compose any other Creed (ἑτέραν πίστιν μηδενὶ ἐξεῖναι προφέρειν ἤγουν συγγράφειν ἢ συντιθέναι), besides that which was settled by the holy fathers who assembled in the city of Nicæa, with the Holy Spirit. But those who shall dare to compose any other Creed, or to exhibit or produce any such, if they are bishops or clergymen, they shall be deposed, but if they are of the laity, they shall be anathematized.' The Council of Chalcedon (451), although setting forth a new definition of faith, repeated the same prohibition (after the Defin. Fidei).

Since the middle of the seventeenth century the Athanasian authorship has been abandoned by learned Catholics as well as Protestants. The evidence against it is conclusive. The Symbol is nowhere found in the genuine writings of Athanasius or his contemporaries and eulogists. The General Synods of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) make no allusion to it whatever. It seems to presuppose the doctrinal controversies of the fifth century concerning the constitution of Christ's person; at least it teaches substantially the Chalcedonian Christology. And, lastly, it makes its first appearance in the Latin Churches of Gaul, North Africa, and Spain: while the Greeks 36did not know it till the eleventh century, and afterwards rejected or modified it on account of the Occidental clause on the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son. The Greek texts, moreover, differ widely, and betray, by strange words and constructions, the hands of unskilled translators.

The pseudo-Athanasian Creed originated in the Latin Church from the school of St. Augustine, probably in Gaul or North Africa. It borrows a number of passages from Augustine and other Latin fathers.7373   See the parallel passages in Waterland's treatise and in my Church History, Vol. III. pp. 690 sqq. It appears first in its full form towards the close of the eighth or the beginning of the ninth century. Its structure and the repetition of the damnatory clause in the middle and at the close indicate that it consists of two distinct parts, which may have been composed by two authors, and afterwards welded together by a third hand. The first part, containing the Augustinian doctrine of the Trinity, is fuller and more metaphysical. The second part, containing a summary of the Chalcedonian Christology, has been found separately, as a fragment of a sermon on the Incarnation, at Treves, in a MS. from the middle of the eighth century.7474   Now known as the Colbertine MS., in Paris, which is assigned to about A.D. 730–760, but is derived in part from older MSS. This fragment was first published consecutively by Professor Swainson in 1871, and again in his larger work, 1875 (p. 262), also by Lumby, p. 215. It begins thus: 'Est ergo fides recta ut credamus et confitemur quia Dominus ihesus christus Dei filius, deus pariter et homo est,' etc.; and it ends: 'Hæc est fides sancta et Catholica, quam omnes [omnis] homo qui ad uitam æternam peruenire desiderat scire integræ [integre] debet, et fideliter custodire.' The compiler of the two parts intensified the damnatory clause by changing it into 'quam nisi quisque fideliter firmiterque crediderit, salvus esse non poterit.' The passages quoted by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, A.D. 852, are all taken from the first part. The fact that Athanasius spent some time in exile at Treves may possibly have given rise to the tradition that the great champion of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity composed the whole.7575   The authorship of the Symbolum Quicunque is a matter of mere conjecture. The opinions of scholars are divided between Hilary of Arles (420–431), Vigilius of Tapsus (484), Vincentius Lirinensis (450), Venantius Fortunatus of Poitiers (570), Pope Anastasius (398), Victricius of Rouen (401), Patriarch Paulinus of Aquileja (Charlemagne's favorite theologian, d. 804). Waterland learnedly contends for Hilary of Arles; Quesnel, Cave, Bingham, and Neander for Vigilius Tapsensis of North Africa. Gieseler traces the Quicunque to the Councils of Toledo in Spain (633, 638, 675, etc.), which used to profess the Nicene Creed with additional articles (like the Filioque) against Arianism. Ffoulkes (who seceded to Rome, and returned, a better Protestant, to the Church of England) and Dean Stanley maintain that it arose in France, simultaneously with the forgery of the pseudo-Isidorean Decretals, for controversial purposes against the Greeks, to set up a fictitious antiquity for Latin doctrine (the Filioque), as the Decretals did for Latin polity. Swainson and Lumby assign the Creed to an unknown writer of the age of Charlemagne (d. 814) and Alcuin (d. 804), or to the period between 813 and 850.    The latest investigations since the rediscovery of the oldest (the Cotton) MS. in the 'Utrecht Psalter' (which was exposed for inspection at the British Museum in 1873, and has since been photographed) are unfavorable to an early origin; for this MS., which Ussher and Waterland assigned to the sixth century, dates probably from the ninth century (as the majority of scholars who investigated it, Drs. Vermuelen, Heurtley, Ffoulkes, Lumby, Swainson, contend against Hardy, Westwood, and Baron van Westreenen), since, among other reasons, it contains also the Apostles' Creed in its final form of 750. The authorship of Venantius Fortunatus (570) was simply inferred by Muratori from the common name 'Fortunatus' at the head of a MS. (Expositio Fidei Catholicæ Fortunati) which contains a commentary on the Athanasian Creed, but which is not older than the eleventh century, and quotes a passage from Alcuin. Two other MSS. of the same commentary, but without a title, have been found, one at Florence, and one at Vienna (Lumby, p. 208; Swainson, pp. 317 sqq.). The internal evidence for an earlier date is equally inconclusive. The absence of Mater Dei (θεοτόκος) no more proves an ante-Nestorian origin (before 431, as Waterland contended) than the absence of consubstantialis (ὁμοούσιος) proves an ante-Nicene origin.
   So far, then, we have no proof that the pseudo-Athanasian Creed in its present complete shape existed before the beginning of the ninth century. And yet it may have existed earlier. At all events, two separate compositions, which form the groundwork of our Quicunque, are of older date, and the doctrinal substance of it, with the most important passages, may be found in the works of St. Augustine and his followers, with the exception of the damnatory clauses, which seem to have had their origin in the fierce contests of the age of Charlemagne. In a Prayer-Book of Charles the Bald, written about A. D. 870, we find the Athanasian Creed very nearly in the words of the received text.

   I may add that the indefatigable investigator, Dr. Caspari, of Christiania, informs me by letter (dated April 29, 1876) that he is still inclined to trace this Creed to the fifth century, between 450 and 600, and that he found, and will publish in due time, some old symbols which bear a resemblance to it, and may cast some light upon its obscure origin. Adhuc sub judice lis est.


II. Character and Contents.—The Symbolum Quicunque is a remarkably clear and precise summary of the doctrinal decisions of the first four œcumenical Councils (from A.D. 325 to A.D. 451), and the Augustinian speculations on the Trinity and the Incarnation. Its brief sentences are artistically arranged and rhythmically expressed. It is a musical creed or dogmatic psalm. Dean Stanley calls it 'a triumphant pæan' of the orthodox faith. It resembles, in this respect, the older Te Deum, but it is much more metaphysical and abstruse, and its harmony is disturbed by a threefold anathema.

It consists of two parts.

The first part (ver. 3–28) sets forth the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity, not in the less definite Athanasian or Nicæno-Constantinopolitan, but in its strictest Augustinian form, to the exclusion of every kind of subordination of essence. It is therefore an advance both on the 38Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed; for these do not state the doctrine of the Trinity in form, but only indirectly by teaching the Deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and leave room for a certain subordination of the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. The post-Athanasian formula states clearly and unmistakably both the absolute unity of the divine being or essence, and the tri-personality of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is one in three persons or hypostases, each person expressing the whole fullness of the Godhead, with all his attributes. The term persona is taken neither in the old sense of a mere personation or form of manifestation (πρόσωπον, face, mask), nor in the modern sense of an independent, separate being or individual, but in a sense which lies between these two conceptions, and thus avoids Sabellianism on the one hand, and Tritheism on the other. The divine persons are in one another, and form a perpetual intercommunication and motion within the divine essence.7676   The later scholastic terms for this indwelling and interpenetration are περιχώρησις, inexistentia, permeatio, circumincessio, etc. See my Church History, Vol. III. p. 680. Each person has all the divine attributes which are inherent in the divine essence, but each has also a characteristic individuality or property,7777   Called by the Greeks ἰδιότης or ἴδιον, by the Latins proprietas personalis or character hypostaticus. which is peculiar to the person, and can not be communicated; the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten, the Holy Ghost is proceeding. In this Trinity there is no priority or posteriority of time, no superiority or inferiority of rank, but the three persons are coeternal and coequal.

If the mystery of the Trinity can be logically defined, it is done here. But this is just the difficulty: the infinite truth of the Godhead lies far beyond the boundaries of logic, which deals only with finite truths and categories. It is well always to remember the saying of Augustine: 'God is greater and truer in our thoughts than in our words; he is greater and truer in reality than in our thoughts.'7878   'Verius cogitatur Deus quam dicitur, verius est quam cogitatur,' De Trinitate, lib. VII. c. 4, § 7. Dr. Isaac Barrow, one of the intellectual giants of the Anglican Church (died 1677), in his Defense of the Blessed Trinity (a sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, 1663), humbly acknowledges the transcendent incomprehensibility, while clearly stating the facts, of this great mystery: 'The sacred Trinity may be considered either as it is in itself wrapt up in inexplicable folds of mystery, or as it hath discovered itself operating in wonderful methods of grace towards us. As it is in itself, 'tis an object too bright and dazzling for our weak eye to fasten upon, an abyss too deep for our short reason to fathom; I can only say that we are so bound to mind it as to exercise our faith, and express our humility, in willingly believing, in submissively adoring those high mysteries which are revealed in the holy oracles concerning it by that Spirit itself which searcheth the depths of God. . . . That there is one Divine Nature or Essence, common unto three Persons, incomprehensibly united, and ineffably distinguished—united in essential attributes, distinguished by peculiar idioms and relations; all equally infinite in every divine perfection, each different from the other in order and manner of subsistence; that there is a mutual inexistence of one in all, and all in one, a communication without any deprivation or diminution in the communicant; an eternal generation, and an eternal procession, without precedence or succession, without proper causality or dependence; a Father imparting his own, and the Son receiving his Father's life, and a Spirit issuing from both, without any division or multiplication of essence—these are notions which may well puzzle our reason in conceiving how they agree, but should not stagger our faith in assenting that they are true; upon which we should meditate, not with hope to comprehend, but with dispositions to admire, veiling our faces in the presence, and prostrating our reason at the feet, of Wisdom so far transcending us.'

39The second part (ver. 29–44) contains a succinct statement of the orthodox doctrine concerning the person of Christ, as settled by the general Councils of Ephesus 431 and Chalcedon 451, and in this respect it is a valuable supplement to the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. It asserts that Christ had a rational soul (νοῦς, νεῦμα), in opposition to the Apollinarian heresy, which limited the extent of his humanity to a mere body with an animal soul inhabited by the divine Logos. It also teaches the proper relation between the divine and human nature of Christ, and excludes the Nestorian and Eutychian or Monophysite heresies, in essential agreement with the Chalcedonian Symbol.7979   See the preceding section.

III. The Damnatory Clauses.—The Athanasian Creed, in strong contrast with the uncontroversial and peaceful tone of the Apostles' Creed, begins and ends with the solemn declaration that the catholic faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation herein set forth is the indispensable condition of salvation, and that those who reject it will be lost forever. The same damnatory clause is also wedged in at the close of the first and at the beginning of the second part. This threefold anathema, in its natural historical sense, is not merely a solemn warning against the great danger of heresy,8080   So a majority of the 'Ritual Commission of the Church of England,' appointed in 1867: 'The condemnations in this Confession of Faith are to be no otherwise understood than as a solemn warning of the peril of those who willfully reject the Catholic faith.' Such a warning would be innocent and unobjectionable, indeed, but fall far short of the spirit of an age which abhorred heresy as the greatest of crimes, to be punished by death. nor, on the other hand, does it demand, as a condition of salvation, a full knowledge of, and assent to, the logical statement of the doctrines set forth (for this would condemn 40the great mass even of Christian believers); but it does mean to exclude from heaven all who reject the divine truth therein taught. It requires every one who would be saved to believe in the only true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one in essence, three in persons, and in one Jesus Christ, very God and very Man in one person.

The damnatory clauses, especially when sung or chanted in public worship, grate harshly on modern Protestant ears, and it may well be doubted whether they are consistent with true Christian charity and humility, and whether they do not transcend the legitimate authority of the Church. They have been defended by an appeal to Mark xvi. 16; but in this passage those only are condemned who reject the gospel, i.e., the great facts of Christ's salvation, not any peculiar dogma. Salvation and damnation depend exclusively on the grace of God as apprehended by a living faith, or rejected in ungrateful unbelief. The original Nicene Symbol, it is true, added a damnatory clause against the Arians, but it was afterwards justly omitted. Creeds, like hymns, lose their true force and miss their aim in proportion as they are polemical and partake of the character of manifestoes of war rather than confessions of faith and thanks to God for his mighty works.8181   'It seems very hard,' says Bishop Jeremy Taylor, 'to put uncharitableness into a creed, and so to make it become an article of faith.' Chillingworth: 'The damning clauses in St. Athanasius's Creed are most false, and also in a high degree schismatical and presumptuous.'

IV. Introduction and Use.—The Athanasian Creed acquired great authority in the Latin Church, and during the Middle Ages it was almost daily used in the morning devotions.8282   J. Bona, De divina Psalmodia, c. 16, § 18, p. 863 (as quoted by Köllner, Symbolik, I. 85): 'Illud Symbolum olim, teste Honorio, quotidie est decantatum, jam vero diebus Dominicis in totius cœtus frequentia recitatur, ut sanctæ fidei confessio ea die apertius celebretur.'

The Reformers inherited the veneration for this Symbol. It was formally adopted by the Lutheran and several of the Reformed Churches, and is approvingly mentioned in the Augsburg Confession, the Form of Concord, the Thirty-nine Articles, the Second Helvetic, the Belgic, and the Bohemian Confessions.8383   It is printed, with the two other œcumenical Creeds, in all the editions of the Lutheran 'Book of Concord,' and as an appendix to the doctrinal formulas of the Reformed Dutch Church in America. It was received into the 'Provisional Liturgy of the German Reformed Church in the United States,' published Philadelphia, 1858, but omitted in the revised edition of 1867.

41Luther was disposed to regard it as 'the most important and glorious composition since the days of the apostles.'8484   'Es ist also gefasset, dass ich nicht weiss, ob seit der Apostel Zeit in der Kirche des Neuen Testamentes etwas Wichtigeres and Herrlicheres geschrieben sei' (Luther, Werke, ed. Walch, VI. 2315).

Some Reformed divines, especially of the Anglican Church have commended it very highly; even the Puritan Richard Baxter lauded it as 'the best explication [better, statement] of the Trinity,' provided, however, 'that the damnatory sentences be excepted, or modestly expounded.'

In the Church of England it is still sung or recited in the cathedrals and parish churches on several festival days,8585   The rubric directs that the Athanasian Creed 'shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles' Creed, on Christmas-day, the Epiphany, St. Matthias, Easter-day, Ascension-day, Whitsunday, St. John the Baptist, St. James, St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew, St. Simon and St. Jude, St. Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday.' but this compulsory public use meets with growing opposition, and was almost unanimously condemned in 1867 by the royal commission appointed to consider certain changes in the Anglican Ritual.8686   By nineteen out of the twenty-seven members of the Ritual Commission. See their opinions in Stanley, l.c. pp. 73 sqq. Dean Stanley on that occasion urged no less than sixteen reasons against the public use of the Athanasian Creed. On the other hand, Dr. Pusey has openly threatened to leave the Established Church if the Athanasian Creed, and with it the doctrinal status of that Church, should be disturbed. Brewer's defense is rather feeble. Bishop Ellicott proposed, in the Convocation of Canterbury, to relieve the difficulty by a revision of the English translation, e.g. by rendering vult salvus esse, 'desires to be in a state of salvation,' instead of 'will be saved.' Others suggest an omission of the damnatory clauses. But the true remedy is either to omit the Athanasian Creed altogether from the Book of Common Prayer, or to leave its public use optional.

The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, when, in consequence of the American Revolution, it set up a separate organization in the Convention of 1785 at Philadelphia, resolved to remodel the Liturgy (in 'the Proposed Book'), and, among other changes, excluded from it both the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds, and struck out from the Apostles' Creed the clause, 'He descended into hell.' The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, before consenting to ordain bishops for America, requested their brethren to restore the clause of the Apostles' Creed, and 'to give to the other two Creeds a place in their Book of Common Prayer, even though the use of them should be left discretional.'8787   Bishop White (of Philadelphia): Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, New York, 2d ed. 1836, pp 305, 306. In the Convention held at Wilmington Del., October 10, 421786, the request of the English prelates, as to the first two points, was acceded to, but 'the restoration of the Athanasian Creed was negatived.' As the opposition to this Creed was quite determined, especially on account of the damnatory clauses, the mother Church acquiesced in the omission, and granted the desired Episcopal ordination.8888   White's Memoires, 26, 27. Bishop White himself was decidedly opposed to the Creed, as was Bishop Provost, of New York. The Archbishop of Canterbury told them afterwards: 'Some wish that you had retained the Athanasian Creed; but I can not say that I feel uneasy on the subject, for you have retained the doctrine of it in your Liturgy, and as to the Creed itself, I suppose you thought it not suited to the use of a congregation' (l.c. 117, 118).

In the Greek Church it never obtained general currency or formal ecclesiastical sanction, and is only used for private devotion, with the omission of the clause on the double procession of the Spirit.8989   Additional Lit. on the Athan. Creed.—Swainson: The Nic. and App. Creeds, with an Account of the Creed of St. Athanasius, London, 1894.—Burn in Robinson's Texts and Studies, 1896.—Ommanney, London, 1897, is inclined to ascribe it to Vincens of Lerins about 450.—Bp. Gore, Oxf., 1897.—J. B. Smith in Contemp. Rev., Apr., 1901.—Oxenham, London, 1902.—J. A. Robinson, London, 1905.—Bp. Jayne, 1905.—W. S. Bishop: Devel. of Trin. Doctr. in the Nic. and Athanas. Creeds, 1910.—H. Brewer (S.J.), Das sogenannte Athanas. Glaubensbekenntniss, 1909.—Burkitt, 1912.—Loofs in Herzog, ii, 177–194, who places its probable origin in Southern France, 450–600.—Badcock inclines to the Ambrosian authorship and calls it a hymn to be memorized. The Abp. of Canterbury, following a resolution of the Lambeth Conference, 1908, appointed a commission of seven, including Bp. Wordsworth of Salisbury, Prof. Swete and Dean Kilpatrick, to prepare a revision of the English translation of the Athanas. Creed. Their report proposed thirteen minor changes. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer prescribed that the Creed be said or sung at morning prayer on thirteen feasts, including Christmas, Easter, Ascension day, and Trinity Sunday. By the order of both Convocations it was omitted and a new rubric inserted, making its use optional on Trinity Sunday. In the "Revised" Book of Common Prayer, recommended by the House of Bishops and rejected by Parliament, 1928, the following rubrics are printed side by side, making the use of the creed optional: "may be sung or said at morning or evening prayer" on the first Sunday after Christmas, the feast of the Annunciation, and Trinity Sunday.  2.  On Trinity Sunday, the recitation beginning with clause 3, "The Catholic faith is this," etc., and closing with clause 28.  3.  On the Sunday after Christmas and Ascension day, the recitation being from clause 30 to clause 41.  4.  On all the thirteen festivals mentioned in the original Book of Common Prayer. A "revised translation is added" which differs from the translation of 1909. See the Translation of 1909 with Latin Text, by H. Turner, London, 1910, 15 pp. and 1918, 23 pp. Also the Book of Com. Prayer with the Additions and Deviations Proposed in 1928, with Pref., Cambr. Press, 1928. By Roman Cath. usage the creed is prescribed for Trinity Sunday and at prime on all Sundays except Easter and such other feasts for which a special service is provided.—Ed.

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