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Athanasian Creed


I. Title not Justified.

Not an Ecumenical Creed (§ 1).

Not Athanasian (§ 2).

II. History of Discussion.

Theories of Origin (§ 1).

Facts as to Manuscripts (§ 2).

Ancient Commentaries (§ 3).

The Theory of Two Sources (§ 4).

Parallels to the Athanasian Creed (§ 5).

III. Present Status.

Attempted Conclusion (§ 1).

Controversy in Anglican Church § 2).

The so-called Athanasian Creed (Symbolum Athanasianum, also called, from its first word, Symbolum Quicunque) is an exposition of the catholic faith which, from the Carolingian period, in some places earlier than in others, began to be sung at prime every day throughout the Western Church. It was not then called a “symbol” or creed; the passage in Theodulf of Orléans (De spiritu sancto, MPL, cv, 247) which was supposed so to designate it is corrupt, and Hincmar’s reference to “Athanasius speaking in the creed” (De prædestinatione, MPL, cxxv, 374) has been shown to refer, not to this, but to the so-called fides Romanorum (see below, II, § 5).

I. Title not Justified.

1. Note an Ecumenical Creed.

None of the manuscripts of the ninth or tenth century, no certain quotation of this date, none of the old commentaries, call it a creed And even later, Thomas Aquinas expressly says that Athanasius wrote his exposition not in the manner of a creed but rather in that of a teacher’s lesson (Summa, IIb, 1, 10, 3). And he is right. Nothing was originally considered a creed, strictly speaking, but the baptismal profession of faith, and only a composition of similar structure could be accounted a creed, or more properly, a form of the creed. The Quicunque can not come under this head; it is a theological exposition of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation found in the creed. It is natural, however, that its use in public worship should approximate it in the popular mind to the Apostles’ Creed used at baptism, and the Nicene used in the mass. As late as 1287, it is true, a diocesan synod at Exeter refers to the “articles of faith as they are contained in the psalm Quicunque vult and in both symbols;” but in the thirteenth century the name of creed was not seldom applied to it. Durandus (d. 1296) says “the creed is three-fold;” and Alexander of Hales in like manner, writing in England about 1230, says, “there are three symbols, one of the apostles; one of the Fathers, which is sung in the mass; and the third, the Athanasian, which is sung at prime.” Accordingly the Reformers, when their time came, had learned to receive these old confessions as “the three creeds” of catholic Christendom. They did not know that the Greek Church had neither the Apostles’ nor the Athanasian, and the later Lutherans included all three as a universal heritage in their Corpus doctrinæ. So also Zwingli, the French and Belgic Confessions, and the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles expressly accepted the three creeds as ecumenical. But the Eastern Churches do not know the Athanasian as an authority, in spite of the assertion of the Russian theologian Macarius. Of the Reformed Churches, those which accept the Westminster Confession, while agreeing with its general teaching, do not accept it formally; the American Episcopal Church has dropped it from the prayer-book; the Churches of Puritan origin and the Methodists do not use it; so also the Swiss and French Reformed, to say nothing of the antitrinitarian bodies.

2. Not Athanasian.

But the Athanasian Creed is not only not ecumenical; it is not even Athanasian. Since Gerhard Voss demonstrated this in 1642, the Athanasian origin of it has been practically abandoned by scholars, even those of the Roman Catholic Church. There are decisive grounds against it: it was composed in Latin—the Greek forms, which can be shown to be as late as the thirteenth century, are mere translations; Athanasius himself, as well as his biographers, know nothing of it—the Greeks mention it first about 1200; and it expresses things of later origin, such as the final settlement of not only the Trinitarian but the Apollinarian and Christological 339controversies, the dogmatic formulas of Augustine, and the doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Spirit. The evidence of the manuscripts, too, is insufficient. Several of them give it without any author’s name, and of the seven oldest commentaries only two mention Athanasius in the title and one in the introduction. Besides all this, it is not difficult to account for its attribution to Athanasius.

II. History of Discussion.

1. Theories of Origin.

But, however generally these facts are recognized, there is little positive agreement as to any other origin. The period of study of the subject which reaches from Voss to 1870 produced a bewildering variety of hypotheses. Voss himself conjectured that it grew up on Frankish soil under Pepin or Charlemagne, as a consequence of the controversies over the filioque; his contemporary, Archbishop Ussher, attributed it to an unknown author before the middle of the fifth century; and Quesnel to Vigilius of Thapsus (c. 500), in which he was followed by Cave, Du Pin, and many others. Antelmius was for Vincent of Lerins (c. 430); Muratori for Venantius Fortunatus (d. c. 600); Lequien doubtfully suggested Pope Anastasius I (d. 401); Waterland, whose book is the most learned and authoritative of the older discussions, favored Hilary of Arles (d. 449); and Speroni referred it to Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367).

A new period in the study of the subject opened with 1870, the impulse coming from England, where the creed is publicly recited in the Anglican liturgy on certain days, not without opposition. The commission for the revision of the Prayer-book in 1689 had recommended the insertion of a note explaining away the ” damnatory clauses,” and the question of its retention came up again before the Ritual Commission appointed in 1867, with no practical result except to stir up fresh interest in the creed and advance its study. Ffoulkes tried in 1871 to assign it to Paulinus of Aquileia (d. 802); Swainson published a learned, if not uniformly satisfactory, book in 1875, coming to the conclusion that it was a composite product, which assumed its present form between 860 and 870. Lumby’s book, published in 1873, was in substantial agreement with Swainson, dating the crystallizing process between 813 and 870. The theory of two sources was also accepted, with notable modifications, by Harnack in his Dogmengeschichte. He saw in the Trinitarian section an exposition of the Nicene Creed, growing up by degrees in Gaul from the fifth century and assuming its present form in the sixth; to this was added perhaps in the eighth or ninth the second half, about whose origin nothing can be certainly said except that it is older than the ninth century. Ommanney and Burn added new material but no new results. An independent French investigation by Morin urged the claims of Pope Anastasius II (496-498).

2. Facts as to Manuscripts.

Of these hypotheses, those which point to Anastasius I and II do not deserve serious consideration, even if they receive a specious attractiveness from the fact that some of the manuscripts (though the later ones) give the name, and a thirteenth century compilation treats ” of the third symbol, that of Pope Ansatasius” ; but Morin himself admits that without this no one would ever have thought of the theory, which has really no other support than the stupidity of medieval copyists. In order to form an opinion of the other theories, it is necessary to glance at the facts as to the manuscripts. Down to 1870 eight were named as ancient, viz.: (1) a psalter in the Cottonian Library, which Ussher put in the time of Gregory the Great; (2) the Psalterium Aethelstani in the same collection, dated by Ussher 703; (3) the Codex Cobertinus 784, dated by Montfaucon c. 750; (4) the Sangermanensis, about the same age; (5), the Codex regius 4908, c. 800; (6) the Codex Colbertinus 1339, called Psalterium Caroli Calvi; (7) the Codex Ambrosianus, which Muratori in 1697 thought to be over a thousand years old; (8) a psalter in Vienna, presented by a Frankish king Charles to a pope Adrian, thought by Waterland to belong to the first year of Adrian I (772). Recent investigations have altered the status of several of these. That supposed to be the oldest, the one named first above, lost after Uesher’s time and rediscovered in 1871 in the so-called Utrecht Psalter, is now believed by experts to be of the ninth century, and thus not much older than (6), which was certainly written between 842 and 869. The second is now known to be a compilation of three pieces, that containing the creed being later than the ninth century. The fourth can no longer be used as a basis for argument, since it is lost. The fifth may not be older than (6); and (8) is considered to belong to the time of Charles the Bald and Adrian II (867-872). Of all these manuscripts, then, only that numbered (7) above can be shown to be older than 800—as not only Muratori, Waterland, and Montfaucon believed it to be, but also such modern scholars as Ceriani, Reifferscheid, and Krusch have maintained. Yet this is not the only one to place the origin further back, if only a little further, than 800. Two more must now be added: (9) Paris. 13, 159, a psalter from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, not the same as (4), assigned on strong grounds to c. 795; and (10) Paris. 1451, a collection of canons dated with apparent probability 796. The manuscripts, then, place the date of the Quicunque at least as early as the end of the eighth century.

3. Ancient Commentaries.

The same evidence is given by the oldest commentaries. Waterland and the older students of the question knew of only one commentary older than that attributed to Bruno of Würzburg (d. 1045)—the so-called Expositio Fortunati. The latter, first published by Muratori from the Codex Ambrosianus 79 (eleventh or twelfth century), was ascribed by most of the earlier investigators to Venantius Fortunatus (d. c. 600), and regarded as the oldest evidence of the existence of the Quicunque. At present there are sixteen extant manuscripts of this Expositio, besides three codices which give the bulk of it in the form of glosses. Its ascription to Fortunatus, resting only on the comparatively late authority of the Codex Ambrosianus, and easily to be explained there by the fact that the codex begins with his exposition 340of the Apostles’ Creed, has now been abandoned. The only other author’s name is offered by a lost manuscript from St. Gall, printed by Melchior Goldast in 1610, which calls it Euphronii presbyteri expositio. Morin identified this Euphronius with the bishop of Tours of that name (555–572), who was well known to Venantius Fortunatus. Burn is inclined to see its author in Euphronius of Autun, who built the church of St. Symphorian there about 450. But this positive criticism is very hazardous in view of the number of anonymous manuscripts, to say nothing of the frequency of the name Euphronius in Gaul. A more important question is that of its date. An attempt has been made to decide this from the fact that the author explains the words in sæculo in section 31 of the creed (Schaff, Creeds, ii, New York, 1887, 68) by “that is, in the sixth millennium [sextum miliarium] in which we now are.” This has been supposed to indicate 799 as the terminus ante quem; but no stress can be laid on this; people spoke of the sextum miliarium, with Augustine, after 799 as well as before it. Just as little can be made of its supposed dependence on Alcuin for a terminus post quem, as Ommanney has shown. The only sure limit of date might be supposed to be given by the fact that the oldest manuscript (Bodleian. Junius 25) belongs to the ninth century—probably the beginning—were it not that a whole group of other ancient commentaries allow us to put the terminus ante quem further back. Ommanney has rendered a signal service to the investigation by the discovery of these, and Burn has followed independently. These are, in the order of the dates given by Burn: (2) the Expositio Parisiensis, certainly written between Gregory the Great and 900; (3) the Expositio Trecensis, assigned by Ommanney to the seventh, by Burn to the end of the eighth century; (4) the Expositio Oratorii, found in the same manuscript, dated by Ommanney about 700, by Burn a century later; (5) the Stabulensis, ninth century according to Burn; (6) the Buheriana, based on (4), and written, according to Ommanney, in the first half of the eighth century, to Burn, in the ninth; and (7) the Aurelianensis, first published in 1892 by Cuissard, who attributes it to Theodulf of Orléans, while Burn is for an author of the middle or end of the ninth century. Now, of all these commentaries, only the Expositio Fortunati and the Trecensis (which in its first part is very dependent on the former), do not evidence a knowledge of the entire Quicunque. To be sure, Burn’s dates—to say nothing of Ommanney’s—are by no means certain. But none the less these commentaries are of great importance as helps to a decision of the difficult problem under discussion. The last-named, one of the latest (because dependent on three or four of the others), is preserved in a manuscript which Delisle assigns to the ninth century; and the Trecensis, used in the compilation of this, presupposes in its turn the Expositio Fortunati. This being so, it is not too bold a conclusion that the latter, everything about which shows it to be the oldest of them all, belongs to the period before 799. If this is granted, one may go a little further, and point out that since its author says nothing about the approaching end of the sextum miliarium, he did not live very near that date.

4. The Theory of Two Sources.

Both the Expositio Fortunati and the Expositio Trecensis leave certain verses of the Quicunque without mention. Are we to conclude that the whole of it was not known to their authors? We have seen how far the testimony of the manuscripts supports the theses of Ffoulkes, Swainson, and Lumby; our Quicunque was definitely in existence before the end of the eighth century. But that does not in itself militate against the acceptance of the theory of two sources; Harnack considers it possible that both halves of our present creed were found in conjunction in the eighth century, or even earlier. We must therefore look further into that theory. Its main support is the manuscript referred to above as (3), the Codex Colbertinus 784 (now known as Paris. 3836), which all authorities agree to place in the eighth century, Swainson dating it as early as 730. In this manuscript the Christological portion of the Athanasian Creed (though with noteworthy verbal variants) is found under the rubricated caption Hæc invini treveris in uno libro scriptum sic incipiente Domini nostri Jesu Christi fideliter credat et reliqua. Now, assuming that the scribe copied exactly what he found in the Treves manuscript, Swainson, Lumby, and Harnack see in this text, which goes well back into the eighth century (possibly to 730), distinct documentary evidence for the separate existence of the Christological half of the Quicunque. But it does not seem to have been observed that the manuscript will not sustain this contention. The copyist put down in red ink, as his introduction, words which actually form a part of the verse which makes, in the complete creed, the transition from the Trinitarian to the Christological section. The “Treves fragment” is thus really a fragment—part of a whole whose first half stood in the same relation to our Quicunque as the extant second half. There is nothing surprising in this conclusion. That a preacher (and Swainson himself has noticed that this fragment is clearly a fragment of a sermon) should have undertaken to set forth “the faith,” and then have spoken only of the Incarnation and not of the Trinity, would have been much more surprising. But the conclusion, if not surprising, is none the less weighty; for it takes both halves of the creed distinctly further back than any of the manuscripts described above. We do not know how old the Treves manuscript was when the writer of Paris. 3836 copied it in 750 or 730; but there is room for a logical train of reasoning which leads to valuable results. It is obviously improbable that a copyist with a complete manuscript before him should copy only the last part, beginning in the middle of a sentence; therefore the Treves manuscript (or its original) must have been defective. This train of thought gains in force when we notice that the “fragment” represents exactly a third of our Quicunque. On the assumption that the two first pages of the original went down to incarnationem quoque, the third beginning 341with Domini nostri Jesu Christi, the loss of the first part would fully explain the condition of Paris. 3836. It follows further that the Codex Trevirensis, already defective about 750, was more probably than not relatively old then, and the manuscript evidence actually confirms the supposition that the Treves fragment must originally have been preceded by something answering to the first section of the present Quicunque. The theory of two sources breaks down, therefore, at its strongest point—for the other arguments, from both external and internal evidence, are very weak.

5. Parallels to the Athanasian Creed.

But the interest of the Codex Paris. 3836 is not exhausted by its decisive evidence against the two-source theory, or by the remarkable text which it offers. It brings up the question whether the sermo contained in the Codex Trevirensis was taken from the Quicunque, or whether the latter in some way grew out of this and other like sermons. The Apostles’ Creed in its simplicity was the standard of faith for the Western Church at least, long after the Trinitarian and Christological controversies had carried dogmatic development far beyond its simple words. Popular misconceptions of the meaning of those words had called for more precise definitions in numerous sermons on the creed still extant. To supply these is Augustine’s aim in his Sermones de traditione symboli (212, 213, 214), which contain expressions reminding of the Quicunque. The same is true of the pseudo-Augustinian 244, attributed by the Benedictine editors and some modern scholars to Cæsarius of Arles; and whether or not he wrote it, it is a product of the Lerins school, in which similar formulas were current. Thus Vincent himself recalls our phrases in his Commonitorium (434), and other parallels are found in Faustus of Riez, abbot of Lerins 433-462, and in Eucherius of Lyons, who was a monk there from 416 to 434. But parallels of thought are to be expected wherever these traditional theologians discussed the Trinity or the Incarnation; and we need only mention here those authors who offer us not merely a parallel of thought but a close resemblance in phrasing outside of the consecrated formulas of definition. Besides Augustine, to whom, as has long been recognized, not a few phrases go back, and Vincent of Lerins, those who deserve especial mention are Vigilius of Thapsus (or the author who passes under his name), Isidore of Seville, and Paulinus of Aquileia. In the writings more or less doubtfully ascribed to Vigilius, especially the three books against Varimadus and the twelve on the Trinity, we find at least three sections (13, 15, 17) almost word for word, and a confession of faith—the so-called fides Romanorum—which touches the Quicunque rather in general structure than in details. Isidore, writing on the rule of faith, uses these similar expressions directly as an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. The oration of Paulinus at the Council of Friuli has led to his identification by Ffoulkes as the original author; in it expressions parallel to no less than twelve verses of the Quicunque occur. The fact that Paulinus was addressing a council reminds us that many synodal confessions of faith had a life and an influence far beyond their original purpose, being adopted and copied as happy formulations of the faith. Thus the Council of Arles (813) adopted the Confession of Toledo (633), and many more examples might be given. The two most important of these confessions for our subject are those described in the newer investigations as fides Romanorum and symbolum Damasi. The latter (included under this obviously misleading title among the works of Jerome) is specially interesting not only because it reminds in several places of the Quicunque, and because it is closely related to the Toledan confession of 633, but also because a resemblance may easily be traced here and there to the Expositio Fortunati. Still more important is the other, which, under the title Fides catholica ecclesiæ Romanæ, can be traced in manuscript to the sixth century. It was cited as Athanasian by Hincmar and by Ratramnus in passages which used to be thought to refer to the Quicunque; its whole structure is worth notice—it begins with a Trinitarian section, reminding us of our subject, and this is followed by a Christological one, which, exactly as in the Quicunque and in the Toledan confession of 633, goes down to the last judgment.

III. Present Status.

1. Attempted Conclusion.

The question whether such expositions of the faith, or any of them, presuppose the existence of the Quicunque is the real question at the present stage of the discussion. If they do, its author must have lived very early; if they do not, its development forms only a part of the varied development of these expository formula’s down through the ages. The decision for the first alternative would be easy if any of the theologians named above, before Paulinus, could be shown to have been acquainted with our Quicunque. But this acquaintance is, for various reasons, not probable in the cases of Paulinus, of Cæsarius of Arles, of Vincent of Lerins, of Vigilius of Thapsus, or of Isidore. Many reasons, for which there is not space here, go to make us think further that the same thing applies to the writer of the Treves fragment; and, after all, the weight of evidence seems in favor of the second alternative mentioned. A long-continued and gradual process, in which the sermo Trevirensis is but one stage, seems the inevitable conclusion. Much remains to be done before the various steps of the process can be determined. But one of the most important data for this further research is the famous canon of the Council of Autun: ” If any priest, deacon, subdeacon, or cleric does not receive the creed which has been handed down from the Apostles as inspired by the Holy Spirit and the creed of bishop St. Athanasius without criticism, he is to be condemned by his bishop.” Waterland and the older investigators had reason to doubt its authenticity, which, however, modern research has confirmed. The council was demonstrably held under the presidency of Leodegar, bishop of Autun 659-683, but its date is not positively known; the best we can do is to assign it roughly to 670, as the middle of Leodegar’s episcopate.

If, then, the Quicunque was ascribed to Athanasius 342about 670, a still earlier date for the conclusion of its formation may well be looked for. The question how much earlier this may be involves the question of its birthplace—for productions were possible in seventh century Italy and Spain which were impossible in the contemporary Merovingian north. Italy is excluded by the fact that the copyist of the Codex Paris. 3836 was not familiar with the Quicunque; nothing speaks for Africa; and against Spain may be urged the fact that it seems to have been unknown there at a period later than that at which the canon of Autun shows it had begun to play an important part in the Frankish regions. Besides this negative evidence for a Gallic origin, there is the positive one of the frequent echoes of it in the fifth century theologians of southern Gaul. But if it grew up in France at all, it was not the Merovingian theologians who could give it its final shape; the place of this development is to be sought in the south of France, between c. 450 and 600—so that the sermo Trevirensis may very well belong to the fifth century. The new importance and significance which the document assumed in the Carolingian period does not require belief in a late authorship; it is sufficiently explained by the fact that the Carolingian culture knew how to make full use of this heritage of the past, which had remained isolated and inoperative in Gaul during the confusion of the Merovingian period. The Quicunque is no product of the early Middle Ages; it is a precipitate resulting from the early western development of expositions of the creed. But its history shows how in this process the theologians’ exposition of the faith has been confounded with the faith itself to such an extent as to preclude its acceptance as a final authority by evangelical Christians.

(F. Loofs.)

2. Controversy in Anglican Church.

The Athanasian Creed is ordered to be recited at morning prayer in the Church of England, in place of the Apostles’, on a number of greater festivals. In the antidogmatic period when the American revision of the Prayer-book was made, it was wholly omitted; and the same sort of tendency to avoid positive expressions of strong belief, which might give offense to those who held different views, has caused attempts to be made at different times since 1867, if not to remove it from the English Prayer-book, at least to render its recitation optional, to omit the so-called ” damnatory clauses,” or by a retranslation to avoid the very possible misconstruction which might be placed upon them. Of this movement Dean Stanley was one of the principal leaders, and Canon Liddon, supported by a large number who dreaded any tampering with the standards of faith, was one of the principal opponents. The opposition has been so determined and vigorous that all propositions for a change have thus far been defeated.

Bibliography:The text in six variant forms is in MPG, xxviii; in the Utrecht Psalter, London, 1875 (a facsimile ed. of the codex); cf. T. Hardy, Reports on the Athanasian Creed in Connection with the Utrecht Psalter, ib. 1873; and is edited by A. E. Burn, The Athanasian Creed and its Early Commentaries, in TS, vol. iv, part 1, Cambridge, 1896; also to be found in Schaff, Creeds, ii, 66-71. For the history of the creed consult: G. D. W. Ommanney, Dissertation on the Athanasian Creed, London, 1897 (critical and historical); D. Waterland, Critical History of the Athanasian Creed, Cambridge, 1723, revised ed. by J. R. King, London, 1870 (the fullest discussion, but in part antiquated); E. S. Ffoulkes, The Athanasian Creed, ib. 1871 (historical); C. A. Heurtley, Harmonia Symbolica, Oxford, 1858; idem, The Athanasian Creed, ib. 1872; Schaff, Creeds, i. 34-42; idem, Christian Church, iii, 689-698; G. Morin, Les Origines du Symbole Quicunque, in Revue des questions religieuses, v (1891), No. 9; Harnack, Dogma, iv, 133 sqq., 156, v, 302-303, vii, 174. For the debate in the Anglican Church consult: A. P. Stanley, The Athanasian Creed, London, 1871 (adverse to the use of the creed); J. S. Brewer, Origin of the Athanasian Creed, ib. 1872 (defensive); Memorials to the Primates and Petition to Convocation . . . for Some Change either in the Compulsory Rubric or in the Damnatory Clauses, Chester, 1872; G. A. Willan, The Athanasian Creed not Damnatory, London, 1872; The Athanasian Creed; Suggestions . . . by a lay Member of the General Synod, Dublin, 1876; C. A. Swainson, The Nicene and Apostles’ Creed . . . with an Account of . . . The Creed of St. Athanasius;” London, 1894 (historical and critical, but bearing on the Anglican discussion); F. N. Oxenham, The Athanasian Creed: Should it be Recited? and is it True? ib. 1902.

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