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What is the Athanasian Creed?

What is the Athanasian Creed?    

Trinitas quae dominus est. This Augustinian maxim—translating to the somewhat awkward “The Trinity the Lord is” (the English being no less confusing than the Latin, perhaps!)—is an attempt by the Church to describe the Triune nature of the One God of our confession. I think what the maxim is getting at is something like “Whatever the Lord is, it is the Trinity,” or maybe “The Trinity is what the Lord is.” None of these make for great prose, but they communicate something of deep importance, perhaps the most important truth in the universe. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Needless to say, the concept of the Trinity has been a stumbling block to many. I won’t try to articulate what the Trinity is here (that noble task has already been addressed in this blog post )[1]; rather, I simply want to point out the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity for us Christians.

“The Trinity the Lord is.” As catholic, creedal Christians, we believe that whoever it is that “the Lord” refers to, whatever “God” is, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may not fully understand how that works or what that exactly means, but we know, as truth revealed to us in Scripture, revealed in the life and witness of Our Lord Jesus, and revealed in the handing down of the catholic faith by His Body the Church, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Athanasian Creed provides language with which we can begin to articulate the finally inexpressible truth of God’s Triune nature. Traditionally attributed to the great Church Father and defender of orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria, the Creed (sometimes called the Quicunque Vult) articulates the Church’s belief about the Three-in-Oneness of the Godhead. The Creed begins with the strong assertion: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.” And how does the Creed summarize the content of this Faith? “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.”

Our belief in the Trinity is so crucial because without the Trinity, we cannot be saved. Another popular phrase during the early Church period was “what is not assumed cannot be redeemed.” This phrase expresses the fundamental truth that sinful humanity cannot, on its own, save itself. The dead cannot bring the dead to life. Rather, in order for us to be saved, our very humanity must be united to God, which is exactly what happened when the Son took on flesh at the Incarnation. God the Son, the Spotless Victim, has “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.”[2] The second half of the Athanasian Creed addresses this point when it stresses the fullness of Christ’s humanity and His divinity.

This is why the Trinity plays such an important role in our baptism. In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we are reconciled to the Father as we die with Christ the Son and are raised into new birth in the Holy Spirit.[3] Jesus took on the stuff of humanity, our sinful flesh, and redeemed it by uniting Himself to it and offering it to God at His Crucifixion. God has saved us by redeeming the stuff of humanity and Resurrecting it to new life in the Spirit, uniting us to Him.

Hopefully you can now begin to see why the Church is so insistent about the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed was probably written as a defense against heretical teachings that denied the Triune nature of the Lord; the Creed responded so forcefully not because the Church is legalistic or fascistic, demanding absolute conformity for the sake of authoritarianism. Rather, the Church understands rightly, and the Athanasian Creed helps us to understand, that without the Blessed Trinity, we have no hope for salvation. For this salvation to operate, as the Athanasian Creed insists, each member of the Trinity must be fully God. If you lose the Trinity, you lose the content of the “Catholic Faith.” You lose the Truth that is at the Center of the universe; the Truth of the God who saves us and reconciles us to Him.

In many churches, the Athanasian Creed is recited each year on Trinity Sunday. Whether or not this is not the practice of your parish, I would encourage you to visit the Athanasian Creed (conveniently located on page 864 in your Prayer Book!) and spend some time praying over it, for, in the words of the Creed itself, “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.” 

[1] This post also helpfully articulates the important truth that God in God’s essence is of course neither male nor female, but “the source of all genderedness.”

[2] 1 Peter 3:18.

[3] BCP, 306.

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