Monday, March 23, 2015

Part One: Opening by Giving Offence

QUICUMQUE vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem:
Quam nisi quisque integram inviolatamque servaverit, absque dubio in aeternam peribit.

Whosoever wishes to be saved, above all, must hold the catholic faith:
Unless he keep it whole and uncorrupted, he will without doubt be lost forever.

(Brief note on the text: The Latin text comes from, the translation is entirely my own.)

In this part of the commentary, I consider the first two lines of the Athanasian Creed. The Creed itself is also known by the two words with which it begins, “Quicumque vult”, “Whosoever wishes”. I will refer to it this way too, from time to time. This beginning is quite bold because of what it posits, but also because other ancient creeds simply began with statements of faith. Instead, the Quicumque vult tells us that what follows will be necessary to salvation. But from what do we even need saving?

Back in my University days, my professor of religious philosophy, Keith Yandell, told us something striking. He said all religions look at the world and propose a diagnosis. And then they follow up with a prescription. Perhaps you have diagnosed a surfeit of suffering in the world, and your prescription is to cure it via eliminating craving and ignorance. Or perhaps you diagnose the problem as being one of suffering due to Original Sin, and you prescribe Faith in the Messiah as the cure. And so on. It is remarkable then that the Athanasian Creed begins with the prescription. If you don’t want to die, you must take this medicine. But, again, what ails me that I must take the medicine?

The opening asks a lot of the reader/reciter. It expects them to not only know the disease, but also to accept that the qualifications of the Doctor, so to speak. It also asks the reader to accept the notion that the cure involves, in some degree, “right belief”. It seems to me that a case can be made that this isn't a document intended for an external audience, but an internal one. The author believes his patients already know and accept the diagnosis, and he is presenting the cure. It makes it an interesting exercise then when someone who either doesn't know or doesn't accept the diagnosis (or even that they are ill) encounters the Quicumque vult.

“You have to take this pill right now, or you will die!”

“Buzz off, Doc, who even asked you? And anyway, how are you even a doctor? You could just be some quack!”

I’ll come back to that, as it is worth addressing. But for now, as I said, the diagnosis is not to be found in this creed. It is the diagnosis of Original Sin: because we are born into a state of exile from God’s Original Justice we are inclined to sin, and if nothing is done to reverse that, we will be divorced from God eternally in Hell. The cure isn't just right belief, but right belief in a very specific, Trinitarian formulation of God.

The notion that right belief is important goes back to the New Testament. Jesus says in John 3:18 “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (NABRE). John 5:24, and Mark 16:16 are also on point here. Right belief is pretty foundational. Paul speaks of being justified by Faith, and goes so far as to say in Galatians that if anyone, even an angel, preaches wrong belief they are to be rejected. And the Epistle of James carries it further by admonishing that right belief also entails right action. We’ll discuss the intersection between James and Matthew 25 later when we come to the end of the Creed.

Still, what constituted right belief has developed over time. Justin Martyr (d 165 AD) wrote about one belief that was clearly not necessarily essential. Justin was a chilliast, which means he believed in a literal thousand year reign of Jesus (see Rev 20:1-6), but he conceded in his Dialogue with Trypho “many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.” Yet, his contemporary, Irenaeus (d. 202 AD) felt compelled to pen Against Heresies to condemn the various flavours of Gnosticism as dangerously wrong beliefs. By the time of St Athanasius people were still very committed to the notion of right belief, but often in condemning one wrong belief they became guilty of others. Eutyches comes to mind here on that point, and I mention him also because he was a possible contemporary of the author of this Creed. Creeds had to keep pace then with the ever-changing landscape. In some ways the Councils that were directly or indirectly responsible for the Creeds couldn't help this, because their primary purpose was to categorically state what wasn't true about the nature of Christ.

But let’s return to the Creed itself, and why we should even listen to the author, or if his words and ideas are not even worthy of notice.The author assumes a lot. Isn’t the fact that he does this a little offensive? More to the point, aren't the assumptions themselves also offensive? He assumes we have and share the same frame of reference, although I argue that is something he was reasonable to assume. I argue he’s writing to, pun intended here, the already converted. However, the underlying diagnosis or even his or the Church’s right to diagnose it … is that offensive? I am going to say that it is, and that is by design. Partly it’s true of all religions. They all assume they are right, that they have arrived at the right diagnosis. So it’s sort of “baked into” any religious approach. But with respect to Christianity it seems to me it’s a feature and not a bug. If we look at 1 Corinthians 1:18 (and its following verses) we see that the Cross, the central mystery of the Faith is meant to confound and even offend. Some of Jesus’ own followers we deeply offended by his teaching in John 6 and left. It is also the case that in John 8 (and elsewhere in the Gospels) he offends, deliberately, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He intended to offend, and it is intentional that the Gospel is upsetting. Jesus is a Doctor, to be sure, but he’s much more like House than we care to admit.

What do with that is delayed in its answer in the Quicumque vult. Before we can ponder the implications, the author feels he needs to establish in quite extensive detail just who Jesus, who God, is.

UPDATE: Honourable mention goes to my friend Bruce who pointed out I missed a golden opportunity to cite the sword verse, i.e. Matthew 10:34, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword." (NABRE)

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Athanasian Creed - Introduction



Before I begin my commentary it's worthwhile discussing just what is a Creed. A creed, taken from the Latin word "Credo" or "I believe" is an affirmation of Faith. The Creeds people are most familiar with, the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, are positive affirmations. I don't necessarily mean positive in the sense of a value judgement, but rather as statement of what one does believe rather than what one does not believe. The Athanasian Creed, we'll see, differs from this in that it actually condemns beliefs at odds with its positive assertions.

The earliest Creed seems to be the Old Roman Creed. It reads very similarly to the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty;
And in Christ Jesus, his only son, our lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
Rose from death on the third day,
Ascended into heaven,
Sits at the Father's right, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead;
And in the Holy Spirit,
The Holy Church,
The remission of sin,
The resurrection of the flesh.

The above is my translation of the Latin. Greek adds "Everlasting Life" at the end.

The date of this Creed is debated, but with its earliest attestation in writing being early 4th century, it probably dates from there or late 3rd century.

When we get to the actual text of the Athanasian Creed, I'll develop an argument that "right belief" is central to Christianity and is part of its DNA. For now, I'll have to leave you with that as a teaser. If we accept it, for now, for the sake of argument we can see the value in a Creed. This lays out what that right belief is. And since it positively asserts something, or in fact some things it necessarily implies what we do not believe in. Since the Old Roman Creed asserts that Jesus is God's only son, then we could not say we believed that Jesus was a daughter, or that God has or had other sons. We could not say that Jesus had a mortal father, since this asserts his father was the Holy Spirit.

But a failing, if I could use that term, of this approach is that it necessarily can't cover everything. Consider that nothing about Christ's Divinity is affirmed or denied. Interestingly, soteriology seems only to be hinted at by the Greek text's addition. But even so, one might believe all the preceding statements, but what implication that has for the believer, or anyone else, is not fully fleshed out.

This would increasingly become a problem as time when by. As divisions over Christology increased, not only were Councils convocted to address the question, but Creeds of greater length and complexity were composed to state what the correct "right belief" was, and in the case of the Athanasian Creed, what that implied soteriologically for the believer and the non-believer.

As an aside, to give you an idea of how length and complexity of Creeds evolved, I link you to Pope Paul VI's Creed of the People of God.

The Athanasian Creed as a Whole and Its Context

The Creed was originally attributed to St Athanasius probably because of its very detailed and forthright assertions about the Trinity. During the divisions over Christology I hinted at before, Athanasius was one of the foremost defenders of the Trinitarian Doctrine. But what exactly was the debate he was involved in?

Arius, who lived from about 240 to 336 AD, was a priest in diocese of Alexandria, Egypt. He posited that Christ was subordinate to God. To Arius, Jesus was a created being, and in this sense was a "creature." Arius put forth that Jesus was not eternally begotten, but instead the Logos was created before the rest of the world was. On the one hand this is easy to comprehend. It preserves a very strict monotheism, as there's only one God, the Father. That also makes it easier to explain. On the other hand it seems to fly in the face of certain assertions in Scripture (although to be fair, they point to others to make their case) where Jesus even goes so far as to claim to be YHWH, as in John 8. Indeed, John seems to be the most Trinitarian of the canonical Gospels,

The practical effect was of division. Arian bishops expelled catholic bishops, and vice versa, and soon it was too divisive to ignore. The newly Christian emperor Constantine, who seems to held Arian views himself, couldn't ignore this any longer. The First Oecumenical Council was convoked in 325 to try to settle it. The Council would, after much debate (it lasted from May to August of 325), declare that Jesus was true God, co-eternal with the Father, begotten of the same substance as the Father not made, and that these declarations best reflected the Apostolic Witness that the Church had inherited. It did not immediately settle all the questions of this early division, but progressively became the orthodox position and Arianism all but died out.

Athanasius was an assistant to his mentor and bishop at the Council. And he wrote extensively on the Trinity, passionately defending the concept and the Nicene position. This brought him into open conflict with a number of influential people, including several emperors. Given his passion it was not hard to see why a forthright declaration of the Trinitarian doctrine was attributed to him for so long. However, he almost certainly didn't write it. It was written in Latin verse for liturgical recitation, he wrote in Greek. It mentions some Christological positions that had not been firmly established as such during his lifetime.

It used to hold more of a pride of place in the Catholic Church. Prior to the Second Vatican Council it was recited at Prime on certain Sundays after Epiphany and Whitsunday. Now, if it is recited at all, it is recited on Trinity Sunday.

Fidelity to the Magisterium

I wish to state something now, and applies to what I have just written and what I will write on this topic. What I write is my own opinion. I hope and pray I teach nothing not in accord with the Magisterium of the Church. If I do, I will humbly accept correction, and amend whatever needs amending. But again I stress, these words are just my opinion. Where possible, I'll try to cite and refer to other documents so you can read for yourself what is taught.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Athanasian Creed - A Commentary

With Trinity Sunday coming up I feel moved to do a commentary on the Athanasian Creed. I've really been thinking a lot about this particular expression of Faith for a year now. I'll go line by line in a series of posts to give some of my thoughts. The first post is likely to be quite long, because I've spent the most time thinking about the implications of just the first two lines: what do they mean? What do they mean today?