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 Creeds.net, 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)

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