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.

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