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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Another look at The Athanasian Creed

"Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic faith . . .
[Holy Trinity]
[Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ]
And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved."
- Lutheran Worship

As the Feast of the Holy Trinity approaches on the church calendar it is good to be familiar with The Athanasian Creed (Quicunque Vult). There is no requirement to speak this creed on Trinity Sunday although congregations may do so that the people remain familiar with this statement of the holy church's faith. (The Nicene Creed is liturgically used in connection with the holy Eucharist and so is rightly used instead.)

The Athanasian Creed remains unfamiliar with many although it is rich in confessing the catholic faith. Two reasons for its limited usage are its length and an uncomfortableness by some with some of the text.

I wish to address here what I call an "uncomfortableness" with the text of the creed with the hope that there may be greater understanding and acceptance of this creed and appreciation for it as a whole.

The Athanasian Creed was written near the end of the 5th c. Although Athanasius himself did not write this creed it was given his name because of his orthodox stand in support of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity against the errors of Arius which were a threat to the Church of that day. The creed remains to this day the Church's confession even being retained as a chief symbol by the Lutheran reformers, so in effect, "surviving" the Reformation.

Although the text of the creed is quite substantial there seem to be two specific areas that regularly raise questions. First is the usage of the word "catholic" which is mentioned at least four times. There is little reason to spend much time on this word. Any fear of its association with the Catholic Church is over-estimated since it truly confesses the catholic faith that all Christians believe and confess (specifically in the western Church). On the Holy Trinity and on the doctrine of Christ as expressed in the three ecumenical creeds there is no disagreement among Christians in the west. This means that rather than being questioned this word should be understood and boldly confessed. Except in part, the eastern Church also does not find difficulty with this creed, although it is not one of their own.

The other question arises regarding the judgement section toward the end and the reference to doing good leading to everlasting life while doing evil leading to everlasting fire. This should be taken in the larger context of the Creed and holy Scripture. We do not dispute bodily resurrection, Judgement Day, heaven or hell. The universal aspect is demonstrated in that all people will be judged. In context, this judgement is understood in terms of the Judge, Christ Jesus. Those who are “in Christ” will be seen as doing good works (which really is His work in and through them) and those who are not “in Christ” (ie, unbelievers) will be judged as having done works in their sin outside of the forgiveness that was offered them. So all will be judged. The good works will go to glorify God while the evil unforgiven will lead to eternal punishment. All are judged yet those “in Christ” do not fear that Day but rather look forward to it. As far as the notion of “works” there is indeed a connection to faith and salvation or, negatively speaking, to judgement and eternal punishment. Faith and works are united in Christ. Our works without Christ are like filthy rags. God grants us both faith and then works good works in and through us, but these works are not us, but Christ who lives in us (Gal. 2:20) Hence the benefits of the cross are given us and He works the good works by grace through faith. In Him these works lead to eternal life. Without Him we have neither grace nor faith and our works condemn us. So neither should this phrasing about "works" trouble us as it neither troubled those on both sides of the reformation. It is truly a "catholic" creed.

But mainly should the Athanasian Creed be remembered and confessed for its marvelous confession of the one true God in three persons, the Holy Trinity, and in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, God and man in one Christ. It is hoped that these questions not detract from the greater substance of the confession and its unity in confessing the catholic faith.

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