While the Athanasian Creed is largely forgotten in much of the Church today it is an indispensable resource from the Church’s past to spur us to such a faithful confession of the God who has revealed himself as Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity.
The Athanasian Creed or Quicunque Vult was once, alongside the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, considered one of the three great creeds of the early church. It has found almost universal acclaim in the Western Church being accepted as ecumenical by the Roman Catholic Church and received as authoritative in confessional Protestantism (The Book of Concord, The Belgic Confession, The Thirty-Nine Articles, etc.). However, in the previous century, the creed has almost entirely dropped out of the consciousness of the church liturgically and academically.
The creed was likely written in the 5th century, and quickly became associated with the hero of orthodoxy Athanasius. This confession of faith sets forth the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation in stark relief. The first mention of this creed comes in a sermon collection compiled by Caesarius of Arles, which expresses its fundamental purpose as catechetical: “It is necessary, and incumbent on them, that all clergymen, and laymen too, should be familiar with the Catholic faith, … for we ought both ourselves frequently to read it and to instruct others in it.” Although it has fallen out of use because of its precision and insistence on proper Trinitarianism for salvation, the Athanasian Creed is a sure guide to order and to chasten our reflection on the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit in line with the catholic tradition.
There is much talk in scholarly circles about the renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity in the 20th Century with figures such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner re-calling the academic, theological guild to the centrality of God’s triune nature and identity as the essence of the Christian confession. However, this renaissance has often strayed widely from the paths of the catholic tradition. Additionally, this renewed interest in the doctrine would scarcely be observed in many churches. The doctrine of the Trinity is passed by in preaching, goes often unnoticed in liturgies, and is even occasionally passed off as too complicated to be understood by the congregation and the pastor alike. On the opposite side of neglect is infelicitous use of the doctrine to illuminate other doctrines, which often deform the basic confession of the faith. In the attempt to make the doctrine of the Trinity “practical” we conform it to our own needs. For instance, several evangelical scholars have pressed, perhaps unwittingly, for a neo-subordinationism to score point in debates over gender relations in the church. The desire to render the doctrine of the Trinity useful can quickly fall prey to instrumentalizing the Triune God, which is nothing less than idolatrous.
The Primacy of Worship in our Trinitarian Reflection
The Athanasian Creed is driven not by the quest to find useful doctrine nor to determine how God must be. Rather the contemplation of the Triune God begins in worship seeking salvation. “We worship one God in Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity.” If one desires to be saved, that is, enter into holy fellowship with God the Father, Son, and Spirit by His work, then we must address Him, adore Him, and worship Him as He is. The emphasis on worship and salvation comes at the beginning, middle, and end of the Creed, weaving together the confession of God in himself and God with us in Christ with the thread of human wonder and adoration. “Thus in all things … both Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity must be worshipped.” Reflection on the triune God is fundamentally for no other end than that we might know our Creator and Redeemer and worship him in truth. The confession of God as one-in-three and three-in-one is nothing less than obedience to the first commandment.
The knowledge of the Trinity is knowing the God who has revealed himself to be triune through the revelation of the Father by the Son and through the Spirit. For this end, the creed sets forth the stakes of trinitarian doctrine in the so-called damnatory clauses, which have caused much controversy regarding the Creed in the past century and a half. Is it appropriate to say with the Creed that “one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully?” Yes, and we must since salvation is nothing less than the communion of sinful humanity with the Father, Son, and the Spirit. As Wilken notes, “All the damnatory clauses in the phrase must be seen in light of the central conviction that the purpose of intellectual formulation is to aid us in adoring and worshipping God more fully and with all our being.” Coming to know the Triune God is far more than intellectual knowledge but comes as the gift of salvation itself.
Since the purpose of our confession of the Trinity as an act of worship is that we might speak rightly of the God who has revealed himself, we should learn the grammar of this speech. How are we to form words which can, however inadequately and analogically, do justice to the triune God? What are the rules for proper utterances about this one? Since the knowledge of the infinite, uncreated God is by definition beyond our finite, created minds, we must learn both through affirmation and negation what sort of speech and thought is appropriate for God’s revelation of his inner triune life. Like learning any grammatical system we must learn through exposure and repetition, noting proper positive utterances (kataphatic statements) and proper negations (apophatic statements). The Athanasian Creed alternates affirmations and denial seeking to inculcate true speech about God and guiding away from and guarding against false teachings.