Tony and the Athanasian Creed (1)

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, there have been some who have accused me of trintarian heresy —not just error or heterodoxy, but damnable heresy— as a result of some concern (note that I did not say objections) I have expressed regarding the Athanasian Creed and its use in Reformed theology. While I cannot address everything in the depth I would like to in blog posts, I would like to provide some explanation. These posts are not intended to be comprehensive, rather they are intended to be short introductory reference posts for me to refer to rather than rehearsing things each time the issue comes up.

If you are planning on quoting me in these posts, please also provide a link to the article for context. One of the concerns I have is that those who have unjustly opposed me (there are those who have been mature and have had adult discussions and have still come away with concerns regarding my position, that is not who I intend to refer to) will use these posts to cherry pick quotes out of context. I will begin with what I think are the least controversial and complex reasons, and proceed to the more controversial and complex ones.

Now, there are several things that I have brought up regarding the Athanasian Creed that give me pause. However, before we get into that I want to make sure one thing is clear. I fully affirm the historic Nicene position on the Trinity. For reasons that will become clear in a later post, I must qualify my affirmation of the Athanasian Creed by saying that insofar as it agrees in substance with the Nicene Creed, I affirm the Athanasian Creed —not altogether different as I would say that insofar as the Nicene Creed, or the Westminster Standards for that matter, agree in substance with the Scriptures, I affirm them— completely. I affirm that there is one God, and that this one God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are genuinely distinct hypostases who fully and completely share a single simple ousia. Because these three share a single simple ousia they only way that they are different from —and distinguishable from— each other is by their hypostatic relations. Furthermore, the attributes they are in reference to their divine nature are not separate from each other. The omnipotence of the Father is the very same omnipotence which we see in the Son and Spirit, albeit hypostatized in a mode proper to each person in relation to the other two. Additionally, I fully affirm that the external operations of the Trinity are indivisible. When any one person acts toward creation (or in creating), the other two act in a way proper to their person in relation to the other two.

The first concern I have in reference to the Athanasian Creed, or more specifically the way that I have seen it used among my Reformed brothers (and sisters, although I have never had a woman confront me on this issue…), is its use as an authoritative and ecumenical creed on par with the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian Definition. This concern is two-fold.

First, I affirm the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Standards are very clear that nothing apart from Scripture, not even the Standards themselves, can be used as a rule of faith.

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. – WCF 1.10

All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. – WCF 31.3

As a brief aside, it is very interesting to note that the Westminster Confession is itself a revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which were the confessional standard of the Church of England at the time. Article 8 of the Thirty-Nine Articles confessionally obligated the reception of the Nicene Creed, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, even if still doing so only because they agree in substance with the Scripture. However, when revising the Thirty-Nine Articles, rather than repeat this clause, the Westminster Divines opted to replace it with 1.10 above. I don’t have the time in my life now to thoroughly investigate it, and perhaps someday that will make an interesting doctoral dissertation. However, it seems reasonable to me to hypothesize that this was a self-conscious move to do exactly what article 1.10 says, to return the final adjudication of religious matters and controversies to the Scriptures. It is also interesting to note that modern Anglicanism has revised the 39 articles to include only the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds in article 8.

That said, when interacting with my detractors, it has been said that I am a heretic because I reject the Athanasian Creed. Putting aside the fact that I don’t actually reject the Athanasian Creed for a moment. How is this not making the Athanasian Creed a rule of faith? I am being condemned as non-Christian, and in some cases as unsaved, because I have expressed some concerns relating —primarily— to the language used in the Athanasian Creed.

That brings me to the second part of my concern in this regard. The Athanasian Creed, long thought to be written by Athanasius himself in the intervening years after the Council of Nicaea, was actually written in Latin by an unknown individual, probably after the Council of Chalcedon. Carl Trueman notes in the Creedal Imperative that the Athanasian Creed “is not an ecumenical creed in the sense of having been produced and ratified by an ecumenical council.”[1] Instead, the Athanasian Creed was the product of an individual. Of particular note, and the reason my interlocutors appear to be comfortable —and in some instances almost gleeful— to condemn me to eternal hellfire, is the anathema clauses. The first appears in the very opening of the clause:

Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.

Like many other Creeds, it closes with a similar anathema:

This is the catholic faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.

Now, I have little objection to such an anathema in an ecumenical creed which is a product of an ecclesiastical council. The power of the keys was given to the Church, not to individual Christians. Furthermore, the Athanasian Creed does not appear to be attached to anyone with any ecclesiastical authority, at least we don’t know if it was or not. Had it been written by Athanasius, it would at least have the ecclesiastical authority of an ordained elder, but as it stands we really have no idea who wrote it. All we know is that it was written in Latin, by someone, probably in the 400s. My assessment based on the theology presented is that it was written after the resolution of the Eutychian controversy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

However, I have significant concern with an individual of unknown ecclesiastical status, pronouncing anathema over another (without rooting that anathema in a previously ratified ecumenical council). In many ways, the Athanasian Creed is a perfect example of a person elevating their own theological formulation over other Christians, and binding their conscience by it. While I affirm that the Church possesses the power of the keys, an individual does not… especially not an individual who may or may not hold ecclesiastical office. This person has made their summary of the faith, a rule of faith. Now, if their summary agrees in substance with the Scriptures, this is not a problem… I will discuss that in a future post (or maybe a couple).

Now, more could be said about this, and it behooves me to note that other Reformed confessional traditions, most notably the Belgic Confession, include the Athanasian Creed in their confessions as something which must be received. I have a theory about this, and may write on it in a future post. However, I will note that this difference between the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession is one of the primary reasons that I affirm the Westminster tradition, rather than the Continental. It seems to me that the Westminster tradition, at least in this area, more closely and accurately reflects the principle of Sola Scriptura which is central to Reformed thought. The concern I have with my interlocutors (most of whom are Westminsterians) is exactly the issue I have here. Just as they are making the Athanasian Creed a rule of faith by which to measure my orthodoxy (and condemn me, ironically in contradiction to the Westminster Confession), so also do I think that the enshrinement of the Athanasian Creed —or the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed for that matter— as an arbiter of orthodoxy, is a violation of the principle of Sola Scriptura.

  1. Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 102.

2 thoughts on “Tony and the Athanasian Creed (1)

  1. “It is also interesting to note that modern Anglicanism has revised the 39 articles to include only the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds in article 8.”

    At risk of being overly particular, it was (uniquely) the Episcopal Church, USA, that omitted the Athanasian Creed from their version of the 39 Articles of Religion, adopted in the early 19th century. Like you, I am unsure of the reason for such a change, especially considering my impression of early American Episcopalianism is that it was on average more high church than the Church of England.

    Nit-picks aside, I’m having a difficult time understanding why, on principle, you’re more open to the Apostles’ Creed as a theological regula than the Athanasian, as it too is not the product of any particular council or synod. Both simply bear the name of credible authors while (probably) lacking their historic rubber stamp.

    Anyway, I look forward to your future post(s) on its specific Trinitarian content!

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