>Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult)

It appears that the Creed named to the learned Doctor from Alexandria was not really from his pen, though as the champion of the Trinity he would probably have approved.

It opens its labyrinthine passages in a most clear way bu defining the whole teaching of the Church: “This is what the catholic faith teaches: we worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity.” This is what the faith teaches: worship. And not just any worship, but the worship of the one true God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some background

Even though the opening is auspiciously clear, we are almost immediately thrown into the whorls of a complex Creed. Before we get lost, we should pause and take a look at the context of the writing. First, scholars are fairly certain the Creed was written around the 5th century in the region of Gaul (Western France). There are many similarities in style with the writings that came form that area at that time especially of St. Vincent of Lerins. This should help us understand the textual context of the piece, for everyone writes within a certain historical context, either in harmony with it or in revolt against it. But always in conversation with the main themes, motifs and topics of the time.

Next, the teachings of the Creed match those that came from the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcendon. Just like the Nicene Creed came from the Council of Nicea-Constantinople, and was a summation of the work of those Councils. The Creeds therefore were a sort of pill, when few people could read, and very few manuscripts were available, it was nice to have it all summed up in a Creed which would encapsulate the nuanced theological debates in an easy to memorize (and teach) formula. An important caveat: the Quicumque was not the work of those councils, it came later. The Nicene Creed itself was a work of the Councils. If we wanted to put weight to each I would say the Nicene Creed carries more weight.

One more thing, looking at the art from that time we see a predominance of what I would call “celtic motifs” – lots of spirals, and curves, and circular shapes. Clearly a culture which was familiar with ideas of circularity, repetition – indeed, one which found such things beautiful.

Finally, the Creed would be concerned with stopping the spread of heresy. This Creed is potent medicine against Arianism (which was being brought into Europe with the gothic invasions) as well as Nestorianism. A quick recap: Arianism did not believe the Sn was equal to the Father, but rather that he was a creature. Te Son, the Logos, was the first Creature and through Him all others were created, but He was also creator, and not Creator. Nestorianism posited two persons: Jesus and the Logos – this is different than saying the Jesus was one person with both a human and a divine substance. We need not concern ourselves with drawing out the implications of both these errors. Suffice to say they are errors, and when thought through they have profound implications for all things relating to the work of Christ, His sacrifice, and our redemption.

Ok. Having a little bit of background gives us better footing when dealing with the Quicumque vult. We should expect a teaching which would ‘inoculate’ the believer against various Christological heresies; that this teaching be full of circular references to appeal to a Gallic audience; and that it serve as a summary of the work done in recent Ecumenical Councils.

Persons and substances

In Latin (as in Greek) there were some technical terms which lose some of their significance when translated into modern English. ‘Person’ is one of those. For us a person is an individual, two persons mean two individuals. They are separate physically, mentally, spiritually even. A person, in this sense, is the smallest unit of being. This is not what is meant by person in the Creed (or in any Latin text). So the three persons of the Trinity are not three separate gods. Some people trying to avoid the idea of three gods, then fall into another error – of thinking that it is one God with three types of expression (three modes). A famous example is to think of God like the Sun. There is one Sun, but we can see it, we can feel its heat, and we can see its light. So three ‘things’ (three modes) of one thing. But that is also incorrect (and there are theological reasons for not going down that road either). What are we left with? Well, in short, a mystery! The Trinity of persons is a real, objective, eternal distinction (not division) within the Being of God Himself. And yet there is only one God. Put it this way if we could scan God we would find no divisions, no cracks, no splits. Just one God. And yet if we asked God God would use plural forms to describe Himself and His internal activities. So three but only one.

How about substance? The better translation in modern English would be a word like ‘essence’ or ‘being’.

A writer in the 5th century would write: “To a lawyer a ‘person’ is a theoretical owner of rights and property; ‘substance’ is the aggregate of rights and property.”

So three persons, one substance. In modern English it might make more sense to say three substances, one being.

The Creed

The Creed is roughly divided into two parts. The first (and longer) part goes over and over the various attributes of the Godhead, making sure each Person is labeled as such, and then always repeating “but they are one not three”. It seems repetitive, but it is rather exhaustive (and some say exhausting!).

The first part ends with the words: “He, therefore, who wishes to be saved, must believe thus about the Trinity.” True belief has always been of fundamental importance to the Church. Paul uses up much ink and papyrus to ensure proper belief. You see, works are much easier to be cataloged, judged, and corrected. If you feed someone who is starving there are not many ways to do ti wrong. But beliefs are more slippery. How can I judge your beliefs? Or in more contemporary terms we can ask the question this way: I can see your good actions but how do I know you had good intentions? The Creeds help us to ensure our intentions are properly calibrated.

The second part then brings together the ideas from the first and applies them to work of Jesus. It is a rather nice way to bring everything back together. It points out some of the dangers of not holding on to the proper belief.

It then ends, once more, with a warning: “Those who have done good deeds will go into eternal life; those who have done evil will go into the everlasting fire.” This is just an echo of the teaching of Jesus who said: “”Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24). And also said “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” (Matt. 18:8).

For an in-depth study of the Creed go here: http://www.katapi.org.uk/CreedsIntro/Ch6.htm


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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