Confessing Our Faith – The Athanasian Creed

Scripture Reading – John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things came into being through him, and without him not even one thing came into being. In him was life, and that life was the light of humanity. 5The light shines forth in the darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it.

A man appeared who had been sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to bear witness concerning the light, in order that everyone might believe through him. He himself was not the light; no, he came to bear witness concerning the light. The true light, who gives light to every person, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, but the world did not recognize him. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. But to everyone who received him – those who trust in his name – he gave the authority to become God’s children, who were fathered not by blood or by the will of the flesh or by the will of a husband, but by God.

The Word became flesh and came to reside among us, and we beheld his glory – the glory of the Father’s unique Son, full of grace and truth. John bore witness concerning him and cried out, “This is the one of whom I said: ‘The one who is coming after me is greater than me, because he existed first.'” From his abundance we have all received grace upon grace! For the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ. No one has yet seen God. The unique one, who is himself God, and who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God fully known!

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Generally speaking, we Lutherans are pretty familiar with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. They have significance to us in part because they are used in worship, and because they have long been a part of our instruction in the Christian faith during confirmation. This evening, we reflect on a creedal statement that at least officially and traditionally is regarded as equal in importance to those other two, but that we admittedly know relatively little about and use relatively infrequently. The text before us tonight is sometimes called the Quicunque Vult – a Latin phrase meaning “whoever wants” – after the first two words of the Latin text. More commonly it is called the Athanasian Creed, because it has traditionally be ascribed to the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius, one of the leading figures in the debate over the nature of Jesus at the Council of Nicaea. Today, most scholars dispute this identification, placing the creed’s origins some 100 to 150 years after Athanasius’ death in northeastern Spain or southern France, and yet throughout history this creed has continued to be considered authoritative because of this traditional belief about its authorship.

During the Reformation, most of the Reformers were quick to claim the Athanasian Creed as a true and faithful exposition of the faith, and Luther was no exception. In the 1580 Book of Concord, containing the confessional documents accepted by the majority of Lutherans, the Athanasian Creed appears alongside the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as a witness to the ecumenical character of the new evangelical churches. The ELCA accepts the Athanasian Creed “as [a] true declaration of the faith of this church” [ELCA Constitution 2.04], and as a congregation of the ELCA we are understood to accept it as well.

With all that background, we turn to the content of the creed itself. In many ways, the acceptance of this creed shouldn’t be controversial. The bulk of the creed is little more than an extension of the Nicene Creed, with more explicit language regarding the equality of the three persons of the Trinity and unequivocal language about Jesus’ full divinity and humanity. But, if you’re anything like me, that fact is obscured by three sections of this Creed that do not parallel anything in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds as we have received them.

Whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the catholic faith. Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.

Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity. It is necessary for eternal salvation that one also faithfully believe that our Lord Jesus became flesh.

This is the catholic faith. One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.

At my ordination I swore to “preach and teach in accordance with… [this] creed [“Ordination”, Occasional Services for the Assembly (Evangelical Lutheran Worship), 188]. I don’t have any problems with the historic teaching of the church about the Trinity. I certainly don’t reject the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection make our salvation possible. I don’t even have any issues with the idea of judgment – although I think reasonable people can disagree about what that judgment looks like. But to be honest, I have a really hard time with these statements (and, as a result, with this creed). There’s nothing wrong with making a robust statement about your understanding of God and defending it. There is a problem when human beings take on the role of judge and jury when it comes to another person’s faith. That is especially true because Scripture speaks over and over again about faith as a dynamic, living, active, mighty thing, a characteristic of life lived in relationship with God, not merely as a series of statements about God to which we simply respond “Yes” or “No”. The essence of faith is relationship, and to the extent that our creeds and confessions give us the words to articulate that relationship, they help to build up the body of Christ and the life of faith. To the extent that they serve as exclusive claims that create disunity and division, they fail to serve the cause of Christ.

The anathemas – statements of condemnation – in the Athanasian Creed represent a challenge, both within and outside the church. Within the church are many individuals who for one reason or another may not accept the beliefs contained in this creed. Perhaps they’ve never really thought about them, and so don’t have any reason to either accept or reject the correct understanding of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Perhaps they’ve wrestled honestly with Scripture and disagree with what has been the consensus of the faithful for much of its history, but nevertheless live faithful lives of discipleship and trust in Jesus. How are we to relate to those who share our faith in Jesus but not, for example, our belief in the Virgin Birth? How are we called to live in relationship with people who trust in God, but can’t wrap their heads around the mystery of the Trinity? And what of people outside the church? Though it has been a widely shared understanding for much of Christian history, the doctrine of salvation through Christ alone – and the attendant belief in eternal damnation for those who faith to accept Christ – has never been universally agreed upon by the church, and theologians throughout history have challenged the centrality of this belief for the life of faith. The Athanasian Creed takes this question – which for some faithful Christians is still a topic that is open for discussion – and removes any ambiguity from it. [Note that I haven’t even gotten to the other passage that seems problematic from a Lutheran perspective: Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.]

So what are we to do with this Athanasian Creed? Most of us have dealt with it by ignoring it. The inclusion of the Creed in the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978 was largely an aberration. It is not included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and in most congregations it is dealt with at most once a year, when it may be read in worship on Holy Trinity Sunday. Otherwise, it occupies a space on the margins of our thought (if it’s present in our thinking at all). So what do we do with a Creed that we claim to accept, but which has little impact on our life together (except as a bludgeon against those who don’t toe the line)? I confess that this question has baffled me, and in lieu of providing some hard and fast answer, I think it might be good for us to explore this topic further next week when we ask the question, “Why do these creeds still matter?” In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts and reflections on this unfamiliar creed and how it serves the Church of Christ and our congregation.

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