Wednesday, 17 May 2017

A Creed? What is the Athanasian Creed Anyway?

In last week’s News and Views, I mentioned the Athanasian Creed, which, along with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, is one of the Creeds of the Christian Church.  I noted that it was my favourite Creed. A couple of people queried me about it as they were not familiar with it.  This is not surprizing as it has been more honoured in the neglect that the observance in the modern churchat least in the Anglican Church in this part of the world.

As I result, I was inspired to write something about it this week.  The Book of Alternative Services, which is the prayer book used almost exclusively in the Anglican Church today (we still officially recognize the Book of Common Prayer but it is dying of neglect but that too is another story), has only the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed in the worship liturgy.  The Book of Common Prayer, which is the traditional prayer book, includes the Athanasian Creed as an alternative.  I don’t know to what extent it was used in the past, not being raised an Anglican.  However, it is in the back of the prayer books and probably was not used to any great extent. 

With that background, let’s explore the Athanasian Creed a little.  Given its length, I have reproduced it at the end of this missive for reference.  I found this version of the website of the Anglican Church of Canada which notes, “It is included in the Book of Common Prayer, but is used very rarely in current Anglican Church of Canada liturgies”.

 I have been favourably disposed to this for a couple of reasons which are perhaps theoretical and theological rather than practical.  Indeed, I have never experienced the Creed in worship.  First, article 35 states,” One, however, not by conversion of Godhead into flesh, / but by taking of Manhood into God.”    This for me, is an affirmation and a redemption of matter and of the human body which overcomes the split between the divine and matter which developed out of Augustinian theology.  I am not equipped to get into the fine points of this but the church has had what can only be described as a less than positive view of human sexuality and the body in general focusing on its sinfulness.  It also has had a less than positive view of women which I believe, was due, in part, to the negative attitude to matter as fallen and sinful.  There were and are cultural influences as well cannot be denied.  The Athanasian Creed holds that the incarnation redeemed humanity in all its material form and being.

The second reason for my positive view of the Athanasian Creed (which was probably not written by St. Athanasius) was articulated by Madeleine L’Engle in her introduction to The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.  This book is a wonderful exploration of creativity and the Creator.  L’Engle writes that the work of Sayer notes the incomprehensible nature of the three in One and One in Three of the Trinity.  However, she states that, “The Athanasian Creed is probably the most satisfactory of the creed, with its open admission that trying to define the undefinable is like writing on water, and no more translatable than the words Jesus wrote in the dust” (xxii). 
If you look at the Creed you will see that it goes back and forth and up and down in its affirmation that the Three are one and the One is Three and just what it is so get over your need to define this in a logical way.

For me this is an absolutely critical point in trying to explore God.  I spoke in my sermon yesterday about the necessity of using poetry and image to speak of God rather than trying to use logical, scientific, fact driven language to define the undefinable.  “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Of the King James Version is so much more evocative than the pedestrian “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” of the New Revised Standard Version. 
I have attached a copy of yesterday’s sermon if you would like to explore my thinking on this.  Blessings. 

Athanasian Creed

WHOSOEVER would be saved / needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith.
2 Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, / without doubt he will perish eternally.
3 Now the Catholic Faith is this, / that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity;
4 Neither confusing the Persons, / nor dividing the Substance.
5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, / another of the Holy Ghost;
6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, / the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.
7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, / and such is the Holy Ghost;
8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated;
9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Ghost infinite;
10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal;
11 And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal;
12 As also there are not three uncreated, nor three infinites, / but one infinite, and one uncreated.
13 So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, / the Holy Ghost almighty;
14 And yet there are not three almighties, but one almighty.
15 So the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Ghost God;
16 And yet there are not three Gods, / but one God.
17 So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, / the Holy Ghost Lord;
18 And yet there are not three Lords, / but one Lord.
19 For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity / to confess each Person by himself to be both God and Lord;
20 So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion / to speak of three Gods or three Lords.
21 The Father is made of none, / nor created, nor begotten.
22 The Son is of the Father alone; / not made, nor created, but begotten.
23 The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son; / not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24 There is therefore one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; / one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
25 And in this Trinity there is no before or after, / no greater or less;
26 But all three Persons are co-eternal together, / and co-equal.
27 So that in all ways, as is aforesaid, / both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity.
28 He therefore that would be saved, / let him thus think of the Trinity.
29 FURTHERMORE, it is necessary to eternal salvation, / that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30 Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess / that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.
31 He is God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; / and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
32 Perfect God; / perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting;
33 Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead;/ less than the Father as touching his Manhood.
34 Who although he be God and Man, / yet he is not two, but is one Christ;
35 One, however, not by conversion of Godhead into flesh, / but by taking of Manhood into God;
36 One altogether; / not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.
37 For as reasoning soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ;
38 Who suffered for our salvation, / descended into hell, rose again from the dead;
39 Ascended into heaven, sat down at the right hand of the Father, / from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
40 At whose coming all men must rise again with their bodies, / and shall give account for their own deeds.
41 And they that have done good will go into life eternal; / they that have done evil into eternal fire.
42 THIS is the Catholic Faith, / which except a man do faithfully and stedfastly believe, he cannot be saved.

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