What is Athanasian Creed?
The Athanasian Creed, also known as Pseudo-Athanasian Creed or Quicunque Vult (also Quicumque Vult), is a Christian statement of belief focused on Trinitarian doctrine and Christology. The Latin name of the creed, Quicunque vult, is taken from the opening words, “Whosoever wishes”. The creed has been used by Christian churches since the sixth century. It is the first creed in which the equality of the three persons of the Trinity is explicitly stated. It differs from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Apostles’ Creeds in the inclusion of anathemas, or condemnations of those who disagree with the creed (like the original Nicene Creed).
Widely accepted among Western Christians, including the Roman Catholic Church and some Anglican churches, Lutheran churches (it is considered part of Lutheran confessions in the Book of Concord), and ancient, liturgical churches generally, the Athanasian Creed has been used in public worship less and less frequently, but part of it can be found as an “Authorized Affirmation of Faith” in the recent (2000) Common Worship liturgy of the Church of England [Main Volume page 145].
It was designed to distinguish Nicene Christianity from the heresy of Arianism. Liturgically, this Creed was recited at the Sunday Office of Prime in the Western Church; it is not in common use in the Eastern Church. The creed has never gained acceptance in liturgy among Eastern Christians since it was considered as one of many unorthodox fabrications that contained the Filioque clause. Today, the Athanasian Creed is rarely used even in the Western Church. When used, one common practice is to use it once a year on Trinity Sunday.
It has since been widely accepted by modern scholars that the creed was not authored by Athanasius, that it was not originally called a creed at all, nor was Athanasius’ name originally attached to it. Athanasius’ name seems to have become attached to the creed as a sign of its strong declaration of Trinitarian faith. The reasoning for rejecting Athanasius as the author usually relies on a combination of the following:
- The creed originally was most likely written in Latin, while Athanasius composed in Greek.
- Neither Athanasius nor his contemporaries ever mention the Creed.
- It is not mentioned in any records of the ecumenical councils.
- It appears to address theological concerns that developed after Athanasius died (including the filioque).
- It was most widely circulated among Western Christians.
The use of the creed in a sermon by Caesarius of Arles, as well as a theological resemblance to works by Vincent of Lérins, point to Southern Gaul as its origin. The most likely time frame is in the late fifth or early sixth century AD – at least 100 years after Athanasius. The theology of the creed is firmly rooted in the Augustinian tradition, using exact terminology of Augustine’s On the Trinity (published 415 AD). In the late 19th century, there was a great deal of speculation about who might have authored the creed, with suggestions including Ambrose of Milan, Venantius Fortunatus, and Hilary of Poitiers, among others.
The 1940 discovery of a lost work by Vincent of Lérins, which bears a striking similarity to much of the language of the Athanasian Creed, have led many to conclude that the creed originated either with Vincent or with his students. For example, in the authoritative modern monograph about the creed, J. N. D. Kelly asserts that Vincent of Lérins was not its author, but that it may have come from the same milieu, namely the area of Lérins in southern Gaul. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Athanasian Creed date from the late 8th century.
The Athanasian Creed is usually divided into two sections: lines 1–28 addressing the doctrine of the Trinity, and lines 29–44 addressing the doctrine of Christology. Enumerating the three persons of the Trinity (i.e., Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), the first section of the creed ascribes the divine attributes to each individually. Thus, each person of the Trinity is described as uncreated (increatus), limitless (Immensus), eternal (æternus), and omnipotent (omnipotens).
While ascribing the divine attributes and divinity to each person of the Trinity, thus avoiding subordinationism, the first half of the Athanasian Creed also stresses the unity of the three persons in the one Godhead, thus avoiding a theology of tritheism. Furthermore, although one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other. For the Father is neither made nor begotten; the Son is not made but is begotten from the Father; the Holy Spirit is neither made nor begotten but proceeds from the Father – Western churches include “and the Son” (filioque), a concept which Eastern and Oriental Orthodox reject.
The text of the Athanasian Creed is as follows:
|in Latin||English translation|
|Quicumque vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem: Quam nisi quisque integram inviolatamque servaverit, absque dubio in aeternum peribit. Fides autem catholica haec est: ut unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur. Neque confundentes personas, neque substantiam separantes. Alia est enim persona Patris alia Filii, alia Spiritus Sancti: Sed Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti una est divinitas, aequalis gloria, coeterna maiestas. Qualis Pater, talis Filius, talis [et] Spiritus Sanctus. Increatus Pater, increatus Filius, increatus [et] Spiritus Sanctus. Immensus Pater, immensus Filius, immensus [et] Spiritus Sanctus. Aeternus Pater, aeternus Filius, aeternus [et] Spiritus Sanctus. Et tamen non tres aeterni, sed unus aeternus. Sicut non tres increati, nec tres immensi, sed unus increatus, et unus immensus. Similiter omnipotens Pater, omnipotens Filius, omnipotens [et] Spiritus Sanctus. Et tamen non tres omnipotentes, sed unus omnipotens. Ita Deus Pater, Deus Filius, Deus [et] Spiritus Sanctus. Et tamen non tres dii, sed unus est Deus. Ita Dominus Pater, Dominus Filius, Dominus [et] Spiritus Sanctus. Et tamen non tres Domini, sed unus [est] Dominus. Quia, sicut singillatim unamquamque personam Deum ac Dominum confiteri christiana veritate compellimur: Ita tres Deos aut [tres] Dominos dicere catholica religione prohibemur. Pater a nullo est factus: nec creatus, nec genitus. Filius a Patre solo est: non factus, nec creatus, sed genitus. Spiritus Sanctus a Patre et Filio: non factus, nec creatus, nec genitus, sed procedens. Unus ergo Pater, non tres Patres: unus Filius, non tres Filii: unus Spiritus Sanctus, non tres Spiritus Sancti. Et in hac Trinitate nihil prius aut posterius, nihil maius aut minus: Sed totae tres personae coaeternae sibi sunt et coaequales. Ita, ut per omnia, sicut iam supra dictum est, et unitas in Trinitate, et Trinitas in unitate veneranda sit. Qui vult ergo salvus esse, ita de Trinitate sentiat.
Sed necessarium est ad aeternam salutem, ut incarnationem quoque Domini nostri Iesu Christi fideliter credat. Est ergo fides recta ut credamus et confiteamur, quia Dominus noster Iesus Christus, Dei Filius, Deus [pariter] et homo est. Deus [est] ex substantia Patris ante saecula genitus: et homo est ex substantia matris in saeculo natus. Perfectus Deus, perfectus homo: ex anima rationali et humana carne subsistens. Aequalis Patri secundum divinitatem: minor Patre secundum humanitatem. Qui licet Deus sit et homo, non duo tamen, sed unus est Christus. Unus autem non conversione divinitatis in carnem, sed assumptione humanitatis in Deum. Unus omnino, non confusione substantiae, sed unitate personae. Nam sicut anima rationalis et caro unus est homo: ita Deus et homo unus est Christus. Qui passus est pro salute nostra: descendit ad inferos: tertia die resurrexit a mortuis. Ascendit ad [in] caelos, sedet ad dexteram [Dei] Patris [omnipotentis]. Inde venturus [est] judicare vivos et mortuos. Ad cujus adventum omnes homines resurgere habent cum corporibus suis; Et reddituri sunt de factis propriis rationem. Et qui bona egerunt, ibunt in vitam aeternam: qui vero mala, in ignem aeternum. Haec est fides catholica, quam nisi quisque fideliter firmiterque crediderit, salvus esse non poterit.
|Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.
The Christology of the second section is more detailed than that of the Nicene Creed, and reflects the teaching of the First Council of Ephesus (431) and the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Athanasian Creed uses the term substantia (a Latin translation of the Nicene homoousios: ‘same being’ or ‘consubstantial’) not only with respect to the relation of the Son to the Father according to his divine nature, but also says the Son is substantia of his mother Mary according to his human nature.
The Creed’s wording thus excludes not only Sabellianism and Arianism, but the Christological heresies of Nestorianism and Eutychianism. A need for a clear confession against Arianism arose in western Europe when the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, who had Arian beliefs, invaded at the beginning of the 5th century.
The final section of this Creed also moved beyond the Nicene (and Apostles’) Creeds in making negative statements about the people’s fate: “They that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.” This caused considerable debate in England in the mid-nineteenth century, centred on the teaching of Frederick Denison Maurice.
Early Protestants inherited the late medieval devotion to the Athanasian Creed, and it was considered to be authoritative in many Protestant churches. The statements of Protestant belief (confessional documents) of various Reformers commend the Athanasian Creed to their followers, including the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Bohemian Confession and the Thirty-nine Articles. A metric version titled “Quicumque vult”, with a musical setting, was published in The Whole Booke of Psalmes printed by John Day in 1562. Among modern Lutheran and Reformed churches adherence to the Athanasian Creed is prescribed by the earlier confessional documents, but the creed does not receive much attention outside of occasional use – especially on Trinity Sunday.
In Reformed circles, it is included (for example) in the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia’s Book of Forms (publ. 1991). However, it is rarely recited in public worship.
In the successive Books of Common Prayer of the reformed Church of England, from 1549 to 1662, its recitation was provided for on 19 occasions each year, a practice which continued until the nineteenth century, when vigorous controversy regarding its statement about ‘eternal damnation’ saw its use gradually decline. It remains one of the three Creeds approved in the Thirty-Nine Articles, and is printed in several current Anglican prayer books (e.g. A Prayer Book for Australia (1995)). As with Roman Catholic practice, its use is now generally only on Trinity Sunday or its octave. The Episcopal Church based in the United States has never provided for its use in worship, but added it to its Book of Common Prayer for the first time in 1979, where it is included in small print in a reference section entitled “Historical Documents of the Church.”
In Roman Catholic churches, it was traditionally said at Prime on Sundays when the Office was of the Sunday. The 1911 reforms reduced this to Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost, and on Trinity Sunday, except when a commemoration of a Double feast or a day within an Octave occurred. The 1960 reforms further reduced its use to once a year, on Trinity Sunday. It has been effectively dropped from the Catholic liturgy since the Second Vatican Council. It is however maintained in the Forma Extraordinaria, per the decree Summorum Pontificum, and also in the rite of exorcism, both in the Forma Ordinaria and the Forma Extraordinaria of the Roman Rite.
In Lutheranism, the Athanasian Creed is—along with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds—one of the three ecumenical creeds placed at the beginning of the 1580 Book of Concord, the historic collection of authoritative doctrinal statements (confessions) of the Lutheran Church. It is still used in the liturgy on Trinity Sunday.
A common visualisation of the first half of the Creed is the Shield of the Trinity.
- Morin 1911
- Kantorowicz 1957, p. 17
- “Athanasian Creed – OrthodoxWiki”. orthodoxwiki.org. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
- O’Carroll 1987
- Norris 1997
- Richardson & Hopkins 1967, p. 483
- Faulkner 1910, p. 427
- Bente 2008, p. 13
- Schaff 1990
- See Jackson (1966) for examples of various theories of authorship.
- Mahajan & Sampaolo 2012
- Kelly 1964
- Chazelle 1997, p. 1056
- See Schaff (1877a) for an example of this division.
- Athanasian Creed, lines 8,9,10, and 13, respectively. See the side by side English and Latin in Schaff (1877b, pp. 66–71)
- This is Schaff’s emendation of the Book of Common Prayertranslation. See Schaff (1877b, pp. 66–71)
- Pfatteicher 1990, p. 444
- See Melanchthon (1530), Andreä et al. (1577), Bullinger (1564), de Bres & Junius (1562), Church of England (1563)
- =”Hatchett 1980, p. 584″
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