A few weeks ago, the church commemorated Saint Athanasius, born in 296 and died in 373, bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius is justly honored as the hero of the Council of Nicaea, which he attended as secretary and deacon of then-Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, whom Athanasius succeeded in 328. He is considered to be the “greatest and most consistent theological opponent of Arius,” and that would probably be enough to cement his place in Christian history, but the irony is that Athanasius is probably best known for something he didn’t write, something, in fact, he had no hand in whatsoever: The Athanasian Creed. Here is a version of the brief theological reflection I wrote for that day.
The Athanasian Creed is also known as the Quicunque Vult—which is the original Latin of the first line, “Whoever wants.” “Wants what,” you might ask? Well, it goes on to read, “to be saved….” [Here is a link to the full creed: http://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html] It is not, and has never been, recognized as a statement of the Christian faith in the Eastern Churches, and even among Western Churches its authority is not equally recognized–and once you read it, you’ll know why. We don’t know who wrote it, but we do know for sure that Athanasius did not, primarily because it contains doctrinal positions that were only debated after Athanasius’ own lifetime [and shows a clear reliance on Augustine (354-430)]; and also because it was apparently composed in Latin, not Greek. However, both the date and the origin continue to be disputed—currently it is believed to have been composed sometime in the 5th century.
Martin Luther himself valued the Creed and advocated strongly for it [and, of course, it is included along with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds in the Book of Concord–and it was also included in the LBW, though it is not in the most recent Lutheran hymnal, ELW]. In vol. 34 of Luther’s Works, in a treatise titled “The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith,” we see clearly why Luther esteemed it so highly. There, he is—as he always was—very critical of those who refused to accept both Jesus’ full humanity and his full divinity, andthe consequent trinitarian ramifications of those assertions. Thus, Luther cites the Creed approvingly in many different writings, particularly in its clear explication of the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity.
And yet: what are we to do today with those damnatory clauses: you know, “Whoever does not guard [the catholic faith] whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally;” and “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” And, to my ears, just as grating is that little penultimate bit that sounds for all intents and purposes like a definitive repudiation of justification by grace through faith: At the second coming of Christ, we hear that “Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire. This is the catholic faith, which except a [person] believe, [s/he] cannot be saved.” Really?? It’s tempting to want to chuck the whole thing altogether.
So, here’s the Largen interpretation of the Athanasian Creed—for what it’s worth. I think there are two things we can learn from the Athanasian Creed today—in addition, of course, to the clear, detailed way it describes the persons of Trinity, which is nothing to take for granted, and which I wholeheartedly endorse. Notwithstanding that, however, the most important thing I think the Athanasian Creed offers to Lutherans in the 21stcentury is a negative example about what happens when we shift God from the center of our gospel proclamation and put ourselves in the center instead.
Here’s what I mean: insofar as the Creed talks about God, it’s a wonderful treasure; however, when it “turns the verb”—to use Tim Wengert’s phrase—and focuses on what human do, instead of who God is and what God is doing, it runs afoul of its own purpose. It ceases to proclaim the gospel, and instead, becomes a death-dealing demand of law.
And this is exactly what happens so often today: even now in the Easter season, when we should be celebrating the joyous message of all God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you still hear sermons that take the focus off what God has done and is doing and put it instead on what we are supposed to do, what we have to do—turning the proclamation of the gospel into the demand of the law. It didn’t work for the author of the Creed, and it doesn’t work for us, either. Every time I read this Creed I’m reminded of that.
And the second thing? It’s pretty straightforward. Again, particularly for preachers: know when enough is enough, and don’t beat people over the head with your message, even when the message is a good one. Say it once, say it twice and then stop; this Creed is just too long and too repetitive to proclaim the gospel in any context except a theological classroom. I wager Athanasius himself would have said it better.