One of the “Documentary Foundations”, on page 769 in the 2019 Prayer Book, is The Athanasian Creed. It is offered there without comment, much like it is in the back of the 1979 Prayer Book, except this time in a normal font size so you don’t have to be especially young and spry in order to read it.
There is, however, a rubric in our Prayer Book that point to it. On page 139, among the Additional Directions Concerning Holy Communion, we are told that the Athanasian Creed may be used in place of the Nicene Creed on Trinity Sunday and other occasions as appropriate. This is probably the most widespread use of that Creed today.
In the classical Prayer Book tradition, however, it received a bit more use. In the 1662 Prayer Book, for example, we find this rubric:
Upon these Feasts, Christmas-day, the Epiphany, St. Matthias, Easter-day, Ascension-day, Whitsunday, St. John Baptist, St. James, St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew, St. Simon and St.
Jude, St. Andrew, and upon Trinity-sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of St. Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.
That’s 13 times a year this Creed was ordered to be said. If you’re curious about why those feasts were selected, and not others, the best I can offer is that the principle feasts of the year are covered (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday), and beyond that one feast per month is chosen, such that this Creed would be heard about once a month, usually near the end:
- January: Epiphany (6th)
- February: St. Matthias (29th)
- March: Easter sometimes
- April: Easter usually, Ascension sometimes
- May: Ascension usually, Pentecost sometimes
- June: Pentecost usually, Trinity, St. John Baptist (24th)
- July: St. James (25th)
- August: St. Bartholomew (24th)
- September: St. Matthew (21st)
- October: St. Simon and St. Jude (28th)
- November: St. Andrew (30th)
- December: Christmas (25th)
Anyway, let’s look at the Creed itself. It’s called Of Athanasius because he is the traditionally-acclaimed author, though historical scholarship has indicated that it’s most likely a product of his school of thought, or his tradition so to speak, rather than of him himself. Thus some like to refer to it by its first line in Latin: Quicunque vult. But the appellation of Athanasius is appropriate nonetheless, as this does express his theology quite clearly.
In terms of contents, this Creed is by far the best and most robust resource in the Church’s arsenal when it comes to teaching the doctrine of the Trinity. In the way it is formatted in our Prayer Book, most of page 769 deals with the Trinity, all of page 770 does, and the first “verse” of it on page 771 concludes the section on the Trinity. The rest of the Creed (page 771) proceeds in a fashion very similar to the Nicene Creed, outlining the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But even this uses more developed language to expound the two natures of Christ (in close union with the 3rd and 4th Ecumenical Councils, again indicating a post-Athanasius origin).
Let’s be honest, this Creed can be a bit of a tongue-twister, and its repetitive phrases can make it difficult to understand without familiarity. But if you read it slowly and carefully, its logic will be clear, as two things are being established very methodically: there are three Persons in the Trinity and there is one God in Unity.
Apart from its length, this Creed has other features that have contributed to its decline in popularity over the past 200 years: its vehement insistence on orthodoxy for salvation. Note how it begins:
Whoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
It ends with the same tone:
This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.
The good news here is that it never says “understand”, only “hold” or “keep” or “believe”. So if you or your child or your uneducated Christian friend don’t really understand what this Creed is saying, you or they are not damned. We keep the faith, we hold and believe the faith, however well we understand and grasp its particulars in our minds. The mystery of the Trinity is one of the greatest mysteries and paradoxes that can be found in the Scriptures, yet this Creed reminds us (and carefully explains) that no true Christian worships three Gods, or blends the Father, Son, and Spirit together into one person, neither do we blend the divinity and humanity of Jesus together into some sort of demigod half-breed. We hold to the intellectually-difficult yet simple truths that the one God exists in three persons, and that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
So that, I hope, puts to rest any fears that the anathemas (condemnatory statements) may rile up in the heart of the reader.
If you and your church did not say the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday this year (and let’s face it, very few of us even had the chance to!) consider taking up the tradition of the classical Prayer Books and saying it at Morning Prayer on John the Baptist’s birthday tomorrow! It’s not technically authorized in our Prayer Book, but to do so would be in accord with the spirit of the rubrics, if not the letter.