Of the Three Creeds
The three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius' Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.
De Tribus Symbolis
Symbola tria, Nicaenum, Athanasii, et quod vulgo Apostolorum appellatur omnino recipienda sunt et credenda; Scripturarum testimoniis probari possunt.
(Composed in 1552 by the English Reformers)
Fr. Robert Hart
Before getting into the meat of this Article, it is necessary to discuss the final few words as they relate to the present day controversies about the nature of Anglicanism. The simple straightforward words, “for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture,” should present no problem to anyone who understands the Catholic Tradition of the
. Unfortunately, however, we live in a time when people react to those words because they have been given misinformation in the place of education, and wrongfully imagine some great dichotomy between Scripture and Tradition. Universal Church
In 1552 that apparent dichotomy was unheard of. The English Reformers made no new statement by writing these words, and certainly created no innovation. The popular notion, widely assumed in our time, that they were rejecting the Catholic Tradition in favor of a new doctrine of sola scriptura, as if it had been invented in the sixteenth century, has already been corrected in a previous chapter of this series that dealt with Article VI. In short, there was nothing revolutionary, innovative or rebellious in their words.
It is correct and accurate, therefore, to point out what it is that critics of the English Reformers are actually saying when they make their objection: They are really saying, if they would think about it, that they do not believe that the Catholic Tradition of the
is Scriptural. Universal Church
Such a claim runs counter to the official beliefs of all Catholic churches, contradicting the stated beliefs not only of Anglicans, but of the Papal Communion of the Church of Rome, and the Catholic churches called Orthodox. The words that close Article VIII are echoed in recent Vatican documents, such as Dominus Iesus (released under the Papal imprimatur of Pope John-Paul II in 2000), that says very simply about the Scriptures, “These books have God as their Author.” We, as orthodox Anglicans, have our respective disagreements with
and Orthodoxy (as they do with each other). But, none of our communions (in our case, Continuing Anglicans of the Concordat churches) would argue that the words of the Creeds ought to believed due to some inherent authority of their own, or that they presented new doctrines that “developed” by some evident and discernable process we may call authoritative. Rome
It may seem like a clever argument to amateur theologians, especially those who are champion jousters on the internet, to declare that the closing words of Article VIII create a separation from the Catholic Tradition. It may seem clever to those who imagine the existence of some Canon of the Tradition. Like the mysterious “Q” document, however, such a canon tends to be arbitrary, often colored by subjective tastes or misinformation. The real Canon, properly called the Canon, is the Scripture. On that the English Reformers wrote in perfect accord with the Catholic Tradition of the
Universal Church, and with the mind of the most ancient catholic bishops and doctors who met at Nicea in 325 AD and in Constantinople in 381 AD.
Indeed, if any extra Biblical formula of doctrine may be called a canon of the Tradition, it is the Nicene Creed (or to be more exact, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). But, is it really extra Biblical? Granted, the Creed itself is not in the Bible; but, it is a summary of the Doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, recalling the facts of our salvation history and of our future assurances as promised by God. Everything in it comes from the Bible, and all of the arguments made in Nicea (325) were drawn from the Bible. The final edited version of the Creed, as made in Constantinople (381 AD), was simply a practical way of making the Creed available for adaptation to liturgy and for use in teaching, as the purpose was now one of teaching the people rather than one of silencing heresy (of course, I am foreshadowing points we will make below in this chapter).
St. Athanasius (circa 293-373), who eventually became the Archbishop of Alexandria, was a deacon at the Council of Nicea. He served as a chief apologist for the orthodox doctrine against the heresy of Arius. St. Athanasius made his arguments from Scripture, in fact he made them ex scriptura sola, because Scripture was the only available source of direct Apostolic teaching. The records of the Council make these things certain: It was not some thing called “the Petrine chrism” of the as yet unknown concept of “papal infallibility” (a new “dogma” as late as 1870 AD), nor was it some “Development of Doctrine” based simply on consensus in the Council. It was the arguments drawn from Scripture that won the day.
The balance is found in this simple fact: The Church understood the meaning of Scripture before the Council; the heresy of Arius clashed with Tradition, that is, with the doctrine of the Church that had been taught, after the deaths of the Apostles, from the Scriptures within the body of doctrine that was handed down. But, it is equally true that the heresy of Arius clashed with the body of doctrine that was handed down within the Scriptures.
So, as we noted in our chapter on Article VI, those who see a dichotomy between Scripture and Tradition simply do not understand the authentic Catholic Tradition of the
. The words that close Article VIII were not innovative, revolutionary or contrary to Catholic Tradition. If they may be called Protestant words, then it is in accord with the authentically Anglican conviction that true Reformation restored Catholic Faith; it did not reject it. Indeed, on what basis other than the Catholic Tradition of the Universal Church could the Church of England have asserted so boldly, and with complete confidence, the closing words? “For they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” Not merely supported, but proved, to say without doubt. Universal Church
The Apostles’ Creed is so-called not because it came from the Apostles in its present form, but because it summarized their doctrine. This most ancient of creeds commonly used today, was drawn from baptism rites, and it was interrogative. That is, it was addressed to the catechumen just before baptism in the form of questions and answers: “Do you believe in God the Father?” The answer was, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” And so on.
The Creed called Nicene was born in controversy. But, much misinformation is embraced today about the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Partly because of a poorly researched fiction novel called The DaVinci Code (apparently intended to mean the Leonardo Code; for even the title itself is the first indication of historical laziness and error), and partly because of sensational (howbeit financially profitable) works by very bad scholars such as Elaine Pagels, it is wrongly believed by many uneducated people that the Council of Nicea was about Gnosticism, that it was run by Emperor Constantine to fit some agenda of his own (as if he had reason to care deeply about who won a theological debate), and even by many that certain books were removed or “banned” from the Bible. None of these assumptions and popular notions is true; in fact, none of them are even partially accurate.
Another misconception comes from a school that has, in their own imaginations, elevated Cardinal Newman’s seriously flawed theory of Doctrinal Development into a dogma of the Church (in this case, of Rome). Because the word homoousion (or homoousios -“of one substance”) was first used in the Council, arguments have been put forward to the effect that the Council taught something new, or that the Doctrine of the Trinity is not clear from the Scriptures, all to argue for their cherished notion from a nineteenth century argument against Protestantism. But, what they really end up supporting is the Arian heresy itself, echoing in their own way the error of modern Arians called “Jehovah’s Witnesses” who teach their people that the Council invented the doctrine of the Trinity. Trying to argue for their favorite version of what they call “Catholicism” they simply argue against the Christian faith altogether.
Yes, the Council did coin the word homoousion. But, just as the word “Trinity” is a quick way to refer to a doctrine of the Apostles that is revealed very clearly in the Scriptures, though the word is not in the Bible, so too this word. The word homoousion is not in the Bible, but the teaching it speaks of most certainly is.
Arius was a presbyter in
who taught that the Son was a created being, not God. Following with that same logic, he taught that the Holy Spirit was merely an impersonal force. His bishop, Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria , was the one who first opposed him. In rebellion against his bishop, Arius continued to teach his heretical doctrine. The bishops of the Church gathered at Nicea not for the purpose of trying to figure out whether or not the Son is equal to the Father or merely a creature, a created and lesser god, but to defend the teaching of the Church against serious error. Arius was not summoned there to help them with a “discernment process.” Instead, in a real way, he was the subject of a heresy trial. The result of the Council was “the Creed called Nicene.” Since the Book of Common Prayer uses this title for the final edited version that was produced decades later, we may be sure it is that version of which the Article speaks. For your benefit, however, let us take a look at both of them together (the translations are modern). Alexandria
Nicea 325 AD
We believe in one God the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father, that is from the substance [Gr. ousias, Lat. substantia] of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten [Gr. gennethenta, Lat. natum] not made [Gr. poethenta, Lat. factum], of one substance [Gr. homoousion, Lat. unius substantiae (quod Graeci dicunt homousion)] with the Father, through whom all things were made, both those in heaven and those in earth; for us humans and for our salvation he came down and became incarnate, became human, suffered and rose up on the third day, went up into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.
- And those who say
- "there once was when he was not", and "before he was begotten he was not", and that
- he came to be from things that were not, or from another hypostasis [Gr. hypostaseos] or substance [Gr. ousias, Lat. substantia], affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration:
these the catholic and apostolic church anathematises.
We believe in one God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and of earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all the ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance (Gr. homousion) with the Father, through whom all things were made; for us humans and for our salvation he came down from the heavens and became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, became human and was crucified on our behalf under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried and rose up on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; and he went up into the heavens and is seated at the Father's right hand; he is coming again with glory to judge the living and the dead; his kingdom will have no end. And in the Spirit, the Holy, the Lordly and life-giving one, proceeding forth from the Father, co-worshipped and co-glorified with Father and Son, the one who spoke through the prophets; in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. We confess one baptism for the forgiving of sins. We look forward to a resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come. Amen.
As is obvious, the Creed of Constantinople as adapted for use in liturgy, with each believer affirming it himself (I believe) is “the Creed called Nicene.” The doctrine is one and the same, but the second version is stated in a completely positive manner, partly because they may have felt some relief from that particular controversy in which the actual Nicene version was written, and partly to make the Creed a tool for instruction to be used locally in the churches.
The Creed as finalized in
Constantinople gives a more thorough teaching about the Holy Spirit for the same reason that the Nicene Creed says so much more about the Son than had been said in the Apostle’s Creed. That is, because of heresy the Church was forced to clarify even more precisely what her teaching always had been. Between 325 and 381, the heretical school of the Pneumatamachi (fighters against the Spirit), sometimes called the Macedonians (due to their place of origin) taught that Holy Spirit is not a Person, but merely a force. The most famous writer to oppose them was the Cappadocian Father, Saint Basil. The final Creed called Nicene clarifies for us that the Holy Spirit is fully God, equal to the Father and to the Son, “who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified.”
The Creed of Saint Athanasius or Quicunque vult is named after the saint not because anyone supposed he had written it, but simply in his honor as one who defended the true doctrine of the Trinity. Unlike the Creeds of Nicea and
Constantinople, it was written in Latin only. The records of the Ecumenical Councils had been written in both Greek and Latin, including the Creeds. But, this Creed is a product of the western Church.
The purpose of this creed is one of instruction, particularly on the subject of the Trinity. For example, the creed provides clarification that, although there can be no separation between the Persons of the Godhead, we have been given revelation sufficient to make distinctions between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, not confusing them.
One objection that is made to this creed has to do with the opening: “Whosoever will be saved : before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled : without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”
Taken every literally, this opening seems to make proper theological learning a necessary work one must perform to be saved. Furthermore, such a crass doctrine of salvation by learning rules out the salvation of little children, or of the simple who cannot learn. It seems to be a valid objection on the face of it. In fact, however, the opening of this creed is really about the danger of teaching false doctrines, not different in intended meaning from
’s words in Galatians 1:8,9: St. Paul
“But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”
Nor is it really different in meaning from the words of the Creed written in Nicea in 325 AD, “these [false teachers] the Catholic and Apostolic church anathematizes.”
It is also important that the point is about the God we worship, not One we vainly presume to comprehend with our intellect. The creed says, “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” This cannot really be different from the words of Jesus in John, the fourth chapter (22-24):
“Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
The fruit of our salvation, even in this life as well as in the world to come, is that we are given revelation sufficient to worship God in truth as he has revealed it, and grace to worship Him in truth because He changes our hearts by His Spirit.
Fr. Laurence Wells
This is the first Article where the version contained in the American Prayer Book differs significantly from that in the English Prayer Book. Whereas the original named the "Symbola tria," (a feature held in common with Lutheran and Continental Reformed Confessions), the American Book has this article only in a truncated and mangled form, with the Athanasian Symbol purposefully excluded.
The major point of Article VIII is to keep the doctrinal heritage of the Anglican tradition firmly plugged in to Catholic tradition. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation have already been covered in the first seven Articles. But Article VIII goes out of the way to insist that these are no new discoveries or sectarian doctrines; we have received these doctrines because we belong to an older and greater tradition.
Therefore we must deplore the surgery on Article VIII which took place in the early
as we give thanks for the correction of that crime in the Affirmation of St Louis, which happily affirms the place of the Athanasian Symbol. But the scar serves to remind us of how close the American Church in its infancy came to even more drastic steps. In 1785 a trial liturgy, called the "Proposed Book," was set forth which omitted not only the Athanasian Creed but the Nicene Creed as well. We must thank Bishop Seabury for resisting this book and the English bishops who reviewed the thing for their severe remonstrances. In the Prayer Book adopted in 1789, the Nicene Creed was salvaged, and for good measure, it was made an option at the Daily Office. But most of the time it is still just an option even in the Communion Office. Under the rubric on page 71, a parish church could get by with saying the Nicene Creed only five times a year. Surely it is a sign of the Holy Ghost residing in the Body of Christ that the Nicene Creed did not go the way of the Decalogue and the Exhortations into virtual desuetude. The Athanasian Creed, however, was not restored and has become almost unknown to American Anglicans. American Church
Anyone who wants to know the Athanasian Creed better should try to get his hands on a thin book (only 140 pages) by J. N. D. Kelly entitled "The Athanasian Creed." He shows that the earliest evidence of this Creed is in the writing of Caesarius, who was bishop of
Arles, in , in the first half of the 6th century of the Christian Era. The least ancient of the Three Creeds, the Athanasian Creed (which is familiarly known from its opening Latin words Quicunque vult) has its origins well within the Conciliar period. France
What is not so commonly known about the Quincunque is that it clearly asserts the Double Procession of the Holy Spirit, the controversial Filioque.* In it we find: "The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding." This is not the place to explore that thorny issue. But wherever the authority of the Athanasian Creed is acknowledged, we are (to put it bluntly) stuck with the Filioque. The evidence seems to be that this clause "leaked" through osmosis from the Athanasian into the version of the Nicene Creed set forth at the Third Council of Toledo in 589. Whereas the usual narrative holds that this Council altered the Nicene Creed in a high-handed and illegal manner, it might be argued that the Filioque was merely a clarifying gloss borrowed from an equally authoritative Creed.
Fr Hart has written well of the oblique manner in which this Article (probably without a conscious intention) affirms the final appeal to Scripture. The verbiage in the original is "firmissimis Scripturarum testimoniis." The Latin word order is contrived to intensify the superlative "most certain." We note that in the 16th century, the inerrancy of Scripture was not under debate. The Articles assume a hierarchy of doctrinal authority. At the lowest level, the Articles themselves (a contemporary and regional manifesto), next, three classic documents which embody the universal Church's deposit of faith, and finally and supremely, the Word of God written in the Scriptures.
* This subject was covered in the chapter of this series on Article V.
This concludes Part I, "The Catholic Articles, I-VIII." In the next chapter we begin Part II, "Personal Religion, Articles IX-XVIII."