Sermon: The Athanasian Creed
Preached on 3rd June 2007
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
We have not entirely followed the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer this morning. I don't mean that we did not use the full penitential section, or sing the Venite, or use the psalms appointed for the 3rd morning, or read the State Prayers; rather I refer to the rubric on page 33 of the red Quire Prayer Books or page 27 of the blue Prayer Books, where you will see that today on this Trinity Sunday as well as on twelve other occasions during the year, we are bidden to say the Quicunque Vult, or Creed of St Athanasius, in place of the Apostles' Creed. Indeed, I doubt whether this creed has been said at Matins in this cathedral for most of the last hundred years; if those with long memories know differently, I'd be pleased to hear from you at the end of the service. Its falling out of use was, I think, for a number of reasons.
One is the pragmatic fact that it is quite long, and the old morning service of Matins, Litany and Holy or Ante-Communion was by today's standards a very long liturgical agenda. Second, as the rubric states, it isn't really a creed - it is a confession of faith, a theological statement; it doesn't begin Credo, ‘I believe', and so does not sit so comfortably in the dynamics of Christian worship. It is also challenging; it uses theological language that is testing and requires some technical level of understanding. The Prayer Book translation is also in places inaccurate: the famous verse: ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible' - the whole darn thing incomprehensible - well, for incomprehensible, we should read infinite. But perhaps the chief reason is the inclusion of the famous so-called damnatory clauses with which it begins and ends:
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 shall perish everlastingly.
And, at the end:
This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.
These clauses have proved to be uncomfortable not only for those with a more inclusive or more liberal view of the scope of salvation, but also by those of a more conservative view, on the basis that these statements go beyond what Scripture itself says; for example,
Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved - Acts 16:31.
So the basis of salvation is perceived to be a theological treatise arising from tradition, rather than Scripture, although that begs the question as to what extent Scripture itself is tradition. Well, that's another sermon.
So when did Quicunque Vult arise? Well, one thing is for certain, it has nothing to do with St Athanasius, fourth century Bishop of Alexandria in the Christian East. Rather it is clearly a western text, written in Latin not Greek, and probably originating from the island of Lerins, off Cannes, in the middle of the 5th century. It was used in the medieval monastic office of Prime, one of the sources of Archbishop Cranmer's office of Morning Prayer, and hence its adopted use, roughly once a month, in the Anglican Prayer Book. Its liturgical abandonment was sealed in the 1928 Prayer Book, where its use was optional, despite provision being made for the omission of the damnatory clauses and a new and more accurate translation being provided.
And I am certainly not advocating its liturgical restoration, but I do think it is worthy of consideration, not least today on this feast of the Holy Trinity. Last month, I visited a theological college, and observed a student discussion, arising from an encounter with a man who was clearly attracted to the Church, and stated that he believed in God, but not in this ‘three gods nonsense'. In the discussion, it became apparent that the ordinands were struggling adequately to express their convictions about the Trinity. And Quicunque Vult, sounds quaint, and it not the language we would wish to use in the 21st century; however it still, I believe has usefulness and it makes some important points. The confession can be divided into two: the first part dealing with the Trinity; the second with the Incarnation of our Lord; it is the first part that I am chiefly concerned with today.
The first point is that we are monotheists. We, like the man I mentioned, do not believe in ‘thee gods nonsense' but in one God. The Old Testament lesson today, the story of the Burning Bush, includes the great revelation of the Divine Name to Moses, ‘I am who I am', or ‘Yahweh' in Hebrew, transliterated into Jehovah in Latin, and commonly designated as ‘the Lord'. ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one' is the great confession of Judaism. Christians believe that; we are one of the three great monotheistic Faiths along with Judaism and Islam.
Secondly, however, through Christ, we have come to understand that this one God, the Lord, is a very rich and developed concept. The God of the Old Testament is not simply the One we know as the Father, but rather Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in the Second Lesson, in John 3, John uses the language of Father, but also designates Christ as Son, and speaks distinctively of the work of Spirit. It is this biblical data, but also and crucially, the experience of the early Christians in worship, where it became natural and instinctive to acclaim Christ as God and Holy Spirit as God, that led to the development of the concept of Trinity or Tri-Unity.
The Athanasian Creed seeks to keep both of these insights together, to affirm the Unity of God - i.e. belief in the One God, and also to affirm the distinctiveness of
what we have come to call the ‘persons' of the Trinity; now the idea of ‘persons' has a complicated philosophical background, but the key point is to protect the distinctiveness of God as Father, of God as Son and of God as Spirit, so that they do not become muddled; for as Quicunque Vult states:
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.
And so on this basis, it sets out some important principles.
First, the Trinity is eternal. Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always existed. Yes, at a point in history, God the Son, the eternal Word of God, took human flesh and was born in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; but Christ always had the nature of God. Similarly, the Holy Spirit did not begin at Pentecost, but has existed eternally. Indeed, creation itself is the work of the Trinity: the Father creating through the eternal Word, God the Son, and by the Spirit, the giver of life. So, it is wrong to say that the three Persons are simply different expressions of the one God, that, as it were, the Father became the Son, and the Son became the Spirit; rather, as the Creed states:
The Father is eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal, but not three eternals but One eternal.
So Quicunque Vult is clear that the three Persons are co-eternal.
Second, the three Persons of the Trinity are equal. It is not that the Father is really God, and the Son and Spirit something inferior. Rather they share equal glory, they are equally almighty, equally infinite, they are all accorded the title Lord, the ancient divine Name; they are each designated as God.
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 is Lord, and the Holy Ghost is Lord.
and yet not three Lords, but one Lord.
So Quicunque Vult is clear that the three Persons are co-equal, sharing an equal Glory.
Third, none of the Persons of the Trinity were created. Of course, this is entirely logical. If something or someone created God, that something or someone must be greater than God, and should be called God. God the Father, the creed states, is made of none; he was not created, nor begotten, but is the source of all things.
Similarly, God the Son was not created: there was not a time when he was not. Rather, he is of the Father, not created or made, but begotten. Now, begotten is another technical term from the Greek. It was chosen to convey that the truth that God the Son has a unique relationship with the Father, but that he was neither created in time nor born in eternity, but rather is eternally begotten of the Father.
Similarly, God the Holy Spirit is not created or made, but neither is he begotten. If he were begotten, it might be argued that the Father had two Sons. So, the language of procession is used; the Sprit proceeds from the Father and the Son or perhaps more accurately from the Father, through the Son. Now the word ‘proceed' comes from St John's Gospel chapter 15: the point here is that the Spirit is a divine centre of personal activity, sent by the Father through the Son, flowing out in all his creating and redeeming power; distinct from both Father and Son, but finding his origin in the Father and through the Son, so that we can call the Spirit both the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of God.
So the Persons are distinct, but by stating that God the Father is the source, that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and that the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father, through the Son, the divine Unity is fully asserted.
And so this section of the creed concludes and summaries: one God in three Persons, none before, and none after, not one greater than the other Two and none less than the other Two: but all Three co-equal and co-eternal.
But having said, all that, words are mere words. The doctrine of the Trinity is a great mystery; it is not apprehended by logic or reason, or encapsulated by a mere formula. It is essentially experiential.
And this is where the Quicunque Vult has real insight. For it begins:
And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity,
and Trinity in Unity.
And this section concludes:
And the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
For it was through worship that the Church learned to struggle for appropriate language; it was through worship and praise that the majesty and dignity of Father, Son and Spirit was articulated:
Glory be to the Father: and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost:
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.
As is most wonderfully expressed in Isaac Watts' great hymn, which concludes:
Almighty God, to thee
Be endless honours done,
The undivided Three,
And the mysterious One:
Where reason fails
With all her powers,
There faith prevails,
And love adores.
Faith prevails and love adores. And so today we bow before the Mystery, and we worship. And I close with the time-honoured ascription:
Now to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost,
be ascribed as is most justly due,
all might, majesty, dominion and power,
henceforth and for evermore. Amen.