“THIS WE BELIEVE”
In ongoing observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are presenting a brief overview of the Book of Concord. The series will survey the three ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran confessions.
Martin Luther once said of the Athanasian Creed, “I doubt whether the New Testament church has a more important document since the Apostolic Age.” Let us take a look at why he thought that.
Sometimes things are misnamed. The guillotine, for example, is named after a Frenchman, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, someone who actually opposed the death penalty. One would think that the Athanasian Creed was written by Athanasius (A.D. 296-373), the noted theologian who had done much work on the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), but too many facts rule him out as the author. The truth is that we don’t know who wrote this creed. Athanasius wrote in Greek; this creed was written in Latin, not to be translated into Greek until the twelfth century.
Evidence suggests that it was written in Gaul (now France) in the mid-fifth century. Caesarius, the Bishop of Arles, a city in southern France, used this creed in worship in the early sixth century. It was at this time that Vandals and Goths from the north were invading this region and bringing with them the Arian heresy—the idea that Jesus was not fully God, equal to the Father. The Athanasian Creed was no doubt written to affirm and bolster the orthodox Christians in their confession.
It went on to become a popular creed for instructional purposes. Charlemagne (c. A.D. 742-814) required all churchmen to memorize it. Although not as commonly recited as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches recited it on prescribed days in the church year.
The Athanasian Creed was written to combat prevalent false teachings of the day. Much of the creed is an exposition of the Trinity. False teachers had questioned the equality of the three persons of the Godhead, subordinating the Son and the Holy Spirit. The creed responds: “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.”
Other false teachers had confused the nature of Christ. In this creed we confess that Christ is both fully God and fully man. For Him to be not fully God and not fully man would mean that His atoning sacrifice for sin would not have accomplished our salvation. “God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world . . . Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.”
Quicunque—Telling it like it is!
The Athanasian Creed is also named the “Quicunque” because of its first word, translated “Whosoever.” Unlike the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, this creed comes with a warning. Since this creed deals with the most fundamental Christian truths—the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and redemption—those who reject the doctrines of this creed will be condemned. “Which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”
In a day of milquetoast ecumenism where the majority are willing to sell out the clear Gospel message for the sake of outward, feel-good unionism, the Athanasian Creed tells it like it is, because the Bible tells it like it is! “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.’” (John 14:6) It is incumbent on the Christian church today to speak the truth. The heresy may be branded differently today, but the threat is the same—to diminish the one Triune God and the saving work of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.