What Makes the Athanasian Creed So Important?

Contributing Writer
What Makes the Athanasian Creed So Important?

The Athanasian Creed is an ancient creed that the early church used. All of the creeds were statements about what Christians believed to combat misconceptions or false ideas that cropped up. The Athanasian Creed’s main function was to combat the trinitarian heresies common throughout the early church. These include heresies claiming that Jesus was only a man or that he was only God wearing human flesh. The creed also addresses the heresy of Arianism, which says that Jesus is God’s first and greatest creation.

Why Is It Called the Athanasian Creed?

The creed’s namesake, Athanasius, was a staunch defender of Christ’s divinity and humanity. He staunchly defended this belief at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and other events. He frequently fought against people promoting Arianism, a belief named after the heretic Arius, who insisted that Christ was the first and greatest creation of the Father.

Athanasius went against many powerful people who promoted Arianism, including emperor Constantine’s son. Athanasius often felt alone, like it was him against the world. Despite the isolation, he stuck up for the truth of the faith. That is likely why the creed is named for Athanasius, despite not being written by him.

The Athanasian Creed differs from the other early church creeds because only the western church quoted and affirmed it. This points to the idea that it was written in the late 400s after Augustine’s ideas became prominent. In fact, the Athanasian creed has strikingly similar language to Augustine’s book On the Trinity, published in 415 AD. Based on the similarities, scholars believe the Athanasian Creed borrows from Augustine’s work. While the creed is named for Athanasius and promotes ideas that he valued, someone else must have written it. Athanasius was alive in 325 AD, not in the 400s when Augustine became popular in the western church.

What Does the Athanasian Creed Say?

The text of the creed can be found here.

The Athanasian Creed’s defining factor is that it is more comprehensive in addressing the trinitarian controversies that were commonplace in the early church. It also addressed the controversies about Christ being both God and man and what that means about his nature.

The first half of the Creed refers to controversies around the Trinity. It begins by saying that God is three in one but that Christians do not worship three Gods. The Creed lists many attributes of the Trinity, including His eternality, His almighty power, His Divinity, and His lordship. Next, the Creed goes into the idea that each member of the Trinity is distinct from the other. The image of the Trinitarian Shield (also called Scutum Fide) comes from this section of the Creed, which says that while each member of the Trinity is God, they are not the same. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.

The second half of the Creed discusses Christ’s nature, dispelling many popular Christological heresies. These included Docetism, which says that Jesus didn’t come in the flesh but was simply an illusion or spiritual hologram that projected a form of himself on earth. It addresses controversies prevalent before and after the Council of Nicaea because it argues that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. It also discusses how his human and divine nature interact, a controversy that caused the Council of Chalcedon to form.

When Was the Athanasian Creed Written?

While the Athanasian Cree was written sometime after Augustine’s On the Trinity, the exact date is controversial. The Creed was only attributed to Athanasius in the Middle Ages. Critics have noted that Athanasius never mentioned writing the Creed, nor was it mentioned in any ecumenical councils. The Athanasian Creed isn’t mentioned in writing until the 600s. Most scholars agree that it was first published in France in the late fifth century (the 400s).

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for a late fifth-century date is that it discusses a controversy that wasn’t around Athanasius’ life: the Filioque. Filioque means “son” in Latin. It refers to the Nicene Creed’s line, “Who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is Glorified.” The Filioque changes the creed to “Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This was one of the main controversies that led to the Great Schism (the separation between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches).

Why Did the Church Fathers Write the Athanasian Creed?

The Athanasian Creed is the most comprehensive of the early church creeds, likely because it was written so late. It was designed to battle the theological controversies that plagued the church. Against Arius’ followers, Athanasius and other early church fathers insisted that Christ was begotten, not created.

These heresies and many others continued into the fourth and fifth centuries. The ideas in the Creed were critical for believers to express the important points of the faith concisely. A short defense of the faith enables believers to quickly articulate their beliefs and identify against what they don’t stand for.

What Important Creeds Came Before the Athanasian Creed?

The first creed developed by the early church was the Apostles’ Creed, which was likely created in the early second century. It was much shorter than the Athanasian Creed. The Apostle’s Creed was a simple defense of the faith, still used in many churches today.

The main precursor to the Athanasian Creed was the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed fleshed out the Doctrines of God the Father and Christ. It was more specific in defining who Christ is and who God the Father is. The Nicene Creed uses more specific language because the early church was then dealing with heresies like modalism (the idea that God chooses which member of the Trinity to reveal himself to the believer at different times).

The doctrine of the nature of Christ was crystallized further in the Chalcedonian Creed. This creed declares that Christ has two distinct natures (human and divine) to combat a prevalent heresy in eastern churches. The heresy, eutychianism, was a branch of a larger group of heresies called monophysitism. Like all forms of monophysitism, eutychianism argues that Christ had only one nature. In the eutychian view, Jesus’s human and divine natures were blended, and his divine nature overcame his human nature. To understand this view, think of something like the computer game agar.io, where one organism swallows up another. In the eutychian view, that happened with Christ’s humanity—it was exposed to the divine nature and swallowed whole.

Why Is the Athanasian Creed Still Important Today?

The Athanasian Creed is key to Christian theology because it is the early church’s most comprehensive picture of the Trinity. So many popular illustrations of the Trinity come directly from the Athanasian Creed. This robust defense of the Trinity is still used today in many denominations, including Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Methodism, and Anglicanism. Each of these groups affirms the Athanasian Creed’s validity and thoroughness in helping to understand this mysterious doctrine.

Understanding the Trinity is critical for Christians in our day as well. It will help them defend their faith against different religions, which misunderstand the Trinity as three distinct Gods rather than one God in Trinity. Using the distinctions made by the Athanasian Creed can help believers understand their beliefs and avoid common errors.

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Ben Reichert works with college students in New Zealand. He graduated from Iowa State in 2019 with degrees in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and agronomy. He is passionate about church history, theology, and having people walk with Jesus. When not working or writing you can find him running or hiking in the beautiful New Zealand Bush.