Recently I was asked a really good question. What do we know about the creed of Saint Athanasius? Where is it to be found? What’s its origin?
Like most things in life, what seems like a fairly straightforward question actually has a rather complex answer.
First, there are three creeds of the Church. They are the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Creed commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius. All three are found in the Book of Common Prayer. The early use of the Apostle’s Creed was in the Baptismal Liturgy. You will find that on page 304 of the BCP. The Apostle’s Creed is also used during the Daily Office, as a reminder of our belief, but also that you and I are baptized into the resurrected life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Nicene Creed is also familiar, as it is typically used on Sundays. Most presume that it originated at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, yet it is known more properly as the Nicea-Constantinepolitan creed. The early Fathers called it the Nicene Creed for shorthand. What they intended to convey was how this Creed was the reaffirmation of the faith expressed in the Council of Nicea and also affirmed in the Council of Constantinople (381) and ratified at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 AD.
We tend to forget that the Creed evolved over time, just as certain issues such as the ordination of women have evolved in our own time. And what of Athanasius?
Well, the creed we know as Athanasius’ more properly is referred to as the Quicunque Vult, after the first two Latin words, “Whoever desires to be saved,” Whether Athanasius wrote this creed may be debated, but it is generally held that the creed made its appearance between 381, perhaps as late as 428. The Quicunque Vult differs from the other creeds in that it has a certain number of damnatory clauses, or anathema clauses in the latter half. Seldom is the use of this creed, but in some places it has occasionally been used in the worship of Trinity Sunday.
Creeds are symbols, snapshots of the Christian Faith. Dismissed by many as a dull recitation of doctrine but poorly understood, I would submit that they are dynamic statements of things for which we would do well to be thankful to Almighty God, a recounting of blessings given generously and freely to us.