The Athanasian Creed
by R.C. Sproul
Quicumque vult— this phrase is the title attributed to what is popularly known as the Athanasian Creed. It was often called the Athanasian Creed because for centuries people attributed its authorship to Athanasius, the great champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy during the crisis of the heresy of Arianism that erupted in the fourth century. That theological crisis focused on the nature of Christ and culminated in the Nicene Creed in 325. At the Council of Nicea of that year the term homoousios was the controversial word that finally was linked to the church’s confession of the person of Christ. With this word the church declared that the second person of the Trinity has the same substance or essence as the Father, thereby affirming that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are equal in being and eternality. Though Athanasius did not write the Nicene Creed, he was its chief champion against the heretics who followed after Arius, who argued that Christ was an exalted creature but that He was less than God.
Athanasius died in 373 a.d., and the epithet that appeared on his tombstone is now famous, as it captures the essence of his life and ministry. It read simply, “Athanasius contra mundum,” that is, “Athanasius against the world.” This great Christian leader suffered several exiles during the embittered Arian controversy because of the steadfast profession of faith he maintained in Trinitarian orthodoxy.
Though the name “Athanasius” was given to the creed over the centuries, modern scholars are convinced that the Athanasian Creed was written after the death of Athanasius. Certainly, Athanasius’ theological influence is embedded in the creed, but in all likelihood he was not its author. The present title, Quicumque Vult, follows the custom in the Roman Catholic Church that is used for encyclicals and creedal statements. These ecclesiastical affirmations get their name from the first word or words of the Latin text. The Athanasian Creed begins with the words quicumque vult, which means “whoever wishes” or “whosoever wishes,” inasmuch as this phrase introduces the first assertion of the Athanasian Creed. That assertion is this: “Whosoever wishes to be saved must, above all, keep the catholic faith.” The Athanasian Creed seeks to set forth in summary version those essential doctrines for salvation affirmed by the church with specific reference to the Trinity.
With respect to the history of the origins of the Athanasian Creed, it is generally thought now that the creed was first written in the fifth century — though the seventh century is also given its due, since the creed does not show up in the annals of history until 633 at the fourth council of Toledo. It was written in Latin and not in Greek. If written in the fifth century, several possible authors have been mentioned because of the influence of their thought including Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, but it likely was the French saint, Vincent of Lérins.
The content of the Athanasian Creed stresses the affirmation of the Trinity in which all members of the Godhead are considered uncreated and co-eternal and of the same substance. In the affirmation of the Trinity the dual nature of Christ is given central importance. As the Athanasian Creed in one sense reaffirms the doctrines of the Trinity set forth in the fourth century at Nicea, in like manner the strong affirmations of the fifth-century council at Chalcedon in 451 are also recapitulated therein. As the church fought with the Arian heresy in the fourth century, the fifth century brought forth the heresies of monophysitism, which reduced the person of Christ to one nature, mono physis, a single theanthropic (God-man) nature that was neither purely divine or purely human. In the Monophysite heresy of Eutyches, the person of Christ was seen as being one person with one nature, which nature was neither truly divine nor truly human. In this view, the two natures of Christ were confused or co-mingled together. At the same time the church battled with the monophysite heresy, she also fought against the opposite view of Nestorianism, which sought not so much to blur and mix the two natures but to separate them, coming to the conclusion that Jesus had two natures and was therefore two persons, one human and one divine. Both the Monophysite heresy and the Nestorian heresy were clearly condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the church, reaffirming its Trinitarian orthodoxy, stated their belief that Christ, or the second person of the Trinity was vere homo and vere Deus, truly human and truly God. It further declared that the two natures in their perfect unity coexisted in such a manner as to be without mixture, confusion, separation, or division, wherein each nature retained its own attributes. So with one creedal affirmation, both the heresy of Nestorianism and the heresy of Monophysitism were condemned.
The Athanasian Creed reaffirms the distinctions found at Chalcedon, where in the Athanasian statement Christ is called, “perfect God and perfect man.” All three members of the Trinity are deemed to be uncreated and therefore co-eternal. Also following earlier affirmations, the Holy Spirit is declared to have proceeded both from the Father “and the Son,” affirming the so-called filioque concept that was so controversial with Eastern Orthodoxy. Eastern Orthodoxy to this day has not embraced the filioque idea.
Finally, the Athanasian standards examined the incarnation of Jesus and affirmed that in the mystery of the incarnation the divine nature did not mutate or change into a human nature, but rather the immutable divine nature took upon itself a human nature. That is, in the incarnation there was an assumption by the divine nature of a human nature and not the mutation of the divine nature into a human nature.
The Athanasian Creed is considered one of the four authoritative creeds of the Roman Catholic Church, and again, it states in terse terms what is necessary to believe in order to be saved. Though the Athanasian Creed does not get as much publicity in Protestant churches, the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are affirmed by virtually every historic Protestant church.