The Athanasian Creed: Introduction

The Athanasian Creed is named after Athanasius (293–373), the champion of orthodoxy against Arian attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity. Although Athanasius did not write this creed, the name persists because it was commonly ascribed to him until the seventeenth century. It is also called the Quicunque vult, derived from the opening words in the Latin original.

The general consensus among scholars is that this creed was produced during the fifth or sixth century. Originally it seems to have been used, not as a creed or confession, but as a tool of instruction and test of orthodoxy for clergy. It is first quoted in the canons of the Fourth Synod of Toledo (633), and apparently gained creedal status at the Synod of Autun (ca. 670). By the thirteenth century, it was regarded in the West as one of the three principal creeds of the church, along with the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The Athanasian Creed’s liturgical function is limited because of its length, but it continues to define a markedly Western understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and presents positively the Christology of Chalcedon. It was formulated in response to the post-Nicene controversies regarding the person of Jesus Christ, specifically concerning the incarnation and the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. It addresses Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and perhaps also Eutychianism, which were condemned at the councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451), respectively. Apart from the opening and closing sentences, this creed consists of two parts, each consisting of a series of declarations. The first part sets forth the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (3–28), and the second treats chiefly the doctrines of the incarnation and the two natures of Christ (29–41). As for the doctrine of the Trinity, this creed accents the Augustinian teaching on the Trinity, with the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (filioque) and an accent on the divine unity. The Godhead is altogether one—one divine substance or essence—yet each person in it has a particular property by virtue of which he differs and is distinct from the other two. Those properties are that the Father is not generated (or begotten), that the Son is generated (or begotten), and that the Holy Spirit proceeds (or is sent). As for the doctrine of Christ, this creed teaches the full deity and the full humanity of Christ; the unity and oneness of his person is also affirmed, contrary to Nestorianism. His humanity is constituted with a rational soul and a human body. Seemingly addressing Eutychianism as well as Apollinarianism, this creed denies any confusion of natures in Jesus Christ and affirms that the Son of God assumed a full human nature. Next follow statements about Christ’s death and resurrection and the general resurrection and last judgment. The creed’s introduction and conclusion assert that the corruption or denial of the teaching of this creed is inconsistent with salvation.