Tuesday, May 21, 2013

From my article on the Athanasian Creed (which will appear in a companion to the Lutheran Service Book)

Since Trinity Sunday is fast approaching, I thought I would post a portion of an article I had written introducing the Athanasian Creed. There was much that I learned in researching this topic that I had not been taught in the seminary. One thing that I didn't include in my article: this creed is a masterpiece of Latin prose, as can be seen in the way that it consistently follows the rigid metrical rules for ending clauses in Ciceronian era prose while it also still conforms to the dictates of contemporary 5th century prose, whose cadences were based on accentuation rather than syllable quantity. That in itself was a remarkable feat. If you want to read more, you'll have to buy the book.

Once a year, need it or not, cowboys would take a bath—or so the legend goes. And once a year, need it or not, Lutheran congregations are forced to recite the Athanasian Creed. Those who find the annual recitation on Trinity Sunday to be a burdensome chore might well consider that from the days of Charlemagne the Athanasian Creed was to be learned by heart by the clergy and recited at Prime every Sunday. That was not enough for the Cluniac monks, who sang it daily.[1] Only at the dawn of the twentieth century did it get reduced in Roman circles from Prime on every Sunday to Prime on the Sundays after the Epiphany and Pentecost. By the middle of the same century it had been further reduced to Prime on Trinity Sunday only.[2] Anglican usage showed a similar deterioration of use, although it has been waning in those circles for the past two centuries.[3]

Prime, of course, was one of the daily offices sung first by monks and later by all clergy. As one of the more minor offices, it was less likely to be attended by laity than Matins or Compline. Thus, through most of the centuries of its use, the Athanasian Creed has been something pastors confessed repeatedly in their devotional life so that it could shape their preaching, while lay people have not used it as much. History would suggest, therefore, that we should not expect the Athanasian Creed to be an integral part of the average lay person’s thinking or devotional life. A wiser practice would be to encourage pastors (and perhaps elders and commissioned ministers of religion) to recite the Athanasian Creed more frequently than once a year (perhaps weekly) while expecting lay people to make use primarily of the Apostles’ Creed in their daily devotions (as Luther suggests) and the Nicene Creed at the Sunday Divine Service. By praying the Athanasian Creed, pastors would imbibe its rich Trinitarian and Christological language, which would help shape their preaching. This practice would not abolish the annual recitation of the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday, but it might be a better way to steep pastors in the creed’s rich doctrine of the Trinity and enable them to communicate its theology to the laity they shepherd.

Who wrote the Athanasian Creed? Certainly not Athanasius, as it is never referred to by him or his contemporaries or even any later person in the Greek-speaking church, at least not until centuries later. Those who read Latin will recognize instantly that it is too Latinate in its phraseology and structure to be a translation of a Greek original. There are clear verbal parallels between the creed and the writings of Ambrose of Milan (†397), Augustine of Hippo (†430), Fulgentius of Ruspe (†533), and theologians of southern France such as Vincent of Lérins († ca. 450), Faustus of Riez († ca. 490), and Caesarius of Arles (†542).[4] But verbal parallelism is not in and of itself determinative. These theologians may have borrowed language from the creed, or the creed may have borrowed language from the theologians, or the creed may have been written by one of them.

When G. Friedrich Bente wrote his historical introduction to the Athanasian Creed as part of the Concordia Triglotta, he could do no more than suggest its origin in southern France between 450 and 600, which was as far as the scholarly consensus at that time was willing to go.[5] It was recognized by then that the Trinitarian language is drawn from that of Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity, although the creed seems to reflect Augustinianism rather than the hand of Augustine himself.[6] The focus of the creed is largely anti-Arian, but directed at a more moderate form of Arianism than the original Arianism, which would indicate that it was directed more against the Goths, such as had settled in Spain and France. Given the many parallels between the creed and theologians of southern France, that provenance seems more likely.

However, in 1931 the eminent French-Belgian patristic scholar Germain Morin discovered a collection of sermons of Caesarius of Arles that included the Athanasian Creed. This proved that not only had Caesarius been familiar with the creed, but that he had promoted it as well and thus the creed must have been written before his death in 542.[7] It is an intriguing possibility that Caesarius himself may have been the author, but it is unlikely, given some stylistic and minor theological differences between Caesarius and the creed. J.N.D. Kelly argues for the following: “the connexion [sic] of the creed with the monastery at Lérins, its dependence on the theology of Augustine, and, in the Trinitarian section, on his characteristic method of arguing, its much more direct and large-scale indebtedness to Vincent [of Lérins], its acquaintance with and critical attitude towards Nestorianism, and its emergence at some time between 440 and the high noon of Caesarius’ activity.”[8]

Two objections are commonly raised against the Athanasian Creed. The first is its damnatory clauses. Liberal Protestantism, Pietism, and even much of Evangelicalism have objected to the notion that a person could be condemned for failing to uphold certain dogmas.[9] Thus, Samuel Schmucker proposed dropping the Athanasian Creed when he offered his American Platform for amending the Augsburg Confession.[10] Most serious Lutherans, though, will recognize that the Scriptures themselves condemn those who teach contrary to the gospel (Galatians 1:8).[11] The second objection is that it teaches a salvation by works. But this objection does not hold up under scrutiny. The language is biblical (John 5:29) and does not contradict the notion that we are saved by faith in Christ apart from our works. It is only by faith in Christ that anyone can do good works. On the Last Day, Christ will point to our good works to demonstrate that we had true faith, while he will point out the lack of good works to demonstrate that the unbelievers had no faith (Matthew 25:31-46). Moreover, this creed was promoted by Caesarius of Arles, who was a firm opponent not only of Pelagianism (overt works-righteousness) but also semi-Pelagianism and organized the Synod of Orange in 529 to condemn it; nonetheless, he saw no false doctrine in the creed on this topic but rather promoted it instead, as we have seen.

[1] John Norman Davidson Kelly, The Athanasian Creed (Evanston: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), 43; Robert L. Wilken, “Introducing the Athanasian Creed,” Currents in Theology and Mission 6:1 (1979), 5-6.
[2] Kelly, 49.
[3] Kelly, 7, 49-51; Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition [hereafter Pelikan, Credo] (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 324.
[4] Kelly, 24-34.
[5] Concordia Triglotta [hereafter Triglotta] (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), 14.
[6] Pelikan, Credo, 435-436.
[7] Germain Morin, “L’Origine du symbole d’Athanase: témoignage inédit de s. Césaire d’Arles,” Revue Bénédictine 14 (1932): 207-219; cf. Kelly, 35-37.
[8] Kelly, 123.
[9] Pelikan, Credo, 488-497.
[10] Pelikan, Credo, 324-325.
[11] Pelikan (Credo, 76-78) rightly notes that pharmacists have to follow prescriptions faithfully to a doctor’s intent or else be barred from their profession; the damnatory clauses in the creed serve a similar function for theologians. Wilken, 9, also points out the need for a church still struggling with a pagan environment to delineate sharply between the God Christians worship and the pagan concepts of deity.