Arthur Middleton on the Athanasian Creed
On major feast days The Book of Common Prayer requires the Athanasian Creed, known as the Quicunque Vult, to replace the Apostles’ Creed. I wonder how many clergy obey this rubric. How many laity know the Athanasian Creed? Or are most Anglicans merely deists and not Trinitarians?
Many primitive hymns had an ascription of praise to the Trinity that is often lacking in modern hymns:
All laud to God the Father be,
All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the holy Paraclete.
For Newman, dogma is a living reality and the Quicunque Vult was his favourite hymn. Many of our contemporaries see it as antiquated and, with its precise theological explanations and the condemnation of those who will not accepts them, as an example of the dry theology and the narrow-minded dogmatism of the Church. For Newman it was the acme of the faith.
‘It is not a mere collection of notions,’ he writes, ‘however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confes sion, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagina tion quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be if we know what to believe, and yet believe not. . . . For myself I have ever felt it as the most simple and sublime, the most devotional formulary to which Christianity has given birth, more so even than the Veni Creator and Te Deum. Even the antithetical form of its sentences, which is a stumbling-block to so many, as seeming to force, and to exult in forcing a mystery upon recalcitrant minds, has to my apprehension … a very different drift. It is intended as a check upon our reasonings, lest they rush on in one direction beyond the truth, and it turns them back into the opposite direction. Certainly it implies a glorying in the Mystery; but it is no statement of the Mystery for the sake of its mysteriousness.’
So in Newman’s work, in his thought and experience, we find the strong patristic influence in the subtleties of the thought of the Greek Fathers who claimed the three Persons in the one Nature of the Godhead and the two Natures in the one Person of the incarnate Christ. The thundering antitheses of the Quicunque Vult set before us a mystery to be accepted and lived by modern man, for our faith is rooted in the tradition of the church. Intensely conscious as we are of all the difficulties in accepting this tradition, still it enables us to bring out of this treasure ‘what is new and what is old’.
In his book, The Athanasian Creed, Dr J.N.D. Kelly valued ‘acme of the faith’ as a work of literature and a work of theology, and concluded that it originated in the school of St Vincent of Lérins between AD440 and 549. It reveals the influence of Augustine, shows a marked dependence on Vincent of Lérins and was endorsed by Caesarius of Arles. It tells us first, that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three separate individuals in the same way as three human beings who belong to the same genus. Rather, each of the divine Persons from the point of view of substance, is identical with the others or with the divine substance itself. In this way God is not described as threefold, but as a Trinity, and the Persons can be said severally to indwell or co-inhere with each other. Secondly, whatever belongs to the divine nature as such should, in strictness of language, be expressed in the singular, since that language is unique. While each of the Persons is in-create, infinite, omnipotent, eternal etc., there are not three in-creates, infinites, omnipotents, eternals etc., but one. Thirdly, the Trinity possesses a single, indivisible action and a single will. Its operation is inseparable. The three Persons act as ‘one principle’, and as they are inseparable they act inseparably. Where there is no difference of natures, there is none of will either.