It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith […] For myself, I have ever felt it as the most simple and sublime, the most devotional formulary to which Christianity has given birth.
So did Blessed John Henry Newman describe the Athanasian Creed which, in the Roman Church, holds a special place on Trinity Sunday. This Creed of St. Athanasius, once recited by the priests of the Latin Church on each Sunday (or, more recently, at least on Trinity Sunday), while being one of the most forceful, succinct and beautiful expressions of our faith in the Trinity and in the Incarnation, has sadly fallen from the consciousness of nearly all the lay faithful and even of the vast majority of the clergy in the years since Vatican II. In these post-Conciliar times, do we not need a “war-song of faith” to call the faithful to the standard of Christ?
In honor of the Most Holy Trinity, we reproduce the Athanasian Creed below, together with a simply commentary on the text.
O Most Holy Trinity! Undivided Unity! Holy God, Mighty God, God Immortal be adored!
Quicunque – Whosoever will be saved
The Athanasian Creed, named for St. Athanasius to whom it has been attributed, is often called the Quicunque, from the first words in Latin – Quicunque vult salvus esse, “whoseoever wishes to be saved”. Although there is some doubt as to whether this Creed was in fact written by St. Athanasius (the doubt arises on account of lack of reference from early Fathers, as well as the distinctly western style of theological phrasing), there can be no doubt that this Creed is in the spirit of the great Bishop of Alexandria and expresses the core of his theology as presented at the Council of Nicaea.
Unlike the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds, the Athanasian Creed stresses not only the diversity of the divine Persons, but also the unity of the single divine essence. While there is no doubt that the Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople emphasize the divinity of each of the three Persons, it is the Creed of Athanasius that most beautifully guides the mind in the harmonious profession of plurality of Persons and unity of Godhead.
It was the “damnatory clauses” contained in the Athanasian Creed which led Blessed Newman to declare it to be the “war-song of faith.” We refer to lines from the Quicunque such as, “which faith, except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” and “as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge” and “so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say” and “This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved,” among many others.
While such language may seem harsh to the modern ear, it is little more than the affirmation of what our Lord himself said, “He that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). In a time of much confusion, both in the Church and in the world, perhaps what we need most is a “war-song” which will rally the faithful to the army of Christ!
Creed and Commentary
[the Athanasian Creed is below, my comments on the portion related to the dogma of the Trinity are in italics]
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
Here we have the opening of the Creed with the most famous damnatory clause of the Creed. It was for this line that Blessed Newman called the Athanasian Creed the “war-song of faith”.
And the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
This is the simple exposition of the dogma of the Trinity: Three Persons in One God, and one God in three Persons. The intricacies of this dogma will be played out below.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
There are not two Fathers nor two Sons nor two Holy Spirits, but only one Father and one Son and one Holy Spirit. This is particularly important to our belief that the Spirit is from the Father and the Son together, for if he were from the Father alone, then the Spirit would be a second Son, but being from the Father and from the Son, he is the Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is all One, the Glory Equal, the Majesty Co-Eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
In all things the Son and Holy Spirit are equal to the Father. There is no degree of dignity or of power or of majesty in the Holy Trinity.
The Father Uncreate, the Son Uncreate, and the Holy Ghost Uncreate. The Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible. The Father Eternal, the Son Eternal, and the Holy Ghost Eternal
All that is said of the Father is said also of the Son, and likewise of the Holy Spirit; excepting that the Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit.
and yet they are not Three Eternals but One Eternal. As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not Three Almighties but One Almighty.
While each Person is truly distinct from the other two, yet the three Persons are not three Eternal Beings, nor Three Uncreated Beings, nor three Almighty Beings. Rather, they are only three as being three Persons – One Father, and one Son, and one Holy Spirit. But these three Persons are one Eternal, Uncreated, Incomprehensible, Almighty God.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not Three Lords but One Lord. For, like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, there be Three Gods or Three Lords.
All that there is to God is the Father, and all that there is to God is the Son, and all that there is to God is the Holy Spirit – such that each Person is God, and God is not merely the combination of the three Persons. And yet, the three are one only God and not three Gods.
The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father, and of the Son neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is One Father, not Three Fathers; one Son, not Three Sons; One Holy Ghost, not Three Holy Ghosts.
Here, we see the difference of the Persons in God. The Father is Father as alone being unbegotten. The Son is Son as being begotten. The Holy Spirit is Holy Spirit as not being begotten but proceeding of the Father and of the Son.
And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Co-eternal together, and Co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity.
The Father is not before the Son, nor the Son before the Holy Spirit. And the Son is not after the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit after the Son. Although the Son is begotten of the Father, this begetting is eternal and there was nothing before this begetting. Although the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, this proceeding is eternal and there was nothing before this procession. And therefore, there is no sequence or process in God – but all is one.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting Salvation, that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.
God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of His mother, born into the world. Perfect God and Perfect Man, of a reasonable Soul and human Flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His Manhood.
Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but One Christ. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into Flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by Unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one Man, so God and Man is one Christ.
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into Hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Grammar of Assent:
“It must be recollected especially that the Athanasian Creed has sometimes been called the "Psalmus Quicunque." It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination 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. It is
"The Psalm that gathers in one glorious lay
All chants that e'er from heaven to earth found way;
Creed of the Saints, and Anthem of the Blest,
And calm-breathed warning of the kindliest love
That ever heaved a wakeful mother's breast,"
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 the 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 recalcitrating minds, has to my apprehension, even notionally considered, a very different drift. It is intended as a check upon our reasonings, lest they rush on in one direction beyond the limits of the truth, and it turns them back into the opposite direction. Certainly it implies a glorying in the Mystery; but it is not simply a statement of the Mystery for the sake of its mysteriousness.”