The origin of the Athanasian Creed is unknown. As the name suggests, the Creed was originally ascribed to Athanasius—the great “father of Nicene orthodoxy”—as early as the ninth century. However, since the seventeenth century, the document has been regarded as conclusively non- Athanasian for several reasons:
- Athanasius never mentioned the Creed anywhere in his writings.
- The councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) do not refer to the document.
- Athanasius died in 373, so it is very likely that it would have been written before then.
Because it was original attributed to Athanasius, the Athanasian Creed had considerable influence. The Creed was used by the Lutheran Churches and and many of the Reformed Churches, and was mentioned in the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, the Thirty- nine Articles, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, and the Bohemian Confession (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom).
According to Martin Luther (Works), the Athanasian Creed was “the most important and glorious composition since the days of the apostles.” However, it must also be noted that this Creed never achieved ecumenical status as the Greek Church rejected its assertion of the double procession of the spirit (filioque).
The Athanasian Creed consists of forty-four articles, which are divided into three parts. The first part is about the doctrine of the Trinity, while the second defends a Chalcedonian Christology. The third part of the Creed consists of a set of damnatory clauses, asserting that any who will be saved must adhere to the teachings of the Creed.
The Athanasian Creed reads like a summary of the first four ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon).
This creed is an example of how the church, throughout history, has a concern for the great truths of the faith.
Regarding the Trinity, the Athanasian Creed sets out a strict metaphysical formula that leaves no room for any subordination of the Son to the Father or the Holy Spirit to either the Father or the Son. The Creed makes use of the language of “person” in a way that avoids Sabellianism on the one hand and Tritheism on the other.
The Athanasian Creed avoids Apollinarianism by stating that Christ has a rational soul, and sets forth the relationship between the human and divine nature of Christ in such a way as to avoid Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and Monophysitism.
It is likely that the Athanasian Creed was originally intended to be set to music, making it an impressive teaching tool for new converts. During the Middle Ages it is likely that this Creed was used almost daily in morning devotions among those in the Latin Church.
A statement like the Athanasian Creed should cause us to consider how robust our own denominational or church-based statements of faith are or are not. This creed is an example of how the church, throughout history, has a concern for the great truths of the faith. The Athanasian Creed was not merely an add-on to the appendix of a church constitution. Instead, the church connected the theology of the Creed to the daily life of faith. As such, the Athanasian Creed provides us with a beautiful example of the interplay between theology and worship.