History of Christianity

The Thirty-Nine Articles

The Thirty-Nine Articles

History

The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were not intended to be a complete confession of faith. Instead, they are a short set of dogmatic statements intended to set out the basic Anglican theological position in relation to the numerous theological conflicts that took place in the 16th century. The Articles spell out Anglican theology as differing from the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant dissenters, Calvinists, Anabaptists, and Lutherans. As the Church of England found itself caught between the Papacy of Rome and the Protestant Reformers, it recognized the need to set out its general theological position. It is this need that The Thirty-Nine Articles address.

As church historian Philip Schaff has noted, because the Articles have been interpreted in a controversial manner, their theological position has been hijacked by various parties: “Moderate High-Churchmen and Arminians, who dislike Calvinism, represent them as purely Lutheran; Anglo-Catholics and Tractarians, who abhor both Lutheranism and Calvinism, endeavor to conform them as much as possible to the contemporary decrees of the Council of Trent; Calvinistic and evangelical Low-Churchmen find in them substantially their own creed. Continental historians, both Protestant and Catholic, rank the Church of England among the Reformed Churches as distinct from the Lutheran, and her Articles are found in every collection of Reformed Confessions.”


Content

In examining The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, several important tenants can be surmised.

First, the Articles are catholic, meaning that like the other Protestant Confessions of the Reformation, the Articles agree with the great ecumenical councils of the church in their formulations of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

Second, the Articles are Augustinian in their anthropology and soteriology, making use of his views on the human will, sin, and grace.

Third, “they are Protestant and evangelical in rejecting the peculiar errors and abuses of Rome, and in teaching those doctrines of Scripture and tradition, justification by faith, faith and good works, the Church, and the number of sacraments, which Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin held in common.”

God’s electing grace turns us to the cross of Christ, not only to the divine decree of election.

Fourth, the Articles are Reformed (or moderately Calvinistic), in that they teach both predestination and a spiritual view of the Lord’s supper as opposed to transubstantiation.

Fifth, they are Erastian, which means that they affirm a close union between the church and the state.

Finally, they are Anglican and Episcopalian (in direct opposition to the Puritans and the Westminster Confession) in their use of the Prayer-book and their view of church government (i.e., archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons).


Contemporary Relevance

Perhaps the most relevant section of The Thirty-Nine Articles for today’s church is Article 17 on predestination and election. It would be wonderful if more Reformed Christians talked about God’s sovereign grace in this manner:

    “As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchedness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.”

Put most simply, God’s electing grace turns us to the cross of Christ, not only to the divine decree of election. To focus on the latter at the expense of the former leads to either despair or pride.

 

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent met in response to the Protestant Reformation in order to formulate its own position on the debated issues of the day. Oftentimes, the period immediately following the beginning of the Council in 1545 is referred to as the “Counter-Reformation” or the “Catholic Reformation.” The latter is preferable, as the reform within the Catholic Church was not merely a response to the Protestant Reformation.

 

Content

The Council of Trent aimed to remedy the problems within the Catholic Church that had contributed to the Protestant Reformation. For instance, the Council sought to end clerical abuses and corruption, especially associated with the selling of indulgences.

Most significantly, the Council formulated the Catholic Church’s official position on the controversies of the Reformation: the relationship between Scripture and tradition, justification, ecclesiology, and the nature and role of the sacraments.

According to the Council, Scripture and tradition were to be given equal weight in determining orthodox theology. This principle stood against the Protestant affirmation of sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), which means that Scripture alone is the final authority, not the only authority. A further declaration relating to the doctrine of revelation made at Trent was the affirmation of the Apocrypha as part of the canon of Scripture. (For more on this read the free chapter, “Theologies of Scripture in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation,” by Michael Horton in  Christian Theologies of Scripture).

Protestants can acknowledge with Trent the importance of tradition in the discipline of theology.

Trent also emphasized the importance of the church as an institution and as a divinely ordained society. The Protestant Reformers were seen as standing outside of this historically important institution, and therefore outside of salvation, since there was no salvation apart from the Catholic Church.

Regarding justification, Trent believed that the Reformers had misunderstood both Augustine and the New Testament emphasis on works in advancing a position of justification by faith alone. While the Reformers debated the precise role of the sacraments among themselves, the Council of Trent defended their view of “transubstantiation” against both Lutheran and Reformed positions.

 

Contemporary Relevance

Since it was in part a firm response to the Protestant Reformation, some may wonder what Protestants glean from the Council of Trent. First, though they affirm sola Scriptura, Protestants can acknowledge with Trent the importance of tradition in the discipline of theology. The Reformers confidently quoted and learned from the patristic fathers. Winston Churchill famously said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” and almost assuredly the same can be said with regard to theology.

Similarly, while Protestants disagree with Catholics on the doctrine of justification by faith, they can, with Trent, declare anathema the following proposition: “That man can be justified before God by his own works, which are done either in the strength of human nature or through the teaching of the law, apart from the divine grace through Jesus Christ.”

 

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism

After Luther’s death in 1546, the Reformation came to Heidelberg. Shortly thereafter a controversy broke out under Otto Heinrich between the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Zwinglians concerning the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The controversy was fueled when a staunch Lutheran advocated exclusive Lutheranism for the city, even excommunicating a Zwinglian deacon after fighting with him at the altar about the significance of the communion cup. Wishing to put an end to the theological disputes, Frederick III decided to have a Confession of Faith crafted by Zacharias Ursinus—head of the local theological college and a student of Philip Melanchthon—and Caspar Olevianus, a pastor-theologian in Heidelberg. Each theologian produced a draft of a new confession, relying upon past sources such as the catechism written by John Calvin.

Church historian Philip Schaff notes how this dual-authorship by two extremely gifted theologians led to a masterful confession: “The peculiar gifts of both, the didactic clearness and precision of the one [Ursinus], and the pathetic warmth and unction of the other [Olevianus], were blended in beautiful harmony, and produced a joint work which is far superior to all the separate productions of either.”

This Heidelberg Catechism is an impressive piece of pastoral theology that was written for specific pastoral reasons in a robustly theological manner.

Content

The purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism was twofold: to provide a guide for the religious instruction of the city’s youth and to provide a confession of faith for the Church. The Heidelberg Catechism aimed at squelching conflict as opposed to drawing lines in the sand, and is the most “ecumenical” of all the Reformed confessions. As such “The Calvinistic system is herein set forth with wise moderation, and without its sharp, angular points.” While nothing is said of the doctrines of reprobation or limited atonement, the doctrine of election to salvation in Christ is described as a source of humility, gratitude, and comfort (see Questions 1, 31, 53, and 54).

The Heidelberg Catechism is a document that ought to be read, memorized, meditated on, taught, and celebrated by every Christian.

The Catechism consists of 129 questions and answers. It is divided into three parts, following the outline of Romans. The first section deals with the misery of humanity apart from Christ (Questions 3-11 & Rom. 1:18-3:20). The second focuses on the redemption accomplished by and found in Christ alone (Questions 12-85 & Rom. 3:21-11:36). The third section is about thankfulness for the redeemed life and godly living (Questions 86-129 & Rom. 7-16).

Schaff notes that the order of the Catechism corresponds to the division of the Christian life under the headings of repentance, faith, and love. The second part of the Catechism is the largest and contains an exposition of the entire Apostles’ Creed under the Trinitarian division of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Contemporary Relevance

Two areas of contemporary dispute in particular are directly addressed by the Catechism: the content of the gospel and the comfort of divine providence.

1. The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism provides a powerful summary of the whole and glorious gospel:

    “Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death? Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”

2. While many Christians today view God’s guiding hand of providence as a threat, the Heidelberg Catechism sees the doctrine an essential element of the Christian’s confident trust in God:

    “Question 28: What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things? Answer: That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.”

Schaff calls the Catechism “by far the richest and deepest in Church history next to the age of Christ and his inspired apostles,” and this is hardly an exaggeration. “It is the product of the heart as well as the head, full of faith and unction from above. It is fresh, lively, glowing, yet clear, sober, self-sustained. The ideas are Biblical and orthodox, and well fortified by apt Scripture proofs.”

Even at its inception, the Heidelberg Catechism was viewed as a marvelous work of the Reformed church. Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor and author of the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) wrote of the document: “The order of the book is clear; the matter true, good, and beautiful; the whole is luminous, fruitful, and godly; it comprehends many and great truths in a small compass. I believe that no better catechism has ever been issued.”

For these reasons, the Heidelberg Catechism is a document that ought to be read, memorized, meditated on, taught, and celebrated by every Christian.

 

Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses

Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses

History

Luther certainly did not intend his Ninety-Five Theses to be a call to reformation, for he did not want to cause a rift in the church. He merely wanted to be faithful to Scripture. In fact, the public discussion prompted by the posting of theses was merely the typical way in which debate took place in that time. Yet, the content of the theses that Luther posted were rather controversial. And because of the newfound technologies of the printing press and the cultural situation of the early 1500s, Luther’s ideas were carried throughout Germany and gave way to the German stream of the Reformation.

The Ninety-Five Theses were fueled by a controversy in the church regarding the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by the church that removed or satisfied the punishment for sin. Indulgences relied on the “treasury of merits.” According to this idea, many of the saints of the church died with more merit than they needed to enter into heaven. So, the excess merit was “stored,” and the Pope was the dispenser of these merits.

Many Protestants are most familiar with Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith; however, his Ninety-Five Theses were about indulgences, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin.

People in the Medieval period were very concerned with the period of punishment in purgatory—a post-mortem punishment stressed in great detail by the church. They were not so much afraid of hell because they believed the forgiveness and blessing from their priest would guarantee them entrance into heaven. However, the pains of purgatory remained a reality they were scared to face. The church taught that before they would be able to enter heaven, they had to be cleaned of every sin they had committed in their lives on earth. Indulgences worked, then, to cleanse them from sin. The church made penance a sacrament, solidifying in the minds of the people that an indulgence would shorten their period of punishment to be endured in purgatory.

Luther’s main opponent in the indulgence controversy targeted in the Ninety-Five Theses was Johann Tetzel, an indulgence salesman hired by Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz. Albrecht agreed to sponsor the rebuilding of St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Rome, and the Pope agreed to grant a special indulgence that he could sell in order to raise the necessary funds.

Content

Many Protestants are most familiar with Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith; however, his Ninety-Five Theses were about indulgences, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were primarily intended to facilitate discussion concerning the theology of indulgences. After several centuries of abuse of pastoral responsibility in the church, the practice of selling indulgences had grown into a scandal.

Luther saw a major pastoral problem in the selling of indulgences. It encouraged people in their sin and turned their minds away from Christ and God’s forgiveness and to buying forgiveness. Luther’s frustration with the church was with their claiming to have authority to control a person’s time in heaven or hell or purgatory. While Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses touched on an issue of every day practice and hit a nerve in the very depths of the structure of authority that existed in the Medieval church. The formal cause of the Protestant Reformation was the issue of justification and the material cause was ecclesiology, doctrine of the church.

Luther’s frustration with the church was with their claiming to have authority to control a person’s time in heaven or hell or purgatory.

The Ninety-Five Theses called the church to repentance and urged the leaders of the indulgence movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one who was able to pay the penalty due for sin: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” (Thesis 1). Instead of the treasury of merit that was for sale, Luther protested, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God” (Thesis 62).

Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing (theses 92-95) is perhaps the most memorable:

    92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace. 93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross. 94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells. 95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled and outlawed in 1521.

Contemporary Relevance

One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas—is that they call us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.

 

The Councils of Carthage and Orange

The Councils of Carthage and Orange

Theological Anthropology

Theological anthropology refers to the doctrine of humanity, how humans relate to God, and the human condition before and after the Fall. Secular anthropologies root the evil in the world in oppressive social structures, inherited situations, or psychological disorders. Christian anthropology is very different as it deals with the contrast that exists between Adam’s created state before the Fall and the mess of the human condition after sin.

History and Content

In the fifth and early sixth-centuries, theological anthropology was a major topic of debate. The church articulated its doctrines of the Trinity, God, Christ, and Holy Spirit in the first four centuries after Jesus Christ. The Council of Carthage (418) outlawed Pelagianism in unambiguous terms.

Pelagius asserted (against Augustine) that humans were not born corrupt but gradually made corrupt after repeatedly sinning. Though the Council of Carthage ruled against this, affirming that humans had inherited a fallen nature from Adam, many disliked the rulings. Those who questioned Carthage thought that the idea that fallen humans were unable to freely choose good in their unredeemed state was contrary to the teaching of the Bible and led to fatalism. In the seventeenth century these “dissenters” were labeled “Semi-Pelagians,” which links them much closer to the Pelagian heresy than they actually were.

After the Council of Carthage, the Council of Orange (529) was the next to deal significantly with theological anthropology. The Council insisted that death was not essential to human nature but a contingent effect of Adam’s sin, that original sin was passed from Adam to every man, that baptism was the way in which this sin was to be cleansed, and that grace was not merely an add-on to assist our own free-will but a catalyst through which we were able to do that which we could not do on our own. In addition, the Council ruled that any conception of predestination to evil (i.e., reprobation) was heretical.

Some argue that the Councils were so concerned with Pelagianism that they ruled out legitimate understandings of the grace of God and human salvation.

Some today question how firmly we must hold the rulings at Orange and Carthage. For one, the Councils of Orange and Carthage were not ecumenical councils. This means that they were not universally-affirmed by the Eastern and Western branches of the church. In addition, some argue that the Councils were so concerned with Pelagianism that they ruled out legitimate understandings of the grace of God and human salvation.

Contemporary Relevance

There are several common threads that unite both those who side with Augustine and those who wanted to avoid the heresy of Pelagius without sacrificing legitimate expressions of human freedom. Both sides absolutely affirms “that humanity’s present condition does not correspond to God’s ultimate purpose and original intention in its creation.” Moreover, they agreed that humans are responsible for their sinful condition, and that God is ultimately responsible for reversing the curse and restoring that which had been broken. Put differently, salvation is by grace alone and nothing that humans can do could warrant their acceptance before a holy God. This is an offense to most contemporary secular anthropologies. Christians believe that the problem with humanity is not something imposed upon us over which we had no control. Instead, we understand that it is we who are the problem—we choose sin over obedience—death over life.

 

The Creed of Chalcedon

The Creed of Chalcedon

History

The Council of Nicaea (325) established the official church teaching on the deity of Christ. It was decided that he was a member of the Trinity who was to be worshipped. Jesus Christ was, they said, of one substance with the Father. There was to be no questioning whether Christ was a lesser degree of divinity than the Father.

The Council of Chalcedon—the fourth ecumenical Council of the church—dealt specifically with the relationship between this divine second person of the Godhead and the human person Jesus Christ. The Council asked, did God become human?

Aprroximately 370 members met at Chalcedon in October of 451 in order to develop a coherent Christological position that would avoid the Nestorian heresy (which posited two persons in Christ) on the one hand and the Eutychean heresy (which reduced Christ to only one nature) on the other.

Content

The Creed of Chalcedon described the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity while it denied that a man was converted into God or that God was converted into man. There was no confusion or absorption between the divine nature and the human nature of Christ. The two remained distinct. Similarly, the incarnation was not merely a divine indwelling of a human nor a connection between two persons. Instead, Chalcedon asserted that there was a real union between the divine and human natures that existed in one personal life: the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was said to have a divine nature and a human nature while still being only one person.

The Council also maintained a clear distinction between the concept of a person and the concept of a nature. In this way, Jesus was said to have a divine nature and a human nature while still being only one person. Jesus had everything he needed to be divine and everything he needed to be human, yet without sin. The Second Person of the Trinity did not assume a human person (which is adoptionism) but a human nature.

While clearly delineating these precise points of theology, the Council of Chalcedon did not in any way diminish the mystery of the incarnation.

Contemporary Relevance

The Nicene Creed stated that Jesus Christ was made man “for us and for our salvation.” However, without the truths that were expressed in the Creed of Chalcedon, our salvation would have been impossible. If Christ were not fully human, or if he were not fully divine, he would not be able to serve as our mediator—as the God-man. He would be either just another man or God himself. As Anselm put it in his famous Cur Deus Homo? (“Why the God-man?”), since sin is an affront against God, then a payment from man will not suffice. The satisfaction of the debt must come from God himself. However, only humans are guilty of the penalty due for sin. That means that humans ought to, but only God can make right the wrong done. It is in the person of Jesus Christ who was fully God and man that this satisfaction was made and our salvation was completely accomplished.

 

The Council of Ephesus

The Council of Ephesus

History

Ephesus was home to several church councils: First Council of Ephesus (431), Second Council of Ephesus (449), and Third Council of Ephesus (475). Only the First Council of Ephesus is recognized as an ecumenical council of the church, so we will focus our attention on this council.

The period between 428 when the Nestorian controversy occurred and Chalcedon in 451 is one of the most important periods of Christological discussion in the history of the church. As J.N.D. Kelly notes, “The reader should be warned…that at no phase in the evolution of the Church’s theology have the fundamental issues been so mixed up with in the clash of politics and personalities.”


Content

Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, was asked to comment on whether calling Mary theotokos (God-bearing) was fitting. For Nestorius, who wanted to keep the two natures of Christ completely separate, this assertion was problematic. He considered christotokos (Christ- bearing) the most fitting title. As Kelly notes, “God cannot have a mother, [Nestorius] argued, and no creature could have engendered the Godhead. Mary bore a man, the vehicle of divinity but not God.” Nestorius worried that behind the description of Mary as theotokos was the affirmation of either “the Arian tenet that the Son was a creature, or the Apollinarian idea that the manhood was incomplete.”

The polemic of Nestorius was quite inflammatory. His opponent, Cyril of Alexandria, worried that the position of Nestorius was reaffirming the theory that suggested that two Sons (the Son of God and the son of Mary) were linked by a merely moral union in Jesus Christ. While this interpretation is undoubtedly something different than Nestorius meant, Cyril used this interpretation to argue with Nestorius. Nestorius was motivated by the desire to reject any sort of suffering in the divine nature of Christ as well as to genuinely affirm that the human nature of Christ grew and was tempted.

The First Council of Ephesus is an example of proclaiming excellent theological orthodoxy but in a way that was unfair and lacked humility and charity on both sides.

Their arguments came to a boil in 429. Cyril heard of Nestorius’ dismissal of theotokos, and the two exchanged a series of heated letters. Both men appealed to Pope Celestine, who quickly held a synod in Rome (430) in order to affirm the title theotokos against Nestorius. Cyril informed Nestorius of the ruling and ordered him to cease his teaching and recant his position.

The emperor, Theodosius, called a meeting in June of 431 at Ephesus. In an unfortunate chain of events, Cyril and his supporters met before Nestorius arrived with his supporters, and despite his absence, the council declared Nestorius a heretic.

Contemporary Relevance

On a postive note, the First Council of Ephesus did re-affirm the Nicene Creed as the foundation for any sort of Christological statement to be made in the future. However, this is overshadowed by the sketchy polemics and ill-will that existed between Cyril and Nestorius.

The First Council of Ephesus is an example of proclaiming excellent theological orthodoxy but in a way that was unfair and lacked humility and charity on both sides.

 

The Councils of Constantinople

The Councils of Constantinople

History

There were three ecumenical church councils that took place in Constantinople. To be an ecumenical council meant that representatives from all of the branches of the Christian church (both East and West) met and acknowledged the rulings of the councils as authoritative for the life of the church. The three Councils of Constantinople took place in 381, 553, and 681.

What makes this confusing is that the First Council of Constantinople (381) was the Second Ecumenical Council of the church; the Second Council of Constantinople (553) was the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the church; and the Third Council of Constantinople (681) was the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Content

The First Council of Constantinople (381) marked the final ruling in the Arian controversy. The Arians had argued that the Son was a lesser degree of deity than the Father, while orthodox theologians like Athanasius insisted that each of the Persons of the Trinity was fully and equally God. Though the Council of Nicaea had previously developed the first draft of the famous Nicene Creed, it was not until the First Council of Constantinople that the formula of God as three co-equal Persons was formally approved by the church. So, at Constantinople in 381, Nicaea was reaffirmed and Arianism was finally and officially banned from the church.

The Second Council of Constantinople (553) shifted from the Trinitarian controversy to issues of Christology. In 451, the famous Council of Chalcedon affirmed that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man—two natures in one Person—and thereby condemned Nestorianism and Eutycheanism. Over 100 years later, in 553, the Second Council of Constantinople revisited the issue of Nestorianism. There were still a significant number of people in the church who leaned towards Monophysitism, the belief that there was only one nature in Christ. Because of this, they were very much opposed to Nestorianism. The Emperor Justinian hoped to reconcile these Monophysites by making clear to them his complete dismissal of Nestorianism. So, at this council, the writings of several theologians, such as Theodore of Mopsuestia, were condemned (perhaps wrongly) as Nestorian.

The church was (and is) facing theological dangers, and faithful theologians met time after time to examine Scripture and construct coherent responses to heretical theology.

During the century after the Second Council of Constantinople, a variety of the Monophysite heresy sprang up again. With the church taking such a strong position against Nestorianism, many were inclined to lean in the opposite direction. Consequently, a belief called Monothelitism was prevalent. It asserted that there was only one divine will in Christ. The Third Council of Constantinople (681) ruled Monothelitism heretical and instead affirmed Diothelitism, which said that Christ had both a human and a divine will, while maintaining that there was only one Person in Christ.

Contemporary Relevance

The Councils of Constantinople are not the “big name” church councils (such as Nicaea and Chalcedon). However, the church was (and is) facing theological dangers, and faithful theologians met time after time to examine Scripture and construct coherent responses to heretical theology. The church is “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and the Councils of Constantinople are perfect illustrations of it doing just that.


 

The Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed

History

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:

  1. Athanasius never mentioned the Creed anywhere in his writings.
  2. The councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) do not refer to the document.
  3. 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).

Content

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.

Contemporary Relevance

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.