XXVII: The Athanasian Creed

Q: What is the history and use of the Athanasian Creed?

A:  According to a well-known saying, the only two assured things about the Athanasian Creed are that it is neither a creed nor by Athanasius.

More properly known from its opening words as the “Quicunque Vult,” this statement of the catholic faith was almost certainly not by St. Athanasius (296-373) since it concerns itself with theological issues and employs terminology not used during his lifetime. Much debate still exists about the origin and authorship of the creed, although the leading modern hypothesis suggests that it originated in southern Gaul (France) or northern Spain sometime between 435 and 535, and perhaps at the direction of St. Caesarius, a celebrated preacher and theologian who lived from 470-542 and was abbot of Aries in Gaul from 502.

Differing greatly in form and structure from either the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds, the original character and object of the Athanasian Creed was to serve as a summary of orthodox teaching for clergy to memorize and use as the basis for their pastoral instructions. A unique feature of this creed is the damnatory clauses which open, divide, and conclude the text. However, unpalatable these may be to modern Christians, there can be no doubt these clauses must be given their full and natural meaning: anyone wishing to be saved must be orthodox in his thinking about the Trinity and the Incarnation!

With its clear explication of the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person and work of Christ, the Athanasian creed was highly valued by Luther, who suggested that it should be sung each evening at Vespers. The creed is included in the Book of Concord as one of the “Three Catholic and Ecumenical Symbols” and is included in the Lutheran Service Book (pp. 319-320). Not formally accepted by the Eastern Church, it is used in the West principally by the Roman, Lutheran, and Anglican churches. Appropriate occasions to recite this creed include Trinity Sunday, Reformation Day, the commemoration of St. Athanasius (May 2), and the commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (June 25).

Adapted from About Being Lutheran © Lutheran Liturgical Renewal 1991. Used by permission.