Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed.

In the pure days of the early Christian Church, before worldly prosperity had corrupted the morals, or post-apostolic dogmas had enshrouded in metaphysical fog the simple faith of the disciples, creeds, in the modern sense of the term, were entirely unknown. With the Christians of the first century the only confession of faith was that which Philip required from the eunuch—"Jesus is the Son of God and the only rule of conduct, the example of the beloved Master's life. It was not long, however, before standards of doctrine—"symbols" as they were called—began to be introduced as tests of church membership. In writings as old as those of Justin Martyr and Irenæus there are to be found confessions of faith resembling the Apostle's Creed. When this came into use no one can tell, nor is anything known as to its authorship except that it was certainly not written by the Apostles. Its strict Unitarianism, however, suggests for it a date anterior to 200 A.D., about which time the dogma of the identity of Jesus with Jehovah was first propounded, although the doctrine of the Trinity had then been by no means fully developed. Even in the symbol of the Council of Nice, which was convened under the authority of that exemplary page 97 Christian, the Emperor Constantine, in A.D. 325, there is no distinct enunciation of the Trinity in the Athanasian sense, although the Deity of Christ is made in it an article of belief.

It would be a dreary task, however useful it may be to one who desires to trace the gradual degradation of Christianity under the development of dogmatic theology, to wade through the history of the various heresies of Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, Pelagius, and a host of others, and of the attempts which were made to suppress them. Each new heresy necessitated a new declaration of orthodox belief in some fresh direction, and at last the primitive faith of the early church became so overlaid with a tangled mass of unintelligible or absurd metaphysical propositions, as to have lost most of its distinctive features. The climax of this state of things must have been reached somewhere about the fifth or sixth century, when that extraordinary composition, "the creed of St. Athanasius," as it is falsely called, was first brought into existence.

This "bulwark of the Church's faith" which was repeated a. few days ago by many pious Christian lips in tens of thousands of churches, and which for folly, presumption, and unchristian-like spirit stands in the first rank amongst the literary ecclesiastical enormities of the last eighteen centuries, was written—no one knows when, where, or by whom. It reflects some credit on the early Church of Rome, that it was not received by that body until the tenth century. It was adopted in England about A.D. 800, a time when the people generally had sunk into the lowest depths of barbarism, and when the clergy were so grossly illiterate that King Alfred, a short time afterwards, was unable to find anyone south of the Thames who could interpret the Latin service! These ignorant priests probably understood little of the damnation which they were bestowing in bad Latin upon all around them. But that such a monstrous production should have ever since retained even a nominal vitality, especially since the Reformation, seems little short of a miracle. Presented for the first time to a sensitively religious mind, it cannot but seem blasphemous and profane; to a logical mind, self-contradictory and absurd; and to a charitable mind, uncharitable and intolerant in the last degree. So blind is it in its damnatory zeal, that it deals damnation to all who hold the Nicene Creed in its purity, and consequently to the whole of the Greek Church.

We have used strong language on this point—language which mere theological error or false views of God's dealings with mankind would seldom justify. The "Te Deum," for instance, abounds in doctrines which we utterly repudiate: yet who will say that it is not a sublime, soul-stirring hymn of praise and adoration? Even Deborah's ode, in honour of the most perfidious wretch who was ever incarnate in woman's form, has at least the merit of being poetical. We must add, too, that we are now dealing with the creed itself, and not with its author, of page 98 whom we know nothing. Whoever was, he wrote in an age when men's heads were turned with abstract speculations on theology; about the time probably when, as a Christian writer complains', you could not ask "if the bath were ready," or "what is the price of corn?" without receiving for reply some disquisition on "the eternal generation of the son," or "the procession of the holy ghost." It was rather the fashion in those times, too, to gloat over the future fortunes of unbelievers and heretics. So that in many cases, while human energies were occupied in cultivating the intellect (with very rank theological weeds), the affections of the heart were allowed to starve. The author of this creed must not then be judged by what he has written without due regard to the times in which, and the circumstances under which, he wrote.

Regarding the question, however, as one affecting only the present times, it seems shocking and scandalous that with the full light of the nineteenth century upon us such words should solemnly be uttered by ministers and people in Christian churches. It would be awful to think that men and women with their hearts and intellects in a normal condition mean what they say in repeating this Creed. Surely they cannot. But if so, is it not equally awful to reflect upon the overwhelming amount of hypocrisy and lying in the very face of God which surrounds us on all sides. The clergy—many of them at least—are quite alive to this fact, and almost ever since the Church of England has been in existence they have writhed under the self-imposed infliction. Tillotson, in the reign of William III., wished to be well rid of it, but still less, it appears, did he wish to be rid of his archiepiscopal revenues; so he retained both! About the middle of the eighteenth century, before Wesley and Whitfield had aroused the sleepy parsons to do some work, and when discipline was very lax indeed, a Kentish clergyman used, it is said, systematically to refuse to read the Athanasian Creed, on the ground that he did not believe it. On being remonstrated with by some friends, and reminded that it was believed by more learned men than himself—the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance—he quietly rejoined, "True, but his Grace believes at the rate of £15,000 a year; I, at only £100." What a bitter satire upon himself and his superior! Men do not talk so boldly now-a-days, but there is the same infidelity. The present writer knows of a clergyman who admitted that there is one verse in the Creed which his conscience would not allow him to utter, but fortunately it was always the turn of the cleric and congregation to read the offensive passage, and so he escaped it! Is it possible to conceive a more degraded position for a minister of religion to be placed in? Yet he differs from those of his brethren whose ecclesiastical training has not eradicated from within them every trace of intellect and conscience only in being somewhat imprudently candid. Take the case of the present Archbishop of page 99 York. A few week's ago that primate received a memorial from a number of clergymen praying for "relief" in the use of the Athanasian Creed. His Grace's reply is what a vulgar critic would call shuffling, and is certainly characterised more by caution and sagacity than by frankness and honesty. He says,

"I am struck by the fact that the signatures to this memorial include some of the most respected names among the clergy and laity, and those drawn not from any one school or class of opinion, but from every school. It is not, I think, difficult to understand the general reasons which bring so many persons together upon a subject so important. Without going into the history of our creeds, which is familiar to all the memorialists, I will only say that I should be prepared, for my own part, to consider a measure of relief in the use of the Athanasian Creed. I find that many of those who value most highly that venerable document, as a true expression of the great doctrines of our faith, are coming round to the opinion that the present state of the law, which makes the use of the Athanasian Creed imperative upon all clergymen in all congregations, requires some modification. It would be premature to say what that modification ought to be, and what should be its limits. But weighty reasons unquestionably exist for giving the matter the most serious consideration."

Has the Archbishop ever read the four gospels? In reference to the words which we have given in italics we should like to ask his Grace whether he is aware that the very first and, we presume, the most important doctrine enunciated in the Athanasian Creed is so diametrically opposed to the oft-repeated teaching of Christ as almost to warrant the conjecture that it was written in opposition to Christianity itself. Whoever will be saved, says pseudo-Athanasius, before all things it is necessary that he believe faithfully and in their integrity certain dogmas, and if he believe them not he shall perish everlastingly. Whosoever will be saved, said Christ, (Matt. xix. 16-21, Mark x. 17-22, Luke xviii. 18-22,) must keep the commandments and practice self-denial. And again, (Luke x. 27,) in answer to the question, How must I inherit eternal life? he says,—Love God with all thy heart, soul, and strength, and thy neighbour as thyself. This do and thou shalt live. Nothing further need be urged to show how hopelessly irreconcilable are the Synoptic Gospels and the Athanasian Creed.

But we are aware that our argument will not be considered a very powerful one by conventional Christians of the nineteenth century. Neither the teaching nor the example of Jesus is now much regarded. He receives some lip-homage, it is true, and his words are often found useful, as Mr. Mill observes, to hurl at the heads of troublesome heretics. But a man who should attempt to practice Christian ethics in their integrity would now-a-days, especially if an archbishop, be regarded as a madman. The Sermon on the Mount has given way to the maxims of Mrs. Grundy. We purpose, however, testing the sincerity of the Archbishop and his memorialists in another direction. These gentlemen have all subscribed and profess to believe in the Thirty-nine Articles, and amongst them the eighth, which runs page 100 thus :—"The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostle's Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy scripture." If so, why endeavour to evade them? Why ask to be "relieved" from the truth?

The answer is a painful, but an obvious one. The clergy of the Church of England know very well that the Athanasian Creed neither is nor ought to be received or believed by any right-minded man. And they know also that the laity as a body look upon the creed itself with disgust, and upon its professional champions with increasing suspicion or contempt. Yet so precarious is the condition of their ecclesiastical fabric, that they dread the removal of a single stone, lest the edifice should totter and crumble to dust. Woe to the temple which is composed of such rotten materials as this creed! We are told in the parable of a man who built his house on the sand, but this is built on a quick-sand. Its foundations are shifting from age to age; aye, from year to year. A century ago the world believed that the testimony of the three heavenly witnesses (I John v. 7,) was a part of the Bible. The great scholar Porson demolished this text, and with it the main scriptural foundation for the Athanasian trinity. Until quite recently it was thought that there was some sanction for the damnatory clauses in Mark xvi. 16. Archbishop Seeker, indeed, had the impudence to assert, on the strength of this text, that the uncharitableness of the creed is no greater than that of Christ himself! But this audacious calumny on the founder of Christianity can hardly be repeated in our clay, for the verse is admitted by orthodox scholars to be spurious. There remains little more than some curious speculations concerning the divine essence, which not only have nothing in common with any portion of scripture, but owe their origin mainly to St. Augustine, who lived in the latter part of the fourth century. Even the flimsy plea that this "venerable document" is necessary as a bulwark against those heretics who have in various ages disturbed the peace of the Church, cannot be admitted. What heretic ever asserted that there were three fathers, three sons, and three holy ghosts? The man who could seriously argue against such eccentric polytheism as this would be scarcely less mad than he who could propound it.

There are many timid, pious souls who look with dread on the unsettling of men's faith, which is characteristic of these times. Whither are we tending? say they. You take from us our old creeds which we have learned at our mothers' laps, and what will you give us in their place? Let them not fear. The voice of conscience which is the voice of God still speaks within them. Let them be true to that, and, as Christ himself has promised, they shall "know of any doctrine whether it be of God;" and page 101 they will have a guide as sure and as unerring as were the fire and the cloud to the wandering Israelites.

Perplexed in faith, but pure in deeds;
At last he beat his music out;
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me than in half the creeds,
He fought his doubts and gathered strength;
He would not make his judgment blind;
He faced the spectres of the mind,
And laid them; thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own.