Some Christians think that urging respect for the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds encourages uncritical reverence for merely human words and formulations, whereas it is the Bible alone that has authority to determine our beliefs. The assumption underlying this attitude seems to be that these creeds were formulated in a vacuum, with no regard for the teaching of Scripture. In reality, as Article VIII makes plain, they are revered precisely because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture,” a point reiterated by Browne:
The [Anglican] Church, after having defined the authority to which she appeals for the truth of her doctrines, proceeds to require belief in those formularies of faith which from very early times had been in constant use in the Church universal, and that upon the principle already laid down, namely, that they are in strict accordance with holy Scripture.
To pit the ecumenical creeds against Scripture, as though they were in competition, is therefore ignorant at best and mendacious at worst. Far from being devised without regard to Scripture, the creeds are the product of careful, faithful interpretation of Scripture, a truth well expressed by Craig A. Carter:
The ecumenical creeds (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Definition of Chalcedon) constitute the hard-won fruit of extended contemplation of Scripture by faithful teachers down through the history of the church. I do not exalt them above the Bible, but I certainly regard them as far more likely to be true than the half-baked metaphysics I pick up from the secularized culture around me.
As Carter goes on to observe, while “it is always possible in theory” that a creed could be revised in light of new insight into Scripture, the fact that the creeds are already the fruit of careful contemplation of Scripture by men wiser and holier than us means we should be slow to conclude we know better than they do.
Having said a few words about the propriety of the ecumenical creeds in general, I think it worthwhile to comment briefly on the Athanasian Creed in particular. I single it out because while it has always enjoyed official status in English Prayer Books, the same is not true for American Prayer Books, which from the beginning have conspicuously omitted both the creed itself and its acknowledgment in Article VIII.
Sensitive to this gap between the two Prayer Book traditions, Episcopal Bishop John Williams—editor for the American edition of Browne’s Exposition—immediately addresses it with some prefatory comments on Browne’s treatment of Article VIII:
The American Article reads, “The Nicene Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed,” &c. There is no mention, therefore, of “the Creed of Athanasius,” and, correspondently, it does not appear in our Service.
That our Church accepts the Athanasian definition is placed beyond doubt, by the declaration in the Preface to the Prayer Book, that we do not intend to depart “from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine;” by the retention of the Preface for Trinity Sunday in the office for Holy Communion, and by the adoption of the first five Articles.
That she is not singular in omitting the Athanasian Symbol from her public worship, is proved by the fact that it does not occur in the authorized formularies of the Orthodox Greek Church. And these two facts must, it would seem, place her beyond any well-grounded charge of unsoundness, or even carelessness, on such a vital point.
Although Williams is quick to rationalize that the American Prayer Book’s failure to acknowledge the Athanasian Creed doesn’t really matter, he seems less concerned to explain why it was omitted in the first place. By his own account, it could not have been because of any substantive disagreement with the creed. The obvious conclusion, as Williams speculates, is that the clergy who ratified the American Prayer Book found the damnatory clauses distasteful. This has historically been a common hang-up with the Athanasian Creed, which Browne deftly addresses:
If some people may think the damnatory clauses, as they are called, unduly strong, yet the occurrence of one or two strong expressions should not so far weigh with us as to induce us to wish the removal of this confession of our faith from the formularies of the Church. It is, in the main, unquestionably true, that he who, having the means of learning the truth of Christ, shall yet reject and disbelieve it, shall on that account be condemned. It is probable that the damnatory clauses in the Creed of Athanasius mean no more than the words of our Lord, “He that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark xvi. 16). What allowance is to be made for involuntary ignorance, prejudice, or other infirmities, is one of those secret things which belong only to the Lord our God; concerning which we may hope, but cannot pronounce. The Gospel declares that unbelief in the truth shall be a cause of condemnation; and the Church is therefore justified in saying the same. The extreme earnestness and, as to some it seems, harshness, with which the Creed expresses it, resulted from the imminent danger, at the time it was composed, from the most noxious heresy, and the need there was to hedge round the faith of the Church, as it were, with thorns and briers. If we think such language unnecessarily severe, still we must remember that nothing human is free from some mark of human infirmity, and should be slow to doubt the value of a Catholic exposition of the Faith, because one or two expressions seem unsuited to modern phraseology.
Would that the American clergy who ratified the Prayer Book had been convicted by this reasoning. As it is, the creed’s omission continues to be one of the signal weaknesses of the American Prayer Book tradition. Fortunately, it is included in other Anglican Prayer Books that can be readily used in an American context, such as the Anglican Church in North America’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition.
- Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021). See also Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012); Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 2–6; and J. V. Fesko, The Need for Creeds Today: Confessional Faith in a Faithless Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020). ↑