Making doctrine great again: are we witnessing renewed use of the Athanasian Creed?

... while the Athanasian Creed or Quicunque vult piles it on (I’d commend the latter for your meditation later today).

...  I think this because of a line in the Athanasian Creed, one of the great statements of faith we hold to.

The above are short extracts from two Trinity Sunday sermons (here and here) which appeared on my Twitter timeline yesterday and today.  I accept, of course, that the Athanasian Creed appearing in two (three, if I include my own) sermons does not suggest a revival in the use of this Creed.  That said, both of the above preachers are at the younger end of the age spectrum and are at the outset of their respective ministries.  Both sermons, rather than pointing to the Athanasian Creed as an embarrassment to be avoided, invoked it a witness to the deposit of Faith.  It is possible, then, that after a lamentable, enforced absence, Quicunque Vult is back, an expression of a significant theological shift described by John Milbank:

Theology is astoundingly different from when I was an undergraduate. The ancient reasonings behind the doctrines of Creation, Trinity, and Christology are much better understood, and orthodoxy is widely accepted, especially among the young. A weakened liberalism means that the liberal/conservative argument is not so significant any more.

If the Athanasian Creed is back, what is the significance of this? What is the significance of renewed reference to it in teaching and renewed liturgical use?

Firstly, the Athanasian Creed centres the Church on what George Herbert in 'Ungratefulnesse' praises as "two rare cabinets full of treasure":

Thou hast but two rare cabinets full of treasure, 
 The Trinitie, and Incarnation:
Thou hast unlockt them both, 
And made them jewels to betroth 
 The work of thy creation 
 Unto thy self in everlasting pleasure. 

The doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are not abstract propositions, they are these "jewels" of betrothal.  The Athanasian Creed draws the Church close to behold and adore these jewels in what Newman rightly described as "a hymn of praise to the Eternal Trinity":

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity ...

For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.

It is from this centre, and to this centre, that worship, prayer, and sacraments flow.  To pray the Our Father, to receive the blessing at the end of the liturgy, to confess "I believe ... in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord", is to be rooted in and oriented towards the Trinity and the Incarnation.  To recite the Athanasian Creed, then, is to encounter, affirm and indwell the coherence of Christian Faith and practice, the Trinitarian and Christological centre of the Church's life.

Secondly, the Athanasian Creed is unashamedly doctrinal.  The catastrophic collapse of confidence in catechesis which occurred across the Churches in the latter half of the 20th century, has resulted in a quite astounding lack of familiarity of basic doctrinal norms within the Church.  Anglicanism is not alone in this experience, but what Milbank describes as "theological incoherence on the ground" is at times all too obvious within Anglican Churches.  To somewhat (but only somewhat) oversimplify, this is an outworking of The Myth of God Incarnate undermining the confidence in the Church's creedal discourse of a generation of clergy, those charged with the responsibility of teaching the faith in parishes.

Use of the Athanasian Creed is a means of robustly restoring this creedal discourse in pew, prayer desk, and pulpit:

Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance ...

But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal ...

God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world ...

One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

In his classic High Church account of the Athanasian Creed, Daniel Waterland states of it:

The best exposition (for its compass) of the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation that we shall anywhere meet with.

He particularly highlights how this Creed summarises patristic teaching on the Trinity and the Incarnation,  placing the Creed's affirmations alongside statements from the Fathers, "principally from St. Austin". The Athanasian Creed, then, is a means of renewing and restoring the riches and depths of patristic, particularly Augustinian, Trinitarian and Christological teaching, after half a century of the thin gruel of doctrinal minimalism.

Thirdly, the Athanasian Creed offers a substantive alternative to the unconvincing Trinitarian themes which afflict the contemporary Church.  From Rohr's "In the beginning was the Relationship", to the misuse of perichōrēsis to suggest that the Trinity is a 'dance', to banal use of Rublev's icon apart from the dogmatic Trinitarian teaching from which is emerged and to which it points: these are the insubstantial representations of the Trinity one would expect from liquid modernity.  By contrast, the Athanasian Creed invites us into a compelling tradition of adoration and proclamation of the Holy Trinity, stretching over centuries of theological insight, discernment, and preaching.  Here is a 'thick' tradition offering depth, meaning, and substance, rather than the incoherent, desiccated depiction of Trinitarian teaching offered by Rohr et al.  The Athanasian Creed allows us to drink deeply from this well of the Church's Trinitarian Faith.

If there are indications of a renewed attention to and liturgical use of Quicunque Vult, it is a hopeful sign of Anglicanism heeding the call of the Trinitarian and Christological centre.  Above all, after more than half a century of doctrinal minimalism, it is possible to discern in this renewed attention a desire within (and without) the Church for greater depth of doctrinal teaching, as the theological, catechetical, and liturgical agenda established in the 1960s and 1970s is increasingly experienced as barren, uncompelling, and unconvincing.

By itself, of course, the Athanasian Creed cannot do the work of setting forth the more compelling alternative, but it can be both sign and means of a return to the Trinitarian and Christological centre, the rich and life-giving of Christian Faith and practice.


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