Symbolon Quicumque

trinityI penned this for the Catholic Herald, the UK’s best Catholic weekly.

The mighty foe of Arians, St Athanasius of Alexandria (d 373), Bishop and Doctor of the Church, is celebrated on 2 May in both the newer and the traditional Roman calendars.  In his struggles to defend Catholic Truth, Athanasius took on gangs of heretics, bishops and emperors. For his efforts he was rewarded with exile five times.

Confusion reigns in many spheres of the Church right now about what the Church truly holds to be true about faith and morals.  Some well-placed pundits ignore the fact of the Church’s perennial interpretations and now imply that we can’t know for sure what the Lord taught.  Others respond that the doctrinal and practical controversies of these our own days bear a strong resemblance to the era when Holy Church was torn asunder by Arian heresy.

When controversies arose in the past, the Church issued Creeds, dense bullet points, which we could recite and, thereby, avoid error and maintain unity. We all know the common Creeds, such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed recited at Mass.  But there are other Creeds.  For example, in 1968 Paul VI issued the comprehensive, non-liturgical “Credo of the People of God”.

Speaking of Athanasius, we also have the magnificent “Athanasian” Creed (Symbolon Quicumque), commonly attributed to the saintly doctor.  A mediaeval legend holds that Athanasius, during one of his exiles, gave the text to Pope Julius I.  J.N.D. Kelly, who wrote a book on this Creed, (USA HERE – UK HERE) suggests that St Vincent of Lérin (d c 435) might have been the author.  Authorship aside, it contains precise Trinitarian and Christological statements and ends with the less-than-ambiguous: “This is the Catholic Faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.”

The “Athanasian Creed”, against Arianism, Sabellianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism, could be a wonderful starting point for study, prayer and meditation.

Our classical Creeds are for the head what our good works are for the heart.  We recite the basics of the Faith in which we believe (fides quae creditur) so that we, and others, can know who we are.  The Creeds are rehearsals of Faith and preparations for moments of truth called witness (martyrdom).

Look up the Athanasian Creed.  Print it out.  Pocket it.  Review it occasionally.  Host a gathering or a meal with friends. Hand out copies, stand up and recite it aloud with a full, strong voice. Savor the lack of ambiguity!

Here is the Athanasian Creed:

Whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the Catholic faith.  Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally. Now this is the Catholic faith: We venerate one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity (unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur), neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being. For the Father is one Person, the Son is another, and the Spirit is still another.  But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty.  What the Father is, the Son is, and so is the Holy Spirit.  Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son; uncreated is the Spirit.  The Father is infinite; the Son is infinite; the Holy Spirit is infinite. Eternal is the Father; eternal is the Son; eternal is the Spirit: And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.  Almighty is the Father; almighty is the Son; almighty is the Spirit: And yet there are not three almighty beings, but one who is almighty.  Thus the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God: And yet there are not three gods, but one God. Thus the Father is Lord; the Son is Lord; the Holy Spirit is Lord:  And yet there are not three lords, but one Lord. As Christian truth compels us to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so Catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords.  The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but was alone begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created, but is proceeding from the Father and the Son. Thus there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.  And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three Persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal (coaeternae sibi sunt et coaequales); and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three Persons.  Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

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11 Responses to Symbolon Quicumque

  1. Bruce says:

    Years ago in a used book store I found a little hardcover book called St. Athanasius on the Incarnation (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei) with an introduction by C. S. Lewis.
    I think I will dig it out and read it again. Its only 71 pages.

    A quote from the introduction:

    “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic
    mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books… None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”

    US HERE – UK HERE

  2. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    I too have a De Incarnatione with an introduction by C.S Lewis! I haven’t seen it for several years, but I recall it’s rather the worse for wear. I wonder where it is now – in a cardboard box somewhere, I don’t doubt.

  3. Simon_GNR says:

    The Athanasian Creed is included in the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. As a young member of that church, I was puzzled by its repeated references to the Catholick [sic] faith: I though we were supposed to be Protestants. I was even further puzzled when I learned that the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth II, had promised at her coronation to maintain “Protestant reformed religion in this realm of England”. This certainly set me thinking.

    As a young adult I escaped from the logical and intellectual contortions caused by this contradiction and was received into the one true Catholic Church. One simply cannot be Catholic (or “Catholick” for that matter) without being in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter.

  4. It is interesting how unjustly St. Athanasius was treated by the Church, yet he stayed in the Church, remained obedient, stood his ground within the Church. Exiled by apostates as virtually the whole hierarchy turned Arian. What an opportunity for St. Athanasius to cite ‘blind disobedience’, and ordain his own bishops, found one-off chapels or suction off the non-Arian faithful from the starved body of the Church to preserve the “real Church”. Yet his obedience won souls and saved himself.
    St. Athanasius did not fall for the demonic call of excuses and logical reasons to be disobedient, to the ‘I know better than that” – a trick that has worked since The Deceiver convinced Eve that eating of the tree of good and evil would free her from the ‘lies’ of her Creator. This error continues through today’s Rights of Man, and individual enlightenment, permeating our society so thoroughly that our own Catholics don’t even see it.
    St. Athanasius did not deny the obedience of Jesus to the Will of His Father, where Christ Himself suffered under the worst lies, injustice of all, even telling the defending Peter to put down his sword.

    St. Athanasius did not die impenitent and outside the Church.
    Obedience defeats and confuses the devil every single time, an impenetrable shield.

    St. Athanasius knew that as ‘faithful’ a church he could have founded outside of the injustices he suffered, even with all the lovely accoutrements and faithful teachings – that when rooted in disobedience, its only fruit is poison.

  5. Henry Edwards says:

    And, not too long hence, our annual liturgical recitation of the Athanasian Creed at Prime on Trinity Sunday.

  6. gloriainexcelsis says:

    In my 1962 missal the Athanasian Creed continues with the necessity of believing in the Incarnation of Our Lord, His death, resurrection, ascension and coming on the last day to judge.

  7. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    A book that begins with the Athanasian Creed. Makes so much sense of the Trinity you will wonder why it’s called a “mystery.”

    The Mind of the Maker. Dorothy L. Sayers.

    US HERE – UK HERE

  8. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Seems like Athanasius would have been okay with the Filioque.

  9. aquinas138 says:

    Henry Edwards, until the middle of the 20th century, the Athanasian Creed was said at Prime on every ordinary Sunday on which a semidouble or double feast was not kept or commemorated, in addition to Trinity Sunday. The reforms of Pius XII effectively ended this practice; the reforms of St. John XXIII explicitly ended it in the 1960 rubrics.

  10. TWF says:

    May St. Athanasius, Pope of Alexandria, intercede for the Christians of Egypt of the Alexandrian tradition…and for the reconciliation between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches.

  11. Filipino Catholic says:

    @ADRA From what I’ve read, the so-called “Quicumque vult” never gained much traction in the East precisely because of its leaning in favor of the Most Disputed Theological F-Word.

    Honestly I find its in-your-face bluntness refreshing. Its unambiguous bluntness would have been deemed politically incorrect in this day and age, but then again, Athanasius and Vincent of Lerins lived in an age of bluntness, where diluting the ‘new wine’ handed down from the Apostles in ‘new wineskins’ was a matter grave enough for an ecumenical council. The lines had to be drawn. Compromise was not an option.

    Nowadays, when the hierarchy seems hellbent (pun acerbically intended) on appeasing as many of the Church’s enemies as it can manage, time will tell if one like Athanasius will arise, or one like Nicholas the Heretic-Hitter even. Unfortunately, it seems the heat will only go up and up until the colossal bulk of calx within the Church is roasted away, and only the pure dephlogisticated metal remains.