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Creeds 7: the Athanasian Creed

As we saw in the first article in this series, our third Creed – the Athanasian Creed1 - is almost universally ignored, even though most Anglican churches [but not all2] still in theory have it as an authorised text3.

Indeed, it does not purport to be a creed at all4. It is more like a doctrinal hymn, similar to a canticle.

This creed is the writing of one person, not, like the other two creeds, the fruit of the collective mind of the church. But the one person is not St Athanasius5. Scholars hold now that it was written by somebody other than Athanasius because its subject matter relates to ideas which has not come up until later than him. Most now hold that it was written between 381AD and 428AD – and some suggest that St Ambrose was the author.

According to the Book of Common Prayer it is to be said at Morning Prayer on 13 feasts, chosen at reasonably spaced intervals through the year.

The creed has two topics – in the first half it deals with the doctrine of the Trinity6, in the second with the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

There has been much dispute about two “damnatory” clauses [verses 2 and 42]7. Since 1867 these clauses have caused attempts to have the creed removed or edited, so far without success.

In the RC Church the custom has been to say it at the office of Prime – and although the creed is accepted in the eastern Orthodox churches, it is not recited at services.

In the Church of England there was a substantial effort at revising the “Quicunque vult” in a proposed new prayer book in 1928. The new book omitted the damnatory clauses – and intended the recitation of a revised version, half on Trinity Sunday, half on the Sunday after Christmas, appropriate for its main themes. But that book was never approved8. Since then it appears to have been left to retreat into oblivion.