Trinity Sunday surprised you with an unfamiliar creed; that’s okay. If the so-called Athanasian creed didn’t quite roll off your tongue as easily as the Nicene or the Apostles’, don’t worry. You’re not alone. (You can read the version of the creed we recited on Trinity Sunday here.)
Every year, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, we in the Anglican tradition dust off this old creed, recite it, and then happily put it out of our minds again for another year. It’s a small wonder that this creed hasn’t been relegated to obscurity altogether, like some of the other material in our prayer book (here’s my shout out to the 39 Articles).
As Amy mentioned in her sermon on Trinity Sunday, it is unlikely that Athanasius penned this text. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) was a great defender of trinitarianism, but virtually no scholars today hold to Athanasian authorship. Though it stubbornly refuses to relinquish the moniker, I prefer to call this creed by its other name, given according to the practice of titling texts by their opening words or phrases in Latin, the Quicumque Vult. (Plus, it is really fun to say quicumque - it sounds like kwee-koom-kway).
I think part of the reason we only recite this creed on Trinity Sunday is that the text kind of fails as a creed. Creeds are meant to be short summaries of the Christian faith, the brevity of their words aiding in ease of memorization of their content. The Apostles’ Creed accomplishes this magnificently, clocking in at around 115 words. The Nicene Creed is a bit lengthier, around 222 words. But this creed is over 650 words. So you could say the Apostles’ Creed six times through before you’d be finished saying this one.
The language of the Quicumque Vult is different from our other two creeds. Whereas the Nicene creed has the communal declaration, “We believe in one God,” the Apostles’ has the singular declarative, “I believe.” Here, however, the verb of belief is in the passive subjunctive: “Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God.” It’s as if we’re giving a report. This is not the language of prayer, nor is it the language of liturgy. Again, it kind of fails as a creed.
Finally, this is the only creed of our three to retain its anathemas. While the O. G. Nicene Creed of 325 included a list of anathemas, these were omitted in the 381 version, and it’s unclear that they were ever used, or intended to be used, in a liturgical setting. Though both the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creed mention Christ’s coming judgement, it is only in this creed that eternal fire is said to be the punishment for those who have done evil.
Here’s the thing though: even though I think it kind of fails as a creed, and even though the anathemas make me feel kind of icky inside, I still think this text is important for a number of reasons.
It sets the Trinity front and center. Where the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds are more subtle in their trinitarianism, this creed hits you over the head with it, again and again and again. It specifies points that are open to interpretation in the other two creeds.
It gives us specific language to use when we talk about God. Although human language is completely inadequate to the task of defining and describing the mysteries of God, the Scriptures and the creeds give us some vocabulary to use when we’re trying to understand those mysteries.
There is catechetic value to reciting Quicumque Vult. Even if the priest does an oopsie and strays into heresy during the homily, there is still the hope that the congregation will retain instead the orthodox image of the triune God presented in the words of the creed.
The Quicumque Vult is also a good tool for introspection, as it forces us to examine annually some of the things we believe as Christians.
In the event that you find yourself struggling with any of the doctrines asserted in this or the other creeds, know that you’re not the only one. I myself have a hard time reconciling and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire with for us and for our salvation, He came down. And so I let the we in We believe do the work. I let the person next to me do the believing for me when I can’t, when my doubts are too great. I let the faith of Christians who have come before me, down through the ages, do the believing for me. And I trust that it’s enough.
- Becky Keller