Yesterday was the Feast of Christ the King. I preached, then later made this video based on various things I said at the front of church, calling us all to allegiance to King Jesus:
So I’ve recently come into contact with those who deny baptismal regeneration, initially through a discussion of the Nicene Creed and its statement on baptism:
ὁμολογοῦμεν ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν
We confess one baptism for the remission of sins
The concern was raised that baptism is not “essential” to salvation. And during the discussion, I realised that I have definitely moved into a position of believing in baptismal regeneration. But I because it’s something I’ve just sort of … slid … into, I do not have any robust argumentation (unlike, say, predestination, which I only came around to through the gentle ministrations of St Augustine this past Spring).
There are two places to begin in a question like this. Either you ask, “What does Scripture say?” or you ask, “What is the Rule of Faith?” And, given that it was the Nicene Creed that gave rise to the debate, I think it only reasonable to ask, “What does the Rule of Faith mean?”
Once we know what the Nicene Creed is actually talking about, then we can more thoroughly inquire as to whether it is in accord on this point with Scripture as it is on its other points. This, then, is merely an initial foray. A second foray will inquire whether I am right about the Creed insofar as the ancient church is concerned. A third will consider Scriptures about baptism. And a fourth will ask about Scripture and “remission of sins”/”salvation”.
What is “remission of sins”, then? Actually, let us go one step back. What is “for”, εἰς? This is a preposition and can mean many things depending on context, of course. It seems uncontroversial that LSJ definition V.2, “of purpose or object” is correct — “one baptism with the object of ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν“.
ἄφεσις, “remission”, is the noun derived from ἀφίημι, a verb that means to let go, to release, even divorce depending on context. The verb is the one used in the Lord’s Prayer for “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” (BCP) or “forgive us our debts…” (KJV). The use of “debts” in the KJV reminds us of the semantic range of ἀφίημι. This is the normal word in the New Testament for forgiving sins, and ἁμαρτια (neuter plural) is a normal word for “sins”, those times when we literally “miss the mark” of God’s holiness.
Basically, our ἁμαρτια are not held against us. They are forgiven, remitted, let go, released.
So, one baptism for the purpose of releasing sins, I guess?
But what does that really mean? It sounds like it means baptism is necessary for us to be forgiven — that the simple act of being dunked thrice in water with the words, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” remits our sins. Ex opere operato — you’re baptised, you’re saved!
Of course, that last clause, “you’re saved” already dredges up some Protestant baggage and has presuppositions about what the “remission/release/forgiveness of sins” actually means.
Without consulting the Fathers on this point, I would lean into the teaching that forgiveness of sins is not simply a question of “Get out of Hell free,” or “Get into Heaven,” but a matter of relating to God here, now, immediately, and that the grace conferred at baptism somehow is involved in this forgiveness. What I have seen the Fathers say about “salvation”-type questions generally tends to be holistic.
We’ll have to see, considering Sts Cyril of Jerusalem and John of Damascus (if not others) next time.
I recently watched a really good episode of the Pilgrim Faith podcast on YouTube where my new colleagues Joseph Minich and Dale Stenberg of the Davenant Institute (where I teach) interview my friends from PhD days Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (goes by Gray). The interview was about Cory and Gray’s new translation of Herman Bavinck’s Christian Worldview.
They talked about many things pertinent to Bavinck, early twentieth-century Reformed theology, and the creation of a worldview. One thing that arose was the idea of living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism, which came up partly in the context of Bavinck and Kuyper’s work in founding a new Reformed church in the Netherlands (I think? I know nothing of Dutch ecclesiastical history after Thomas a Kempis, and I was also rolling change from tips at the cafe I manage so some details slipped by as I counted nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, and twoonies).
Since I forget some of the context of the discussion, I am mostly just rolling from the paired phrases: living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism.
I think some would argue that conservative theology and ethics are moribund, are fossils, are traditionalism dressed up in modernist Protestant garb, or, for other Christian tribes, simply mediaeval corpses dressed up in liturgical vestments. I may know far less about Bavinck than my friends, but I have no doubt that this is not the target of the phrase “dead conservatism”.
Instead, “dead conservatism” is what I might call the “conservative temperament” coupled to articulations of historic orthodoxy that are simply held in the head but with no union of the head and the heart. Dead conservatism will happily and gleefully sign off on all three historic Creeds or a church body’s confessional document; it can proudly proclaim itself Bible-believing and theologically sound.
Living orthodoxy is not simply an attempt to accurately and truthfully articulate the faith once delivered. It is finding life as a disciple of Jesus Christ at the same time — maybe even through an orthodox articulation of faith. Living orthodoxy is embracing the reality that Jesus is life and the light of human beings.
If we try to unite the head and the heart, we find true power in words such, “for us humans and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” The God who is Jesus is not aloof and distant; he is near to us and intimate, participant in our entire human existence — as the fathers I just finished teaching demonstrate, from Athanasius to Leo the Great. He became a human being. He suffered, was crucified, and died for us.
And he really truly in real human history with a real, albeit glorified, human body rose again from the dead.
Living orthodoxy takes this as fuel for absolutely everything. The life of discipleship, of being an apprentice to Jesus our teacher, is empowered by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Actually, in Athanasius’ terms, it is an ongoing participation in that incarnation, for we are the body of Christ. Look to the cross and the empty tomb — here is the fuel for prayer, for fasting, for studying Scripture, for charitable deeds to neighbours; he tasted everything there was to being human. Oh — and he conquered death!
“Glorious now, behold him arise!” as “We Three Kings” puts it each Epiphany.
We follow where He has gone before. We need not fear government restrictions, COVID-19, recessions, ordinary illnesses, unemployment, boredom, isolation, woke capitalism, surveillance capitalism, the alt-right, white supremacy, Marxists, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, “liberals”, “heretics”.
Living orthodoxy, living with right belief and right worship in the light and life — as part of the light and life — of Jesus the ManGod — also provides the fuel for the creation of a Christian culture. In our context, not so much the kind we saw in the 1200s with Gothic cathedrals, beautiful manuscripts, and wealth lavished upon all things “Christian”, more the kind we saw in the 200s with the creation of tight-knit communities of disciples learning the ways of the Master, and writing theology and commentaries on the Bible and living rightly amongst their pagan neighbours, always seeking Christ the teacher (or paedagogus), creating not a ghettoised sub-culture but a life-bringing counter-culture.
All of it — absolutely all of it — flows from the kind of orthodoxy that is alive, that is not simply signing off on the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession or the decrees of the ecumenical councils, but saying that these are the distillation of the teaching of the God Word found in Scripture and lived in the centuries — then going forth into the world and living as a result.
Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:
Since I’m in the midst of teaching a course on the Nicene Controversy, I look at the Transfiguration and all the things I’ve been reading in St Athanasius, St Ephrem, St Basil, and their modern interpreters comes flooding into my heart. Indeed, this icon even reflects the Nicene Creed:
God from God, light from light, very God from very God.
As Edith M. Humphrey puts it,
It is in the shining face of Jesus, and in the glory seen most profoundly on the cross, that we catch a vision of the likeness of God.Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 91
And St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian):
He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.Oration 3.19, “On the Son”, quoted in Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 98
As at all times, the appropriate response to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration is to worship.
I just finished Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I recommend it highly! In that book, he poses us the question — Do we truly believe that Jesus is who we say He is? If we really did, wouldn’t we act a bit differently?
Putting my own ‘classic Christian’ spin on Willard’s query, who is it that we say Jesus is? We believe
in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came to be;
who, on account of us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to the heavens and is seated on the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)
Do you believe in the depths of your soul that Jesus is true God from true God, of one substance with the Father? Do you believe that through him all things were made? Most of us will immediately say, ‘Yes.’
Certainly, we give mental assent to the propositions of the Creeds and of our denominational confessions or the doctrinal statements of ecumenical councils. Yet shouldn’t such shocking, earth-shattering truths affect how we approach life to its deepest level?
Jesus is the creator of the world. How should we, then, approach his teachings? Clearly as the teachings of the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived! And we should take them to heart. We should try to understand what they mean and how we can live by them. We should spend time reading through the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to have these teachings of His imprinted on our hearts.
Should we not memorise and meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer? Should we not read over and over the Sermon on the Mount?
Jesus is not an intellectual, theological proposition — although these can be made about Him.
He is the most wondrous, powerful, beautiful, intelligent person in the universe. He is so loving that he chose to set aside His natural form of godliness and take on our form, that of a slave. And His immediate followers tell us that our attitude, our life, should be modelled on his.
A Version of a Post from 2007
That’s right, my friends, today is the feast day of jolly old Saint Nicholas–or, as the Eastern Orthodox call him, “Our Father Among the Saints, Nicholas the Wonderworker.” People these days seem to doubt that he ever existed, but considering that his bones were buried in Myra itself before being stolen by some Italian merchants and taken to Bari, I cast a vote in favour of his being real. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that all we can be certain of is that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.
The reason I think most people doubt his existence is the fact that, like St. George, he is most famous for the sort of thing modernists aren’t in favour of believing. In poor St. George’s case, it was because he had the terrible misfortune of slaying a dragon, the sort of thing that one really ought to leave up to mythological heroes, so people doubt he existed, even though the bulk of his story deals with his torture and martyrdom.
St. Nicholas is most famous for two things:
i. Being Santa Claus.
ii. Giving money to three daughters of a man who couldn’t afford dowries. The legend says something or other involving chimneys and stockings. According to abbamoses.com, he threw the money through the window because he was trying to give it in secret.
We don’t really know much about St. Nicholas. He is very famous in the East for his miracles (the sort of thing modernists don’t believe — for a highly intellectual and brain-stretching discussion of miracles, read C. S. Lewis’ book by the same name), and I have no reason to doubt whether or not they happened outside of the documentation, none of which I have access to. He didn’t much want to be a bishop but originally wanted to be a monk. I have a feeling he’s the sort of saint who lived by St. Seraphim of Sarov’s words, “Keep your heart in peace and a multitude around you will be saved.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia doubts he was at Nicaea in AD 325, whereas abbamoses says he was. I think he was but have no scholarly reason why.* The Orthodox tradition says that he approached Arius in the council and slapped him on the face for saying such blasphemies regarding Christ (Arius denied the divinity of Christ). The other bishops, while the agreed with St. Nicholas’ sentiment, felt that this was not entirely the way to go about things at the council, so they put him in prison overnight as punishment. As the story goes, he had a dream that night of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Virgin gave him the bishop’s stole and Christ gave him a copy of the Gospels, the symbols of a bishop’s authority. When they came to let him out the next day, they found him with these objects in reality. The miracle confirmed St. Nicholas’ righteousness and the truth of Christian orthodoxy.
Who knows if it’s true or not. But if St. Nicholas of Myra was in Nicaea in 325, he is in part responsible for something much bigger and better than hopping on a sleigh with 8 or 9 flying reindeer and bringing baubles and toys for the greedy children of the world. He would have helped craft this, which was later revised as this.
*His name does not appear on any of the earliest lists of bishops at the council. Therefore, there is no historiographical reason to assume his presence. However, it is difficult to know who exactly was present at Nicaea, because we have no actual Acta as we do for later councils such as Chalcedon (451).
Re-post from 2008.
Eustathios (in the middle of the left cluster) raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hoped he did not audibly gasp. He and Makarios had been disappointed in Eusebios of Kaisareia’s support of Arios, but now Eusebios was advocating a formula of belief that called Jesus “God of God” and “begotten of the Father before all the ages.”
Eusebios concluded the formulary of Kaisareia, “. . . who was made flesh for our salvation and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and dead; we believe also in one Holy Spirit.”
“Well,” said Makarios quietly from his right, “the Lord still performs marvels.”
“Or Eusebios still plays at politics,” responded Eustathios.
“Let us be charitable, brother,” chided Makarios gently, a smile playing on his lips.
“We need something stronger. Shall I recommend the formula of Antiokheia or Aelia?”
“Whichever you like, Eustathios.”
Eustathios stood. Assembled were many, many overseers. The council was drawing to a close. The proposed formula would set a standard for the Assembly; if one disagreed, then one was not following the true and right teaching handed down from the apostles. Nikolaos, Spyridon, Alexandros of Alexandreia, Aurelianos, Vitos and Vikentios the legates from Roma, Hosios of Cordoba, an elderly woman who always caught his eye, someone who looked suspiciously like Metrophanes of Byzantion (Eustathios had heard that Metrophanes was too ill to travel, like Father Silvester), Arios himself, and Konstantinos all looked at him. Konstantinos nodded.
“I feel that the word-twisting logic games of the Arian philosophers would find a way around Kaisareia’s formula. I would like to recommend one that Makarios, Overseer of Aelia Capitolina,” Makarios raised his right hand in a little wave, “and I have put together. It is based largely on that of Antiokheia, but with additions from Aelia and our own prayerfully considered thoughts. It is as follows:
“I believe in one only true God, the Father almighty, creator of all creatures visible and invisible; and in our Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son and first-begotten of all creation, born from Him before all ages and not made, true God from true God, of one substance with the Father, through Whom also the ages were framed and all things were made, Who because of us came and was born from the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried, and one the third day rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge living and dead; and in one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, Who spoke in the prophets, and in one baptism of repentance to the remission of sins, and in one holy Catholic church, and in the resurrection of the flesh, and in the life everlasting.**
“Thank you,” Eustathios sat back down. The Metrophanes-like man was clapping quietly in the corner.
“Let us go with that of Overseer Eustathios,” stated Spyridon.
Alexandros of Alexandreia stood, “I feel that Kaisareia’s is more elegant, but that the one proposed by Brother Eustathios has important phrases we need to combat the dark teachings of Arios.”
“We must use the powerful words of Antiokheia,” proclaimed Nikolaos. “To say that Jesus was not made is an important statement; this holy mystery of God’s Incarnation and the knowledge of Jesus as the uncreated light of the world are what set us apart!”
“I would like to recommend,” said Konstantinos, glimmering from his throne, “that we keep Eusebios’ baptismal formula as the basis for the statement to be produced here. However, I agree with Alexandros that certain phrases are important in settling this dispute and establishing peace throughout the Anointed’s Assembly. Let us be sure, therefore, to count Jesus as of one substance with the Father, as well as what Nikolaos says about him being begotten, not made.”
The debate moved on, phrases being added here and there, and then, at the instigation of men such as Nikolaos and Spyridon, anathemas added to the end, dealing specifically with Arios. After some thirty days of gathering for prayer and discussion, the largest gathering of overseers the world had ever seen produced the following:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
And those that say, “There was when he was not,” and “Before he was begotten he was not,” and that, “He came into being from what-is-not,” or those that allege, that the son of God is “Of another substance or essence” or “created” or “changeable” or “alterable,” these the Universal and Apostolic Assembly anathematizes.
Some stayed in Nikaia for Konstantinos’ twentieth anniversary celebrations. The more monkish went home immediately. Many thought it was over, that Arios and falsehood had been cleansed from the Assembly. It was only just beginning.
*Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 24-25.
**J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, 1960, pp. 184-185. The creed is the creed of Antioch as quoted by John Cassian up to “living and dead.” After that, it is the creed of Jerusalem. Kelly notes that Cassian’s creed, quoted in 430/31, has had Nicene phraseology added to it (185). The creed of Jerusalem, however, is “of fairly early date” (183). All three creeds are ancient baptismal formulas, just like the West’s “Apostle’s Creed.” That Sts. Macarius and Eustathius were working together in creedal formulation behind the scenes, see The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Where does Part 1 land me?
I am a self-professing Anglican who currently worships at a Reformed church. I have found, for a long time, that I tend fall in line with the 39 Articles of Religion. However, ever since I worshipped at a Tridentine Mass, things have been moving in … different directions; and the Orthodox have not really moved those directions back towards low-church Protestantism.
I remember the day I started to make a mental break with the 39 Articles for the first time. It was at St. Thomas’ Church in Toronto (aka Smokey Tom’s), and we were worshipping in Latin according to the Use of Sarum. You can read some of my thoughts from that event here and here. Various un-Reformation things occurred besides not worshipping in a language such as the people understandeth (vs. Article 24). They also bowed to the Sacrament (vs. Article 28). There were prayers to saints (vs. Article 22). But, dangnabbit, it was beautiful!
And so I reconsidered how tightly we should hold to the Articles of Religion, even though I tend to see adherence to the Tradition as the safest way to avoid falling into the Pit of Heresy. I am still of a mind that Article 24 is of great importance for regular Sunday worship. But some of these others … I am becoming ‘iffy’ or noncommittal or ‘agnostic’ as to whether they are as important for faith as once I thought.
Furthermore, regarding avoiding the Pit of Heresy, for a long time many Anglicans, from the Welseys onward if not earlier, have not held to Article 16, ‘Of Predestination and Election.’ As well, many others go against Article 37 that embraces Just War Theory. And I’m not sure how long certain Anglo-Catholics have been bowing before monstrances and invoking saints, but certainly longer than I’ve been alive. So there seems to be a grand tradition of ignoring inconvenient Articles of Religion. Nonetheless … nonetheless …
Back to John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances, then.
First, I have been having my Eucharistic thought-life shaped by the Fathers for a while now, and this year many of my patterns for thinking have been if not challenged by the Fathers, nuanced and immersed in the Fathers due to my own immersion in them, from Justin to Leo, Ignatius to Chrysostom, Severus to Maximus to John of Damascus.
Second, I have actually been reading the ipsissima verba of Reformers, and Luther with greater pleasure than the Reformed side (inevitable, I guess).
And once a week(ish), I step through a little black door with a bronze Russian cross on it, light a candle, then kiss an icon of Christ Pantokrator, and icon of the BVM, and an icon of St. Andrew. I cross myself numerous times and bow whenever the incense comes by.
These things stand in the trajectory of my life post-Latin Mass.
I am now able to comfortably kiss objects, having soaked in the teachings of St. John of Damascus. There is no Article of Religion against this. However, he has made it easier for me to bow to the Eucharistic elements. We have seen this in the last post; given that I have moved to a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, this is even easier for me.
Thus, Articles of Religion I am non-committal on as of now:
- Article 17: Of Predestination and Election: This is a long-standing issue of mine; I dance back and forth re predestination/free will. And St. Augustine only confused the matter.
- Article 22: Of Purgatory, thus: ‘Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’
- Article 25: Of the Sacraments, thus: ‘The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about …‘ While I believe that chiefly, they are best used in … use … I am not so hard-core re not gazing upon or carrying them about.
- Article 28: Of the Lord’s Supper is a trickier one, because the entire first paragraph is precisely what Luther has demonstrated to me, and I’ve never believed transubstantiation no matter what Innocent III says. But I do not wish to go so far as to say, ‘The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.’ This makes me think of one man, and his name starts with Z. It also reiterates the bit I’m unsure of from Article 25 against reserve sacrament, carrying it about, lifting it up, worshipping it.
- Article 27: Of the Civil Magistrates, thus: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’ I’m not sure if I’m entirely comfortable with this, but I’m willing to let it stand at present.
The upshot is, at one level, that it’s not 1563 or 1662 anymore. Issues of praxis that were very important to the English reformers are less important today. But this is a foundational document. How can we say that we are within the Anglican tradition if we start pulling out Articles of Religion willy-nilly because people like me have grown iffy in our compliance with them?
I ask because this makes me some sort of monster, a creature with no nature proper to itself but which may fit in with nature as a whole (cf. John Philoponus, In Phys.). There are people who are uncomfortable with the Nicene Creed because they claim it’s just a lot of Hellenistic philosophy (vs. Article 8). There are people who think science has proven miracles — including the Resurrection — false (vs. Article 4). Some think the Holy Trinity not actually scriptural (vs. Article 1). Some are actual Pelagians (vs. Article 9). Many believe in a real free-will (vs. Articles 10 & 17). I know of some who believe in Purgatory, icons, relics, invocations of saints (vs. Article 22). Some engage in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (vs. Article 28).
There is no body of thought or persons that says which Articles of Religion are ‘essential’. Anyone who has tried keeps getting censured by the voices of the official bodies of the Anglican Communion or their local Provinces. What makes an Anglican? Whatever you please?
But whatever it is, am I it anymore?
I’ve been fiddling with the pages on the sidebar recently; one change I’ve made is posting my own translation of the so-called “Creed of St. Athanasius”, the “Quicumque Vult.” Whilst certainly a statement of faith, this document is not, strictly speaking, a creed, for a creed is a formulaic statement that a person makes, beginning in Latin, “Credo,” — I believe. This document begins, “Quicumque vult,” — whosoever wishes.
Second, it is not by St. Athanasius. No matter how much you may like the Quicumque Vult, it is a Latin document and strikes me as clearly post-Chalcedon (ie. after 451). St. Athanasius (of whom I’ve written here) was a Greek father, the patriarch of Alexandria. He died close to 80 years before Chalcedon. He spent the majority of his career in the defense and explication of the Nicene Creed (325, my translation here). He was one of the great Christologians, and certainly St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christological views were espoused by the Church both at Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451, was a close follower of St. Athanasius.
But the Athanasian Creed isn’t Athanasian.
Certainly its Trinitarian formulae are, for the most part, Athanasian: “we are to worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance,” and, “The Father is made from nothing, neither created nor begotten. The Son is from the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten,” but this is followed by, “The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son: not made, neither created nor begotten but proceeding.”
Most eastern Fathers do not believe in the dual procession of the Holy Spirit, a doctrine first (I believe) explicated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The closest we get is the Cappadocian statement that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (Anthony Meredith wonders what exactly the great difference between the two formulations is). Thus, although in everything else the Trinitarian formulations of the Quicumque Vult are universal, this clause makes it expressly western.
Second, its Christological formulations make me shy away from asserting that this is a production of St. Athanasius. Certainly St. Athanasius would believe what is said here, for it does not explicitly use the tricky two-nature terminology of much Western Christology. Nonetheless, I believe it is expounding a Western understanding of Christ’s Person.
Furthermore, the strong emphasis on the real manhood of Christ in the Quicumque Vult makes me think that this document is after Athanasius and at least from the time of Apollinarius (d. 390) who asserted the godhead of Christ so much that Jesus was not fully human, lacking a rational soul, a point on which the Athanasian Creed is quite explicit.
I would, however, place this text in the fifth century at the earliest. The fifth century, especially in the heat following the episcopacy of Nestorius (428), was the age wherein the battle over Christ’s person and nature(s) really raged. We’ll skip those heated decades and suffice it to say that the Church made an attempt at cooling everyone’s jets and at getting unanimity in the Council of Chalcedon in 451; the Athanasian Creed is very much Chalcedonian, stressing the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity while maintaining the unity of the person.
The (post)modern reader will not be excited by these ins and outs of dating the piece and of Trinitarian and Christological history. Most today look at this document and, even if they don’t disregard the entire body of the text as Hellenistic philosophy that is irrelevant today, they see the introduction and the conclusion and see yet another example of religion gone bad.
But do they really? (More on this tomorrow.)
A few weeks ago, I had the “opportunity” to stand in a doorway and discuss the Bible and Christology with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the floodgates of Heaven opened outside. What stood out to me as we talked was how truly Arian their Christology is. They encouraged me to read Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of his way …”) and tried convincing me that when the Word of John 1 is called “god” this doesn’t mean the same thing as the God with whom the Word is.
I did my best to pull out some St. Athanasius — Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father. If like begets like (“Do you have a son? Is he of the same nature as you?”), and the Father is God, then God begets God, so the Son must be God. I also used the analogy of the sun and its rays being different but the same and one being incomplete without the other. That analogy breaks down — as well it should, for God is the Creator and entirely different from His creation. St. Athanasius was an appropriate choice to use in debate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he spent most of his ecclesiastical career arguing against the heresy of Arianism.
St. Athanasius (c.296-373) is one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was born of Christian parents of Egyptian, not Greek, descent, and educated in the Greek Christian catechetical school in Alexandria. He was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a deacon and witnessed firsthand the debates about the divinity and eternity of Christ (Arius’ famous one-liner: “There was when he was not.”). This is the Council that gave us that famous Creed that forms the basis of what we recite in churches around the world today (my translation here). St. Athanasius was to spend the rest of his life combatting the teachings of the Arians and the Semi-Arians (or “homoiousians“), especially following his consecration as Bishop of Alexandria in 328.
He did his best to be a pastoral bishop, but constantly found himself running into heretical Arians or schismatic Meletians who were out to get him. These run-ins, such as the Council of Tyre, had a tendency to end up with him in exile. He was in exile in Trier (335-7), Rome (339-46), and the countryside around Alexandria (356-61, 362-3, 365-6). While in exile within Egypt itself, he had occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of hagiography (available in Carolinne D. White, Early Christian Lives).
His time spent in the West meant that the links between East and West were strengthened. The Bishops of Rome during his episcopate (St. Sylvester I, St. Marcus, St. Julius I, Liberius, and St. Damasus I) were supportive of his teachings and polemic against Arianism. Much of St. Athanasius’ work was translated into Latin, and he is one of the better-known Eastern Fathers in the West as a result of his time there and papal connections.
His theological works are focussed largely on the Person of God the Son, as seen in De Incarnatione Verbi Domini (On the Incarnation) and in his famous Contra Arianos. One result of St. Athanasius’ reasoning about the Person of God was the statement that the Bible names God as Father. This means that ontologically (ie. at the very root of Who God Is) God is Father. Since God is eternal and unchanging, He will always have been Father. One cannot be a father without offspring; God, therefore, begets the Son in eternity; God the Son is therefore eternal. The implications for understanding Who God Is and what personhood is are far-reaching (see J.D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, chh. 1-2).
St. Athanasius, like most of the Fathers, was not just a theologian, not just a pastor, not just a preacher. He was also a believer in the life of holiness. This was the root of his support of the monastic movement, for it is with the monks that we see the enduring persistence of costly grace (see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, ch. 1). We are reminded that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not to be divorced. We are to think holy thoughts and live holy lives, worthy of the calling to which we are called.
St. Athanasius fell asleep on May 2, 373. May we be half as vigorous in our defence of Truth as he.
Further Reading: Christopher A. Hall’s two books Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers and Learning Theology With The Church Fathers both deal with St. Athanasius. I also recommend reading On the Incarnation as an entrance both to Athanasius and Patristic theology.