Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Athanasian Creed & the PECUSA

When you look at Article VIII of The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion printed in The Book of Common Prayer (1662) of the Church of England you find the following:

The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.

However, if you look at the same Article in The Book of Common Prayer (1928) of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. you find something similar but different:

The Nicene Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

Then, if you return to the BCP (1662) and look at the pages immediately after Evening Prayer, you will find that the Athanasian Creed (or the Quicunque Vult from its opening Latin words) is printed in full, all forty-two verses. Further, it is ordered that it be said or sung instead of the Apostles’ Creed at Morning Prayer on the six great festivals (Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Whitsuntide and Trinity Sunday) and on seven other holy days – St.Matthias, St. John Baptist, St. James, St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew, St Simon & St. Jude, and St Andrew – so that it is recited about once per month.

However, if you look at the BCP (1928) in the same place you will find there is no trace whatsoever of this Creed. And if you go back through the other two American editions of the BCP, those of 1892 and 1789, you will not find the Creed there also.

The question arises: Why was it left out of the first American edition of the BCP in 1789? The answer is simple. A majority of the leadership of the Episcopal Church at that time believed that it was too harsh and dogmatic in terms of what it stated and required. The opposition focused on several verses, and on its propositional content.

Here are the verses which particularly caused offence:

1. Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
2. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly….
[Then come expositions of The Trinity and The Person of Christ.]

42. This is the Catholic Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

In the Age of Enlightenment, few believed that it was necessary to believe ancient forms of doctrinal statements in order to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to be the recipient of God’s salvation through and in him. The same sense of anti-dogmatism led to the changing in the 1789 Prayer Book of the Venite in Morning Prayer (Psalm 95) by leaving out the last four verses and substituting from Psalm 96 verses 9 & 13. Verses 8 – 11 of Psalm 95 speak of hardness of heart and God’s wrath and did not seem, at that time, suitable for reasonable people to recite in morning service.

The fact that it was left out of the American editions of the BCP did not mean that it was never used within the PECUSA. It was, and still is, sung as if it were a psalm in a few Anglo-Catholic parishes in the USA.

At the back of the 1979 Prayer Book of the ECUSA there is a collection of what are called historical documents. In very small print indeed we find there the Athanasian Creed along with the Definition of the Person of Christ from the Council of Chalcedon (451) and other documents.

It is surely to be regretted that this important western Catholic statement of the two basic Catholic dogmas – the Holy Trinity and the Identity & Person of Jesus Christ – has not been widely used in Anglican doctrine and worship within the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. When you understand its origins (in a time of crisis) then you understand why it is so firm and clear in its statements and affirmations! And if ever there was a time for there to be courageous and clear witness to the Truth of the Triune God and the Truth of Jesus Christ, One Person made known in two natures (human and divine) in the ECUSA, it is now, 2004!

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.),
Christ Church, Biddulph Moor & St Anne's, Brown Edge

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