The Athanasian Creed is one of the three catholic creeds. The word catholic means universal, as in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. The word creed comes from the Latin word credo which means “I believe.” Luther said of this creed, “I doubt whether the New Testament church has a more important document since the Apostolic age.”
Although named for Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria (ca. 296-373), it is almost certain that he did not write it. Neither Athanasius nor his contemporaries ever refer to it. But even if Athanasius did not write the creed, he certainly would have ascribed to it. Athanasius was one of the bishops at the ecumenical Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) which opposed the heresy of Arius (ca. 250-336). Arius denied the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, teaching that he is of a similar substance to God the Father, but not of the same substance. In essence, Arius claimed that Jesus Christ is not the eternal God. This belief has resurfaced in modern-day cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. The Council of Nicaea adopted the Nicene Creed to affirm that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from True God” and “of one being with the Father.”
The Athanasian Creed first appeared in Gaul (France) late in the 5th century. Early in that century, Europe was invaded from the east by barbarian tribes, notably the Vandals and Goths. This event marked the beginning of the Dark Ages. During this time, the people and the clergy lapsed into illiteracy and ignorance of the Scriptures. In addition, some of the invaders were Arian in their beliefs. Out of this confusion came the need for a clear statement of faith. The result was the Athanasian Creed.
The Athanasian Creed quickly assumed an important role in the orthodox church. (Much of the visible church was overrun with Arianism.) Emperor Charlemagne (ca. 742-814), in order to preserve the true Christian faith, decreed that all churchmen had to learn this creed and to be able to teach it to the laity.
The second portion of the Athanasian Creed reaffirms the Nicene Creed regarding the person of Jesus Christ. However, it begins with a most excellent presentation on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It says no more and no less than Scriptures say, letting the paradox of God’s nature stand (i.e., God is one; God is three).
Confessors of the creed should not be put off by the second to last article which says: “Those who have done good will enter eternal life, but those who have done evil will go into eternal fire” (cp also John 5:28,29). The article does not teach salvation attained by human works, but simply reflects that our good works (or lack thereof) are evidence of God-given faith (or unbelief). When we remember that our good works are actually God’s work through us, then we will understand this article correctly (cf Ephesians 2:8-10). In addition, we remember that are judged based on Jesus’ merits, not our own. We have been given the credit for Christ’s righteousness. Therefore, we are heirs of eternal life.
This creed ought to bring us great comfort, as it speaks clearly about our God and his plan for our salvation. Its clearness and boldness are refreshing in this age of doctrinal confusion. This is no wishy-washy confession. It states what the Scriptures teach – there is no God but the Lord revealed in the Scriptures, and there is no salvation outside of the name of Jesus Christ. All who deny this deny the truth; and all who deny the truth forfeit salvation.
Finally, a study of this creed and the history which surrounds it shows how important it is for us to be familiar with the history of the Christian Church. When we understand how Christians who have gone before us identified error and combated it, then we will better be able to do the same.