Why Can’t Protestants Affirm the Athanasian Creed?

The pseudo-athanasian creed, usually simply referred to by its supporters by the misleading name of ‘the Athanasian Creed’, was neither authored by Athanasius, nor does it represent his understanding of the Trinity. Athanasius strongly affirmed, for example, that the one God is the first person of the Trinity in particular, the Father:

“But if this is not to be seen, but while the creatures are many, the Word is one, any one will collect from this, that the Son differs from all, and is not on a level with the creatures, but proper to the Father. Hence there are not many Words, but one only Word of the one Father, and one Image of the one God.” (Against the Arians, Discourse II.)

“For, as the illustration shows, we do not introduce three Origins or three Fathers, as the followers of Marcion and Manichæus; since we have not suggested the image of three suns, but sun and radiance. And one is the light from the sun in the radiance; and so we know of but one origin; and the All-framing Word we profess to have no other manner of godhead, than that of the Only God, because He is born from Him.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

We see that unlike the creed, Athanasius’s theology was marked by a confession that the one God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; and Christ stands in relation to the one God, as His Word and Son. Rather than being truly Athanasian, then, in reality the pseudo-Athanasian Creed is representative of early medieval scholastic articulations of the Trinity, especially following the theology of Augustine.

Despite the creed’s anonymous authorship and its theological clash with the real teaching of Athanasius, it has gained very wide acceptance in the west, in traditions which in some way stem from that latin medieval scholastic tradition, out of which it was formed. Not only do the Roman Catholics affirm it, but also Lutherans, many Anglicans, Presbyterians, and other Protestant groups. It is regarded by many Protestants (falsely so) to be an ecumenical creed; yet this is of course impossible, when we consider the contents of it in relation to the Eastern churches. Many Eastern Orthodox, for example, not only affirm the monarchical trinitarianism Athanasius taught in opposition to Augustinian semi-modalism, but they also universally reject the filoque- the doctrine that the Holy Spirit not only eternally proceeds from the Father, but also from the Son (‘filoque’ means, ‘and the Son’).

Yet, despite the creed being paraded around under so many false pretenses (false authorship, false claim to conceptually Athanasian theology, false claim to being ecumenical) it stills finds acceptance among many tradition-loving Protestants. I want to briefly observe here that this is in fact, grossly inconsistent with the founding principles and ideas of Protestantism; and this is not a difficult point to demonstrate. To do so, we need not dive into the theology presented in the creed itself, but only note that which frames the confession. It begins by saying:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

After 25 lengthly lines of words about the Trinity, we read:

“He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”

After going on talking about the incarnation for many more lines, the creed closes by reiterating:

“This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

Perhaps the only thing in the entire creed that can truly be said to be clear or intelligible to the average person, are these threats against the eternal salvation of anyone who dares not lend their assent to all the things this creed says. Yet, as we noted above, this creed goes into detail explaining not only what is more widely accepted regarding the Trinity by those following Nicea, but a specifically western, latin, and augustinian version of these doctrines. It includes this line, for example, that no professing Christian from, or in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox churches, would ever assent to:

“The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.”

Here we can spot the filoque -the Holy Spirit is said not only to proceed from the Father, but also the Son. This doctrine is repugnant to all Eastern Orthodox, and anyone in the West who happens to side with them on this point. Yet, here it is included in this creed, among things which, according to the repeated expression of the same creed, must be believed in order to be saved, and without which, no one can be saved. In other words, everything in the creed is effectively part of the gospel; for that which must be believed to be saved, and receive Christian baptism, and to be received into Christian fellowship, is the gospel. All then which is included in this creed is gospel, apart from which there is no salvation; for “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

Yet, such a confession is completely opposed to the founding principles of Protestantism; among which, is that no one may add to or alter the gospel preached by the apostles. For it was on account of this very sin that the various Protestant groups have felt free to depart from the Roman Catholic church, and often to declare it no church at all. They rightly appeal to these verses:

“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel more than what we have preached to you, he is to be anathema! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel more than what you received, he is to be anathema!” (Galatians 1:6-9 NASB)

‘Anathema’ simply means accursed, and has since the time of the above epistle’s authorship frequently been declared by churches upon those they consider heretics. In this case, there can be no question the legitimacy of the anathemas; these are not the decisions of any human council, but of an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. But they no not anathematize a trinitarian error: they anathematize anyone who preaches a gospel more than what the apostles preached. This is extremely serious; anyone adding to the gospel, by doing so, jeopardizes their own standing, according to scripture.

For this reason, Protestants rightly protested various ways in which the Roman church had added to and/or altered the apostolic gospel. Yet, here we see a great hypocrisy among many Protestants: while condemning others for altering the gospel, they do so themselves, by adding so many lines of incoherent ramblings about the Trinity to the gospel. And, if one of them should argue that every line of those Augustinian speculations is not only biblical, but part of the gospel, he shall have an enormously difficult time trying to prove that even a small portion of it was preached by the apostles as part of the gospel. For all through the book of Acts, we see men were saved by believing a gospel that included almost none of what the pseudo-athanasian creed says. If this is so, then the doctrines of the creed are not part of the apostolic gospel- and to add them to that gospel, is to be accursed by Paul himself, who spoke in the authority of the Lord Jesus, under the inspiration of the Spirit.

But one will argue that all of Augustine’s dogmas are found in scripture, and perhaps that they are even part of the gospel; so be it, we need not address this question, to prove that the creed adds to the gospel. The Protestants who accept the creed need only answer this question: is it possible for one to be saved without believing the filoque? Or put another way, is the filoque itself part of the gospel, and so, something which a person must believe to be a Christian?

If they answer ‘no’, they do well, in not adding to the gospel, and avoiding the anathemas of Galatians chapter one. But if this is so, then why do they affirm a creed which adds to the gospel? By teaching people to believe that creed, they will by their own admission be encouraging people to learn from it a gospel more than that preached by the apostles. If, on the other hand, they should answer in the affirmative, and say that the filoque is part of the gospel, and required for salvation, they will be far more consistent in affirming the creed; only they will have this problem, that they are anathema. For by adding to the gospel, as they say Rome does, they are just as accursed as they say Rome is, for the same sin.

It is plain then that no Protestant can consistently affirm the pseudo-Athanasian creed, unless they are prepared to deny the possibility of salvation of everyone who sides against the filoque; namely, all Eastern Christians, and all western Christians who agree with them. If they do, they certainly add to the gospel, by teaching that which the apostles did not teach is required for salvation. If they do not however wish to proclaim all Christians who do not believe the filoque to be damned, then let them forsake the pseudo-athanasian creed as something wicked, as something which adds to the apostolic gospel and is anathema for it. For if one can be saved while rejecting the filoque, what good will come from reciting a creed which damns to hell those who you admit may well be your brothers in Christ, over such a minor disagreement? For the creed is as unbending as it is incoherent: there is no leeway given to accept the greater part of it, yet reject some, but it declares “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

It is the duty of all true Christians to reject additions to the gospel, and to preserve whole and intact the gospel, as preached and delivered by the apostles. We have no right to add any doctrine or work to it, which they themselves did not enjoin as part of it. Yet that is precisely what this creed does. Given the pattern of the Roman church, it is unsurprising that they rush into this great sin; but those who keep themselves separate from the Roman church on that very account, would do well to pay heed that they do not, like the Roman church, add to the gospel by way of this wretched creed. Those that do, are inconsistent Protestants; they ought either to reject the creed for its additions to the gospel, or else side with Rome, and accept all of their additions to the gospel beyond that found in this creed, if additions to the gospel are acceptable.