Every year, I teach the three creeds of the Church in confirmation class, and every year the students always have the same reaction. They all refer to the Athanasian Creed as ‘that really long one.’
And yes, as the Church prepares to celebrate the Festival of the Holy Trinity this weekend, it is time once again to brush off the Athanasian Creed and confess it once again.
Of the three creeds of the Church, each has developed its own niche over time. The Apostle’s Creed is most commonly confessed at Baptisms and at non-communion services. The Nicene Creed is confessed at communion services. And the Athanasian Creed is almost exclusively confessed solely on Trinity Sunday.
These creeds are both the same and different at the same time. Each confesses the basic tenets of the Christian faith, but each does so in its own way. The Apostle’s Creed is pretty simple and straightforward confessing the basic faith of those who are baptized. The Nicene Creed is a little more nuanced in its language; and the Athanasian Creed is a little more nuanced than that.
Yet all three confess the same thing.
But not all three are confessed the same way.
While the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed are always spoken by the congregation in unison, many churches will shy away from doing so with the Athanasian Creed, as both the hymnal and inserts provide for a manner in which the Creed may be spoken responsively.
Why? Mostly because of its length and unfamiliarity. The Athanasian Creed is confessed in most congregations but once a year, so there is not an established rhythm as there is with the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed.
But allow me to argue for the congregation saying the entire Creed in unison.
Again I refer back to teaching the Creeds in confirmation class. We begin the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed with the word ‘I believe’ because it is I who must confess this faith, no one else can confess it for me; for I must believe for myself, no one can believe for me.
That is not to say that speaking a creed responsively means that you only believe half of it, but there is the hindrance that you only hear yourself say half of it. Each word of the Creed spoken is a word of the Creed confessed; to not say a portion of it is to not hear your mouth say what you believe. There is a difference between hearing yourself say what you believe and hearing others say what you believe. To hear it is to get a concept or an idea of what you believe; to say it is to actually put your name to the exact words of it.
There is a great benefit in saying and struggling with the words of the Athanasian Creed such as: (4) that we worship on God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
(11-12) And yet there are not thee Eternals, but One Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite.
(19) Just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so also are we prohibited by the catholic religion to say that there are three Gods and Lords.
(40) This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.
So I implore you this weekend, tell your pastor that you want the congregation to say the Athanasian Creed in unison, no matter how painful and awkward it might be. This is the faith that you believe, teach and confess; so why not actually confess it?