I just heard a muffled and consequently anonymous voice, “Three creeds? Don has finally lost it. I’ve been worried about him. We only have two creeds. Everybody knows that.”
Gotcha! The one we don’t ever seem to mention is the Athanasian Creed, approximately as old as the Nicene Creed. I’ll settle for an extra dessert, with suitable apologies. We’ll come back to #3 later.
The Apostles’ Creed, known throughout Christendom, is usually the first one we learn. There’s a small problem, however……we don’t know who wrote it. An ancient and beautiful legend holds that the twelve natural divisions that it falls into were each contributed by an Apostle. Unfortunately, that was evidently an invented legend, and like many legends, more fun than truth. The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest known and accepted statement of what we believe, the “Articles” of the Christian faith. “Credo” , ”I believe.” It is an elaboration of some of the baptismal affirmations, and first appeared in its present form after centuries of widespread use, in the sixth or seventh century.
The Nicene Creed is the product of the first Council of Nicea, in 325, which was called specifically to address a widespread heresy, Arianism, which denied that Christ was divine, proposing instead that Christ was created by God. The original and simple format was accepted. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not accept the Apostles’ Creed, and uses only the Nicene Creed, with a small change. The Nicene Creed, therefore, stands as the authoritative, yet eloquent, statement of what we hold as a statement of Christian belief in both the Western and the Eastern traditions.
The Athanasian Creed—;the creed we don’t talk about—;is something else. It is also known as the Creed of St. Athanasius, implying that St. Athanasius wrote it, but in fact it, too, is of unknown authorship. It is likely that it, too, was written by some unidentified French theologian, probably in the fourth century. St. Athanasius was a vigorous defender of the faith, with a strong preference for orthodoxy. Consonant with Athanasius’ scholarly orthodoxy, the Athanasian Creed is long (about 700 words) and is in the section of historical documents in the back of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP p. 864). The Church of England thoughtfully acknowledges our debt to these early churchmen. In England (not in Magnolia Springs or in these United States) the Athanasian Creed must be said or sung at Morning Prayer, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, and Whitsunday.
Another document of importance in the Anglican Communion and hence the Episcopal Church is the Articles of Religion, commonly known as the Thirty-nine Articles. They, too, are to be found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on p.867.
The anticipated difficulties encountered in making statements of faith, the development of consensus, and their publication can well be imagined. This is shriekingly evident to me as we see schismatic offshoots of the Episcopal and the Anglican Churches. Finally, after the learned theologians had been meditating for twenty (20!!!) years without producing a document, Parliament got into the act and—voila!—;a document was produced in 1571. Ipse dixit.
The purpose, the need, for the work of this group of theologians was crucial. The young Church of England, we Anglicans, was being picked on (really, picked on) by the Church of Rome, which had the strange and unwelcome notion that we Anglicans needed to call the whole thing off and go back home to the self-appointed Mama; and needled as well by the Lutherans and the Puritans, still in their early adolescence, who had their own ideas of what the Church of England should be, and think, and do. A tough assignment. Be firm, stand strong, but keep the flock intact. Listen to the opinions of others. And keep the faith. Be principled but malleable. But hold the Church together. Queen Elizabeth herself drew up some of the statement. The Articles were put into the American Prayer Book in 1801. They are a good read, for a better understanding of the faith, and an appreciation of English composition—our mother tongue.
But not during the sermon.