The three Ecumenical Christian Creeds are a witness to the universal faith of all Christians. The three Ecumenical Christian Creeds serve to define content and boundaries of the Christian faith. Therefore any teaching that is at variance with the three Ecumenical Creeds is by definition outside the boundaries of Orthodox Christianity.
The Nicene and the Apostles Creed
It is common liturgical practice to confess the Creeds in the Divine Service. It is both curious and little noticed that only two persons besides Jesus himself are mentioned in the Creed: the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. Both the Nicene and the Apostles Creed place these two persons back to back, in opposition as it were:
I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, …
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
The creeds clearly place the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit and the birth of our Lord of the Virgin Mary over against the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, at the hands of the fifth Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. The only woman mentioned is honored in her obedience; the only man mentioned is dishonored for rejecting the truth and putting to death the Son of God. Thus we see the fulfillment of the Protoevangelium: for of the seed of the woman our Lord was born for the purpose of being delivered for our offenses, but raised for our justification. Thus Pilate was Satan’s instrument by which Christ’s heel was bruised; the Virgin Mary’s was God’s instrument through whose obedience the serpent’s head was crushed beneath Christ’s heel.
The creedal title “Virgin Mary” is quite interesting. In Part II we discussed the prophecy of Isaiah that a virgin would conceive, and a virgin would bear a son. The Son of God was became incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, without impacting her virginity. In like fashion the incarnate Word was born of the virgin Mary without affecting her virginity. Thus in using the title of Virgin Mary, we confess Mary to be virgin still. Every time we use the title Virgin Mary we are making a statement about the perpetual virginity of Mary, for no one is called a virgin once they cease to be a virgin.
The Athanasian Creed
The Athanasian Creed expresses the seriousness with which the church fathers treated doctrinal matters. The Athanasian Creed begins by stating: “Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all else, hold the true catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish for eternity.” The Trinitarian half of the Athanasian Creed ends with this statement: “Whoever whishes to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.” Then the Christological half of the Athanasian Creed begins as follows: “It is also necessary for eternal salvation that one faithfully believe that our Lord Jesus Christ became man.” The Athanasian Creed ends as it began: “This is the true Christian [in the Latin, “catholic”] faith. Unless a man believe this firmly and faithfully, he cannot be saved.” With these words, known as the “damnatory clauses”, the error of those who believe doctrine does not matter is laid bare.
The Athanasian Creed stands firmly over and against those who would separate the Word from doctrine; those who make experience the arbiter of faith; and those for whom faith is a matter of good works instead of an orthodox doctrinal confession. The Athanasian Creed clearly states that one’s salvation depends upon holding to the Christian faith, whole and undefiled. Those who fail to hold firmly and faithfully to the Christian faith, as confessed in the Creed, cannot be saved and will without doubt perish for eternity. Therefore the stakes are high. Eternal destiny is at stake, and it is therefore imperative for us to understand what the Creeds have to say.
The Athanasian Creed stands firmly over and against those who would separate the Word from doctrine; those who make experience the arbiter of faith; and those for whom faith is a matter of good works instead of an orthodox doctrinal confession. The Athanasian Creed clearly states that one’s salvation depends upon holding to the Christian faith, whole and undefiled. Those who fail to hold firmly and faithfully to the Christian faith, as confessed in the Creed, cannot be saved and will without doubt perish for eternity. Therefore the stakes are high. Our eternal destiny is at stake, and it is imperative for us to understand what exactly is confessed in the Creeds.
The Athanasian Creed was not written by Athanasius, but was instead composed around 500 AD. It seems reasonable that the use of Athanasius’ name was to honor the man who saved Christianity from the Arian heresy and maintained the faith against Julian the Apostate. The Athanasian Creed is a confession of the orthodox faith over and against Arianism[ii], Nestorianism[iii], Monophysitism[iv], and Macedonianism[v]. As previously discussed, the opening and closing lines of the Athanasian Creed proclaim its purpose: to proclaim the true Christian faith, without which a man cannot be saved. As the Athanasian Creed is primarily concerned with the proper definition of the triune God, it’s description of Christian doctrine is not as well rounded as that of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.
[i] The texts of the Three Ecumenical Christian Creeds are included at the end of this article.
[ii] Arianism: Jesus was a created being, and not God from God — a demigod, if you will.
[iii] Nestorianism: Jesus exists as two persons: the Son of God, and the Son of Man.
[iv] Monophysitism: The belief that Christ had only one nature, as opposed to the Chalcedonian position that Christ has both a divine and a human nature.
[v] Macedonianism: the denial of the full divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit.