(Note: I wrote this on Trinity Sunday, 2008. It has become one of my favorite little writings that I like to re-post it each year. I assure you that I will not be saying the this Creed today!)
AT EVENING PRAYER, I decided to get adventurous. Yesterday (Sunday) was Trinity Sunday when the Church catholic celebrates the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The readings both at Mass and in the Daily Office focus on the Godhead has being the mystical communion of love, that through Christ, has opened this communion of love to all creation. And, of course, you get to belt out one of English-speaking Christendom’s favorite hymns: “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
One custom of the the day was to say the Athanasian Creed. This ancient creed was developed to combat certain heresies that taught wrongly about the Trinity. Sounds like fun, right? A problem with the Athanasian Creed is its length and its ability to say the same thing fourteen ways. So, not only are you saying a lot, but you’re saying the same thing over and over again. It is neither streamlined like Nicene or Apostle’s Creed and it has some phrases that are offensive to our modern ears (more on this later). Because of these things, the tradition of saying the Athanasian Creed was already on the way out the door by the time the Prayer Book was revised in ‘79. It’s still in there, but relegated to the back by the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrangle and the 39 Articles (which should have your copy of the Angelus taped over them, right?).
So, shortly following the Te Deum, I hiked up my pants, rolled up my sleeves, set my nose to the grindstone, and begin by saying,
“Whosever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold to the catholic faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”
There in my bedroom, I could already imagine that Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori just got a cold chill, sat up in her bed and tells her husband, “A parishioner is in trouble!” Friends of mine that are of the liberal persuasion suddenly get the urge to call me, after having a dream that I’ve ran off with the alternative-oversight Anglicans. A few Reformation saints start interceding heavily on my behalf.
I swallow and sigh deeply. “Oh, Andy,” I say to myself, “What have you gotten yourself into?” Its not that I disagree with that statement, but I’m just worried by the way its worded. It makes it sound like whoever holds to the catholic (universal) faith is saved. It seemingly turns faith — that mystical urge of the soul — into a set of doctrinal precepts with boxes that need to be checked to the left. As much as I decry Post-Modernity, its impossible for me to escape the Pomo way of thinking: that faith has little to do with doctrinal precept, but is primarily about story. This Athanasian Creed seems diametrically opposed to this kind of thinking. There is no grey area in the Athanasian Creed. There is no discussion that is so loved by Post-Moderns. But there is a line drawn between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the world. “This is the faith,” it says, “and you’re damned if you believe any other.”
Again, I’m okay with some black and white statements. I believe Christ to be the son of God and the way, the truth, and the life. I believe that the Church has something valuable in its great deposit of the faith that can change the world by changing one heart at a time. I believe with most Christians that our line-of-demarcation lies in the deity of Christ and ones belief in it; what makes us Christians is Christ — not necessarily holding to dense theology (I hesitate to use “dogma” here) that would require a great mind to even begin to grasp it.
I don’t understand, therefore, why this Creed sets the line-of-demarcation on the concept of the trinity and the incarnation, two concepts that have even confused our great thinkers. I don’t know if I’ve ever believed rightly about either concept, but I struggle with them. Lucky for me, the rest of the Creed goes on about how to believe rightly concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation, specifically treating the fact that there are three persons, but one substance; there is one Christ, but two natures. Its all very illuminating and valuable once you get over that first hump; I really recommend that you at least read it. It would answer a lot of those pesky Sunday School questions.
So, I’ve quit sweating by about half-way through it. I’m heading towards the finish line. I’m beginning to think I might just make it. Then, I say this line:
“And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting
and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.”
My mouth drops open and goes dry.
My left leg goes numb.
Luther just rolled over in his grave.
Okay, so I can at least put up with the weird statement that theology is a perquisite to salvation, but I will not put up with a statement that says we are saved by good works! This very statement offends my rather Augustinian (or Pauline, rather) sympathies. “Salvation is not something I do!” I scream in my head, “Its something that God does for me!” It is not a work of human hands, just so I can boast! I am a believer in salvation by grace and this statement seemingly flies in the face of it!
After this theological bomb went off, I begin to think more of this last statement. It is written in light of the great judgment seat of Christ — which I certainly believe in. Perhaps “doing good” simply means that one has chosen Christ and His righteousness. Perhaps “doing evil” means that one had not chosen Christ. But even those who choose Christ, still do evil. That theory is quite a stretch to get from the words. I just have to let them stand in all their works-righteousness awkwardness. It’s like the proverbial elephant in the room.
(Here followeth a rant.)
Of course, it is this kind of “works-righteousness” thinking that has led to seemingly orgiastic pronouncements of eternal destinies by screaming preachers with blood on their teeth. These statements that give credence to these people who get-off on telling people that they will burn in hell forever. Believe me, many Evangelical Protestants may say that they believe in salvation by grace, but listen to their words and watch their actions. Perhaps if many of them did, they wouldn’t get off so quickly on damning people to hell. To many, “God’s Justice” is just another way of saying, “I’m better than you.” Its these kinds of statements of works-righteousness that turned Christianity in everything it shouldn’t have been!
(Here endeth the rant.)
So, I finish the Athanasian Creed, and go on with the office, still shaken from saying it. I can see why it was never said in Eastern Orthodoxy and is hardly ever said in the West. Not everything is always right with tradition. But, please, don’t tell anyone I said that.
I’ve learned a valuable lesson about faith from saying the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday. This is the faith. It smacks you in the face, leaving you sore and confused. It is not easily digested and must be struggled with over many days, years — and yes — perhaps even a lifetime. The faith of the Church is powerful. Whether you agree or disagree it must be wrestled with; it must be addressed; it must have an answer. But its strong enough that it doesn’t need explanation. Just let the faith sit out there in all its awkward elephant-ness
I hope you’re following me. I think we suffer from too much explanation, gentrification, and niceness; we are always on the defense about our faith, explaining it away to be understood in the twenty-first century. This is not a fitting apologia, but it is a poor attempt at reconciling the kingdom of the world with the Kingdom of God. Be confused. Struggle. Let the faith kick you in the ass. You don’t have to like it or even agree with it, but hold onto it.
I didn’t like saying the Athanasian Creed. In many ways, it revolted me. But it is part of the faith that has preceded me and will proceed me; its part of the faith that was handed down to me. But I’ll do it the respect it deserves by struggling with it. I’ll do it the respect it deserves by interacting with it. I’ll do it the respect it deserves by trying to let it expand my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. I’ll respect it by letting it challenge me.
For this reason, I’m glad that I said the Athanasian Creed.