Sunday, May 22, 2016

Maurice and Wesley on the Damnatory Clauses in the Athanasian Creed

Today is Trinity Sunday and so we used the Athanasian Creed during the service at Christ Church. I love the clear presentation of Trinitarian theology in the Creed. It is a necessary expansion on the creeds that came before. Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice writes,

“Do we not feel that if we had only the Nicene Creed—if a new heresy had not called forth another exposition—we should have been in great danger of losing our apprehension of a truth, from having but one imperfect form of language to unfold it in? Nay, do we not feel that as the Apostles’ Creed, without the Nicene, would lead us into the danger of thinking only concerning the relation ‘in which the Divine Being stands to us; so the Nicene Creed without the Athanasian, would still lead us to think merely of divine relations, without remembering that there is an absolute ground visible in them and through them?”

I believe Maurice is absolutely right in what he says about the importance of the Athanasian Creed. Nevertheless, parts of it give me pause. I’m speaking of the so called “damnatory clauses” at the beginning and ending of the text. They read:

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

It then goes on in some detail to precisely define the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the content of the catholic faith that we must accept or face the certainty of damnation.
When we read this creed at our Eucharist this morning, a parishioner--whom I respect a great deal—involuntarily blurted out, “I don’t believe that!” Now it wasn’t so loud that I could here it up front, but she told me about it after the service. I completely understand her reaction. At the risk of being exposed as a wishy-washy liberal, I have to say that I don't feel very comfortable with the so called “damnatory clauses.”
Is salvation such a rigorous theology exam? This seems extremely unlikely. In fact, if I were to quiz the members of my congregation, or even the Church as a whole, about Trinitarian theology, I suspect that a large majority would fail by the standard laid out by the creed. In fact, I generally feel uncomfortable with the idea that salvation is a matter of accepting certain propositions. Certainly the things we confess with our lips are only significant so long as they accurately represent the position of our heart. Could failing to comprehend the complexities of Trinitarian theology really be grounds for damnation?

Apparently, I am far from the only one to have ambiguous feelings about the Athanasian Creed. John Wesley at one time felt he could not subscribe to the creed for much the same reasons that we have already discussed. However, later in life he made his peace with it. He writes,

"I for some time, scrupled subscribing to that creed; till I considered (1.) That these sentences only relate to willful, not involuntary, unbelievers; to those who, having all the means of knowing the truth, nevertheless obstinately reject it: (2.) that they relate only to the substance of the doctrine there delivered; not the philosophical illustrations of it." (Sermon 55, On the Trinity)

I find this somewhat helpful. Certainly Jesus made statements that seem equally as exclusive. Such as, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). I’ve never read this as referring to those who are ignorant or deceived, but those who stubbornly resist and reject the witness of the Spirit in their own hearts. Remember Jesus’ other words, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (12:32). 

Perhaps it is not so much the form of words pronounced by the creed the must be accepted, true as they may be, but the spirit or substance of those words. In my own sermon this morning I said, “Those who want a non-Trinitarian God, whether they realize it or not, enshrine selfishness and tyranny as the highest virtues! If God is a solitary, all-powerful monarch, fixated on his own glory, than in order to be like God we would need to aspire to those same characteristics. Godliness would be about being powerful and having things our own way. But If God is love, If God is himself a kind of family or society, devoted to glorifying each other--if God is Trinity--we need to love one another! When we realize that God is Trinity we see that togetherness, cooperation, and even sacrifice are grounded in the very nature of God.”

I think this describes what it means to accept the “substance” of the doctrine rather than just the theological articulation of it. It is much more important that our hearts be in tune with the reality of Divine Love as embodied in the Trinity, rather than we be able to comprehend it with our minds or explain it with our mouth. 

Again, F.D. Maurice is also very helpful on this point. I would like to post an excerpt from a portion of the Kingdom of Christ in which he discusses the topic:

To the best of my knowledge and recollection, I never have felt tempted while reading this Creed, however I may have felt tempted at other times, to indulge one hard thought about the state of any man who is living now or has lived in former times. I do not think that the Creed calls upon me to do this; nay, I think that its awful language forbids me to do it.

 I dare not ask myself who has committed the fearful sin, of ‘confounding the Persons and dividing the Substance,’ which it denounces. It may not be the man who has used the most confused and heretical forms of expression; it may not be the man who has even seemed to the Church to be most self-willed and refractory; it may be the man who is resting most contentedly in his orthodoxy; it may be myself. Nay, have I not a witness within, that every wrong act which I have done, or wrong thought which I have cherished, so far as it has diminished my sense of the distinction between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, has been of the nature of that sin which I describe by the words ‘ Confounding the Persons,’ and has brought me into the danger of committing it; that every self-willed, unkind, schismatical act or thought has been of the nature of that sin which I describe by the words ‘Dividing the Substance,’ and has tended to bring me into it?

For this Creed takes me into another region altogether from that of words and names and forms of the intellect, though it makes use of those words and names and forms, for the sake of correcting the abuses which they have produced, and as signs which may show me my way to deeper truths and principles. It is my own fault if I stay in the outer region, and do not let the Church guide me into its inner circle; it is my own fault if I do not warn others, and warn myself, of the connection between eternal truths and principles, and that ‘ doing good ’ or ‘ doing evil,’ to which, as the Creed declares in its last articles, eternal life or punishment are appended.

But why do I wish to retain this Creed, seeing that some may use it amiss for the condemnation of their neighbors, and not for good to them or to themselves ? I answer, that if I parted with it I think I should not help the cause of charity, and should do great injury to the cause of truth. The language of the Old Church may sound stronger and ļ¬ercer than that which is common in our day, but it is grounded upon the words, ‘This is life eternal, that they may know Thee the only true God.’ The bottomless pit which the fathers really dreaded was that of Atheism, the state of the human spirit left without God. I believe the more we return to this idea the more of inward charity we shall have, the more we shall understand our glory and our perils, the more we shall have of common hopes and common objects; the more we shall be free from vulgar selfish desires, and from superstitious fears. I could not give up this creed without saying, that the meaning and principle of it belonged less to this time than to former times. Whereas, I believe that they belong more to our time than to any time. For this, it seems to me, is the question which is in debate now. Are we to behold the unity which has its deepest and most real ground in that name of God which this creed speaks of, informing all society and all nature ; or are we to see everything broken, divided, un-harmonized; a dark form of self love, embodied in some visible tyranny, above us, and a gulf of utter nothingness beneath us? (582-583)

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