The song of St Athanasius

St AthanasiusIn his discussion of “notional” vs “real” assent to the Trinity (see previous post), Newman gives a particular example of a real, concrete, devotional expression of the doctrine of the Trinity, one that may surprise many of us who recited it in church this morning: the Athanasian Creed.

The Athanasian Creed is often regarded as a turgid succession of baffling notions. As the old joke goes: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible.” I’ve always loved it, though, and Newman helps me understand why.

Partly it is that (as we saw in my previous post) the Athanasian Creed isn’t as abstract as it appears at first glance. Rather, it is founded on the concrete language of “Person, Father, Son, Spirit, He, One” that Newman sees as the material of “real assent”, rather than the abstract terminology of “notional assent” (“substance, essence, existence, form,” and so on). But Newman goes further, by extolling the emotional and imaginative power of the “Quicunque Vult”:

It must be recollected especially that the Athanasian Creed has sometimes been called the “Psalmus Quicunque.” It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn, first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe, and yet believe not. (p.133)

Newman quotes an 1833 poem on the Athanasian Creed, which describes it as:

The Psalm that gathers in one glorious lay
All chants that e’er from heaven to earth found way;
Creed of the Saints, and Anthem of the Blest,
And calm-breathed warning of the kindliest love
That ever heaved a wakeful mother’s breast.

He continues:

For myself, I have ever felt it as the most simple and sublime, the most devotional formulary to which Christianity has given birth, more so even than the Veni Creator and the Te Deum. Even the antithetical form of its sentences, which is a stumbling-block to so many, as seeming to force, and to exult in forcing a mystery upon recalcitrating minds, has to my apprehension, even notionally considered, a very different drift.

It is intended as a check upon our reasonings, lest they rush on in one direction beyond the limits of the truth, and it turns them back into the opposite direction. Certainly it implies a glorying in the Mystery; but it is not simply a statement of the Mystery for the sake of its mysteriousness.

So perhaps that’s another tip for next year’s Trinity Sunday services. Don’t say the Athanasian Creed. Sing it.


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