Many Christians and churches believe and have said this statement: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Such a statement requires clarity in terms of what is “essential” and “non-essential” as people may disagree (hopefully still with charity!) with these definitions. In addition to explaining the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Athanasian Creed emphasizes that these truths are essential to the Christian faith from its beginning to its end. It opens by stating, “Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally” (1-2). It transitions from the discussion of the Trinity to the Incarnation by noting, “Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the Trinity. But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully” (28-29). The conclusion says, “This is the catholic faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully” (42).
In laying forth these beliefs as “essentials” for the Christian faith, this creed may raise the question of whether someone is required to know and understand these doctrines in order to be a Christian and thus to be saved. Do we need to include the understanding of these doctrines given in the Athanasian Creed when we share the gospel with someone and invite them to believe? To answer this question, we need to look back at the biblical evidence about necessary beliefs before re-examining what the creed seems to be saying.
What the Bible Says is Necessary for Salvation
There are many places in the Bible that either directly or indirectly point to what is required to believe in order to be saved. For example, after hearing Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, people asked him what they needed to do and Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38). Later in Acts 16, the Philippian jailer asks Paul what he needs to do to be saved, and Paul responds, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (vs. 30-31). Putting these texts together point to repentance of sin and belief in Jesus being the heart of the response to the gospel message; baptism is a symbol of the forgiveness of sins and reception of the Holy Spirit given to those who repent and believe.
Another example is when the thief on the cross acknowledged that Jesus was innocent and was wrongly being punished. When he asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 24:41-43). There is no baptism in that account, but you see the heart of repentance (confessing sin) and belief in Jesus’s innocence, power to save, and kingship. In a similar way, the very famous verse of John 3:16 highlights that it is belief in Jesus (who the verse notes is the Son of God) that allows someone not to perish but rather have everlasting life.
These Bible verses say nothing of belief in the Trinity or anything directly about the Incarnation. Does this mean that the creed is adding additional beliefs to what the Bible says? Is the creed going beyond the Bible in saying these are necessary beliefs?
What the Creed Means in Saying These Are Necessary Beliefs
There are a couple of reasons I don’t think this creed is adding to God’s Word or going beyond it.
First, the realities of the Trinity and also of the Incarnation are embedded within the responses noted above. John 3:16 points to Jesus as the Son of God and being sent by God, pointing both to his divinity (Son of God) and also his humanity. When telling the Phillippian jailer to believe in the Lord Jesus, Paul affirms that Jesus is Lord (a divine title) and thus, more than a mere man – he is the one who can save us from our sins. Similarly, the sermon that Peter gives at Pentecost highlights Jesus’s death on the cross, pointing to his work in the flesh. The thief on the cross looks to Jesus as more than a man. Thus, the creed is not adding beliefs but rather looking at the principles that undergird what it means to believe in Jesus.
Second, the creed was written in a context to correct misunderstandings of the faith. The purpose was to prove the other teachings were incorrect because they were insufficient to lead to salvation. If we do not believe that Jesus is truly God, then his sacrifice is not sufficient for our salvation and we should not worship or sing praises to him. We can’t call upon Him to save us if He is not God – the one who is able to save. If Jesus is not truly human (whether it is through disguising himself or through being part human and part God), then he is not our representative who can stand in our place and save us. The creed seeks to put parameters on how to understand Jesus as God and man to show that those other teachings are out of accord with the gospel, as they would not lead to Jesus being able to save us from our sin.
I believe the heart of this creed is not that if you have never read it or been able to articulate or fully understand the truths it sets forth, you are not saved. Rather, if you read what it says and deny these things are true, then you are not saved because you are not truly believing in Jesus. In addition, I don’t think the creed is saying that if you say or believe something in these doctrines is incorrect (for example, an illustration of the Trinity that does not accurately represent it), then your salvation is in jeopardy. It is one thing to not understand what these truths mean or not reflect on how they hold together – it is entirely different to intentionally deny these things or reject them. Above all, the goal of the creed was to bring more clarity and understanding on these truths that stand at the heart of the Christian faith and the hope of salvation found in Jesus. Essentially, what we need to be saved: believe that you are a sinner and that the Son of God came as a human to die in your place to save you from your sins and bring you back to God.
For More on the Athanasian Creed
This is the final post on this forgotten creed. I’ve tried to highlight some key elements of it, but there is so much more that could be explored. If interested in studying more about this creed, I would recommend The Athanasian Creed by Martin Davie (London: Latimer Trust, 2019). I found this book a helpful introduction and have drawn upon it in researching and writing about the creed the past few weeks.
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