Medieval tradition held that the Apostles’ Creed was composed by The Twelve on the Day of Pentecost–hence the name “Apostles’ Creed.” Though certain aspects of the creed may suggest late-first or early-second century origins, today it is generally agreed that a fourth-century date is most likely. The first reference to the Apostles’ Creed comes in a letter from the Council of Milan in the year 390. It is considered a baptismal creed since it is used in that rite and is one of the most basic statements of the Christian faith.
The First Council of Nicea rejected the heresy of Arianism, which held that Christ is a creature, less than God the Father. The orthodox, led by St. Athanasius taught that Christ is ‘of one substance (homoousios) with the Father’ and ‘God of God, light of light, very God of very God’, ‘begotten not made’, to battle the views of the Arians. According to Athanasius, ‘there never was a was when the Son was not’. Or to put it another way, if the Father is eternal, the Son must be co-eternal with him, since a father is not a father without a son.
The debate at and after Nicaea revolved around the word homoousios, which does not occur in Scripture. The Arians used the word homoiousios, ‘of similar substance’, to define their belief. The creed of this Council forms the core of our Nicene Creed, but the full text that we now use was produced by the next Council (with the exception of one word, filioque, ‘and the Son’, added later), so scholars usually call the creed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
The Athanasian Creed is one of the three great Creeds of the Church, and as such is printed in most editions of the Prayer Book, though not in the American Prayer Books. The omission of the Athanasian Creed from the American book may have had something to do with the influence of anti-Trinitarian Deism in the 18th century and probably even more to do with an uneasiness concerning its so-called ‘damnatory clauses’. However, as the preface to the American Prayer Book asserts an identity of doctrine with the Church of England, which does use the Athanasian Creed, there was never any question of a formal rejection of the Athanasian Creed. As for the damnatory clauses, they may be understood as directed mainly against traitors to the faith or apostates (those who fail to keep the faith), rather than as a condemnation of those who have never had the opportunity to embrace or hear the gospel. In any case, the status of the Athanasian Creed is acknowledged by the Affirmation of Saint Louis and by the Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Catholic Church.
As the Apostles’ Creed was not in fact authored by the Apostles, and the Nicene Creed as it now stands was actually the product of the Council of Constantinople, not the Council of Nicaea, so too the Athanasian Creed was not authored by Saint Athanasius. In each case, however, the creed in question does present the faith of the nominal author, so the traditional titles are fitting if somewhat historically inexact. In the Athanasian Creed the divinity of Christ, and his oneness of substance with the Father, as taught by Athanasius, are clearly asserted.
The Athanasian Creed in fact probably dates to the late-fifth century. Although this creed has dogmatic authority as well as a place in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, and is respected in the Eastern Church, its place in the Anglican Church is uniquely high. This unique position comes from the fact that the English and most other Prayer Books direct that the Athanasian Creed be recited publicly in Morning Prayer on a dozen or so great feasts. Since Morning Prayer in turn was often the chief popular service on most of those feasts, Anglican laymen said or sang this creed with unparalleled frequency. In contrast in the Roman Church the Athanasian Creed was generally only recited occasionally in Latin by clergy or religious in one of the daily Offices, and so was not widely known by laymen.
The Athanasian Creed is also called the Quicunque vult, from the first words of its Latin translation. The Prayer Book translation of the text is printed as a canticle or hymn in the Prayer Books.