This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 8 states:
VIII. Of the Three Creeds
The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.
Having established the authority of the Bible in Articles 6 and 7, Article 8 here takes us to another teaching authority in the Church’s toolkit: the three Creeds. They are “thoroughly to be received and believed,” because they’re founded on the “most certain” foundation of the Bible. Many Anglicans make use of the classic Protestant doctrine Sola Scriptura, the teaching that Only Scripture is infallibly authoritative over the Church. Article 8 here works in tandem with that idea by asserting that although the Creeds are authoritative and binding for all Christian belief, they are so only because they’re derived from Scripture. They are, in a sense, the Church’s best authoritative interpretive lens for summarizing the teachings of the Bible.
Each of these three creeds have their own special teaching value and corresponding use in the liturgy.
The Nicene Creed was written in 325 and expanded in 381, both at major ecumenical councils, by delegates representing the church worldwide at the time. The primary theological issues being addressed in that Creed were doctrines related to the divinity, humanity, and personhood of Christ, and thus that is the longest section of the Nicene Creed. It is traditionally said at the celebration of Holy Communion every Sunday and Major Feast Day.
The Athanasian Creed is a longer document (about two full pages of text), written in the late 400’s or early 500’s – a century after the death of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, in whose honor it was written. This Creed’s primary focus is on the doctrine of the Trinity, carefully (and repetitively) spelling out the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as well as the distinctions between the three Persons. Because of its later origin, and other details, it is only used by Western Christians, and because of its length it is rarely used in worship services. The original Book of Common Prayer, perhaps uniquely, called for its recitation at Morning Prayer on about 13 different Holy Days throughout the year. Although this practice has largely disappeared in modern Anglicans, the Athanasian Creed does show up in the Communion service in a number of churches on Trinity Sunday.
For reasons unknown to me, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in 1801, edited Article 8 to omit the Athanasian Creed entirely; contributing to its demise in liturgical use and general lack of awareness of its existence and use.
The Apostles’ Creed, finally, was developed in the 1st and 2nd centuries largely as a confession of faith to be memorized and recited in the Service of Holy Baptism. It is the shortest of the three creeds, and therefore the most commonly used for teaching, catechesis, and memorization. It is traditionally said in the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as at Baptisms and Reaffirmations of Baptismal Vows.