Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Keeping the Catholic Faith

"Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly."

Thus we read in the Athanasian Creed.

C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to Sister Penelope Lawson's translation of St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation, acknowledges that this ominous sounding part of the Athanasian Creed has been a stumbling block for many. And he offers a perspective that may serve as a corrective to misunderstandings:

St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the "Athanasian Creed." I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words "Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame.

"The operative word here is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep."

If Lewis is right, then it's important to clarify some of the relevant meanings of the verb "to keep." Drawing on, I note the following.

"To keep," meaning:
  • to hold or retain in one's possession; hold as one's own
  • to maintain (some action), especially in accordance with specific requirements, a promise, etc.
  • to associate with
  • to observe; pay obedient regard to
  • to conform to; follow; fulfill
  • to observe (a season, festival, etc.) with formalities or rites
  • to guard; protect
  • to maintain or support
  • to take care of; tend
  • to remain in (a place, spot, etc.)
  • to maintain one's position in or on
  • to continue to follow
  • to continue unimpaired or without spoiling

Each of these strikes me as a fitting way to unpack what it means to keep the Catholic Faith.

One of the most overlooked of the Baptismal Covenant promises is also relevant:

"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304)

"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching?" That could be rephrased to say, "Will you keep the apostles' teaching?" in the senses of "to keep" noted above. The phrase "apostles' teaching" points back to the first full half of the Baptismal Covenant: the Apostles' Creed, which here serves as the summary of the Catholic Faith into which we are baptized. So while we do not use the Athanasian Creed in the formal worship of the Episcopal Church, our Baptismal Covenant expresses a similar intention: to keep the Catholic Faith by maintaining and supporting the apostles' teaching, remaining in it, conforming to it, and guarding and protecting it.

This is another reminder that it's not just clergy who live under vows. Lay Episcopalians are also bound by vows to keep the Catholic Faith. And so all of us - lay and ordained - are bound by solemn promises to discern whether or not how we are living, and whether or not any given course of action contemplated by the Church is in keeping with the Catholic Faith of apostolic teaching.

This Baptismal Covenant promise also links continuing in the apostle's teaching with continuing in the apostles' fellowship. Given this linkage (which has a biblical warrant in the first letter of John), breaking with apostolic teaching entails the consequence of breaking apostolic fellowship. And that consequence is not benign.

St. Hippolytus once wrote: "The world is a sea in which the Church, like a ship, is beaten by the waves, but not submerged." Breaking apostolic fellowship is like jumping off the ship into the stormy sea. Far better to remain in the boat by continuing in the apostles' teaching and keeping the Catholic Faith!


Anonymous said...


Episcopalian faith isn't Catholic faith.

The former is kept by Episcopalians alone, the latter is kept by Catholics (Roman rite Catholics and non-Roman rite Catholics) alone.

Thus you don't keep Catholic faith but you keep Episcopalian faith.

According to Athanasian Creed you cannot be saved with Episcopalian faith, that is, without Catholic faith.

Catholic man

Bryan Owen said...

Hi, Catholic Man.

You wrote: "Episcopalian faith isn't Catholic faith." That's correct only if by "Catholic faith" you mean "Roman Catholic faith."

I note that the Athanasian Creed does not say, "Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Roman Catholic Faith."

Nor does the Apostles' Creed say: "I believe in ... the holy Roman catholic Church."

And the Nicene Creed does not affirm that "We believe in one holy Roman catholic and apostolic Church."

The word "Catholic" applies to all Churches which have maintained the faith of the Creeds and the Ecumenical Councils, the practice of the Dominical and Ecclesial Sacraments, and which have retained the episcopate in historic succession from the Apostles. Understanding the word "Catholic" in that sense, I believe that the Anglican tradition embodies the Catholic Faith.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bryan Owen,

"When I left Alexandria, I did not go to your brother's head-quarters, or to any other persons, but only to Rome; and having laid my case before the Church (for this was my only concern), I spent my time in the public worship." (St. Athanasius, "Apologia ad Constantium", 4.).

Thus St. Athanasius believed that Rome alone speaks and decides in the name of The Church and you Episcopalians and others don't believe that.

And thus Catholic faith about which St. Athanasius speaks in the Athanasian Creed as absolutely necessary for salvation isn't the faith(s) that you Episcopalians and others profess.

Roman Catholic Church is the name with which you Episcopalians and others call The Church whose only name is The Catholic Church. There is no Roman Catholic Church except in your and others' minds as falsity.

Catholic faith is one and the same faith for all Christians i.e. for all Catholics: of Roman rite (Roman Catholics), of Byzantine or Greek rite (Byzantine or Greek Catholics), of Chaldean rite (Chaldean Catholics), of Armenian rite (Armenian Catholics), of Melchite rite (Melchite Catholics), of Coptic rite (Coptic Catholics) etc. (there has never been Anglican rite in The Catholic Church and consequently Anglican Catholics haven't existed). There is no Roman Catholic faith except in your and others' minds as falsity.

Hope you embrace the truth alone and be saved.

Catholic man

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Catholic man. I'm touched by your hope that I "embrace the truth alone and be saved," but I must say that I find your 'case' utterly unpersuasive.

Peace in Christ,

Bryan Owen said...

I commend the following piece which indicates a far more generous response to Anglicanism than some of the comments on this blog posting, including the appreciation of the Catholic Man (i.e., the Holy Father):

"Profound Synchronicity"

Catholic man said...

Hi Bryan Owen,

"Profound sinchronicity" only proves that the man you call the Catholic man and the Holy Father isn't the Catholic man nor the Holy Father because according to Pius XI whoever enters into ecumenism abandons entirely the Catholic faith.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Catholic man. You're certainly entitled to your opinion. But I have to wonder: if you don't believe that the current Pope is, in fact, the Holy Father, then who exactly are you in communion with that makes you a Catholic man?

Catholic man said...

Hi Bryan Owen,

my opinion? I'm not Pius XI who wrote that.

Catholic faith and subjection to Pope when Pope exists/readiness to be subject to future Pope when there is no Pope makes Catholic men.

Man who doesn't profess Catholic faith isn't Catholic and of necessity isn't Pope.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks again, Catholic man, for sharing your opinion.

Catholic man said...

... and I am in communion with The Catholic Church, which communion is necessarily through Pope, either actually or in desire.