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 dictionary.com, 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!