By Bryan Owen
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, which was, at one time at least, traditionally recited by Anglicans on Trinity Sunday.
In his introduction to Sister Penelope Lawson’s translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis acknowledges that this ominous language in the Athanasian Creed has been a stumbling block for many. And he offers a perspective that serves as a corrective to misunderstandings. He writes:
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.” The following definitions are noteworthy:
- to hold or retain in one’s possession; hold as one’s own
- to observe; pay obedient regard to
- to conform to; follow; fulfill
- to guard; protect
- to maintain or support
- to take care of; tend
- to maintain one’s position in or on
- to continue to follow
Each of these strikes me as a fitting way to unpack what it means to keep the Catholic Faith. Those meanings remind us that the Catholic Faith is not just a set of intellectual propositions for mental contemplation. It is a gift we receive and for which we are called to be responsible stewards. It is an invitation into the mystery of the Triune God and into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. And it is a message we are called to proclaim, that others may come to know and keep this faith as well.
Also relevant is perhaps one of the most overlooked promises in the Baptismal Covenant:
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 304).
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 serves as a summary of the Catholic Faith into which we are baptized. So while we no longer use the Athanasian Creed in the formal worship of the Episcopal Church, this promise in the Baptismal Covenant expresses a similar intention: to keep the Catholic Faith by remaining in it, conforming to it, and guarding and protecting it.
By keeping the Catholic Faith, we maintain communion with the triune God and with all the saints, both the living and the dead. We discover the meaning of our individual life stories within the grand sweep of salvation history, with the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus Christ at the center. And we find a refuge of unchanging, transcendent truth in the midst of the changes and chances of this world.
St. Hippolytus once wrote: “The world is a sea in which the Church, like a ship, is beaten by the waves, but not submerged.” By keeping the Catholic Faith, we stay in the ship. And we weather the storms of this life as, with God’s gracious help, we navigate our way to the joys of life eternal.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
 Quoted in R.W.H. Miller, One Firm Anchor: The Church and the Merchant Seafarer, p. 24.