The following from a reader:
I have been accused, on a forum, of being a second-class Christian because I have stated that I cannot understand Trinitarian doctrine [as presented in the Athanasian creed]. I have stated that I do accept the Apostles' Creed, but that is not seemingly good enough. So I have asked for clarification from forumites as to why they believe not only that the doctrine is true, but that believing it is a must for 'full fellowship'.
My reader goes on to say that the responses of his fellow forum members were unsatisfactory. His main question is: "What practical difference does a belief or non-belief in the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity make?" My reader accepts and tries to live by the the Apostles' Creed, but doesn't understand the Athanasian Creed. As well as he might not, given the logical difficulties of the doctrine.
To answer the reader's question: no practical difference to speak of.
The underlying problem, as it seems to me, is that of the relative importance of doctrine and practice. In every religion there is both. Are they of equal importance? Or is one more important that the other? I suggest that, while both are important,
1. Practice is more important than doctrine;
2. Theological doctrines are necessary makeshifts, feeble human attempts at conceptualizing what by its very nature must remain in the main beyond the human conceptual horizon in this life;
3. Doctrinal disputes can and often do lead to acrimonious controversies that are the exact opposite of conducive unto salvation.
The two central precepts of Christianity are: Love God with your whole heart, whole soul, and whole mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. What exactly is enjoined by these two absolutely central precepts may be reasonably discussed, and ought to be. But we know more or less what they mean and require of us. And we know more or less what would be incompatible with their practical realization.
To love God is not to love one's ideas about God. For then one is loving, not God, but products of one's own ego. A theologian in love with his own pet formulations is arguably a high-level idolater. And analogously for the doctrinal formulations of one's church or sect.
And it would seem that bitter, rationally unresolvable dispute about exceedingly abstruse questions is not at all conducive to love of neighbor, and is in fact in many cases incompatible with such love. Consider some such theological nicety as the filioque clause. The question is whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son -- filioque means 'and the Son' -- or from the Father directly. Quite apart from the question of what practical difference this could make in the life of a believer, does the question have a sense clear enough to permit a rational solution?
The Athanasian Creed, quite unlike the Apostles' Creed, makes subscription to verbally precise Trinitarian and Christological doctrines a necessary condition of salvation. Their verbal precision, however, has not prevented centuries of debate as to their exact meaning and coherence. To hurl an anathema at anyone who fails to accept them on pain of damnation strikes me as nothing more than an expression of the human-all-too-human need for doxastic security. People have a terribly strong need to be secure in their beliefs even when the beliefs in question are plainly open to serious doubt.
Mature religion, I would say, is more quest than conclusions.