Most of today's historians agree that it originated in Gaul around 500. Its theology is closely akin to that found in the writings of Western theologians, especially Ss. Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Vincent of Lérins. J.N.D. Kelly, a contemporary patristics scholar, believes that St. Vincent of Lérin was not its author, but suggests that it may have come from the same milieu, namely the area of Lérins in southern Gaul.
The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Athanasian creed date from the late 8th century.
Didactic as its content appears to contemporary readers, its opening sets out the essential principle that the Catholic faith does not consist in the first place in assent to propositions, but 'that we worship One God in Trinity, and Trinity and Unity'. All else flows from that orientation.
The Athanasian Creed is in large part a response to charges of polytheism, and attempts to rationalize the three distinct persons.
Although the Creed uses terms, such as person and substance, it does not try to define them philosophically.
Its teaching about Jesus Christ is more detailed than in the Nicene Creed, and reflects the teaching of the Council of Ephesus (431) and the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451). The 'Athanasian' Creed boldly uses the key Nicene term homoousios ('one substance', 'one in Being') not only with respect to the relation of the Son to the Father according to his divine nature, but that the Son is homoousios with his mother Mary, according to his human nature.
The Creed's wording thus excludes not only Sabellianism and Arianism, but the Christological heresies of (so-called) Nestorianism and Eutychianism. A need for a clear confession against Arianism arose in western Europe when the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, who had Arian beliefs, invaded at the beginning of the 5th century.
The final section of this Creed also moved beyond the Nicene (and Apostles') Creeds in making negative statements about the people's fate: "They that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire." This caused considerable debate in England in the mid-nineteenth century, centred around the teaching of Frederic Denison Maurice.
In Reformed circles, it is included (for example) in the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia's Book of Forms (publ. 1991). That said, it is rarely recited in public worship.
In the successive Books of Common Prayer of the reformed Church of England from 1549 to 1662, its recitation was provided for on 19 occasions each year, a practice which continued until the nineteenth century, when vigorous controversy regarding its statement about 'eternal damnation' saw its use gradually decline. It remains one of the three Creeds approved in the Thirty-Nine Articles, and is printed in several current Anglican prayer books (eg A Prayer Book for Australia (1995)). As with Roman Catholic practice, its use is now generally only on Trinity Sunday or its octave.
In Roman Catholic churches, it was traditionally said at Prime on Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost, except when a Double feast or day within an octave occurred, and on Trinity Sunday. In the 1960 reforms, it was reduced to once a year on Trinity Sunday. It has been effectively dropped from the Catholic liturgy since Vatican II, although it is retained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
In Lutheranism, the Athanasian Creed is -- along with the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds -- one of the three ecumenical creeds placed at the beginning of the 1580 Book of Concord, the historic collection of authoritative doctrinal statements (confessions) of the Lutheran church. It is still used in the liturgy on Trinity Sunday.
A common visualisation of the first half of the Creed is the Shield of the Trinity.