A new visitor to our ward recently told me, “I read your thirty-nine articles and was disappointed. It sounds like a basic Christian statement of faith.
A basic statement of Christian faith. Exactly.
The thirty-nine articles of religion of the Anglican Church are not exhaustive. They do not answer every theological or ecclesiastical question a follower of Jesus might have. But there is an elegance in the brevity and simplicity of the articles that root us in the historic church and are relevant today.
Catholic, Reformed, local
The Thirty-Nine Articles were originally composed of 42 Articles by the English reformer Thomas Cranmer in 1553 to unify the Church of England doctrinally. In Cranmer’s own words, the articles were written “to avoid controversy in opinion”. After multiple revisions, they reached their final form in 1571 and, together with the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the Two Books of Homilies, they serve as the formularies for the worldwide Anglican Communion.
There is an elegance in the brevity and simplicity of the articles that root us in the historic church and are relevant today.
The articles can be categorized into three distinct sections. The first eight articles are the Catholic articles. They generally represent what most Christians have believed throughout Church history. These articles discuss Trinitarian theology, Christology, Holy Scriptures and historical beliefs. The Reformed Articles (9-33) form the largest section. They reflect the great theological controversies of the 16th century, covering soteriology (9-18), ecclesiology (19-22), missiology (23-24) and sacramentology (25-33). The remaining local articles (34–39) deal with the local traditions and arrangements of the Church of England and how Christians should relate to their neighbors and local governments. For more information, see JI Packer The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today and Gerald Bray’s longer treatise, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles.
Heavy but not infallible
Packer helps us understand the nature of the authority of historical confessions like the Thirty-Nine Articles:
[They] come see us as. . . time-honoured judgments on specific matters relating to the faith of Christ as set forth in the Scriptures. They have come down to us as corporate decisions first made by the Church centuries ago, and now confirmed and recommended by the corroborating testimony of all subsequent generations who have accepted them, down to our time. . . . It is a primary obligation for Anglicans to take full account of the explanatory formulations to which our Church has bound itself; and ignoring them, as if we were certain that the Spirit of God had nothing to do with them, is no more justifiable than treating them as divinely inspired and infallible.
Confessions like the Thirty-Nine Articles are not to be rejected or deified. We should not regard our own doctrinal confessions as infallible, but followers of Jesus who worship in parishes of the Anglican Communion must give the articles proper weight. They have stood the test of time, and we should not arrogantly consider ourselves wiser than our ancestors.
Scandal and Consolation
Each of the articles carries within itself a timeless truth for following Christ, but I want to highlight two ways in which the historical doctrines found here are especially relevant today.
Confessions like the Thirty-Nine Articles are not to be rejected or deified.
First, the Articles of Religion provide an essential anchor for the Church by embodying what Lesslie Newbigin has described as “the scandal of specialness”. Modern people are often outraged at the idea that Jesus is not one of many ways to God, but the singular and exclusive way to salvation. We live and serve in a therapeutic age that not only rejects the singular claim of in good faith, Solus Christus but also rejects the need for any kind of salvation. But Articles 6 (“Of the Sufficiency of Holy Scripture for Salvation”) and 18 (“Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Jesus”) clearly affirm this outrageous doctrine. At first glance, this may seem awkwardly disconnected from our cultural moment, but the truth of Christ’s exclusivity is what grounds the church and allows our ministry to go beyond felt needs.
Second, the articles of religion comfort those who have been hurt by the church. Article 26 is titled “Of the unworthiness of ministers, which does not hinder the effect of the sacraments”. It is worth reading it in its entirety:
Although in the visible Church evil is always mingled with good, and sometimes evil has the chief authority in the ministry of Word and sacrament, yet in so far as they do not do the same in their own name, but in that of Christ, and that they minister by his commission and authority, we can use their ministry, both to hear the Word of God and to receive the sacraments. Neither the effect of the ordinance of Christ is taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of the gifts of God diminished from those who receive by faith and rightly the sacraments administered to them; which are effective, because of the institution and promise of Christ, though exercised by wicked men. Nevertheless, it belongs to the discipline of the Church, that evil ministers be investigated, and brought to trial by those who know of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by a just judgment to be entered.
As a sinful priest who leads, as Dan Allender said, “with a limp,” this is a deep consolation to me. When I relapse into habitual sins that I should have given up for a long time, or when I lose my temper with a family member, or when I significantly disappoint someone in our parish, this article reminds me that Christ is always at work in me and through me. It reminds me that although so much of my life is “evil mingled with good, . . . the grace of God’s gifts” is not diminished by my sin.
When I relapse into habitual sins that I should have kicked a long time ago, or when I significantly disappoint someone in our parish, this article reminds me that Christ is still at work in and through me.
I pray that this will also be a real consolation for the people I serve. I hope this will allow them to put me in my place. Pastors and priests are broken vessels. We are not Jesus. We fail our people regularly, and when (not if) we do, church members should not despair that all the ministry they have received from us has been in vain. At a time when so many people are deconstructing their faith through hurt, abuse, and manipulation by church leaders, Articles of Religion help us remember that we can hold on to the goodness we receive from God through sinful leaders, even as we hold those same leaders accountable.
In this way, the Thirty-Nine Articles not only provide us with an elegant and historically rooted orthodoxy. They also preach to us, pastors and sinner priests and to their parishioners, the wonderful good news of the gospel.