By the Rev. James Basinger
BISHOP OF LIVERPOOL J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), in his book Knots Untied noted, “It is a melancholy fact, explain it as we may, that for the last 200 years the Articles have fallen into great and undeserved neglect. Thousands and myriads of Churchmen, I am fully persuaded, have never read them, never even looked at them, and of course know nothing whatever of their contents. I make no apology therefore for beginning with that which every Churchman ought to know.”
If that was the case in the late 19th century, have things changed? The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has relegated the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (henceforth, the Articles) to a second class status in a section of the prayer book called, “Historical Documents,” which in effect is to bury them alive. I remember engaging a conversation with a fellow cleric, and when I mentioned the Articles, and he looked at me quizzically and said in effect, ‘do you really believe those?’
It is true that the Articles do not constitute a systematic theology, but they summarize what is at the heart of the Christian faith as articulated within the Anglican settlement.
Historically the Articles serve as the doctrinal backbone of the three ‘formularies’ designed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), giving the English Church a solid grounding in the three fundamental areas of its life – doctrine, devotion and discipline.
Sixteenth century Reformed churches developed catechisms and confessions. We are familiar with some of them: the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, and the Belgic Confession of 1561. One of them, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) was the intended replacement for the Articles. But there were many, many others such as the Confession of the Waldensians of Provence (1543) and The Concensus Tigurinnus of 1549.
The Articles, according to Martin Davie in Our Inheritance of Faith, were intended to achieve “consent touching true religion.” If we ask what they meant by the term ‘true religion,’ the title of the earliest commentary on the Articles, by Thomas Rogers published in two parts in 1585 and 1587, provides us with the answer. By true religion was meant “the practice of which would enable you to be saved (which) was to be found in the teaching and practice of the true, ancient, catholic and apostolic church.’
The Articles were accompanied by model sermons explaining and expounding the same doctrine, called the Homilies, and these were to be the basis of teaching, catechesis, and discipline in the Reformed Church of England. “The Book of Common Prayer and its accompanying Ordinal were designed to express the faith of the Church of England through reformed liturgical practice.”
As Gerald Bray states in The Faith We Confess, the Articles follow a clear outline. The first 5 Articles concern the Catholic faith. They deal with God the Holy Trinity (1-5), the Holy Scriptures (6-7) and the ancient creeds (8). The Protestant doctrines are found in articles 9-34. In this section there are seven subdivisions, including issues of original sin (the need for salvation), justification by faith and the place of good works (11-14), the Christian life (15-18), the church, (19-22), the ministry (23-24), the sacraments (25-31), and church discipline (32-34).
One example of how helpful these Articles continue to be lies in this statement as to how we are to read Scripture as a whole. Article 20 says: “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another.” The Gospel of Jesus must be reconciled with the Pauline teaching for the true teaching of Scripture to be clear to us because Scripture is, all in all, the revealed word of God.
Some may believe that we humans initiate our own salvation – we have ‘free will’ to save ourselves. Here again the Articles, aware of the problem of Pelagianism which beset the theology of the early Church, repeat the ancient teaching that Christianity is not a moral code by which we can save ourselves through our own effort alone. Article 10 says this: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God.” Salvation is from God through our belief in Christ (Eph. 2.1-10).
The Articles, if read and learned, would enable us not to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4.14). They should be studied regularly within every Anglican parish.
The Rev’d Basinger is the rector of Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands in Leesburg, VA.