Vol I No. 7
English Reformation

The Substance of the Articles

by The Editors

The following excerpt, taken from the introduction to The Teacher’s Prayer Book by Alfred Barry, is the second in a two-part series on the Thirty-Nine Articles.


THE DECLARATION. The Declaration prefixed to the Articles was drawn up by Laud in 1628, in view of the vehement denunciations of Arminianism which had been uttered in Parliament and elsewhere, with constant appeals to the true sense of the Articles. It is put forth simply by Royal Authority, with the advice of so many of the Bishops as might conveniently be called together. Accordingly it lays great stress on the Prerogative of the King as Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church, and his consequent duty to maintain Unity and Peace; ratifies and confirms the Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church of England, agreeable to God’s Word; promises that for all questions of Ecclesiastical Regulation, the Convocation shall have license to deliberate, and, with the Royal Assent, to act; dwells with satisfaction on the general acceptance of the Articles by all Schools of opinion; forbids going beyond them for curious and unhappy differences or putting upon them any other than their literal and grammatical sense, and threatens penalty in case of disobedience to this prohibition. The advice is wise and sensible enough; but it must have been somewhat marred by the imperious tone in which it is conveyed.

The Articles themselves may be divided into the following groups:


In these Articles the Church of England simply accepts, with some exposition, the great Articles of Christian faith, as held in all ages by the Catholic Church, and embodied in the Ancient Creeds.

Thus, Art. i., Of Faith in the Holy Trinity, in its former clause asserts the Unity of the Godhead; in its latter clause the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Arts. ii , iii., iv., Of the Word or Son of God, declare the doctrine of the Son of God, His Eternal Godhead, His Incarnation, His two whole and perfect Natures, the Godhead and the Manhood, His Atonement), Descent into Hades, Resurrection, Ascension, and future Coming to Judgment. Here the Articles simply traverse the ground covered by the second paragraph of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and that portion of the Athanasian Creed which treats of the union of the two Natures in Our Lord Jesus Christ; except that Art. ii. dwells more fully on the doctrine of the Atonement (as a reconciliation of the Father to us, and a Sacrifice for sin), which is but slightly touched upon in the Ancient Creeds.

Art. v., Of the Holy Ghost, similarly declares the doctrine of the Holy Ghost in language like that of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

These Articles, except in form of expression, belong not to the Church of England, but to the whole Church of Christ. They express the resolution already quoted,not to decline or vary from the congregation of Christ’s Church in things concerning the very Articles of the Catholic faith.


In these (Arts. vi. – viii.) the Church of England adopts the great principle which characterized the Reformation in all its forms, and which stands in direct antagonism to the decree of the Council of Trent on this subject.

This principle is enunciated in Art. vi., Of the Sufficiency of Holy Scripture. It declares that Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation” as either read therein or proved thereby and so repudiates the co-ordination of Scripture and Ecclesiastical Tradition laid down in the Tridentine Decree of 1546. The remainder of Art. vi. adopts the true Hebrew Canon of the Old Testament, as against the corrupted Canon of the Roman Church, and fixes the right position of the Apocryphal or Ecclesiastical books.

Art. vii. Of the Old Testament, is subsidiary to Art. vi., simply declaring the unity of the Old Testament and the New as both having the promise of everlasting life through the Mediation of Christ and the permanent obligation of the Moral Law.

Art. viii., Of the Three Creeds, accepts the three Creeds as true interpretations of Scripture (in which the Church Catholic has exercised the authority in controversies of faith maintained in Art. xx.).

In these Articles the Church enunciates the great principle of the English Reformation, claiming the right to reject all accretions of un-Scriptural doctrine, as also all traditions contrary to Scripture. At the same time it is clear (from Art. viii.) that she appeals to the Bible as God actually gave it, that is, with interpretation from both the faith and the practice of the Christian Church.


In this long group (Arts. ix. – xviii.) the Church of England goes on to deal with the application of the objective or absolute Articles of the Faith, as enunciated in Holy Scripture, to subjective religion, that is, to the salvation of the individual soul. This class of subjects had naturally come into striking prominence in the controversies of the Reformation, which in all its phases brought out the personal freedom and responsibility of every Christian, in respect of acceptance of the truth of the Gospel and the authority of the Church. In the Continental Reformations perhaps this had been the case even more strikingly than in England, and accordingly in dealing with these matters the Church indirectly defines her own position in relation, first, to the Lutheran, and next to the Calvinistic, system.

This group has two sub-divisions:

(a) Arts. ix. – xiv. have to do with the great question of JUSTIFICATION, which had been the inspiring principle of the whole Lutheran movement.

Then Art. ix., On Original Sin (or rather inborn sinfulness), declares the existence of corruption in the nature of man, through which he is very far gone from original righteousness and inclined to sin, a corruption not wholly extirpated, even in the regenerate; although there is no condemnation to them that believe and are baptized; and Art. x., On Free Will, is a statement of the limitation of freedom in humanity thus corrupted, and the incapacity of man to turn to God and do good works, without the grace of God in Christ preventing us and working with us. These both lead up to Art. xi., On the Justification of Man. This enunciates that which is commonly called Justification by Faith, but which is more correctly laid down as Justification for the merit of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ through faith, and not for our own works or deservings; and so, while allowing the co-operation of man, places the first source of salvation in the free Mercy of God through the mediation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

From this, Arts. xii., xiii., xiv. go on to deal with the true position of work, that is, conscious exercise of will in the Christian Life. Art. xii., On Good Works, describes this positively by declaring good works to be the necessary fruits of a living faith, and, as such, pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ. Arts. xii., xiv., On Works before Justification and Works of Supererogation, describe it negatively by repudiating the independent value and merit of works done before the grace of Christ and the Inspiration of His Spirit, and the strange figment of Works of Supererogation, over and above duty to God, which cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety, and which, indeed, could only have arisen out of a dry narrow legalism of idea.

In this group of Articles the Church, while taking a line of independence towards the Lutheran theology, yet (as a comparison with the Lutheran Confessions shews) expresses a distinct sympathy with it, as it had finally come forth, tempered by the lessons of experience, and guarded from fatalistic and Antinomian extravagance. The whole treatment strikes the keynote of true personal Christianity, by ascribing the source of all salvation to the Love of God in Christ, and yet, by the very requirement of faith, implying the co-operation of man, and making this still clearer by recognising the true function of works.

(b) Arts. xv. – xviii. deal with the chief subjects which had been forced on Christian thought by the resolute logical dogmatism of Calvin.

Art. xv., Of Christ alone without Sin, and Art. xvi., Of Sin after Baptism, reject in the clearest terms the idea, derived from a consideration of the Omnipotence of God’s grace, of indefectibility of grace or of faith; which leads to the two opposite conclusions, a belief in the attainment by the elect of a state from which they cannot fall, and a despairing hopelessness in those who, after they are baptized and born again in Christ, fall from grace, as sinning against the Holy Ghost, and, therefore, incapable of pardon.

These lead on to Art. xvii., On Predestination and Election, which grapples directly with the primary question. To this there is nothing to correspond either in the Augsburg or Wurtemburg Confession. What were the tenets of the Calvinistic School thereon may be seen in the Lambeth Articles. Now on this subject it is to be noted that, in the description of the doctrine, the Article, avoiding the technical language of the Schools, follows accurately the words of Holy Scripture, and therefore speaks of Predestination to life, and not to death, and closely connects this with God’s call consciously received and through grace obeyed, with free Justification and renewal in the image of Christ, and with the walking religiously in good works, thus implying the co-operation of man, without attempting to solve the insoluble mystery of the reconcilement of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom. Next it disclaims the doctrine as the keystone of teaching, and system, declaring it fit only for the meditation of those who feel in themselves the grace of God, and who find in it the confirmation of faith, and the kindling of love, but a most dangerous downfall to curious and carnal persons, apt to lead either to desperation or to wretchlessness (recklessness) of unclean living. Lastly, it asserts the generality of God’s promises, and declines to speculate on any Will of God except that which is revealed to us.

Art. xviii., Of obtaining Eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ, may be considered a corollary to this; refusing to hold the sufficiency of Natural Religion (to those to whom the Gospel has come), and declaring that salvation is assured to us only in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It will be clear to all who know what the positions of Calvinism on these mysterious subjects really are, that in these Articles the Church of England declines adhesion to them, so far as they go beyond the express declarations of Holy Scripture, in their desire of an impossible logical consistency, and refuses to make them the basis of Church doctrine and life. That this declaration was unsatisfactory to the Calvinistic party (as might indeed have been reasonably expected) the history of the Lambeth Articles shews unmistakeably.

It may be remarked of the whole of this group that it bears more plainly than any other the impress of the theology of the age. It has now ceased to be of the same theological and polemical importance. But in relation to spiritual self-knowledge and dealing with individual souls, the truths referred to must be as important as ever.


These Articles (Arts. xix. – xxxvi.) go on to dwell, not on personal, but on what may be called Corporate Christianity, setting forth the nature, authority, and discipline of the Church, and the true doctrine of the Sacraments, which are ministered by the Church to the individual. The Reformation in England turned in great measure on Sacramental doctrine, especially as exemplified in the Second Great Sacrament; and, moreover, since almost all acts done in it were done collectively, it naturally drew special attention to the true corporate constitution of the Church, and of the various Branches of it. This group of Articles, therefore, though having evident reference to Foreign Confessions, bears a strong Anglican impress, and is illustrated at every point both by the language of the Prayer Book and by the history of the time. In it also, from the nature of the case, are found the strongest protests against the usurpations of Rome.

(a) In this group we have, first, Articles dealing with the fundamental nature, authority, and Ministry of the Church. Thus, Art. xix., Of the Church, defines the Church by its tokens: profession of faith in Christ, preaching of God’s Word, and right ministry of the Sacraments; Art. xx., Of the Authority of the Church, lays down the reality of that authority, both to decree Rites and Ceremonies, and to intervene in controversies of faith; and at the same time its limitation, by the supreme authority of God’s Word written, of which the Church is the keeper and witness; and Art. xxi., Of General Councils, applies these principles to the General Councils freely chosen, to which the Church of England always appended, not, indeed, as infallible, but as the highest and fullest expression of Church authority.

Each of these positive statements carries with it a negative protest against the Church of Rome; in Art. xix., against her claim of Infallibility, in Art. xx., against her requirement of faith in things not laid down in Scripture, as necessary to salvation, and in Art. xxi. against the Pope’s claim to summon and preside over General Councils, and to confirm their decrees by superior authority.

From these we pass naturally to Art. xxiii., Of Ministering in the Congregation, asserting the need of a regular Order of Ministers in the Church, ordained by authority; and to Art. xxiv., Of Speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the People understandeth, claiming for all members of the Church the right of Worship in their own tongue. Art. xxii., Of Purgatory, &c., which is one of simple protest against the dogma of Purgatory, the abuse of Indulgences, the Veneration of Images and Relics, and the Invocation of Saints, seems to break the natural order, and is probably inserted here only because, in fact, the errors denounced were used as means of usurping absolute authority and of enforcing practices forbidden by the Word of God.

In all these Articles, in distinct accordance with the actual course of the Reformation in England, the Church, taking up its position on Scripture as interpreted by Church History and Tradition, eschews the easy path of sweeping generalities, and attempts the more difficult task of harmonizing unity with individuality and authority with freedom.

(b) The next section of this group contains the doctrine of the Sacraments; first as generally considered, and next in separate relation to Baptism and Holy Communion. In accordance with the critical importance in the history of the Reformation of the controversies on the latter of the two great Sacraments, it devotes but one Article to Baptism, and no less than four to the Holy Communion; and it is moreover evident that, even in the general treatment, there is more particular reference to the latter.

Thus Art. xxv., Of the Sacraments, first defines Sacraments ordained of Christ in language suggested by the Augsburg Confession, but so modified as to express even more strongly their reality as not mere badges of Christian profession, but sure pledges and effectual signs of grace, through which God invisibly works in us, and both quickens and confirms faith; next, limits the application of this name to Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, refusing to class with them the five commonly called Sacraments, not having a visible sign ordained of God of which the Church treats each on its own merits; and lastly (in evident reference to the Second Sacrament), declares that they were ordained not to be gazed upon or carried about, but duly used, with wholesome effect only on those who worthily receive them. To this is added Art. xxvi., On the Unworthiness of Ministers, which denies that this can interfere with the blessing to be derived from Christ’s own ordinance ministered by His commission and authority; while it lays stress on the need of discipline to remove the unworthy from so sacred a Ministry.

Next, Art. xxvii., Of Baptism, applies the principles of the preceding Article, strongly emphasizes the regenerating grace of Baptism as grafting into the Church, and sealing adoption to the son-ship of God and defends Infant Baptism as agreeable with the institution of Christ, that is, as arising naturally out of the very idea of Baptism.

Lastly, four Articles are devoted to the Holy Communion. Art. xxviii., Of the Lord’s Supper, emphatically disclaims the two opposite errors, which had diverged from the primitive truth, Zwinglianism and Transubstantiation, and sets forth the true doctrine of the Holy Communion in the language of Holy Scripture itself; and then, asserting that in the Sacrament the Body of Christ can only be received spiritually through faith, repeats the former protest against its being reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped. From this Art. xxix., Of the wicked which eat not the Body of Christ, is a corollary, asserting in a strong negative form the necessity of faith for being in it partakers of Christ. Art. xxx., Of both kinds, maintains the right of the Laity to the Cup of the Lord; and Art. xxxi., Of the One Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross, dwelling emphatically (as in the Holy Communion Service) on the offering of Christ once made as the one perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, protests against the sacrifices of Masses (as ordinarily understood) as blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits in terms the vehemence of which can only be explained by reference to the crucial importance of this point in the whole of the religious movement of the age.

These Articles on the Sacraments, perhaps more than any other, illustrate the true nature of the Via Media of the Church of England; showing that it is determined, not by balance between opposite extremes, but by refusing technical theories, and going back to the simple truth as declared in Holy Scripture, from which historically extreme errors have diverged on either hand. They also preserve very distinctly the true harmony between the objective and subjective elements of Salvation, the absolute reality of the grace of Christ in the Sacraments, and the impossibility of receiving it without spiritual preparation of faith.

(c) To this succeeds a miscellaneous series of Articles on various points of the constitution and discipline of the Church.

Art. xxxii., Of the Marriage of Priests, repudiates the compulsory Celibacy, which is known not to have existed in the Primitive Church, but to have been imposed in after ages. Art. xxxiii., Of Excommunicate Persons, asserts strongly the right of the Church to exercise Discipline, even to Excommunication, and the duty of all her members in this respect to support her authority. Art. xxxiv., Of the Traditions of the Church, has a twofold purpose. As against Roman despotism, it asserts the freedom of National Churches to enact and abolish traditions and ceremonies, provided that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. As against the excessive individualism of the Puritan party, it maintains the duty of individual obedience to such exercise of authority. Art. xxxv., Of the Homilies, directs the reading of the two books of Homilies, the one drawn up in 1552, the latter in 1559, with a view to avoidance of controversy and supply of sound vernacular and popular instruction. Art. xxxvi., Of Consecration of Bishops and Ministers, defends the Ordinal from attack on the Roman side as insufficient, on the Ultra-Protestant side as superstitious and ungodly; and decrees that all ordained according to it are rightly ordained.

The whole of this group is of great historic interest, illustrating at every point the actual course of the English Reformation; and, as many of the religious questions of our own time bear largely on the Constitution and Authority of the Church, these Articles have considerable importance at the present moment.


These Articles deal with the relation, first of the Church, and then of the individual Christian, to the Civil Power.

Art. xxxvii., Of the Civil Magistrate, is one peculiarly Anglican and of great importance. First, it asserts and limits the Royal Supremacy over the Church, which was at that time regarded as co-extensive with the Nation, all Englishmen, as they were born into the latter, being baptized into the former. It asserts the Supremacy as over all Estates of the Realm, Ecclesiastical as well as Civil, in all causes the Sovereign being the representative of the whole Church, and, acting, of course, under Ecclesiastical Law. It limits the Supremacy by denying it all power to assume or confer the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, which derives its authority from Christ Himself. Next, it still further explains the true idea of the Royal Supremacy by repudiating all Supremacy of the Bishop of Rome over the Church of England.

The latter part of Art. xxxvii. and the succeeding Articles deal with certain points of individual duty and privilege in the State, which had been called in question on religious grounds. Thus Art. xxxvii. asserts the right of the State over life, both to inflict capital punishment, and to command its subjects to serve in war. Art. xxxviii., Of Christian men’s Goods, maintains the right of property, while at the same time it dwells on the moral duty of charity which attaches to it. Art. xxxix., Of a Christian man’s Oath, distinguishes between the vain swearing which is forbidden in the Gospel, and the solemn use of an Oath before God.

These last Articles are evidently subsidiary, and of inferior importance to the rest.

CONCLUSION. The study of the Articles will go far to shew how it is, that, although drawn up only for the immediate needs of the 16th century, and probably under the expectation of future Revision, they have, as a matter of fact, remained unchanged as a standard of doctrine down to the present time. Even as looked at in themselves, and still more as viewed in relation to the theology of the time, they are extraordinarily fit to serve the purpose for which they have so long been used.

They are comprehensive, because (in the true sense of the word) they are moderate; that is, they refrain from pronouncing on points, on which it is impossible or unnecessary to pronounce. They are thus moderate, because they almost invariably eschew technical theological systems, and go back to the simple language of holy Scripture. It would be unreasonable to suppose that they could not be amended, in the light of the experience and advance of knowledge gained in the last three hundred years. But substantially they embody the true fundamental principles of Christian faith and Ecclesiastical constitution, which still meet our needs.

They are imposed by authority on the Clergy alone, not as an absolutely perfect and exhaustive statement of doctrine, but as containing substantial Scriptural truth, and as a standard which they agree not to contradict in their public teaching. For the laity they have no coercive force, nor do they constitute conditions of Lay Communion. But they have necessarily a didactic value, as expository of Anglican doctrine on many important points. It is unfortunately obvious, from the loose and depreciatory language often used about them, that they are very imperfectly known and understood; and it is certain that they deserve far more attentive and respectful study.