An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles
The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion were first composed (as Forty-two Articles) in 1553, and after two revisions reached their final form in 1571. They are the chief expression of Anglican doctrine, though not all Anglican churches grant them formal recognition and some, like the American Episcopal Church, have adopted them in a slightly modified form.
An Outline of the Articles
The Articles can be analyzed into three distinct sections, with an appendix. First come eight Catholic Articles, so called because they rehearse the historic faith that was received at the time of the Reformation and is shared in principle with all orthodox Christian churches. These Articles cover Trinitarian theology, Christology, the Scriptures and the Creeds inherited from ancient times.
After them comes the main body of the text (Articles 9-33) which set out the Church of England’s position with respect to the great controversies of the sixteenth century. These Protestant, or Reformed, Articles may be subdivided into those that expound the way of salvation (9-18), the doctrine of the Church (19-22), the nature of the ministry (23-24) and the sacraments (25-33). Article 34 is an introduction to the next section (35-37), which consists of local provisions applicable to the Church of England alone.
Finally, there are two miscellaneous Articles appended at the end, one defending the right of Christians to hold private property and the other permitting oath-taking for legal purposes.
Distanced from Rome
Within the first section, two things stand out. First, there is the affirmation of Trinitarianism, which lies at the heart of Christian theology and was developed in the early centuries of the Church. Anglicans subscribe wholeheartedly to this belief and count themselves among orthodox believers of every age.
Taken together, Articles 6 and 7 distance the Anglican church from Rome and place it firmly in the Reformed tradition. Click To Tweet Secondly, there is a clear statement about the canon of Holy Scripture and its authority for the establishment of doctrine. The list of canonical books in Article 6 is one of the earliest to appear in a Protestant document, and it follows the shorter canon approved by Jerome (337-420) as opposed to the longer one adopted by the Roman Catholic Church a few years earlier. It also says that anything not contained in those books cannot be imposed on the Church as a requirement of faith, which is the Anglican way of affirming the Protestant commitment to the principle of sola Scriptura – Scripture alone.
Article 7 complements this by affirming the continuing authority of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, which must be interpreted in the light of Christ. Taken together, Articles 6 and 7 distance the Anglican church from Rome and place it firmly in the Reformed tradition.
An Augustinian Document
The second section is the most extensive and its contents are the main reason why the Articles were composed. Their theology is clearly dependent on the teaching of Augustine (354-430) as this was understood by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his followers. The first principle is that original sin has resulted in a bondage of the will that cannot be overcome by human effort. The only way a person can be justified before God the Father is by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, his sinless Son, who paid the price for our salvation. Good works have a recognized place in the life of the believer, but are of no value in trying to earn salvation, which is a gift of God given to those whom he has chosen for reasons known only to him.
This is the great mystery of predestination. Article 17, the longest of them all, affirms that this is a great comfort to believers while at the same time it warns us that it can be misunderstood and become a message of despair to others. It must therefore be handled with caution, staying close to the Biblical revelation and presenting it with the same balance and discretion that we find in the Word of God.
The Four Articles on the Church
The four Articles on the Church affirm that a true church is one in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. Click To Tweet The four Articles on the Church affirm that a true church is one in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. The Church has the authority to authorize rites and ceremonies and to determine controversies, but only within the bounds established by Scripture. Once again, we see how the Articles express and reinforce the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Most importantly, the Articles confess that particular churches may make mistakes and have actually done so in the past, even in Church councils. No decision made by a council of the Church is valid unless it can be demonstrated to be in conformity with the teaching of the Bible.
Superstitious practices, which had crept in over time, are repudiated, and it is specifically stated that worship must be conducted in a language understood by the people so that they can participate intelligently in it. Only two sacraments of the gospel are recognized – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As for the other so-called “sacraments” (confirmation, penance, ordination, matrimony and extreme unction), some are accepted as ordinances that the Church can continue (ordination and matrimony), while others are rejected as corrupt misinterpretations of apostolic practice (penance and extreme unction).
Baptism is treated as a sign of the promise of salvation, though it must be rightly received if it is to take effect. Infant baptism is accepted on the ground that it is consonant with the teaching of Christ, but nothing more is said about it. The treatment of the Lord’s Supper, which exercised the minds of the English Reformers more than anything else, is much more detailed. The Roman doctrine of transubstantiation is explicitly rejected and Article 31 insists that the atoning sacrifice of Christ occurred only once – on the cross. The Supper is in no sense a re-presentation of that sacrifice and participation in Christ’s atoning work which is only possible for those who have faith in him. Article 29 diverges from what would become Lutheran teaching, in that it states (along with the Reformed churches), that unbelievers who take the Supper do not feed on Christ, but condemn themselves because they have not understood what the Supper is.
To a remarkable extent therefore, the Thirty-Nine Articles remain foundational for the Reformed tradition in the English-speaking world, even beyond the confines of the Anglican Communion. Click To Tweet Article 34 allows for different traditions in different churches, but insists that whatever is done must be in accordance with God’s Word. The Church of England has adopted a series of Homilies (sermons) that explain its doctrine and practices in detail, and they must be consulted in cases of doubt or disagreement. Ministers are called and appointed according to a set order established by the Church in accordance with Scriptural teaching, though it is noticeable that nothing is said about the need for episcopal ordination, which was not made compulsory until 1660, and then for political reasons.
Finally, the last two Articles are intended to counter the Anabaptists, who practiced primitive communism (like the Amish of today) and believed that oath-taking for legal purposes was ungodly. The Church of England recognized that sinners living in a sinful world needed safeguards against abuse and misrepresentation, and so they authorized private property and the taking of solemn oaths as protection against such things.
The Articles of Religion are not comprehensive and were probably not intended to be as definitive as they later became, but almost all English Protestants accepted them and continue to do so, even if they have sometimes elaborated them further or made cosmetic changes on secondary matters. To a remarkable extent therefore, the Thirty-Nine Articles remain foundational for the Reformed tradition in the English-speaking world, even beyond the confines of the Anglican Communion.