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The 39 Articles - The Backbone of Faith

The Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, Rev'd Jim Basinger

J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), Bishop of Liverpool in his book Knots Untied noted that “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Articles of Religion (henceforth, the Articles) to a 2nd class status in a section of the prayer book called, “Historical Documents,” which in effect is to bury them alive.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?’

In this short piece, I want to make a plea that not only should we become knowledgeable of the Articles, but more importantly, that we use them as essential tools in our understanding and teaching of the Christian faith. It is true that they are not a systematic theology, but they summarize what is at the heart of the Christian faith, and Anglicanism as well.

First, historically the Articles serve as the doctrinal backbone of the three ‘formularies’ designed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) to give the English Church a solid grounding in the three fundamental areas of its life – doctrine, devotion and discipline.i

Why was such a doctrinal framework needed? In the 16th century the Reformation divides set up statements which indicated where one group stood in relation to others on some areas of Christian doctrine.

It was an era when catechisms and confessions of faith abounded. 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 many, many others such as the Confession of the Waldensians of Provence (1543) and Concensus Tigurinnus of 1549.

The Articles, according to Martin Davie, 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 that religion ‘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.ii.’

The Articles and model sermons commended by them, called the Homilies, 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.”iii

The Articles and the model sermons known as the Homilies were intended to set out in broad terms what the faith and practice of the Church of England should be as the basis for teaching, catechesis, and discipline. 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 shows, 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 an understanding of the Articles would help both lay and clergy in their understanding of the Christian faith occurs when one section of the Bible is played off against another. How many times have we heard that Jesus preached love, and Paul messed it all up with words of condemnation and wrath?

Do the Articles suggest some help? Yes they do. Article 20, knowing this kind of thing happened in the 16th century 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.”

Or some may believe that we humans initiate our own salvation – we have ‘free will.’ That is, what makes us believers is our efforts and our decisions to follow Christ. But, Article 10 says we have no such freedom. It 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 initiated by a sovereign and gracious God as stated in Ephesians 2.1-10.

The Articles, if read and learned, would enable 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)

The Articles, if read and learned, would enable 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)

  1. The Faith We Confess – Gerald Bray the Latimer Trust p 1
  2. The Faith We Confess – Gerald Bray the Latimer Trust p 1
  3. Davie