Now, first of all, what are the Thirty-nine Articles? This is a question which many will be ready to ask, and one to which it is absolutely necessary to return an answer. 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. I will briefly state what the Thirty-nine Articles are:
They were carefully packed up and summarized in the most accurate and precise language, of which every word was delicately weighed, and find a special meaning. Some of the Articles are positive, and declare directly what the Church of England regards as Bible;
Some few of them are simple statements of the Church’s judgment on points which were somewhat controverted, even among Protestants, 300 hundred years ago, and on which Churchmen might need an expression of opinion.
The object for which the Articles were drawn up is clearly stated in the title of them, which any one will find in a proper Prayer-book. They are called “Articles agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of both provinces, and the whole clergy, in the Convocation holden at London in the year 1562, for avoiding of diversities of opinion, and for the establishment of consent touching true religion.” About the real, plain, honest meaning of this title, I think there ought to be no doubt. It proves that the Thirty-nine Articles are intended to be “the Church of England’s Confession of faith.”
But taking them for all in all, as a Church’s statement of things to be believed, I think that no Church on earth has a better “Confession of faith” than the Church of England.
Ryle, J. C. (2011-06-16). Knots Untied (Kindle Locations 1168-1169). Heritage Bible Fellowship. Kindle Edition.
The classic examples of this are the definitions of faith and practice produced by the great ecumenical councils such as the Councils of Nicaea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD).
In the 16th century all sides of the Reformation divides drew up their own statements setting out their understanding of what the faith and practice of the Church should be like. Thus the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 not only contains articles on issues of faith such as the doctrines of the Trinity, original sin and justification, but also matters of practice such as the marriage of priests, monastic vows and the power of bishops. Thus also the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, finally published in 1563, covered a similar range of issues from a Roman Catholic perspective.
Davie, Martin (2013-04-16). Our Inheritance of Faith: A Commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles (Kindle Locations 242-245). Gilead Books Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The Purpose of the Thirty nine Articles
Following the breach with Rome in the early 1530’ s the Church of England was faced with the need to declare where it stood in relation to the religious controversies of the time. In the words of Stephen Neill: ‘Amid the burning controversies that raged in the sixteenth century, it was necessary that a Church should know where it stood, and should make its position known both to friends and enemies.’ (4)
Calvin and Bucer and by the theologians of the radical Reformation both on the continent and at home. (5) Viewed in their historical context, the Thirty Nine Articles provide such a definition. As we shall see when we look at each of the Articles in turn, they set out where the Church of England stood in relation to the teaching of these various groups on a series of issues of faith and practice which were of pressing concern at the time when the Articles were produced.
In contrast , what the Reformers of the Church of England wanted was ‘consent touching true religion.’ If we ask what they meant by the term ‘true religion ’ the title of the earliest commentary on the Articles, the commentary by Thomas Rogers published in two parts in 1585 and 1587, provides us with the answer.
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. Finally, the proposed reform of Medieval canon law, the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, was designed to give the faith detailed legal application.
It is often said that the Articles were deliberately framed to be as comprehensive as possible. This is true; but it is important to be clear on the precise sense in which it is true. The Articles are not vague, or ambiguous, or intentionally imprecise. They are not the product of doctrinal indifferentism, not the fruit of theological compromise. Their comprehensiveness does not consist in any of these things. It consists simply in this : that the Articles are deliberately and consciously minimal in their requirements. They define only those fundamental matters on which, in the compilers’ view, agreement and assent are absolutely indispensable if the gospel as the Church of England understands it is to be preserved and the Church’s order maintained. And those fundamental matters are defined no further than the compilers judged necessary as a means to this end. Beyond these necessary limits, the compilers were content for the clergy, in John Wesley’s phrase, to ‘think and let think.’ (12)
This means that one can say that there is an element of Reformed theology in the Articles and that aspects of the theology of the Articles do parallel the teaching of John Calvin. However, alongside this Reformed element we also find the influence of the Lutheran theology of the Augsburg and Württemberg Confessions, the theology of St. Augustine and the teaching of the ecumenical creeds. As Packer says, the Articles are: …consciously eclectic. They set out the Trinitarian faith of the ecumenical creeds (1-5) as biblical and necessary to salvation (6-8), together with Augustine’s doctrine of sin (9-10); Lutheran teaching on justification, grace, and the church (11-21, 23, 34, 37), as given in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and Württemberg Confession of 1552 (used in the 1563 revision); and sacramental teaching of the Swiss sort, with at one point an anti-Lutheran edge (29). (21)
Articles I and II set out the basic theological beliefs of the Church of England, affirming faith in the Trinity, the Bible and the Catholic Creeds. Articles IV-VI discuss the issue of authority in the Church, rejecting the authority of private individuals or the Pope , and acknowledging instead the properly constituted ecclesiastical and secular authorities and the paramount authority of Queen Elizabeth I
Davie, Martin (2013-04-16). Our Inheritance of Faith: A Commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles (Kindle Locations 1005-1007). Gilead Books Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Davie, Martin (2013-04-16). Our Inheritance of Faith: A Commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles (Kindle Locations 988-989). Gilead Books Publishing. Kindle Edition. Locations 420-426). Gilead Books Publishing. Kindle Edition.