Fruit of the Reformation: The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in Anglican Faith
The apostle Paul encouraged the young pastor, Titus, to “teach what accords with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1) This is still an important principle for the work in the Singapore church today. How can we do this? One way we can do this as Anglicans is by returning to the resources the early Anglican reformers provided us—our Anglican formularies. They were first formed during the period of the Reformation of the Church in England, and are still an important resource to regulate and guide the doctrine of the Anglican Church in Singapore.
“Formulary” is not a commonly used word today. It originates from the Latin formularius libre, which means “a book of formulae”. In the context of church, this would mean a book which contains set forms and rules that the church believes, teaches and confesses, the liturgy prescribed for worship, and the way it orders its ministry. In our Anglican context, these formularies are spelled out in Section A of the Canons of the Province of South East Asia, which states:
The doctrine of the Church in the Province is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal. (emphasis mine)
Of these three, the Thirty-nine Articles are probably the least read and understood today, even though they play an important role in how we guard our doctrine and belief. This essay hopes to answer three questions regarding the Articles: 1) How did they become part of our Anglican formularies? 2) What were their purpose and structure? And 3) are they still relevant for us today?
A Brief History of the Articles
To understand how the Articles became part of our Anglican formularies, we must understand the history of the Protestant movement in the Church of England. The term “Anglican” is derived from the Latin Ecclesia Anglicana, meaning the Church in the locale of England. The roots of Anglicanism are found in the Church that emerged from the English Reformation of the 16th century.
Contrary to popular opinion, the English Reformation was not the sole product of Henry VIII’s desire for a change of his marital status. While the king had a role, its roots go much deeper. Its origin can be found 200 years earlier, when faithful men such as Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton and John Wycliffe helped birth a renewed devotion to Scripture in England. This, along with the humanism espoused by Erasmus of the early 16th century and nurtured by William Tyndale, prepared the way for the Reformation in England.
The spark that ignited the Reformation was lit on 31st October 1517 by Martin Luther’s 95 theses. Whether he actually nailed them to the Wittenberg church door is unclear (current scholarship indicates that this is probably folklore and it may not have been as dramatic as that). But what is evident is how his theses caused the movement of Church reformation and renewal to spread like wildfire throughout Europe. The ideas the Reformation espoused – the appeal to the authority of Scripture, and in particular to the doctrine of justification by faith not take very long to make their way across the English Channel to the British Isles. The Reformation which took place in England, however, was different from that of the Continent.
King Henry VIII actually detested Martin Luther. The king had written an apology against Luther’s book, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, which earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from the Pope. The resulting reply from Luther to Henry was ill-tempered and disrespectful, with the reformer calling him among other things, a “raging madman,” “lying baboon,” a “wanton buffoon,” and as having a “blasphemous and malignant mouth.” The king never forgave, and certainly never forgot, Luther for this insult.
Even though his desire for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon led him to sever the Church of England from the authority of the Pope through the Act of Supremacy in 1534, thus establishing himself as the head of the Church of England. To be clear, he did not do so with any intention to reform the church. He was actually still quite Catholic in sensibility and theology. The real architect of the English Reformation was Thomas Cranmer.
Cranmer was a theologian and clergyman who had been deeply influenced by Erasmus, and consequently believed that theology must be based on the plain sense of Scripture rather than on the Church’s own authority. As a professor at Cambridge who had expertise in Canon law, he was chosen and sent by Henry VIII to Germany to make a case for the king’s “divorce” and to try to win the support of Emperor Charles V, who was actually the nephew of Catherine (which made this a lost cause). In Germany, Cranmer learnt first-hand the teachings of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers. He became convinced about the unconditional love of God made known in the justification by faith in Christ that saves sinners, and sealed his conviction as a Protestant.
In 1533, Cranmer was recalled by Henry to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury. This paved the way for him to become the theological progenitor of the English Reformation. However, the actual theological changes took place only after Henry died and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, in 1547. Cranmer had been appointed, along with other fellow reformers, to guide the boy king (he was only nine when he ascended the throne) and it was in this period that the Reformation of the church flourished. A Protestant Book of Common Prayer was released in 1549, which was later revised to become even more reformed in 1552. The Ordinal of 1550 grounded the roles of the deacons, priests and bishops in New Testament practice, and Cranmer, with the help of Bishop Nicholas Ridley, drew up a concise official statement of doctrine in the form of the 42 Articles of Religion in 1553.
When Edward passed away prematurely that same year, Cranmer tried to secure the Reformation by supporting Lady Jane Grey, a distant relative to Edward. This ultimately failed nine days later when Mary, Henry’s oldest daughter with Catherine, rose to the throne. She wrenched the church back to Roman Catholicism and earning the moniker “Bloody Mary” because of her actions in purging the English Church of all Protestant reforms. Many of the Reformers left the island, and some, including Cranmer, lost their lives during this dark period. But the fire that was lit eventually took hold when Mary was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I. Upon ascending the throne, she returned the church to its Protestant roots. One of the key changes she brought about was restoring the formularies which Cranmer developed. In particular, she had the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, revise the articles to the current 39. The purpose was to help forge a middle way (via media), as part of the settlement to bring peace to a land which was torn by religious violence.
The true via media of Anglicanism lies in its ability to forge a middle way between what are essential to the faith, and the things that are of secondary importance. This is why Anglicanism is able within the framework of Scripture to provide such a broad umbrella to the different expressions of Christianity under its structure.
While older Anglican scholarship saw Elizabeth’s way as finding a path between Rome (the Catholic) and Geneva (the Reformed), current scholarly consensus sees the Elizabethan amendments of the Articles from 42 to 39 as also bringing a more comprehensive Protestantism for the Church of England. In essence, it also provided a via media between Geneva and Wittenberg. As such, the Articles are unmistakably a product of the Reformation, and reflect the Protestant doctrinal roots of Anglicanism. However, Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan points out that,
There was nothing particularly 'middle' of the English Reformers' theological positions... Their moderation consisted rather in a determined policy of separating the essentials of faith and order from adiaphora... Anglican moderation is the policy of reserving strong statement and conviction for the few things which really deserve them. Yet that does not mean that it is incapable of conveying certainties. (On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity, 2011. p 8)
For this reason, the true via media of Anglicanism lies in its ability to forge a middle way between what are essential to the faith, and the things that are of secondary importance. This is why Anglicanism is able within the framework of Scripture to provide such a broad umbrella to the different expressions of Christianity under its structure.
The Purpose and Structure of the Articles
Considering the fact that one of the rallying cries of the Reformation was Sola scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”), which was shorthand for the conviction that the Bible was to be the sole and sufficient authority for the doctrine and practice of the Church, the question one may ask is why it was necessary to create the Articles as formulary for the Anglican church. Are not the authority of Scripture and the appeal to the three historic creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) enough to guide the doctrine of Church? Why is there a need to come up with a confession in the form of the Articles?
To understand its genesis, we need to examine what was happening in the broader Protestant movement in Europe. Luther in his quest to reform the church wrote, with the help of Philip Mélanchthon, the Augsburg Confession to clarify what the Lutherans believed. They were meant to defend their position as reformers against the charges levelled against them by the German Catholics. The other continental reformers also came up with various confessions for their own churches so as to help them teach doctrine and to defend themselves against attacks by those who opposed the theological changes that were sweeping through the churches of Europe.
In this light, Cranmer likewise modelled the original Articles of Religion on the Augsburg Confession, as a way to shepherd the Church well. The purpose of the articles was to help the Church teach the Faith with clarity, especially on controversial matters. There was no question that the Articles were Scripturally-based, but their distinctiveness against the other reformed confessions were “conscientiously minimalistic” (especially in their final form) in what they dealt with.
The Articles were conceived as a way to safeguard the truth of the gospel which had been rediscovered in the Reformation. J.I. Packer and Roger Beckwith point out that “the articles were intended to ensure that the gospel of justification by faith and Salvation by grace, so long lost before the reformation, should not be lost to the church again.” (The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today, 2007, 68.) To this end, it would be fair to say that it largely mirrored many of the Reformed confessions of the period. However, as Oliver O’Donovan pointed out, "the genius of the Church of England [wasn't] to grow its own theological nourishment, but only to prepare what was provided from elsewhere and to set it decently upon the table." (On the Thirty-Nine Articles, 6.) The result is that there is a great breadth of Christian expression under Anglicanism. It is a place where Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Charismatics unite in the worship of the one God, yet with many different forms and expressions, all while holding fast to a common faith and commitment to the gospel.
Considering the current divisions of the Anglican communion, and the ways in which the wider Church now finds herself in competition in the marketplace of ideas, not only against the philosophies and worldviews of other faith traditions, but also against secularism and opinions of today, we need more than ever to be prepared “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
The Articles of Religion were composed alongside the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal and this was intentional on Cranmer’s part. Together they helped the Church of England to define its own Faith and Order in continuity with the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, while at the same time establishing that it was institutionally and jurisdictionally separate from the Church of Rome.
The limitations of this essay prevent a fuller treatment of the articles themselves. However, an overview of the structure can be helpful to understand how they were intended to serve the Church. There are different traditions of interpretation of the articles and an account of them can be found in the booklet by Packer and Beckwith. And while there are some differences in how the various sections are categorized, they can essentially be roughly divided into two parts:
The first is from Articles 1-18 and they center around the Faith that we have received, firstly from the Early Church (1-5) and secondly from Holy Scripture, which provides the lens through which we can have a correct understanding of doctrine (6-8). The third part of this section deals with Faith expressed through the Reformation teaching on Justification (9-18), drawing from Augustine of Hippo and also his interpreter, Martin Luther.
The second half then explicates what it means to be one united people of God in the Nation (Articles 19-39). The earlier part of this section looks at the Church, and its practices and sacrements, while the later part deals with the particularities of the Church’s relationship with the civil authorities of the day. These last few articles have especially given rise to objections regarding the relevance of the Articles for today. This is because much of the material in these later articles are incomprehensible to those who are not living in context from when the articles were first composed.
This naturally leads us to ask how this confession which was written in 16th century England, could have any relevance and use for us as Anglicans who live in South East Asia today.
Their Relevance today
Packer and Beckwith point out that "Creedal and confessional statements emerge[d] at times of crisis in church life, when it seems that, unless the apostolic faith is clarified afresh, error will simply overwhelm it." (On the Thirty-Nine Articles, 64.) Considering the current divisions of the Anglican communion, and the ways in which the wider Church now finds herself in competition in the marketplace of ideas, not only against the philosophies and worldviews of other faith traditions, but also against secularism and opinions of today, we need more than ever to be prepared “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
It is true that some of the articles answer questions we do not ask today; for example, article 33 deals with excommunicated persons, a practice that is no longer practiced; and article 37 defends the monarch’s power to rule the realm against the claims of the pope, something which is quite irrelevant for us today. Yet the majority of the articles deal with issues that are still alive five centuries later. It has been suggested that pressure to sideline these articles, by churches in the West such as the US and Canada, are the result of “chronolatry”, which is the worship of the present (Peter Toon). This is the belief that new ideas and knowledge are always superior to what is “older”. The revisionist pressures we face in the Communion are complex, yet if we distill many of the issues, we can see that many progressive agendas are rooted in this conviction. They believe that the minds and opinions of people who live today are better and more informed. As such, the teachings and confessions of yesterday are less valuable, and should be disregarded as obsolete for the times. Swept up in this revisionism is the appeal to Scripture as authority. They cannot see how something that was written thousands of years ago, could be relevant and useful for this day and age.
We are facing a crisis in our times that compels us to cling to our creedal and confessional statements, so that we will not lose our moorings in the sea of change that threatens to toss us about with “every wind of doctrine.” (Eph 4:14)
One of the ways that we can combat this “spirit of the age” is by following the Reformation’s impulse to return to the sources (ad fontes). This means re-examining the wisdom of those who went before us, and to appropriately value the resources given to us in the past which are rooted in the unchanging, eternal Word of God. It is the contention of this essay that the Thirty-nine Articles is one such resource. The Articles show that the roots of Anglicanism were nurtured in the soil of the Reformation. And as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of that important event, it is clear that in our day we still need to return to the Reformation principles of the authority of Scripture, a respect for the “faith once for all delivered to the saints,” and the primacy of the Gospel which promises the unconditional love of God which justifies sinners through faith. We are facing a crisis in our times that compels us to cling to our creedal and confessional statements, so that we will not lose our moorings in the sea of change that threatens to toss us about with “every wind of doctrine.” (Eph 4:14)
There is no doubt that a 16th century document cannot possibly deal with all the issues and problems we face today. However, if the Anglican churches today want to maintain their position as “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) then the ongoing study and appropriation of the 39 Articles of Religion can help us to regulate and “teach what accords with sound doctrine”!
The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today, J.I. Packer and R.T. Beckwith, Latimer Trust, London, 2006
On the Thirty-Nine Articles: A Conversation with Tudor Christianity, Oliver O'Donovan, SCM Press, London, 2011.
The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Gerald L. Bray, Latimer Trust, London, 2009.
Reformation Anglicanism: A Vision for Today's Global Communion. Ashley Null and John W. Yates, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2017.
A Faith for Today: A Commentary on the 39 Articles by Donald Allister
J.C. Ryle on the 39 Articles
The Doctrine of Salvation in the 39 Articles by David Phillips