Broadly speaking, the 39 Articles stands within the tradition of Anglicanism as “reformed catholicism,” or, more specifically, a reforming movement within the western catholic church. (This contrasts with more radical Reformation movements, such as the Anabaptists, and, arguably, the Puritans,who viewed themselves as completely breaking with western catholicism to return to the pristine Christianity of the New Testament.)
The Articles are largely an ecumenical document, the majority of whose statements fall broadly within the parameters of “reformed catholicism.”
Arts. 1-5, 8 affirm historic creedal Nicene and Chalcedonian Christianity.
Arts. 9-10,12-13,15-18 affirm the positions of a moderate Augustinianism. Even art. 17 does not teach a specifically Calvinist doctrine of predestination. There is nothing about negative predestination (reprobation or double predestination). The election that is described is corporate and “in Christ.” (“In Christ” was added to the original 42 Articles.) “Arminians” such as Richard Hooker were able to affirm this article, to the chagrin of strict Calvinists.1
Arts. 6, 7, 11 affirm the sufficiency and primacy of Scripture as well as justification by faith, which are commonly held Reformation positions, although even here, an argument could be made that the position on Scripture is consistent with that of the patristic church, of Eastern theologians such as John Damascene, and Western theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. Anglican theologians such as Cranmer, Jewel, and Hooker make clear that (contrary to the Puritan hermeneutic), Anglicans do not understand the “Scripture principle” in a “regulative” sense.
The “controversial” articles are those articles, especially beginning with Art. 19, “Of the Church,” in which the position of the Church of England is set over against that of other contemporary Reformation-era churches, usually the Tridentine Roman Catholic position, but sometimes that of other Reformation churches, usually those of the Radical Reformation. (Arts. 38-39 are addressed against Anabaptists).
Which of the articles have been “controversial” in the history of Anglicanism and today? Art. 22, repudiating purgatory and icons; Art. 25, concerning the number of sacraments, and seemingly forbidding elevation of the consecrated host; Art. 28-29, which seem to reject any notion of bodily presence (not simply transubstantiation, but also the Orthodox or Lutheran positions) and elevation of the host; Art. 31, which appears to reject any notion of eucharistic sacrifice. Generally, Evangelical Anglicans have tended to be happy with these articles, and Anglo-Catholics unhappy. Conversely, Art. 27 seems on a literal reading to affirm baptismal regeneration, a position not embraced by a good many Evangelical Anglicans.2
I suggest that the Articles themselves provide hermeneutical principles to address such issues: Art. 6 states that what is not “read” in Scripture, nor “proved” by Scripture “is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” The key phrases are “proved,” “required,” “necessary to salvation.” Article 7 gives some guidance on hermeneutical principles in reading Scripture. Art. 8 and 21 make clear that Anglicans accept the dogmas of the ecumenical councils not because such councils have intrinsic authority as councils, but because they are consistent with the teaching of Scripture. Since the sometimes political battles of the nineteenth century (including imprisoning ritualist clergy), Anglicans seem to have adopted a position of tolerance in regard to dissenters on the “controverted” Articles. What may not be demanded by the church (as in Tridentine Catholicism) might nonetheless be allowed as a matter of private opinion, e.g., belief in some kind of doctrine of purgatory. (Certainly we would not want to say that Anglicans such as C.S. Lewis, who believed in purgatory, are outside the bounds of the permissible?3) Liturgical practices that are explicitly prohibited by the Articles (such as elevating the host or the use of icons) are widely practiced in numerous Anglican parishes. (There are icons in my own parish, and in the offices of many of the faculty at TSM, an “evangelical” Anglican seminary.) Article 28 specifies that “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved . . . ,” yet the Good Friday Service of the 1979 BCP specifies: “In places where Holy Communion is to be administered from the reserved Sacrament, the following order is observed,”4 and many Anglicans use the reserved sacrament not only in Good Friday services, but also for “Deacon’s Masses,” and for taking the sacraments to “shut ins” and the sick, following the practice of the early church.
Ecumenical discussion and historical investigation have helped to shed light on some of the controverted questions, bringing Evangelicals and Catholics to better mutual understanding, if not necessarily agreement. For example, the primary concern of Art. 31 is to affirm the sufficiency and satisfaction of Christ’s atoning death, and to repudiate any notion of eucharistic sacrifice that would imply that Christ was being re-sacrificed. Modern ecumenical discussion has made clear that the patristic notion of eucharistic sacrifice (and arguably even the Medieval doctrine) was not that of a re-sacrifice but that of a re-appropriation or re-presentation of the once for all sacrifice of Christ. Accordingly, whatever Art. 31 is rejecting, it should not be understood to reject either the patristic or the more theologically sophisticated understanding of eucharistic sacrifice embraced by contemporary Roman Catholics or Orthodox or indeed by Anglo-Catholics, and even by some non-Anglican Protestants. Discussions concerning the meaning of anamnesis, and ecumenical discussions between not only Anglicans and Roman Catholics, but also those between other Christian bodies has led to a kind of common ecumenical understanding that, if not completely resolving disagreements, has made them less problematic. Roman Catholics have affirmed that the affirmation of “transubstantiation” does not require a particular theological theory concerning eucharistic presence. Accordingly, ARCIC was able to claim that Roman Catholics and Anglicans had reached a common understanding about the eucharist.5
On the doctrine of eucharistic presence, all non-Roman Catholic churches (including the Orthodox) repudiate the Tridentine position on transubstantiation, that the elements are transformed in such a manner that the bread and wine lose their natural identity as bread and wine. The Anglican Reformers’ notion of a “spiritual” presence (“only after an heavenly and spiritual manner”) is notoriously difficult to interpret. Does “spiritual” mean immaterial as opposed to physical? Virtualism or receptionism (as presumably in Cranmer)? A presence “through the Spirit” (as in the East and in Calvin)? One would hope that Art. 28 would not exclude Anglicans from affirming that Christ is present in the elements in a manner similar to Lutheran or Orthodox belief.
Here I think that Richard Hooker’s discussion is helpful. (1) The permanent humanity of Christ and union with the risen Christ is central to eucharistic theology; (2) “Participation” or union with Christ means we genuinely share in Christ’s resurrection life, and through the Holy Spirit, the church is united to Christ as its head so as to become the body of Christ; (3) “that what merit, force or virtue soever there is in his sacrificed body and blood, we freely fully and wholly have it by this sacrament”; (4) that the effect of the sacrament “is a real transmutation of our souls and bodies from sin to righteousness, from death and corruption to immortality and life”; (5) that since bread and wine in themselves are an incapable instrument to bring about these effects, we are to trust to the strength of Christ’s “glorious power who is able and will bring to pass that the bread and cup which he giveth us shall be truly the thing he promiseth.” Anglicans have not endorsed or demanded any particular theory about how this takes place. (Laws 5.67,7).
Hooker’s discussion does not address every one of the controverted articles, but it provides an example of the approach to be taken. Each issue of disagreement needs to be addressed separately. The theological concerns are more important than particular positions that attempt to address such concerns. For example, the broadly Augustinian position endorsed by the Articles affirms the priority and necessity of grace, the reality of original sin and the unregenerate will in bondage to sin, the genuine transforming effect of grace, etc. It does not demand endorsement of particular theological theories about grace, as, for example, the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination. Distinctions need to be made between substantive issues of disagreement, and personal theological theories. For example, there is substantive disagreement between Zwinglians and non-Zwinglians about whether or not Christ is “truly present” in the Eucharist. To affirm as the Articles do that the sacraments are “effectual signs of grace,” that baptism is an “instrument” of engrafting into the church, that the eucharist is a “partaking” of the body and blood of Christ, makes clear that Anglicans repudiate Zwinglianism. On the other hand, any understanding of real presence (such as Tridentine transubstantiation) that denies that the consecrated elements retain their identity as bread and wine is also problematic. But it would seem that different theories of how Christ is present and how the sacraments are “instruments” of salvation should be permissible.
In summary, the Articles affirm a position of “reformed” or “evangelical catholicism.” They presume that the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the final authority for the church, and “sufficient” for salvation. They affirm the essential clarity and non-repugnancy of Scripture. At the same time, they affirm an understanding of ecclesiology that presumes that the historic catholic church (especially the patristic church) is largely in continuity with the Scriptures. They affirm the Creeds as necessary implications of – not additions to – the teaching of Scripture: “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” (Art. 8), and the ecumenical councils as faithful interpreters of Scripture. The Articles affirm a broadly Augustinian doctrine of grace, and an understanding of the sacraments as effectual “instruments” of salvation. At the same time, in areas where the late Medieval Western church endorsed positions that were incompatible with either the teaching of Scripture or the positions of the patristic church, the Articles embrace standard Reformation positions (justification by faith, affirmation of the sufficient sacrifice of Christ, denial of transubstantiation, rejection of purgatory). Insofar as even councils can err, they are subject to correction. (However, this would imply that, since even councils can err, even doctrinal statements such as the 39 Articles can err, and are subject to correction.)
At the same time, it needs to be noted that the 39 Articles are not perfect expressions of Evangelical or Catholic faith. For example, they largely follow the late Medieval and Reformation tendency to present a gospel of sin and salvation, omitting any discussion of creation, or any extended discussion of God’s covenant with Israel. These omissions are largely corrected by later Anglicans, e.g., the rediscovery of the significance of creation by Richard Hooker and the Caroline Divines, a greater appreciation for the Old Testament in preachers such as John Donne, an embracing of the tools of modern literary and historical criticism by nineteenth-century Anglican biblical scholars such as B.F. Westcott, F.J.A. Hort, and J.B. Lightfoot, by Charles Gore and the Lux Mundi group, in the twentieth century by Sir Edwin Hoskyns or Austin Farrer or by contemporary Anglican biblical scholars such as Anthony Thiselton or N.T. Wright. Modern ecumenical theological discussion has led to a rediscovery of the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity, along with a theology of salvation that is rooted in the economic Trinity; accordingly, the doctrines of creation, of God’s covenant with Israel, of the mission of the Holy Spirit in ecclesiology, and of eschatology have greater significance today than they did in the theology either of the Reformers or of the Tridentine Roman Catholic Church against which the Reformers protested.
Finally, the 39 Articles is a confessional statement of a particular local church. It is not equivalent to an ecumenical council. The status of the 39 Articles would be something like that of a General Synod. Moreover, while they are historically significant for Anglican identity, Anglicans need to acknowledge that other churches have their own defining documents, e.g., the Lutheran Book of Concord, and there is often broad agreement between these documents and the 39 Articles. As noted above, most of the material in the Articles is ecumenical or Reformational. Problems with individual articles connected with the controversial Articles have largely been settled by Anglicans by allowing for individual variation. We do seem to have learned something from the ritualist controversy. We no longer imprison people for putting candles on altars. People like C.S. Lewis were not held in suspicion for believing in purgatory. I would hope that orthodox Anglicans would continue in this tradition. I would be surprised and disappointed if church trials begin to be held for Anglo-Catholic priests who elevate the host or if congregations were suddenly forbidden to distribute the reserved sacrament at Good Friday services. I cannot imagine that Evangelicals would relish a repetition of the Gorham controversy. As I see a realignment of orthodox Anglicans in response to the theological aberrations of the last decade or so in not only the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada, but also more and more, in the Church of England, and other westernized churches in the Anglican Communion, one of my fears is that the confessional battles of the nineteenth-century between Evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-catholics would be repeated. Historically, the 39 Articles has been an important source of confessional identity for Anglicans. It would be most unfortunate if it became a source of confessional division, either between Evangelical and Anglo-catholic Anglicans, or as a tool of anti-ecumenical retrenchment.
1 See especially Peter White, Predestination, Policy and Polemic: Conflict and Consensus in the English Church From the Reformation to the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
2 J.C. Ryle’s Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion from the Standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman (London: William Hunt & Co., 1885) would be an example of a nineteenth century Evangelical reading of the 39 Articles and the baptismal service denying baptismal regeneration. Charles Simeon, another prominent nineteenth century Anglican acknowledged: “In the baptismal Service we thank God for having regenerated the baptized infant by his Holy Spirit. Now from hence it appears that in the opinion of our Reformers regeneration and remission of sins did accompany baptism.” The Excellency of the Liturgy (NY: Eastburn, Kirk, 1813), Sermon 2, 63.
3 “I believe in Purgatory.” C.S. Lewis. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), 108.
4 The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the use of The Episcopal Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 282.
5 “Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine 1971,” Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/ecumenical/dialogues/catholic/arcic/docs/eucharistic_doctrine1971.cfm.