Icon (Close Menu)

Thirty-Nine Articles Revived

Review by Oliver O’Donovan

Nearly thirty years ago when I ventured to publish a small book discussing the Thirty-Nine Articles, having found the existing literature, as I was so brash as to say, “disagreeable,” it was considered a rather self-destructive thing to do. Slowly the Articles had become decentred from the life of the Church of England, which of all the Anglican churches was most likely to have a stake in them, and even clerical subscription could be done on terms that hardly required the subscriber to read them. It seemed to have become established that this document attracted no more than an occasional feisty pamphlet from the disenchanted fringes, beyond which it was left to the historians to get excited about.

Our Inheritance of Faith
A Commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles
By Martin Davie. Gilead Books.
Pp. 664. £19.95

Essential Truths for Christians
A Commentary on the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles and an Introduction to Systematic Theology
By John H. Rodgers, Jr.
Classical Anglican Press. Pp. 723.
$49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper

Now we see appearing, more or less simultaneously, two treatments of this key 16th-century doctrinal document by former theological educators who have held responsibility for articulating the faith within their churches. They are very different from each other in many respects, but both pretty long. One is of U.S. provenance; the author, the Rt. Rev. John H. Rodgers, is a retired bishop of the Anglican Mission in North America. The other is English and by Martin Davie, a layman who has served for the past decade as theological secretary to the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity and Faith and Order Commission.

In the new climate of contested Anglican identity the status of the Articles has evidently changed. Figuring importantly both in the Anglican Communion Covenant and the Jerusalem Declaration from GAFCON 2008, they have ceased to be a mildly divisive archaeological irritant and have become an element in the core legacy of Anglicanism that for many reasons it has become urgent to revisit. At the same time new developments in the scholarship of the English Reformation have made them seem rather less musty.

Besides their length these two books have in common that they understand the Articles as essentially a Protestant document, though always a moderate and comprehensive one. Otherwise they proceed very differently. Rodgers has conceived his book as a catechetical tool. The layout, full of sentences in bold type, underlinings, subheadings, and summaries, points to its use by a church study circle that aims to explore the essentials of the Christian faith through the lens of founding Anglican traditions.

Davie, on the other hand, aims at supplying all relevant information to those who need to weigh nicely the balance of those founding traditions. His use of bullet-points is for checklist purposes rather than for pedagogy. Historical information, of which Rodgers is sparing, is very much Davie’s strong suit, and there will be few, even among the learned, who will find nothing they did not know before. (Did you know, for example, that the Irish church adopted them, under the suasion of Strafford in 1636, only as a supplement to their more definitely Calvinist Articles of 1615, or that they were required of Scottish Episcopalians by the government of William III as a condition of toleration, and that the Scots then took 14 years making up their minds to accept them?)

Sometimes we might wonder quite who would have need for all the information Davie has gathered. Is there a bishop somewhere, perhaps, wondering whether to reprove a priest for saying that St. Matthew disagrees with St. Luke, who will be glad to be able to argue with the archdeacon about the rival merits of early editions that omit, and those that include, the opening sentence of Article 20? Yet it is mainly institutional history that concerns him. Wider historical questions about the place of the Articles in Anglican thought and life — their role, for example, in the controversies surrounding the Tracts for the Times — demand more exploration than he can offer.

It is typical of the contrast between the two books that Davie starts out with nearly a hundred pages of historical introduction, while Rodgers’s introduction, of less than ten pages, devotes only one of them to the history. Another distinguishing feature is Davie’s fondness for lengthy quotation from earlier commentaries, starting with Thomas Rogers of 1585/7 and going up to the present day, which gives his book the pleasantly eclectic feel of a sourcebook. For some readers this will add to its charm, while others will be drawn by the no-nonsense pedagogical style of Rodgers (John H., and with a “d”): no quotations apart from Scripture, no footnotes, going straight for what, in the author’s view, are the doctrinal matters of abiding importance.

It is the difference between an inventory of the trees and a rough sketch map of the wood. Is the sketch map too rough, perhaps, or the inventory too detailed? On one point at least I am inclined to think that Davie’s approach permits him to score. While both authors understand very well that the Articles were intended to be taken not on their own but together with the Book of Common Prayer, Rodgers, so far as I can see, has only one quotation from the BCP, while Davie is constantly reminding us of its formulations and expressions.

A moment at which the two approaches define themselves especially sharply occurs in the discussion of Article 37 (“Of Civil Magistrates”), which American Episcopalians replaced in 1801 with a moderate Calvinist statement of the separate authorities of church and state. Rodgers prints both, and in discussion treats them as essentially harmonious on the principles articulated in the American text. Though shy, again, of historical background (not even mentioning the U.S. context of the revision, so that one might form the impression that every church outside the British Commonwealth used the revised text), he makes a fair pitch for the good sense of the original in its context and seizes positively on its commitments to the legitimacy of the death penalty and military service.

Davie (having mentioned the alternative version in his introduction) discusses only the English text in its place, and, equally typically, offers us a full historical sweep across Christendom from Justinian to the 20th-century Lambeth Conference declarations on war. But he shows little inclination to address the anti-Erastian sensibilities that are likely to make this article a stumbling block in the eyes of some readers. So, if you already know where you stand on all that, and want to inform yourself about all that has been done and said, pick up Davie; if you want to understand what the core issues of Christian principle are, pick up Rodgers.

For a more detailed comparison it is worth glancing at their two treatments of Article 26, “On the Unworthiness of Ministers, which hindereth not the effect of the Sacraments.” Davie first prints the text in English and in Latin. His initial commentary, strong on the question of logical sequence, deals first with its relation to Article 25, and then recounts the background history of the discussion from the Augsburg Confession to 1571, accounting for the article as confronting an Anabaptist threat. We then get the text in English (again!) of the two paragraphs in turn, with commentary.

On the first paragraph he makes extensive use of 17th-century High Churchman William Beveridge, and on the second he turns to 20th-century evangelical Gerald Bray. A reference to the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure of 1963 and the Clergy Discipline Measure of 2003 (together with their web addresses, though one of these seems to have migrated since the manuscript was sent off) rounds off the discussion with some concrete evidence that the Church of England disciplines evil ministers, or talks about doing so.

Rodgers begins by setting out the text (in English only), and then plunges into general exposition, making rather a big thing of the flagrant immorality of the clergy. Two one-sentence “teaching points,” summarizing the text, are expounded in turn, each followed by three or four illustrative biblical texts and replies to “false teachings” or “objections.” A little history is introduced, but in this case not the 16th century, but — no less pertinent — the patristic debate involving Tertullian, Augustine, and the Novatianists (eccentrically designated “Novatians”).

The reader engaged in the church crises of our times may well feel frustrated that neither author makes the connection between this article and the serpents that are biting at our heels at present. What powers of inquisition into unfit clergy ought there to be, in whom should they be vested, and what principles of law should govern their use? Does homosexual practice count among the immoralities for which clergy should be deposed? Does the presumption of validity extend to ordinations performed in due order and good faith by a woman consecrated as bishop, even on the supposition that women cannot be bishops? Does the presumption of validity extend to the sacramental actions of minsters whose doctrine, rather than their life, deviates from the Anglican norm or from the norms of the ecumenical creeds?

We would not expect exhaustive explorations of these questions from a commentary on Article 26, but a nod towards their usefulness in framing approaches to such problems would surely have been in place. As for that all-important last question, which goes to the heart of our recent schisms in the cause of orthodoxy, I would guess from occasional hints that Davie might answer it positively, Rodgers negatively, but I cannot be sure. Archbishop Parker, I strongly suspect, intended a positive answer.

The unexpected change of word in the English title of the article, from Cranmer’s wickedness to unworthiness, suggests that the Elizabethans felt the need to justify their inclusion in the Anglican ministry those ordained in Roman Catholic ceremonies or suspected of such leanings. And we do not have to turn to vaguely defined Anabaptists (who tend to crop up whenever there is some doubt as to what the Articles are getting at) in order to see who is being addressed here. Across an unstable national border Parker beheld a young Church of Scotland supporting civil war against its Queen, denying the validity of Roman orders and sacraments, and coming close to condemning Anglican orders by implication.

How may we make a positive use of the Articles in our contemporary search for an Anglican identity at once ecumenical and local, true both to the gospel and to the gifts of our tradition? Two different ways are admirably displayed by these two contributions. There is a third: we may, and probably should, argue with the Articles — not dismissing them with the contempt of the past that comes all too easily to boastful ignorance, but taking them no less seriously as Christian witnesses than we would an ecumenical partner, seeking to learn from their strengths but also to supply their deficiencies. The Articles as we have received them are, in fact, strikingly deficient as a general statement of Christian belief on at least two points: one is creation, the other the relation of the visible to the invisible Church. If we have spent a great deal of the 20th century trying to make good the second of these, our major tasks in the 21st have so far circled around the first.

The Rev. Oliver O’Donovan is emeritus professor of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh and author of On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity, 2nd edn. (SCM Press, 2011).

The Origins of the Articles of Religion

By Benjamin Guyer

In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, confessional documents were published by all churches — Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, Reformed, and Roman Catholic. Each of these texts responded to the interrelated religious and political contexts of Europe. This is especially the case after the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which used the Augsburg Confession (or Augustana) to grant a limited religious toleration in the Holy Roman Empire.

Multiple versions of the Augustana existed, and the Peace of Augsburg did not specify which version was authoritative. The late 1550s and early 1560s therefore saw many confessional documents published, each of which was based on a different version of the Augustana. Among these was the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Its first version appeared in 1563, it was slightly revised in 1571, and reached its final form in 1662.

Although based on an older document known as the Forty-Two Articles, the Elizabethan Articles were a new confession. They reflected the Queen’s desire to be, in her words, iuxta formulam Confessionis Augustanae (near the Confession of Augsburg). The Elizabethan Articles thus responded to the new religious and political context of the Peace of Augsburg. Like the Augsburg Confession, the Articles of Religion begin with the doctrine of God and a series of basic creedal affirmations. Only later do they turn to contemporary theological controversies.

On hotly contested topics, the Articles sought to split the difference between warring theological parties. Other confessional documents of the period took a similar approach, albeit with varying results. On the Eucharist, the Articles rejected both Zwinglian and Roman Catholic doctrine. This bounded but did not strictly define the Anglican approach to the eucharistic mystery. On predestination, the Articles merely affirmed the doctrine. The Articles are therefore less predestinarian than medieval scholastics such as Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. But again, this approach was not unique to England; the Heidelberg Catechism, also composed in 1563, did not even discuss predestination.

It is sometimes claimed that the Articles of Religion are Calvinist. In truth, they were rejected by 16th-century Calvinists, who sought to make the Church of England like John Calvin’s reformed church in Geneva. These same English Calvinists also rejected episcopacy, the Book of Common Prayer, and other elements central to the Anglican tradition. In 1628, Charles I published a declaration defending the Articles of Religion as “agreeable to God’s Word.” Religious dissenters did not accept this; civil war ensued and the king was murdered in large part for his defense of Anglican orthodoxy. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, however, Charles I’s declaration was formally affixed to the Articles. It remains there still.

Benjamin Guyer is a doctoral student in British history at the University of Kansas.


Thirty-Nine Articles Revived


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Church Camp, Ministry Conferences, & VBS 100 Years Ago

July 1924 brought the Diocese of Georgia’s first summer camp, a vocations conference for 200 boys in New Hampshire, and 47,000 children in New York City’s vacation Bible schools.

Preaching the Transfiguration with Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Episode 128 • 18th July 2024 • The Living Church Podcast • The Living Church Ever run out of preaching...

CEEC Commissions Overseers, Not Bishops

Just as the Church of England has created blessings for same-sex couples that are not wedding rites, the Church of England Evangelical Council has created “spiritual overseers.”

Sean Rowe: ‘I See Significant Changes’

The Presiding Bishop-Elect brings a deep reservoir of Episcopal experience to his coming role.