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 Issues | Thirty-Nine Articles | History

Articles of the Continental Reformation


Issues at the Reformation

Theologically the Protestant Reformation sprang out of two issues, authority and salvation.


Protestants and Catholics agreed in accepting the authority of the Bible as the word of God. But Catholics believed they had an additional deposit of faith and that the Church had authority equal to that of Scripture so long as it did not contradict Scripture.


Protestants and Catholics agreed that we are saved by faith in Christ. But Catholics also believed it was necessary to supplement this initial faith by the merit of good works and by drawing on the treasury of good merit won by the saints and held in trust by the Church.


Protestants thus asserted the two great sola (a Latin term meaning alone)

Sola Scriptura - the authority of Sc ritpure alone, and
Sola Fide - salvation by grace through faith (fide) alone.


Not surprisingly these issues surface in the Thirty Nine Articles.


Despite the theological issues the Reformation, was really facilitated by political and social changes in Europe and also the intellectual climate.   There had been those who had tried to reform the Catholic Church before and who held to what would later be considered Protestant principles.   But it was it was in part the political issues that created the climate where reform could really taken place without the reformers being persecuted and executed.


As a consequence of the freedoms many who split from Rome were more extreme than others and the differences amongst Protestants can be seen in the Thirty-Nine Articles.


But the Articles are not simply a list of differences, they are genuinely an attempt to cover most of the ground of theology, and therefore there are many articles which state faith that would have been shared with radical reformers and Catholics alike.


Protestant Articles.


The Thirty-Nine Articles are not unique. Indeed they derive much of their content from other similar confessions of faith.   There are four families of confessions which were produced around this time.

  • Various Lutheran Confessions.
  • Various Reformed Confessions.
  • The Roman Catholic Council of Trent.
  • The Anglican articles.


The Thirty-Nine Articles were modelled on some early Lutheran Confessions but tend to be adapted so as to reflect the concerns of the Reformed Confessions.   In addition, since the declarations of Trent would have been know to the compilers of the Articles they should be seen against that background too.


The Lutheran Articles


Greater and Lesser Catechism (1527-29)

The first work of Martin Luther in this direction was his Greater and Lesser Catechisms produced between 1527 and 1529. These were clearly an attempt to set out his stall and show where he differed from Rome. They were very popular but more was required.


Schwabach Articles (1529)

In 1529 under Elector John of Saxony a set of seventeen articles were produced in an attempt to forge a political alliance between the Germans and Swiss on the basis of common acceptance of the doctrine in the articles. They are known as the Schwabach Articles and similar articles were discussed at Marburg but were they failed to gain full approval.


Augsburg Confession (1530)

Philip Melancthon was invited to revise the Schwabach articles, which he did in consultation with Martin Luther. These were accepted by various German rulers at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 and were sent to Emperor Charles V in an attempt to provide a basis for discussion with the Roman Church.

There were 21 Articles on matters of doctrine and faith, and a further 7 on various abuses.


This Augsburg Confession is important for understanding the Thirty-Nine Articles.


Luther was also involved in the 1537 Articles of Schmalcald, which were produced to help dialogue with Rome. In the end Rome rejected them and separation was sealed.


The declarations of the Council of Trent then began to appear and as a consequence Philip Melancthon was involved in the 1551 Saxon Confession and Brentius in the 1552 Confession of Wurtenberg. This latter is also important for our Articles.


The Reformed Articles

In parallel with all this the various Reformed Churches of Switzerland were also beavering away.   Thomas Cranmer, the chief architect of the Thirty-Nine Articles knew many of the Swiss leaders personally and corresponded with them.   Nevertheless the Reformed Articles had less direct impact on the Thirty-Nine.


The main Reformed confessions were:

  • 1523 Zwingli produced his 67 Articles (this was before Luther).
  • 1532 the First Confession of Basle
  • 1536 the First Helvetic (Swiss) Confession
  • 1549 John Calvin produced the first edition of his Institutes of Christian Religion - a masterful attempt at a systematic theology.
  • 1566 the Second Helvetic Confession.

Later Reformed confessions of note are

  • The Irish Articles of 1615
  • The Synod of Dort in 1619
  • The Westminster Confession of 1647.



In response to Protestantism the Pope called the 5th Lateran Council from 1512-17. This did little but reject Protestantism.

Then followed the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563, this produced clear dogmatic theology refuting Protestantism and in many ways sparking the Counter Reformation. There was no further Council until Vatican I in 1869.


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