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 Issues | Thirty-Nine Articles | History

History of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion

The Thirty Nine Articles are concise statements of fundamental truths of doctrine, and, to a lesser extent, statements of church practice.   It is sometimes said that they are a peculiarly protestant phenomenon, but this is a simplistic analysis.   They have a similar position to some of the statements of the great councils of the early Church.   The key statements of the early Councils were the Creeds and Canons.


It is possible to see in the Bible certain fundamental credal statements which may have been used, or came to be used as a basis statement of faith.

In Judaism the shema of Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 4 certainly came to be seen in that way:

Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.


Philippians chapter 2 and 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 16 may have been basic credal statements before Paul wrote them.   They certainly acquired that status afterwards.


In the decades that followed some of the early churches developed simple summaries of the essential truths of the Bible. These were used in part to teach new converts and therefore came to be associated with baptism, as simple statements of what the candidates believed.   The Apostle's Creed is still used as a baptismal affirmation.


Thus the creeds also became a test of what was the accepted teaching of the Church and what was not.


When in AD325 the Emperor Constantine called a gathering of the Bishops to settle various doctrinal disputes in the Church one of these creeds was submitted by Eusebius of Caesarea as a possible compromise position in the dispute.   The Council reworked the creed substantially and it was followed by later Councils to become what we know today as the Nicene Creed.


Several points should be recognised concerning the Nicene Creed:

  • It was carved out in the midst of controversy.
  • Those who propagated it believed in the absolute authority and trustworthiness of Scripture.   They believed the Creed to be faithful to the Word of God and a fair summary of key Biblical teaching.
  • The Creed teaches positive truths about God but it was also intended to deny certain errors.
  • It contains some terms which were not themselves Biblical but were adopted in order to give expression to important Biblical doctrines.
  • The Creed is not exhaustive.   In particular it says nothing about Scripture or the Atonement of the Sacraments, all of which became central issues at the Reformation.
  • It was produced in an attitude of humility.   For example, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote regarding the Doctrine of the Trinity : We speak of three persons of the Trinity not because the phrases are adequate but because they are only an alternative to silence.


These points should be borne in mind because they also apply to the Thirty Nine Articles which were produced much later but also in a time of controversy.



The early Councils of the Church did not only propagate Creeds.   They addressed many areas of concern but also produced Canons.


Canons are not statements of belief but rather concern the policy and practice of the Church.   One of the regular themes of the early Canons was jurisdiction, that is, which Bishop has a say in which areas.   They were also concerned with issues to do with Church orders including who could ordain and also with the relationship of the Church to the Emperor and other civil authorities.   Similar concerns are also addressed in the last few of the Thirty-Nine Articles.


Therefore, the Thirty-Nine Articles are similar in scope and purpose to the Creeds and Canons of the early Church.


The biggest difference was that the Articles were propagated in the dominions of the Crown of England.   The Creeds were propagated in the whole Roman Empire although there were Churches, such as the Coptic Church which rejected some parts of the Nicene Creed.   It was the desire of Thomas Cranmer, which eventually came to nothing, to work for a set of Articles with standing across all the Protestant nations.


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