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 Issues | 39 Articles | Wace

The Main Purpose and Character of the Thirty-Nine Articles

By the Rev Prebendary Wace D.D.

(Ladies League Booklet No 18)

In order to appreciate the purpose and character of The Thirty-nine Articles, it should in the first place be remembered that the Articles belong to an age of similar productions. From the commencement of the reforming movement by Luther to the close of the sixteenth century, a succession of statements was put forth by the various Communions engaged in the struggle, declaring the position they held on the great questions in dispute. There is one mediaeval custom in respect to which more continuity with those times might with advantage be cultivated. The systematic habit of disputation had accustomed men to state in plain propositions the views they maintained, and their opponents were expected to do the same. Luther began with a series of very definite theses or propositions, which lie offered to maintain against all comers, and he was answered by the advocates of the existing system in similar propositions. Accordingly, when the reforming party were brought face to face with the existing authorities in the Diet of Augsburg, they were expected to state, in a series of plain propositions, what were the points for which they were contending; and they therefore presented a Confession, stating a number of Articles, or particulars, of their belief. They thought it wise to declare, in the first place, their acceptance of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith; and then they proceeded to state the Articles or points on which they desired the reformation of doctrine or practice. These latter points naturally formed the most characteristic parts of the Confession, and marked out the distinctive principles which its authors asserted.

From that time forward the great struggle between the Papacy and the Reformation, between Romanism and Protestantism, went forward, until it divided every country in Europe; and it produced a series of Confessions of faith, all having the general object of the Augsburg Confession - that of declaring the position which its authors took up in the great religious struggle of the day. In particular, both in Germany and in England, Articles followed Articles. In our own country we had the Ten Articles of 1536, the Six Articles of 1539, the Forty-two Articles of 1552, and eventually the Thirty-nine Articles of 1563. The Church of Rome herself had felt it necessary to follow the general course, and in the Synod of Trent, between the years 1545 and 1563, she produced a series of decrees and canons, which stated, in equally definite Articles, the position she held on the great questions in dispute.

Now these simple facts are enough to illustrate the first and most important point which demands our attention, namely, that the Articles of Religion adopted by the Church of England, agreed upon, that is, by the Clergy of the Church of England in Convocation, and sanctioned by the lawful authority, must be taken as the special and characteristic declaration of the position of the Church of England in respect to the grand controversy of the sixteenth century. As the Augsburg Confession is the authoritative declaration of the teaching of the Lutheran Church; as the Westminster Confession is that of the Scottish Church; as the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent, supplemented by those of the Vatican Council, are the authorized and characteristic declaration of the teaching of the Roman Church, so the Thirty-nine Articles are the authoritative and characteristic declaration of the teaching of the Church of England. The teaching of all other Churches is brought to the standard of their respective Confessions. The Missal and the Breviary are not the standards by which the Council of Trent is interpreted; but the Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent determine the grounds on which the Missal and the Breviary are to be defended, and the spirit in which they are to be used. In each case it is the Articles, the formal statements agreed upon by the clergy and sanctioned by the proper authorities, which are the standard of doctrine. In doubtful points, therefore - in points by which we are marked oft from other Communions - it is to the Articles that we must look for guidance, and it is by our Articles that we must be judged. If we want to know the mind of the Church of England we must study the Articles; if we wish to act in accordance with that mind we must be imbued with their spirit, and must teach in accordance with it.

What, then, speaking generally, is that spirit? Here, again, we are on the ground of sure and unquestionable facts. The Thirty-nine Articles are, beyond all question, a Protestant Confession. They definitely place the Church of England on the side of the great reforming movement of the sixteenth century. They are in some quarters disliked for this reason, and the very dislike is a strong testimony to the fact. Their very language is often drawn, on crucial points, from foreign Protestant Confessions - from the Confessions, for instance, of Augsburg and Wurtemberg; and they declare themselves, in the strongest manner, against the chief points of Roman doctrine and practice which the Protestant Reformers had denounced. An attempt has been made in our time, and is made still, to represent them as directed mainly against certain popular abuses, and not against the formal teaching of the Church of Rome. One or two simple but important facts seem sufficient to refute this suggestion. The Forty-two Articles were issued in 1552, and the Revised form of them in Thirty-nine Articles was issued in 1563. As already mentioned, the Council of Trent began its sessions in 1545 and concluded them in 1563. Historically, therefore, the Articles were drawn up and published in the face of the chief Articles of the great Tridentine Confession; and it is not conceivable that, in dealing with Roman doctrine and practice, their authors would leave on one side the express and authoritative statements of the Roman authorities.

But one particular point, of the greatest consequence to the whole argument, seems of peculiar interest in this matter. The Thirty-nine Articles are distinguished in one very important particular from previous Protestant Confessions. The Augsburg Confession, after the Article on God and the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, goes on immediately to the doctrines of Original Sin, the Incarnation, and Justification; and the Wurtemberg Confession subsequently follows this order. But in the Forty-two Articles and in the Thirty-nine Articles, immediately after what may be called the Articles of the Creed, comes the Sixth Article, “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures,” and not until after that Article do we proceed to the Articles on Original Sin, on Justification, and the other points of the controversy. What was there to occasion the introduction of this Article on Holy Scripture at that point in the Forty-two Articles? The reason may be discerned, if we bear in mind, what has just been mentioned, that the Council of Trent began its sittings in 1545, and that immediately after its preliminary Confession of Faith, which was adopted, in its third Session, on February 4, 1546, it proceeded immediately in its fourth Session, on April 8 in that year, to its famous decree, Concerning the Canonical Scriptures in which it laid down the principle that the unwritten traditions, proceeding from our Lord or from the Apostles - unwritten, that is, in the Sacred Scriptures - were to be received with equal piety and reverence with the Holy Scriptures themselves.

That was a new thing in the controversy. The Reformers, abroad and at home, had had to contend indeed against the undue weight allowed to tradition, but it had not previously been made the formal rule of faith, as well as of practice, that the unwritten traditions of the Church should be accepted as of equal authority with the Scriptures on the points in dispute. Doubtless the Roman divines took this course because they had no other open to them. If they had allowed the controversy between themselves and the Reformers to be conducted on the basis of the Holy Scriptures alone, they must have been defeated; and consequently, with a true instinct for the weak point of their position, they asserted, as the basis of all their subsequent proceedings, the insufficiency of the Holy Scriptures as the rule of faith. Accordingly, when our Reformers put their Article, respecting the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation, in the forefront of their Confession, immediately after the Articles of the Creed, they were meeting the Council of Trent directly and face to face. They took up the challenge conveyed to them, not in popular misapprehensions and unauthorized practices, but in the formal and authoritative decision of the Council of Trent, then sitting; and they laid the foundation of all their subsequent Articles in a flat denial of the first and cardinal principle which the Roman divines asserted.

There could hardly be a case of more direct contradiction of what had been made by that Council the primary principle, the ratio decidendi, in the controversies then in question. The principle of our Articles throughout was thus that on which Luther took his stand ; and, as Bishop Marsh says in his “Comparative View” of the two Churches, it is “the vital principle of the Reformation.” By that single act our Church formally took her position on the Protestant side; and as the subsequent Roman decisions flow naturally from their admission of unwritten traditions as of Divine authority, so all the rest of our Articles, in opposition to those decisions, flow naturally from our rejection of the authority of such traditions.

But this assertion of the sole and paramount authority of Holy Scripture in controversies of faith is not merely of cardinal importance in the controversy; it indicates the whole character of the position which our Church assumes. It indicates, as I have said, that the Church of England is a Protestant Church. What is the meaning of that designation? The late Archbishop of Canterbury, in the remarkable legacy which he left us in his parting - we may almost say his dying - utterances in Ireland, declared that “people must very much mistake both the Church of Ireland and the Church of England if they imagine that everything wrapped up in the word Protestant is going to be overwhelmed.” He had seen before him at Dublin the motto, that the Church of Ireland is at once “Apostolic, Catholic, Reformed, and Protestant.” “There was not one of those words," he said, "that could be spared;” and he added that, “if ever we began to doubt whether it was necessary to lay so much emphasis upon that last word, events which have been occurring in the List few weeks . . . . warn us that that word is not to be forgotten. No,” he exclaimed emphatically, “it is not a word to be forgotten, but it is a word to be understood; a word which must not be used as a mere earthly, secular war cry.” “It is a word to be understood.” There is no truth which at the present moment we have more reason to take to heart. What is the meaning of the word “Protestant?”

There is a danger lest we should be content to accept it as a mere war cry, as Archbishop Benson expressed himself, by treating it as expressing a mere protest against certain abuses which are offensive to us. That is not the original meaning of the word. Its original meaning was positive, not negative. It was first used of those who were called Protestants in the Diet of Spiers, because they asserted that men were bound in conscience to follow the Word of God, no matter what human authority might be against them, and that no majority had a right to force consciences. The essential and positive meaning of the word “Potestant,” therefore, is embodied in our Sixth Article. When we call ourselves Protestants, when we proclaim that the Church of England is a Protestant Church, we are protesting that the Word of God - the word of the prophets of the Old Testament, the Word of Christ and his Apostles - is the one rule, the one supreme authority, which we recognize, and that we make it the main object of our lives, in private, in public, and in all Church affairs, to apprehend the truth, and to realise the ideals, which that word sets before us. We recognize, indeed, that the best realization which that Word has ever received in the Christian ages was exhibited in the Primitive Church, and we therefore look to that Church as a guide, which we hope never to desert in any important point of the interpretation of the Word of God. But, as Dr. Hawkins, of Oriel, said in his Bampton Lectures of 1840, “we are constrained to disallow the claim of infallibility and absolute authority, whether advanced on behalf of any particular Church, or of the Church Universal; of the ancient Church in the period of her comparative unity, as well as of the modern Church in her state of sad disunion ; yielding indeed, to use the words of Dr. Jackson, ‘a conditional assent and a cautionary obedience,’ wherever it is justly due; but never in any case conceding, except to the original messengers of revealed truth, absolute assent and unqualified obedience.”

That is the positive ideal of a Reformed and Protestant Church. We do not look for our ideals in the historical development of Christian Churches either in the West or in the East. Those developments have indeed produced noble results and grand institutions, which we thankfully venerate and cherish so far as they are in conformity with Scripture and the early Church, and so far as they tend to edification. But we aim at reviving among ourselves, more and more completely, primitive truth and primitive practice, animated, and perpetually purified, by recurrence to the living fountains of truth and life in the Holy Scriptures. We believe that a desertion of this ideal, a disregard of this Divine guide, was the source of the grievous corruption of the past; and we see signs-- alas! too strong signs among us now-that a similar error is tending-to similar corruption still.

We do not, indeed, lay any vital stress on mere externals. The Lutheran Church may remind us that a community may be intensely Protestant, maintaining most of the cardinal truths of Scripture with profound earnestness and unfailing vigour, and yet retain some of the symbols which have been associated with mediaeval superstitions. We do not, indeed, think it wise to encourage such external points of contact and sympathy with periods and practices of superstition. We do not think it wise, either in Priests or in Bishops, to adopt vestments and ceremonies which undoubtedly had their rise in a period when the influences were predominant against which we are struggling. But these are matters of secondary consequence except so far as they are connected, as it is to be feared to a great extent they are, with the introduction of practices of more importance and still more questionable. But what we do strive for is that life in the light of God's Word, that simple faith, that manly Christian liberty, that emancipation from mere forms and ceremonies, that independence of anything like sacerdotal authority, and that power of free national development, which were won for us at the Reformation by a recurrence to the simplicity of primitive truth and practice.

The Church of England, in a word, is Protestant, but not in the sense of being either Lutheran or Calvinistic, although she is in the main on the side of those great influences, as against the Roman Catholic influence. Nor is she, as is sometimes charged against her, a Church of compromise. That is the vulgar reproach too often thrown against the noblest characteristic of the English mind - its firmness and boldness in recognizing truth wherever it may be found, and refusing to shut its eyes, in the spirit of a partizan, to any portion of truth on one side or the other. But the Church of England is herself; and herself is first Scriptural, and then Primitive. The ideal which she pursues is a Catholic ideal, because it is an Apostolic one, and it is this Catholic and Apostolic ideal which she understands by the word “Protestant,” and which she will make her guiding star.

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