We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.
Today we continue the series with a look at the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
In 1563 when the thirty-nine Articles were completed, state churches were appearing all over Europe and religion and political decisions were inseparable. While not technically a council or a creed, the Articles of Religion intended to clearly establish and articulate Anglican Theology (Church of England) over against the Roman Catholic Church, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists.
The Articles aimed to be catholic; that is, in agreement with the great ecumenical councils of the church about Jesus Christ and the Trinity. They also mention that the Roman Catholic church is indeed prone to error, while maintaining some of their practices (like use of the prayer book and their view of church hierarchy). However, when it comes to theology the Articles lean much more heavily towards a Protestant confession; the sufficiency of Scripture alone, the condemnation of the doctrines of Purgatory, Pardons, and Invocation of Saints. The Articles also call for reform to church structures to allow for services to be held in the common language, and allowing clergy to marry. Finally the Articles are both Protestant and evangelical in that they acknowledge the Five Solas and the number of sacraments, and are moderately Calvinistic in that they teach predestination and reject the idea of transubstantiation at the Lord’s Supper.
In the remainder of the Articles, this confession of the Church of England clarifies its stance on what it considered to be secondary issues; original sin, free will, and infant baptism. The purpose here was to clearly establish her orthodoxy within mainstream Protestantism. The document was very well written; narrow enough to clearly identify the unique expression found in the Church of England, yet broad enough that all English Protestants could stand by it. The only real point of contention was on the presentation of the twin doctrines of predestination and election. The church warned that these matters must be handled with care, as they were likely to cause offence to the unbelieving.
Why It Matters
The thirty-nine Articles of Religion are a good example of establishing fertile soil in which healthy theological conversation can grow, while simultaneously laying down borders outside which heresy is found. Perhaps the most relevant section for the church today is actually the longest of the thirty-nine Articles; Article 17 on predestination. It reads:
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
I found this excellent article written in May of 2017 which discusses it very well. It concludes by saying “So if you are worried about your election, repent and believe in Jesus Christ. If you are confident of your election, repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Then we will praise and love him in eternal security.”
More articles in Councils & Creeds: