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The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion are the historically defining statements of doctrines of the Church of England with respect to the controversies of the English Reformation. First established in 1563, the articles served to define the doctrine of the Church of England as it related to Calvinist doctrine and Roman Catholic practice. The full name for the articles is commonly abbreviated as the "Thirty-Nine Articles" or the "XXXIX Articles".
At the time, the Church of England was searching its doctrinal position in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and the continental Protestant movements. A series of defining documents were written and replaced over a period of 30 years as the doctrinal and political situation changed from the excommunication of Henry VIII in 1533, to the excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570.
Prior to King Henry's death in 1547, several statements of position were issued. The first attempt was the Ten Articles in 1536, which showed some slightly Protestant leanings—the result of an English desire for a political alliance with the German Lutheran princes. The next revision was the Six Articles in 1539 which swung away from all reformed positions, and the King's Book in 1543 which re-established almost in full the earlier Catholic doctrines. Then, during the reign of Edward VI in 1552, the Forty-Two Articles were written under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. It was in this document that Calvinist thought reached the zenith of its influence in the English Church. These articles were never put into action, due to the king's death and the reunion of the English Church with Rome under Queen Mary I.
Finally, upon the coronation of Elizabeth I and the re-establishment of the separate Church of England the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were established by a Convocation of the Church in 1563, under the direction of Matthew Parker, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, which pulled back from some of the more extreme Calvinist thinking and created the peculiar English reformed doctrine.
The Ten Articles were first published in 1536 by Thomas Cranmer. They were the first guidelines of the Church of England as it became independent of Rome.
In summary, the Ten Articles asserted:
The emerging doctrines of the autonomous Church of England were followed by further explication in The Institution of the Christian Man.
The Institution of the Christian Man (also called The Bishops' Book), published in 1537, was written by a committee of 46 divines and bishops headed by Thomas Cranmer. The purpose of the work, along with the Ten Articles of the previous year, was to implement the reforms of Henry VIII in separating from the Roman Catholic Church and reforming the Ecclesia Anglicana. It was considered reformatory in basic orientation, though it was not strongly Lutheran. The work functioned as an official formulary of the reformed Anglican faith in England. It was later superseded by other creedal and official statements during the successive reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, as the Anglican Church moved toward a more Reformed theological position. It would evolve into the King's Book. "The work was a noble endeavor on the part of the bishops to promote unity, and to instruct the people in Church doctrine."
The list of the 46 divines as they appear in the Bishop's Book included all of the bishops, eight archdeacons and 17 other Doctors of Divinity, some of whom were later involved with translating the Bible and compiling the Prayer Book:
Thomas Cranmer – Edward Lee – John Stokesley – Cuthbert Tunstall – Stephen Gardiner – Robert Aldrich – John Voysey – John Longland – John Clerk – Royland Lee – Thomas Goodrich – Nicholas Shaxton – John Bird – Edward Foxe – Hugh Latimer – John Hilsey – Richard Sampson – William Repps – William Barlowe – Robert Partew – Robert Holgate – Richard Wolman – William Knight – John Bell – Edmond Bonner – William Skip – Nicholas Heath – Cuthbert Marshal – Richard Curren – William Cliffe – William Downes – Robert Oking – Ralph Bradford – Richard Smyth – Simon Matthew – John Pryn – William Buckmaster – William May – Nicholas Wotton – Richard Cox – John Edmunds – Thomas Robertson – John Baker – Thomas Barett – John Hase – John Tyson
In 1538 three German theologians – Francis Burkhardt, vice-chancellor of Saxony; George von Boyneburg, doctor of law; and Friedrich Myconius, superintendent of the church of Gotha – were sent to London and held conferences with the Anglican bishops and clergy in the archbishop's palace at Lambeth for several months. The Germans presented, as a basis of agreement, a number of Articles based on the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg. Bishops Tunstall, Stokesley and others were not won over by these Protestant arguments and did everything they could to avoid agreement. They were willing to separate from Rome, but their plan was to unite with the Greek Church and not with the evangelical Protestants on the continent. The bishops also refused to eliminate what the Germans called the "Abuses" (e.g. private Masses, celibacy of the clergy, Worship of angels) allowed by the Anglican Church. Stokesley considered these customs to be essential because the Greek Church practised them. In opposition, Cranmer favoured a union with German Protestants. The king, unwilling to break with Catholic practices, dissolved the conference.
Henry had felt uneasy about the appearance of the Lutheran doctors and their theology within his kingdom. On 28 April 1539 Parliament met for the first time in three years. On 5 May, the House of Lords created a committee with the customary religious balance to examine and determine doctrine. Eleven days later, the Duke of Norfolk noted that the committee had not agreed on anything and proposed that the Lords examine six doctrinal questions which eventually became the basis of the Six Articles. The articles reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine on key issues:
Penalties under the Act, "the whip with six strings", ranged from imprisonment and fine to death. However, its severity was reduced by an act of 1540, which retained the death penalty only for denial of transubstantiation, and a further act limited its arbitrariness. The Catholic emphasis of the doctrine commended in the articles is not matched by the ecclesiastical reforms Henry undertook in the following years, such as the enforcement of the necessity of the English Bible and the insistence upon the abolition of all shrines, both in 1541.
As the Act of the Six Articles neared passage in Parliament, Cranmer moved his wife and children out of England to safety. Up to then the family was kept quietly hidden, most likely in Ford Palace in Kent. The Act passed Parliament at the end of June; subsequently bishops Latimer and Nicholas Shaxton, outspoken opponents of the measure, resigned their dioceses. After Henry's death the articles were repealed by his son, Edward VI.
The Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man, also known as the King's Book, was published in 1543, and attributed to Henry VIII. It was a revision of The Institution of the Christian Man, and defended transubstantiation and the Six Articles. It also encouraged preaching and attacked the use of images.
The Forty-Two Articles were intended to summarise Anglican doctrine, as it now existed under the reign of Edward VI, who favoured a more Protestant faith. Largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, they were to be short formularies that would demonstrate the faith revealed in Scripture and the existing Catholic creeds. Completed in 1552, they were issued by Royal Mandate on 19 June 1553. The articles were claimed to have received the authority of a Convocation, although this is doubtful. With the coronation of Queen Mary I and the reunion of the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church, the Articles were never enforced. However, after Mary's death, they became the basis of the Thirty-Nine Articles. In 1563, Convocation met under Archbishop Parker to revise the articles. Convocation passed only 39 of the 42, and Elizabeth I reduced the number to 38 by throwing out Article XXIX to avoid offending her subjects with Catholic leanings. In 1571, the XXIXth Article, despite the opposition of Bishop Edmund Guest, was inserted, to the effect that the wicked do not eat the Body of Christ. This was done following the queen's excommunication by the Pope in 1570. That act destroyed any hope of reconciliation with Rome and it was no longer necessary to fear that Article XXIX would offend Catholic sensibilities. The Articles, increased to Thirty-nine, were ratified by the Queen, and the bishops and clergy were required to assent.
The Thirty-Nine Articles were not intended as a complete statement of the Christian faith, but of the position of the Church of England in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and dissident Protestants. The Articles argue against some Anabaptist positions such as the holding of goods in common and the necessity of believer's baptism. The motivation for their production and enactment was the absence of a general consensus on matters of faith following the separation with Rome. There was a concern that dissenters who wanted the reforms to go much further (for example, to abolish hierarchies of bishops) would increase in influence. Wishing to pursue Elizabeth I's agenda of establishing a national church that would maintain the indigenous apostolic faith and incorporate some of the insights of Protestantism, the Articles were intended to incorporate a balance of theology and doctrine. This allowed them to appeal to the broadest domestic opinion, Catholic and otherwise. In this sense, the Articles are a revealing window into the ethos and character of Anglicanism, in particular in the way the document works to navigate a via media, or "middle path," between the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and of the English Puritans, thus lending the Church of England a mainstream Reformed air. The "via media" was expressed so adroitly in the Articles that some Anglican scholars have labelled their content as an early example of the idea that the doctrine of Anglicanism is one of "Reformed Catholicism".
The Articles highlight the Anglican positions with regard to the corruption of Catholic doctrine in the Middle Ages, to orthodox Roman Catholic teachings, to Puritanism, and to Anabaptist thought. They are divided, in compliance with the command of Queen Elizabeth I, into four sections: Articles 1–8, "The Catholic Faith"; Articles 9–18, "Personal Religion"; Articles 19–31, "Corporate Religion"; and Articles 32–39, "Miscellaneous." The articles were issued both in English and in Latin, and both are of equal authority.
Articles I–VIII: The Catholic faith: The first five articles articulate the Catholic credal statements concerning the nature of God, manifest in the Holy Trinity. Articles VI and VII deal with scripture, while Article VIII discusses the essential creeds.
Articles IX—XVIII: Personal religion: These articles dwell on the topics of sin, justification, and the eternal disposition of the soul. Of particular focus is the major Reformation topic of justification by faith. The Articles in this section and in the section on the Church plant Anglicanism in the via media of the debate, portraying an Economy of Salvation where good works are an outgrowth of faith and there is a role for the Church and for the sacraments.
Articles XIX–XXXI: Corporate religion: This section focuses on the expression of faith in the public venue – the institutional church, the councils of the church, worship, ministry, and sacramental theology.
Articles XXXII—XXXIX: Miscellaneous: These articles concern clerical celibacy, excommunication, traditions of the Church, and other issues not covered elsewhere. Article XXXVII additionally states among other things that the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction in the realm of England.
In 1628 Charles I of England prefixed a royal declaration to the articles, which demands a literal interpretation of them, threatening discipline for academics or churchmen teaching any personal interpretations or encouraging debate about them. It states: "no man hereafter shall either print or preach, to draw the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and Full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to be the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense."
However, what the Articles truly mean has been a matter of debate in the Church since before they were issued. The evangelical wing of the Church has taken the Articles at face value. In 2003, evangelical Anglican clergyman Chris Pierce wrote:
|“||The Thirty-Nine Articles define the biblically derived summations of precise Christian doctrine. The Thirty-Nine Articles are more than minimally assented to; they are believed wholeheartedly. In earlier times English and Irish evangelicals would have read Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Ussher, and Ryle and would unreservedly agree with Dean Litton's assessment that (quoted by Dean Paul Zahl, in his work 'The Protestant Face of Anglicanism'), 'The Anglican Church, if she is to be judged by the statements of the Articles, must be ranked among the Protestant Churches of Europe.'||”|
|“||Some of them are the very same that are contained in the Creed; some others of them are practical truths, which come not within the proper list of points or articles to be believed; lastly, some of them are pious opinions or inferior truths, which are proposed by the Church of England to all her sons, as not to be opposed; not as essentials of Faith necessary to be believed by all Christians necessitate medii, under pain of damnation.||”|
This divergence of opinion became overt during the Oxford Movement of the 19th century. The stipulations of Articles XXV and XXVIII were regularly invoked by evangelicals to oppose the reintroduction of certain beliefs, customs, and acts of piety with respect to the sacraments. In response, Cardinal John Henry Newman's Tract 90 attempted to show that the Articles could be interpreted in a way less hostile to Roman Catholic doctrine.
Adherence to the Articles was made a legal requirement by the English Parliament in 1571. They are printed in the Book of Common Prayer and other Anglican prayer books. The Test Act of 1672 made adherence to the Articles a requirement for holding civil office in England (repealed in 1824). However students at Oxford University were expected to sign up to them until the passing of the University Reform Act of 1854.
In the past, in numerous national churches and dioceses, those entering Holy Orders had to make an oath of subscription to the Articles. Clergy of the Church of England are required to affirm their loyalty to the Articles and other historic formularies (the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons). The Church of Ireland has a similar declaration for its clergy, while some other churches of the Anglican Communion make no such requirement.
The influence of the Articles on Anglican thought, doctrine and practice has been profound. Although Article VIII itself states that the three Catholic creeds are a sufficient statement of faith, the Articles have often been perceived as the nearest thing to a supplementary confession of faith possessed by the tradition.
A revised version was adopted in 1801 by the US Episcopal Church. Earlier, John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, adapted the Thirty-Nine Articles for use by American Methodists in the 18th century. The resulting Articles of Religion remain official United Methodist doctrine.
In Anglican discourse, the Articles are regularly cited and interpreted to clarify doctrine and practice. Sometimes they are used to prescribe support of Anglican comprehensiveness. An important concrete manifestation of this is the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which incorporates Articles VI, VIII, XXV, and XXXVI in its broad articulation of fundamental Anglican identity. In other circumstances they delineate the parameters of acceptable belief and practice in proscriptive fashion.
The Articles continue to be invoked today in the Anglican Church. For example, in the ongoing debate over homosexual activity and the concomitant controversies over episcopal authority, Articles VI, XX, XXIII, XXVI, and XXXIV are regularly cited by those of various opinions.
Each of the 44 member churches in the Anglican Communion is, however, free to adopt and authorise its own official documents, and the Articles are not officially normative in all Anglican Churches (neither is the Athanasian Creed). The only doctrinal documents agreed upon in the Anglican Communion are the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed of AD 381, and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Beside these documents, authorised liturgical formularies, such as Prayer Book and Ordinal, are normative. The several provincial editions of Prayer Books (and authorised alternative liturgies) are, however, not identical, although they share a greater or smaller amount of family resemblance. No specific edition of the Prayer Book is therefore binding for the entire Communion.