The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were not intended to be a complete confession of faith. Instead, they are a short set of dogmatic statements intended to set out the basic Anglican theological position in relation to the numerous theological conflicts that took place in the 16th century. The Articles spell out Anglican theology as differing from the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant dissenters, Calvinists, Anabaptists, and Lutherans. As the Church of England found itself caught between the Papacy of Rome and the Protestant Reformers, it recognized the need to set out its general theological position. It is this need that The Thirty-Nine Articles address.
As church historian Philip Schaff has noted, because the Articles have been interpreted in a controversial manner, their theological position has been hijacked by various parties: “Moderate High-Churchmen and Arminians, who dislike Calvinism, represent them as purely Lutheran; Anglo-Catholics and Tractarians, who abhor both Lutheranism and Calvinism, endeavor to conform them as much as possible to the contemporary decrees of the Council of Trent; Calvinistic and evangelical Low-Churchmen find in them substantially their own creed. Continental historians, both Protestant and Catholic, rank the Church of England among the Reformed Churches as distinct from the Lutheran, and her Articles are found in every collection of Reformed Confessions.”
In examining The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, several important tenants can be surmised.
First, the Articles are catholic, meaning that like the other Protestant Confessions of the Reformation, the Articles agree with the great ecumenical councils of the church in their formulations of the Incarnation and the Trinity.
Second, the Articles are Augustinian in their anthropology and soteriology, making use of his views on the human will, sin, and grace.
Third, “they are Protestant and evangelical in rejecting the peculiar errors and abuses of Rome, and in teaching those doctrines of Scripture and tradition, justification by faith, faith and good works, the Church, and the number of sacraments, which Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin held in common.”
God’s electing grace turns us to the cross of Christ, not only to the divine decree of election.
Fourth, the Articles are Reformed (or moderately Calvinistic), in that they teach both predestination and a spiritual view of the Lord’s supper as opposed to transubstantiation.
Fifth, they are Erastian, which means that they affirm a close union between the church and the state.
Finally, they are Anglican and Episcopalian (in direct opposition to the Puritans and the Westminster Confession) in their use of the Prayer-book and their view of church government (i.e., archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons).
Perhaps the most relevant section of The Thirty-Nine Articles for today’s church is Article 17 on predestination and election. It would be wonderful if more Reformed Christians talked about God’s sovereign grace in this manner:
- “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 wretchedness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.”
Put most simply, God’s electing grace turns us to the cross of Christ, not only to the divine decree of election. To focus on the latter at the expense of the former leads to either despair or pride.