The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, commonly called the Thirty-Nine Articles or the XXXIX Articles, are the historic defining statements of Anglican doctrine that emerged in sixteenth-century England. The articles developed out of an attempt to establish a national church of England that would maintain the earlier Catholic faith and incorporate the insights of Protestantism. In this sense, the Articles offer a "middle path," between the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and of the continental Protestant reformers.
Established by Convocation of the Church in 1563, under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who used the Forty-two Articles of Thomas Cranmer as inspiration, the Thirty-nine Articles were 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 The Test Act of 1673 made adherence to the articles a requirement for holding civil office in England (repealed in 1824). Clergy of the Church of England are still required to take an oath that the doctrine in the articles is "agreeable to the Word of God," but the laity is not, and other Churches of the Anglican Communion do not make such a requirement.
Most of the substance of the articles can be labeled as Reformed Catholicism. The articles were not intended as a complete statement of the Christian faith, but of the position of the Church of England vis-a-vis the Roman Catholic Church and dissident Protestants. The articles also argue against some Anabaptist positions such as the holding of goods in common, and the necessity of believers' baptism.
In sixteenth-century England, there was an absence of a general consensus on matters of faith following King Henry VIII's separation with Rome. There was a concern that dissenters who wanted the Reformation to go much further (by, for example, abolishing hierarchies of bishops), would increase in influence. Wishing to pursue Elizabeth I's agenda of establishing a national church that would maintain the indigenous Catholic faith and incorporate the insights of Protestantism, the articles were intended to incorporate a balance of theology and doctrine, thus appealing to the broadest domestic opinion. In this sense, the articles reveal a window into the ethos and character of Anglicanism in the sixteenth century, 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 continental Protestant reformers.
Content of the Articles
The articles highlight some of the major differences between Anglican and Roman Catholic doctrine, as well as more conventional declarations of a Trinitarian Christianity. They are divided, per 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."
Articles I—VIII: The Catholic faith
The first five articles articulate the Catholic creedal 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.
- This article affirms the trinitarian Godhead as an indivisible unity of persons, living but non-corporeal, infinite and eternal.
II. Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man
- This article re-asserts the creedal statements concerning the nature of Christ, emphasizing the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures. It assumes a substitutional atonement perspective towards Christ's Passion and death, stating that he "was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men."
III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
- This article emphasizes the physical death of Jesus, and his descent into Hell, whence he releases the righteous dead from eternal captivity.
IV. Of the Resurrection of Christ
- This article affirms the fully corporeal resurrection of Christ, and his Ascension into heaven.
V. Of the Holy Ghost
- This article expresses the unity of the Holy Spirit with the other two Persons of the godhead, without elaboration of the individual nature or function of the Person.
- In full, the first clause of this article reads: "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church."
- The canonical books are then listed, with the Apocryphal (or deuterocanonical) books recommended (quoting Jerome) "for example of life and instruction in manners; ... [but not] to establish any doctrine."
- This article is perhaps the most cited of the corpus, informing both Anglican exegesis and hermeneutics, as well as helping to delineate the parameters of doctrinal convention.
VII. Of the Old Testament
- Article VII professes consistency between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, seeing Christ's presence and activity in both. It also makes a distinction between the commandments of the Pentateuch (the legal requirements of the Hebrew people articulated in the Torah — the first five books of the Old Testament). Those "touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral." There is no further elaboration to assist in differentiating civil precepts and different types of law.
- In full, "The three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture."
- Following upon Article VI, the implication is that the Catholic Creeds can be accepted precisely because they can be proved from scripture.
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” in which good works are an outgrowth of faith, and in which there is a role for the church and for the sacraments.
IX. Of Original or Birth-sin
- Article IX affirms the congenital sinfulness of human nature, "so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation." Quoting Saint Paul's frequent condemnation of the "desires of the flesh" (quoted here in the Greek - φρονημα σαρκος "fronema sarkos" - presumably for precise, scriptural emphasis and exegesis), the article asserts its power to resist subjection to divine law.
X. Of Free Will
- Flowing from the preceding article and maintaining its Pauline theology, Article X proclaims that "natural strength and good works" is insufficient without faith, specifically by the grace of God allowing us to employ our wills for good.
XI. Of the Justification of Man
- This attests to the concern of Anglicanism that sanctification is the fruit of salvation, visibly manifested in the transformation of the believer's life and behavior. In other words, the indicative of faith results in the imperative of action.
XII. Of Good Works
- Article XII strives to chart a middle course between what was seen as over-emphasis on good works as a path to merit in the Roman tradition, and the complete rejection of the role of good works in the life of faith, as was attributed to continental Protestantism, notably that of Calvin and Luther. In this sense, it provides a response by the Ecclesia anglicana to the Lutheran doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone) articulated in the Augsburg Confession.
XIII. Of Works before Justification
- As a counterbalance to Article XII, this article makes explicit that works done apart from the grace of Christ and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, do not bring grace, and as they are not commanded by God, "have the nature of sin."
XIV. Of Works of Supererogation
- This article makes the point, in keeping with the teachings of Luther and Calvin, that there is one standard of behavior for all Christians, and that it is impious to suppose that one can do more good works than God commands or requires.
XV. Of Christ Alone without Sin
- Only Christ, alone among those of a human nature, was created without sin. No one else can make a claim to be sinless.
XVI. Of Sin after Baptism
- This article states that the baptized believer is capable of committing sin, and of being forgiven upon true repentance. No penitent sinner can be denied absolution. The article is directed both against "Once saved, always saved" and Donatist conceptions of sin and forgiveness.
XVII. Of Predestination and Election
- This article proclaims that "Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God," available to all those "made sons of God by adoption" (i.e., through baptism).
- The article is the most lengthy of the corpus, emphasizing in detail the fruits of predestination and election, and the requirements of the predestined and elected. In keeping with the previous articles of this section, Article XVII again emphasizes the indicative of faith resulting in the imperative of righteousness of word and deed, noting that the "Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared to us in the Word of God."
XVIII. Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ
- Article XVIII stakes an exclusivist claim for Christianity, specifying that only those movements professing the salvific nature of Jesus Christ are legitimately salvific.
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.
XIX. Of the Church
- The nature of the church is defined as a place wherein the faithful are ministered to in word and sacrament "according to Christ's ordinance." It states that the churches of the Pentarchy (with the notable exception of the Patriarchate of Constantinople) have erred "in their living...manner of Ceremonies...[and] faith."
XX Of the Authority of the Church
- This article describes the authority of the church to "decree Rites," and exert "authority in Controversies of faith," in accordance with Scripture. In doing so, Article XX exemplifies an attribute characteristic of Anglicanism, namely conviction in the authority of tradition in the church, manifested by doctrine and conciliar resolution. Other Anglican documents, notably the Act of Uniformity (1559), particularly designated the binding authority of the first four great ecumenical councils, and, less universally, the fifth and sixth.
XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils
- With implicit appeal to the convocation of the early ecumenical councils (all by emperors, not popes), Article XXI unreservedly assumes the will of the secular authorities in convening general councils of the Church. Nonetheless, the ultimate primacy of scripture is affirmed, and, by implication, error is attributed to the failure to use Scripture as a basis for deliberation and action.
XXII. Of Purgatory
- This article condemns as unscriptural a number of Roman Catholic devotions, in addition to the doctrine of Purgatory. The devotions repudiated are the gaining of indulgences, the veneration of images and relics, and the invocation of saints.
XXIII. Of Ministering in the Congregation
- It is made clear that only those publicly and legally authorized and placed may preach and/or minister the sacraments.
XXIV. Of Speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth
- Public worship is to be conducted in the local vernacular.
XXV. Of the Sacraments
- The first section of the article expresses the incarnational perspective vital to Anglicanism, affirming that the sacraments are "effectual signs of grace." In Anglican sacramental theology, God acts through the physical and material world that God has created, and Jesus Christ is the mediator of that Creation and its redemption. The sacraments have a practical spiritual function in that they intensify faith, and, by implication, strengthen one's Christian character.
- The second section distinguishes between the two dominical sacraments (ie., those ordained explicitly by Christ) of Baptism and Holy Eucharist, and five "commonly called Sacraments," which "are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel"— Confirmation; Absolution; Holy Orders; Matrimony; Anointing of the Sick.
- The final section is an injunction against a non-utilitarian use of the sacraments, by ceremonially processing them or gazing upon them, rejecting Eucharistic Adoration.
XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament
- This is substantially a repudiation the Donatist heresy of assuming that the effect of the sacraments are diminished or nullified by the nature, character, or beliefs of the one ministering them. The principle of ex opere operato was first articulated by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.) in The Correction of the Donatists.
- The article states that the "ministration of the Word and Sacraments" is not done in the name of the one performing the sacerdotal function, "neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness," since the sacraments have their effect "because of Christ's intention and promise, although they be ministered by evil men."
XXVII. Of Baptism
- Baptism, the first dominical sacrament, is defined as "a sign of Regeneration or new birth," and the instrument by which one becomes a member of the Church and receives grace. The article expressly permits the practice of paedobaptism (Infant baptism).
XXVIII Of the Lord's Supper
- This article, while explicitly rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation nonetheless expresses the conviction in the Real Presence of Christ's Body and Blood, in a spiritual form, in the consecrated elements. The article notes that Christ did not ordain the reservation, procession, raising, or worshipping of the consecrated elements.
XXIX Of the Wicked which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord's Supper
- The partaking of Christ in the Eucharist is only accomplished when the communicant has faith that this is what is being done. The "wicked" and unbelievers who take communion do not partake Christ but are nevertheless condemned (manducatio impiorum). This article takes a middle position between the Catholic insistence of the objective presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Lutheran position that the Eucharist cannot be desecrated by a "wicked" or unbelieving receiving it.
XXX. Of both kinds
- The article states that lay people should be given the wine as well as the bread for Communion. With this, the articles take up one of the major ideas of the continental reformers, who had demanded from the Catholic Church to give the laity a share of the Blood of Christ as well as the Body.
XXXI. Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross
- While this article expressly rejects the belief that the Eucharist involves a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ, it does so in balance with Cranmer's Eucharistic prayer "that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ...we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of sins, and all other benefits of His passion."
Articles XXXII—XXXIX: Miscellaneous
XXXII. Of the Marriage of Priests
- Clergy may be celibate, or they may choose to marry instead.
XXXIII. Of Excommunicate Persons, how they are to be avoided
- Anyone excommunicated from the church may not participate in the community of the faithful unless he or she is "openly reconciled by penance," and legally received back into the Communion.
XXXIV. Of the Traditions of the Church
- The traditions and worship of the church have been, are, and will be diverse, and may be altered according to the times or various cultural customs, so long as they be in accordance with scripture. Anyone individually breaking with such locally adapted traditions and worship as set by the various national churches, are to be rebuked for violating order and authority, as well as undermining the consciences of fellow believers.
XXXV. Of the Homilies
- The article specifies that the two Books of Homilies (the first written chiefly by Thomas Cranmer, the second chiefly by John Jewel) are to be read in churches, and includes the titles of the twenty-one sermons contained therein.
XXXVI. Of Consecration of Archbishops, Bishops and Other Ministers
- Reinforcing Anglican claims to Apostolic Succession, Article XXXVI stresses that the ordination rite set out in the reign of Edward VI (the "Edwardine Ordinal") is valid and lawful.
XXXVII. Of the Civil Magistrates
- This article delineates the relationship between the civil authorities and the church. It notes that the Monarch is the supreme ecclesiastical and civil authority in England, not subject to any foreign power; and that the Monarch does not administer word or sacrament, but has the power to rule both church and secular estates. Echoing the First of the Acts of Supremacy (1534), the article further states that the bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in England. Finally, the legality of Christians bearing arms in lawful warfare is affirmed.
XXXVIII. Of Christian Men's Goods, which are not common
- Article XXXVIII denies the claim by "certain Anabaptists" that collective ownership of property is to be enjoined. Rather, private ownership of property is affirmed, though all should give what alms they can from what they possess.
XXXIX. Of a Christian Man's Oath
- The practice of "vain and rash swearing" is forbidden, but swearing an oath in a court of law is upheld.
Impact of the Articles on Anglicanism
The impact of this document 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. In the past, in numerous national churches and dioceses, those entering Holy Orders had to make an oath of subscription to the articles.
In Anglican discourse, the articles are regularly cited and interpreted in order to attempt to clarify doctrine and practice. Sometimes their supposedly prescriptive tendency has been invoked in 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, their proscriptive character has been appealed to in an attempt to delineate the parameters of acceptable belief and practice. During the Catholic Revival of the nineteenth century, for instance, the stipulations of Articles XXV and XXVIII were regularly invoked to oppose the reintroduction of certain beliefs, customs, and acts of piety with respect to the sacraments. In response, John Henry Newman's Tract 90 attempted to show that the Articles could be interpreted in a way less hostile to Roman Catholic doctrine.
TheaArticles continue to be invoked today. 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.
Today, the influence of the Thirty-nine Articles has spread beyond England (and Anglicanism) to other parts of the world. The Anglican priest John Wesley adapted the Thirty-nine Articles for use by American Methodists in the eighteenth century. The resulting Articles of Religion remain official United Methodist doctrine.
- Henry Chadwick, Tradition, Fathers, and Councils, In "The Study of Anglicanism," edited by S. Sykes and J. Booty. Fortress Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0800620875
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Burnet, Gilbert. An Exposition of The Thirty-Nine Articles Of The Church Of England. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1428639997
- Chadwick, Henry. “Tradition, Fathers, and Councils” In The Study of Anglicanism. Edited by S. Sykes and J. Booty. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0800620875
- MacCulloch, Diarmad. Reformation - Europe's House Divided, 1490-1700. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN 0140285342
All links retrieved April 30, 2023.
- John Henry Newman, No. 90 of the Tracts for the Times—VII. Remarks on certain Passages of the Thirty-nine Articles – The National Institute for Newman Studies
- Articles of Religion
- Anglicans Online | The Thirty-Nine Articles – As adopted by the U.S. Episcopal Church, 1801
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