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The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (commonly abbreviated as the Thirty-nine Articles or the XXXIX Articles) are the historically defining statements of doctrines and practices of the Church of England with respect to the controversies of the English Reformation. The Thirty-nine Articles form part of the Book of Common Prayer used by both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church.
When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and was excommunicated, he began the reform of the Church of England, which would be headed by the monarch (himself) rather than the pope. At this point, he needed to determine what its doctrines and practices would be in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and the new Protestant movements in continental Europe. 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. These positions began with the Ten Articles in 1536, and concluded with the finalisation of the Thirty-nine articles in 1571. The Thirty-nine articles ultimately served to define the doctrine of the Church of England as it related to Calvinist doctrine and Roman Catholic practice.
The articles went through at least five major revisions prior to their finalisation in 1571. 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 then the King's Book in 1543, which re-established most of the earlier Roman Catholic doctrines. During the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII's son, the Forty-two Articles were written under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1552. 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 Edward VI's death and the reversion of the English Church to Roman Catholicism under Henry VIII's elder daughter, Mary I.
Finally, upon the coronation of Elizabeth I and the re-establishment of the Church of England as separate from the Roman Catholic Church, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion were initiated by the Convocation of 1563, under the direction of Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The articles pulled back from some of the more extreme Calvinist thinking and created the distinctive English reformed doctrine.
The Thirty-nine Articles were finalised in 1571, and incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer. Although not the end of the struggle between Catholic and Protestant monarchs and citizens, the book helped to standardise the English language, and was to have a lasting effect on religion in the United Kingdom and elsewhere through its wide use.
The Church of England's break with Rome inaugurated a period of doctrinal confusion and controversy as both conservative and reforming clergy attempted to shape the church's direction, the former as "Catholicism without the Pope" and the latter as Protestant. In an attempt "to establish Christian quietness and unity", the Ten Articles were adopted by clerical Convocation in July 1536 as the English Church's first post-papal doctrinal statement. The Ten Articles were crafted as a rushed interim compromise between conservatives and reformers. Historians have variously described it as a victory for Lutheranism and a success for Catholic resistance. Its provisions have also been described as "confusing".
The first five articles dealt with doctrines that were "commanded expressly by God, and are necessary to our salvation", while the last five articles dealt with "laudable ceremonies used in the Church". This division reflects how the Articles originated from two different discussions earlier in the year. The first five articles were based on the Wittenberg Articles negotiated between English ambassadors Edward Foxe, Nicholas Heath and Robert Barnes and German Lutheran theologians, including Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. This doctrinal statement was itself based on the Augsburg Confession of 1530.
The five principal doctrines were the Bible and ecumenical creeds, baptism, penance, the Eucharist and justification. The core doctrine in the Ten Articles was justification by faith. Justification – which was defined as remission of sin and accepting into God's favour – was through "the only mercy and grace of the Father, promised freely unto us for his Son’s sake Jesus Christ, and the merits of his blood and passion". Good works would follow, not precede, justification. However, the Lutheran influence was diluted with qualifications. Justification was attained "by contrition and faith joined with charity". In other words, good works were "necessarily required to the attaining of everlasting life".
To the disappointment of conservatives, only three of the traditional seven sacraments were even mentioned (baptism, the Eucharist and penance). The Articles affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, stating that "under the form and figure of bread and wine ... is verily, substantially and really contained the very self-same body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ". This definition was acceptable to those who held to transubstantiation or sacramental union, but it clearly condemned sacramentarianism. More controversially for the reformers, the Articles maintained penance as a sacrament and the priest's authority to grant divine absolution in confession.
Articles six through ten focused on secondary issues. Significantly, purgatory, which had been a central concern of medieval religion, was placed in the non-essential articles. On the question of its existence, the Ten Articles were ambiguous. It stated, "the place where [departed souls] be, the name thereof, and kind of pains there" was "uncertain by scripture". Prayer for the dead and masses for the dead were permitted as possibly relieving the pain of departed souls in purgatory.
The Articles also defended the use of a number of Catholic rituals and practices opposed by Protestants, such as kissing the cross on Good Friday, while mildly criticizing popular abuses and excesses. The use of religious images was permitted, but people were to be taught not to kneel before them or make offerings to them. Prayer to Mary, mother of Jesus, and all the other saints was permitted as long as superstition was avoided.
In summary, the Ten Articles asserted:
The failure of the Ten Articles to settle doctrinal controversy led Thomas Cromwell, the King's vicegerent in spirituals, to convene a national synod of bishops and high-ranking clergy for further theological discussion in February 1537. This synod produced a book called The Institution of the Christian Man (popularly called The Bishops' Book), the word institution being synonymous with instruction. The Bishops' Book preserved the semi-Lutheranism of the Ten Articles, and the articles on justification, purgatory, and the sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist and penance were incorporated unchanged into the new book.
When the synod met, conservatives were still angry that four of the traditional seven sacraments (confirmation, marriage, holy orders and extreme unction) had been excluded from the Ten Articles. John Stokesley argued for all seven, while Thomas Cranmer only acknowledged baptism and the Eucharist. The others divided along party lines. The conservatives were at a disadvantage because they found it necessary to appeal to sacred tradition, which violated Cromwell's instructions that all arguments refer to scripture.
In the end, the missing sacraments were restored but placed in a separate section to emphasize "a difference in dignity and necessity." Only baptism, the Eucharist and penance were "instituted of Christ, to be as certain instruments or remedies necessary for our salvation". Confirmation was declared to have been introduced by the early Church in imitation of what they had read about the practice of the Apostles.
The Bishops' Book also included expositions on the creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary. These were greatly influenced by William Marshall's primer (an English-language book of hours) of 1535, which itself was influenced by Luther's writings. Following Marshall, The Bishops' Book rejected the traditional Catholic numbering of the Ten Commandments, in which the prohibition on making and worshiping graven images was part of the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me". In agreement with the Eastern Orthodox and Huldrych Zwingli's church at Zurich, the authors of the Bishops' Book adopted the Jewish tradition of separating these commandments. While allowing images of Christ and the saints, the exposition on the second commandment taught against representations of God the Father and criticised those who "be more ready with their substance to deck dead images gorgeously and gloriously, than with the same to help poor Christian people, the quick and lively images of God". Such teachings encouraged iconoclasm, which would become a feature of the English Reformation.
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 Book of Common Prayer:
Thomas Cranmer – Edward Lee – John Stokesley – Cuthbert Tunstall – Stephen Gardiner – Robert Aldrich – John Voysey – John Longland – John Clerk – Rowland 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 August 1537, it was presented to the King who ordered that parts should be read from the pulpit every Sunday and feast day. Nevertheless, the King was not entirely satisfied and took it upon himself to make a revised Bishops' Book, which, among other proposed changes, weakened the original's emphasis on justification by faith. This revised version was never published, but the Bishops' Book would later be replaced with the King's Book.
Fearful of diplomatic isolation and a Catholic alliance, Henry VIII continued his outreach to the Lutheran Schmalkaldic League. In May 1538, three Lutheran theologians from Germany – Franz Burchard, vice-chancellor of Saxony; Georg von Boineburg, doctor of law; and Friedrich Myconius, superintendent of the church in Gotha – arrived in London and held conferences with English bishops and clergy at the archbishop's Lambeth Palace through September.
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 Protestants on the continent. The bishops also refused to eliminate what the Germans considered abuses (e.g. private masses for the dead, compulsory clerical celibacy, and withholding communion wine from the laity) allowed by the English Church. Stokesley considered these customs to be essential because the Greek Church practised them. As the King was unwilling to break with these practices, the Germans had all left England by 1 October.
Meanwhile, England was in religious turmoil. Impatient Protestants took it upon themselves to further reform – some priests said mass in English rather than Latin and married without authorisation (Archbishop Cranmer was himself secretly married). Protestants themselves were divided between establishment reformers who held Lutheran beliefs upholding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and radicals who held Anabaptist and Sacramentarian views denying real presence. In May 1539, a new Parliament met, and Lord Chancellor Audley told the House of Lords that the King desired religious uniformity. A committee of four conservative and four reformist bishops was appointed to examine and determine doctrine. On 16 May, the Duke of Norfolk noted that the committee had not agreed on anything and proposed that the Lords examine six controversial doctrinal questions that became the basis of the Six Articles:
Over the next month, these questions were argued in Parliament and Convocation with the active participation of the King. The final product was an affirmation of traditional teachings on all questions. Communion in one kind, compulsory clerical celibacy, vows of chastity and votive masses were acceptable by divine law. Protestants achieved a minor victory on auricular confession, which was declared "expedient and necessary to be retained" but not required by divine law. In addition, although the real presence was affirmed in traditional terminology, the word transubstantiation itself did not appear in the final version.
The Act of Six Articles became law in June 1539, which, unlike the Ten Articles, gave the Six Articles statutory authority. Harsh penalties were attached to violations of the Articles. Denial of transubstantiation was punished by burning without an opportunity to recant. Denial of any of the other articles was punished by hanging or life imprisonment. Married priests had until 12 July to put away their wives, which was likely a concession granted to give Archbishop Cranmer time to move his wife and children outside of England. After the act's passage, bishops Latimer and Shaxton, outspoken opponents of the measure, were forced to resign their dioceses. The Act of Six Articles was repealed in 1547 during the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI.
When Parliament re-convened in April 1540, a committee was formed to revise the Bishops' Book, which Henry VIII had never liked. The committee's membership included both traditionalists and reformers, but the former held the majority. Convocation began discussing the revised text in April 1543. The King's Book, or The Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man to use its formal title, was more traditional than the 1537 version and incorporated many of the King's own revisions. It was approved by a special meeting of the nobility on 6 May and differed from the Bishop's Book in having been issued under the King's authority. It was also statutorily enforced by the Act for the Advancement of True Religion.
Significantly, the doctrine of justification by faith was totally rejected. Cranmer tried to save the doctrine by arguing that while true faith was accompanied by good works (in other words, faith was not alone) it was only faith that justified. However, Henry would not be persuaded, and the text was amended to read that faith justified "neither only nor alone". It also stated that each person had free will to be "a worker ... in the attaining of his own justification". The King's Book also endorsed traditional views of the mass, transubstantiation, confession, and Church ceremonies. The traditional seven sacraments were all included without any distinction in importance made between them. It was taught that the second commandment did not forbid images but only "godly honour" being given to them. Looking at images of Christ and the saints "provoked, kindled and stirred to yield thanks to Our Lord".
The one area in which the King's Book moved away from traditional teaching was on prayer for the dead and purgatory. It taught that no one could know whether prayers or masses for the dead benefited an individual soul, and it was better to offer prayers for "the universal congregation of Christian people, quick and dead". People were encouraged to "abstain from the name of purgatory, and no more dispute or reason thereof". Presumably, the hostility towards purgatory derived from its connection to papal authority. The King's own behavior sent mixed signals. In 1540, he allowed offerings for the souls of deceased Knights of the Garter to be spent on works of charity instead of masses. At the same time, however, he required the new cathedral foundations to pray for the soul of Queen Jane. Perhaps due to the uncertainty surrounding this doctrine, bequests in wills for chantries, obits and masses fell by half what they had been in the 1520s.
The Forty-two Articles were intended to summarise Anglican doctrine, as it now existed under the reign of Edward VI, who favoured a 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 ecumenical 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 Mary I and the reunion of the Church of England with the 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 reduced the number to 38 by throwing out Article XXIX to avoid offending her subjects with Catholic leanings. In 1571, despite the opposition of Bishop Edmund Gheast, Article XXIX was re-inserted, declaring that the wicked do not eat the Body of Christ. This was done following the queen's excommunication by the Pope Pius V 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 Catholic Church and dissident Protestants. These also made distinction between matters of faith and doctrine that were central and essential vs those which were seen as indifferent and variable. 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 the production and enactment of the Articles was the absence of a general consensus on matters of faith following the separation from Rome. There was a concern that dissenters who wanted the reforms to go much further (for example, to abolish the three-fold ministry by eliminating bishops) would increase in influence. Wishing to pursue Elizabeth'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 (Latin: middle path or middle way) between the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church on the one hand, and those of the Lutheran and Reformed churches on the other hand, thus giving the Church of England a unique middle-of-the-road position. 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 state that there are only two sacraments – baptism and communion – they reject the idea of transsubstantiation and clerical celibacy, as well as the idea of purgatory and the possibility of indulgences.
The Articles highlight the Anglican positions with regard to orthodox Catholic teachings, to Puritanism, and to Anabaptist thought. They are divided, in compliance with the command of Queen Elizabeth, 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 Articles: 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: The Protestant and Reformed Articles: 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.
Articles XIX–XXXI: The Anglican Articles: 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 has no jurisdiction in the realm of England.
In 1628 Charles I 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, John Henry Newman's Tract 90 attempted to show that the 39 Articles could be read according to an Anglo-Catholic interpretation.
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 until its repeal in 1828. Students at Oxford University were still expected to sign up to them until the passing of the Oxford University Act 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 Anglican tradition.
A revised version was adopted in 1801 by the US Episcopal Church which deleted the Athanasian Creed. 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 325, and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Beside these documents, authorised liturgical formularies, such as Prayer Book and Ordinal, are normative. The several provincial ions of Prayer Books (and authorised alternative liturgies) are, however, not identical, although they share a greater or smaller amount of family resemblance. No specific ion of the Prayer Book is therefore binding for the entire Communion.
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