The 39 Articles of Religion – a bright light in the 21st century

May 16, 2013

Surely somebody must be kidding! Someone understandeth not those things appertaining to modern culture and language.and is plainly repugnant, but not me! The Articles are old-fashioned, clumsy, authoritarian, and bear more than a slight whiff of Anti-Catholicism. Many Anglican seminaries do not teach them, although the Anglican School of Ministry (where with God’s help, I will finish my Master of Ministry this summer) is an exception to the rule. One or two (I am trying to be very diplomatic here) include the Articles in curriculum, but do not actually believe them. The Episcopal Church moved the Articles into a previously nonexistent section of the so-called Book of Common Prayer, 1979 edition known as “Historic Documents.” That is the place of exile where doctrinal standards go to die.

It is a healthy thing for doctrine hawks such as myself to remember that what we do about the gospel of Jesus Christ is a lot more important than how we work out the official belief of divine inspiration or the attributes of God. It is very important for modern Christians to face down attacks on the faith with a clear and articulate understanding of official teachings. This takes a lot of work, and we are busy people. The problem is that, in some of his last public teachings before being taken bodily into heaven, Jesus unequivocally commanded his followers (us!) to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). And how exactly would one do that? Yes, Jesus often taught by example and through signs. He often resorted to teaching, a transaction in which information is passed from one person to another. The person receiving the information is expected to retain and use it. Jesus is very specific about “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (v. 19). If you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus, you are an instructor. There is no place for freeloaders.Jesus has set the curriculum to include “all that I commanded you.” The material is to be found in the four gospel accounts and the other divinely inspired texts which are the source of church teaching, including our Anglican Articles.

One could not deny that the Articles are representative in the ethos of another age. The theological terms are somewhat technical, but that is to be expected in a serious statement of religious belief. Theology is practiced with precise language and it is sometimes way above my own capabilities. That is why we have books and smart people who know how to read them. That is why we study history. Knowing what happened before our brief lifetimes goes a long way toward explaining the current situation. I am comforted whenever I read the 39 Articles of the reformed and catholic Church of England that its authors were not influenced by the Enlightenment, the industrial age, the information age, or the contemporary tendency toward unbridled individualism, and a sentimental, universalist, materialistic, neo-pagan, misrepresentation of Christianity.

The Articles have a few things to say about Roman Catholic doctrine. Back in the 1560s it was apparently a lot more acceptable to plainly state basic beliefs. Today, people are so afraid of causing any offense, they treat every set of doctrines as if one is as good as all the others. A close read of the New Testament will suggest that there were some tensions between important church leaders, and they were still members of the same church. Anglicans think that Roman Catholics are in error about some things, but we do not doubt for a moment that they are members of the church, the living Body of Christ on earth. Our ability to distinguish the most central areas of church teaching is an essential part of the Anglican tradition. Anglicanism, properly understood, is not a “split the difference” religion. The Articles, while not a comprehensive theology, hold to the Apostolic teaching of the church.

While some may consider the old confessions, such as the Anglican Articles, to be authoritarian, as if there is something wrong with that. Let’s be clear, the 39 Articles are a bit like a constitution. These  statements of belief are intended to outline what may be taught by the church. Individual Anglicans are not required to subscribe. Traditional Anglicans demand that church leaders, clergy, and teachers swear to teach only what is in the Articles, Creeds, and Christological decrees of the first four ecumenical councils. This is how the church protects the sheep from the occasional bad shepherd. If believers do not know the standards of belief, they will not be able to hold leadership accountable. It’s as simple as that.

Just in case you are wondering, I have taken the oath. I forget how many times I have taken it. I am ready to sign it every day  and stick by every syllable without crossing my fingers.

St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Little Rock has a Sunday school class on the 39 Articles set to begin June 9. I am going to “team teach” it with our Associate Pastor, Rev. Sam Murrell. In the world of theology, he swings a pretty big stick. Sam has an M.Div. from Covenant in St. Louis. He has been among the Anglicans for a number of years and really “gets it.” If you live out of town, MOVE. Otherwise, if you can’t make it, I will post audio recordings. We are excited about 10 memorable classes that will bring the Articles right into the 21st century.


2 Responses to “The 39 Articles of Religion – a bright light in the 21st century”

  1. I am fascinated by studying the history of Christianity. Often, in the small circle of our own spiritual lives, people of great personal faith forget that we are merely the tail of a long caravan of pilgrims. Their story, and the story of the Big Questions they have debated and agreed upon or over which they have distanced from one another, I find to be useful to maturing our faith. The documents give us perspective without editorial comment. Reading them can keep what is central to our faith from becoming obfuscated by our politics, our nationality, our denomination, or our decade. Sounds like a great study. I’m too far away, but I’ll listen online.

    • patlynch Says:

      I like the old commentaries too. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library us a gold mine. Human nature is still the same shipwreck and one can filter out the poison of modern culture. My goodness, that sounded very pessimistic. Many of the living theologians are marvelously well educated and need to be read. That the old guys have something to say is something every reader of scripture should understand. And one more thing, teaching church history is a monster! This is a 2,000 year story with thousands of characters, and hundreds of important actors. Not only do you need to know church history, but also have some idea of what was happening in the secular sphere. This is very hard work, but Christians need to know our past, even before the Reformation.

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