This Article has been used as ammunition by Polemicists who think that it provides the "aha!" factor. They have decided that it proves that Anglicanism is built on a false foundation, because these C of E Reformers were obviously rejecting the authority of Ecumenical Councils. And, despite the fact that the See of Rome recognizes the full validity of the holy orders in oriental "Non-Chalcedonian" churches, the aforesaid polemicists derive from their assumption further "proof" of Anglican Absolute Nullity and Utterly Voidness. As much as it may seem desirable, at times, to restore the Elizabethan penalties upon "papists"- strictly for these polemicists (and my mother-in-law), but no one else- it would seem a bit difficult to enforce them. So, I guess we'll just have to use apologetics instead. Oh well.
First of all, it is self-evident that councils are not infallible unless ratified by the Universal Church, something rendered impossible after Nicea II due to the Great Schism between the two "One True Churches." Some councils in the first Millennium finished their work, only to have it either rejected immediately, or accepted only briefly before being finally rejected. These facts of history are well-known, and need no further elaboration. Some councils were considered authoritative in a few regions, but never accepted by the majority of the Church, and so they are not Ecumenical Councils.
Also self-evident is this simple fact: "And when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God." Indeed, no Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox has any basis for disagreeing with this. Why, after all, were some councils not received by the Church? What about the Arian Council in 341?
Also self-evident is this fact: "Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture." This is self-evident because the Ecumenical Councils arrived at their conclusions by this very method, examination of holy scripture; and because they received Ecumenical status on this basis also.
Because these Articles invoke the authority of scripture, the polemicists (or self-appointed apologists for Rome- of the sort who seem never to have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church) find what they think is more ammunition against Anglicans, and more proof of just how absolutely null and utterly void we, your clergy, really are. After all, this must prove that our Church is a sola scriptura sect, because we invoke the authority of the same Bible concerning which Rome has said, "these books have God as their Author"1. Of course, when the pope says it, then it's Catholic. When the English Reformers said it, it was Protestant. The significance of this distinction is not by any means self-evident.
The problem with their argument is what I have stated above. The Conciliar method was examination of the contents of Scripture. The method of universal ratification leading to Ecumenical status for a Council was also based on careful examination of scripture. The Holy Catholic Church in the first millennium was far more Berean 2 than our polemicist friends appreciate.
In addition to things that are self-evident, the term sola scriptura was well-known before the Reformation. It came from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): Quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. ("The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith"). 3 The English Reformers kept this principle alive, and deduced from it those words known to every traditional Anglican: "Holy Scriptures 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." This is in Article VI. Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
It is true that the Universal Church infallibly interprets scripture, in fact, has infallibly interpreted scripture. This does not mean that the Church gives us a complete commentary verse by verse. It means that whenever interpretations contradict the clear teaching of the Church, those interpretations are to be rejected. A very-very-modern Evangelical concept of sola scriptura, on the other hand, is wrong; that is, subjecting the scriptures to private interpretation. That is because some people do not understand that the Bible is not only the Word of God, but is also the Book of the Church. God wrote these books, so to speak, with human instruments. The scriptures came first through the prophets of Israel and then through the Church of the Apostles. The Church knows what its book means.
The idea expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas is what the English Reformers meant by the words quoted above from Article VI. It is a Protestant concept by the terms of their day and age, which is why it is a Catholic concept. Perhaps defining the words "Catholic" and "Protestant" should be required of anyone who uses them as labels, who paints with them using a large brush.
The Thirty-Nine Articles were established in 1563. What was happening at that time? The Council of Trent was still a matter of "current events" rather than history. Article XXI explained why the Church of England was not participating (that is, from the English perspective), and why no one should be troubled by anything Trent would require of Christians. The Article did not reject "the Church with her authority," to use Richard Hooker's phrase. It taught the people of England that their consciences need not be troubled, nor their beliefs dictated, by any council that could not prove its conclusions from scripture (the degree to which the Council of Trent may or may not be in agreement with scripture is a topic for another day).
This Article deals with facts of history as well, stating that each of these churches had erred at some point, for example, the Monothelitism professed by the Patriarch of Constantinople in the time of St. Maximus the Confessor. Primarily, the Article refers to the Arian heresy, if only because emperors, especially Valens, forced it on the people, creating a new round of persecution. St. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, was forced into exile several times. In fact, the Bishop of Rome was appointed by Arian emperors in those years.
In a fiction novel called Father Elijah, 4 an apostate cardinal has a conversation with the pope. In it the pope tells this errant cardinal that it was the "Petrine Charism" that saved the Church from the Arian heresy. This is fiction within fiction, because the facts do not support it; it is worth mentioning because it is the popular mythology of some Roman Catholics. It was not the Bishop of Rome who saved the Church from the Arian heresy, whether he had "the Petrine Charism"or not. The first Ecumenical Council of Nicea was called by Constantine because he was aware of strife, and wanted to maintain peace; and it was also due to the urging of Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria. The Bishop of Rome did not call the Council, and he was not present at it either. With the other Patriarchs, he did ratify it after it was completed. Later, when Arianism gained the sympathy of emperors, the See of Rome was officially Arian.
Of course, just as with the condemnation of Pope Honorius I for heresy (Monthelitism) at the Third [Ecumenical] Council of Constantinople (680 AD), we are told that this doesn't count as a strike against papal infallibility. Fine. I will not argue that point. I will instead argue that what the Church of England set forth in the Articles does not amount to a rejection of the Faith of the Church, does not invalidate our claim to belong to the Holy Catholic Church, does not render our orders "absolutely null and utterly void," and does not replace Catholic faith with Protestant innovation.
These Articles were written to defend, clarify, and teach the Catholic Faith as all former generations of the Church, and the Fathers of the Church, defended, clarified and taught it.
1. Dominus Iesus
2. Acts 17:10,11
3. Notandum autem, quod cum multi scriberent de catholica veritate, haec est differentia, quia illi, qui scripserunt canonicam Scripturam, sicut Evangelistic et Apostoli, et alii huiusmodi, ita constanter eam asserunt quod nihil dubitandum relinquunt. Et ideo dicit Et scimus quia verum est testimonium eius; Gal. I, 9: Si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Cuius ratio est, quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. Alii autem sic edisserunt de veritate, quod nolunt sibi credi nisi in his quae ver dicunt. Thomas's commentary on John's Gospel, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P., Editio V revisa (Romae: Marietti E ditori Ltd., 1952) n. 2656, p. 488.
"It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and the like, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is what he means when he says 'we know his witness is true.' Galatians 1:9, "If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!" The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21)
4. Michael D. O'Brien, Father Elijah, 1996 San Francisco, Ignatius Press