Let me say up front what we are not trying to do. We are not trying to compete with existing commentaries. Good material is out there, and I have recommended the work of E.J. Bicknell above all others. However, the average layman could benefit from a study centered on Biblical theology. We are not trying to blow sixteenth century theology out of proportion. Nonetheless, the need exists to recover essential truth that is all too often rejected and dismissed by modern Anglicans, including Continuing Anglicans whose specific weakness in this area is all too clear to us.
Also, we are not interested in arguing the legal status of the Articles, although we are willing to support our stand when we introduce the work. The legal status of truth is a very interesting question, inasmuch as none of us belongs to a state church in which doctrine is reduced to a loyalty oath. Canon Law requires that only orthodox doctrine may be taught, and contains measures to keep the people safe from destructive heresy.
But, the exact legal status of one written work, in this case the Articles as a publication that became part of the the Book of Common Prayer, falls almost into insignificance compared to unshakable convictions held by the people. Legal status cannot persuade, nor can lack of legal status deter. The question of whether or not the Articles are "binding" upon us is not unlike a question asked to Arthur Dent when he was lying in a ditch to prevent a bulldozer from destroying his house, in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Mr. Prosser: "Do you know how much damage this bulldozer would sustain if I just let it run over you?"
Arthur Dent: "How much?"
Mr. Prosser: "None at all."
When the Lord stood before Pilate, the Roman Governor questioned Him about His kingdom.
"Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." John 18:37
Truth is not partisan, and honest study is no respecter of persons or agenda. Truth has authority that is like a river. Whatever stands in its way will, in time, be removed out of its way, so that the constant flowing of water has overcome obstacles and cut its way permanently into the earth, producing such wonders as the Grand Canyon. More important to us than the legal status of the Articles is the truth they teach.
The work of the English Reformers has suffered at the hands of sincere people who call themselves Anglicans. On one hand people claiming to champion the theology of the Reformation have distorted the works of English Reformers to deprive them of any distinction from favored Continental Reformers. They have been jammed and hammered collectively as square pegs into the round holes of Lutheranism, Calvinism, and even Zwinglianism. But, the simple fact is, the English Reformation was a specific brand. As the website for the Diocese of the Holy Trinity (ACC-OP) says:
The Church of England arose as a separate catholic body out of the English version of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, but never intended the type of dramatic separation advocated by Protestants on the Continent. It took great care to preserve the Apostolic Succession, and with it the sacramental life of the Church, but at the same time participated fully in the rediscovery of Holy Scripture and the ministry of the Word so dear to Protestants. Are we catholic or protestant? In truth, the answer has to be "both"!
Many ideas overlapped, and the terminology was often identical, not only among the Reformers, but with ideas that had been debated by western catholics for centuries. But, overlap and common terminology appear to be absolute consensus only to lazy readers and lazy thinkers who seize upon one or two words (for example, "Predestination"), and miss the point. In fact, there were no new ideas in the Reformation, whether German, Swiss or English, except for what may have been new ideas of Puritans and Anabaptists and the "Real Absence" attributed to Zwingli. But, even those were not exactly new, and had their roots in old heresies.
Some of the people who try to hammer the Thirty-Nine Articles and other works of the English Reformers into the round hole of their choice, advocating a kind of Protestantism that is different from Anglican Protestantism, are among the people who call themselves Reasserters, and who blog on Stand Firm. What is ironic is that they find agreement from a modern brand of Anglo-Catholic.
That is a modern brand of Anglo-Catholic that agrees quickly with its adversary, but not while on the way with him. Such a self-proclaimed Anglo-Catholic protagonist and his Reasserter antagonist keep their distance, and aim at separate destinations, all the while agreeing with each other about the meaning of the English Reformers. Furthermore, this modern brand of Anglo-Catholic is not authentic, inasmuch as genuine Anglo-Catholicism was a movement in history led by men who never abandoned the Book of Common Prayer, and who defended the Formularies of Anglicanism.
The genuine Anglo-Catholics served a necessary function in their generation, as necessary as the Reformers had served in their own generation. The Reformers restored the Catholic doctrines of Justification, of faith, and of the need for everyone to receive the Dominical Sacraments. They restored faith in Christ Only, rejecting many errors that had obscured and even hidden the message of Christ's Gospel from the people. Centuries later, the Anglo-Catholics restored the reverence that ought to be accorded the sacrament, belief in the Communion of saints as a reality that crosses the boundaries of life and death, and above all restored prominence to the Incarnation.
But, the modern "wannabe" Anglo-Catholics seem not to have read the works of the men they pretend to follow. They exhibit symptoms by which we may recognize them as something altogether different, and altogether new. These symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:
1. Mistaking all things Roman for true Catholic Faith.
2. Feeling a need to "correct" the "mistakes and shortcomings" they imagine to be in the Book of Common Prayer.
3. Confusing Anglican Formularies with heresy.
4. Expressing a desire to remove such perfectly Catholic expressions of truth as the Comfortable Words, or the Prayer of Humble Access.
5. Misreading Article XXV to squeeze or hammer it into the Reasserter crowd's round holes (more on that later).
6. Thinking an Ordinariate will rescue them.
In short, they are ignorant.
In conclusion, we are not writing on the Articles to overstate their place in the overall history of the Universal Church and its teaching. Their accuracy is supposed to be tested, and well their framers intended it so to be. Above all, they are to be judged by the Scriptures:
Part of why we are writing about the Articles is to rescue them from unskillful hands in which they are dangerous. Like dynamite, they may be put to good use, or to evil use. The same is true, however, of Holy Scripture itself (see II Peter 3:16). The Articles are with us for the foreseeable future, which in theology means several generations while the earth stands. In the wrong hands they can do much harm; but, in the right hands they teach the truth and provide a good medicine.