Friday, October 29, 2010

A LAYMAN'S GUIDE TO THE THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES

Fr. Laurence Wells

About thirty years ago a priest of the Continuing Church wrote a letter to the Christian Challenge in which he declared that there is not a single one of the Articles which is not subject to dispute. That priest had little use for what he called "the Elizabethan settlement." He soon betook himself to the Papal obedience. I could not resist the temptation to take him up on his unqualified claim "not a single one," and in my own beguiling manner pointed out that Article I simply states that "There is but one living and true God." My letter to the Challenge touched off one of those epistolary battles we used to enjoy before the arrival of the Internet. A dear and witty friend of mine, now with the Lord, quoted II Corinthians 11:24, "Five times I receive at the hands of the Jews forty lashes save one." Being a young priest at the time (to me 40 seems very young indeed), I learned that the Articles are a touchy subject and anyone who says anything at all good about them will quickly draw negative attention.

Discussions of the Articles have a way of bogging down over the point of their current legal standing and the degree of our commitment to them. Someone will bring forth the obvious banal observation that once upon a time they had not been written. Others will point out the virtual silence of our various canonical instruments on the current status of the Articles. I do not know for sure of any jurisdiction of the Continuum which is legally forsworn to the Articles. No cleric, to my recollection, has been formally charged in modern times with teaching contrary to the Articles; but a few, I can truly attest, have raised eyebrows for speaking kindly of them. For the nonce, for the sake of the argument, I will yield the point and concede that the Articles are legally a dead issue among us, their canonical authority having fallen into desuetude. Promoting some disciplinary enforcement of the Articles is far from my purpose.

I will argue instead that the Articles truly do possess authority, not necessarily a legal authority, but simply the authority of truth. Such statements as "There is but one living and true God" or "Christ did truly rise again from the dead" will stand or fall on their own strength. They require no action from a Church Synod. So from this lofty and perilous tree-stand, we will proceed to examine the Articles one by one. We will endeavor to show that those who reject the Articles as a whole may prove too much.

Having conceded that the canonical status of the Articles is virtually moot, allow me also to observe that they possess no quality of inerrancy. There are several places where one might prefer that things had been phrased differently. In Article XXV, for example, I wish the author had written, "The New Testament sets forth seven rites or ordinances, which the Church properly calls Sacraments, two of them directly ordained by Christ Himself, and the others firmly grounded in Apostolic practice and Scriptural teaching." Not that the original language there is entirely wrong, but it does require some gymnastics of interpretation. But a far more serious mistake is found in Article II, where "reconcile" is used when "propitiate" would have been the correct Biblical term. But to borrow a metaphor from Charles Hodge, these are only "flecks of granite in the marble of the Parthenon." They do not destroy the beauty of the building but they serve to make it more interesting.

The masterful commentary entitled "The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England" written by Edgar C. S. Gibson, Bishop of Gloucester and published in 1896, divides the Articles into four sections. I quote him verbatim:

"The most natural and convenient division of them, in accordance with their subject-matter, appears to be the following:

I. The Catholic Faith and where it may be found (Articles I--VIII).

(a) The Faith (Articles I.--V.)

(b) Scripture and the Creeds (Articles VI. -- VIII.)

II. Personal Religion, or Man and His Salvation (Articles IX. -- XVIII).

III. Corporate Religion, or the Church, the Ministry, and the Sacraments (Articles XIX. -- XXXI).

IV. Miscellaneous Articles, relating to the discipline of the Church of England, its relation to the civil power, etc.

(Articles XXXII -- XXXIX).

Now let us proceed to examine the Articles separately, beginning with Article I.

(To be continued.)

11 comments:

Nickie Goomba said...

I'm looking forward to this. Thank you.

Joseph said...

I too am looking forward to this essay

Richard said...

It is most refreshing to see a commentary on the articles. I find that many Anglicans are a bit afraid of these foundational texts, but I don't think it is an coincidence that the liberals within the Episcopal Church suppressed the articles in their campaign to fundamentally subvert the Catholic faith in America. I look forward to the series.

Richard Tarsitano

Fr. John said...

So far, so good.

Jack Miller said...

I am too looking forward to these essays. But Fr. Wells, I'm wondering why the nibbling at Art. II ("But a far more serious mistake")?

It reads, to reconcile his Father to us,

In 2 Cor. 5:18... "But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ"

Eph. 2...

13 But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ.

14 For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition,

15 having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace;

16 and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:

I, myself don't want to be too exacting here, but I don't understand your objection. Please don't hear me as just being difficult. I want to understand your position on this. Indeed Christ is the propitiation or satisfaction by which God's wrath is appeased and we thus find favor. But is the above rendering so off the mark?

respectfully,
brother Jack

Anonymous said...

Jack: As a term describing the work of Christ, "reconciliation" (katalassw) is found in Romans 5 and 2 Cor 5. (It also occurs in 1 Cor 7, in a purely human connection.) In both cases, God in Christ reconciles man (the angry nasty mutinous rebels that we are). The same is true with the text from Ephesians you quote, where Paul argues that God's act of reconciling mankind is the basis for reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles.

This is a different term from an equally Biblical term, propitiation, where GOD Himself is the object. That term means to placate or assuage wrath.
That concept gives indigestion to liberals. In the early 20th century
C. H. Dodd and his disciples tried to convince us that the correct translation is not "propitation" but "expiation," which means to drive out sin and thus avoids the unpleasant idea of Divine wrath. This had a baneful effect on the RSV and other Biblical translations, as well as the Comfortable Words in BCP 79 Rite I.
Leon Morris did a masterful job of exploding that bit of wishful thinking.
Thomas Oden (a middle-of-the-road Methodist) acknowledges that "propitation" is well within the "Ecumenical consensus."

The Article would have done better to say either "reconcile us to His Father," or "propitiate the Father for our sins."

Hope this helps.
LKW

aaytch said...

Thank you, Jack.

AFS1970 said...

I am also looking forward to this, as the 39 Articles were not really addressed in any of my church education, but then again I was confirmed post 1976 so the Affirmation was already in place.

Jack Miller said...

Fr. Wells,

Yes, that helps. I take your explanation as an accurate teaching of the work of Christ, though I still don't see the Article II rendering as a "mistake", in and of itself. So no more quibbling on the nibbling by me!

Blessings,
Jack

J. Gordon Anderson said...

The Rev'd J.I. Packer has a chapter in his famous book "Knowing God" on the difference between propitiation and expiation, and why the former is the more Biblical of the two terms.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Some anonymous Anonymous wrote to tell us that the Articles are heresy, and made no argument as to why (except for idiotic assertions of non-fact).

Anonymous:

Your comments will be deleted unless

1. You establish some sort of name or nickname.
2. Make some specific point and attempt to argue it (good luck).

For now, I regard you as dangerously misinformed, and educated just enough to be raving with utter poison instead of mere ignorance. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing for those predisposed to error with zeal.

And, please stop claiming that you represent the beliefs of the ACC. You don't.