Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles
The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God's word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ: yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.
Habet Ecclesia ritus statuendi ius et in fidei controversiis auctoritatem; quamvis Ecclesiae non licet quicquam instituere quod verbo Dei scripto adversetur, neque unum Scripturae locum sic exponere potest, ut alteri contradicat. Quare licet Ecclesia sit divinorum librorum testis et conservatrix; attamen, ut adversus eos nihil decernere, ita praeter illos nihil credendum de necessitate salutis debet obtrudere.
Fr. Robert Hart
As in every case where we find the English Reformers defending an action we can place in its historical setting, their principles were eternal in nature, and theologically rooted in revelation. History tells us why the Church of England wrote in defense of establishing first one Book of Common Prayer and then a newer edition. But, it takes sound reasoning beyond simple historical knowledge to appreciate their explanation.
Article XX should take us to Richard Hooker concerning “the Church with her ecclesiastical authority” having handed down to us wisdom and reason in a manner we may call tradition. Among the uses of the word “tradition” we have different categories. There is tradition that is simply the handing down of revelation. “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions (παράδοσις paradosis) which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (II Thes. 2:15).” These things are inflexible, no matter how they are expressed. For example, whether one says “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” or “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the revelation of God’s one threefold Name is itself inflexible. This first category of tradition is tradition of revealed truth.
The second is manmade tradition that contradicts the first. “Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of
saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they
wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them,
Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?... Thus
have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition (Matt.
15:1-3, 6).” The reader should place his emphasis on the words “God” and “your”
to get the point across. And, indeed, many of the critical statements in the
Thirty-Nine Articles were aimed at errors that fit this second category
perfectly, such as “the Romish doctrine of Purgatory,” and other things we have
The third category of tradition is manmade tradition that is good, wise and reasonable. Because it is manmade it is flexible. But, because it is good, wise and reasonable it is foolish to cast it aside or to alter it carelessly. That is why Richard Hooker wrote about reason and “the church with her ecclesiastical authority” so closely together. Wisdom and reason are not really altogether separate from this category of tradition. Indeed, it is also wise to consider the possibility if not likelihood that the Holy Spirit showed the way and gave light to the minds of our fathers who came before us, so that what any church finds itself compelled to change in any given generation (and for the sake of posterity) is changed only with the greatest care. And, that change should be limited to what the Article mentions specifically: “…rites or ceremonies,” and corrections to false teaching with “authority in controversies of faith.”
In rites and ceremonies, Jesus taught us “that men ought always to pray, and not to faint (Luke 18:1),” and
told us to pray regularly for specific things (I Timothy 2:1f). But exactly how
to pray was not laid out for us other than to use the words beginning, “Our
Father” as part of a daily exercise. To pray regularly requires more. Though
one may be able to pray in a spontaneous fashion, to be sure we have neglected
no prayers the Scriptures command us to offer, and to keep ourselves
consistently practicing obedience, the forms of Daily Morning and Evening
Prayer are among manmade traditions that are good, wise and reasonable, and
that may even have been guided by the Holy Spirit. We neglect them to our own
detriment. St. Paul
Jesus told us “Take, eat; this is My Body…drink this all of you; This is My Blood.” He added “Do this in remembrance of Me.” So we “do this” in the Church in obedience to His command. But, He did not tell us how to “Do this” in every exact detail. To “do this” we must bless the bread and wine, we must say His words, and we must “take, eat…drink this all of you” since commandment to eat and drink is also in the Words of Institution as part of a valid celebration. These are all part of it. But, the Scriptures show us only a simple outline. The exact liturgies and design of many other things, the rubrics and even customs, were not revealed. So, in historical fact we see differences in ancient Eucharistic liturgies rather than one Universal model set in stone for all generations. As long as these follow the simple outline, it is good, wise and reasonable to follow the liturgy we have been given in our tradition.
Keeper of Holy Writ
The Church is not the master of the Scriptures, but rather, as the Article says, “the keeper of Holy Writ.” The Church has no authority to institute ceremonies that contradict Divine revelation recorded in the Bible. Beyond that, I wish the Article also said that liturgy ought to be drawn from Holy Scripture. The English Reformers could have said this without any hypocrisy or shame, for the traditional editions of the Book of Common Prayer contain liturgy most certainly drawn from Scripture itself. A genuine student of Holy Scripture can have no possible objection to saying those forms word for word, and ought to be able to say them in all sincerity.
The Article also tells us something very practical concerning “rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith,” which is that the Church ought not to “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Every liturgical practice, as well as every sermon or other form of teaching, should expound on Scripture in light of the Whole. This is called Systematic Theology. It is also called orthodoxy.
The balanced approach to truth, avoiding the errors of extremist thinking, is called the
or Via Media. We do well to heed the
advice of St. John Chrysostom in his Six
Little Books on the Priesthood, that
when teaching against one error we do not appear to teach the opposite error
(e.g. in teaching against excessive Legalism not to appear to endorse Libertine
practices and beliefs). We are keepers not masters of Holy Writ.
All of our practices and teaching in the Church must conform to what has been revealed and so recorded in Holy Scripture. If we must change any rites or ceremonies, that change ought to be motivated by a need to better conform to and communicate the word of God faithfully.
Fr. Laurence Wells
This Article confronts us with two distinct issues, which may seem to be thrown together haphazardly. On closer inspection, however, we find here a delicate and careful balance of two doctrinal realities which must forever be held in tension with each other.
First, the Church has “power” and “authority.” These terms are roughly synonymous and there seems little point in attempting to distinguish them. But it is worth pointing out that the Latin ius (here translated “power”) means a lawful right, and auctoritas means power conferred by an auctor, to be distinguished from potestas, an inherent power.
In its opening statement concerning the Church’s lawful right and authority “to decree rites and ceremonies,” Cranmer was squaring off firmly against the Puritan contention later expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
“[T]he acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (XXIII:II).
This extreme application of Scriptura sola has come to be known in Calvinist circles as the “regulative principle of worship.” In simple language, this means that we may not do anything in the worship service which we cannot find proof-texted in the Bible. Whereas Luther asserted that whatever is not forbidden is permitted, Calvin and his followers insisted that whatever is not permitted is forbidden. Cranmer stood clearly on the side of Luther in this debate. But this explains why the Puritans abolished the Prayer Book altogether, even those parts with which they had no argument, and replaced it with their “Directory for Public Worship.”
This principle (the RPW) is difficult to apply logically or consistently. Does it allow “hymns of human composure”? Organs or musical instruments? Is the
itself a “suggestion of Satan”? While
the Calvinist Churches still to some degree or other attempt to keep up their
RPW, it is interesting that they have far more zeal than Anglicans in
exercising their “authority in controversies of faith.” Geneva
In Anglican faith and spirituality, worship has always been a serious matter. But in every variety of churchmanship we refuse to be limited by a crude Biblicism. Our worship is formed by sound doctrine, the experience of the whole Church over time, and the needs of the people of God. “Let all things be done for edification…. Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good.” (I Cor. 14: 26, I Thes. 5:21)
But there are limits. For all our jokes about coffee hour as the eighth sacrament, the Church cannot invent new sacraments nor can it alter existing sacraments beyond their original intention. Holy Orders cannot be reinvented to permit priestesses and Matrimony cannot be redefined in order to humor sodomites.
And these limits are set by “verbum Dei scriptum,” the inscripturated Word of God contained (i. e, securely held) within the Biblical canon. The exact relationship between Bible and Church was a vexed matter in the 16th century. The Article uses the terms “testis” and “conservator” to describe the Church’s role. The calling of the Christian community is to give evidence to the world of objective truth which it did not create. The Church does not exist in order to “share its faith” or “communicate its experience.” The Divine Founder of the Church gave a commission, “Ye shall be my witnesses (martyres, equivalent to testis),” in other words, men and women prepared to give factual testimony in a court of law.
A “witness” is one who must deliver facts possibly dangerous to himself. A “keeper” is one who holds something entrusted to him by Another. One of the most false and pernicious notions abroad today in traditional Anglican circles is the belief that since the Church had a role in discerning the Biblical canon, the Church somehow invented the Bible, in the same manner that it compiled its Prayer Book, adopted its Canon Law, published its Hymnal, or drew up its budget. The contemporary Anglican theologian John Bainbridge Webster, in his splendid little book “Holy Scripture, A Dogmatic Sketch,” argues cogently that the Church can only have authority when it knows itself to be under authority, the authority of Jesus Christ who meets us and confronts us in Holy Scripture. As
said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” As the contemporary church has behaved
lawlessly, heedless of its calling to be “witness and keeper of Holy Writ,” so
it has lost credibility in the world to which it was sent. St Jerome
The great 19th century English bishop William Walsham How (to whom we owe so many of our hymns) expressed the delicate balance implied in Article XX in the second stanza of Hymn 402 (Hymnal 1940):
The Church from her dear Master
Received the gift divine,
And still that light she lifteth
O’er all the world to shine.
It is the golden casket
Where gems of truth are stored;
It is the heaven-drawn picture
Of Christ, the living Word.