Concerning Articles I and II
Of faith in the Holy Trinity
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Unus est vivus et verus Deus, aeternus, incorporeus, impartibilis, impassibilis, immensae potentiae, sapientiae, ac bonitatis, creator et conservator omnium, tum visibilium tum invisibilium. Et in unitate huius divinae naturae tres sunt Personae eiusdem essentiae, potentiae, ac aeternitatis, Pater, Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus.\
(Derived from the Confession of Ausburg via the provenance of the Thirteen Articles and unchanged since 1553.)
Of the Word, or Son of God, which was made very man
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
Filius, qui est Verbum Patris, ab aeterno a Patre genitus, verus et aeternus Deus, ac Patri consubstantialis in utero beate Virginis ex illius substantia naturam humanam assumpsit: ita ut duae naturae, divina et humana, integre atque perfecte in unitate personae, fuerint inseparabiliter coniunctae: ex quibus est unus Christus, verus Deus et verus homo: qui vere passus est, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, ut Patrem nobis reconciliaret, essetque hostia non tantum pro culpa originis verum etiam pro omnibus actualibus hominum peccatis.
(From the Confession of Ausburg via the Thirteen Articles. It was last changed in 1563.)
Fr. Robert Hart
The First of the Thirty-Nine Articles may appear to express something so obvious that it goes without saying. But, the doctrine expressed in this Article is part of the Faith, the truth as revealed and later defended against genuine attack from heresy. Like every major revelation that God has given to the Church, faithful men had to fight for it, in some cases at great cost to themselves. Even as we begin the Articles, the words of St. Jude come to mind:
“Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ."1
No sooner had the Church emerged from the stress of persecution by the Roman Empire, than it faced a new crisis, the Arian heresy, which brought on new persecution against the faithful. The First Council of Nicea (AD 325) was called to defend the Divinity of Christ against a strange doctrine popularized by one Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria. His chief opponent was also form Alexandria, a young deacon at the time, named Athanasius. The purpose of the Council was not to debate the merits of Arius’ doctrine, but to see whether or not he was guilty of denying the full equal Divinity of the Son to the Father. In fact, he was quite open about this denial.
In the final analysis, the Church, as represented in the Council, agreed that Athanasius was teaching the Faith as it had been received and understood since the time of the Apostles. The main reason that Trinitarian theology prevailed at that time was because of the doctrine of salvation. Christ alone is the one Mediator between God and man,2 the Savior of mankind. Sinners have no one else to call upon, and each person needs Christ Himself, to be in Christ. This proved the deciding factor at Nicea in AD 325.
The method of the Fathers, by which they proved the truth of their position, was to draw their teaching from Holy Scripture. They did not know of any distinction between Scripture and Tradition, but only the Tradition of Scripture. It was all one and the same to them, since the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church always recognized Scripture as the source where all necessary Apostolic teaching was recorded. They heard the voice of God in Scripture. At Nicea, they employed this same long established patristic method to prove the truth. Even though the canon of the New Testament had not yet been made “official” before the Council, the actual books that were recognized by the Universal Church were not in doubt. (Old controversies had existed about II Peter, Jude and Revelation. Some had argued that the Shepherd of Hermes ought to be in the Canon; but, these matters were fairly well resolved before the Council.)
Today many people have completely misguided opinions of the first Council of Nicea. They assume that it was dominated by the Emperor Constantine. In fact, when he began to address the Bishops he was told to be silent. He had no voice and no vote whatsoever in the proceedings, and became merely an observer once the Council was underway. No books were removed from the Bible, as popular misinformation would have us believe. Gnosticism was not the issue, as some would have us believe, but rather Arianism.
The Thirty-Nine Articles were written in the Church of England, which retained in its liturgy the Creed called Nicene. That Creed, the universally recognized Creed of the Church, is the Creed composed at the first Council of Constantinople in AD 381, an adaptation of the original Nicene Creed that churches could use for liturgy. The actual Creed of Nicea contains anathemas, and is not generally liturgical in structure compared to the Constantinopolitan Creed we call Nicene; but, it is obvious that the Creed of Constantinople is a refined version of the same Creed. The Church of England kept the same Faith without change, and we say the Creed to this day in all orthodox Anglican churches.
The doctrine that there is one God, “And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” was not invented at the Council of Nicea, but rather it was defended. The Fathers who gathered there did not create the idea, neither did the doctrine develop from some hitherto undefined void. A new word was coined, yes, an extra-biblical word, homoosioun (translated into English “of one substance” in the Creed called Nicene). But, just as the word “Trinity” came to be used to summarize a doctrine clearly revealed in Scripture, so the word homoosioun summarized the revelation of God as clearly set forth in Holy Scripture.
A sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
What we have seen thus far is all relevant when begin to look at the Thirty-Nine Articles. That the Divinity of the Son was settled finally over the question of our salvation from sin and death, takes on special relevance for the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as a publication of the English Reformation. For, in Articles that follow, the teaching that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, and that works, merits of saints, indulgences and sacrifices of Masses (in the double plural) cannot save us from sin and death, was based on the revelation that the One who saves us is Himself both God and man. It is not only that he died for us, but Who He is that died for us, that is at the center of orthodox Christology. The corruptions, heresies and false practices that had grown up in previous centuries, and that had come to dreadful fruition in their own time, needed to be washed away to protect the revelation of Who the Lord Jesus Christ is.
Without body, parts, or passions
Of course, the words “without body” speak of the Divine Nature, God as God. Therefore, Article II balances out the words, “without body” by saying, “The Son, which is the Word of the Father … took man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried.” These words tell us that Christ’s human nature is very real, true and complete. He not only looks human, not only appears human, but really is human even though His Person remains Divine and One with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Divine Nature and the human nature of the Son come together in one Person, but the two natures remain distinct.3
Article I should make us think of that part of the Creed that says, “Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made."4 Article II should make us think of the words that follow immediately: “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man.”
“Without parts” means something more than the simple fact that the Divine Nature has no body with individual members. Rather, it refers to the Simplicity of God, namely, that where God is present He is fully present. Furthermore, the Persons of the Godhead are not parts of God: Each Divine Person is fully Divine. Yet, the Persons are distinct even though inseparable. The Son is not the Father, but to see Him is to see the Father. The Holy Spirit is not the Son, but it is through the Holy Spirit that the Son is present in the Church.
“Without passions” is another way of saying that God is impassible. Modern theologians try to reject this ancient doctrine of the Catholic Faith, imagining that the necessary use of anthropomorphic language about God in Scripture should be taken literally. God is spoken of as “moved with compassion,” or as having wrath. But, God also says clearly that he never changes.
“For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”5
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.”6
Understood correctly, the doctrine of Divine Impassibility ought to provide comfort and assurance. It does not mean that God is heartless and unfeeling, but rather that God will not disappoint those who trust in Him. The basis of His covenant faithfulness is rooted in His unchanging love, and the promises He has given to us in His Son. God is not surprised, and God does not react. Rather, He sees the end from the beginning. He has acted both to create and to save us. He will not disappoint those who place their trust in Him.
The Articles open with a bold declaration of the Faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. As we continue to look at them we will see that they never depart from this path.
1. Jude 2, 3
2. I Tim. 1:5
3. Ultimately, a much fuller expression of this was recorded in the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD)) in these words:
So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.
4 "By whom (i.e., by Him, that is the Son or Word) all things were made" is based on John 1:3: "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." The Word, no less than the Father, is the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
5 Malachi 3:6
6 Hebrews 13:8
Fr. Laurence Wells
Fr Hart has given us a fine introduction into the Articles, but I would like to underscore a couple of points he has touched on. First, if we view the Articles as a whole, we should notice how they begin. Not with a broadside against the Bishop of Rome, nor an attack on the Mass, nor with a battle-cry against the sale of Indulgences or trafficking in relics, but a calm reasonable statement concerning "Of Faith in the Holy Trinity," and moving on to "Of the Word or Son of God, Which Was Made Very Man." The first eight articles, in fact (that is roughly 20% of the total), simply set forth the ecumenical consensus of belief, the mainstream of the Christian tradition, the almost universal body of doctrine which we still refer to as the Catholic Faith. There is little in the first Eight Articles which the Roman Church did not share. (And before you bring up the Old Testament Canon, please check out the interesting opinions of Cardinal Cajetan.) So those who either disparage or patronize the Articles need to be careful that they do not accidentally deny the Catholic faith itself.
It must be recalled that the 16th Century controversies were waged on two fronts. As we all know the Reformers were in confrontation with Rome. But they were equally engaged on the other side with far more radical movements (notice plural) such as proto-Unitarians Michael Servetus and Faustus Socinus and various Anabaptist sects. (Pike and Spong have a colorful ancestry!) The English Church, like the continental Reformers, had to take a stand against many of the classical heresies of the early centuries which were returning to the scene with their old vigor.
This should remind us that the Reformation was securely grounded in Catholic faith. In the assertion of "Gratia sola,,,fide sola" in the central portion of the Articles (which begins with Article IX), we have no new departure, no radical innovation, but teaching perfectly consistent with the shared faith of the early centuries.
One term in the first Article requires special comment. This occurs in the phrase "without body, parts or passions" (incorporeus, impartibilis et impassibilis) which might be translated "incorporeal, indivisible and impassible." Incorporeal is self-explanatory. Saying that God is indivisible means that His attributes may not be set against each other; specifically, God's grace and His sovereignty are never in tension. Thus far, little dispute.
But "without passions" for some is problematic. The version of the Articles contained in the Methodist Book of Discipline deletes this. The notion of a dispassionate or even apathetic God seems rather foreign to the God revealed in the Scriptures, a God whose love and wrath are far too real to be explained as mere anthropomorphisms. No, God is truly angry with sin and He truly loves His creation. The revival of Biblical studies (called the Biblical theology movement) of the last century raised some hard questions for the classical notion of the impassibility of God. Many dismissed this attribute as the intrusion of pagan philosophy.
But hold on a bit. The ancient and medieval theologians were perfectly faithful to Scripture when they described God as "purus actus," by which they meant that in God there is no passivity whatever. God is never acted upon because He always holds the initiative. I fondly recall a Latin professor who once said, "Only God can be the subject of a verb."
The impassibility of God is a necessary inference of His immutability. God, whom the Old Testament so frequently describes as "our Rock," is unchanging. This as been seriously disputed by various ancient heresies and by modern theological fads such as the so-called "process theology" and "open theism."
But the Gospel itself--which is the beating heart of Catholicity--requires the doctrine of an unchanging God. We affirm this each time we say, "Thy property is always to have mercy." Such words can only be addressed to an immutable and impassible God. A mutable god would not be trustworthy as it could not be depended on to be consistently merciful. A less than impassible god might be overwhelmed by the sin of the world. The Gospel holds that if sin truly provokes the Divine wrath, it can never defeat grace itself. In this difficult word, "impassible," the victory of grace is at stake. In the words of Henry Francis Lyte, "Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me."