The Structure of Authority in the 39Articles and Anglicanism

We are beginning a study on the beliefs of Anglicanism as outlined in the 39 Articles of Religion.
The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion or the XXXIX Articles are the rules, regulations, and practices of the Church of England after the English Reformation.

The Structure of Authority in the 39 Articles and Anglicanism  

As they stand, the 39 articles are very much a product of their time. No matter what anyone tells you, they are highly influenced and flowing out of the continental Reformation of the 16th century. Embedded deep within their DNA one finds the influence of the Magisterial Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, and at nearly every point. They, of course, bear their own accent, especially the accent of Queen Elizabeth I and her personal reform goals for the English nation. Nevertheless, anyone who tries to imply that they are not “Reformed” is either misinformed or just not telling you the truth. On the other hand, anyone who tries to downplay their place as a key document of the Elizabethan Settlement is missing the mark as well.

The 39 Articles have often been subdivided into four major parts that are helpful in illustrating their internal structure of authority. They can be divided as follows.

  1. Articles I to VIII: The Catholic Faith  (Scripture & Tradition)
  2. Articles IX to XVIII: Personal Religion  (The Simple Gospel)
  3. Articles XIX to XXXI: Corporate Religion  (The Church & Christian Life)
  4. Articles XXXII to XXXIX: Miscellaneous  (Other Key Issues)

This internal logic is important because it outlines the structure of authority to the Anglican tradition, especially as Thomas Cranmer and his disciples like Bishop Parker, John Jewell, and Richard Hooker saw it.

Reformation Creeds and Slogans

The Reformation coined many slogans meant to capture its values and ethos. One particularly important one was “ad fontes” meaning “back to the sources.” For the great Reformers like Luther and Calvin, this above all referred to the Holy Scriptures, especially as found in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew. They felt that the Christianity of the Middle Ages had lost its way because of less than ideal translations of the Bible into Latin and a host of other problems.

This had another side to it. The Reformers were not like the Radical Reformation known as the Anabaptists, nor did they follow the extremist zeal like the Puritans who preferred a very narrow and at times the uninformed reading of Scripture. The Reformers also believed in a return to the “sources” known as the Church fathers, especially those writers of the first five or so centuries. It was out of this time period that “Christian Orthodoxy” was hammered out in the great Ecumenical Councils. 

Cranmer and his followers followed Luther and Calvin on this. Not only was a fresh reading of the Scriptures in the original languages in order, but also reading them with the help of the Church fathers would help cut through the gordian tangle of Medieval tradition. 

This concept of returning to the original sources was critical to the English Reformers, especially to Archbishop Cranmer himself. The reform goal was to not only return to the Biblical biblical faith and practice but also to render the Scriptures and the liturgy into “the vernacular” of the people. This meant translating the Bible and the services into the spoken language of the People—in England this was of course English.

This idea of returning to the sources could not be more important to our understanding of the English Reformation. It formed the structure of authority in the mind of Reformers like Luther, Cranmer, and others. What this came to look like was something like this:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition of the Ancient Church
  3. The Visible Church and Its Polity

Let’s summarize each before we unpack them more fully.

Scripture — Scripture is the theological and moral standard for what the Church believes and practices. The Church’s job is to preach, teach, and apply the Scriptures in the daily life of the community. What Scripture generally speaks to is mandatory; what it is silent on is not mandatory and open to both interpretation and variety of opinions and practices.

Tradition — Tradition is the collective interpretation and practice of the Church that clarifies what is unclear, and fills in the gaps where Scripture is silent. Tradition is always secondary to the Scripture itself, but nevertheless an inevitable part of not only the Church’s ministry, but to being human.

Church — The Church is the body of the faithful lead by duly ordained officers. These delegated leaders are called to study and apply Scripture, yet with close attention and aid of the Historic Church’s legacy of tradition.

Why Does it Matter?

There are many legitimate reasons why these three sources of authority, working in harmony, is critical for the Church. Space and time do not allow us to handle them here. Let it suffice for now by citing only two; this will become self-evident as we move through the following sections.

(1) The counterbalance of Scripture, Tradition, and Church leadership (in that order) served to create a balanced Church. You may think of these three like the three branches of the United State’s constitutional government that provide “checks and balances” for each other. The Scriptures are like the constitution and legislative brand providing the standard by which the Church lives and operates. The Tradition of the Church is like the Judicial branch serving up the historic interpretation of that standard. Finally, Ordained leadership is like unto the executive branch (though having a judicial and interpretive role as well) that is called to apply and execute the Scriptures in the Church daily.

(2)  This Three-part paradigm of authority is a firewall against the biggest threat in the Church today—individualism. Individualism is the idolatrous focus on the self in such a way that the individual becomes the highest authority in the room (i.e. “the room” being the mind of the individual!) 

This is one of the difficult legacies of American religion where the individual became the highest authority. So everyone’s personal interpretation seems right. That is normal and part of the sin nature. We all have a natural tendency to think our opinions right and our ideas best. This is dangerous for faith; it has often carved the path to error and division in the Church. This is why the interpretation of Scripture is a team sport, not an individual one. The collective mind of the Church provides those checks and balances to the idiosyncratic opinions bubbling in every one of us.

Scripture, Tradition, and Church

  1. Scripture
  2. The tradition of the Ancient Church
  3. The Visible Church and Its Polity

Let’s take each of these one at a time. Understanding these, and how they work together is essential to understanding the structure of authority in Larger sixteenth-century Reformation in general and the English Reformation in particular.

One Comment

  1. John Trafford

    Here rises a dialog of discussion and a sharing from life’s experience as we put in practice what God has taught us .

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