Philip Schaff: The 39 Articles Are Reformed

81. The Interpretation of the Articles

The theological interpretation of the Articles by English writers has been mostly conducted in a controversial rather than an historical spirit, and accommodated to a particular school or party. Moderate High-Churchmen and Arminians, who dislike Calvinism, represent them as purely Lutheran;1 Anglo-Catholics and Tractarians, who abhor both Lutheranism and Calvinism, endeavor to conform them as much as possible to the contemporary decrees of the Council of Trent;2 Calvinistic and evangelical Low-Churchmen find in them substantially their own creed.3 Continental historians, both Protestant and Catholic, rank the Church of England among the Reformed Churches as distinct from the Lutheran, and her Articles are found in every collection of Reformed Confessions.4

"her Articles are found in every collection of Reformed Confessions."

The Articles must be understood in their natural grammatical and historical sense, from the stand-point and genius of the Reformation, the public and private writings of their compilers and earliest expounders. In doubtful cases we may consult the Homilies, the Catechism, the several revisions of the Prayer-book, the Canons, and other contemporary documents bearing on the reformation of doctrine and discipline in the Church of England.

In a preceding section we have endeavored to give the historical key for the understanding of the doctrinal character of the English Articles. A closer examination will lead us to the following conclusions:

1. The Articles are catholic in the ecumenical doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, like all the Protestant Confessions of the Reformation period; and they state those doctrines partly in the very words of two Lutheran documents, viz., the Augsburg Confession and the Würtemberg Confession.

2. They are Augustinian in the anthropological and soteriological doctrines of free-will, sin, and grace: herein likewise agreeing with the Continental Reformers, especially the Lutheran.

3. They are Protestant and evangelical in rejecting the peculiar errors and abuses of Rome, and in teaching those doctrines of Scripture and tradition, justification by faith, faith and good works, the Church, and the number of sacraments, which Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin held in common.

4. They are Reformed or moderately Calvinistic in the two doctrines of Predestination and the Lord’s Supper, in which the Lutheran and Reformed Churches differed; although the chief Reformed Confessions were framed after the Articles.

5. They are Erastian* in the political sections, teaching the closest union of Church and State, and the royal supremacy in matters ecclesiastical as well as civil; with the difference, however, that the Elizabethan revision dropped the title of the king as ‘supreme head in earth,’ and excluded the ministry of the Word and Sacraments from the ‘chief government’ of the English Church claimed by the crown.1 All the Reformation Churches were more or less intolerant, and enforced uniformity of belief as far as they had the power; but the Calvinists and Puritans were more careful of the rights of the Church over against the State than the Lutherans (*Note: Erastianism no longer applies to the Anglican Church).

6. Art. XXXVI., referring to the Prayer-book and the consecration of archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons, is purely Anglican and Episcopalian, and excited the opposition of the Puritans.

1 So Archbishop Laurence, of Cashel, and Hardwick, in their learned works on the Articles.

2 Newman, Pusey, Forbes. Archbishop Laud had prepared the way for this Romanizing interpretation.

3 Even the Puritans accepted the doctrinal Articles, and the Westminster Assembly first made them the basis of its Calvinistic Confession.

4 From the Corpus et Syntagma down to the collections of Niemeyer and Böckel. The Roman Catholic Möhler likewise numbers the Articles among the Reformed (Calvinistic) Confessions, Symbolik, p. 22. On the other hand, the Articles have no place in any collection of Lutheran symbols; still less, of course, could they be included among Greek or Latin symbols.

1 The modification of the royal supremacy in Art. XXXVII., as compared with Art. XXXVI. of Edward, was intended to meet the scruples of Romanists and Calvinists. Nevertheless this article, and the two acts of supremacy and uniformity, form the basis of that restrictive code of laws which pressed so heavily for more than two centuries upon the consciences of Roman Catholic and Protestant dissenters. Comp. the third chapter of Hallam’s Constitutional History of England (Harper’s ed. pp. 71 sqq.).

Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I:622-623