Saturday, November 22, 2008

Introduction to the Thirty Nine Articles by Michael Jensen

Michael Jensen teaches at Moore College in Sydney, Australia. He is writing a book on the 39 Articles, which is the Reformed confession of the Anglican Church. His introduction deftly explains why so many modern people have no interest in creeds and confessions, but points out why such a lack of interest needs to be rethought. --Bill


It has to be said that we live in an age which doesn’t really like ideology very much. Systems of doctrine and great schemes of knowledge have caused plenty of trouble in our world and so we find ourselves rather nauseated when people care too much for that sort of thing. Demanding that there is a right way to think seems to be a way to bully others. The great “isms” of the 20th century – Marxism, Stalinism, Fascism, Nazism – left the globe awash in blood; the religions of the world are famed for their links to violent outrages. And for most right-thinking people in the West enough is enough: enough with the doctrines that claim to have an answer for everything, that say they can make a complex world neat and tidy by imposing a grid of ideas and forcing everybody to fit. It was almost ninety years ago that the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote

…The best lack all conviction,
While the worst are filled with passionate intensity.[1]

His words have a contemporary ring: wouldn’t it be better to “lack all conviction” and just get on with everybody? Hasn’t “passionate intensity” wreaked enough havoc, caused enough megadeath? Aren’t convictions inherently dangerous, (literally) explosive even? Aren’t convictions “prisons”, as Nietzsche thought?[2]

Furthermore, we live in a deeply skeptical age. Many people doubt that anyone can have confidence in things you can’t experience first hand. I was going to say that people doubt things you can’t experience with your senses, but it is true that there is quite a lot of “spirituality” about – that is, it is quite fashionable to speak of yourself as “a spiritual person” who is in some way in contact with the divine or the higher being or something like it. To speak of having personal religious experiences is quite common. I can be sure at least about what I feel. But to speak confidently of things that seem so outside of oneself – to say that the one God is three persons, for example – is surely impossible. To make statements about what you believe seems to be just the wishful thinking of another age.

However, much as we might imagine that it is the path to a safer world, it is impossible to live without convictions. Believing - that some things are true and that some other things are not, and that some things are good and that some other things are less good – is a part of what it is to be human. Even the person who loves peace and whatever it takes to achieve it, so that they can get on with their life as they wish to live it, is saying something about what they believe to be most important, and is staking a commitment to it. Sometimes these beliefs may be carefully worked out and thought through; sometimes they may be merely what everyone else thinks; and sometimes they may be “gut reactions”, things we are aware of the level of our instincts. But these are all at some level “convictions” about how things are and how they ought to be. So, the question is not “do I have convictions” but rather “what am I convicted about”?

Christians are people who have a particular set of convictions. Primarily, they are convicted that in Jesus of Nazareth, a human person like one of us, God the creator took on human flesh, died for sins and rose again; and that today among us we may know him by his Spirit.[3] Now, this isn’t a dry-as-dust set of propositions put to them in some kind of philosophy tutorial: it means for them that they have encountered the very source of life itself in Jesus. It transforms their lives. For the earliest Christians, this explained why they were worshipping this Jesus - a man - as the only true God – something that had been unthinkable before. These “convictions” were not a matter of ticking the box on some survey; they were a life-transforming reality, something that many of them would be happy to die for, as it turned out.

This small group of convictions obviously needs a bit of mulling over, and explaining. And there are any number of questions that you could put to them. And so, since the time of the early churches, Christians have attempted to put some flesh on the bones, so to speak: to clarify and interpret and explain them, to say what they weren’t saying sometimes as much as what they were. And so, they produced at various times great statements of the faith in order to say as clearly as possible, “these are the things which we are convinced are true (and here is what we know isn’t)”. One of these was the great creed known as the Nicene Creed, developed over the course of the 4th century AD. In it, the churches asserted that the Jesus they worshipped was both fully man and fully God.

This book is an interaction with another statement of faith: a set of Christian convictions produced by leaders of the Church of England as their statement of belief in the 16th century – The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. The Church of England – known today as the Anglican, or Episcopal Church in many parts of the world – had its beginnings not with high-minded theological convictions but with the needs of international politics. In 1534, Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome and the authority of the Pope and made himself supreme governor of the Church in England – in the first place because he needed a divorce from his Spanish wife in order to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn.

And yet there were matters of genuine theological conviction in play – it was more than a just a matter of a king’s love life. The movement we know now as the Reformation had begun to sweep Europe in the 1520s under the influence of people such as Martin Luther in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. Its influence had certainly been felt in England: so much so that King Henry had written a piece staunchly defending the Pope’s position against Luther! In brief, the Reformation made a two-pronged attack on the version of Christianity that the Roman Catholic Church was at that time presenting.

The first substantial issue was a matter of authority. The champions of the Reformation saw themselves as returning to the Bible as the supreme authority in the Christian faith. Only Scripture was ultimately authoritative: not the Church itself or its Pope or its traditions. These needed to be under the Bible, and shaped by it. And so translating and distributing the Bible was a major task that the Reformers and their supporters undertook at this time.

The second substantial issue was answering the question of how someone might be saved (what theologians call soteriology). All were agreed that the death of Jesus for sin was a necessary component of human salvation – but how did the whole scheme fit together? In the medieval period, various theories had been suggested as to how this came about. How much was human effort, and how much was God’s work? For example, one theory demanded that a person had to do whatever was within them to please God; recognizing this that he or she had done their best, God would graciously accomplish the rest in Christ. By their intense study of the Bible, the Reformers had discovered that no human effort was required for salvation at all – not the least because no human effort could achieve it. Rather, a person is justified by faith in the work of Christ on the cross only, and not at all by their own efforts to please God.[4] Doing good things was only the outworking of what God had done, not part of the process of being saved in the first place.

These two themes, as we shall see, underlie the attempt to provide a summary of the Christian faith that we find in these articles; for through Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and others, Reformation ideas – particularly those of Luther, and later John Calvin - became a feature of the Reformation in England.

The Articles themselves are mainly the work of Cranmer, who was Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII (dates) and then under his son Edward VI (1547-1553). It was during Edward’s reign that he began to frame a list of doctrines that would stamp the English church with the indelible mark of Reformed theology. It wasn’t until the reign of Elizabeth I, however, that the Articles took their final shape and number (Cranmer had offered 42), in 1571. This was after much toing and froing, as we might expect.

In many ways the Thirty-Nine articles are a statement of faith for the sixteenth century. They reflect the controversies of their day, not ours. For example, there is an extended statement on the Lord’s Supper – which was a real bone of contention between the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church (and between the Reformers, too, it has to be said). They are certainly not a perfect list. They seem to leave out what to us may seem like important things – they say hardly anything about the return of Christ, or about the Creation of the world, for example. And they overemphasize what seem to us unimportant things – a whole article is given over to Jesus’ descent into hell, and another to the swearing of oaths. At points they reflect the necessary evil of compromise rather than present a single pure vision of what is true. The grubby fingers of the committee process are certainly in evidence.

So: are they worth studying today? Today very different issues confront all Christian believers and Anglicans among them. We ask, what is the right way for Christians to behave sexually? How can we square our faith with the scientific knowledge on which we so depend? What is the best way to order our churches and what should our services look like? How should we relate to the political world in which we live? I would argue that the convictions outlined here are most certainly worth revisiting in our times. These articles are not an embarrassing skeleton in the Anglican closet but rather the result of a careful listening to the Bible and its teaching. They are an attempt to express what God says to his people in the Bible. In them, the Church of England declares itself subject to God’s Word in Scripture, and not free to do anything else but listen to what the Bible says and respond in obedience. Those who framed them were well aware that times would change, and that there would be different customs and cultures in which Christians would have to live out their faith. They themselves had lived through turbulent and difficult times, when beliefs were in a tremendous flux and when there was enormous pressure on individuals to change their beliefs to suit the times.

Our times are no less tricky. The churches that identify with the Anglican tradition are no less in a crisis of self-identity today. People who call themselves “Anglican” seem to spend an enormous amount of energy disputing what that exactly means and over who has the right to call themselves really “Anglican”.[5] The Thirty-Nine Articles - along with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer - are to this day seen by many people as a touchstone for what being an Anglican might be. And yet, even the significance of this touchstone is disputed. There are Anglicans, theologians and bishops among them, who would see the significance of the Articles as quite secondary and would even deny their ongoing authority as a frame for Anglican teaching.

There is more than a touch of contemporary arrogance in this attitude – a feeling of superiority over the past, that it was fine for people to subscribe to such beliefs four centuries ago, but that we know better now. But Christians are not freed from the obligation of listening to the voices of their brothers and sisters from the past. These articles are reminder that, for Anglicans as for all Christians, convictions do matter. They remind us that even though stating what you believe is not easy, that it is a task incumbent on Christians of every time and place. They are not a dull list of abstract statements, but the implications of thinking through a living faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Agreeing to them is not at all the same as having a saving faith in Christ Jesus; but they help to protect and frame and shape the preaching of that same Jesus Christ by some of those who would follow him. There are those – like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley - who died for these beliefs, pointing as they did so to the greater reality that they represented: namely Jesus Christ, the greater judge, the Lord of all.

[1] “The Second Coming”
[2] The Anti-Christ p. 184
[3] There are a couple of early summaries of Christian belief in the Bible itself. See 1 Cor 15:3-5, for example: 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
[4] This is a really brief summary of the Reformation which is one of the most interesting periods of history that anyone can study. See {Reformation}
[5] I frequently hear people use the word “Anglican” to mean a more formal style of church service, as in “that church is more Anglican than this (usually more laid-back) one is”. As we shall see from the Articles themselves, liturgical flexibility was already in place in Anglican thinking in the 1500s.

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