Biblical Catholicism: On Being a 39 Articles Catholic

39The phrase “Prayer Book Catholic” has come to characterize those Anglo-Catholics who not only use the Book of Common Prayer but believe it to be the liturgy par excellence for Catholic worship and teaching the Catholic faith. This is opposed to those Anglo-Catholics who only ever use the prayer book out of necessity but see it as at best incomplete and feel the need to gussy it up with affectations from the liturgies of Rome, the East, or wherever. Prayer Book Catholics believe that Anglicanism is Catholic by its very nature. In that respect, they are the inheritors of the old High Churchman tradition which stressed fidelity to the prayer book as a matter of faith, not simply discipline.

Prayer Book Catholics strenuously defend the catholicity of the prayer book liturgies, but what about the 39 Articles of Religion that are appended to the back of the book? Is it possible for Catholics to defend the Articles or are they simply a relic of the Church of England’s Protestant past that is better off discarded?

The Articles are Arti-Cool

For the Anglican reformers and early divines, the Articles were essential, not as a comprehensive confession of faith but as a clear articulation of the ways in which the post-Reformation Anglican Church sought to keep the Catholic faith from being poisoned by outside influences. Sixteenth century figures like John Jewel and Richard Hooker upheld the Articles as a clear expression of Anglican theology, but in the early decades of the seventeenth century there arose a concerted effort on the part of some disgruntled members of the Church of England to muddle their meaning, so much so that in 1628 King Charles I had a note appended to the Book of Common Prayer that the Articles were always to be understood in their “plain and grammatical sense.” Peter Heylyn explains why in a treatise from 1660:

Each of the parties in those curious points in which the present differences do most consist conceive the Articles of the Church to speak for them, exclusive wholly of the other, but with a notable difference in the application. The Calvinists, by which name they love to be called, endeavor to captivate the sense of the Article and bring it to the bent of their own understanding; but the true English Protestants (whom for distinction sake we may call Confessionists) accommodate, though they do not captivate, their own sense to the sense of the Church, according to the plain and full meaning of the Articles in the points disputed.

Like many seventeenth century divines, Heylyn was attempting to advocate a position of fidelity to the theological principles of Anglicanism that came prior to any other distinctions. Of course, his particularly strong critique of the Calvinist interpretation of the Articles may or may not be correct, but his fundamental point was that the Articles ought to be able to set the terms of theological debate, not Calvinism or any other foreign school of theology or philosophy. He went on to imply that we ought to read the Articles the same way we read the Scriptures, by seeking their meaning in the context of the historical teaching of the Church and plain reason. This follows the position of many of the best and brightest minds in the Church of England in the seventeenth century, including William Beveridge whose brilliant Ecclessia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica systematically explained each of the 39 Articles using just such an approach.

Tract 90 Blows Up the World

Such an appeal to the primitive Church is consonant with Anglo-Catholic ideals as well, and yet the Articles are thoroughly rejected by many if not most Anglo-Catholics today who have come to accept the same Calvinist interpretation of the Articles that Heylyn attempted to debunk so many centuries ago. Historically, it is not hard to see how such a disregard and even disdain for the Articles developed. In 1841, John Henry Newman’s Tract 90 attempted to convince people of a Catholic interpretation of the Articles, but instead it set off such a firestorm within the Church and English society that Newman never quite recovered from the shock. It became the catalyst for his eventual conversion to Rome.

Admittedly, Tract 90 is a flawed document that sometimes works exactly the kind of magic upon the Articles that Heylyn accused the Calvinists in his day of supplying. Rather than starting with the plain sense of the Articles themselves, the tract starts with a desire to show that the Articles are not quite as unreceptive to Catholic ideas as they might appear. For this reason, both Newman’s supporters and critics have often conceded far too quickly that Newman did not really believe in the Articles, that he was simply trying to make them workable for his already established position. This, however, fails to account not only for Newman’s surprise and despair upon seeing how others reacted to his tract, but also his longstanding defense of the Articles prior to the tract’s writing. In 1834, when Dr. Renn Hampden began arguing that Oxford University ought to do away with its requirement that students subscribe to the 39 Articles, Newman wrote an excoriating fifty page essay called Elucidations in which he defended subscription to the Articles as a good and necessary part of living under the Church’s authority. Many other early Anglo-Catholics followed suit.

Pusey to the Rescue

After the controversy over Tract 90 had begun in earnest, Edward Bouverie Pusey wrote an extensive defense of the tract called The Articles Treated On in Tract 90 Reconsidered and Their Interpretation Vindicated. Despite the title, Pusey’s work does far more than simply defend Newman. In over two hundred pages, Pusey carefully and painstakingly goes through the same subset of the Articles that Newman treated, showing how a Catholic interpretation roots the Articles in both the Scriptures and the mind of the early Church. While Newman’s tract can be accused of working too hard at trying to harmonize the Articles with Roman Catholic teaching, even going so far as to suggest that there is no essential difference between the teaching of the Articles and the teaching of the Council of Trent, Pusey explicitly denies that the Articles have any “Romanism” within them and happily points out the various ways in which they are “anti-Romanist.” He insists, rather, that the Articles are to be understood in light of the universal witness of the early Church to the meaning of Holy Scripture. “This view,” wrote Pusey, “so far from relaxing the meaning of the Articles, gives them greater stringency, and lays us under a deeper obligation ; since now we are bound to receive them not only on the authority of our immediate mother, but of her, ‘the Jerusalem from above,’ who is the common ‘mother of us all.'” In other words, we do well to remember that whatever we teach in our small Anglican corner of the Catholic Church only has meaning if it is consonant with what the Church as a whole has always taught. Since the Articles reflect that very ancient teaching, Pusey believes they need to be not only upheld but given a full-throated proclamation.

The Articles and a Catholic Future

Alas, for far too many Anglo-Catholics today, Pusey’s words are forgotten. But for Pusey, Newman, F.D. Maurice, and many others in the early days of the Oxford Movement, the catholicity of the 39 Articles meant that upholding them was a non-negotiable. Just as we have Prayer Book Catholics today, it would surely be to the Church’s benefit if we also had 39 Articles Catholics today who do not assume that the discussion on how to interpret the Articles properly ended in 1841. Likewise, it would be good if Anglicans of all stripes today would begin to celebrate the place of the Articles within our tradition, not by figuring out how to bend them to our whims, but by approaching them on their own terms as a distillation of the teaching of the historic Catholic Church.

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13 Responses to Biblical Catholicism: On Being a 39 Articles Catholic

  1. I’m very glad you posted this, because to be entirely honest, I find it somewhat difficult, as an Anglo-Catholic, to be able to interpret the Articles in a Catholic way. Don’t get me wrong- I’m neither an Anglo-Papalist or a Calvinist by any stretch of the imagination, but some, especially after studying the Church Fathers, admittedly look less than Catholic. Article 28, for example, has always made me more than a little uncomfortable with the implication of receptionism, especially with my studying Orthodox theology as well as Catholic. This, of course, makes the whole Anglican idea of Justification vs. Theosis rather hard to reconcile, especially with Articles, 10, 11, and 17, since it seems to rely on a very Augustinian soteriology, even more so than Roman Catholics. Any thoughts or advice? I’m coming at this from the perspective of an Anglo-Catholic with a Byzantine background.

    • RYAN says:

      I think receptionism is the most straightfoward interpretation of the article, based on the theological milieu that produced the articles. An orthodox interpretation requires a lot of parsing and twists of logic, as with other articles.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Ryan, receptionism does not make sense, both because it denies the realism of the articles and because it was not what any Anglican believed or understood the articles to be saying in the first century and a half after they were promulgated.

      • RYAN says:

        The article is plainly drawing on contemporary reformed/ Calvinist thinking about the sacrament. It is much harder to attempt to square it with any historic catholic view.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      There is definitely an augustinianism at work in the theology of the Articles. I don’t think this negates the Catholic nature of them. I also don’t think justification and theosis are necessarily at odds. A lot of the writing of Lancelot Andrewes, for instance, seems to advocate a kind of theosis while maintaining a robust and fully Anglican understanding of justification. In terms of Article XXVIII in particular, you may find Pusey’s work to be helpful. Also, if I can get away with plugging my own stuff a little, the series linked to on the sidebar called “On the Eucharist” has some stuff that may help you to better contextualize what that article is saying, even though I didn’t write about the article specifically. A lot depends on how we understand the word “spiritual” and whether we’re seeing it through a biblical, patristic lens or through a post enlightenment lens.

  2. Matt Marino says:

    Fr. Jonathan,
    There you go again, cranking out a never-ending stream of solid stuff.

    Thank you.

  3. Greg says:

    This essay is pure gold! Thanks again Father Jonathan!

  4. Fr. Jonathan says:

    Thanks to all of you for the kind words!

  5. Fr. Justin Dodd says:

    Dear Father,

    Thank you very much for this thought-provoking article. Whilst I sympathise with your point about the 39 Articles I think you cannot approach this Anglican formulary without taking into account the political and social context in which it was written (and rewritten). This must certainly be the case if we are to approach them “on their own terms” as you suggest. For example, the original Article 37 says:

    “The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction. Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

    The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England…”

    We cannot ignore the influence of political expediency or reformation ideology on the articles. This of course is not to say that they don’t offer valuable doctrine or substantial insight into the forming of Anglican polity in all of it’s present-day expressions, including Anglo-Catholicism.

    Interestingly the Articles offer a good response to those Anglo-Catholics who feel that exclusive and conservative use of the prayer book is the true form of Catholic worship in Anglicanism. From number 34:

    “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”

    Many blessings to you,

    Fr. Justin

  6. RYAN says:

    I may have misunderstood what I was reading, but it seemed that Pusey’s explanation of the articles embraces iconoclasm.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Ryan. I’m not sure how you came to see that in what Pusey said since he was definitely the opposite of an iconoclast. Is there any particular passage that gave you that impression?

      • RYAN says:

        I was looking at the section where he talks about veneration of images as rejected by article xxii, p. 124-125. “Embraces” was probably too strong a word, but he seems to come out firmly against any veneration of icons, though he is willing to grudgingly accept their existence.

  7. Fr. Robert Herrell says:

    Thoughts on Fr. Staley:

    The Catholic Religion

    Anglican Church
    11th Edition, A.D. 1900

    By The Reverend Vernon Staley

    Part Fourth


    The Thirty-nine Articles are not Articles of Faith like the Creeds, and they are not imposed on members of the Anglican Church as necessary terms of communion. The clergy only subscribe them, and the sense in which the subscription is understood, has been stated by Archbishop Bramhall as follows; “We do not hold our Thirty-nine Articles to be such necessary truths, ‘without which there is no salvation;’ nor enjoin ecclesiastic persons to swear unto them, but only to subscribe them, as theological truths, for the preservation of unity among us. Some of them are the very same that are contained in the Creed; some others of them are practical truths, which come not within the proper list of points or articles to be believed; lastly, some of them are pious opinions or inferior truths which are proposed by the Church of England as not to be opposed; not as essentials of Faith necessary to be believed.” (1) Bishop Bull wrote similarly, “The Church of England professeth not to deliver all her Articles as essentials of faith, without the belief whereof no man can be saved; but only propounds them as a body of safe and pious principles, for the preservation of peace to be subscribed, and not openly contradicted by her sons. And, therefore, she requires subscription to them only from the clergy, and not from the laity.” (2)
    “The Articles are to be subscribed to in the sense intended by those whose authority makes the subscription requisite.” (3) It must always be remembered that the same Convocation, in the same set of Canons which first required subscription to the Articles, in 1571, enjoined that preachers should only teach “that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, and that which the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected out of the same doctrine.” “It seems” says Mr. Keble, “no violent inference, that the appointed measure of doctrine preached, was also intended to be the measure of doctrine delivered in the way of explanation of doubtful passages in formularies.” (4)
    It is quite evident, therefore, that the Articles would be understood by the clergy who first subscribed them as Articles of Peace for the preservation of unity. They were not religious tests, or Articles of Faith; they were made as comprehensive as possible, and they were to be interpreted and understood in accordance with the general rule of Catholic tradition, i.e., in the Catholic sense. (5)

    (1) Works, vol. ii, pp.201, 476.
    (2) A Vindication of the Church of England, xxvii.
    (3) Keble’s Catholic Subscription to the xxxix. Articles, p. 13.
    (4) Ibid., p. 15.
    (5) “I understand by the Catholic sense, that sense which is most conformable to the ancient rule, ‘Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab amnibus.’” Ibid., p. 14.

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