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The Thirty-Nine Articles in the Life of the Anglican Church

August 28th, 2023 | 14 min read

By Joshua Heavin

On the Thirty-Nine Articles: A Conversation with Tudor Christianity by Oliver O'Donovan. SCM Press, 2011. $32.

Perhaps the most discussed problem in Anglican theology is that it is extremely difficult to define what Anglicanism is, or to precisely demarcate which essential features constitute the Anglican family resemblance. Throughout the majority of Anglican history, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion provided a confessional baseline of theological consensus and accountability. Beginning in 1780, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States no longer required clergy to swear an oath of subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles, and by the time of the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer the Thirty-Nine Articles were relegated to a section in the back of the prayer book dubbed “Historical Documents.” As such, for many Anglicans in the contemporary West, the historic formularies of the Church of England such as the Thirty-Nine Articles and Books of Homilies are an important source for historical self-understanding, but do not function as a doctrinal norm or themselves represent a touchstone of contemporary constructive Anglican theology.

Meanwhile, though the breadth and diversity of Anglican expressions indeed can be a wonderful thing, it can also create bewilderment and confusion when clergy and bishops hold significantly differing views on important aspects of the Christian faith. While recovering the historic Anglican formularies is not a panacea, and would not solve all contemporary problems, recovering their influence could foster a scripturally faithful and indisputably Anglican path forwards for cultivating greater doctrinal coherence and orthodoxy in contemporary Anglican churches. So, if we aim to recover insights of the Thirty-Nine Articles for contemporary Anglican self-understanding and constructive theology, what resources might help us? The 16th century context of the Thirty-Nine Articles, especially with its stark polemics between the Roman Catholic Church and emerging Protestantism, is extremely different from the context of our rapidly secularizing, late modern West. While historical exposition of the Articles in their original context is important, arguably, something further is needed in order to discern the enduring value of their theological testimony. An outstanding resource towards that end is Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles: A Conversation with Tudor Christianity, first published in 1986.

In his introduction O’Donovan confides that he is not necessarily the most qualified person to write a commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles; his own academic expertise is in systematic theology and ethics. But he sets out to have a “conversation” with the Thirty-Nine Articles, not merely as a study of the past, but rather:

What I propose… is not to talk solely about the Articles, but the talk about God, mankind and redemption, the central matters of the Christian faith, and to take the Tudor authors with me as companions in discussion. Two voices will be speaking, a late modern and an early modern one, discussing (as equal partners, we shall hope) matters of concern to both, each raising the questions that Christian faith in his time forces upon him.[1]

Summarizing O’Donovan’s commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles is not easy, even though it is brief and written in a way generally accessible to non-specialists. The primary challenge in summarizing his commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles is that the Articles themselves are like a series of tips of icebergs—concise statements that have a deep and profound fullness beneath them, meaning that commentary upon them must simultaneously address the depths of all the major loci in Christian theology while also remaining concise.

O’Donovan’s procedure is to group the Articles into a series of chapters. Chapter one treats Faith in God and Christ (Articles 1 and 2); chapter two treats The Passion and Triumph of Christ (Articles 2–4); chapter three is devoted to Pneumatology (Article 5); chapter four is on the Scriptures (Articles 6–8); chapter five is on The Concealment of Creation (Articles 9 and 10); chapter six is on Salvation in Christ (Articles 11–18); chapter seven is on ecclesiology, “The Disappearance of the Invisible Church” (Article 19); chapter eight is on the Authority to Command (Articles 32–39); chapter nine is on Authority to Convince (Articles 20–24); the final chapter is on the Sacraments (Articles 20–24); and an appendix includes both the Forty-Two Articles (1553) and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571). In evaluating O’Donovan’s commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles, I want to highlight only four strengths and offer one critical reflection.

First, the opening three chapters on the first five Articles helpfully exposit a small-c “catholic” and conciliar theology proper, doctrine of the Trinity, and Christology. While individual Anglican theologians might develop their own niche outlooks on each of these doctrines, Anglicans, like other Protestant bodies during the continental reformations, do not have a distinctive doctrine of God or Christ. We are part of a continuing witness of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), commended by the ecumenical creeds and writings of the church fathers. An excellent insight from O’Donovan is that where other Protestant confessions such as the Westminster Confession begin with a section on theological prolegomena or on the doctrine of Scripture, the Thirty-Nine Articles begin with God, as a few other confessions do as well.[2] As O’Donovan writes, “for the Anglican Reformers, who were deeply concerned with epistemological questions, reality was, in the last resort, more important even than knowledge itself.”[3] 

Second, an especially satisfying chapter of this book is O’Donovan’s third chapter on the fifth article, on the Holy Spirit. O’Donovan rightly criticizes Cranmer for neglecting the devotion of an article to the Holy Spirit in the earlier Forty-Two Articles of 1553, and expresses appreciation for Parker’s revision that added the fifth of the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571, which should mitigate against Protestant tendencies to collapse pneumatology into the doctrine of Scripture or Christology. Where Eastern Orthodox Christians confess the original Nicene-Constantinopolitan position, that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father,” the Articles take a decidedly Western position, that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son.” O’Donovan notes that Eastern and Western Christians agree that within the saving economy of God’s outward works towards creation, all agree that at the eschatological event of Pentecost the Son sends the Spirit. Disagreement emerges when we contemplate God’s inner life as Trinity, and O’Donovan suggests the Augustinian tradition offers the most satisfying answer, since rather than the Father simply leading forth the Spirit out of himself, “it is in the Father’s relation to the Son that the Spirit has his source of being — from the Father! … the love of the Father for the Son is the occasion for the Spirit’s hypostatic being—it is not a question of cooperation or collusion.” The practical or pastoral import of this pneumatology is vast:

There can never be a point in my salvation at which God simply stops and leaves it to me. The existential act of belief in Christ needs to be evoked in us by God himself. That is what the Holy Spirit does. He is God within me, prompting me to believe in God manifest in Christ, enabling me to approach God the Father. “In him we cry ‘Abba, Father’. For the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are God’s children (Rom. 8:15f). Thus the Holy Spirit overcomes the problem of the objectivity and externality of God’s saving deed in Christ. He makes the objective reality a subjective reality to us.[4]

In this concise statement is an entire vision of the Christian life, that the objective realities of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is the basis of our life, which we appropriate and personally experience through the Holy Spirit uniting us with Christ in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present heavenly session.

Third, on the question of justification, at the heart of 16th century debates between the Roman Catholic church and Protestant Reformers, O’Donovan helpfully explains the senses in which we should understand ourselves as counted righteous in Christ. Does not the historic Lutheran and Reformed insistence that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us render null that necessity of our actually becoming righteous in this life? O’Donovan defends the vision of justification in Articles eleven through eighteen on the grounds of the finality of Christ’s work:

We must say that all is finished and complete. The sanctification of the many can do no more than realize the implications of what has already been accomplished. The coming of the Spirit to struggle with the flesh is simply a communication of the triumph that is won for all time. The doctrine of representation permits us to say no less and no more. What God does for the individual believer, then, is not a new and different work, a further “making righteous,” but an application of the one complete work, a “counting” of this believer into the righteous Kingdom already established and in place. In saying that we are counted righteous, the Reformers did not challenge the link between salvation and wholeness; they challenged the restriction of salvation to the sphere of the individual soul. We cannot comprehend justification in terms of what God does for each soul; for what transpires with that private sphere is but the expression of a public work upon the widest cosmic front already achieved: the redemption of the human race.[5]

There is thus an eschatological finality to God’s saving work in Christ, with whom we are united through the Holy Spirit.

Fourth, presumably a commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles should offer a clear sense of the unique charisms of a distinctively Anglican theology, and O’Donovan is clearest on this in his chapter on the sacraments. O’Donovan writes:

Why was there no English equivalent to the great Bible commentaries of Luther and Calvin? Why no leading soteriological theme, to play the role that justification played among the Lutherans? Why no synoptic view of Christian doctrine, reviving the tradition of the medieval summa, such as the Reformed churches attempted? But there it is – the peculiar minor genius of the English Reformation. It left a Prayer Book and a church constitution, with literature to provide a theological rationale for the one, and to justify the other against its detractors. It was limited work, but solid; and we are still dependent upon it. It did not free subsequent generations, of course, from controversy about the eucharist. Yet it determined, within fairly narrow limits, the ground on which that controversy would be pursued. Contrast Cranmer’s Article ‘Of the Lord’s Supper’, which denies ‘the real and bodily presence (as they term it) of Christ’s flesh and blood in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’, with the Elizabethan Article 28, which says instead that the body of Christ is eaten “after an heavenly and spiritual manner”, and there you have the principle alternative paths open to Anglican eucharistic thought for three centuries or more.[6]

On these and many other matters, I learned from O’Donovan’s succinct, clear, and sympathetic conversation with the Thirty-Nine Articles. His work is not an apologetic for the Articles, but it does amply demonstrate that their vision of the Christian life and faith is far from passe or no longer viable after the advent of modern questions and problems.

The only critique I will raise here is that it is far from obvious from his discussion how he envisages the conversation should continue. Since the Thirty-Nine Articles no longer function as a confessional document for Anglicans today, contrasted with how the Westminster Confession functions for confessional Presbyterians or the Book of Concord for confessional Lutherans, one cannot help but wonder to what extent the Thirty-Nine Articles either currently are, or should, be a theological authority for Anglicans. Even if Anglicans still required confessional subscription, it is not self-evident how this would create consensus. For instance, the Articles are far less exacting on many important areas of Christian theology than other confessions. For instance, there is nothing in the Articles comparable to Westminster Confession chapter 7 on covenant theology, which creates a broadly unified way that confessional Presbyterians understand salvation history and relate the various parts of Scripture to one another; Anglicans have nothing like that.

If subscription is not required, to what extent are views which contradict the Articles precluded? For instance, the 2008 Jerusalem Declaration, an authoritative statement for the ACNA, in section 4 declares “We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.” Yet, in ACNA churches today it is a common practice for deacons or priests to bring the reserved sacrament to people in the hospital or who are imprisoned or who must stay home and are not able to attend church. The ordinal for the 2019 Book of Common Prayer expressly encourages deacons to “carry” the sacrament to these people. More significantly, within the 2019 BCP’s Pastoral Rites, the directions for “Communion of the Sick” begins with a rubric that says “This rite is used when the consecrated elements are brought from an earlier celebration of Holy Communion” (pg. 227). Nonetheless, the Forty-Two Articles (XXIX) and the Thirty-Nine Articles (XXVIII) expressly forbid that the sacrament be “kepte” or “reserued,” and forbid that it be “caried about.”[7] Though, doubtless, the carrying mentioned in this article had in mind eucharistic adoration and processions such as that celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church at at the Feast of Corpus Christi, nonetheless the article’s express prohibition on the sacrament being reserved is stark.

To be clear, here I am not intending to take a stand on this matter; I am not sure I have a particularly clear view of it personally, at this point in my education and formation. Aesthetically and pastorally, I am sympathetic with Anglicans who find it deeply beautiful and comforting that, from the church’s common table, the church’s ministers go forth to those who are afflicted, imprisoned, and home-bound, that they too might share from the church’s common table, like Ezekiel’s vision of a river of water coming forth from the temple that renews and heals the entire earth (Ezekiel 47:1–12). Who cannot be moved by the montage of pastoral care and mercy ministry in the film “To the Wonder,” where a prayer from St. Patrick’s Breastplate (“Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me…”) provides the narration for a priest, beset by personal struggles, caring for the suffering people of rural Northeast Oklahoma—extending the church’s sacramental life to a world desperately in need of hope, and moving others who witness these acts of mercy to show mercy to others?

Confessional Presbyterians, however, would certainly question whether it is necessary to have reserved sacraments to fulfill that vocation because they have historically insisted that the only appropriate context for the Lord’s Supper is in the context of the church’s gathered worship. Consequently, where people are unable to physically attend a worship service, elders of the church and lay persons will travel together to host a small worship service in the home, prison, or medical care facility of those who cannot attend regular corporate worship, giving a stark and tangible reminder that Holy Communion is ecclesial and communal, rather than individualistic.

Theologically and constitutionally, it is not easy to reconcile the 2019 BCP ordinal for deacons on carrying reserved sacrament to those in need, the rubric for communion to the sick, its practice by many in our churches, the Jerusalem Declaration’s indication that the Thirty-Nine Articles are authoritative, and the Article’s express prohibition on this matter. What, then, is the nature of the Articles’ authority today? Surely there is no room for taking exceptions to the opening Articles on the doctrine of God, but historically the limits of the Articles' authority have been tested on many matters, from Unitarianism and deism, to the Oxford Movement and John Henry Newman’s infamous Tract 90, so this question is not gratuitous. I do not fault O’Donovan for not settling these extraordinarily difficult questions, but I wish he had given us further fodder for reflection on the nature of the Articles’ authority today, given how wonderfully clear and engaging was his exposition of them.



[1] Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty Nine Articles: A Conversation with Tudor Christianity (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1986), 7.

[2] See ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Ibid., 80.

[6] Ibid., 122.         

[7] Ibid., 148–149, sic. In the 2019 Book of Common Prayer this article is on pg. 783 in modernized language as follows: “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”

Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.