The Thirty-nine Articles begin, appropriately, with God, and it is God the Holy Trinity who is the subject of Articles 1-5: Father (1), Son (2-4), and Holy Spirit (5). These Articles provide a clear articulation of classical Christian orthodoxy, and should cause few problems for any who are comfortable with that theological tradition. But there are a some points worth highlighting.
1. Of Faith in the Holy Trinity
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Article 1, it should be noted, rules out the idea that God suffers. Or, at least, it calls for great care in using that kind of language. It describes God as ‘without … passions’, which could easily be misunderstood. The Articles were originally written in Latin, and they make use of some theological terms with precise meanings. Describing God as ‘without passions’, or ‘impassible’, does not mean that he is ‘a cold and remote deity’ (Bray, 20). Rather, divine ‘impassibility’ means that ‘nothing can be inflicted upon God against his will’ (Beckwith, 6). This means that nothing can thwart God’s good plans, that nothing can weaken God’s resolve and God’s ability to save us, and that God will never ‘be deflected from his purposes by knee-jerk emotional reactions’ (Bray, 20). God does not suffer in his divine nature. But this is precisely why, in his deep and sincere love for us, and in order to save us, ‘he assumed a human nature which was capable of experiencing our pain and death’ (Bray, 21). It was in his human nature that Christ suffered and died, not in his divine nature. A God who suffers in his divine nature may well be able to express solidarity with us, but only a God who is ‘without passions’ can actually save us.
2. Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
Article 2 has some interesting turns of phrase regarding our salvation. It says that Christ’s work served ‘to reconcile his Father to us’, which highlights the existence of a problem on God’s side of the relationship, as well as on the human side. In other words, it is not simply that we need to change our minds about God, and that Christ’s death helps us to change our minds. It is also the case that something needs to be done about our sin from God’s perspective, because ‘his holiness cannot bear to live with our sin’ (Bray, 27). Article 2 also speaks of ‘original guilt’, which will be the subject of Article 9, and of Christ’s death being ‘for all actual sins of men’, which raises various questions about the extent of the atonement, and will be explained in more detail in Article 31.
3. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.
It is difficult to know what Article 3 means. A reference to Christ preaching to the spirits in prison (see 1 Peter 3:19) was removed from this Article in 1563, leaving little more than what is written in the Apostles’ Creed (Bray, 29). But what of the word ‘also’? As Martin Davie explains, ‘The implication seems to be that this was a separate event following on from Christ’s death and burial and preceding His resurrection and ascension which are described in Article IV’ (Davie, 164). But what was this separate event? Article 3 doesn’t tell us, and numerous suggestions have been made. Roger Beckwith explains that ‘“hell”, in Latin inferi (those below), means the place and state of the dead, without any implication that they are in torment’ (Beckwith, 6, see also Davie, 164-5), so Bray’s explanation about Christ going ‘to the place of eternal punishment’ (Bray, 29) is by no means obviously what the Article means. Herman Bavinck links the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed with ‘the state of death in which Christ existed between his dying and rising again’ (Reformed Dogmatics, 3.416), and Davie finds something similar in Luke 23:43 (‘today you will be with me in Paradise’) and Acts 2:31 (‘he was not abandoned to Hades’). Davie’s conclusion seems fairly reasonable: the belief ‘That Christ descended to the place of the dead as a disembodied soul is the sole belief to which members of the Church of England are committed by Article III itself’ (Davie, 168).
4. Of the Resurrection of Christ
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.
Article 4, likewise, adds very little to the creeds, apart from a more detailed description of the bodily nature of Christ’s resurrection. Bray explains: ‘Christ came back from the dead with the same body in which he was crucified, which is an important point. Salvation is not the casting off of what we have in order to receive something entirely new and different. Rather it is the transformation of our present reality into something which stands in direct continuity with it but which is made perfect by being cleansed of all sin’ (Bray, 33).
5. Of the Holy Ghost
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.
Article 5 was added in 1563, probably simply in order to make the Articles Trinitarian, and is ‘less comprehensive even than the creeds themselves’ (Bray, 37). The Athanasian Creed (see Article 8) is echoed in the language of ‘substance, majesty, and glory’. This Article reflects the Western church’s addition of ‘and the Son’ (Filioque) to the Nicene Creed, which is to be understood in the sense of ‘from the Father through the Son’, as agreed in the council of Florence in 1439 (Bray, 39).
Articles 1-5 reflect the concern of the Articles as a whole ‘to identify the faith they confess with the faith of the Fathers and the New Testament’ (Packer, 64), and situate the doctrine of the Church of England solidly within mainstream Christian orthodoxy, at least when it comes to the doctrine of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.