In this series of posts on the Thirty-nine Articles, we now come to the role of Scripture in establishing Christian doctrine.
6. Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church. […]
And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following: […]
All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.
Article 6 says something about the sufficiency and contents of holy Scripture.
The point about the sufficiency of Scripture is that no one has the authority to add something to Scripture, and to say that if you don’t believe it, you cannot be saved, or if you don’t believe it, you are denying the Christian faith. This was an issue in the Reformation, with the Roman Catholic Church insisting on belief in its doctrines of transubstantiation, papal authority, and purgatory, for example, none of which (the Reformers contested) could be established on the basis of Scripture. Article 6 is therefore something of a ‘Great Repeal Bill’, or a ‘simplification project’. It also relativises the authority of the Articles themselves, placing them clearly under the authority of Scripture.
The point about the contents of Scripture is to establish that, when it comes to the Old Testament, only those books that are present in the Hebrew Scriptures can be used to establish doctrine. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Old Testament includes various books that existed originally only in Greek, and which are generally known in English as ‘the Apocrypha’. (It was Jerome, or ‘Hierome’, who put together the Latin translation of the Bible used for centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, so his opinion about the status of these books would presumably be thought to carry some weight.) These books were never treated on the same level as the Hebrew Scriptures, as can be seen from the fact that the church fathers ‘never wrote commentaries on them’ (Bray, 45). The Anglican position about the Apocryphal books appears to have been vindicated in the course of time, as ‘most modern scholars, including Roman Catholics, agree that they should not be put on the same level as the Hebrew Bible’ (Bray, 47). Nonetheless, they are still regarded by the Church of England as worth reading ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’.
7. Of the Old Testament
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.
Article 7 tells us simply that the Old Testament is worth reading today, both because it tells us about everlasting life, and because it shows us how we ought to live in order to please God. (Why, then, is the Old Testament neglected in so many Anglican churches?) The threefold division of the law is not present in the Old Testament itself, but it is a useful rule of thumb. ‘Christ has offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice that needs no repetition’, so the ceremonial aspects of the law do not apply to the church. Nor do the civil aspects, because ‘the Christian church is not a state in the way that ancient Israel was’. But the moral aspects of the law ‘remain valid for us … because they reflect the character of God and what he expects of his people’ (Bray, 54).
8. Of the Three Creeds
The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.
J. I. Packer explains: ‘Article 8 lays it down that the reason why the three classic creeds should be accepted is not the church’s say-so, but the fact that Scripture proves them true’ (Packer, 76).
Athanasius’s Creed, as it is known, is neither a creed, strictly speaking, nor was it written by Athanasius. But it is one of the catholic creeds recognised by the the Church of England, in which is ‘set forth’ the faith in which those making the Declaration of Assent declare their belief. Its complex language and its so-called ‘damnatory clauses’ can pose some challenges. As Gerald Bray expresses it, it is not that you will forfeit your eternal salvation for ‘failing to grasp the Athanasian Creed’. But we are to understand its statements in the sense that ‘Anyone whose beliefs contradict those of the Athanasian Creed does not know the God of the Bible and is therefore condemned to eternal damnation’ (Bray, 58, emphasis added).
According to the doctrine of the Church of England, therefore, the Scriptures are to be accepted ‘as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ’ (as the ordination services express it, in the first question addressed to those being ordained). As we have already seen in relation to the doctrine of God the Holy Trinity, and here in relation to the creeds, the Scriptures are to be received essentially as they were understood by the early church. Anglicanism is therefore not a matter of discarding absolutely everything and starting again from scratch. But it does involve insisting that nothing be considered essential for salvation unless it may be demonstrated on the basis of Scripture.