The document known as The 39 Articles of Religion is one of the Anglican formularies. A “formulary” is a document that formulates the basis of a particular Christian tradition. Every tradition and denomination has its own formularies, however large or small, clear or hidden. For the Anglican tradition, we look primarily to three documents: The 39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal (which is, nowadays, printed as part of the Prayer Book, and contains the services for ordaining Deacons, Priests, and Bishops).
These days, such formularies often fall under attack for being “extra-biblical” and unnecessary stumbling blocks that only divide Christians from one another. This can be a valid criticism at times. What such critics often fail to understand, however, is the fact that on its own the Bible has been subjected to myriads of different interpretations, and God’s people have always used additional documents to clarify or summarize what the authoritative teaching of Scripture actually is. Denominations and traditions with weak, unclear, or ignored formularies tend to be the ones that drift away from the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ most quickly.
Each of the Anglican formularies help ground us in the Gospel in a different way. The Book of Common Prayer sets out a unifying way of worship that keeps us on the same page with a common language to speak of God and the Gospel. The 39 Articles of Religion set out points of doctrine and practice to settle some controversies (especially in 1562 when they were first published). The Ordinal and the resulting Order of Bishops unite local churches into dioceses, reducing the ill effects of isolation and the potential for straying away from one another.
We will look at one Article at a time, to examine what it says, means, and teaches – not just historically but for the present time as well. I’m also going to summarize groups of Articles at once.
Here is an outline of this series, and how the 39 Articles may be simply grouped together:
- Who is God? (Articles 1-5)
- How do we know God? (Articles 6-8)
- What is the human condition? (9-14)
- What has God done for us? (15-18)
- What is the Church? (19-24)
- What are the Sacraments? (25-30)
- How is ministry carried out? (31-36)
- How is civil life to be run? (37-39)