There is a great deal of debate among self-professed orthodox Anglicans today regarding the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, as to whether they are Catholic or Calvinist. This debate has been caused by a growing number of Anglicans who are self-described as Reformed or Calvinist in theology.
When Metropolitan Jonah spoke at the inaugural Assembly of the Anglican Church in North America in 2009, and said that the ACNA had to reject Calvinism, I was surprised. I left the Episcopal Church in the late 1970s, and have been in the ministry all of my adult life, but I had never even met an Anglican that called himself a Calvinist. Naive? Sheltered? I don’t think so. In addition to serving in the parochial ministry, I served for years as the editor of a national Anglican publication and as a provincial Ecumenical Officer. I have known large numbers of Anglican clergy and laity, including many continuing Anglican bishops and primates in both North American and abroad, yet I had known no open Calvinists. None. Former Reformed clergy and laity who had come to the door of Anglicanism after studying John Calvin and then took the next step, yes. Five Point Calvinist “Anglicans,” no.
Where has this resurgent Calvinism come from, and why has it arisen so suddenly? The continuing Anglican movement which came into being in the wake of the Minneapolis General Convention of 1976, and the great St. Louis Church Congress of 1977, though divided into several jurisdictions was essentially united in Catholic Faith and Order. Likewise, the Reformed Episcopal Church, which had experienced a Catholic Revival of its own, had fully recovered classical Anglicanism; and more than a decade ago had entered into a process of growing together with the Anglican Province of America (APA), with the goal of visible unity. The Reformed Episcopal Church later became the driving force in the formation of the Federation of Anglican Churches in the Americas (FACA).
The resurgence of Calvinism in Anglicanism is something altogether new, rather than an organic development. The sudden rise in Reformed (Calvinist and even Zwinglian) theology is due to the large influx into Anglicanism of refugees from the Episcopal Church (TEC) that began in earnest in the year 2000, coupled with a revival of interest in Calvinism among evangelicals who were searching for a theological system to embrace.
Unlike the exodus in the 1970s, these former Episcopalians had little understanding of Anglican theology, liturgics, history or spirituality, and most had little or no living memory of orthodox Anglicanism as it existed before the apostasy of the Episcopal Church in 1976. Sometimes called Anglican “re-asserters,” these evangelical-minded Anglicans have been formed by pop-evangelicalism, the church-growth movement, the charismatic movement, the contemporary Christian music industry, and the revival of interest in Calvinist theology among young evangelicals; and are seeking to redefine Anglicanism, and to reinvent the Anglican Church and Communion according to their own ideas.
Classical Anglicans have always affirmed that the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion are Anglican answers to Reformation era controversies with both Geneva and an unreformed Roman Church; and that they are meant to uphold the Faith of the undivided Catholic Church. Contemporary Calvinist Anglicans however see the Articles more as a Protestant Confession, and assert that they express Calvinist or Reformed theology. Both views cannot be true. So which is correct?
Were the Articles of Religion intended to teach the Faith of the primitive Catholic Church as witnessed to by the Church Fathers, or were they intended to serve as a Calvinist Confession? Let’s look at the facts.
The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion as we now have them were edited and adopted during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, some fifteen years after the deaths of Cranmer and Ridley. A lot had happened in those fifteen years. The Anglican Church had returned to Roman obedience after the death of King Edward VI, and five years later, with the death of Queen Mary, the English Reformation began again under Queen Elizabeth I. The new queen would have liked to have ignored the 1552 Prayer Book which had never been authorized by Convocation and returned to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, but could not do so for political reasons. However, in 1559, a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer was issued with the black rubric removed, the words of administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion from the 1549 Prayer Book restored, and a new ornaments rubric added. The Church then began working on the Thirty-nine Articles. It is to these Articles and to the Elizabethan era that we must now turn our attention.
“In the year 1571 the Articles were... committed to the editorship of Bishop John Jewell. They were then put forth in their present form, both in Latin and English; and received, not only the sanction of Convocation, but also of Parliament” (An Exposition of The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, Historical and Doctrinal, Edward Harold Browne, D.D., Lord Bishop of Winchester, 1865, p. 15).
What was Bishop Jewell’s understanding of the goal of the English Reformation? Was it 16th century Calvinism or primitive Catholicism? Jewell writes, “We have returned to the Apostles and the old Catholic Fathers. We have planted no new religion, but only preserved the old that was undoubtedly founded and used by the Apostles of Christ and other holy Fathers of the Primitive Church” (Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae).
The Thirty-nine Articles were issued during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. What was her understanding of the goal of the English Reformation? Was it 16th century Calvinism or primitive Catholicism? In 1563, she said, “We and our people - thanks be to God - follow no novel and strange religions, but that very religion which was ordained by Christ, sanctioned by the primitive and Catholic Church and approved by the consentient mind and voice of the most early Fathers.”
Now we will turn to the Articles themselves. Do they teach Calvinism or Catholicism?
Article IX, “Of Original or Birth-Sin,” says, “man is very far gone from original righteousness,” not entirely corrupt and totally depraved as Calvinism teaches. This Article contradicts the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity and upholds that Orthodox view of Original or Ancestral Sin as a wound.
Article XVI, “Of Sin after Baptism,” says that a man who has received the Holy Ghost and fallen into sin may rise again: “After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives.” This article contradicts the Calvinist teaching on Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints. Calvinism would say that should we fall into sin after we have received the Holy Ghost we “will arise again,” rather than “may arise again;” and denies that Christians “may depart from grace given.” In fact, “In 1572 the Puritans addressed certain admonitions to Parliament complaining of the inadequacy of the Articles and their dangerous speaking about falling from grace” (A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, E. J. Bicknell, D.D., 1935, p. 21).
Article XVII, “Of Predestination and Election,” does not say a word about the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, and ends by saying: “Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally [meaning universally] set forth to us in Holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.” God’s promises are general, or universal, not particular and limited to the elect. Anglicanism does not believe that God predestines some men to salvation and others to eternal damnation.
What is the Anglican understanding of Predestination and Election? Anglican theologian Vernon Staley explains it this way: “Predestination does not mean that some souls are fore-ordained to eternal life, and others to eternal death, for there is no purpose of God to bring any man to eternal death. God ‘will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.’
“There is a purpose in everything, both in the order of nature and in that of grace. In the order of grace, Predestination corresponds to some extent with Providence in the order of nature. An acorn is naturally predestined to produce an oak, but it may fail to realize that purpose: all acorns do not produce oaks. If it does fail it misses its predestined end. So the soul is predestined to a life of grace and obedience here, leading to a life of glory hereafter; but it may fail, and miss the mark. If the laws which determine the germination and growth of an acorn are observed, the oak will be produced from it. In a like manner if the soul obeys God, and corresponds [cooperates] with his grace, it will come to eternal life. God who calls and elects, also bids us ‘to make our calling and election sure’... Everyone is called to, and is capable of salvation, but God alone knows who will ‘make their calling and election sure’” (The Catholic Religion, A Manual of Instruction for Members of the Anglican Communion; Vernon Staley, 1893, pp. 317-319).
Calvinists are monergists while Anglicans, like all Catholic Christians, are synergists. Calvinism teaches that grace ravishes the soul and is irresistible, while Anglicanism teaches that grace woos the soul and that man must cooperate freely with God’s grace. God always acts first through prevenient grace, but man must cooperate with that grace. We are predestined, yet free.
Article XXVIII, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” clearly teaches the Catholic doctrine of the objective “Real Presence” of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion: “the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.” This article also teaches that the Body and Blood of Christ is received orally: “The Body of Christ is given [by the priest], taken [by the communicant], and eaten, in the Lord’s Supper...”
Once again, Bishop John Jewell, editor of the Articles, can be of help to us in understanding Article XXVIII. Regarding the Sacrament of Holy Communion, he said: "Christe’s Body and Bloude in deede and verily is gieven unto us... We are Boones of his Boones and Fleash of his Fleash” (Works of John Jewell, Vol. lii, p. 52). Likewise, the great Richard Hooker taught, “Thy Word was made Flesh that he might give us his life; we share his life by eating his flesh and blood, and so our bodies are prepared for their resurrection” (cited in Richard Hooker: A Study of his Theology, L. S. Thornton, 1924, p. 58). Two generations after the adoption of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion in 1571, Blessed William Laud, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, could say in his Conference with Fisher the Jesuit, “And for the Church of England, nothing is more plain, than that it believes and teaches the true and real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” (Vol. 2, pp. 328-329).
Article XXIX, “Of the Wicked, which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper,” is often used by Calvinists, and now by Zwinglians I suppose, to argue against the objective Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The Article says, “The wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are partakers of Christ...” Are the Calvinists and Zwinglians right about this Article, or does this Article teach the Catholic Faith?
A key to understanding Article XXIX, is found in the words, “as Saint Augustine saith.” St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) was a Catholic bishop and one of the greatest theologians that Christendom has ever produced. He taught the objective Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion clearly and simply. He said, “I am mindful of my promise. For I promised you, who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table, which you now look upon and of which you last night were made participants. You ought to know what you have received, and what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. Through that bread and wine the Lord Christ willed to commend his Body and Blood, which He poured out for us unto the forgiveness of sins” (Sermons, St. Augustine).
E. J. Bicknell explains Article XXIX, in his classic commentary on the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion: “The wicked and the faithful alike receive the elements that have been brought into union with the Body and Blood of Christ. Neither the wicked nor faithful carnally and visibly press with their teeth more than the bread and wine. But only the faithful receive the Body and Blood of Christ, since only they possess that faith which is the indispensable means of receiving them. This article does not in any way deny the ‘real presence,’ it only rules out any carnal view of it. To give an illustration: when our Lord was on earth He possessed healing power quite independently of the faith of men: but only those who possessed faith could get into touch with it. Many touched His garments, but only the woman who had faith was healed (Mk. 5:30 ff). The healing power was there: the touch of faith did not create it, but faith as it were, opened the channel to appropriate the blessing. So in the Eucharist, Christ in all His saving power is present. The wicked are only capable of receiving the visible and material signs of His presence. But those who approach with faith can receive the inward grace and become partakers of Christ by feeding on His Body and Blood” (A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, E. J. Bicknell, D.D., 1935, p. 502).
Article XXIX, is not Calvinist or Zwinglian, but Catholic; and the Roman Catholic Church agrees with what the Article teaches. “The sacramental body and blood of the Saviour are present as an offering to the believer awaiting his welcome. When this offering is met by faith, a life-giving encounter results” (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, ARCIC, Three Agreed Statements, 1977, p. 11).
Bicknell writes, “But the clearest evidence that the Articles are not Calvinistic is the repeated attempts made by the Puritans to alter or supplement them” (ibid, p. 21). As already mentioned, the year after the Articles were adopted in 1571, the Puritans complained to Parliament that the Articles were inadequate as well as dangerous. In 1595, a committee meeting at Lambeth under Archbishop Whitgift of Canterbury compiled what has become known as the Lambeth Articles, which were thoroughly Calvinist in doctrine. These proposed Articles were opposed by Queen Elizabeth I, never accepted by the Church, and have found their rightful place in the dustbin of history. Again at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, the Puritans unsuccessfully tried to amend the Thirty-nine Articles. Finally, in 1643, when the Puritans had managed to overthrow the King in the Great Rebellion, they had their way. After martyring the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Charles I, they rejected the historic Episcopate, banned the Book of Common Prayer, and replaced the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion with the Westminster Confession. Even after the Restoration of the Monarchy, the Puritans continued to raise objections to the Thirty-nine Articles without success, until they were finally ejected from the Church of England during the reign of King Charles II.
If the Articles are Calvinist, then why such strong and consistent opposition for so long? If Anglicanism is really “Calvinist,” then why have Calvinists opposed not only the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, but its Liturgy and Episcopal Church Order as well? And, if Anglicanism is really Calvinist, then why did the Puritans completely replace the Articles, Prayer book and Episcopal Order of the Church as soon as they had the opportunity after the Great Rebellion and the crime of regicide? The answer is that the Articles of Religion were written to guide the Church of England through the controversies of the Reformation and back to the Faith and practice of the primitive Church; and that the Anglican Church is not a Protestant denomination but a branch of the Catholic Church, unhappily divided from the wider Church by accidents of history.
How should the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion be interpreted? The Church gives us an authoritative answer to this question. In 1571, the same year that the Articles were adopted by Convocation, Canon 5, “On Preachers,” was also adopted. Canon 5 says, “But especially shall they see to it that they teach nothing in the way of a sermon which they would have religiously held and believed by the people save what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old and New Testament and what the Catholic Fathers and ancient bishops and doctors have collected from this selfsame doctrine.” This canon is clearly grounded in the Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lerins.
The Thirty-nine Articles are not, and were never intended to be, a Confession of Faith like the Continental Protestant Confessions. The Anglican Church is a creedal Church, not a confessional denomination. As Bishop John Pearson (1612-1686) said, the book of Articles “is not, nor is pretended to be, a complete body of divinity, or a comprehension and explication of all Christian doctrines necessary to be taught: but an enumeration of some truths, which upon and since the Reformation have been denied by some persons: who upon denial are thought unfit to have any cure of souls in this Church or realm; because they might by their opinions either infect their flock with error or else disturb the Church with schism or the realm with sedition” (cited in Bicknell, p. 22).
Bicknell writes, “The significance of our Articles may be learnt by a comparison between them and Creeds. Both alike are theological statements of belief. Both alike have been employed as tests. Both are attempts to preserve the truth in all its fullness. But while Creeds are a necessity, [to quote Robert Moberly] ‘in a world where all expression of spirit is through body,’ Articles are a consequence ‘not of the Church’s existence but of the Church’s failure.’ ‘The Church, without a Creed, would not in human life on earth, however ideally perfect, have been a Church at all. But if the Church on earth had been ideally perfect, or anything even remotely like it, there would never have been any 39 Articles. The one is a necessary feature of spiritual reality. The other is an unfortunate consequence of spiritual failure’” (ibid, Bicknell, p. 23).
“Creeds have behind them the authority of the universal and undivided Church. Articles have behind them at most the authority of particular national Churches. ... Hence Creeds have a permanent value, Articles only a temporary value. We do not condemn, say, the Churches of the East, because they do not possess the 39 Articles. We should condemn a Church that rejected the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. We may reasonably doubt if the Churches of the mission-field need become acquainted with the 39 Articles. But they certainly are bound to receive the Creeds. It is possible even to look forward to a day when the Church of England may exchange or discard our present Articles, though that day [in 1935] is not yet in sight. That would not involve any breach of continuity or catholicity. But to reject the Creeds would be to part company with the life of the Universal Church” (ibid, Bicknell, p. 24).
Anglicanism is Catholic, not Calvinist; and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion are an attempt to explain the Catholic Faith in light of the controversies of the Reformation era. Many of these controversies are forgotten or hard to understand today, which makes understanding the intent of the Articles sometimes difficult. Others have been resolved, which makes continued debate unnecessary. The Creeds are crystal clear however: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith” (Athanasian Creed).
Fr. Victor E. Novak is a priest of the Diocese of Mid-America, and the Rector of Holy Cross Anglican Church in Omaha, Nebraska. His parish websites are: www.holycrossomaha.net and www.holycrossmedia.com. He can be reached by phone at (402) 573-6558 or by e-mail at: email@example.com