39 Articles—The Visible and Invisible Church (2)

After setting out the nature of the church in Article 19, the next three articles underline the sufficiency of Scripture in its application to the church’s polity and practice. Articles 20-22 thus take up several aspects of the church’s authority in light of the doctrine of sola scriptura, that was set out in articles 6-8. Article 20 makes it very clear that Anglicanism affirms the supreme authority of Scripture. “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written….it ought to not decree anything against the same.” The Church remains under the authority of Scripture, neither above it nor equal to it.  


The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Article 20 is three simple sentences which set out in more detail what was stated in article 19, that the church’s obedience to Christ’s command is in a biblically faithful order in word preached and sacrament administered. As we saw in article 19, the source for the wording in article 20 also comes from Cranmer’s Reformatio Legum

For this reason, the church may not determine anything which is contrary to the Word of God written, nor may it so interpret one passage as to contradict another. Therefore, although the church is a witness, guardian, and keeper of the divine books, yet this prerogative must never be granted to it, that it should either decree anything contrary to these books or that it should make any articles of faith without the witness of these books, and impose them on Christian people as requirements of faith [Bray, 181].

The article guards against two common errors: one negative, one positive. Both errors are equally lethal to the life of the church:

  • Subtracting from Scripture. To ordain anything contrary to God’s word written is to lessen, even reject Scripture’s authoritative teaching.
  • Adding to Scripture. The church does not have the authority to add to the biblical Gospel anything as a requirement for salvation. To do so obscures the Gospel.

The first sentence, the Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith was added by Queen Elizabeth after it had passed the convocations of Canterbury and York. It affirms the freedom of the church in setting orders of worship and retaining a vital judicial authority in matters of church discipline. This means the church as a body can make decisions and judgments in matters of controversy and disagreement from the parish to the national level.

The second sentence sets out two statements. The first statement clearly affirms that Anglicans submit to the ultimate authority of Scripture, it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written. The second statement, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another, explains the reason.

The reason is the unity of Scripture and that it does not contradict itself (unlike human reason, which may err). Therefore we must not interpret or expound any part of Scripture in a way that contradicts other parts. Articles 7 and 8 are particularly relevant here, because in these articles Anglicanism recognizes the progressive nature of God’s unfolding plan of salvation as far as the Old Testament is concerned. Article 7 reminds us that Scripture's own internal authority testifies as to why the ceremonial laws and civil regulations given in the Old Testament are no longer binding, but the moral law is. Therefore the church has the freedom to write confessions that clarify the errors discovered in contemporary controversies of doctrine and to systematize its teaching for education and catechesis. It is clear that the article affirms the development of a systematic theology. We must have an understanding of the whole if we want to avoid expounding one part of Scripture in a way that contradicts another. We should take note that, as early as 1553, Anglicans anticipated the great Reformed Protestant systematic theologies of the late 16th and 17th centuries. Those who would suggest that systematization is contrary to the nature of Anglicanism simply show that they do not know what they are talking about. 

The third sentence summarizes the church’s relationship to the Scripture;  the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ…. The Church is a witness and a keeper of Scripture (or the Reformatio Legum: a “witness” “guardian” and “keeper” of Scripture). The church has no authority over Scripture but is to bear witness to Scripture’s authority. As a witness, it testifies to the truth that the Bible is God’s word. Therefore, the church’s ministry is not priestly but a prophetic ministry, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of salvation. As a keeper and guardian, it is called  to protect the integrity of the biblical canon, to pass it on to the next generations, and to contend for it when it is assaulted by an enemy that would seek to corrupt its teaching.


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