To some members of the Christian world it is a matter for surprise that so strong an evangelical contribution should be made by the Anglican communion. There are, of course, reasons for this surprise. Particularly since the rise of the Oxford Movement, many practices have given Episcopal churches more of a Roman than a Protestant look, and there have been far too many prominent leaders whose personal opinions bear little resemblance to the established positions of their communion. Indeed, agitation to make the communion different from what it has been seems to be the mark of the twentieth-century ecclesiastic.
Nevertheless, there should be no real surprise at the presence of a more genuinely evangelical element. It is part of a long and powerful tradition which goes back through the leaders of the Evangelical Revival to the Puritans of the seventeenth century, and ultimately to the great Anglican reformers of the sixteenth. It is not an eccentric factor; it belongs to the very essence of the communion. Its members, far from being halfhearted churchmen, are among the most consistently faithful of all Anglicans. Its charter is the Anglican Confession, which was adopted by Convocation in 1563 and which, in spite of evasion, relegation to small print, and in some cases open opposition, still remains the basic doctrinal statement of the Church of England and its churches.
The Thirty-Eight Articles as they then were—the thirty-ninth was added a few years later (1570)—are clearly Reformed, and therefore evangelical, in their acceptance of the supreme authority of Holy Scripture (Article 6). They maintain that there is nothing which must be believed for salvation other than what is found in the 66 canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. While the church and the ministry have their own authority, this is subsidiary. Nothing can stand alongside the written Word of God in matters of eternal significance. On this basis, the constant potential of evangelical awakening is no surprise.
The Articles are also Reformed, and therefore evangelical, in their understanding of justification (Articles 11–14). By Christ alone, and therefore by faith alone, is no less a basic doctrine of the Anglican than of the Lutheran or Calvinist. Works have their own place, but it is not their office to justify before God. The heart of the Gospel is God’s free forgiveness by virtue of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. Where the evangelical message rings out in Anglican pulpits, it is in terms of the classical declaration of faith, not in opposition to it.
Again, the Articles are Reformed, and therefore evangelical, in their sacramental teaching (Articles 25–28). If they avoid the bare symbolism of extremists, they are based on a rejection of medieval teachings concerning sacrifice, the real presence, and automatic efficacy. Positively, their statements are in substantial accord with the Reformed tradition enshrined in the confessions of Calvin and Bullinger. It is true that in 1563 the distinctive “ubiquitarian” tenet of the Lutherans was not yet flatly rejected, but this came shortly afterwards with the inclusion of the final article (Article 29). Evangelical use of baptism and the Lord’s Supper reflects neither alien intrusion into true Anglicanism, nor willful departure from it. It is a simple continuation of Prayer Book practice on the basis of confessional understanding.
The evangelical element persists in the Anglican communion because there are within the church ministers and laity who are ready to take the Articles seriously as the confession of their church. In England itself all clergy profess allegiance to the Articles, not once but many times. They do this publicly, before their congregations. But so far as doctrinal utterances and preaching are concerned, this often seems to be little more than a formality. For evangelicals, however, it is no formality. The verities expressed in the Articles are the essential verities of the Gospel which must be the confession of any true church of Jesus Christ. Acceptance of the Articles is acceptance of the Gospel. It is confession not merely of the faith of the Anglican communion, but of the faith once delivered to the saints. If there is place for revision in detail, there is none for hesitation as to essential content.
The evangelical element persists because there are ministers and people who see no reason for evasions, mental reservations, or fundamental tensions in their relation to the Articles. It is a significant fact that those who are so anxious to depreciate, to relativize, or to change the Articles are not evangelicals. Evangelicals have no fear of the 1604 canons, which declare to be de facto excommunicate all preachers—be they ever so eminent—who teach contrary to the Articles. They have no fear of the Laudian declaration, which insists—originally against extremer Puritans—that the Articles are to be taken only in their literal and grammatical sense. If they recognize that new developments may demand new statements and that not even the best confessions have the infallibility of Scripture, they are in no frenzy to discard or to amend.
Finally, the evangelical element persists because there are those who are convinced that from the time of the Reformation, the fellowship and ministry of the Anglican communion have been primarily with churches of the Reformation. They have no implacable hostility to Roman Catholicism, but they recognize that the Anglican Articles are incompatible with the unreformed Romanism, not merely of the Middle Ages, but also of the post-Tridentine period. They admire the loyalty of the Eastern Orthodox churches to the cardinal truths defined by early councils, but they cannot be content with a frozen orthodoxy which has nothing to offer in the face of new problems and which stifles evangelical vitality. They are not ashamed of the distinctive order of ministry and liturgy which their church has maintained in exercise of its relative authority, but they see in this no obstacle to the fellowship with other Protestant bodies which prevailed in the Reformation and post-Reformation period. They recognize that the Articles place them ineluctably among those whose task is to attest to the essential Gospel rediscovered at the Reformation.
In a church which has the Articles as its confession, it would in fact be surprising if there were no evangelical element. For here in the confession is the power of evangelical truth and life. Here in the confession is the dogmatic stratum on which, under the Spirit, there is the abiding hope of evangelical renewal.
Fuller Theological Seminary
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