39 Articles—One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity
Feb 17, 2017
Protestants who are unfamiliar need to hear the voice of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in this anniversary year of the Reformation (see post 1). The Articles are also a great encouragement to those in North American Anglican churches who long for a continual reformation back to the Word of God. But before we begin to examine Article 1, I need to explain the unique confessional nature of the Articles as part of what Anglicans term the “historical formularies.” In other words, The Articles of Religion are not meant to stand alone, as it were.
The Articles in Relation to the Prayer Book
When we ponder the doctrinal statements in The Thirty-Nine Articles to which all ministers must subscribe, Anglicans do not simply finish there. We must go further. The Prayer Book is included in our subscription. The Prayer Book informs the Articles, the Articles regulate The Prayer Book. The doctrinal becomes doxological through the underlying theology of the authorized rites and order of worship in The Prayer Book. Anglicans may contemporize Prayer Book language so that it is understood clearly (Article 24), but they must not change its underlying theology. The Articles regulate The Prayer Book.
As Robert Barron wrote in the first line of an article on St. Augustine: “…in the end it all comes down to a correct description of God.” There is meant to be a proper balance between doctrine - proper descriptions of the realities of God with Christ at the center that glorifies the Godhead and is faithful to the scripturally sourced and regulated tradition of the church - and worship.
This is the genius of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556). His theology is expressed in the Articles and Prayer Book. It is in the selection, arrangement, and composition of the prayers and exhortations, the selection and arrangement of daily Scripture readings (the lectionary), and in the stipulation of the rubrics for permissible liturgical action and any variations in the prayers and exhortations. Cranmer’s Articles, selections, and arrangements were based on established continental Reformed theology. He recast the principle of “the way we worship” is “what we believe” (lex orandi, lex credendi) to teach the English congregations the Reformed doctrines of Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, justification by faith alone, to the glory of God alone.
This is why The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were bound with the services of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer! It was so that people could see the doctrinal basis of the liturgy in the established church. Thus, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s order and liturgy retain a confessional quality. This is the Anglican principle of doctrine and worship being relationally constitutive. Let us examine this principle in the first article on the nature of God.
I. Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
This article is unchanged since Cranmer penned it in 1553. Gerald Bray comments that it has an underlying tri-fold structure:
- There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions.
- Of infinite power, wisdom and goodness.
- The Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.
This language is repeated from article 1 in the Augsburg Confession (1530), as is the statement that both visible and invisible creation is accomplished and sustained by the Godhead as a whole: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it would be wrong to think that Cranmer merely had the Augsburg in mind. The Augsburg article is much longer, with a preface that confirms that its doctrine is from the Nicene Creed. There is also a second paragraph that denounces the heresies of the church, including Islam among them.
We get a clearer idea of what Cranmer was doing when we turn to the Book of Common Prayer. The article’s title and content correspond much more closely to the tri-fold structure of what is commonly called the Athanasian Creed, also known by its Latin title, Quicunque vult. For example the Athansian has: "And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity." We see it again in the special prayer ("collect") said on Trinity Sunday:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity; We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities; who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.
The collect affirms that when we are clear about God’s revelation as Trinity, we remain “steadfast in this faith” and it will defend us. If we know the truth about God, it will defend us from serious heresies.
Cranmer again reprises the doctrine in his "Preface" that introduces the "Prayer of Consecration" in the Holy Communion communion service for Trinity Sunday:
WHO art one God, one Lord; not only one Person, but three Persons in one substance. For that which we believe of the glory of the Father, the same we believe of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, without any difference or inequality.
And when we examine the rubric for the Athanasian Creed we discover that at Morning Prayer it is to be said instead of the Apostle’s Creed in the worship on the five “evangelical feast days” (on these, see Danny Hyde's article) of the Reformed tradition (as well as another seven observable days in the calendar!).
Consider also that those evangelical feast days would have continued in a service of Holy Communion using Nicene Creed, add the Trinitarian structure of the additional collects for the evangelical feast days, we can readily see how the nature of Anglican worship remains confessionally and profoundly Trinitarian. Cranmer’s simple clarity and tri-fold structure in article 1 gains a depth, repetition, and further nuance throughout the Prayer Book.
For previous articles in this series, see: