39 Articles—The Incarnation and Atonement
Mar 17, 2017
Last time we examined the Anglican principle in how the Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer form the confessional structure of our theology and worship. This time, we need to illustrate how the Articles have an almost narrative structure. In other words, what is established in the Articles that preceded, inform the content of a subsequent article. This principle may be an obvious principle to many, but there is a failing within American Anglican thinking to interpret an article as a proof-text, as it were, of their theological presuppositions.
II. Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man.
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt but also for all actual sins of men.
Oliver O’Donovan reminds us that the exposition of our redemption in the life, death, and resurrection is the most weighty task in theology, and also the hardest. With the doctrine of the Trinity established in Article 1, the Thirty-nine Articles develops its doctrine still further in Articles 2 through Article 5, the doctrines of the person and work of Christ. The topic of Article 2 is the understanding the person and work of Jesus Christ in light of his gracious work to save: “The Son…took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin;” he “…truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried.”
Like Article 1, this article substantially reproduces the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (Article 3) via Cranmer’s “first draft” Thirteen Articles of 1538. Article 2 was intended to summarize the teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ from the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. According to Gerald Bray’s Documents of the English Reformation, Cranmer's added phrases concerning eternal generation and consubstantiality are original (p. 286). Only the last phrase, clarifying the atonement, was added in 1563. Cranmer’s original reads: “to be a sacrifice for all sin of man, both original and actual” to “to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt but also for the all actual sins of men.”
The Article states that there are three things necessary for salvation to know:
- Christ is truly God, and he is truly man.
- Christ both truly God and man is united in one person.
- Christ is our Savior.
The Lord Jesus Christ is truly God because his essence or substance is divine. He has a whole and perfect divine nature. Complete in the Godhead, he is in an eternal and perfect relationship with the Father. He is wholly God and yet distinguishable in relation to the Father, as the Son (and he is begotten from everlasting of the Father). This relationality is termed his “generation” and is sometimes used synonymously with filiation.
When the Article refers to Christ as “Son,” we are not to think human terms, but of the precise language of the Nicene Creed (325AD) we regularly use in the Lord’s Supper of the Book of Common Prayer. When we use the term, Son, we do not mean that he is inferior to the Father, or that as the son he moves from non-being to existence, but an eternal and perpetual relation in the Godhead. It is an unchanging activity that is in God’s very essence as Trinity. We are aware of this relationship because as the "Word" of the Father, the Son perfectly and completely expresses the one and revealed the purpose of God.
To enable human beings to be in a real personal relationship with God and for the salvation of human beings to be accomplished, it was necessary for Jesus also to be truly human as he is truly divine. This is the incarnation, the conception by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Thus, Christ gained a full, true human nature. It is the incarnation that draws the two entire and perfect natures together in one Person, never to be divided. The two natures are distinct, not separate. This understanding was the fruit of centuries of reflection that culminated in the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Having established Jesus’ perfect divinity and humanity, the article summarizes how he is uniquely and perfectly the Savior of his people. Salvation is first rooted in the real historical events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. In his human nature, the Lord Jesus “truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried.” His resurrection is set out in Article 4, but Article 2 sets his work both temporally and logically in his death.
Article 2 emphasizes that Jesus’ death brings reconciliation with the Father and is an atoning sacrifice. The latter we understand readily, but what of the former when most of Scripture speaks more of us being reconciled to God? The article underlines the point that our real problem is that our sinfulness deserves God’s righteous anger, and only the death of the transgressor will satisfy the violation of his holiness. Article 2 stresses that Jesus is our Savior because he is “a sacrifice” for our original guilt and actual sins. It is a substitutionary atonement: Jesus according to his human nature dies in our place, satisfying God's perfect justice. The language change made in 1563 is the language used in the Roman Catholic view of the Council of Trent (1545-1563): that while Jesus’ death dealt with original guilt inherited from Adam, it required the sacrifices of Mass to deal with our actual sins. However, the Article affirms Jesus’ one perfect sacrifice is sufficient in itself to atone.
Although written to counter Roman Catholic theology, it is today’s Arminian Anglicans that have a lot of trouble accepting original guilt, and among Baptists, there is the "age of accountability" so that children are not born guilty or culpable before God until they reach a certain age when they can make their decisions.
An Arminian Anglican would argue that we have Adam’s corrupt nature but not Adam’s guilt. Therefore human beings are corrupted physically and intellectually, but not volitionally. Therefore the will retains its ability to seek God through the invention of prevenient grace that replaces original guilt. God gives a prior grace that nullifies the legal guilt. When an Arminian Anglican insists that Article 17 (Of Predestination and Election) will allow a free will, they have forgotten the point in Article 2 points on the nature of Christ's atonement for Adam's guilt. We will need to revisit this principle when we come to Article 28 and the Prayer Book on the sacrament of baptism.
For previous articles in this series, see: