Results tagged “Thirty-nine Articles” from Reformation21 Blog

John Owen was an Anglican

Having previously proved without any shadow of a doubt that the great John Owen was not a Baptist, no, definitely not a Baptist, and certainly not a Presbyterian, it is important that we now go one step further. In this year when we celebrate his 400th birthday, it is important that we recognise the fact that John Owen was an Anglican.

I'm sure I've said this before at the Westminster Conference. But I was just saying it again in more detail on Monday, at the launch of the new John Owen Society in Oxford, which is dedicated to recovering Reformed theology for the 21st Century. The whole talk is online if you want to listen in, but on this particular subject, I said something like this:
The Reverend John Owen was, let it be remembered, an ordained Anglican minister. He served for several years as the vicar (in succession) of two parish churches in Essex, before becoming the Dean of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford.
He may (like his father) have called himself a Puritan, and not been a fan of some aspects of the Church's governance and ceremonies. But doctrinally he was entirely in accord with the confessional basis of Anglicanism. As he says of the Thirty-nine Articles, "what is purely doctrinal we fully embrace and constantly adhere unto" (Works, 13:551).

Even when he had been ejected from the national church by the iniquitous Act of Uniformity in 1662, he was happy to say, "I embrace the doctrine of the church of England, as declared in the Thirty-nine Articles, and other approved public writings of the most famous bishops and other divines thereof" (Works, 14:196). That is tighter than the current form of subscription required of ministers in the Church of England!

Indeed, he wrote in 1669, "the chief glory of the English Reformation consisted in the purity of its doctrine, then first restored to the nation. This, as it is expressed in the articles of religion, and in the publicly-authorized writings of the bishops and chief divines of the church of England, is, as was said, the glory of the English Reformation" (Works, 13:354).

What was this Anglican confessional doctrine to which Owen adhered? He affirmed that on the subject of justification by faith and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, for example, that he was entirely on the side of the Church of England's authentic writings, "-- that is, the articles of religion, and books of homilies, and other writings publicly authorized." In his book on justification, which expounds and defends the comfortable doctrine of justification by faith alone, he added, "I shall not in the least depart from the ancient doctrine of the church of England; yea, I have no design but to declare and vindicate it, as God shall enable" (Works, 5:164).

He wouldn't, of course, have approved of what is now known as Anglo-Catholicism. He was implacably opposed to Antichrist and his religion, believing the Church of Rome to have committed heresy, schism, apostasy, and idolatry (Works, 14:29-30). And as for high church stage props and sumptuous outward aesthetic: "In worship, their paintings, crossings, crucifixes, bowings, cringings, altars, tapers, wafers, organs, anthems, litany, rails, images, copes, vestments,--what were they but Roman varnish, an Italian dress for our devotion, to draw on conformity with that enemy of the Lord Jesus?" (Works, 8:28).

In terms of church polity, Owen initially flirted with Presbyterianism before becoming more persuaded by the Congregational way. He didn't like episcopacy as a system. Yet -- perhaps surprisingly for many -- along with other such Independents during the 17th century, Owen did not believe in the separation of church and state, as many hold to that modern American tenet today.

Owen thought, for example, that the State had a duty to stop anti-Trinitarians infiltrating the church, and to silence those who rejected justification by faith alone. The magistrates could enforce that, in his view; indeed it was against the light and law of nature, he said, for supreme magistrates not to exert their authority to support, preserve, and further the cause of the gospel and forbid, coerce, and restrain false teaching (e.g. Works, 13:509-510). The great John Milton wrote some nasty things about him because of this, in that poem where Cromwell is called "our chief of men."

Owen had little time, however, for those who remained Anglican in form but not in doctrine. There were some in the seventeenth century who attacked nonconformists (who were perfectly sound on basic Protestant doctrines), but who left all manner of heretics alone merely because they obeyed the outward rules. This was scandalous to Owen (see Works, 13:354-355), and should be to all right-thinking people.

In his first published book in 1642 he gave some instances of people "opposing the received doctrine of the church of England, contained in divers of the Thirty-nine Articles." We are living in iniquitous times, he said, because "Had a poor Puritan offended against half so many canons as they opposed articles, he had forfeited his livelihood, if not endangered his life." It was acceptable to many to oppose the doctrine of the Articles of Religion but not to break the outward minutiae of canon law; indeed, even many senior church leaders "were so zealous for the discipline and so negligent of the doctrine of the church" (Works, 10:9).

Owen considered this an outrage, because he was deeply attached to the Protestant  Reformed doctrine of the Church of England. As an ordained Anglican minister, we should of course expect no less.

"We own ourselves to have been, and to be, children of the church of England," he said (Works, 13:184). Until 1662, he would have been a fully signed up member of Church Society. And you can't get more proper Anglican than that.

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society (, which seeks to shape the Church of England for the future by building on its Reformed foundations

Reprobation Clarification

There has been some interesting discussion in various places generated by my previous posts on reprobation. That's good. It's hard to talk about, but important to do so. Rather than repeat myself ad nauseum in those discussions, it's probably useful if I here make a number of clarifications about the subject. Here's my starting 11 anyway, of things to reject:

1. I don't think Article 17 of the 39 Articles teaches double predestination in an exhaustive sense. My point is that it does deliberately and explicitly acknowledge the darker side of "the sentence of God's predestination" and teaches us how not to apply and preach that. It doesn't say much more, and those of us who interpret it this way are not claiming it does -- though other parts of the Anglican formularies do say more (as does the Bible). It certainly cannot be said to be silent on the issue or to teach against it. That would be odd, since Article 17 may well have been drafted by Peter Martyr Vermigli, who was a strong double predestinarian (like a good many Anglican Reformers in the sixteenth century).

2. I don't think God is the author of sin. I've never met or read anyone who does. But somehow this charge of blasphemy keeps being thrown out at anyone who even dares mention this subject, as if it were a potent knock-down one-liner. Everyone from Augustine to Ratramnus to whoever always points out that twofold predestination does not mean God compels us to sin or is the author of wickedness.

3. I don't think predestination and reprobation are exact equivalents. There is some asymmetry involved, of course! No one deserves predestination to life, for example, but everyone reprobated receives an impeccably just judgment for their sins. If anyone says they are two sides of the same coin, that wouldn't mean they are exact symmetrical equivalents either -- the two sides of a coin usually have some differences, I think, even if they do come inseparably together.

4. I'm not incapable of understanding nuances and distinctions. Sometimes they are helpful in summarising the witness of scripture. But sometimes, the distinctions human interpreters make are only nominal or semantic. Frequently they have no scriptural justification or warrant and often defy common sense or logic. Which is a problem. Also, sometimes it is possible to make a distinction (such as, between positive and negative reprobation) but without denying either, or thinking that they are actually separable. There are probably other things in theology which we think of as distinct but inseparable, aren't there?

5. I'm not more interested in tradition and church history than the Bible, nor do I give it any authority over God's word. That's why I looked at six or seven Bible references in my first post, even though I was only responding to what I considered a misinterpretation of a 16th century text. If Article 17 taught triple predestination or quadruple predestination or something, I'd consider myself under no obligation to believe it unless I could be satisfied it was biblical first and foremost. Reprobation is so often assumed to be just a "logical deduction." Or an imposition onto Christianity by overly philosophical or emotionless minds. But it's not without biblical justification, whatever unfounded things may be said about the people who hold to it.

6. I am not hoping to encourage Anglicans to sign up to the Westminster Confession.

7. I never mentioned Calvin.

8. I'm not a supralapsarian. Or an Islamic fatalist.

9. I do not find it uninteresting that people who reject the usefulness of systematic theology and logic in favour of a form of atomised sola exegesis fundamentalism are so often the ones who start appealing at this point to some pretty fine distinctions and taxonomies of causation, to avoid any taint of the dreaded "double predestination." Now why is that?

10. It has not gone unnoticed, and is fascinating, that many who want to deny that God has any role in reprobation essentially make predestination and foreknowledge the same thing in this regard. Isn't that what Pelagius does in his Romans commentary? Also, I have always wondered if saying that God's foreknowledge of someone's sins is the cause or motive of his reprobation of them doesn't actually imperil divine simplicity and immutability. I think I may have read this in Ratramnus or Gottschalk or Remigius. But here we go again, getting into that systematic stuff...

11. Finally, I didn't bring this up because I have an axe to grind on the subject. I didn't start it! I was merely responding to what I saw as a misunderstanding of the Thirty-nine Articles propagated by someone else, a misunderstanding I thought I had adequately corrected in a couple of places in my published works. That someone is my friend, incidentally, and we are on very good terms despite not necessarily agreeing on everything. That's healthy isn't it? Though friendships can be strained by sporting events, and at least one antipodean friend has threatened to unfriend me after I might have mentioned somewhere the recent utter collapse of the Australian cricket team... Better stop there then...

Lee Gatiss is not quite done with this theological subject yet...

Reprobate Anglicans

Continuing to ponder the idea that God appointed some to everlasting life and others to a different fate. Is this really a genuinely Anglican idea, as my previous posts about the dark side of predestination and the way not to apply reprobation have asserted?

The first commentary on the Thirty-nine Articles by Thomas Rogers seems to indicate so. In The English Creed (1585), page 60, he writes (with Yoda-like grammar), "Err therefore doe they which stand in opinion that some are appointed to be saved, yet none to be damned." His later A Treatise upon sundry matters contained in the Thirty-nine Articles (1658), page 65, adds a condemnation of those who say "no certain company be foredestined unto eternal condemnation."

He was not alone in holding this view of course. In reply to an attack by a Portuguese Roman Catholic named Osorious on the English creed (i.e. the Articles), the famous John Fox and a certain Mr Haddon, wrote this:
For whereas that most sacred purpose of the divine predestination and reprobation doth issue and spring from out the only will of God, being indeed most unsearchable, yet most righteous; and whereas, also, men are first fashioned in the same will, as in God's workshop, to be either vessels of wrath, or vessels of mercy, before that any lenity or mercy do appear to be extended towards any of them from God; by what means then will Osorius affirm that the defence of justice consisteth wholly in mercy, and that there be no vessels of wrath, but such as will not be vessels of mercy? I do answer that this is true that no man perisheth at all, but whoso perisheth by his own procurement and default," nevertheless, "as he is a judge he doth punish sinners indeed; but as he is a creator he doth fashion his creatures according to his will, even as the potter doth fashion his pots."  Haddon & Fox Against Osorius. (originally, 1563). (See Thomas R. Jones, An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles by the Reformers (1849), page 105.)
Haddon and Fox oppose the view that there are only "vessels of mercy" and those who themselves decide not to be. They oppose that by saying that predestination and reprobation can both be traced back to God's will. God's will, not their own, makes people vessels of mercy or vessels of wrath. It is true, they affirm, that all who perish do so because of their sin, in a sense. But in an ultimate sense, God fashions things as he wills.

There was a dispute in Cambridge about these issues in the 1590s. There were virulent sermons against Calvin, Beza, Vermigli, and Zanchius, and especially their doctrines of election. In response, the co-called Lambeth Articles were drawn up by the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and endorsed by both archbishops, and others, in 1595. They clarified that Anglican doctrine was Reformed and, more specifically, that, "1. God from eternity has predestined some men to life, and reprobated some to death." Note the subject of that sentence. They added that, "4. Those not predestined to salvation are inevitably condemned on account of their sins." God predestines and reprobates, the latter on account of sin, the former on account of grace alone.

The Anglican worthies who were sent by King James I to attend the Synod of Dort in 1618 were far from severe or hyper-calvinists, as my previous interlocutor Dr Jensen will no doubt admit (their minority opinion on the matter of "limited atonement" being of particular interest to some of our mutual friends in Sydney). They did however pronounce it an erroneous opinion that predestination to life was "the whole and entire decree of predestination." The fact that some are severed from others by the decree is a key part of it according to scripture, they said.

On reprobation, the British divines at Dort -- who clearly were unafraid to disagree with a majority view, if they felt scripture or their confession called them to -- declared that "non-election, we avow to be grounded upon the most free will of God." They cite Romans 9 and John 10:26 ("you do not believe because you are not my sheep"). All lie in sin and are equally undeserving. God decides to save some, and decides not to save others. They are damned and predestinated to damnation in consideration of their sin. Reprobation is the negation of election and sets down "the immutable will of God, by which he hath decreed not to take pity of that person, whom he passeth by, so farre forth as to bestow upon him eternall life." As they conclude, "The Apostle fetcheth this preterition, or non-election, from the mere will of God." (See Anthony Milton (ed.), The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort, pages 230, 238-239, 241, 242-243.)

So nothing that I have affirmed about "the sentence of God's predestination" against the reprobate is un-Anglican. It is embedded in the first generations of Reformation Anglican writing on the subject, as well as being part of an international Reformed consensus at that formative time.

I know there are subtle distinctions at play in the way some people talk about this subject. And perhaps I am too much of a dullard and a historian to really understand the philosophical elegancies of systematics. But as the great Anglican scholar J.B. Mozley puts it in his Treatise on the Augustinian doctrine of Predestination (1883), page 392, "There is no real distinction between abandoning men to a certain state, of which punishment will be the consequence, and ordaining them to that punishment."

As he goes on, on the next page, "I see no substantial difference between the Augustinian and Thomist, and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. S. Augustine and Calvin alike hold an eternal Divine decree, which, antecedently to all action, separates one portion of mankind from another, and ordains one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting punishment."

I confess that I find that intellectually satisfying and historically compelling, as well as most in accordance with scripture as I currently understand it. I also think it is authentically Anglican and thoroughly evangelical, and while I fully understand some may not like it and want to disagree, I can't see that it should be dismissed with irrelevant epithets such as "overly neat" or "unfeelingly dogmatic."

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, adjunct lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and Research Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa at the University of the Free State, South Africa

How not to apply reprobation

In my former article on The darker side of predestination, I spoke about how Article 17 of The Thirty-nine Articles is not entirely limited to talking about the positive aspects of that doctrine. It does indeed mention "the sentence of predestination", the flip side of the coin, as do other Anglican formularies. Article 17 teaches that reprobation cannot be used as an excuse for immorality, not that there is no such thing as reprobation.

This reading is confirmed I think by a passage in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's proposed canon law reform, the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum. There, he writes, 
On the fringe of the church there are many who live in a wild and dissolute way, who when they get interested in the subject, being dissipated by excess and completely cut off from the Spirit of Christ, always toss predestination and rejection, or (as they usually call it), reprobation, into their speech, arguing that since God by his eternal counsel has already determined something, both concerning salvation and destruction, they have some excuse for their wrongdoings and crimes and all manner of evil. And when pastors upbraid their dissipated and disgraceful life, they blame God's will for their crimes and by that defence consider that the reprimands of admonitions are wasted... Wherefore everyone must be warned by us that in undertaking actions they should not rely on the decrees of predestination, but adapt their entire way of life to the laws of God, and contemplate that both promises to the good as well as threats to the bad are generally set forth to him in the Holy Scriptures.
In other words, one may be reprobate, but one is not to assume this in deciding how to live. All the more so, since "the decrees of predestination are unknown to us," as the 1553 edition of Article 17 says. Interesting use of the plural "decrees" there.

Rather, we are to obey the warnings of Scripture and trust the promises. As Article 17 says, "in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared to us in the Word of God." So we are not to base our rejection of God on a presumption that he has not chosen us. Scripture, when it speaks of reprobation, does not apply it in this manner.

So preachers should simply declare the promises of God for forgiveness as applicable to all those who repent and believe. Just because we don't preach reprobation to people as an excuse for them to sin, that does not mean there is no such thing as reprobation.

I love the way Article 17 tells us that believers should not recoil from this doctrine of predestination as "too complicated" or "too divisive" or "too mysterious", but meditate on it as "full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort" for believers. It leads to godliness and love for God. We can and should focus on that, as a much needed gospel comfort. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss as "scant" the references to another aspect of this doctrine.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, adjunct lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and Research Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa at the University of the Free State, South Africa