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Article 20 — Of the Authority of the Church

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Posted by Mark Pickles, 22 Mar 2017

Mark Pickles examines what the 39 Articles say about the authority of the church in controversies.

XX — OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH
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 any thing 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 any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Article 20 is only a short paragraph and yet it packs a powerful and highly relevant punch for today’s Church.

This article deals with the perennially vital question of the Church’s authority. It articulates historic Anglicanism’s careful, clear, and nuanced wisdom on this subject. It demonstrates convincingly J.I. Packer’s comment that, “The 39 Articles seem not only to catch the substance and spirit of biblical Christianity superbly well but also provide as apt a model of the way to confess the faith in a divided Christendom as the world has yet seen.”

Firstly, the Article gives an appropriate weight to tradition and the freedom of the Church. The Church has the right to develop culturally appropriate forms of worship. The Article allows that the Church as a body can make decisions and judgments in matters of controversy and disagreement. Scripture is ‘sufficient’ but not ‘exhaustive’.

However, secondly and most importantly, Article 20 makes it crystal 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 any thing against the same”. The Church sits under the authority of Scripture, neither above it nor equal to it. 

Thirdly, the Article understands the ‘unity of Scripture’ and that it does not contradict itself, therefore we must not interpret or expound any part of Scripture in a way that contradicts other parts of Scripture. Article 7 is particularly relevant here, because Anglicanism recognises the progressive nature of God’s unfolding plan of salvation. Scripture’s own internal authority explains why it is that the ceremonial laws and civil regulations given in the Old Testament are no longer binding but the moral law is. So for example in Mark 7:19, Mark explains that Jesus declared all foods clean, Scripture itself giving authority for such a change.

Fourthly, the Article implicitly recognises the importance of ‘Systematic Theology’. The only way in which we can avoid expounding one part of Scripture in a way that contradicts another, is if we have an understanding of the whole.

Fifthly, consider the Church’s relationship to Scripture here. The Church is a ‘witness’ and a ‘keeper’ of Scripture. As a witness it testifies to the truth that the Bible is God’s word proclaiming the gospel of salvation. And as a keeper it is called (as a General Synod paper on the subject put it) to “keep the biblical canon whole and entire and pass it on down the generations.” The Church does not have authority over Scripture but is to bear witness to Scripture’s authority.

This Article guards against two errors:

i. Detracting from Scripture. To ordain anything contrary to God’s word is to ignore and reject its authoritative teaching.

ii. Adding to Scripture. The ‘sufficiency of Scripture’ means that the Church must not add to the biblical gospel anything as a requirement for salvation.

And so finally, we must note the implications of this:

•  If all of Scripture is authoritative, we cannot, for example, disregard the teaching of the apostle Paul if the same commands are not found on the lips of Jesus. Nor can we regard them as less significant.

•  Every debate, discussion and decision made in the local church, deanery, diocese, or General Synod ought to be primarily concerned to discern and correctly interpret the teaching of Scripture on any particular issue and to be governed by that.

Mark Pickles is the Director of Anglican Ministry Training at Oak Hill Theological College, London.

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