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Formulary Friday: In Christ Alone

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Posted by The Rev'd Adam Young, 23 Sep 2016

The Rev'd Adam Young considers the teaching of Article 18 on the uniqueness of Christ.

Earlier this year I preached on the third collect for Good Friday from the BCP. I changed the language of “Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Heretics” to “followers of Judaism, Islam, Paganism, Atheism, and Heresy”, so that it was clear that a belief system was in view and not a people group. Nonetheless, I was accused of racism, anti-semitism, and generally being a nasty person. It seems that saying people who follow other religions are not going to be in heaven is simply not very nice and certainly not ‘politically correct.’ The idea that all religions lead to heaven so long as you follow them devoutly with good works is surprisingly widespread - even in evangelical churches.  Indeed, it is perhaps more widespread now than ever before.  Such beliefs mean that Article 18 is actually more relevant today than when it was written back in 1552.

The official doctrine of the Church of England as seen in the Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer could not be any clearer on this matter.  Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone through faith in Him alone.  It is worth looking at the wider teaching of the Formularies before homing in on Article 18. 

Despite it being silently dropped in the recent ‘Pilgrim Course’ it is still the case that the Athanasian Creed is considered by the Church of England as something which “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for [it]  may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture” (Article 8). This creed starts off clearly and uncompromisingly: “Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.” The ‘Catholic Faith’ is then summed up as being one which clearly believes in, among other things, Jesus as God, Lord, and Saviour. On a side note it is worth mentioning that this is the only place in our Formularies and canon law which defines what “catholic” means.

The third collect for Good Friday is likewise very clear on the matter of who is and is not saved. It remarks that to ‘live’ we must be converted - born again - and because of this we pray that in His mercy God would take from all followers of Judaism, Islam, Paganism, Atheism, and Heresy (Both Paganism and Atheism would come under the original ‘infidel’) their “ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word.” Only once these things have been removed and replaced with knowledge, a new heart, and love for His word can these people be fetched home, saved, and become ‘true Israelites’ (perhaps more on that phrase in a future post!) under Jesus Christ our Shepherd and Lord. Again, the teaching is very clear - and the focus it gives on evangelism is certainly challenging. 

Articles 9 to 17 taken together make patently clear that salvation is found only in Christ Jesus through faith. Article 11 launches into the debate over sola fide by boldly and uncompromisingly stating that we are justified “by faith only.” The simple doctrine outlined in the above is found in all the Reformed Confessions; it is a fundamental aspect of protestant, reformed, evangelical belief. Rather uniquely the Church of England goes one step further in Article 18. It is worth quoting it is full here:

Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ. They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

What is unique here is that word ‘accursed.’ In the Latin version of the Articles that word is ‘anathema’. This is the only Article to actually anathematise anyone! The essential teaching of this article is that we are to anathamatise (that is excommunicate and condemn) anyone who says that people can be saved by living well in another religion or worldview besides Christianity. Being a ‘good’ Muslim’ or living by the ‘light of nature’ without God simply will not cut it - and teaching that these paths can lead to Heaven is reprehensible. Indeed, the original article added “and abhorred” after accursed (it was dropped in 1571 to bring it into line with the Latin). This liberal view of religion and salvation is even marked out as one of the eleven heresies condemned in the proposed canon law Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, where people who hold to it are labelled as “horrible and insane.” The fundamental reason these people are wrong is given in the second half of the Article by a simple reference to Acts 4.12.

Given that this article was written at a time when it was illegal for Jews to live in England, a time when it would be very rare to meet anyone who didn’t profess to be Christian, this Article seems all the more odd. Historically it was aimed at certain anabaptist sects which have long since died out. Sadly in our times it need not be aimed only at anabaptists outside the Church of England but rather needs to be levelled firmly at liberals inside the Church of England. The strength - indeed ferocity - with which the Article condemns those who teach universalism is unique. It raises very clearly the question: are we being faithful to our Formularies if we do not likewise especially highlight and uncompromisingly anathamatise such views today?

The Rev'd Adam Young is a minister in York Diocese.

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