The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles
Gerald L. Bray
London: Latimer Trust, 2009 236 pp p/b £9.99 ISBN: 978-094-630784-5
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion found at the back of the Book of Common Prayer are the doctrinal standard of the Church of England. Along with the BCP itself and the Ordinal by which ministers are ordained, they gave the Church of England its distinctively Reformed flavour in the sixteenth century, and have defined its identity. These formularies have played an immensely important role in defining what it means to be Anglican across the globe, and originally gave the Anglican Communion its common identity. The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GAFCON) has given the Articles prominence in its Jerusalem Statement, and hopefully this will help them to regain an importance in the church’s life and witness which they have recently been in danger of losing.
One of the standard commentaries on the Articles has, for many years, been that of W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology, which in 1977 was republished with an introduction by Jim Packer. This, however, is fairly dense and detailed, and too long to be anything but a work of reference for most people. And yet Anglican churchgoers, ordinands, and ministers still require some kind of exposition of the Articles which are nearly four and a half centuries old, in order to understand them and see their importance as an expression of the faith we confess today.
Into the breach steps Gerald Bray with this well-written, historically-aware, and faithful unwrapping of each Article. His introduction (available to read for free online at http://www.latimertrust.org) looks at the origin, revision, and structure of the Articles and discusses their importance as a distillation of Anglican doctrine. He then works his way through each Article in turn. In his commentary he gives just enough historical background to put the Article into proper context before giving an explanation (with suitable illustrations and applications) of its teaching. He helps to bring alive much of the archaic language in the text and in his usual racy and engaging style is able to summarise the theology and practical consequences of what is set down.
Each chapter includes some questions for discussion, and a brief bibliography, for those who want to chew on things a bit further. This makes the book not just an exposition but a useful study guide for groups who want to work their way through the Articles (or just some of them) with help from an expert guide. The chapters are not too long, and can be read ‘as literature’ rather than ‘as reference’ – easy bedtime reading for a month or so perhaps, or for a Lent book group. They would be ideal for helping a minister see the relevance of each Article and give some ideas for writing a brief parish newsletter on them perhaps, as many have in the past, or even a short series of sermons.
Bray’s general approach to the Articles is Protestant (not Catholic, as the Oxford Movement would have liked), and Reformed (not Arminian, as John Wesley and various Restoration churchmen attempted to make them). He is not slow in drawing attention to the Evangelical theology at the heart of the Articles, or afraid of pointing out difficult truths (such as the scriptural warrant for talking about reprobation, under Article 17). Given his previous work on the history of the Articles and in various areas of theology, it is not surprising that the author is able to give some solid and meaty teaching here, though he wears his scholarship lightly. There are also some glimpses of his linguistic talents as he explains various features of the Articles’ vocabulary. As the only recent commentary on all the Articles, it is surely an indispensible book for ordinands and ministers (and those aspiring to be so), but could be read with great profit by any Anglican and will I hope play a part in helping to resource Anglican churches worldwide as they seek to rediscover their roots in the glorious Reformation truths enshrined in the Articles.
This review first appeared in Churchman 126.2 (2012)