Before getting to our present focus, a preliminary word: one of the marks of the visible church, according to Article XIX, is that “the Sacraments be duly ministered,” and as Browne adds, part of what it means for the sacraments to be duly ministered is that those ministering them be “rightly ordained.” He goes on to say, “It is…quite certain that those to whom [Christ] gave authority to baptize, and those whom He commanded to bless the cup and break the bread in the Communion, were His commissioned and ordained Apostles.” Moreover, the church’s apostolic character, in its sacraments and otherwise, “results from its being built on the foundation of Apostles and Prophets, continuing in the doctrine and fellowship of the Apostles, holding the faith of the Apostles, governed and ministered to by a clergy deriving their succession from the Apostles.” Thus, in so many words, Browne affirms apostolic succession as important to the maintenance of the present-day church’s continuity with the early church. The question of whether apostolic succession—or, what is much the same thing, the institution of episcopacy—is absolutely essential to make a true church has been a fraught one in the Anglican tradition. Browne addresses the topic more thoroughly in relation to Article XXIII, so a fuller discussion will be deferred until then. For the moment, it is worth mentioning that Browne does not venture a clear position on the status of churches that lack apostolic succession:
The formularies of our Church have expressed no judgment as to how far the very being of a Church may be imperilled by a defect in this particular note of the Church; as by mutilation of the Sacraments, imperfect ordination, or defective exercise of the power of the Keys. At the present time, these questions force themselves on us. But the English Church has been content to give her decision as to the right mode of ordaining, ministering Sacraments, and exercising discipline, without expressing an opinion on the degree of defectiveness in such matters which would cause other communions to cease from being Churches of Christ.
Returning to the matter at hand, it is not by happenstance that the first mark of the visible church is said to be that “the pure word of God is preached.” To be sure, the sacraments must be “duly ministered,” but in the absence of sound doctrine, even Baptism and the Eucharist will avail only so much. Making doctrinal purity a top priority in identifying the true church, as the Article does, is consistent with other Anglican sources of authority. As Browne observes, the Homily for Whitsunday identifies “pure and sound doctrine” as the first of the “notes or marks whereby [the true Church] is known,” with “the Sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of ecclesiastical discipline” following. Likewise, Nowell’s Catechism teaches that the visible church consists first of all in those who “do profess the doctrine of Christ, pure and sincere.” This attitude is a commonplace of Protestantism more broadly—Browne remarks that a number of the Reformers, such as “Luther, Melancthon, Zuinglius, held that sound faith and purity of doctrine were more essential to catholicity than undivided communion even with the bishops and existing Church of their own land; arguing that a Church could not be Catholic which did not soundly hold the Catholic faith.”
In light of the seriousness with which the Anglican tradition treats fidelity to pure doctrine, it may seem puzzling that the Article’s language with regard to the Roman Church is relatively mild compared to other Protestant confessions. For example, the Westminster Confession refers to the pope as “that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition,” and the Second Helvetic Confession says of him that he “does indeed preserve his tyranny and the corruption that has been brought into the Church.” The Article merely says that “the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.” Yet it should be noted, as Browne points out, that many of the English reformers were as zealous in denouncing Roman corruption as their Continental counterparts:
The English, like the foreign reformers, frequently called the papal power Antichrist, the Man of sin, the Beast, &c, deplore and condemn the idolatrous state of the Church before the Reformation, and of the Church which continued in union with Rome after the Reformation, and in consequence often use language which appears to imply that the Church of Rome was no true Church at all.
At the same time, Browne continues, “Still they often speak, as this Article does, of the Church of Rome as yet a Church, though a corrupt, degenerate, and erring Church.” This is true of “not only our own, but Luther, Calvin, and other continental Reformers, speak of the Church of Rome as a Church, though a fallen and corrupt Church.” What makes such moderate criticism of the Roman Church—coupled with high regard for biblically catholic doctrine—possible is the distinction between “fundamental” (i.e., primary) doctrines and secondary or tertiary doctrines:
By “matters of faith” [with regard to which Article XIX states the Roman Church has erred] probably it is not intended to express articles of the Creed. Had the Church of Rome rejected the Creeds, and those fundamental articles of the faith contained in them, the Church of England would probably have considered her distinctly as a heresy, and not as a corrupt and erring Church. But there are many errors which concern the faith of Christ, besides those which strike at the very foundation, and would overthrow even the Creeds themselves.
The errors Browne refers to include “Trent doctrine of Justification and Original Sin,” “Transubstantiation,” “Purgatory,” and “Invocation of Saints,” among others. The fact that Browne thinks such errors, grave as they are, do not “strike at the very foundation” of Christianity should be instructive for us. Many Protestants today believe there is no shared faith or brotherhood between themselves and Romanists or Eastern Orthodox and that, to put it starkly, all members of these two church bodies are bound for hell, thus unhappily imitating similarly uncharitable members of those same Churches. For Protestants this tendency is undoubtedly inspired by the sort of rhetoric often found in the writings of the Reformers, as well as certain confessions. However, given that the Reformers themselves recognized the fundamentals of Word and Sacrament as still present in the Roman Church, we should do the same, while also learning to recognize polemical hyperbole when it appears. As Browne rightly says, “It is infinitely to be desired that there should be no relaxation of our protest against error and corruption; but the force of a protest can never be increased by uncharitableness or exaggeration.”
Having said all this, a brief excursus is in order: while it is salutary to insist on the ecumenical creeds as a minimal doctrinal standard, in recent years the claim to creedal orthodoxy has often functioned as a smokescreen for those who promote heretical views of sex. The creeds alone define Christian orthodoxy, they say, so any disagreements on matters of sex are secondary, meaning those who depart from traditional views on such matters should not be excluded from the church. The problem with this argument is that it construes the creeds in an overly narrow fashion, supposing them to be concerned only with topics such as the Triune God, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and so forth. In reality, as Matt Kennedy has observed, the creeds have ramifications beyond the topics expressly raised by them, for example, in affirming Jesus as the Son of God. All of Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and if Jesus is God, then He speaks to us in all the Old and New Testament prohibitions and punishments concerning sexual perversion:
The Creeds themselves, then, require obedience to Jesus Christ as the One Lord over all things. To profess the Creed but reject the word of God as revealed in the scriptures regarding marriage and sexuality is incoherent. It is, in fact, to reject the Lordship of Christ and to place oneself outside the bounds of Creedal Christianity.
Let no one plead creedal orthodoxy as an excuse or justification for departing from biblical ethics. Such abuses of the creeds’ authority aside, they serve as a standard on the basis of which we can recognize Christian brethren—including Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox—across theological and ecclesial divides.
- Alexander Nowell, Nowell’s Catechism, ed. G. E. Corrie, trans. Thomas Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1853), 175. ↑
- “Westminster Confession,” ch. XXV, sec. VI, https://thewestminsterstandard.org/the-westminster-confession/#Chapter%20XXV. ↑
- “Second Helvetic Confession,” ch. XVII, par. 19, https://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm. ↑
- Matt Kennedy, “Are the Creeds Enough?” Stand Firm, 6 January 2020, https://standfirminfaith.com/are-the-creeds-enough/. ↑