Reading the Articles: Hermeneutical Issues [Commentary on Browne: Introduction (3)]

As the work that Browne undertakes is an exposition or commentary on the Thirty-nine Articles, it is not surprising that he says a few words in the Introduction on the right way to go about reading and interpreting them:

In the interpretation of them, our best guides must be, first, their own natural, literal, grammatical meaning; next to this, a knowledge of the controversies which had prevailed in the Church, and made such Articles necessary; then, the other authorized formularies of the Church; after them, the writings and known opinions of such men as Cranmer, Ridley, and Parker, who drew them up; then, the doctrines of the primitive Church, which they professed to follow; and, lastly, the general sentiments of the distinguished English divines, who have been content to subscribe the Articles, and have professed their agreement with them for now three hundred years. These are our best guides for their interpretation.

We may first note that Browne’s hermeneutic, in prioritizing the Articles’ “natural, literal, grammatical meaning” above all else, is in the same vein as Charles I’s Declaration, first included with the Articles in 1628 and prefixed to them ever since, an excerpt from which reads as follows:

No man hereafter shall either print, or preach, to draw the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to be the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense.[1]

A second point of interest, which may not seem worthy of comment at first glance, is Browne’s assertion that “the writings and known opinions of such men as Cranmer, Ridley, and Parker, who drew [the Articles] up” should be accounted for in our own understanding of them. Browne is saying here that authorial intent and background should inform our attempts to read the Articles rightly. For most people this is an intuitive and uncontroversial principle of interpretation. Notably, however, it is an Anglo-Catholic commonplace that authorial intent is not to be considered when interpreting the Articles. So says John Henry Newman in his conclusion to Tract 90:

It is a duty which we owe both to the Catholic Church and to our own, to take our reformed confessions in the most Catholic sense they will admit; we have no duties toward their framers. [Nor do we receive the Articles from their original framers, but from several successive convocations after their time; in the last instance, from that of 1662.]

Whatever be the authority of the [Declaration] prefixed to the Articles, so far as it has any weight at all, it sanctions the mode of interpreting them above given. For its enjoining the “literal and grammatical sense,” relieves us from the necessity of making the known opinions of their framers, a comment upon their text.[2]

Newman is not an outlier in this regard, for we find the same dismissal of authorial intent with respect to the Articles in Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology:

The personal intentions of legislators have binding force only so far as unambiguously defined in what is finally enacted. This is true of both civil and ecclesiastical law. It is not what [Archbishops Thomas] Cranmer [1489-1556] and [Matthew] Parker [1504-1575] intended that binds, or what the others intended who had to do with framing and adopting the Thirty-Nine Articles. It is rather the existing language of the Articles themselves, interpreted grammatically and strictly. Thanks to the unseen guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s corporate utterances transcend in wisdom the minds and intentions of individuals and majorities.[3]

All parties quoted here avow the importance of interpreting the Articles according to their literal and grammatical sense, but the Anglo-Catholic refusal to acknowledge the authorial intent and background behind the Articles often leads to what Fr. Charles Erlandson has described as “non-natural and individual” interpretations.[4] Witness, for example, Newman’s deduction that because Article XXII condemns “the Romish” doctrine of purgatory, therefore “the Primitive doctrine [of purgatory] is not condemned in it”;[5] or consider Hall’s response to the words of Article XXVIII declaring that “‘Reservation’—carrying about, lifting up, and worshipping of the sacrament—is ‘not by Christ’s ordinance,’” in which he remarks, “It is not denied that such practices are allowable, when kept in due subordination to the instituted purpose of the sacrament.”[6]

Without offering any definitive pronouncement on the relative merit of these two approaches to the Articles, it can safely be observed that in light of such hermeneutical differences “the appeal to the Articles [as a standard for Anglican identity] may not be as simple or clear as some orthodox Anglicans hope for.”[7]

Notes

  1. Charles I, “The King’s Declaration Prefixed to the Articles of Religion,” in Henry Gee and William John Hardy, eds., Documents Illustrative of English Church History (New York: Macmillan, 1896), 418‒20, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/ENGref/er91.html.
  2. John Henry Newman, Tracts for the Times, Tract No. 90 (1841), http://anglicanhistory.org/tracts/tract90/fulltext.html, emphasis mine.
  3. John A. Porter, ed., Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology Abridged in Two Volumes, vol. 1, Bk. I, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 87n3, emphasis mine.
  4. Charles Erlandson, Orthodox Anglican Identity: The Quest for Unity in a Diverse Religious Tradition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2020), 99.
  5. Newman, Tract 90, http://anglicanhistory.org/tracts/tract90/fulltext.html.
  6. Porter, Anglican Dogmatics, vol. 2, Bk. IX, The Sacraments, 467.
  7. Erlandson, Orthodox Anglican Identity, 97.


James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Journal of Classical Theology, and Evangelical Quarterly, as well as other publications.


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