Scripture in the Methodist Tradition, Part 2: The Forgotten Articles

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In the previous article of this series on Scripture in the Methodist Tradition, I gave four principles from Article VI of the 39 Articles of Religion:

  1. All that is necessary to our salvation is contained in the Bible.
  2. Church discipline only applies to matters which may be proven by Scripture.
  3. All of Scripture is contained in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.
  4. All of Scripture is authoritative in the Church.

There are four more articles in the 39 Articles that contribute to our understanding of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church. The relationship is more complicated than it is usually thought. It is understood correctly that Scripture’s authority has primacy in the Church, but how do Tradition and the Church relate to Scripture’s authority? It is critical that John Wesley removed Article VIII “The Creeds” and Article XX “The Authority of the Church” entirely from the Methodist 25 Articles of Religion, while simultaneously abridging Article XIX “The Church.” Article VII “The Old Testament” remained unaltered. In this section I will explain why this may be significant. We should not understand Wesley’s abridgment as a wholesale abrogation of the missing articles. Wesley’s reasons for abridgment are varied with each article and I will not explore those reasons here.

1. Article VII “The Old Testament”

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore there are not to be heard which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Article VII is a lengthy explanation of how the Old and New Testaments relate. There are implications also regarding Israel and the Church that are beyond our interests here. The bottom line is that Christians are bound by the “moral” law of the Old Testament. There is no explanation or definition of what counts as the moral law except that whatever touches on ceremonies, rites, or civil precepts is not morally binding on Christians.

2. Article VIII “The Creeds”

The three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

This article was removed by John Wesley, yet it adds critical data to ideas that first appeared in Article VI. There it was affirmed that only what is read in or proved by Scripture is necessary for Church discipline. Article VIII gives us a deeper understanding of what sort of belief or practice meets the second criterion of being “proved thereby.” Three creeds—the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles’—are identified as being “thoroughly” true and warranted by Holy Scripture. This raises the question, why? The answer is that “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture”; in other words, they contain necessary truths based on the text of Scripture. For instance, Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), he “did not count equality with God a thing to be used to his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6), and “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Therefore, it is right and necessary to confess that Jesus is of one substance with the Father, as the Athanasian and Nicene creeds state. The deity of Christ stated in this way is a universally recognized implication of Scripture and, therefore, “ought thoroughly to be received and believed.”

The Holy Spirit’s role is to assure that the truth, the Gospel, is preserved in the Church.

Jesus promised the apostles in John 16:13 that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth.” The Holy Spirit will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that [Jesus] has said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit still maintains his ministry of witnessing to the truth of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:2-3), and the Holy Spirit does so through the Church. Insofar as the Church follows in the apostles’ teaching it is true to God’s Word (1 John 4:6). The Church is the holder of the truth (1 Timothy 3:26) only because the Holy Spirit bears witness through the Church. All of this is to say that the Holy Spirit’s role is to assure that the truth, the Gospel, is preserved in the Church. This does not make the Church infallible, but it does give the Church oversight of Christian discipline and discipleship. The Holy Spirit assures that what is necessary to salvation is revealed in Scripture and preserved in the Church. We should note that the promise of the Spirit’s guidance into all truth is given to the Church as a whole and not to individuals. The truth is always somewhere in the Church (big C Church refers to the Church universal) even though individual persons and churches may have allowed error to enter.

3. Article XIX “The Church”

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.

John Wesley included an abridged version of this article in his 25 Articles of Religion, which remain in use to this day by Methodists. His abridgement includes the first full sentence and excludes the second sentence. It follows the language of earlier Protestant statements (e.g., Augsburg Confession VII.1; Belgic Confession 29) which defined a local church as a congregation or gathering of people where God’s Word is preached purely and the sacraments are observed rightly. Right administration of the sacraments includes regular administration of the sacraments given its role in the discipline of the church. It is noteworthy that this article has been removed or significantly revised in nearly every church discipline of the Holiness Movement, coinciding perhaps with the oversight of the Holy Eucharist as an act of church formation.

It is noteworthy that Article XIX has been removed or significantly revised in nearly every church discipline of the Holiness Movement, coinciding perhaps with the oversight of the Holy Eucharist as an act of church formation.

4. Article XX “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 anything 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 anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.

This significant article was removed entirely by John Wesley. This article expounds on the relationship of Scripture and the Church. The Church is bound to a consistent, harmonized reading of Scripture. The Church’s say-so only counts as God’s say-so when it is consistent with Scripture. Furthermore, although the Church has the authority to legislate and adjudicate, it does not have the authority to enforce in church discipline anything that cannot be proved by Scripture. What is not contained in Scripture (read therein or proved thereby) is not necessary for salvation and does not fall within the Church’s authority to decree.

The church does not have the authority to enforce in church discipline anything that cannot be proved by Scripture.

Conclusion

Although John Wesley went on to heavily edit the 39 Articles of Religion for use by the early Methodists, he remained a committed Anglican and voiced his vision that Methodists would always remain within the Church of England. His abridgement should not be taken as an abrogation. After his death, Methodism separated from the Church of England and one of the unfortunate consequences is that Methodists forgot that their founder did not intend for them to set aside the whole of the 39 Articles. Today, we would serve the church well and honor our namesake by retrieving the thought of these forgotten articles of faith.

David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).