Owen Chadwick in his essay “The Mind of the Oxford Movement” notes that church historian Thomas Fuller (17th century, mind you, not far removed from the Articles) said “that the Thirty-Nine Articles were like children’s clothes, made of a larger size so that the children might grow up into them. Whether the original authors of the Articles were looking for that breadth and liberty…is doubtful. [Yet] the statement [by Fuller] effectively represents the way in which Anglican moderation was seen to have room for persons attached, in mind or affection or devotion, to tradition.”
The historical fact seems to be that the Articles were interpreted in different ways from the very beginning! There was the immediate sense of the author’s intent, then there were others who wished a more lenient interpretation (which was certainly a legitimate possibility from the text itself). The Latitudinarians basically said, “if there’s no clear Scriptural prohibition, everything is on the table as long as it doesn’t get into that realm.” This would eventually develop into the broad church tradition, and in its more extreme form became the way of the Evangelical movement: The Scriptures, along with Reason and the Holy Spirit, were enough in themselves to arrive at the fullness of truth, without necessarily consulting the Fathers, etc.
Chadwick says, “The Latitudinarian dominance in English thought….so reinterpreted the Thirty-Nine Articles as to make them no longer the doctrinal hedge or guide which once, perhaps (but only perhaps), they successfully formed.”
The Oxford movement actually didn’t like this at first, because in their mind it chipped away at the teaching authority of the Church. Nevertheless when Newman threw out his interpretation, he is handling the Articles in ways they were already being handled. Another quote from Chadwick: “Whether or not Newman’s method was sound is a question. But the novelty was not in his handling the Articles to extract the maximum breadth from their language. The novelty lay in his handling the Articles in a Catholic direction.”
To lay a bit of groundwork: First, within the historical development of Anglicanism, we see a hierarchy of teaching authority:
First, The Biblical text itself.
Second, the teachings of the conciliar, undivided church as expressed in the dogmatic proclamations of the great councils.
Then, the teachings of the Fathers (where they speak with one voice).
Then, (four levels up!) the Thirty-Nine Articles and the teachings of the English Reformers themselves (which are meant to reform back to the Bible and Fathers).
Finally, reputable and godly contemporary scholars and theologians.
This hierarchy is key to a faithful way of interpreting the Articles that maintains historical and intellectual integrity.
Now, a few principles on the Articles themselves, once we get there:
1) The degree to which those statements are binding have to do with how in-concert they are with higher levels of authority (the Fathers and Scriptures). I refuse any doctrinal or ethical proposition that is in outright contradiction of the catholic consensus if that consensus can be reasonably argued from the Scriptures—as would the authors of the Articles themselves.
The Articles are not meant to expound new doctrines (a brief overview of the writings of the English Reformers will show this) but rather to express in language contemporary to the time the Catholic doctrines in opposition to the abuses and superstitions of the Roman church. They were meant to rein in some stuff that gone way too far. If we take them to be statements that are not highly influenced by their historical context, and fail to take that into account in our application of them to our own, different historical context, I think we are missing something. As we interpret them, we must do so in a way consistent with higher levels of authority.
2) It is probable that the original authors did in fact mean to prohibit certain practices and doctrines that are arguably consistent with the Bible and witness of the Early Church, and thus catholic. Example: reservation of the Sacrament. However we are not bound so much by exactly how the orginal authors intended to apply the true catholic doctrines in the daily discipline of the church (although it’s important to keep in the conversation regarding interpretation and use of the Articles).
We agree the authors were fallible, but their desire to reform the church to consistency with the Bible and Fathers was sound. So, we are justified in being primarily concerned with the usefulness of the statements in the Articles in themselves as expressing pre-existing catholic doctrine reasonably argued from Scripture and Tradition, today. So the question is, are they still useful?
3) Our Communion’s collective witness is that they are still useful, because they put in no uncertain terms the Bible in its rightful place of primacy and address issues that still plague the church today (for instance, Pelagianism and anti-Trinitarian heresy). Even interpreting them in the widest possible sense, the essential, catholic doctrines (including justification by faith) are preserved. Furthermore, keeping them as a standard helps us to remember our origins and the precious doctrinal, liturgical, and cultural heritiage we receive as heirs of the English Reformation.
Given the actual broadness of the wording, the uneven, yet enduring historical reception of the Articles in the Communion, and the principles of a hierarchy of authority, I think it is possible and even permissible (I’ll go further: even desirable!) to interpret the Articles in a way that permits certain practices and doctrines that the authors would have rejected at the time.
We do this to be as faithful as we can to higher levels of authority, while avoiding the messy and unneeded process of revising the Articles.
For example, we can (and to be intellectually honest, we must) acknoweldge that the Articles do probably intend to prohibit the reservation of the Sacrament as it was being practiced at the time. At the same time, we can reasonably argue that the current practice in Anglican churches of reservation for the sick does not violate the catholic doctrine set forth in the articles, (may in fact exemplify their spirit) and thus is in fact consonant with their deeper principles. Moreover, the text itself does not outright prohibit the practice, so we can accept the relevant text as-is, without revision. This is simply following the spirit of the “law” in the Articles with wisdom, rather than the letter.
Not only can we intepret the Articles this way, we should interpret them this way! We should do it openly, too, and show our work. This is because regardless of precise authorial intent, we want to interpret in harmony with the guiding principle of the Reformers: faithfulness to the higher levels of authority for the purposes of illuminating true, catholic (universal) doctrine and practice, while refuting superstition and abuse.
This is gives us some of the “room” of the Latitudinarians and, say, Newman-style interpretation without giving ourselves over to historical revisionism. We are able then to maintain faithfulness to catholic doctrine/practice and intellectual honesty.