Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Thirty-Nine Articles (Part 16)

XXXVII. Of the Civil Magistrate
The Queen's Majesty hath the chief power in this realm of England and other her dominions, unto whom the chief government of all estates of this realm, whether they be ecclesiastical or civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not nor ought to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the Queen's Majesty the chief government, by which titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended, we give not to our princes the ministering either of God's word or of sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen doth most plainly testify: but only that prerogative which we see to have been given always to all godly princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself, that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.


The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.

The laws of the realm may punish Christian men with death for heinous and grievous offences.


It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars.

In this article we find a nice window into the political world of the sixteenth century in Europe. As with the preceding articles, it may seem a bit outdated from our twenty-first century perspective. Yet once again it is grappling with a perennial issue of human society.

It seems to me that society in those days was thought of as a seamless cloth. It was one. Yet within that unity there were two facets of life - spiritual and temporal. The Church had jurisdiction over the spiritual realm, and the Crown had jurisdiction over the temporal. Church and Crown thus worked together, with mutual obligations, responsibilities, and prerogatives. Naturally, there had always been some tension between Church and Crown on how these responsibilities and prerogatives played out. The Popes of the Roman Catholic church had tended toward claiming supreme authority for themselves. But in England a generation prior to the Thirty-Nine Articles, King Henry VIII had broken with the Roman church and made himself "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England." By the time of the Articles, the monarchy had lost some of this power, and Article 37 embraces a softer form of monarchical rule.

Thus the monarch was given rule over the church in England. However, this rule was not unlimited. The article specifically denies the ministry of God's word or the sacraments to the monarch. Although in a different political context, the stance taken in Article 37 is very similar to the position of the Augsburg Confession.

The struggle between Church and Crown in England set the stage for the political ideas that would later be acted out in our own country. In the seventeenth century, many Anglicans asserted strong monarchical power against rising ideas of popular sovereignty. The conflict ended up in a civil war during the 1640's. During that time, the Westminster Confession engaged Presbyterian ideas in the struggle for civil government. These ideas, combined with the writings of John Locke, would become more influential as time went on.

I make these brief comments for this purpose: to help you see that our ideas about religion, the Bible, and theology always have political ramifications. The church of Jesus Christ has no political mandate, but at the same time, her success or failure at making disciples of Jesus Christ will affect the political life of the society in which we live in a massive way.

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