The Church in the Articles (II): Article XX (b)

Continuing our series on the Thirty-nine Articles in general and Articles XIX to XXI in particular through the lens of Kidd’s commentary. The entry below completes his commentary on Article XX begun in the last post.

The alert reader will have noticed that Kidd is at pains not only to define the Church as visible by divine design and not merely spiritual convenience, but also to clarify just what the Articles mean when they refer to the “Church.” Is the particular reference to the local church or to the wider Church Catholic? At times the Articles clearly refer to the wider Church, at times to the local Church of England, and at still other times they are ambiguous; however, the implication of Article XX is that when it comes to “rites or ceremonies,” much latitude is to be given to the local church, while in matters of faith there are limitations not only on the local church but even on the Church Universal. Kidd wrote with an eye to the question of development of doctrine, and it is fair to ask whether his statement that “[t]here was indeed a development; but it was an explanatory, not an accretive, development: not an addition to the substance of the faith such as might proceed from a lawgiver, but an exposition of its contents such as is proper to a judge” is not in fact something a Roman Catholic could at least in theory accept, the differences between the two churches being thus a matter of doctrinal practice rather than doctrinal theory.

I will have more to say on ‘development’ later; for now, let Kidd speak for himself . . .


De Ecclesiae Auctoritate: Habet Ecclesia ritus statuendi jus et in fidei controversiis auctoritatem; quamvis Ecclesiae non licet quicquam instituere quod verbo Dei scripto adversetur, neque unum Scripturae locum sic exponere potest, ut alteri contradicat. Quare licet Ecclesia sit divinorum librorum testis et conservatrix; attamen, ut adversus eos nihil decernere, ita praeter illos nihil credendum de necessitate salutis debet obtrudere.

Of 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.


(2) The judicial power of the Church. The Church. . . hath authority in controversies of faith.

(a) The nature of this authority is judicial. It is an authority to expound. In a civilised state, the legislature makes the laws, but it is the office of the judge to interpret them: and while the legislature may make new laws, the powers of the judicial bench are confined to the interpreting of laws already in existence. It is so with the Church. She possesses a less absolute authority in questions of doctrine than of discipline. For, while she ‘hath power to decree rites or ceremonies,’ she only ‘hath authority in controversies of faith’ to the extent of expounding what revelation means. For example, the Council of Nicaea had no hesitation in making a new regulation for the time of keeping Easter: but, in dealing with Arianism, it went no further than to declare the sense of Scripture as to our Lord’s Divinity. There was indeed a development; but it was an explanatory, not an accretive, development: not an addition to the substance of the faith such as might proceed from a lawgiver, but an exposition of its contents such as is proper to a judge.

(b) The Scriptural warrant for the assumption by the Church of such an ‘authority in controversies of faith’ is found in our Lord’s grant to the Apostles of the power to ‘bind’ and ‘loose,’ i.e. prohibit or permit by declaring a thing lawful or unlawful after the manner of a judge (Matt. xvi. 19; xviii. 18), to feed with discrimination (Luke xii. 42), and to teach (Matt. xxviii. 19); again, in Apostolic practice, as when at the Council of Jerusalem a doctrinal question involving the Catholicity of the Church was decided by ‘the Apostles and the elders with the whole Church’ (Acts xv. 22); and also in the language of S. Paul. He bids the elders of Ephesus ‘to feed the Church of God’ and guard it against false teachers (Acts xx. 28-30). He urges Timothy to ‘guard the deposit’ (1 Tim. vi. 20), and the elders under Titus to ‘hold to the faithful word which is according to the teaching’ (Tit. i. 9). Here he assumes that Christian teachers are responsible for judging between truth and falsehood; (cf. 2 Tim. ii. 15) and his language is only intelligible on the supposition that he regarded them as the official interpreters of the mind of the Church, which he describes as ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1 Tim. iii. 15).

But (c) like all judicial authority this right of the Church to discriminate and decide has its limitations. Thus it belongs to the Church as a whole. Only to the Apostles as a body is the presence of Christ (Matt. xxviii. 20) and the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John xiv. 26; xvi. 13) promised: just as indefectibility is assured only to the whole Church (Matt. xvi. 18). It is true that local churches have taken upon themselves to define doctrine: but usually under some necessity, as of checking local error or of making provisional arrangements where circumstances rendered a final settlement by the whole Church unattainable. Thus Montanism was condemned by Asiatic Synods in the second century; Pelagianism, on its appearance in Africa; by the Synod of Carthage in 412; Anabaptism by the English Convocation of 1536. Where such local synods received more than local weight, it was in proportion to the extent of their acceptance in later times. Thus the Synod of Orange, which condemned Semi-Pelagianism in 529, though only a little Gallican Council, earned the respect and gratitude of the entire West; while the Council of Constantinople, which in 381 put Apollinarianism and Macedonianism under its ban, eventually came to be recognised as the second Ecumenical Council. Their decisions were for a long time of local or temporary authority.

Similarly the theologians of the English Reformation repeatedly affirmed that their doctrinal formularies were in no sense final but temporary expedients, awaiting the confirmation of a free Council representative of the whole Church. But even were ‘authority in controversies of faith’ exercised by the whole Church, it would still be under the further limitation that no decision would be binding if it either contravened the terms, or added to the substance, of Holy Scripture. The Church may not so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another. . . so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation. But this has already been dealt with under Art. 6.

(3) What then is the relation of the Church to the Scriptures? The Church is described as a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ.

(a) As a witness, her chief function is to testify what books are to be regarded as Scripture, i.e. what is Scripture, as also to expound what Scripture means.

(b) As a keeper, she is, like the Jewish Church, ‘entrusted with the oracles of God’ (Rom. iii. 2). She is not the mistress but the steward of Scripture. Her duty is not to reveal truth, but to guard the truth as revealed (Jude 3). As against the Roman position, she is not the oracle of truth; nor are we to look for any such institution as would relieve us of the mental and moral discipline involved in the obligation to search for truth in the spiritual as in the scientific region.

On the other hand, as against the Protestant claim that every man is to discover the truth in Scripture for himself, the Article teaches that not the individual but the Church is the keeper of Holy Writ. The Scriptures themselves bear witness to their proper function. Both Gospels and Epistles were addressed to men already instructed in the faith (Luke i. 4 ; John xxi. 24; 2 Thess. ii. 15, iii. 6; 1 Cor. xi. 23, xv. 3; Gal. i. 6-8 ; Heb. v. 12; James i. 19; 2 Pet. i. 12, iii. 1; 1 John ii. 20, 21; Jude 3), and were never intended either to take the place of a teacher, or to serve as a mine out of which each man was to quarry the truth for himself.* The Church is the teacher, the Scriptures are the test, of truth. The Ethiopian eunuch was obliged to allow that he was but half equipped for arriving at the truth by his possession of the Scriptures: but when the representative of the ‘teaching Church’ expounded them in the person of Philip, he speedily attained it and was baptized (Acts viii. 27-38). Everywhere the Apostles follow the same method. They teach first; and prove, or bid men prove for themselves, by appeal to the Scriptures afterwards (Acts. ii. 14-36; xiii. 16-42; xvii. 2, 3, and 11).

*See Gore, Bampton Lectures, pp. 189 sqq.


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