Recovering Doctrinal Integrity: The Rule of Faith

This third essay in the series addresses the section of the Articles of Religion that are known historically as the Rule Of Faith. The Rule of Faith identifies the ultimate authoritative source for the church from which all other teaching and practice must be judged. In the original Thirty-Nine Articles this section contains two  statements on the authority of Holy Scripture and one on the place of ecumenical creeds. They comprise a total of five sentences plus a list of books of the Bible. The Rule of Faith for the Church should be that simple and that easy to locate.

If one were to ask, what is the Rule of Faith for the GMC, the answer would sound like instructions on an Internal Revenue Service form: See paragraph 104. For specifics on Scripture proceed to Articles of Religion sections V and VI and section IV of the Confession of Faith; unless referencing creeds in which case you may proceed directly to paragraph 105: Foundational Standards, and disregard the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith because they no longer say a thing about the creeds.

If that sounds absurd, the authors of this section think so too. It is necessary because we are transitioning out of…yet starting in…the UMC doctrinal quagmire. The arrangement is temporary. We can expect all these statements to be reconciled eventually–either by moving the relevant Articles into the section on Foundational Standards or by incorporating the new paragraphs 104 and 105 into the Articles.

[I will take this opportunity to note that if instead of trying to harmonize the UMC melange we had simply returned to the original Thirty-Nine Articles, then the only changes needed to get where we are would be to add the one sentence (par. 104) to Article V and replace the Athanasian Creed with the Definition of Chalcedon in the original Article VIII.]

Because the Transitional Doctrine and Discipline (TDD) addresses the Rule of Faith in two sets of standards (Foundational and Constitutive), we will need to examine them simultaneously. I spent a week looking for a simple way to do this and what follows is my best effort.

Parentheticals indicate deletions from the original Thirty-Nine. Underlines indicate additions.

Holy Scripture

From the new ¶ 104 of the TDD: HOLY SCRIPTURE. The canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, as specified in the Articles of Religion, are the primary rule and authority for faith, morals, and service, against which all other authorities must be measured.

Its place in the TDD makes this the first of our doctrinal standards upon which all others depend.  Not only are we allowed to use Scripture, but we are required to use it. All other authorities must be measured against Holy Scripture.

Article V – Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testaments of whose authority was never any doubt in the church. The names of the canonical books are:

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, The First Book of Samuel, The Second Book of Samuel, The First Book of Kings, The Second Book of Kings, The First Book of Chronicles, The Second Book of Chronicles, The Book of Ezra, The Book of Nehemiah, The Book of Esther, The Book of Job, The Psalms, The Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or the Preacher, Cantica or Songs of Solomon, Four Prophets the Greater, Twelve Prophets the Less.

(And the other Books, as Hierome saith, the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following: 

The Book of Judith, Baruch the Prophet, The Book of Tobias, Jesus the Son of Sirach, The Third Book of Esdras, The rest of the Book of Esther, The Fourth Book of Esdras, The Book of Wisdom, The Song of the Three Children, The Prayer of Manasses, The Story of Susanna, The First Book of Maccabees, Of Bel and the Dragon, The Second Book of Maccabees.)

All the books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive and account Canonical.

The GMC follows the example of the Methodists in America since 1784 by omitting any reference to the apocryphal books. The argument I hear most frequently for the omission is that including them in the Articles gives them a higher status than they deserve; but read the Article. The plain sense of the words is exactly the opposite. The purpose of their inclusion is to forbid them from being applied to establish any doctrine.  

These books are commonly read by Christians. I read and study them. They are available in most every translation of the Bible. Some Christian traditions refer to them as deuterocanonical—a second canon. The original words of Article V deny them deuterocanonical status and refer to them merely as other books.

These other books, or apocrypha, are useful for the Christian in the study of life and manners. They may be illustrative of God’s acts among his people in the intertestamental period even if they are not an actual record of such. They are not the inspired word of God—they are not Holy Scripture. By omitting this section of the Article, it is as though the Church has not evaluated apocryphal literature and makes no claim one way or the other.

Most pastors and Sunday School teachers have encountered the person who has discovered one of the lost books of the Bible and wants to know why the Church has been hiding this. The redacted portion of the Article is the part that declares the Church did not loose or hide anything. The apocryphal books have been studied. A few are of some benefit for Christian study, but not for doctrine.

If we continue to avoid the reference because we are afraid it might be misinterpreted to give them higher status than they deserve, then we are falling into the same trap as 1784: We are more concerned with opposing a possible heresy than promoting a Christian truth. Furthermore, the new paragraph 104 gives the additional safeguard that these “other books” are to be read against the plumb line of the canonical Scripture.

The questions ought to be: Is it true that these do not constitute a second canon? Is it true that these books are not to be applied to establish any doctrine? Is it true that these books may be read for example of life and instruction of manners? If this is so, then we should recover our doctrinal heritage and return the language to the text.

Article VI – Of the Old Testament

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

This Article has survived intact from the original Thirty-Nine.

There remains one Article in the Rule of Faith that is present in the Thirty-Nine but is missing in both the UMC and GMC Articles. It is identified as Article VII in the original Thirty-Nine and reads as follows:

The Creeds

(Article VIII – Of the Three Creeds
The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s 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.)

The Global Methodist Church has recovered the intent of this Article and moved it together with other parts of the Rule of Faith to the Foundational Standards. It is identified there as

¶ 105. FOUNDATIONAL DOCUMENTS FOR OUR DOCTRINAL STANDARDS.

The following summaries of the apostolic witness disclosed in Scripture have been affirmed by many Christian communities, and express orthodox Christian teaching…

then follows the texts of The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, and The Definition of Chalcedon.

The most notable change is the omission of the Athanasian Creed from the original Thirty-Nine and the addition of the Definition of Chalcedon. I am especially fond of the Athanasian Creed, though it has understandably fallen out of favor in recent centuries. I will not make its defense, but I hope somebody will. If we choose to neglect it, then we ought to be clear if its omission is a rejection. It is commonly held by the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches.

While I would not go to war for its retention, we ought dread to think that we could end up with bishops who never studied it or with clergy who denied any of its claims on the Trinity. If it can be demonstrated that this cumbersome creed is redundant because every salient point is established elsewhere in our doctrine (the AthanasianCreed is simply an excursus on the Definition of Chalcedon), then its omission is advisable.

The Definition of Chalcedon is a welcome recovery of sound Christian teaching for our church. Those arriving from the UMC know how much the Boards of Ordained Ministry could have benefitted from its presence and how much needles suffering of our congregations could have been avoided.

The change for the Apostles’ Creed was discussed in the original Article III at the close of the previous essay. When we substitute, he descended to the dead in place of the traditional he descended into hell then we need an historical record of clarity on the intent. I suspect the change will be received as a generally welcome correction, but is the church declaring the normative reading of 1 Peter to be Sheol rather than Gehenna, or does it have some other intent? The decision will be the authoratative standard for evaluating our preaching and theology.

Takeaways and Concluding Questions

It has been awkward examining our Rule of Faith when parts of it are found in two different places. Saying the same thing two different ways in two different places tends to favor confusion over clarity.

There is wisdom in the authors’ decision to place our statement on Scripture in a place of preeminence ahead of our constitutive and normative standards, and then to follow them immediately with creeds which, in the words of the original Article VIII, may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture. Whether the entirety of Articles V and VI ought to be removed from the Articles of Religion and placed in paragraph 104, or paragraphs 104 and 105 simply added to the Articles is a matter of taste.

The original language concerning the apocryphal books needs to be recovered because it is true. The Church has examined these “other books” and has claims to make about them.

We would benefit from an historical record on the reasons for both the choice of words in the Apostles’ Creed and the omission of the Athanasian Creed.

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