The “Anglican” movement in the sixteenth century was a return to the pure and simple faith of Christianity as embodied in the Holy Scriptures. —W. H. Griffith Thomas
What we believe shapes our identity, and ultimately, who we are. Singer-songwriter Rich Mullins affirmed this in an older song called “Creed.” In the words of the song, he writes: “And I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it; no, it is making me. It is the very truth of God, and not the invention of any man.”
Orthodoxy means “right belief,” and for Christianity, a right belief is a belief that agrees with the whole of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. This is especially true regarding the core doctrines of the Trinity and the Church.
What makes Christian orthodoxy stand apart in our postmodern world is its clear statements of what we believe, and the commitment to hold to these beliefs regardless of the relativism we find in the world. While others may abandon their beliefs for the latest trends, Christians are rooted, holding firm, concrete beliefs about the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
(Note: This post is an adapted excerpt from Simply Anglican: An Ancient Faith for Today’s World.)
Our orthodoxy—right beliefs—are important for discipleship because orthodoxy is directly connected to orthopraxy, our “right action.” The practical application of a belief is an action taken in response to or based on that belief. This is why what we believe about God matters immensely. What we believe about God influences how we think, pray, worship, and, ultimately, how we live. No, we are not all called to be professional theologians, but every Christian has a responsibility to know what they believe for themselves. You can’t worship what you don’t know. Anglicans understand that this interaction between belief and practice is paramount.
So, what do Anglicans believe?
In one sense, Anglicans have no distinct beliefs of their own. Anglicans simply believe what Christians have espoused since the times of the historic creeds and councils. These essentials are what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote Mere Christianity in order “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times” (Mere Christianity [New York: Collier Books, 1952], vi.).
Since the earliest of times, Christians have believed the teachings of the Bible and recited the creeds during times of prayer and worship to remind them of the faith they professed, the faith handed down to the apostles and guarded by the church to the present day.
However, in another important sense, Anglicans do have a unique set of beliefs that embraces the best of the ancient Christian faith and the Protestant Reformation. In an article titled “Is There an ‘Anglican Understanding’ of the New Testament?” Professor Wesley Hill said the following about Anglican beliefs:
Anglicanism’s chief glory is to present and embody the faith of the church catholic—downwind of the Reformation, with a robust understanding of justification by faith in tow—in such a way that Anglicans may be confident that they are adhering to the same apostolic teaching and inhabiting the same ecclesial order as their earliest forebears in the faith did. . . . We are distinctive precisely by aiming not to be distinctive. Our theology is the theology of the early church, the era of the Fathers, the best of the medieval world and the Reformation—all set decently on the table in our prayer book and other formularies.
Rather than reinventing the faith, Anglicanism reminds us that we need to get back to the foundational truths of Christianity, back to orthodoxy. I believe every generation of believers must revisit the faith and doctrines of the early church as found in the Holy Scriptures and the historic creeds. In our time, these truths and doctrines sharply contrast with the postmodern mood of our culture, providing a new or young Christian with a substantial foundation upon which to stand. The mission of the church is to engage a changing world with an ancient faith that is relevant and fresh for each generation. It’s about communicating clearly and calling each generation to the solid foundation of orthodoxy.
Anglicanism has common beliefs, a corporate confession, and a corporate affirmation of faith that forms our faith and gives us a foundation to stand in the midst of a changing world. In the following pages we will explore the common beliefs that form Anglicans worldwide. This chapter will offer a brief introduction and overview of the foundational Anglican standards for understanding Christian faith as rooted in the Holy Scriptures, the historic creeds of the Christian faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and a unique way of learning theology called catechesis.
What do Anglicans believe? Scripture and the Creeds
Anglican Christianity is unified by its center, not by its boundaries. In particular, the three creeds of the church (the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed) constitute the core of Anglican belief. But what exactly is a creed? A creed is a brief statement of faith used to summarize Biblical teaching, clarify doctrinal points, and distinguish truth from error. The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, meaning, “I believe.” The Bible contains a number of creed-like passages (see Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 15:3–4; 1 Timothy 3:16).
The historic creeds offer us a concise summary of authentic Christian beliefs. They contain essential Christian doctrines (e.g., the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the Trinity) common to the majority of Christians. It is through our common faith in these essentials that Anglicans can seek unity with other Christians. Our creeds guard the faith, but they do not limit the leading of the Holy Spirit. The common ground of faith established by the creeds allows us to move forward together into the world to fulfill the mission of God. Because of their importance, the creeds fill the pages of the Book of Common Prayer and shape its prayers, liturgies, ceremonies, and catechism. In many ways, the creeds act as an anchor that provides a doctrinal foundation for Anglicans everywhere.
The Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ Creed represents the most concise creed observed by Anglicans. As the early church spread, it needed a practical statement of faith to help believers focus on the most important doctrines of their Christian faith. The creed is traditionally attributed to the apostles, even though there is no historical justification for this belief. However, the Apostles’ Creed accurately reflects the teaching of the apostles—the apostolic faith. The earliest form of the Apostles’ Creed appeared around the second century, and it seems to have assumed its final form in the eighth century.
The Nicene Creed
As the church continued to grow, heresies also grew, and the early Christians needed even more clarification in order to define the boundaries of the faith. In the early 300s, controversy arose over the divinity of Jesus Christ. At the request of Emperor Constantine, Christian bishops from across the East and the West met at the town of Nicaea, near Constantinople. In AD 325 they wrote an expanded creed called the Creed of Nicaea, which was finalized in its current form at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. Along with the Apostles’ Creed, Christians widely accept the Nicene Creed as a statement of true Christian orthodoxy. The Anglican church employs the Apostles’ Creed as the statement of faith during baptism and Morning and Evening Prayer, while the Nicene Creed is recited in the service of Holy Communion.
The Athanasian Creed
Finally, the Athanasian Creed was an attempt to protect the church from heresies that denied the humanity and divinity of Jesus and from false teachings related to the doctrine of the Trinity. Although it was most likely composed at some point during the fifth century, the Athanasian Creed is traditionally ascribed to Athanasius (293–373), a defender of orthodox teaching about Jesus Christ against the heresy of Arianism, which maintained that Jesus was a created being, not God. The Athanasian Creed offers a detailed statement of the doctrine of the Trinity: “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.”[iv]
Our creeds are not static statements about the Christian faith; rather they offer the church a dynamic means of unity in the essentials of our common faith. With the creeds as a foundation, we can be open to the diversity that permeates the various church traditions. Our unity in essentials gives us common ground, while our diversity provides us the means for various dialogues and opinions within the body of Christ. With the creeds as our foundation, the church of the past can speak to the present, and the church of the present can reach into the future through a common faith and a common prayer.
What do Anglicans believe? The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion represent another pillar of Anglican beliefs. First developed over the course of the Reformation era, the Articles came into their final form and number in 1571 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and under the direction of Archbishop Matthew Parker. The church never intended for the Articles to be a comprehensive statement of the Christian faith, but originally thought of them as a way to clarify the position of the Church of England against the Roman Catholic Church and also certain continental Reformers.
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion are among the finest statements of the faith produced during the time of the Reformation and remain relevant for today’s world. Here is a list of the articles, for an idea of their content:
- Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.
- Of Christ the Son of God.
- Of his going down into Hell.
- Of his Resurrection.
- Of the Holy Ghost.
- Of the Sufficiency of the Scriptures.
- Of the Old Testament.
- Of the Three Creeds.
- Of Original or Birth-sin.
- Of Free-Will.
- Of Justification.
- Of Good Works.
- Of Works before Justification.
- Of Works of Supererogation.
- Of Christ alone without Sin.
- Of Sin after Baptism.
- Of Predestination and Election.
- Of obtaining Salvation by Christ.
- Of the Church.
- Of the Authority of the Church.
- Of the Authority of General Councils.
- Of Purgatory.
- Of Ministering in the Congregation.
- Of speaking in the Congregation.
- Of the Sacraments.
- Of the Unworthiness of Ministers.
- Of Baptism.
- Of the Lord’s Supper.
- Of the Wicked which eat not the Body of Christ.
- Of both kinds.
- Of Christ’s one Oblation.
- Of the Marriage of Priests.
- Of Excommunicate Persons.
- Of the Traditions of the Church.
- Of the Homilies.
- Of Consecrating of Ministers.
- Of Civil Magistrates.
- Of Christian men’s Goods.
- Of a Christian man’s Oath.
According to theologian Gerald Bray, the Thirty-Nine Articles can be divided into three distinct categories: Catholic doctrines, Protestant doctrines, and Anglican doctrines. (See Bray, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles [London: The Latimer Trust, 2009].)
- The Catholic doctrines are found in Articles 1–8 and deal with
- the Holy Trinity (1–5),
- the Holy Scriptures (6–7), and
- the ancient creeds (8).
- The Protestant doctrines are found in Articles 9–34, which deal with
- salvation (9–10),
- justification by faith (11–14),
- the Christian life (15–18),
- the church (19–22),
- the ministry (23–24),
- the sacraments (25–31), and
- church discipline (32–34).
- Finally, the Anglican doctrines are found in articles 35–37 and deal with
- the Homilies (or key sermons, 35),
- the threefold order of ministry (bishops, priests, and deacons, 36),
- and the relationship of church and state (37).
- The last two articles (38–39) are not specifically Anglican but deal with matters of civil government.[vi]
A key to understanding the overall tenor of the Thirty-Nine Articles is the doctrine of God’s saving grace. Article XI says,
“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.”
In summing up the importance of the Articles, Bishop J. C. Ryle reminded Anglicans,
“Doctrines such as those set forth in the Articles are the only doctrines which are life, and health, and strength, and peace. Let us never be ashamed of laying hold of them, maintaining them, and making them our own. Those doctrines are the religion of the Bible and of the Church of England!”J. C. Ryle, Knots Untied (first published in 1877). Cited in http://www.churchsociety.org/issues_new/doctrine/39a/iss_doctrine_39A_Ryle.asp.
What do Anglicans believe? The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral
A final way to identify what Anglicans believe is found in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,which originally functioned as a means of unity among Christians.It addresses the Scriptures, creeds, sacraments, and the historic episcopate (governance of the church by bishops). Many Anglicans look to the Quadrilateral as a way to establish common ground among fellow Anglicans and other Christians. There were even hopes at one time that the Quadrilateral might serve as a way to reunite the different streams of the Christian church. The House of Bishops originally approved the Quadrilateral at the 1886 General Convention in Chicago, and the bishops of the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1888 subsequently approved it with modifications.
Here are the four points the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral proclaims:
- The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
- The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
- The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself—Baptism and the Supper of the Lord—ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
- The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.
According to the Quadrilateral, these four things are the minimum requirements that need to be in place for the divided branches of Christ’s Church to reunite.
Instruction in Anglican Doctrine: Anglican Catechesis
You’ve now seen how the tenets of the Anglican faith were formed, but you may be asking, “How do Anglicans practice these beliefs?”
Anglicans emphasize making disciples and teaching others the basics of the Christian faith through catechesis. The Greek word for “instruct” or “teach” is katecheo, from which we get our English word “catechize.” Catechesis is the process of instructing believers both young and old in the basics of the Christian faith. Typically using a question-and-answer format, catechisms are basic summaries of the biblical and creedal teaching of the church, and are used to ensure that all members of the church understand the essentials of the faith for themselves.
Catechisms are not a pass-or-fail, fill-in-the-blank test, but an invitation to learn the doctrines of God’s goodness and grace. Using a catechism involves vital learning, ongoing reflection, and discussion within the community of faith, and has been an essential part of the church’s discipleship for centuries.
Catechesis goes back to the 3rd century with the Didascalia Apostolorum (Teaching of the Apostles), which called for a three-year period of catechesis. Augustine of Hippo (353–430) also used catechesis to instruct new believers. Author J. I. Packer reminded us, “Richard Baxter, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and countless other pastors and leaders saw catechesis as one of their most obvious and basic pastoral duties.” Among these classic Reformation catechisms was the Anglican Catechism (1549), included in the first Book of Common Prayer.
Recently, J. I. Packer has issued a call for the church to rediscover the lost art of catechesis. In their book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, Packer and Gary Parrett explore the church’s need to make catechesis an important part of its life once again. Catechesis, according to Packer and Parrett, “is the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty and delight.”
So, why use catechisms today? Aren’t they outdated or irrelevant in the postmodern world? While rooted in times and cultures past, catechisms are important because they provide an outline of the essentials of the faith that is universal for all Christians, regardless of denomination or affiliation. Many Christians today are rediscovering the need for and the benefits of using a good catechism. Both new and established churches can benefit from using catechisms. Individuals, families, and small groups can all employ catechisms based upon their varying structures.
If you decide to utilize a catechism for yourself, I would encourage you to allow yourself time to ponder each question, reflect on the answer, and let this dialogue, whether with others or within yourself, speak to your head and your heart. Once you get the hang of using it, you can begin to use a more in-depth catechism or even write one of your own. Remember, the point is not to be slavishly tied to the past, but to learn and apply the principle of using questions and answers for helping Christians learn the essentials of the Christian faith.
If you would like a place to start, I would recommend the new catechism of the Anglican Church in North America, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, which is now available in both print and downloadable forms. This catechism is designed as a resource for the renewal of Anglican catechetical practice and follows the essential structure of classic catechetical instruction: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. It is ideal for new and existing churches to instruct and disciple new believers in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.
In closing, Anglicans believe doctrine and devotion belong together.
While doctrine can seem stuffy, boring, and useless, when grasped personally it becomes surprisingly devotional. Doctrine helps us know more about a living God. A study of God can profoundly deepen our faith and strengthen our relationship with Him. The more we know about Him, the more we love and worship Him—and vice-versa. Think about it: we cannot worship what we do not know.
There is an old Latin phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which is roughly translated as “the law of praying is the law of believing.” This reminds us that prayer shapes our beliefs, and our beliefs ultimately shape our prayer. To know what Anglicans believe you must come and worship with us. In the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, “Yes, here are our articles, but here is our Prayer Book as well—come and pray with us, come and worship with us, and that is how you will understand what we stand for” (The Anglican Spirit, 7).
- What significance do the historic Christian creeds have for today?
- How have Anglicans retained the historic essentials of the Christian faith, while also embracing aspects of the Reformation?
- How were the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion a unique blend of Catholic, Reformation, and Anglican doctrines?
- What is unique about the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, and how might it function as a way to unite Christians from other traditions?
Want to learn more about Anglican beliefs?
This post is excerpted from Winfield Bevins, Simply Anglican: An Ancient Faith for Today’s World.
Read these blog posts
- What does “Anglican” mean?
- What do Anglicans believe about the Creeds and Holy Scripture?
- What do Anglicans believe about the Sacraments?
- What do Anglicans believe about Scripture, Prayer, and Worship? An overview of Anglican spirituality
Read these books
- After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N. T. Wright
- Basic Christianity by John Stott
- Christian Theology: An Introduction (sixth edition), by Alister E. McGrath
- Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way by Gary A. Parrett and J. I. Packer
- Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
- Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N. T. Wright
- To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, ed. J. I. Packer and Joel Scandrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020). Available online at https://anglicanchurch.net/catechism/.
- “Concerning the Creeds,” Q18–Q24
- “Concerning Holy Scripture,” Q25–Q35
- “The Apostles’ Creed, Article I,” Q36–47
- “The Apostles’ Creed, Article II,” Q48–83
- “The Apostles’ Creed, Article III,” Q84–120