There have been persistent attempts to sideline the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (hereafter "the Articles") in recent years mainly from advocates of Liberal theology. As a result, most Anglican clergy have not looked at the Articles quite as closely as perhaps they should have done. The attiude of many seems to be that either that they are irrelevant or that of Oscar Wilde, who when asked to subscribe to the articles when he got to university said, "I'll subscribe to forty if you like!" More moderate folks do at least have the wisdom to see that the Articles have to be read in context. That context is, of course, the theological atmosphere of the fifty years preceeding 1563.
In some respects the English Reformation came rather late in the day, so in some senses it is derivative. The creative thinking was done elsewhere - in Germany and Switzerland - so the English contribution to the English Reformation was that of commonsense and moderation. The basic framework of both Lutheran and Reformed theology was set before the theological Reformation for underway in England, so it is possible to see where previous Confessional statements influenced the Articles.
So from whence do the Articles derive?
The format of the Articles follows that of the Confession of Augsburg (1530) in that it consists of a series relatively short statements either upholding traditional Catholic theology, or explaining where the Church of England differed from it. So let us begin with the basic structure of the Articles, which divide up as follows:
1 to 8 deal with the Fundamentals - the Holy Trinity, the Scriptures and the Creeds
9 to 18 with "the Doctrines of Grace"
19 to 24 with the nature of the Church
25 to 31 with the Sacraments
32 to 39 deal with various disciplinary and civil matters
So keeping this format in mind, let us work through the Articles seeing where they derive from, and their similarities and differences from other Reformation era Confessions.
The first five Articles deal with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and are in line with Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed teaching on this point. The wording, on the whole, echoes that of the Augburg Confession, though it is somewhat expanded. It also bears some resemblance to the Scotch Confession of 1560, which itself was influenced by the 42 Articles and the Helvetian Confession. Articles 6 to 8 follow the broad consensus of Lutheran and Reformed thought on Holy Scripture and the Creeds.
A similar consensus approach continues as the Articles address the subjects of justification, the role of good works, and predestination. To summarize the position taken by the Articles
1. Justification is by grace through "Faith Only."
2. Good Works play no part in our justification, but, after justification, they are acceptable to God, and are evidences of a living faith.
3. Article 17 asserts that Anglicans, in line with St Paul's teaching in Romans, believe in "predestination to life."
All of this is in agreement with the Lutheran Confessions and with the earlier less radical views of Bullinger, Calvin, and their generation of "Swiss" Reformers.
The Articles take a slightly more independent tack when it comes to the sacraments. The Article on the general theology of the Sacraments, and that on baptism are very much in line with the views of the Lutherans and the Helvetian and Heidelberg Confessions. In other words, Baptism conveys regeneration which is susequently manifested by a life lived in accordance with God's Commandments.
The Articles on the Lord's Supper are perhaps the most ambiguous part of the Thirty-nine. They only seems to absolutely preclude the mediaeval doctrine of transubstantiation, and the "Low Reformed" teaching of Memorialism. However, they tend to favour a High Calvinist understanding of the sacrament. Basically, Christ is present "in an heavenly and spiritual manner" and we receive him "by Faith." This is essentially a receptionist point of view, but one with a high degree of objectivity. On the other hand, the Articles pronouncements are not watertight, and it is perfectly possible to hold the Lutheran doctrine of Sacramental Union, and still subscribe to the Articles.
Articles 32 to 39 declare the need for an ordered and authorized ministry, the lawfulness of oaths, and that the civil authorities are part of the Divine Order. The Articles presume that the ministry of the Church will be episcopally governed and will consist of bishops, priests and deacons ordained in accordance with the provisions of the Anglican Ordinal. The Articles also insist that the rites and ceremonies of the Church, provided they contain nothing contrary to God's Word, may be regulated by the Bishops under the oversight of the Prince to ensure that God's people are duly edified - a clearly Lutheran position, and very different to the "regulative principle" beloved of later generations of reformed theologicans.
On the whole, the Articles are a moderate and temperate document which generally fall into line with the historic Reformed Confessions, but they leave the door a little bit open for those of Philippist and Lutheran views on the Lord's Supper. In a sense they are a broad and inclusive document, but that does not mean that they lack substance. Their inclusiveness derives from a studied vagueness on those point that were contested between Lutheran and Reformed theologians. The aim of the 39 Articles was to build a nation Protestant consensus on which to found a Bible-based, reformed Catholic Church.
It is the subsequent history of Anglicanism, rather than an inherent flaws in the Articles themselves that have led to the diminishing of their authority. Seventeenth century theologians rebelling against the double-predestinarian orthodoxy of Dort tended to sit lightly on Article 17. However, the Caroline Divines established a new, High Church Protestant orthodoxy which remained dominant for over a century. Then in the nineteenth century both liberal Broad Churchmen and Anglo-Catholics sought to diminish the authority of the Articles so that they could the more easily promote their own reworkings of Anglicanism. It was this later, Victorian phase in the remaking of Anglicanism that laid the groundwork for the theological chaos and moral relativism that took of the Anglican Communion in the second half of the twentieth century.