Anglican theologian J. I. Packer describes The Thirty-Nine Articles (1562) as “the domestic creed of the Church of England.” In his book, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today, he delineates “five uses which the world church has made of creedal statements, both ecumenical and domestic, down the centuries.”
Use one is declaratory. In the face of confusion, error and theological war these statements have been set up as banners, manifestos and rallying-points to show where folk stand and what they are not prepared to give up. Evangelical doctrinal bases have the same role. Thus to declare is, of course, to discriminate: it is to label some views true and others false, and to identify the former as the only acceptable basis for that kind and degree of togetherness which is being promoted and safeguarded. Thus to declare is also, however, to establish and proclaim oneness among those who accept the declamation. Declamation not only divides; it also unites.
Use two is didactic. These statements have been used in conjunction with Scripture to teach the faith.
Use three is defensive and denunciatory. Creedal statements have been used, still in conjunction with Scripture, as a yardstick for identifying heresy and a weapon for combating it.
Use four is disciplinary. Creedal statements have in many cases been given constitutional status, to function as limits to the beliefs of clergy and sometimes others too. Penalties have been imposed on those who transgress these limits.
Use five is doxological. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds have been used in worship by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Orthodox and, with less consistency, Presbyterians, as a celebration of God’s mighty acts of creation and redemption corresponding to the recital of historical deliverances in the Psalms.
Historically, Packer says, the Thirty-Nine Articles were intended to fulfill four main functions, which they can fulfill today as well:
First, they were meant to act as the Church of England’s theological identity-card, showing what she stood for in a split and warring Christendom. As such, the Articles were intended to be a title-deed to catholic status.
Second, the Articles were meant to safeguard the truth of the gospel, for the good of souls, the welfare of the church itself, and the glory of God.
Third, as their title indicated, the Articles were meant to bring unity and order into the church (‘the establishing of consent touching true religion’), and this in the realm of both doctrine and discipline.
Fourth, the Articles were meant to set bounds to the comprehensiveness of the Church of England.
In conclusion, Packer defines the questions raised by the ecumenical creeds and the domestic creed of Anglicans.
Thus, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds challenge every generation of the world church: do you still stand with us on the Trinity? on the Incarnation? on the second coming of our Lord, and the Christian hope? If not, why not? Are not our positions scriptural. Go to the Bible and see. And if you find they are, will you not labor to teach and stress and defend these things in your day, as we did in ours? And the Articles, supplementing the Creeds, ask each generation of Anglicans further questions. Do you stand where we stand with regard to the sufficiency and supremacy of Scripture? the gravity of sin? justification by faith alone in and through Christ alone? the nature of the sacraments as seals of the gospel promise, means of grace because they are means to faith? loyalty to the gospel in word and sacrament as the sole decisive mark of the church? the dangerous, anti-evangelical tendency of Roman doctrines and practices? If these things are not at the center of your faith and testimony, why not? Test these contentions by Scripture: is it not the case that where we are positive, the Bible was positive before us? And if we were right then to treat these points as evangelical essentials, ought not you to be seeking ways and means of proclaiming and vindicating them now?