In our former comment on this Article we indicated that we would deal more specifically with the sin against the Holy Ghost which receives special mention. There are two questions that arise for consideration—
- Why is there this specific mention of the sin against the Holy Ghost in reference to post-baptismal sin?
- What is the meaning of the Scripture references to sin against the Holy Ghost?
The first question is historical. The second question is exegetical.
It must always be borne in mind that the framers of the Articles of the Church of England had regard to the historic developments of the opinions they either supported or condemned. It is of great value to study this development. It helps us frequently to understand the phrazeology of the Articles and, in addition, it throws a flood of light on the various stages of Christian opinion in the early centuries. Indeed it removes effectually any idea that there was uniformity of interpretation and an absolute defining authority to which all were subject. With reference to sin after baptism, Origen, a very eminent expositor who lived in the first half of the third century, taught that the words in Hebrews 6:4-6 clearly indicated that those who had been baptised (for so he interpreted the word “enlightenment” which was frequently used in his day to describe the ceremony of Baptism) and then fell away into sin could not be restored to the communion of the Church. Tertullian, an earlier contemporary, in the African Church appears to have entertained somewhat the same opinion. He urges that baptism should be delayed because the reception of it in infancy exposed the child to the very grave danger of fatal apostasy.
These opinions gave rise to the schism known as Novatianisrn, from its originator Novatian. The Novatians refused to admit those who had denied the faith into fellowship no matter how earnest were their professions of repentance. Ecclesiastical jealousy had its own part in fomenting this schism but its ostensible ground was a similar interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 to that which was advanced by Origen and supported earlier by Tertullian with the exception that he allowed one chance and one chance only to the lapsed. These views gained fresh vitality amongst some of the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. The Augsburg Confession condemns by name the Novatians and rejected the Anabaptist belief that persons once justified never lose the grace of God. The Helvetic Confession joints together what it calls “the old and new Novatians and also the Cathari.” It is this historic connection that prompted the reference to sin committed after baptism. But a more important matter remains for consideration. How are we to understand the Scriptural references to sin against the Holy Ghost? In the Articles of 1552 a definition of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was added to the words that appear in our present Article. There blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is said to be incurred “when any manifestly perceived truth of the word of God is from malice and obstinacy of the mind, vehemently assailed and hostilely censured.” Archbishop Parker omitted this Article which was the sixteenth in the 1552 series and only retained Article Fifteen in the 1552 series which is identical in terms with our Article 16. The insertion of the Article on the Holy Spirit and other changes explain the difference in number. While it must be conceded that ministers of the Church of England are not committed to the interpretation of the sin against the Holy Ghost contained in what was formerly the Sixteenth Article, it is nevertheless worthy of the most careful consideration. In relation to the vexed controversy concerning the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-6 the interpretation of 1552 may be said to command the support of Bishop Westcott. Westcott writes, “The apostasy described is marked, not only by a decisive act but also by a continuous present attitude, a hostile relation to Christ Himself and to belief in Christ, and thus there is no question of the abstract efficacy of the means of grace provided through the ordinances of the church. The state of the men themselves is such as to preclude their application” (Epistle to the Hebrews, 3rd Edit. p. 167).
Westcott in the course of his commentary places strong emphasis on the tenses employed. “Each part of the picture is presented in its past completeness” (p. 152). But the act of unbelief on the part of the apostate is continuous. “The present participles bring out the moral cause of the impossibility which has been affirmed” (p. 153). The impossibility of renewal is found in the impervious hostility of the lapsed. The argument teaches us that the sin against the Holy Spirit is the conscious rejection of truth recognised as such. The irremissibility of it resides in the fact that the known means of salvation are deliberately set aside. If the gift is refused salvation becomes impossible. The references of our Lord in the Gospels (Matt. 12:31, 32; Mark 3:28-30) point in the same direction. In the account in Mark the transgressor is said to be “guilty of an eternal sin.” The attitude of mind and soul persists. And strength is given to this assertion by the explanatory words, “Because they said He hath an unclean spirit.” The unbelieving Pharisees, in defiance of all evidence, attributed our Lord’s works of mercy, even his casting out of devils, to devil possession. They were so constituted mentally through the obstinate hostility of their nature that no evidence would alter their attitude. James tells us “the devils believe and tremble.” They are sensible of the existence of God but unalterable in their revolt against His Majesty. If we may conjecture, Archbishop Parker omitted the explanatory Article because it moved away from the purpose with which the original Article Fifteen was formed. The primary object was to hold open the door of repentance to those who fell into sin and to remove from men’s minds the confusion which prevailed in the early days of the Church to a very large extent. The external sign and seal of God’s favour was not only spoken of in the terms of that of which it was the sign and seal, but was given a significance which led to the abuse of delaying baptism for fear of evil consequences to those who might yield to temptation subsequently. Augustine’s mother, Monica, offers a striking instance of this prevalent superstition. But, while that justifies the modification of the Article, it is well to recall, for the comfort of anxious souls, that the sin against the Holy Ghost is not to be regarded as a destructive single transgression, but rather as a disposition of the heart that renders it impervious to the call to repentance. A moral distortion that issues in the deliberate and continuous rejection of the very means of salvation.
39 Articles – Article 16: Of Sin After Baptism
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, December 4, 1956.This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.