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by Ryan Setliff

Thomas Cranmer, serving as Archbishop of Canterbury, played a pivotal role in the English Reformation of the church. When he first heard news about his appointment while away in continental Europe, he shrugged off the notion, even delaying his return in hopes an impatient Henry VIII would appoint another party. His initial reluctance to assume the position doesn’t obscure the monumental impact of his later influence on Christianity in England, the British Commonwealth, and the Western world.

Born 2 July, 1489, Cranmer’s early life revealed him to be a young prodigy. Under the tradition of primogeniture, the firstborn inherited the estate, so while his eldest brother held the family estate, Cranmer bound himself to the church as a man of letters and prepared for ministry. Coming of age, he entered Jesus College at Cambridge. Cranmer demonstrated an acumen for languages, having mastered Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German and Italian. Thomas demonstrated much promise in the discipline of homiletics and theology as well. He cultivated a deep intimacy with the writings of the patristics and medieval scholastics. At age twenty-one, he became a fellow at Cambridge, but forfeited his fellowship upon marriage. Little is known of his first wife, and she died within a year, and thereafter Cranmer returned to studies at Cambridge.

It was the occasion of Thomas Cranmer being dispatched as an envoy of Henry VIII in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor that young Thomas came into contact with Lutherans. One may speculate that this experience had the effect of galvanizing young Cranmer into self-examination of his own professed theology, and challenged him to reexamine his understanding of the Holy Scriptures, giving highest credence to the authority of the Word of God as opposed to the specious interpretations of the Bishop of Rome.

Cranmer’s relationship to Henry VIII

Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon, and for the reason his wife yielded no son or heir, he came to detest his marriage, and asked for its renunciation by the Pope in the belief that it was illegitimate as he had married the former wife of his brother-in-law. The Papacy would not acquiesce in the divorce. Henry VIII had earlier been declared “Defender of the Faith” by the Holy See for his rigorous theological defense of the Tridentine Latin mass and the Roman Catholic Church, yet he grew to detest the Papacy for its obstruction of his divorce plans, and his desire for a son compelled him to press the matter further. So Henry VIII became a reluctant “Protestant” in spite of personally loathing Martin Luther. Henry VIII essentially continued to embrace Roman Catholic teaching minus the Pope.

Cranmer’s willingness to aid Henry VIII in articulating a rationale for his divorce endeared Henry VIII to Cranmer. So Henry VIII moved to nominate Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer supported the principle of Royal Supremacy, in which the king was held sovereign over the Church within his realm.

Painting of Henry VIII circa 1491.

Henry VIII desired independence from Rome to advance his estate, justify encroachment upon the Roman Catholic Church’s monasteries and its wealth generating estates in order to raise and feed his armies. Protestants utilized the break from Rome as an opportunity to articulate Reformation truth, and effect reform of the English and Scottish churches.

The Lord worked his sovereignty through the actions and sins of King Henry VIII to effect his will for England and reform of its church. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).

It is often the taunt of Roman Catholics that the Anglican Church was conceived in the sin of Henry VIII and has seldom risen above the occasion of its birth. Yet Protestants need not reconcile themselves to the sins of Henry VIII, but rather recognize that his want of a divorce was the occasion for breaking England of subordination to the Pope in ecclesiastical affairs.

Henry VIII with Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell by his side.

Thomas Cranmer: Protestant and Reformer

An engraving of an elder Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer mourned Henry’s death and it was later said that he demonstrated his grief by growing a beard. The beard was also a sign of his break with the past primacy of the Roman Bishop.

That Cranmer had Protestant sympathies very early on in his career is evident in his letter of 27 April 1535 to Arthur Plantagenet (d.1542), Viscount Lisle, an uncle of Henry VIII, where Thomas avowed “the very papacy and the see of Rome” is to be reviled, since papal decrees have “suppressed Christ”; christened the Pope as “a god of this world”; and they have “brought the professors of Christ into such an ignorance of Christ.”

For Cranmer, Holy Scripture was “the very foundation of the Reformed faith” and “whatever is found in Holy Scripture. . . must be taken for a most sure ground and infallible truth; and whatsoever cannot be grounded upon the same, touching our faith, is man’s device, changeable and uncertain.”

In his Homily of Salvation, Cranmer extrapolates man’s unequivocal dependence upon His creator God: “Because all men be sinners and offenders against God, and brokers of his law and commandments, therefore can no man by his own acts, works, and deeds (seem they never so good) be justified and made righteous before God; but every man of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness, or justification, to be received at God’s own hands, that is to say, the remission, pardon, and forgiveness of his sins and trespasses in such things as he hath offended.” Hence man’s need of Jesus Christ: “And this justification of righteousness, which we so receive by God’s mercy and Christ’s merits, embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and allowed of God for our perfect and full justification.”

Cranmer’s writings attest to his belief in Reformation truth, which he shared with Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other English reformers. “This proposition, that we are justified by Christ only and not by our good works, is a very true and necessary doctrine of St Paul and other apostles and prophets, taught by them to set forth thereby the glory of Christ, and mercy of God by Christ,” avowed Cranmer. In fealty to Cranmer’s abiding love of the Holy Scriptures, the truth of the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone was made known: “Although all that be justified must of necessity have charity as well as faith, yet neither faith nor charity be worthiness and merits of our justification, but that is ascribed only to our Savior Christ,” penned Cranmer, “which was offered upon the cross for our sins, and rose again for our justification.”

“Yet nevertheless, because by faith we know God’s mercy and grace promised by his word,” observed Cranmer, “(and that freely for Christ’s death and passion sake), and believe the same, and, being truly penitent, we by faith receive the same, and so excluding all glory from ourselves, we do by faith transcribe the whole glory of our justification to the merits of Christ only, (which properly is not the nature and office of charity;) therefore to set forth the same, it is said of faith in ancient writers, ‘we be justified only by faith,’ or ‘by faith alone,’ and in St. Paul, ‘we be justified by faith freely without works.”

Cranmer’s Sacramental Theology

The evolution of Cranmer’s Eucharistic theology is manifest in variance between two editions of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and 1552 and beyond. Originally he adhered to the classical medieval transubstantiation view, and then moved on to a brief Lutheran phase, in which he opted to speak of the ‘true presence of Christ’ as opposed to ‘real presence,’ and finally he settled on a view influenced by Bucer and close to Calvin whereby there is an effectual spiritual communion in Christ’s body and blood.

With the death of Henry VIII, Cranmer entered a period of mourning, growing out his beard, which symbolized his break with Rome, and reembrace of primitive apostolic Christianity, unencumbered by Romanist superstitions.

The crux of Cranmer’s liturgics, in particular the Lord’s Supper, are a fundamental shift in the focus of action, from the elements to the heart of the individual believer. Accordingly he rejected the medieval Romanist superstition of ‘transubstantiation’ as being without scriptural merit, unwarranted, and harmful for Christian disciples. Article XXVIII of The Articles of Religion declares that transubstantiation “cannot be proved by holy writ. . . it is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of the Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”

According to the traditional Roman Catholic teaching, Christ is truly and physically present under the forms of bread and wine. Reformers such as Martin Luther, accepted the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament, but most reformers, including Thomas Cranmer rejected this view. For Cranmer the idea that Jesus could embody physical presence in every celebration was contrary to his human nature. He had ascended bodily into the heaven with a promised Second Advent, and simply promised us the παράκλητος / paraklétos (i.e., helper), in the person of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ’s return at the end of days. For these reasons, Cranmer discerned Christ was physically limited by the very nature of His humanity and His physical resurrection body. The Roman Catholic teaching was not in accord with the early Christian church, but Cranmer did acknowledge that Jesus Christ was spiritually present: “. . .although Christ in his human nature substantially, really, corporally, naturally and sensibly, be present with his Father in heaven yet sacramentally and spiritually he is here present. For in water, bread, and wine, he is present as in signs and sacraments, but he is indeed spiritually in the faithful Christian people, which according to Christ’s ordinance be baptized, or receive the holy communion, or unfeignedly believe in him.”

Cranmer’s Leadership during Reformation

As Gerald Bray recalls in “The Anglican Way,” Cranmer endeavored to provide an order of worship and liturgy. To this end, he devised the Book of Common Prayer, with the first edition appearing in 1549 and a subsequent edition in 1552 that aimed at a more express Reformed theology. Therein it contained services for daily worship, both morning and evening vespers, and a modus operandi for administration of baptism and communion, along with traditional ceremonies that were less often utilized. The Prayer Book was rich in biblical imagery, and English people absorbed a considerable breadth of knowledge of the Scripture from the Prayer Book, often repeated and easily memorized. Cranmer appropriated traditional medieval English liturgies, such as the Sarum rite (“Sarum” being Latin for Salisbury, a town in lower England), as well as liturgy drawn from Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Roman traditions. Cranmer tailored the Prayer Book and liturgies to stress the primacy of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in fealty. Accordingly the parishioner’s attention was directed away from the elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist and focused on more on his own spiritual state, in harmony with Reformed teaching, which provided opportunity for self-examination and recognition of the need for personal piety.

Engraving of John Calvin.

Cranmer’s leadership in the Reformation is often overlooked for the simple reason, Cranmer oscillated in his views, and his lack of consistency tends to overshadow his monumental efforts at demonstrating leadership as well as his subsequent martyrdom. For instance, Cranmer proposed a “godly synod” to rival that of the Council of Trent, and in effect answer Rome. To this end, he wrote the famous Geneva Reformer, John Calvin, and bid that John come to England:

Our adversaries are now holding their councils at Trent for the establishment of their errors; and shall we neglect to call together a godly synod, for the refutation of error, and for restoring and propagating the truth? They are, as I am informed, making decrees respecting the worship of the host; wherefore we ought to leave no stone unturned, not only that we may guard others against this idolatry, but also that we may ourselves come to an agreement upon the doctrine of this sacrament. It cannot escape your prudence how exceedingly the Church of God has been injured by dissensions and varieties of opinion respecting the sacrament of unity; and though they are now in some measure removed, yet I could wish for an agreement in this doctrine, not only as regards the subject itself, but also with respect to the words and forms of expression. You have now my wish, about which I have also written to Masters Philip [Melanchthon] and Bullinger; and I pray you to deliberate among yourselves as to the means by which this synod can be assembled with the greatest convenience. Farewell.Your very dear brother in Christ,
Thomas Cranmer

Cranmer’s Martyrdom

On 21 March 1556, Cranmer was burnt at the stake in Oxford, having been found guilty of treason and condemned to death on 13 November 1553, and summarily imprisoned in Bocardo Prison alongside of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, the Oxford Martyrs.

An oil painting of Bocardo Prison in Oxford, England, the place where the Oxford Martyrs, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer were held captive prior to their execution at the behest of Queen Mary.

In December 1555, the Papacy sent its enunciation on the matter, stripping him of the office of archbishop, and it then deferred to secular authorities to settle the matter of Cranmer’s fate. In an effort to save himself the peril of fire while under torture, Cranmer made four recantations in January and February 1556. Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, was not convinced of Cranmer’s sincerity and apparently neither was Thomas Cranmer, for he repudiated his recantation.

On 21 March 1556, on the day his execution was to be carried, Thomas was asked to make a final and public recantation at the University Church in Oxford. There he stood, gave an expected prayer, and exhortation to obey the King and Queen, and then climatically in a final act of defiance against the Papacy, he renounced his recantation, declaring:

And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than any thing that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth, which now here I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be; and that is, all such bills or papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall first be burned.

And finally, he explained his final position on the Eucharist, “And as for the sacrament, I believe as I have taught in my book against the bishop of Winchester, which my book teacheth so true a doctrine of the sacrament, that it shall stand in the last day before the judgment of God,” and he moved to contradistinguish his view of the Lord’s Supper from that of the Papacy, adding, “where the papistical doctrines contrary thereto shall be ashamed to show their face.” Cranmer as then martyred for his beliefs and his Christian faith.

Engraving of the execution of Thomas Cranmer.

Like the Apostle Simon Peter, Thomas seemed poised to betray his faith amid fear, but then showed great courage and conviction at the end. John Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs gives an account of Cranmer’s last moments during his execution:

With thoughts intent upon a far higher object than the empty threats of man, he reached the spot dyed with the blood of Ridley and Latimer. There he knelt for a short time in earnest devotion, and then arose, that he might undress and prepare for the fire. Two friars who had been parties in prevailing upon him to abjure, now endeavoured to draw him off again from the truth, but he was steadfast and immoveable in what he had just professed, and before publicly taught. A chain was provided to bind him to the stake, and after it had tightly encircled him, fire was put to the fuel, and the flames began soon to ascend. Then were the glorious sentiments of the martyr made manifest; then it was, that stretching out his right hand, he held it unshrinkingly in the fire till it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, “This unworthy right hand” Apparently insensible of pain, with a countenance of venerable resignation, and eyes directed to Him for whose cause he suffered, he continued, like St. Stephen, to say, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit!” till the fury of the flames terminated his powers of utterance and existence. He closed a life of high sublunary elevation, of constant uneasiness, and of glorious martyrdom, on March 21, 1556.

It was likely Cranmer was coerced to recant in January and February under the pain of torture. Queen Mary had initially hoped for a propaganda victory against Protestantism by republishing the recantations, however, word of Cranmer’s heroic defiance on the day of his execution quickly spread, which served to dissuade the impact of his earlier recantations.

Thomas Cranmer willingly lifted his right hand as he was being executed and cast it into the fire, declaring the hand that wrote recantation of Reformed Truth was “his unworthy right hand.”

In the years that followed, Thomas Cranmer garnered considerable renown not only as an English church reformer, but even among Puritans who respected his efforts, in spite of their general belief that his reforms of the church were not far-reaching enough.

Thomas Cranmer, Stained Glass.

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