Thomas Cranmer – how he reformed the Church of England

An outline of how Cranmer
reformed the Church of England

Born in 1489, six years after Luther, and twenty years before Calvin, Cranmer spent his early life in Aslockton in Nottinghamshire. His early education was conducted under the direction of a rather cruel papist priest, so, naturally, Cranmer imbibed all the usual superstitious idolatry associated with the mainstream pre-Reformation church at that time.

At age twelve Cranmer’s father died and at fourteen he was sent up to Cambridge where eight years later he took his Bachelor of Arts, in 1511. He was awarded his Master’s in 1514 and was subsequently elected a fellow of Jesus College. His learning here followed much the same lines as Tyndale’s.

Writing about forty years later Cranmer speaks of himself at this time as having held:

“that error of the real presence… as of transubstantiation, of the sacrifice propitiatory of the priests in the mass, of pilgrimages, purgatory, pardons, and many other superstitions and errors that came from Rome; being brought up from youth in them, and nousled therein for lack of good instruction from my youth, the outrageous floods of papistical errors at that time overflowing the world.”

But, concluding his Arts course, he began humanist studies and thereby encountered the great controversy instigated by Luther in 1517 against the doctrinal position of Rome dealing, in Foxe’s words,

“not only in trifles, but in the chiefest articles of our salvation.”

Although at this time Cranmer’s views were wholly conventional, being aligned to those of authority in the Church, his sincerity drove him to test Luther’s claims against Scripture’s authority, and to that end Cranmer consecrated the next three years to a slow, deliberate and comprehensive study of the Scriptures.

In the course of this most fruitful feat he arrived at three conclusions that would give shape to his life’s work. Firstly he found “that the traditional Papal claim to ecclesiastical jurisdiction everywhere was null and void; that Luther was right to call the Pope antichrist for making it; and that the Scriptures vest all ecclesiastical power under Christ in the person of the supreme civil magistrate – in England, the King.”

It is interesting to notice that the Holy Spirit deemed it right to illuminate only certain scriptural truths to Cranmer; truths that would motivate and inform him towards a service of his country that was fitting for the needs of his time, and would allow the necessary co-operation with those holding sufficient leverage as God’s unwitting ministers, to move the Church in the direction of freedom from antichrist, and subjection rather to Christ’s authority. Notice that despite three years’ Bible study Cranmer maintained doctrines such as that of transubstantiation.

We will see how, as progress toward Reformation was made, so the Holy Spirit would shine ever more brightly, illuminating the mind of His faithful minister with the saving and comforting truths that would allow the works of many to be united together in one common cause: to Reform the Church of England; to restore her to the free privileges of communion with her God, and to bring her to a more perfect knowledge of the person and work of her Saviour.

Cranmer’s most effectual service toward Reformation began at least a decade before ever he received public recognition of his role, in the secrecy of his own closet. Despite the as yet unconsolidated nature of his theology, by the age of thirty he had come to see what a tyrannical evil and anti-catholic innovation was the Papacy. From 1520 he prayed fervently and daily for its downfall. It is important to see the events of the ensuing century in this light for we then see that our nation’s destiny was not shaped by the cleverness of men; by their hard work and good intentions, but was rather the response of our Heavenly Father to their heartfelt and faithful cries for deliverance from the hand of the enemy of the Gospel.

Before we look briefly at the principal means by which Cranmer would reform the Church of England, it is necessary to consider the moral and religious climate at that time. England in 1520 was firmly in the grip of Rome. The Pope had two faithful servants here to suppress Gospel truth and to oppress the people on his behalf. Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and Bishop of York, had been chaplain to Henry VII and was equally successful in gaining the favour of the son, Henry VIII. According to Miller, the Church Historian:

“He was so clever, accommodating, and unscrupulous, that… he gradually gained such an influence over the mind of Henry, that he virtually became the ruler of the realm…. It was a kind of Papacy in England: he only wanted the triple crown; and the English people were to witness the kind of glory the Papacy ever valued, before it sank and disappeared from the land.”

Henry VIII had ascended the throne in 1509. Having been destined by his father for the church, he received a thorough education and prized himself as able to match the prowess of the greatest scholars of his day. Despite using his mind for Rome’s service, his taste for letters may be seen in retrospect to have contributed to her downfall: Henry’s naturally vigorous mind, once whetted by his studies, necessitated and craved the company of learned men. The study of revised classical literature, which served to expose the ignorance of the clergy, was being cultivated at this time. Consequently, scholarship and its means of dissemination, especially the invention of printing, were castigated by the priests as Satan’s tools. Erasmus, whose Greek New Testament text of 1516 would very soon provide a source for Tyndale’s English New Testament, was a favourite at court, but he would surely have been burnt had not our Lord decreed that Rome’s proud genius should be ultimately directed against itself.

With the clarity of hindsight we may see how the Lord was at work even at that dark moment of England’s history, but for the elect at that time, as today, the temptation would have been to interpret events as God’s forsaking the nation, to give it over to its idolatrous lusts. In that day all appearances indicated a tightening of Antichrist’s stranglehold on our land: in 1521, in response to Luther’s published efforts toward reform, Henry deflects blessing away from England by upholding Romish superstition in his ‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’, and thereby wins the flattering title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from Leo X. Over the next eight years Henry and Wolsey work diligently together against a Reformation that is gaining headway on the Continent from establishing so much as a toehold on this island. Wolsey issues his own bull against Luther and enjoins its rehearsal during high mass. Henry volunteers himself as polemic to champion Rome’s defence of Luther’s criticism of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Wolsey orders the bishops to seize all supposed “heretical” books, and those containing Martin Luther’s so called errors; and to threaten with excommunication any possessing such books who do not submit them within a fortnight. Luther’s books are then publicly burnt with much impressive ceremony at St. Paul’s.

Such was England’s diabolical identity in 1529 when by a series of providentially engineered circumstances Cranmer entered the public scene. Cambridge had been closed by plague, and Cranmer now 40 years old had secured a position as tutor to the children of the Cressy family at Waltham. The king happened to be in those parts and some of his courtiers boarded with the Cressy household. The conversation at some point addressed Henry’s desire to annul his marriage of nineteen years to Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer’s suggestion – which, when relayed to the king so aroused his interest (for here, he thought, might lie a means to dispose legitimately of the Pope’s unwanted interest in his personal affairs) that he immediately sent for Cranmer, and subsequently appointed him archbishop – was that the matter should be put to the theologians of the universities. Cranmer’s reasoning in this matter demonstrates two characteristics that are key to understanding his views, his subsequent work and his aspirations.

Firstly, his conviction that Scripture should inform all judgment. At this relatively early stage of his involvement in affairs of church and state, it was probably not a definitive and crystallised doctrine in the post-Reformation sense, but it is abundantly evident that within some four years he would maintain firmly the supremacy of Scripture, and subsequently that this would be the doctrinal compass with which he would steer the renovated vessel, the Church of England, back into her prescribed and trusted channels. Concerning the divorce, he would state:

“It were better… that the question, whether a man may marry his brother’s wife, or no? were discussed by the divines, and by the authority of the word of God… There is but one truth in it, which the Scripture will soon declare, make open and manifest.”

We should see in this stance not only his advocation of the necessity to appeal to Scripture, but coupled to this in a sense, in which in Cranmer’s mind the two are inextricably interwoven, the second characteristic: the quest for catholicity. It was not sufficient, as far as Cranmer was concerned, that a single individual could be called upon to pronounce the mind of God on a matter, as elicited merely by his personal study of Scripture, for then Scripture’s interpretation and application would be subject to the caprice and eccentricity of that individual. No, it was necessary to arrive at consensus, or as close as could be achieved to it, amongst those best qualified for, and consecrated to, that task. To that end we find that, almost without exception, Cranmer will only advance an argument toward reform, or the correction of some deviation for which the church is guilty, by appealing to the Scriptures and the Church fathers. So consistent was Cranmer in upholding this principle, that he was willing to subject his own views, views he considered to have been arrived at after extensive examination of Scripture, and indeed the fathers, to the same process of testing and proving. It being insufficient that an individual should make unilateral pronouncements of Scripture’s doctrine in consultation with himself only, Cranmer did not even allow that such should be done with the additional interpretative authority of the fathers: Cranmer’s catholicity necessitated something still further. Cranmer proved that a theologian might be capable of holding heretical doctrines while sincerely believing himself to be supported by Scripture and the ancient doctors.

And this proof could not be more convincing, for it is concerned with a doctrine he himself held so firmly that he wrote to a continental reformer defending it:

“… how much soever you may exercise your ingenuity, you will certainly never convince me, nor, I think, any unprejudiced reader, that those ancient authors are on your side in that controversy… this catholic faith which we hold respecting the real presence has been declared to the church from the beginning by such evident and manifest passages of scripture, and the same has also been subsequently commended to the ears of the faithful with so much clearness and diligence by the first ecclesiastical writers; do not, I pray, persist in wishing any longer to carp at or subvert a doctrine so well grounded and supported.”

The fact that nine years later he would allow himself to be persuaded against this doctrine by Ridley, displays an aspect of Cranmer that has caused him to have been much maligned and misunderstood. Biographers of the man have taken pains to paint him as weak. In the world’s view he eats his words, is inconsistent and fickle. But this opinion could not fail to grasp Cranmer’s mentality more convincingly. If we judge Cranmer by his own words, what we see here is his capacity to value truth before his reputation; if a man can subject as powerful a nourisher of error as his personal pride to the authority of a principle whose loyalty would eventually demand his submission to a cruel and excruciating death, then it is fair to argue that such a principle demands our close attention, (and also that it is absurd to suggest the man to be weak).

Men are often guilty of distorting and bending a principle to justify their attachment to some error. Truth demands the opposite. If there need be distortion and bending, it is the personal view of the individual that should receive this treatment, while the principle remains unmolested. Cranmer well understood this and was so sincerely intent that all post-apostolic innovations should be subject to the same intense scrutiny as that to which he offered his own views, that he held that a doctrine should be tried by a process of examination by as many learned and godly men, well-versed in the scriptures, as it was possible to muster from throughout the remotest reaches of Christendom. To that end he endeavoured to write to the leaders of the Continental Reformation, to exhort them earnestly to come together.

“I have often wished, and still continue to do so, that learned and godly men, who are eminent for erudition and judgment, might meet together in some place of safety, where by taking counsel together, and comparing their respective opinions, they might handle all the heads of ecclesiastical doctrine, and hand down to posterity, under the weight of their authority, some work not only upon the subjects themselves, but upon the forms of expressing them.”

Sadly, Cranmer’s appeals encountered apathy and he was unable to co-ordinate an international assembly of the type he wished. However, having served as archbishop for twenty years by the time the Forty-two Articles were compiled in 1553, Cranmer had ensured that a system was set in place that would provide as secure a safety net to preclude doctrinal error from the church as possible. Cranmer had worked diligently to produce an Authorised Bible by 1541 (for which he wrote the Preface). This would be the supreme standard of the church’s doctrine. He appointed it to be placed in every church by the King’s authority. Rome had no hope of catholicity, for she hid the light of the Gospel. How could the scattered church concur on doctrine if they were denied its true source and made to swallow Popish dregs? Necessarily, its errors would be compounded and its members cast into ever blacker darkness.

In accordance with Cranmer’s doctrine of scriptural supremacy and his catholic aims, the Forty-two Articles, which would evolve into the Thirty-nine of 1571, were drawn up. The Authorised Version of 1541 would provide the bulk of the faithful labours of Tyndale, Coverdale and Rogers whose end would be the Authorised Version of 1611.

Thus were the vile Popish errors – as enforced by the six articles of 1539 which asserted transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, monastic vows, private masses and auricular confession – refuted. And thus was the Church of England given its indisputably reformed confession of faith.

To ensure that the reformed and proven truly-catholic and apostolic doctrines expressed in the Articles and expounded in the Homilies (whose principal sermons were Cranmer’s) were adhered to, perpetuated and clearly taught, Cranmer worked to compile a prayer book for use in public worship. The original of 1549, though undoubtedly reformed, represents only a transitional link between the medieval service and the fully and unambiguously reformed final product of 1662. We must remember that Cranmer was himself undergoing a personal reformation of doctrine internally. As the Holy Spirit revealed to him progressively clearer insights into the simplicity and perfection of the Gospel, these were translated into the church.

Thus Stephen Gardener’s famous perspicacious criticisms that followed the publication of the first prayer book served as a catalyst to Cranmer to deliberate, in conference chiefly with the Scriptures, and also with the writings of the fathers of the early church which supported one another and were consistent with Scripture, and in consultation with other wise and godly theologians, the true meaning of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, for this represented the main shortcoming of that first work. While overhauling the Church of England I imagine that Cranmer had very little time to produce much other written work: he leaves us very little. However the majority of his written work relates to the matter of the Lord’s Supper and was compiled to constitute a defence of Gardener’s criticism of Cranmer’s position on this crucial matter. Cranmer, now in no doubt as to the urgency of pursuing a truly biblical comprehension of this sacrament, was moved to study the matter Christologically. The revelations that would naturally follow from this approach were to consolidate the finishing work of reformation in the Church of England. Cranmer revealed:

“After it had pleased God to show me, by his holy word, a more perfect knowledge of his son Jesus Christ, from time to time as I grew in knowledge of him, by little and little I put away my former ignorance.”

In the role of reforming archbishop, this putting away of ignorance would mean the expurgation from the Church of England of Romish errors. Cranmer, in receiving a biblical and catholic understanding of the person and work of Christ, was equipped to give the prayer book an expression of the sacrament that was ordained to communicate to us the perfect, complete and sufficient sacrifice by which we have eternal life. According to J.I. Packer, “Nothing so quickly reveals a theologian’s calibre as his sacramental teaching, for this is, so to speak, the roof of his theological house.”

It is both myopic and naïve to argue that the reformation of the church in England was the accidental consequence of King Henry’s arrogance and obstinacy. Certainly our Lord used this to cast light on the treacherous and brutal enemies of truth, and to precipitate events that would allow the legitimate renunciation of Popish control of our land by one of Rome’s own. To the humiliation of that Babylonish system, Providence used Henry’s concupiscence to spell the demise of that brilliant papal emissary Wolsey whose chief end was to obscure and spoil the glorious light of the Gospel. After Wolsey’s demise, and the severance of Antichrist’s bonds by the complex and intricate fore-ordination of agencies military, political and personal, Cranmer who, ironically, was elevated by one who nearly to death would staunchly maintain the false doctrines enforced by our enemies, was placed to bequeath us a Bible, a reformed confession of faith, and a prayer book to give a verily catholic unity and cohesion to a church that should never have looked back.

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