The martyr who saved the Reformation
The new issue of Credo Magazine is now here: The English Reformation.
The word “Reformation” immediately brings to mind a young Martin Luther, his 95 theses, and his memorable stand at the Diet of Worms. But did Luther’s writings have any influence in England? And what led certain English reformers to similar, sometimes identical, convictions about justification and biblical authority?
In this issue of Credo Magazine, “The English Reformation,” we are introduced to some of the key English reformers, men like William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, and many others. Outstanding pastors and scholars tell us how the Reformation took root in England under very different political circumstances than Germany and why many of these reformers were willing to be martyred for their faith.
Today we’d like to draw your attention to the feature article: “The martyr who saved the Reformation.” Matthew Barrett interviews Leslie Williams about the life and martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer. She is the author of Emblem of Faith Untouched: A Short Life of Thomas Cranmer. Leslie Winfield Williams is an English professor, writer, and three-time Fellow of Yale Divinity School. Her other books include The Judas Conspiracy and When Anything Goes: Being Christian in a Post-Christian World.
You have just published a new book with Eerdmans called Emblem of Faith Untouched, introducing Christians to the life of Thomas Cranmer. Many Christians today may be far less familiar with Cranmer than with Martin Luther or John Calvin. Who was this sixteenth-century reformer who proved to be so critical to the English Reformation?
Thank you for asking about the book. Thomas Cranmer was an unlikely candidate to be a major player in the upheavals of the English Reformation. He was recruited because of a coincidental exchange over supper with two of King Henry VIII’s top advisors during the king’s crusade to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. At age 41, Cranmer was a settled scholar and Fellow of Jesus College in Cambridge, one of the top three examiners for degree candidates, and a dogged and thorough student of Reformation ideas from the Continent.
Cranmer was appointed to be Henry’s first Archbishop of Canterbury over more obvious candidates for several reasons—first, his belief that the sovereign of the land should also be sovereign of the church. The king was king and had the right and the responsibility to dictate the religious views of his own country—the Pope should not control the English church from afar. Second, Cranmer’s personality. He was not strident and not bigoted; he was diffident yet held a strong undercurrent of conviction; he was able to bide his time when necessary and able to absorb and understand all sides of an argument; and he could get along with a king who lopped off the heads of those who disagreed with him.
Cranmer can be a controversial figure today. Some interpret his life in such a way as to dismiss him, believing he compromised far too much under Henry VIII. Others, however, are more sympathetic, believing he was carefully walking a nearly impossible political tightrope, namely, trying to institute the Protestant reform slowly under a king who could be unsympathetic and even violent towards those who were too aggressive in their advances. Tell us, how critical should we be of Cranmer and what was it about Cranmer that enabled him literally to “keep his head,” navigating Henry’s reign as a committed Protestant?
Cranmer had read, studied, and carefully assessed Reformation ideas and I believe that Cranmer got his hopes up when Henry became head of the English church and appointed him Archbishop. Cranmer realized fairly quickly, though, that Henry had no intention of reforming much of anything except the top of the church’s hierarchy—by substituting himself for the Pope and severing England’s ties with the church in Rome. For the most part, the theology, the doctrine, the worship, and the practices would remain “Catholic” in all but name under Henry….with threat of death to those who disagreed. The king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell was a Reformation ally, working with Cranmer to secure Parliamentary approval for the transition. Cromwell tried to strengthen political ties with Reformation Germany by arranging a marriage with Anne of Cleves, but Henry found her unattractive and had Cromwell put to death. Before Cromwell died, he told Cranmer what a lucky man he was, because Cranmer could say or do anything he wanted and the king defended him.
Cranmer dared to disagree with Henry about how far reform should go, but he also knew when to keep his mouth shut. I wonder if he didn’t realize that he would be more valuable to the Reformation if he managed to stay alive and outlive Henry—which is exactly what happened. The real reforms in the church took place under Henry’s son, Edward.
Cranmer never stopped pushing—subtly, sometimes overtly—for church reform. One of the reforms under Henry included the publication of “The Great Bible” in English instead of Latin, so the people could read it. Cranmer also most likely wrote the “Ten Articles” of the new faith, which were the first step in reforming the doctrine and worship of the church. Five articles concerned doctrine: (1) the Scriptures and three Creeds summarize the faith, (2) baptism is necessary for remission of sins and to receive the Holy Spirit, (3) penance (contrition, confession, and reformation) is necessary to be saved, (4) the elements of the Eucharist contain the body and blood of Christ, and (5) we are justified by the merits of Christ, but good works are important. Five articles concerned the saints and ceremonies. Cranmer objected to 82 of 250 of the king’s revisions to “the Bishops’ Book”—an attempt to put more teeth into the Ten Articles.
Finally, the Articles were whittled to the Six Articles, the “whip of six strings” reasserting Catholic doctrine against those with Protestant leanings. For three days Cranmer stood alone arguing against Parliament and the king, who was determined that the Articles be passed. The king had to ask him to leave when it came time to vote. Other records also indicate that Cranmer was not the wimp or the pushover his detractors claim he was.
When Henry died, Cranmer was at his side, holding his hand. In an almost symbiotic relationship, Cranmer may have been the only one who truly understood his monarch, and some have speculated that Henry was as influenced by Cranmer as Cranmer was by Henry. …
Read the rest of this interview today at The English Reformation.