Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
God uses many different kinds of men in the work of the church. The differences are not only those of cultural background, abilities and gifts, personality and character; they are also differences in spiritual strength and weakness. Some of God’s servants are of such noble moral character that one stands amazed at the power of grace in their lives. Some are very weak, to the point that they seem wholly unfitted for the work of the church. Some are Samuels and Gideons; others are Samsons and Jonahs. Some are Calvins and Luthers; others are Melanchthons and Bucers. Thomas Cranmer must be placed with the latter. There are so many blots on his life that one almost hesitates to include him in a “cloud of witnesses.” But the place he occupied in the Reformation was important, and his martyr’s death is a tribute to a humble faith which inspires many people of God who are weak as he was.
Already Cranmer’s early life gave evidence of his genius. Born on July 2, 1489, he soon entered Jesus College, Cambridge and excelled in his studies. He mastered Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, and Italian, and showed remarkable promise in theology. He was thoroughly acquainted with the ancient church fathers and the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages. At 21 years old he became a fellow at Cambridge, but forfeited his fellowship by an early marriage. His wife, however, died within a year and his fellowship was restored. Of her nothing is known.
Two things happened in the course of his studies and teaching at Cambridge: Through his study of theology and his acquaintance with the writings of Martin Luther, he became persuaded of the truth of justification by faith alone. And through his work in the field of church history, he became convinced that the pope was not the head of the church. On these two pillars was to rest much of his reformational work.
Perhaps Cranmer’s weaknesses can best be described as a certain lack of firmness and an unwillingness to stand for principle when the price that had to be paid was high. This weakness was to plague him to the end of his life.
It appeared first of all in his participation in and approval of the adulteries of Henry VIII.
In an earlier article we discussed Henry VIII’s desire to free himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon because she failed to provide him with a male heir to the throne; and his lust for Anne Boleyn, a lady of the palace. Henry would easily have divorced Catherine and made short work of her, if it had not been for the fact that the pope not only disapproved, but threatened Henry with all sorts of terrible things should Henry follow his lusts.
It was into this sordid affair that Cranmer was drawn. In the course of a rather casual conversation Cranmer expressed his opinion to two of the king’s advisors that Henry’s marriage to Catherine could easily be proved to be illegitimate. Cranmer’s reason was that Catherine had been the wife of Henry VIII’s brother, and that Leviticus 20:21 forbad the marriage in which Henry now found himself.
The views of Cranmer were quickly brought to Henry. In his pleasure, Henry appointed Cranmer to the position of chaplain to the king and sent Cranmer with a delegation to Italy to try to persuade Pope Clement of this idea. Clement was adamant and flatly refused to approve the divorce, and Henry was no further ahead in his plans.
It is an interesting parenthesis in this part of Cranmer’s life that, on his way back to England from Italy, he stopped in Germany to confer with the Lutheran theologians. Two results followed from these meetings. Cranmer was more carefully and thoroughly instructed in the doctrines of Luther, and Cranmer married the niece of Osiander, Lutheran pastor of Nuremberg – even though clerical marriage was forbidden by the church.
Upon Cranmer’s return, he was appointed to the highest post in the church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury. From this position of power, Cranmer engineered Henry’s divorce and remarriage. On May 23, 1533 he declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine void; and five days later Cranmer married Henry and Anne Boleyn in a public ceremony.1
Cranmer’s participation in these sordid events did not cease. Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Anne void when, after only three short years, Henry wearied of her. And, if only by his silence, Cranmer approved also of Henry’s cruel beheading of Anne. In the course of Henry’s marital sins, Cranmer also had a hand in Henry’s divorce of Anne of Cleves and in the execution of yet another wife, Catherine Howard.
It is impossible to justify all these activities of Cranmer, and there is no need for us to do that; but the same weakness of character showed itself in other ways.
Because the threats of the pope thundered all the way across Europe and threatened Henry with excommunication and the lowest place in hell, Henry rescued himself by declaring that the pope was not the head of the church, but that the king of England (namely himself) was head. Cranmer had come to this conclusion independently and assisted Henry in passing the necessary laws and decisions to make it effective. From a practical point of view, this meant that no money was henceforth to leave England for Rome without royal approval. The entire church was now under Henry’s rule to do in the church as he pleased. And one of the things which he pleased was to shut down and raid the monasteries so that he could make himself heir of their enormous wealth.
We must bear in mind, however, that the reformational work in England was ambiguous and complicated. Henry wanted a church free from papal control, but he did not want a Protestant church; he was completely committed to Roman Catholicism. But many, including Cranmer, were pressing for reform. When the two were put together, reform gradually made progress in spite of the king, but it was a reform wholly different from the reformation on the continent. In the reformations in Germany and Switzerland, the church was established by separation from the Roman Catholic Church. In England reformation came about by changing the Roman Catholic Church into a Protestant denomination. This was no small task, and the efforts were never wholly successful. Especially in liturgy and church polity the church of England remained basically Roman Catholic – as does the Anglican Church to this day.
Though strongly in favor of reform, Cranmer was hesitant and slow in pressing for needed change. When action was required, he shrank back. When Henry insisted on the mass and transubstantiation, other Reformers in England resigned their posts in protest, but not Cranmer. Even Calvin, in a couple of letters to Cranmer, protested Cranmer’s sloth in bringing about needed reform.2 Undoubtedly Cranmer was interested in making the Romish Church a Protestant church, and he sacrificed too much to attain that goal. Part of his problem was his respect for tradition: he was willing to settle for a reformed Roman Catholic Church because he was of the opinion that the church had gone wrong in about the 12th century, when, in fact, the evils of the Roman Church began much earlier.
And, perhaps worst of all, Cranmer showed his weakness when he was imprisoned under Bloody Mary, and signed documents in which he recanted his Protestant position and begged forgiveness from the Romish Church and from the pope.
But we have recounted only one side of Cranmer’s character and life.
Though Cranmer’s efforts towards reform never went quite far enough and were never pushed with quite enough zeal (especially when the going became difficult), what he did in the work of reform was no small thing. He helped King Henry sever relations between England and Rome, making reform possible. Though Tyndale died for translating the Bible and making it available in England, only a few short years later Cranmer had the Bible distributed in all the land and made it available in every parish church.
Though Cranmer remained content with an episcopal and Erastian form of church government in which the king was the head, he at least delivered the church from the worst of Rome’s abuses. He made plans for the training of an effective and educated ministry to take the place of stupid, superstitious Roman prelates, and put some of his plans into action. He attempted to compromise on matters of liturgy but was instrumental in producing the English Book of Common Prayer. Though it is written for the heavy and highly liturgical worship of the Anglican Church and is, therefore, unacceptable to those who hold to Reformed principles of worship, anyone who wishes to learn the art of prayer can learn much from reading these liturgically beautiful, doctrinally sound, and biblical prayers. Some are rather curious, and we quote a couple of the more curious to give our readers a taste of them.3
O God heavenly father, which by thy son Jesus Christ, hast promised to all them that seek thy kingdom, and the righteousness thereof, all things necessary to the bodily sustenance: send us (we beseech thee) in this our necessity, such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits, of, the earth, to our comfort and to thy honor: through Jesus Christ our Lord.
O Lord God, which for the sin of man didst once drown all the world, except eight persons, and afterward, of thy great mercy, didst promise never to destroy it so again: we humbly beseech thee, that although we for our iniquities have worthily deserved this plague of rain and waters, yet upon our true repentance, thou wilt send us such wealth whereby we may receive the fruits of the earth in due season, and learn both by thy punishment to amend our lives, and by the granting of our petition, to give thee praise and glory: through Jesus Christ our Lord.4
In the area of doctrine Cranmer agreed with the continental Reformers, particularly with Calvin. In this letters to Cranmer, Calvin did not scold Cranmer for holding to erroneous doctrines; his quarrel with Cranmer was the slowness with which Cranmer pressed for reformation in the church. Cranmer held to the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, ordered that both the bread and wine be dispensed (Rome forbade the dispensing of wine), and was instrumental in the formulation of the 42 articles (later to become the Thirty-Nine Articles, the official confession of the Anglican Church). It was a truly Reformed Confession in its doctrinal parts.
Cranmer took Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr, and other. Reformers from the continent into his home and confidence and helped some of them to secure teaching positions in the church. He had much correspondence with Calvin, Melanchthon, and other continental Reformers who, without exception, showed him respect.
Cranmer’s death showed the true character of his faith. While Cranmer labored for reform with some hesitation during the time of Henry VIII, he worked with great boldness during the time of Edward VI. His work was brought to an end during the reign of bloody Mary.
In 1553 he, along with Latimer and Ridley, was consigned to the tower of London for his views. There enormous pressures were put on him to recant. For a long time he held firm. During a debate over the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, he wrote: “From this your judgment and sentence I appeal to the just judgment of the Almighty, trusting to be present with him in heaven, for whose presence in the altar I am thus condemned.” But, as we already said, he finally caved under the pressures and recanted in 1554. Because of his high position, he was sentenced to death in spite, of his recantation.
Death came in 1556. He was expected by the authorities to read a public statement of his recantation. Imagine then, the surprise of his murderers when instead of publicly recanting he made public confession of his sin of recanting: “Now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other writings contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and writ for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be; and that is all such bills which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished, for, if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
True to his word, when he was brought to the stake, he put his right hand in the fire first. And, as he was burning, he held up his right hand and said: “This unworthy hand! Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”
It was his finest hour.
Powerful in the realm and in the church, holding the highest ecclesiastical office in the world under the pope; weak and vacillating when he should have been strong, altogether too much inclined to curry the favor of the crown rather than the favor of Christ; he nevertheless left a legacy which has been received by the church for centuries. Though later Puritans were to break with the Anglican Church over matters of church polity and liturgy, they too acknowledged gratefully what Cranmer had done for the church in England – even though they were sure he had not gone far enough. And his noble death sealed his witness to the truth insofar as it had been faithful.
1. I say “public” because Henry could not wait to satisfy his lust and had secretly married Anne about five months earlier.
2. See Calvin’s letters of April; 1552 and August 10, 1552. Letters of John Calvin, Vol. II, ed. by Dr. Jules Bonnet; (New York: Burt Franklin, i972).
3. Both are taken from the Second Prayer Book of King Edward VI. The Book of Common Prayer underwent several revisions, but the basic work remains that of Cranmer.
4. The spelling is modernized. It is also from, the Prayer Book that we get such common expressions as those things which we should have done, but did not do, and those things which we have done which we should not have done.