Celebrating Cranmer the theologian

Anglicans - despite the best efforts of Gregory Dix - regularly celebrate the legacy of Cranmer the liturgist. Cranmer the liturgist continues to shape how we as Anglicans pray, and not just at Choral Evensong.  Many contemporary Anglican eucharistic rites continue to employ prayers from Cranmer.  To take an example from the Church of Ireland's BCP 2004, its Order 2 Holy Communion includes the Collect for Purity, an absolution drawn from Cranmer, the Prayer of Humble Access, an invitation to receive based on Cranmer's words of Administration from 1552, and a blessing which is again from Cranmer.  

It is not, however, only Cranmer the liturgist who influenced and (in many ways) continues to influence Anglicanism.  Classical Anglicanism was profoundly shaped by Cranmer the theologian.  Much as this might offend or, indeed, horrify some contemporary Anglicans, it is the case that Cranmer's theological views continue to determine significant aspects of the Anglican experience.

So on this day when we give thanks that Thomas Cranmer was faithful even unto death, let us recall five ways in which Cranmer the theologian profoundly shaped the beliefs and theology of classical Anglicanism.

1. Heeding the Fathers

As beside Hilary, Basil, and Saint Ambrose before rehearsed, we read the same in Origen, Saint Chrisostome, Saint Cyprian, Saint Augustine, Prosper, Oecumenius, Phocius, Bernardus, Anselme, and many other Authors, Greek, and Latin - from Cranmer's 'Homily on Salvation'.

Cranmer's attention to the Fathers stands as a crucial reminder that his Reformed commitment to Sola Scriptura - "Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to Salvation" (Article V of Cranmer's 42 Articles) -  did not mean that the Church's reading of Scripture was (or could be) undertaken apart from the witness of the Fathers.  His works consistently demonstrate this, with numerous quotations from the Fathers, of East and West.  

Cranmer's Preface to the King's Bible (Bible) quoted at length from "the most noble doctor and moral divine, St. John Chrysostom" and "Gregory Nazianzene, doctor of the Greek church, of whom St Jerome saith, that unto his time the Latin church had no writer able to be compared and to make an even match with him". The opening homily in the Book of Homilies, 'A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of holy Scripture', had three references to Saint Augustine and four to Saint Chrysostom.  A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ abounds with quotations from "ancient authors of Christ’s Church, both Greeks and Latins".

Cranmer the theologian was deeply rooted in the Fathers of East and West, a characteristic which was to shape how the divines of the ecclesia Anglicana expounded and reflected upon the mystery of faith over coming centuries.

2. Articles of Religion

The Thirty-Nine Articles are, in the words of Torrance Kirby, "based closely upon" the 1552 Forty-Two Articles of Religion, of whom Cranmer was the chief author.  It is from Cranmer, then, that the Articles of Religion are derived.

Speaking from a thoughtful Anglo-Catholic perspective, John Hughes said, "the articles were the expression of the resolution of that time of upheaval that led to our being a Church that is 'reformed as well as catholic', so that they continue to be a significant part of our theological inheritance".

To put it another way, the Articles of Religion - derived from Cranmer - give expression to Anglicanism's identity as a Church of the Reformation.  Or, more bluntly, as Protestant (a term which was entirely uncontroversial for Anglicans before the mid-19th century).  

The Articles, as opposed to the shallow definitions found in much contemporary evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism, give meaning and substance to what it is to be Protestant: creedal, patristic, Augustinian, ecclesial, sacramental.  

3. Sacraments

For as the word of God preached putteth God into our ears, so likewise these elements of water, bread, and wine, joined to God's word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses - from Cranmer's A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ.

Gordon P. Jeanes concludes his excellent Signs of God's Promise: Thomas Cranmer's Sacramental Theology and the Book of Common Prayer (2008) by stating, "any definition of what a 'high' sacramental theology means has to be able to include Cranmer among its exponents".  

In his debate with Gardiner, Cranmer declared:

[in Baptism] we receive not only the Spirit of Christ, but also Christ himself, whole body and soul, manhood and Godhead, unto everlasting life, as well as in the holy communion. For St. Paul saith, As many as be baptized in Christ, put Christ upon them: Nevertheless, this is done in divers respects; for in baptism it is done in respect of regeneration, and in the holy communion, in respect of nourishment and augmentation.

Cranmer bequeathed to Anglicanism not only rich sacramental liturgies but also a rich sacramental theology. For too long, the Dix interpretation - ironically aided by Buchanan - has been allowed to identify Cranmer with a 'low' sacramental theology, undermining the Prayer Book liturgies and suggesting that classical Anglicanism was bereft of a sacramental theology capable of meaningfully sustaining ecclesial life. (A 1948 review of Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy wonderfully noted, "Dix misunderstands both Zwingli and Cranmer", while his account was also to "completely to misunderstand Calvin".) Against this, it is time to recover the sacramental teaching of Cranmer the theologian, reminding us that the gift of the Prayer Book liturgies for Holy Communion and Holy Baptism flow from and embody a deep sacramental theology. 

...  in water, bread, and wine, [Christ] is present as in signs and sacraments - from A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine).

4. The Royal Supremacy 

The Bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in this Realm of England - Article 36 of the Forty-Two Articles, Article 37 of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Cranmer was the theological driving force behind the Royal Supremacy. Rather than this being - as is so often the case - a cause of embarrassment to contemporary Anglicans, it should be a cause for celebration and gratitude.   His articulation of and commitment to the Royal Supremacy was the means of restoring the rights and liberties of a national church: it was the bastion against the claims of the Papal Supremacy. 

Inherent to Cranmer's vision of the Royal Supremacy, then, was the Church catholic as a communion of free and equal national churches: 

And therefore I do believe that the church of Rome is not, nor cannot worthily be called the catholic church, but only a particular member thereof, and cannot challenge or vindicate of right, and by the word of God, to be head of this universal church, or to have any superiority over the other churches of Christ which be in England, France, Spain, or in any other realm, but that they be all free from any subjection unto the said church of Rome, or unto the minister or bishop of the same ... And therefore although the said particular churches and the members of the same do much differ, and be discrepant the one from the other, not only in the diversity of nations and countries, and in the diversity, dignity, and excellency of certain such gifts of the Holy Ghost as they be endued with, but also in the divers using and observation of such outward rites, ceremonies, traditions, and ordinances, as be instituted by their governors, and received and approved among them; yet I believe assuredly, that the unity of this catholic church cannot therefore, or for that cause, be anything hurted, impeached, or infringed in any point, but that all the said churches do and shall continue still in the unity of this catholic church, notwithstanding any such diversity - from The Institution of a Christian Man, 1537.

This is a fundamental part of the theological inheritance that Cranmer bequeathed to Anglicanism, shaping Anglican experience and life over centuries: the rejection of any claims to universal jurisdiction because such claims override and deny the rights and liberties of national churches.  

5. Robustly Christocentric

Words of Benedict XVI, "Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric", can also be applied to Cranmer.  The robustly Christocentric nature of Cranmer's theology is evident throughout his writings.  The 'Homily on Salvation' is a hymn of praise to Christ:

justification is the office of God only, and is not a thing which we render unto him, but which we receive of him: not which we give to him, but which we take of him, by his free mercy, and by the only merits of his most dearly beloved Son, our only Redeemer, Saviour, and Justifier Jesus Christ.

The final words of A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ 

the right faith of the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross for our redemption, and with the true doctrine of our salvation, justification, and remission of all our sins by that only sacrifice.

In the second of the Forty-Two Articles, Cranmer - closely following, as Kirby notes, the wording of the third article of the Augsburg Confession, and becoming article two of the Thirty-Nine - ensured the Christological confession of patristic orthodoxy would stand at the opening of the articles of faith of the reformed ecclesia Anglicana:

The Son, which is the word of the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary from her substance, so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together into one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice for all sin of man, both original and actual.

This is the dogmatic anchor for the robustly Christocentric theology, liturgy, and piety bequeathed by Cranmer to classical Anglicanism.

As G.W. Bromiley said in his 1956 work Thomas Cranmer Theologian

What he did do was to give to his own church a balanced synopsis of its Reformation convictions. If he was not a theologian of the first rank, he certainly exercised a decisive and lasting influence.

The "decisive" influence of Cranmer the theologian was found in how he profoundly shaped classical Anglicanism.  And "lasting"? Perhaps this suggests how Cranmer continues to offer Anglicanism a vibrant agenda for theological and ecclesial renewal: rooted in the Fathers, embodying a theologically rich Protestantism, with a deep sacramental life, as a communion of national churches free of the delusions of any universal jurisdiction, and firmly focussed on the Christological centre.  


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