Dr. Ashley Null on Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop Thomas CranmerIn September 2001, ACL News spoke with Dr. Ashley Null while he was visiting Moore College.

Here’s what we published (in two instalments) at that time –

Un-noticed by many Anglicans around the world, 2002 brings the 450th anniversary of the publication of the second Prayer Book of Thomas Cranmer (pictured), the Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was the Prayer Book of 1552 (with minor modifications) that was used in the Church of England during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. With further modifications, it was to become the most widely used edition of the Book of Common Prayer, that of 1662, which is still the standard for all Anglican worship. In the light of the uncertainty among many over what constitutes genuine Anglicanism, it’s more important than ever to know something of the origins of the Anglican Church.

Dr. Ashley Null is an ordained Episcopal minister of the Diocese of Western Kansas. He holds a Cambridge Ph.D. and did his initial theological work in Yale Divinity School. His special area of interest is Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and primary author of the Book of Common Prayer.

ACL News caught up with Dr. Null while he was in Sydney lecturing on Thomas Cranmer at Moore Theological College. After leaving Sydney he went on to Germany to begin a long term research project producing a critical edition of Cranmer’s private theological notebooks.

(Questions in italics.)


Who was Thomas Cranmer and why is he important for Anglicans?

Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489 and baptised into the medieval catholic church. He studied at Cambridge, receiving a Doctorate of Divinity in 1526, and served there as a don.

As a theologian, Cranmer was very much influenced by Erasmus’ emphasis on going back to the original sources for the Christian faith, in particular, of course, the Bible.

In the late 1520s, the authority of Scripture was at the centre of the most pressing English political issue of the day – Henry VIII’s divorce case.

The king and his scholars argued that the Pope did not have the authority to set aside a clear Scriptural commandment against a moral sin. Since Leviticus 20:21 specifically forbids taking the wife of one’s brother, Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid, despite having received papal approval. True to his own theological convictions on Scripture, Cranmer agreed.

Once Henry learned of Cranmer’s views on the subject, he invited the Cambridge don to join his team of scholars. In 1532, as part of that effort, Henry sent Cranmer to Germany as his ambassador to the Emperor.

While in Germany, Cranmer came under the influence of Protestantism. Not only did he acquire a new wife – who was the niece of the wife of the German reformer Andreas Osiander – but he also acquired a clearly protestant understanding of justification.

His commitment to Scripture and to the early Church Fathers, like Augustine, helped Cranmer to grasp the Protestants’ emphasis on salvation by grace alone. His Erasmian studies, therefore, laid the bridge for him to cross over from being a catholic to a protestant.

Then, quite unexpectedly, Henry VIII called Cranmer back to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Naturally, he was quite reluctant. No doubt, though, he accepted the position because he saw it as his task to use such a powerful position to restore the English Church to its scriptural roots. And, of course, that’s what Cranmer did for the rest of his life as the Archbishop of Canterbury – seeking to bring the Church of England back to a sound, biblical faith.

Under Henry’s successor, the boy king Edward VI, he was primarily responsible for the three key formularies of the Church of England: the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion. Therefore, understanding Cranmer’s theology is essential for understanding the theological origins of the Anglican Communion.

Justification by faith alone is the key

The Homilies are very much neglected in the experience of most Anglicans. How do they fit into the scheme of things?

Most people don’t realise that the first liturgical change Cranmer made was to insist on good solid biblical preaching in every Sunday church service. To ensure that, he and others gathered together a set of Homilies that were to be read in course throughout the year.

The first six of these sermons explain how one comes to a biblical understanding of having Jesus Christ as your Saviour by faith alone – and the gratitude that one receives from knowing God has saved you, even though you are not able to make yourself worthy of salvation.

That gratitude means that you live your life in service of him and of other people. God’s divine gracious love, shown in saving the unworthy, inspires a grateful human love, by which we serve God and other people.

For Cranmer, the glory of God is to love the unworthy – that’s his fundamental theological tenet. He understood that medieval theology, despite its clear intellectual breadth and brilliance, had a distinct Achilles’ heel – its insistence that you had to be made personally worthy for salvation before God could accept you.

Cranmer believed that this emphasis on merit produced only two possible alternatives – either you had great pride that you were worthy – or you had great despair that you never could be worthy. Neither one, of course, inspired loving obedience.

So this is the key to justification by faith.


As he sought to reform the Church, how much of it was a solo effort?

Although Cranmer had tremendous authority as the Primate of All England, sixteenth-century English society consisted of interlocking relationships.

Above him was, of course, the king as supreme head of the Church, and for a time, even Thomas Cromwell, the king’s vice-regent in matters spiritual, and an invaluable ally for Reformation. Below Cranmer were the bishops and clergy and their Convocations of Canterbury and York. Working alongside him under the king were the members of the king’s Council and the members of Parliament, all of whom also had a voice in the religious policy of the kingdom.

As a reformer, therefore, Cranmer had to work with like-minded individuals in all these various governing institutions of the kingdom to bring about change. By the time a formulary such as the Prayer Book had made its way to final parliamentary approval, Cranmer’s contribution would have long since been subject to committee contributions.

Nevertheless, the formularies clearly reflect the stamp of Cranmer’s personal theology, as one would expect, since he was the driving theological force behind them.

Slow, but steady, reform

Over the centuries, all sorts of Anglicans have wanted to claim Cranmer as their own.

The Anglo-Catholics, for example, argue that it is in the 1549 Prayer Book that we see the real Cranmer. In the 1552 Prayer Book, they say, Cranmer was influenced by more ‘extreme reformers’ and was unable to resist. What would you say to this notion?

If you stop and think about the liturgical changes under Edward VI, you can see a steady pattern of gradual change in an increasingly, clearly protestant direction. Is 1549 the first liturgical change that Cranmer made? No. In 1547, his first year under Edward VI when he at last had the freedom to promote his own theological convictions – he brought in a clearly protestant understanding of justification by faith.

That’s in the Homilies?

Right – and when was it required to be read? During the liturgy. So the Homilies were the first liturgical change – and it was a clearly protestant change. Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, had no misunderstanding about what Cranmer was up to. He furiously objected to the Homilies precisely because they brought in justification by faith.

The next year – 1548 – Cranmer made another small step toward changing the liturgy. He inserted a set of English prayers into the traditional Latin Mass about preparation, confession and other things. So now Sunday worship had both an English sermon and some English prayers.

The next year – 1549 – Cranmer introduced a completely English Prayer Book. Although the eucharistic liturgy looked very much like the previous service, the objectionable elements of medieval sacrificial language and merit had been modified in keeping with the archbishop’s protestant beliefs.

Three years later, after Cranmer had received suggestions on further changes for the next stage of liturgical renovation, the 1552 Prayer Book was produced. Its clearly protestant eucharistic service is just the natural progression from the protestant Homilies of 1547.

In short, Cranmer was a pastor who gradually adapted the formularies of the Church to match good biblical standards – but not so quickly as to lose all the people. He sought to bring them along slowly, but steadily.

When we think that 1549 Prayer Book was the high point of Cranmer’s work, we clearly misunderstand both his theology and his way of bringing things about. Therefore, historically speaking, the 1552 Prayer Book really is the standard for original Anglican worship.

Cranmer was very much in step with what was happening in Europe, wasn’t he? He corresponded with John Calvin and others.

Cranmer had the intellectual ability, the scholarly desire, the personal discipline, and the immense means – including funds to acquire books, the status to be given books, and the secretaries to make use of them – to be very up to date on all the latest scholarship of his day, both catholic and protestant.

The idea that he was not interested in theological convictions on the Continent is just not tenable. As a scholar and as a statesman, Cranmer knew the issues in his field. He had an enormous library, and, as his private theological notebooks prove, he was enormously well read.

Gratitude is our motivation

Cranmer saw the need for gratitude to God – and that is our motivation for living. Is this a new insight?

That particular insight is typical of early protestant theology. That Cranmer fully accepted this principle becomes clear only when one examines his public writings in the light of the entries in his private theological notebooks. The largest of these manuscripts, ‘Cranmer’s Great Commonplaces’, demonstrates his commitment to early reformed theology, which, of course, puts a whole new light on everything else he did.

The key issue for recognising Cranmer’s reformed views is his doctrine of justification. Since he wrote no technical treatise on justification, all we have are his three homilies on salvation. And, of course, they were designed to be accessible to the average person. So Cranmer did not use any technical terms in their composition.

This lack of scholarly specifics in the Homilies has allowed a variety of scholars to interpret Cranmer according to their own traditions.

The ‘Great Commonplaces’, however, add the theological details which are missing from his public writings. Therefore, they are terribly helpful in forming an accurate picture of his theology. They make clear that Cranmer was actually a fairly typical – if insightful – early reformed protestant Augustinian.


Part 2

In the light of widely differing views of the Lord’s Supper in the Anglican world today, we began by asking –

What did Cranmer actually think happens in the Lord’s Supper?

Cranmer rejected the medieval understanding of the priesthood. He did not believe that a priest, by virtue of his ordination, was made a special link between God and his people, so that the Holy Spirit worked through him during a sacrament as the principal means of dispensing divine grace to the people.

In Cranmer’s understanding, the Holy Spirit came directly to God’s people through his Word. As Scripture was proclaimed, the Holy Spirit wrote his promises on the hearts of believers, thereby nurturing in them a living, personal faith which alone united them to God. That is the reason why Cranmer urged the English people to feed on Christ continually, because they could strengthen their union with Christ at any time simply by meditating on God’s Word in their own hearts.

Therefore, in Cranmer’s mature understanding, the sacraments were not the principal means of grace. Nor were they a second, separate channel on par with Scripture, as if the Spirit worked supernaturally through two different, but parallel, means, i.e., the sacramental ministry of an apostolically ordained priesthood and biblical preaching. Cranmer’s final view was far simpler. Since the Holy Spirit came to God’s people through the Scriptures, the sacraments were effectual means of grace precisely because of their unique capacity for proclaiming the promises of God’s Word.

In the sacraments God has accommodated himself to the creatureliness of our nature. We have keen physical senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. But our spiritual senses are dim at best, so that we can struggle to perceive the Spirit’s working within us.

Consequently, Christ has commanded that the visible elements of water, bread, and wine be joined to the proclamation of his promises to save us and sustain us. As a result, in the sacraments we can encounter him with all our physical senses.

When we see, smell, touch, and taste the bread and wine in Holy Communion, the Spirit witnesses to us that Christ is at that very moment feeding our souls with the benefits of his passion, just as the elements are feeding our bodies.

Naturally, the awareness that Christ is tending to our spiritual needs strengthens our faith in him. And, of course, true faith in God’s goodness towards us always engenders a hearty thankfulness in us which, in turn, goes forth from us as a renewed love for him and others. Indeed, the miracle of Communion isn’t the supernatural changing of bread and wine, it is the supernatural redirecting of our wills, away from a self-centred love of self towards a true love for God and others.

In short, according to Cranmer, the purpose of the Lord’s Supper is both as an expression of a believer’s living faith and as a unique means of strengthening it. In obedience to Christ’s explicit command, the Church celebrates this sacrament until he comes again. During its ministration, those with living faith ascend in heart and mind to Christ’s presence at the right hand of God. Seated with him in heavenly places, they are spiritually nourished with the full power and benefit of Christ’s body and blood by Christ himself. With their faith strengthened, they continue to dwell in him and he in them, thereby enabling believers to love their neighbour as themselves.

Why the Lord’s Supper?

So would you say that Cranmer saw the Lord’s Supper to be more akin to a visual aid to help us, or is it stronger than that?

One has to be careful here. Cranmer’s scriptural understanding of the Lord’s Supper may be simpler than his medieval predecessors, but it is no less thoroughly supernatural.

He fully believes that a miracle happens in the sacrament, but this profound mystery takes place in the human heart, not on the Holy Table. Real spiritual power is active in Communion, but its focus is the ordering of the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, since only a supernatural intervention by God can do so.

According to Cranmer’s anthropology, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.

The trouble with human nature is that we are born with a heart that loves ourselves over and above everything else in this world, including God. In short, we are born slaves to the lust for self-gratification, i.e., concupiscence. That’s why, if left to ourselves, we will always love those things that make us feel good about ourselves, even as we depart more and more from God and his ways.

Therefore, God must intervene in our lives in order to bring salvation. Working through Scripture, the Holy Spirit first brings a conviction of sin in a believer’s heart, then he births a living faith by which the believer lays hold of the extrinsic righteousness of Christ. Of course, the perfect justifying righteousness by which we are made right with God must be outside of us, for the ongoing presence of sinful concupiscence in our mortal bodies renders it impossible for us ever to be truly holy in this life. Indeed, the glory of God is his love for the unworthy, that although we are sinners, he makes us his own.

Now, in effect, justification gives us a heart transplant. For at the same time that we receive the gift of justifying faith by which we are credited with Christ’s extrinsic righteousness, God also sheds abroad in our hearts a new love for him and one another. This new heart love for him, from him, naturally redirects our wills away from sinful selfishness towards a life lived in thankful obedience to God’s commands. Even though we continue to have to struggle with the pull of concupiscence in our mortal bodies, the the supernatural power of God’s abiding love has fundamentally changed us.

Now we know in our hearts that we are sons and daughters of God. Now we have the heart desire, and therefore the will power, to crucify the flesh daily. Now we can truly begin to live more fully for God and his work in the world.

In Cranmer’s view, if the miracle of justification is this reorienting of the human will by transforming the heart, then the miracle of Communion is the strengthening of that renewed will.

In short, Cranmer’s theology is a religion of the heart. In his view, if our hearts change, then so will our actions and attitudes. One of his objections to the medieval sacramental system was the failure of its ceremonialism to effect real change in the lives of either the priests or the people. That is why his liturgy stresses the need for God to intervene in our hearts.

What does the Collect of Purity say? ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee’. What does this mean but that we cannot truly love God unless he supernaturally changes our hearts? What is the refrain from the recitation of the Ten Commandments? ‘Incline our hearts to keep this law’. What does ‘incline’ mean but that we are asking him to redirect our hearts up towards him and away from being curved inward on ourselves? How does the recitation end? ‘Write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee’.

Clearly, this means Cranmer wanted the Holy Spirit to work through the Scripture proclaimed in his liturgy to change the hearts of the worshippers.

What value in Liturgy today?

In Sydney and other parts of the Anglican Communion, there is a move away from prayer books and formal liturgy.

What can we do to protect our understanding of who we are and to preserve against going off onto all sorts of tangents – but staying with Reformed theology?

I was raised with Cranmer’s liturgical language and still find it very moving. Nevertheless, I have to admit sixteenth-century English is an aquired taste, and we shouldn’t expect people to have to acquire a specific cultural taste in order to come to know Jesus.

So some liturgical changes are clearly necessary, as Cranmer would have been the first to admit. After all, he is the man who set aside centuries of Latin prayers to give the English people a worship service in their own language. What we must do is think of how we can make the theological insights of the Reformation applicable to our needs today.

By the same token, however, we are conditioned by the assumptions of our own culture. So the very foreignness of Cranmer’s liturgy can itself be very helpful to our theological reflections, if we will allow this time-tested, solidly biblical standard to critique the cultural blindspots of our day.

At the very least, we need to recognise what Cranmer was trying to do in his liturgy. In Holy Communion he actually takes you through an order that replicates how a person comes to a living faith in the first place. The whole service is designed to make believers fall in love with Jesus all over again. Therefore, we need to consider very carefully what we are losing when we decide to throw that pattern away.

Of course, the most important thing we can do as Anglicans is to encourage people to have a biblical faith. Once again, Cranmer would be the first to agree. Nevertheless, as Anglicans we are also the stewards of a treasure. In the English Reformation God did something very special. He brought forth a reawakened biblical faith which was then enshrined in a liturgical expression which has moved people for centuries. We need to see how that tradition of biblical faith at prayer can help guide us towards God today, even as it guards us against self-centredness, laziness and sloppiness.

The constant danger of Pelagianism

How might we better help people get in touch with their history when very little history is really taught in schools these days?

Well, I suppose one place to start is to help the Church better understand the Reformation so that we can tell our story to people more accurately.

The whole point of the Reformation is that the Church shouldn’t put on people burdens that they cannot bear. After all, just because you know something is right, that doesn’t mean you can do it. Apart for the working of the Holy Spirit, our wills are bound to the deceitful devices and desires of our hearts.

Therefore, biblical preaching must always guard against an incipient Pelagianism which would turn God’s promise to renew us into tasks we must perform in order to please him. The Bible clearly states many dos and don’ts for human behaviour. However, just because our minds may understand how a Christian should live, that doesn’t mean that our wills can automatically fall in line.

As I said earlier, reason is not king in human beings, the heart is. Therefore, to change your actions, you must change your desires. But your desires will change, only if the Holy Spirit who wrote the Bible also writes his laws on your heart. Of course, biblical preaching must expound the dos and don’ts faithfully. Yet, if we hold up a standard, but do not make clear the means God has provided by which that standard may be met, we discourage people rather than being bearers of good news.

As we preach, we must constantly remind people that a new way of living is something God has promised to work in us, even as he continues to forgives us our many short-comings along the way. As we preach, we must constantly remind people to turn in Christ through his Word and Sacraments, so that he can make the changes in them that they cannot make on their own. After all, true holiness is actually ever-increasing active dependence on God and his promises.

This Pelagian tendency is the reason why many people find Cranmer’s prayer book off putting. Pelagianism says that repentance is the work you must do to please God. When you abase yourself enough, when you feel guilty enough, when you have changed your ways enough, then God will decide you are worthy of being forgiven, then God will permit you to be called his child. When an Anglican Church preaches Pelagianism from the pulpit, people will hear it echoed in the penitential ethos of Cranmer’s liturgy.

So when the Confession asks people to acknowledge that they are ‘miserable sinners’, they hear, ‘If I grovel enough in self-loathing, then maybe God will accept me’. No wonder some people think that Cranmer’s God wants to make people miserable!

Sadly, that is the exact opposite of what Cranmer intended people to hear. He would want people to understand that repentance is a divine gift which God is pleased to work in them, not their work by which they make themselves pleasing to God. Indeed, they are already miserable because of their sins, but by coming to God they can experience real freedom.

Their sins may have put them under divine judgement and enslaved them to destructive habits which do not satisfy, but God has promised to rescue them. He will do for them what they cannot do for themselves. Because of Jesus, God will pardon them from their sin’s guilt and deliver them from its power. He will draw them into a new way of living, and he will make something beautiful out of the brokenness of their lives. Cranmer’s liturgy focusses on repentance, because this divine gift is truly good news.

Today our whole culture talks about addictions and how to break their power. The Church, however, often fails to realise that sin is the ultimate addiction, slowly destroying people, even as it draws them further and futher away from God and their true selves. Cranmer and his fellow Reformers made no such mistake. They could face up to the gravity of sin, because they realised the superior power of God’s grace.

Human beings may be instinctively addicted to always having to prove their worth, but the cross of Christ shatters that lie. Human beings may fear they can never make the changes in their lives that are expected of Christians, but the Resurrection of Christ conclusively testifies to his power to make all things new. Human beings may feel rootless and estranged, but Christ has promised to prepare an eternal home for his people, even as he prepares them for it.

I think if the Church preaches these Reformations truths, people will hear good news indeed.