Faithful Through the Ages - Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Thomas Cranmer - Theologian and Martyr

Quote: Final words of Thomas Cranmer: "And for as much as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished therefore; for, may I come to the fire, it shall be first burned."

Considered the premier leader of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer (1489 - 1556) ranks alongside Luther in Germany, Calvin in Switzerland, and Knox in Scotland as a national religious figure of the sixteenth century.

Cranmer was born in Nottingham to a landed family, but his future lay outside the ranks of the country gentry. During his time at Cambridge as a university priest, he was introduced to the writings of Martin Luther. Unlike William Tyndale, who, in the 1520s was taking a lead in English Reformation, Cranmer's "conversion" was slow in coming. During this decade, Cranmer was ordained to the priesthood and completed his doctorate of divinity at Cambridge. In 1532, King Henry VIII appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury.

Though the king rattled through six wives, Cranmer remained loyal and alive, fearing to speak out against Henry's wickedness. But on other matters Cranmer was his own man. When Henry brought his Six Articles (upholding transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, and other Catholic dogma) before the Parliament, Cranmer initially argued against them. Indeed, he had a very personal stake in the matter of clerical celibacy. The previous year he had married Margaret, the niece of Andreas Osiander, a prominent Lutheran Reformer. She remained in Germany, and the marriage was kept secret—so secret that those who knew he was married joked that he traveled with her in his suitcase. But when Parliament voted to approve Henry's Six Articles, Cranmer backed down. Despite enemies in the court, however, Cranmer managed to remain in the good graces of the king, and he stood at Henry's bedside during his final moments.

With Henry's son Edward VI on the throne, Cranmer enjoyed greater freedom to follow his instincts and develop a more Protestant-oriented liturgy and theology, particularly through the Book of Common Prayer. The first version presented a mild Protestant stance. But three years later, in 1552, the volume demonstrated an even greater separation from Rome. The Forty-two Articles, which would become known as the Thirty-nine Articles, also held an unapologetic Protestant slant. Yet his theology offered a balanced perspective on such issues as predestination, accepting the Augustinian view of God's providence in salvation while adding a warning that it not be used to sanction sin or to despair of being elect.

The future looked bright for Cranmer until Edward's older sister Mary ascended the throne, quickly changing Cranmer's standing in court. A devout Catholic, Mary was determined to reverse the English Reformation and restore the Catholic Church.

When Mary brought back the Old Latin Mass and set aside the Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer strongly protested. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. But executing him was too easy. Mary and the Catholic clerics sought a public recantation. Indeed, so important was his reconversion to Catholicism that clerics visited him regularly to wear him down. The tactics worked, and Cranmer recanted his Protestant faith five times. He signed a six-point document denouncing the tenets of the Reformation. And even though he gave his allegiance to the "Pope and vicar of Christ, to whom all the faithful are bound subject," it was not enough to save him. It was enough, however, to thoroughly humiliate him, which was exactly what his opponents desired. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake.

On March 21, 1556, Cranmer was led out to make a final public confession of his Catholic faith. But perhaps realizing the execution would not be stopped no matter what he said, he confessed his sins—particularly the grave sin of recanting the gospel message that he truly believed. He admitted that the recantations were signed "for fear of death."

With those words, Cranmer became a martyr to the Protestant faith. He was taken to the stake and the fire was lit. Reaching into the flames with his right hand, he confessed, "As my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished." It was a slow, agonizing death as it had been for others—both Protestant and Catholic—who were sacrificed to the flames of religious intolerance.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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