Rob Sturdy: A brief introduction to Cranmer’s Eucharistic views

Posted: July 1, 2010 by limabean03 in Anglican Communion, Christian Theology, Christianity, Reformation Theology, Reformed Theology, Thought and Practice in the Diocese of South Carolina
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Below is a short essay I prepared for my tutorial recently at RTS Orlando.  I’m very grateful to Trinity for the cont. ed. time that I’ve been given.  I will be posting all of the essays I prepare for this program so that you can see what I do with the time you give me.

This short essay will be an introduction to Cranmer’s primary concerns of Christ’s spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper, with particular emphasis paid to the Christological considerations that were so central to the whole understanding of the sacramental theology that developed from Geneva and from those who were most impacted by it.

For one to fully appreciate Cranmer’s (or for that matter, Bucer or Calvin’s) understanding of how Christ is present in the participation of the Lord’s Supper, one must become familiar with two things.  First, one must become familiar with Chalcedonian Christology and particularly how the reformers from Geneva and Cranmer understood the limitations it placed upon what the resurrected body of Christ was capable of doing.  Secondly, one must understand how the reformers of both Geneva and Canterbury applied their understanding of Chalcedonian Christology for the comfort of the faithful.  Always implicit, and sometimes explicit in their understanding of Chalcedonian Christology, especially when applied to the Lord’s Supper, was that transubstantiation not only fundamentally denied the principles of Christology as set out by Chalcedon, but that the Christological implications of transubstantiation failed to bring any comfort to the believer at all.

How then was Bucer, Cranmer and later Calvin’s sacramental theology affected by their understanding of Chalcedonian Christology?  First one must understand what these Reformers were principally reacting to a Christology that by the time of the Reformation had become a theological matter of particular pastoral difficulty. Consider this quote from the 12th Century Cistercian Monk Bernard of Clairvaux: “But perhaps you fear also in him (Christ) the divine majesty, because though he became man, he remained, nevertheless God.”[3] One can see the obvious pastoral dilemma.  There is little comfort in Christ, for as it is he is not a man nor brother, but rather a divine/ human hybrid.  A pure human can take little comfort in Christ’s entrance into heaven, because a pure human cannot rely upon a divine nature for assistance.  Thus one needs a purus homo, that is, one whose nature is purely human to look to and take hope in. To resolve this dilemma, Bernard settles upon Mary, who having been assumed and being composed of one nature fulfills both criteria.  Therefore she is purus homo.  Because she has been assumed into heaven, we therefore have confidence that purus homo like ourselves might also attain to heavenly glory.[4] Thus Bernard writes “If you want someone who pleads for you with him, then turn to Mary.  After all, in Mary is pure humanity, not just ‘pure’ as ‘free from all stains’ but also ‘pure’ in the sense of a person with only one nature.”[5]

The Genevan Reformers would contend that Bernard’s error principally rests upon the failure to distinguish between the divine and human natures of the one mediator.  These distinctions were set forth clearly in the Council of Chalcedon and these distinctions would prove fundamental in the sacramental theology of Thomas Cranmer.  Concerning Chalcedon and the development of Christology in the Patristic period Pelikan writes “the early Christian picture of god was controlled by the self-evident axiom, accepted by all, of the absoluteness and the impassability of the divine nature.  Nowhere in all of Christian doctrine was that axiom more influential than in Christology.”[6] An example of this comes from Cyril of Alexandria, one of the chief protagonists of Chalcedon.  He writes ““It would not do to speak of his (the eternal Word) ‘being transformed into the nature of flesh’ in such a way that his divine immutability was impaired” and elsewhere  “He was logos also in the beginning, and proceeding from the eternal and immutable God and Father, he also had in his own nature eternity and immutability.”[7] Cyril takes caution here to maintain the distinctiveness of the Word even as it is incarnated.  The distinction of the divinity necessarily implies a distinction of the humanity.  More clearly stated is Augustine who writes:

“This word took on human nature, and thereby became the one Jesus Christ, Mediator between God and men, equal to the Father in His divinity, less than the Father according to the flesh…He did this in such manner that the whole of man was thus joined to Him, as the soul is to the body, but without changeableness.”[8]

Note that the Council of Chalcedon and its interpreters maintain the distinction between the divine Word and the human flesh of Jesus while also maintaining the unity of the person of the Mediator.  While Chalcedon stressed the immutability of God in the unity of the mediator, the Genevan Reformers wisely acknowledge that to stress the immutability of God necessarily stresses the humanity of Jesus as well.  Thus, the ascendant Jesus is purus homo, a true man.  Though he is joined to the Divine Word through the unity of the mediator, his humanity is nevertheless intact and distinct.  Jesus is no divine/ human hybrid.  The manner by which Calvin navigated these distinctions is quite helpful for the discussion on Cranmer’s sacramental theology.  When Calvin wishes to refer to the humanity of the mediator, he will often use the name “Jesus.”  When Calvin wishes to refer to the divinity of the mediator, he will often refer to the name “Word,” or “Son.”  When Calvin wishes to refer to the union of the Eternal Word and Jesus, he will refer to the one person, two natures as “Christ” or “Mediator.”

To see this theology in action, as well as its implications for the fleshly body of the ascendant Jesus, it may be helpful to refer to a few of Calvin’s more explicit applications of Chalcedonian Christology.  He writes: “the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way, without leaving heaven, he willed…to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning” (Inst II.13.4 Emphasis mine).  So too, explaining his understanding of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper he writes: “Therefore, since the whole Christ is everywhere, our Mediator is ever present with his own people…but not in his wholeness. For as has been said, in his flesh he is contained in heaven until he appears in judgment (Inst IV.17.30 Emphasis mine).  Note that the Divinity, which belongs by nature to the Eternal Word, is present everywhere.  Note also that the humanity, which belongs by nature to the man Jesus of Nazareth is in heaven.  Finally, note that though the flesh is “contained in heaven,” Jesus could nevertheless say that he is spiritually and truly with his people by virtue of the God/Man union, whose divinity dwells with his people.

As will become clear, the concerns of Calvin in the interpretation of Chalcedonian Christology are very much alive in the concerns of Cranmer, particularly in his doctrine of sacramental presence.  The following dialogue, taken from Cranmer’s response to Bishop Gardiner concerning the Lord’s Supper will illustrate well the concerns outlined above.  The theology will first be briefly set forth then in conclusion the particular comfort of the doctrine will be explained.

Much like the reformers in Geneva, Cranmer maintained the unity of the person of the Mediator but also was clear in distinguishing what the nature of the divinity accomplished, what the nature of the flesh accomplished, and what the two as one person in the Mediator accomplished.  As this essay is only a summary of Cranmer’s thought, it will be best to limit the application of this doctrine to three simple areas.  First, the flesh of Jesus died and was raised (a property belonging uniquely to the humanity) for sinners.  Secondly, the Divinity of the Son is always and everywhere present (a property belonging uniquely to the Divinity) with the believer.  Finally, both the death of Jesus and the presence of the Divinity nourish the believer as one in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

As for the body of Jesus Cranmer is clear “Christ gave his body, and shed his blood upon the cross for us,” and also “he made a sacrifice and oblation of his own body upon the cross, which was a full redemption, satisfaction, and propitiation for the sins of the whole world.”[9] and also “But the true catholic faith, grounded upon God’s most infallible word, teacheth us, that our Saviour Christ (as concerning his man’s nature and bodily presence) is gone up into heaven, Christ is not and sitteth at the right hand of the Father.”[10] For Cranmer, it is the body of Jesus that dies, whose blood is shed.  He made a sacrifice, oblation, redemption etc.  This same body is also raised with Jesus.  The principal role of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper in regards to the flesh of Jesus for sinners is to apply and commend an event that occurred for them in history.  “And to commend this” writes Cranmer, “his sacrifice unto all his faithful people, and to confirm their faith and hope of eternal salvation in the same, he hath ordained a perpetual memory of his said sacrifice.”[11] Thus the memory of the historical sacrifice, as well implicitly the rememberance that Jesus is before the Father, is meant in the Lord’s Supper to commend and confirm faith to Christ’s people.

In regard to the property of the divinity of the Mediator in the Lord’s Supper, it is perhaps most useful to begin where Cranmer sees the limitations of the flesh of Jesus most evident.  These limitations are twofold.  First, it is proven by observation that simple flesh cannot quench hunger nor simple drink quench thirst unto eternal life.  Cranmer writes ““For there is no such kind of drink, that with once drinking can quench the thirst of man’s body forever.  Wherefore, in saying he shall never be thirsty again, he did draw their minds from drinking with the mouth unto another kind of drinking, whereof they knew not, and unto another kind of thirsting, wherewith as yet they were not acquainted.”[12] To eat the flesh of the purus homo Jesus, could be no more efficacious to eternal life than eating the flesh of anyone or anything.  The individual who would do so would only continue to hunger and thirst.  Therefore, we must look for another kind of food, something more than mere flesh.  Cranmer continues “when our Saviour Christ said, “He that cometh to me shall not hunger, (John VI) and he that believe on me shall never be thirsty;’ he gave them a plain watchword, that there was another kind of meat and drink than that where with he fed them at the other side of the water, and another kind of hungering and thirsting than was the hungering and thirsting of the body.”[13]

The second limitation of the flesh in the Lord’s Supper is its inability to be present with the believer.  Stating the traditionalist opinion, Cranmer writes “It is certain that as soon as the forms be torn with the teeth, so soon the body of Christ is gone up into heaven.”[14] The full implications of this are later spelt out when Cranmer writes “You will agree with the rest of the papists, that as concerning his carnal presence, Christ departeth from us, at the least when the forms of bread and wine be altered in the stomach.  And then, I pray you, declare what comfort and benefit we have by his carnal presence, which by and by is absent, and tarrieth not with us?  Such comfort have weak and sick consciences at the papist’s hands, to tell them that Christ was with them, and now he is gone from them.”[15] If the bread were true flesh, then the flesh would either depart by mystery or by digestion.  Either way, for Cranmer the believer is left without the presence of Christ.

How then does Cranmer solve the riddle of the presence of Christ in the believer?  Christ is present with the believer through his spirit, by the power of his divinity.  He writes “As the bread is outwardly eaten indeed in the Lord’s supper, so is the very body of Christ inwardly by faith eaten indeed in they that come thereto in such sort as they ought to do, which eating nourisheth them into everlasting life.”[16] For Cranmer, the Lord’s supper is a feast but it is a feast of the heart, upon which the weak heart of the believer is strengthened and nourished by the divine spirit of Christ.  He writes “he giveth the bread to be eaten with our mouths, so giveth he his very body to be eaten with our faith.  And therefore I say, that Christ giveth himself truly to be eaten, chewed, and digested; but all is spiritually with faith, not with mouth.”[17]

Having distinguished the nature of the Body of Jesus in the sacrament and the nature the Divinity of the Word in the sacrament, this essay will draw to a close demonstrating how the union of the two natures is at work in the sacraments according to Cranmer.  He writes “Every special sacrament hath promise annexed and hath a secret hidden truth.”[18] The promise annexed is that Jesus was “broken and crucified for them,” and the hidden truth is that he is “to them spiritually and effectually given.”[19] The actual elements serve as a sort of visible sermon that “preacheth to the godly receiver, what God worketh in him by his almighty power secretly and invisibly.”[20] Therefore, what the body of Jesus promised on the cross, the divinity of the Son renders to the believer effectual in the ministration of the sacrament.  It is in this way that the two natures of the one Mediator accomplish their purposes.


[1] MacCulloch, D. Thomas Cranmer (Yale University Press: New Haven 1996) pg 382

[2] Ibid, 392

[3] Bernard of Clairvaux quoted in Oberman, Heiko A. The Dawn of the Reformation (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids 1992)  pg 250

[4] For an extended discussion on the development of the Assumption of Mary and the guarantee of her ascent to heaven read Pelikan, J. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1978) pg 161-174

[5] Bernard of Clairvaux quoted in Oberman pg 250

[6] Pelikan, J. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1978)  pg 229

[7] Cyril of Alexandria quoted in Pelikan, J. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1978)  pg 231

[8] Augustine, Letter 137, 27-28 in

[9] Cranmer’s Works edt. For the Parker Society (General Books) pg 33

[10] Cranmer 83

[11] Ibid 33

[12] Cranmer pg 75

[13] Cranmer pg 75

[14] Cranmer pg 94

[15] Cranmer 101

[16][16] Cranmer 46

[17] Cranmer 44

[18] Cranmer 46

[19] Cranmer 46

[20] Cranmer 46

Comments
  1. Usama says:

    thank you

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