Peter Smith shows how Cranmer marshalled the words of his opponents to speak the truth in love.

Since the decisive break with Rome in the sixteenth century, scholars have debated the doctrinal stance of the Church of England. Did the first Archbishop of the newly formed C of E, Thomas Cranmer promote a Roman Catholic theology or was he a reformer or something in between? For much of the twentieth century Anglican scholarship championed the idea that the English Reformation was worked out as a kind of via media—a middle way between the extremes of the Continental Reformation of Calvin and Zwingli and the Church of Rome. A classic approach to the via media promotes the idea that the Church of England was able to reject the distasteful doctrines of the European Reformation (Calvinism) and embrace the best of Roman Catholicism without compromising the newly formed Church of England. The result—a pleasant middle way for a church that is afraid of excess– not too hot, not too cold. Various wings of the worldwide Anglican church make the claim that the nature of our history licenses a particular style of churchmanship—albeit half way between Rome and Geneva however this is interpreted!

Over the past fifteen years through the research of Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ashley Null have shown that the via media approach to Anglican studies cannot be substantiated. It has been shown for what it is: unhistorical and imposed upon Anglican history from a later date. It is no longer an accurate description of the English Reformation.(1)

Part of the dilemma for sixteenth century historians is the way that the Reformation was worked out. Many people were involved in the process and this included both Protestant Reformers and Erasmian Catholics. The Edwardian Book of Homilies was the first official theological statement of the Edwardian church and therefore an ideal document to examine the case for a via media between Rome and the other extreme—Calvinism. A number of the homilies were penned by Erasmian Catholics while others were stridently protestant in flavour.(2) Both kinds were included together in the first publication of the Edwardian church. John Wall has argued at length for an Erasmian Catholic interpretation of the Book of Homilies.(3) Others have argued for a reformed reading of the Homilies.(4) An ideal test case for examining the theology of the fledgling English Church is the sixth homily on Christian love because both Catholics and Protestants emphasised the role of love in salvation.

An Homilie of Christian Love and Charitie can be read both as an Erasmian Catholic treatise on Christian love or in its wider context as a Protestant Reformed sermon. It is widely agreed that Thomas Cranmer’s conservative opponent, Edward Bonner wrote the homily on Charitie.(5) Cranmer was the author of at least three of the homilies and also, as the architect of the reformation under Edward, the editor who gave the homilies their final order.(6) Read in the light of the reformation re-discovery of sola-fideism, An Homily of Christian Love and Charitie takes on a thoroughly Protestant character.(7)

The literary intention of the sixth homily is to present ‘... a true and playn descripcion of charitie, not of mennes emaginacion, but of the very words and example of our savior Jesus Christ’.(8) Bonner and Cranmer were both claiming the high ground by not basing their understanding on fanciful ‘emaginacion’ but a correct reading of the Scriptures.

Both affirmed the role of God’s love in salvation.(9) They affirmed that love was the Christian virtue par excellence. For Bonner and Cranmer love was an act in which ‘... all manner of woorkes of righteousness be conteyned in it, as also the decay thereof is the ruyne of the worlde, the banishment of vertue, and the cause of all vice’.(10)

As Erasmian humanists, both understood the role of the word of God for engaging the affections of the heart. For Erasmians ‘love births love’.(11) For Erasmians, when an individual considered, ‘in his hart’, the love of Christ, the will would be activated to respond in kind, thus the repeated emphasis on the sacrificial, costly, painful love of Christ.

‘Christ loved not onely his frendes, but also hys enemies, which in their hartes bare exceedingt great hatred against hym, and in their tongues spoke evil of hym, and in their actes and dedes pursued hym ... yet notwithstandnynge, he withdrewe not hys favour from them, but styll loved them.’ And again ‘... if we consider that he whiche hath offended as deserveth not to be forgiven of us, loet us consider again that we muche less deserve to be forgiven of God’.(12)

Cranmer and Bonner would also agree about the necessity of a ‘good hart and minde’ so that a person would act in love.

‘And likewise, he that beareth a good hart and mynde, and useth wel his tongue and dedes unot every man, frend and foo, he may knowe therby that he hath charitie. And then he is sure also that almightie God taketh hym for hys dere beloved Sonne, as St Jon saith ...’(13)

However, the flash point in the battle for the souls of Tudor England was not fought over the necessity of love for Christian living. Nor was there disagreement over the need for ‘a good hart and mynde’ to act in love. Neither was there any disagreement about the importance of hearing and understanding the love of God in Christ from the Scriptures. The uproar in sixteenth century England was about the nature of the human ‘harte’ prior to the action of the love of God.

For Erasmian Catholics ‘since virtue is an elective practical habit determined by right reason ... charity, as virtue, is generated by frequent acts of love in the light of right reasoning and inclines the will to love with greater generosity‘.(14) For Bonner, the command to love, along with the keeping of all God’s commands, was a choice that was made possible by a continuous exercising of the human will.(15) “Acts of charity were essential prior to salvation for love was the ‘universal mover’ for all virtues; love unifies human life with the help of grace.”(16) This in turn was preparation for, and co-operation with the grace of God. Over time, an acceptable degree of worthiness could be secured for salvation before God then a person was set free to love.(17)

In opposition to Bonner, Cranmer believed that ‘For our awne imperfeccion is so greate through the corrupcion of original synne that is imperfect that is within us’ and therefore ‘... our workes do not merite or deserve remission of our synnes ...’(18) Christian love and charitie could never be a means of reconciliation to God. Love is a fruit of assurance and therefore, understood correctly, the sixth homily set out to show the nature of responsive love.’

In the third homily on ‘Salvation’ Cranmer declares the incapacity of any human action to secure God’s love. ‘All the world was not able of themselves to pay any part towards their ransom, it pleased our heavenly father, of his infinite mercy, without any of our desert or deserving, to prepare for us the most precious jewels of Christ’s body and blood, whereby our ransom might be fully paid, the law fulfilled and his justice satisfied.’(19) Therefore men and women must seek the love of Christ first of all, because it is in Christ’s life alone where love triumphed. This is how Cranmer intends the sixth homily to be understood.

‘And although our enemy deserve not to be forgiven for his awne sake, yet we ought to forgeve hym for God’s love, considering how great and many benefits we have received of hym wihtou our desertes, and that Christ hath deserved of us, and that for his sake we should forgeve them their trespasses committed against us.’(20)

Following the third homily of ‘Salvation’, Cranmer details the content of Protestant soteriology in the homilies on ‘Faith’ and ‘Good Works’. After the fourth and fifth homilies, Bonner’s homily on love is read. Cranmer’s intention is intended to highlight the ‘good work’ par excellence, which is love for God, friend and foe. Cranmer underscored what he perceived to be the true nature of love and thus the defining mark of Christian holiness.

‘Thus I have described unto you what charitie is aswel by the doctrine as by the example of Christ himself. Whereby every man maye without error know himself, what state and condicion he standeth in, whether he be in charity, and so the child of the Father in heaven, or not.’(21)

A good heart for Cranmer is the heart renewed by the love of God. Christian love is the proof and not the grounds of assurance.

‘And likewise, he that beareth good hart, and mynde, and useth wel his tongue and dedes unto every man, frend and foo, he may know therby that he hath charitie.’(22)
Only if the sixth homily is ripped out of its wider literary context are Erasmian Catholic conclusions possible.(23) True, there is no explicit repudiation of the Catholic notion of incremental justification in the sixth homily, and Bonner does explain the necessity of charity in the Christian life. The second part, with its robust defence of the role of the state and the church to quell rebellion and ‘... rebuke and correct by the worde of God ...’ is characteristically Erasmian Catholic.(24) ‘For the other office of charitie is to rebuke and correct by the Worde of God the offences and crimes of all evill disposed perones.’(25) Yet, there is no concession to Bonner’s position on the state of the human heart before the action of the love of God.

Cranmer has already hammered out the Reformed understanding of salvation in the first five homilies. For Cranmer, genuine love flows from a heart set free by the prior action of the love of God.


Cranmer’s method and arrangement of An Homelie of Charitie, was more than a clever battle strategy. Here was a man who marshalled the words of his theological opponent to speak the truth in love. Typical of much of Cranmer’s considered life and theological method, we can be assured that he laboured over The Book of Homilies in the hope that his foes might come to know the love that sets hearts free to love God, friend and foe. There is a salutary lesson here for all who fight for truth in the name of love.

Peter Smith is Chairman of EFAC WA and the Rector of St Lawrence’s Anglican Church Dalkeith, Perth, WA.

1 John Ashley Null, in unpublished paper on ‘Official Tudor Homilies’ distributed to MA students (2009, forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, edited by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan), page 8.
2 The question of who were the actual authors of the individual homilies is a difficult one to answer due to the scanty external evidence and to the fact that the internal evidence (i.e., style, etc.) provides little guidance because so little was written by most of the men of those times. Consensus credits Thomas Cranmer with III, IV, V, and most probably I; John Harpesfield with II; Bishop Bonner with VI; Thomas Becon with XI (and some say with VII); possibly Nicholas Ridley or Cranmer with XI. John Griffiths, editor, The Two Books of Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1859, page xxvii. Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1954, page 95.
3 John Wall, ‘Godly and Fruitful Lessons: The English Bible, Erasmus’ Paraphrases, and the Book of Homilies’, in The Godly Kingdom of Tudor England: Great Books of the English Reformation, edited by John E. Booty, Morehouse-Barlow, Wilton, Conneticut, 1981, pages 47-135.
4 Null, page 11.
5 Despite the impersonal nature of these compositions, there is a history of attributions. Ronald Bond concisely summarizes what is known about the first volume in Certain Sermons or Homilies (1547) and A Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion (1570), Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pages 26–28. John Bale attributed the whole, and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, much of it (Letters 1933: 397, 403, 406, 408, 413) to Cranmer personally. Yet three homilies certainly came from Edmund Bonner, bishop of London (VI), John Harpefield his chaplain (II), and Thomas Becon (XI) because they published these homilies afterwards as their own work.
6 “When Cranmer organized his new set of homilies, he adopted the loci method of Scriptural exposition. The twelve sermons of the 1547 book were evenly divided between loci describing essential doctrines and those addressing important ethical issues. The first six described the fundamentals of the way of salvation; ‘Reading of Scripture’; ‘Misery of Mankind caused by sin‘; justification described in three separate homilies entitled ‘Salvation’, ‘Faith’ and ‘Good Works’; and a final sermon on ‘Love’. Null, page 6.
7 ‘The new direction in Cranmer studies forged by Null and MacCulloch of the last fifteen years renders an Erasmian catholic interpretation untenable.’ Null, page 12.
8 Bond, page 120.
9 Erasmus (LB), Opera omnia, edited by Jean Leclerc, Vander, Leyden, 1703–6. For Erasmians love births love and the best way to move an audience to love God was by reminding people of God’s prior love from them.
10 Bond, page 120.
11 Null, page 8.
12 Bond, page 123.
13 Bond, page 122.
14 Mary B. Ingham, The Harmony of the Goodness Mutuality and Moral Living According to Dun Scotus, Franciscan Press, Minnesota, 1996, page 125.
15 Ingham, page 117.
16 Ingham, page 118.
17 Thomas W. H. Griffiths, The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, Church Book Press, London, 1951, page 179.
18 Bond, ‘Of the Salvation of All Mankynde’, page 85.
19 Bond, page 129.
20 Bond, page 123.
21 Bond, page 122.
22 Bond, page 121.
23 Wall, pages 107, 118, 124.
24 Bond, page 124.
25 Bond, page 124.

With the English Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies, Thomas Cranmer helped translate and reform the faith and worship of the English speaking world, recalling it to a simpler, more direct proclamation of Christ and the Gospel. His faith enriches ours day by day and week by week whenever we pick up the scriptures, open the Prayer Book, and indeed, whenever we open our mouths, for along with Shakespeare, the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are as formative of our very language as they are of our faith. (David Garrett)