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Thomas Cranmer and the Lord's Supper

Thomas Cranmer and the Lord's Supper
The Influence of Reformation Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)
Martyrs went to the flames over the Eucharist, says British Theologian

By David W. Virtue, DD
June 7, 2017

The Rev. Dr. Lee Gatiss (pronounced Gate-iss was guest preacher at CANA's Missionary Diocesan Convention in Binghamton, NY, recently. Dr. Gatiss is full time Director of Church Society and a trained theologian. He obtained his Ph.D. from Cambridge University, edits an internet journal called Theologian. He also serves as a member of the Editorial Board of Themelios, a Review Editor of the journal Churchman, and on the Councils of the Fellowship of Word and Spirit, Reform, the Church of England Evangelical Council, and Affinity.

The following is the substance of his lecture on Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his theology of the Eucharist.

Cranmer was primarily responsible for giving us The Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the doctrinal and liturgical basis of Anglicanism. They remain today the gold standard of Anglican doctrine, according to the laws and canons of the Church of England. They are used and cherished by millions in worldwide Anglicanism.

In England, our reformers were also martyrs. They were burned at the stake for what they believed and taught.

Why were they burned at the stake? It would be a great mistake to think that they were martyred because they refused to submit to the pope in some vague way. The main reason that they were burned is that they refused one of Rome's distinctive doctrines. On that doctrine hinged their life or their death. If they admitted it, they might live. If they refused it, they would die.

The doctrine in question was the Real Presence -- physical presence -- of the Body and Blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord's Supper.

Did they or did they not believe that the Body and Blood of Christ were really present in the bread and the wine when the words of consecration were pronounced.

Was Jesus' Body literally, physically there? "Did they or did they not?" they were asked, believe the real Body of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, was present on the altar as soon as the mystical words had left the priest's mouth?

That was the simple question. If they did not believe and admit it, they were burned.

Were they right to be so inflexible on the subject question...right enough to die for their belief?

That is difficult for many people today to accept. Some people think this was just a silly argument over words.

As instructed, Bible reading Protestants, we don't hesitate for a moment in answering this question.

We can see at once that the Roman doctrine strikes at the very root of the Gospel. It underpins many of the errors of superstitious religion.

This is a real controversy over which intelligent men and women went to the stake. We must ask whether or not we believe it as strongly ourselves as Reformation Christians did.

If we do, is this truth under attack in our present day and age, even as we focus our attention on other issues.


His book: "A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ" first published in 1550, is the primary document.

Cranmer's Communion Liturgy put together in 1552, must be seen alongside the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which he also drafted.

Cranmer's service is deliberately put together to be a source of comfort and reassurance for Christians.

It was a divine instrument of assurance. Coming to a Communion Service in 1552 was designed to be a joyous and comforting thing for a believer to do.

The intention throughout the whole service is to reassure us of our forgiveness and acceptance before God, not on the basis of our works, but on the basis of God's grace in Christ. This; in turn, takes us in the service from very real and profound repentance over our sin, to overwhelming thankfulness and gratitude to God.

We start in Cranmer's Communion Liturgy, praying the Collect for Purity, that God would cleanse our hearts and minds so that we can worthily glorify Him. We need to be purified by God Himself, in order to be able to approach Him. Then we read His Law, the Ten Commandments, slowly and soberly, asking God, after each one, to have mercy upon us and to write that Law in our hearts.

We then hear from God's Word again, in the readings and in the sermon. Not every minister in those days could preach, and so Cranmer, and one or two others, wrote some homilies -- or sample sermons -- which were to be read by people at this point in the service instead.

It is all good Evangelical Protestant Reformed teaching designed to win unbelievers in the congregation to Christ and to comfort and strengthen believers in their faith.

We're then exhorted in Cranmer's service to sort out our lives and our relationships with our neighbors and to confess our sins to Almighty God, to confess them, to be open about them with God, and to repent.

Then we are lifted up by God's declaration of forgiveness, not just by the words of a priest, but by the Comfortable Words -- the words of comfort laid down in the prayer book. Cranmer said at this point we should be reading out verses like John 3:16 -- "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life," and I Timothy 1:15: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."

We are comforted, not by an absolution pronounced by a priest, but by God through His Word. It is God himself who forgives all who truly repent and believe the Gospel.

Then we lift up our hearts, we praise God. We assure the Lord that we do not come to the table trusting in our own righteousness -- which is nothing before Him. We do not come because we are worthy or because we live good enough lives to earn a place at that table. No, we come trusting, not in our righteousness but in God's manifold and great mercies. We come, with nothing in our hands to receive God's mercy. It is all about God doing something for us in this service. The movement -- the action -- in the Liturgy is all about that direction (heaven to earth). God, in His grace, reaching down to us in our sinfulness.

We take and eat and we drink. We pray the Lord's Prayer, which He, Himself, taught us. Then this Oblation Prayer, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for what He's done for us. This prayer contains the first mention in the whole service of a sacrifice to God, well after all the elements of bread and wine have been eaten and drunk. Then we offer, not those items of food to God as a sacrifice, but we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice to God.

We conclude by singing a hymn. The whole service is put together as a divine instrument of assurance. Its intension is to show that we are more wicked than we ever thought, but also more loved by the merciful God than we ever dreamed.

Cranmer's genius then was to take the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, the idea of being made right with God entirely on the basis of His mercy and write it into liturgical form.

Pastorally speaking, our consciences are assured of God's love towards us even when we have been most searingly honest about our own failures and shortcomings. We are left with absolutely no doubt, whatsoever, about how God can be propitious and favorable towards us. It's not because of anything we've done, or that we do in that service. It is simply because of the Death of Christ on the Cross in our place, graphically symbolized by that broken bread and poured out wine.

Post Communion Prayer. We thank and praise God in this Post Communion Prayer: "That by the merits and death of Thy Son Jesus Christ and through faith in His Blood, we, and all Thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins and all other benefits of His Passion."

We're saved by Jesus' Blood, by His merits, not by our own.

Firstly, Cranmer is concerned to make the whole service preach the Gospel of grace alone from beginning to end as an instrument of assurance.

Secondly, Cranmer's theology, as seen in the Communion Service, is also an invitation to feed on Christ. Cranmer doesn't just see a Communion service as a good opportunity to sit quietly and think about the Cross. It is not just a visual aid, or a dramatic illustration to help us understand. It is all those things, but it is also an invitation to take part in something.

If it were just an illustration, or a mere memorial service, (as fundamentalists and evangelicals think it is) then the priest -- the minister-- could simply perform certain actions up front and the congregation wouldn't need to be bothered at all. If it were merely a memorial, an illustration, like in a kid's talk, the priest could do it all on his own up front and the congregation would be entirely passive, as an audience; but in Cranmer's service, we are invited to take part as active participants.

In the Exhortation, Cranmer reminds us from I Corinthians Ch. 1...we are exhorted diligently to try and examine themselves.

This is not like Yoda, who says, "I'm not trying too hard. I'm doing too hard!" He's not saying that. He's not saying you must try and examine yourself, he is saying you must try as if "on trial," put yourself on trial, test yourself, examine yourself, before you presume to eat of that Bread and drink of that Cup.

For us, the benefit is great if with a truly penitent heart and lively faith we receive that Holy Sacrament. For then, if we do it with a lively faith, we spiritually eat the Flesh of Christ and drink His Blood. That we dwell in Christ and Christ in us. We are one with Christ and Christ with us.

On the other hand, there is the danger if we receive the same unworthily, for then we be guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour. We eat and drink our own damnation not considering the Lord's Body, we kindle God's wrath against us. We provoke Him to plague us with divers diseases and sundry kinds of death. Don't take this lightly or you face sundry kinds of death.

What is happening, according to this prayer? As we take the bread and drink the wine, we examine ourselves, our lives, our consciences and then, if we eat and drink with faith, believing the Gospel, we're not just then, physically eating a bit of bread and drinking some wine, but something spiritual happens as well.

So, we feed on Christ. In the Prayer of Consecration, we eat it in obedience to Christ, we feed on Christ.

Now it is important to notice we're not cannibals physically eating Christ. The eating here is very clearly spiritual. We spiritually feed on Him.

The words you say as we come and take the bread and wine, teaches people what our doctrine of the Lord's Supper is.

If you just say, "The Body of Christ" ... "The Blood of Christ," that may import all kinds of false understandings including Transubstantiation.

Cranmer wants us to say this as we give the bread and wine to people: "Take and eat this," don't be a passive spectator appropriate it for yourself. "Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee" -- for you.

You are assured that Christ's Death on the Cross all those years ago was to take a punishment for your sins. And it applies personally to you as one who is repentant, and prayed that confession and heard God's word of assurance.

"Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on Him" ... in your mouth? No, "feed on Him in your heart, by faith."

Physically, you're feeding into your body some bread, but in your heart, at the same time, if you believe in Him, you are feeding on Christ.

Christ is in your heart by faith - Ephesians 3:17 - not physically in the bread. All of this is done with great thanksgiving.

"Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on Him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving."

We're thankful for what Christ has done for us, to save us and to reconcile the Father to us.

So, as the bread and the wine become part of us bodily, so by faith we dwell in Christ and He in us. It's that close, union with Christ. It's not just an edible visual aid.

Something happens when we eat the bread and drink the wine. Either we feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving, or we eat and drink our own damnation.

Remember, some in the Corinthian church were sick and some had died. And the Apostle Paul linked that specifically with their abuse of the Lord's Supper.

What was Cranmer was specifically saying "NO!" to. What was Cranmer guarding against?

People were used to the Mass. The Medieval version of the Lord's Supper, which was a very different way of going about doing these things. Cranmer was guarding against certain theological errors which had misled people since before the Reformation. What was at stake here was nothing less than the Gospel.

The first thing that he guards against is any idea that the Atonement, Christ's Death on the Cross, was insufficient for our salvation. He guards against that in two ways. First, by his use of the language of "sacrifice;" second, by the way in which he presents the minister.

Cranmer makes it very clear that what is going on at the table is not a sacrifice on an altar made by a mediating priest on behalf of the people, which action has to be repeated again and again to be effective.

That's the message he got from the Roman Catholic monks, from the Medieval monks. In Catholic Mass, something is offered to God. Instead, what Cranmer says is that Christ's once-and-for-all sacrifice on the Cross was utterly, completely, totally sufficient to pay for our sins. No additional sacrifices are necessary.

Listen to the repeated emphasis.

The person administering the Supper is to say: "Almighty God, our heavenly Father, which of Thy tender mercy didst give Thy only Son, Jesus Christ" -- God gave Something to us, we're not giving to God -- "to suffer Death upon the Cross for our redemption; Who made there" -- not here, nothing's happened here --"Who made there by His one oblation of Himself, once offered" -- what's the offer? --"a full, perfect, sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world and did institute and in His Holy Gospel command us to continue a perpetual memory" -- not the re-enactment, or representation -- "of His precious Death, until He comes again."

There is no sense at all that what is happening here at the table is a sacrifice.

All the language of making a sacrifice is kept until way after all the bread and is gone. It's been eaten, only then do we pray that God will accept -- to use the language of Hebrews 13:15-- our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Only then, after all the bread and wine is gone, do we offer to present ourselves to God as living sacrifices, holy to God, to use the language of Romans 12:1.

All that is after, not as we come to the table, but after. So there is nothing at all that needs to be added to the Atonement to make it complete or to make it effective.

The sacrifice of the Cross doesn't need to be repeated or represented or re-enacted or anything to be effective.

What does he do? He makes no sacrifice, he stands next to a table to administer -- not preside -- to administer a meal rather than standing behind an altar to perform a sacrifice. And he stands at the north end of it, that is he stands at the side, rather than standing like a mediator in between the people and God, like in the Mass, which is in an eastward position.

Presenting the minister as ministering a meal is very different. The minister also doesn't take private confessions from everybody before the service so that they have to compulsory confess their sins to a priest in a box over there. Instead, he leads the congregant Act of Confession together. It's all in English, not in Latin.

The intention of the service is to keep the language of sacrifice, where the Bible does. It is not happening here, at the table, it happened there, at the Cross. The only thing we offer to God is ourselves as a living sacrifice in gratitude for what Christ has done for us.

By a right view of sacrifice, the corrected view of the minister's role, Cranmer sought to guard against alternative theologies which presented the Atonement as somehow insufficient on its own for our salvation.

The second thing Cranmer wanted to guard against was any idea that the Incarnation was not real. That is, God the Son really did take human flesh and become a human being like you and like me. He had a real physical human body with all its glories and its limitations, taking His physical human nature from the Virgin Mary.

It was because He was a real human being that He could truly represent us and be our substitute on the Cross. To the extent that our theology makes His Body different from ours, he is unable to be our substitute and representative. He has got to be a real physical human being like you and like me, otherwise He can't represent me and He can't die in my place.

There were two groups of people who deny this.

Firstly, the Roman Catholic Church taught and still teaches that as the Words of Institution are said in the Prayer of Consecration in the Mass, the substance of the bread and the wine is changed into the physical Body and Blood of Christ. You can't see a difference, they say, but the substance in the elements has changed. Christ is really there, in His human nature, in the elements of bread and wine on the altar. The bread and the wine have been "transubstantiated." Transubstantiated -- changed in substance.

We know about transsexual -- changing sex, changing gender. This is the same word "trans" -- to change. Change substance.

Christ's Body, changed in substance, bread and wine, changed in substance, becomes His Body and Blood, which is then offered to God as a propitiation for our sins. The Mass is a propitiating sacrifice which turns away God's wrath.

Secondly, Martin Luther, who is such good news in so many ways, taught that Christ, also in substance, was physically present in the Eucharist, in the elements of bread and wine wherever the Lord's Supper is celebrated.

Lutherans teach that Christ's Human Nature is ubiquitous. It is everywhere and anywhere at the same time because it is joined to Christ's Divine Nature as God.

So, Christ could be physically present here, at this altar, or your church at your altar and He could be in all these different places all at the same time.

Luther doesn't believe in transubstantiation like Roman Catholics, but his view of Christ's human nature was equally wrong, according Cranmer.

Where is Christ? He is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, with a body like ours, which cannot be in two places at once, unless anyone here has worked out how to bilocate.

Now he'll remain there. What does the (Nicene) Creed say, "He is seated at the right hand of Father until He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

So, if Christ were physically here present with us, He would be here to judge the living and the death. And this is made clear in Cranmer's 1552 Communion Service by the addition of the Black Rubric at the end.

A rubric, of course, is an instruction. This is what the Black Rubric says.

"For as concerning the sacramental bread and wine, they remain still in their very natural substance and therefore may not be adored. For that were idolatry to be abhorred of all faithful Christians. So concerning the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, they're in heaven and not here" -- He's in heaven, and not here -- "for it is against the truth of Christ's true natural body to be in more places than in one at one time."

You'll see that same truth expressed in Article 28 of our Thirty-Nine Articles, part of which says: "Transubstantiation (the change of the substance of the bread and wine) in the Supper of the Lord cannot be proved from Holy Scripture, but is repugnant (contradictory) to the plain teaching of Scripture. In fact, it overthrows the nature of a sacrament and has given rise to many superstitions. The Body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the Supper only in a heavenly and spiritual manner."

I recommend The Five Solas as a way of summarizing the great Reformation truths.

Here's another one that was equally important to Cranmer: The Body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the Supper only in a heavenly and spiritual manner. The means by which the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith -- faith alone.

He's saying that transubstantiation is wrong because it overthrows the truth of the Incarnation.

Finally, Cranmer wanted to guard against superstitious idolatry and his understanding of Transubstantiation. The Roman Catholic system of theology and practice also encouraged superstition and idolatry according to Cranmer. The concern in 1552 was to protect English church-goers against idolatry, that false worship was to be abhorred by all faithful Christians. Cranmer made it clear that normal bread was perfectly acceptable, it doesn't have to be wafers with a picture of Christ on it. Normal bread. The minister could just eat any leftovers himself later. There are some slight alterations to that in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

It is clear, that as Article 28 says: "The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not instituted by Christ to be reserved" -- to be used later -- "to be carried about" -- in a procession of some sort -- "to be lifted up or to be worshipped."

That's not what It is for. Christ did not intend us to reserve bits of bread in a special place after the service, as if they were His real Body, His natural presence on earth to be guarded.

Guarding Jesus? Just think about that for a minute. Who needs to guard Jesus? He doesn't need us to guard Him. This is the One, who in a word, calmed the storm. Does He need us to guard Him in a little aumbry. No.

It is also not to be carried about in a procession like a talisman or a magic charm, worshipped and adored as if It were actually, physically, Jesus. It is just bread. Nothing magical has happened to it.

There is no "hocus-pocus" involved.

John Calvin, who agrees with Cranmer on all of these major points, says: "In the Mass, the Roman Catholic Mass, consecration was virtually equivalent magic incantation." Hocus-pocus! And he warns the liturgy is not about magic, it is about preaching.

"Here we should not imagine some magic incantation, supposing it enough to have mumbled the words, as if they were to be heard by the elements, but let us understand that these words are living preaching which edifies the hearers, it penetrates into their minds and it presses itself on their hearts and settles there."

Cranmer suffered terribly when Queen Mary (1516-1558) came to the throne in 1553 and reinstated Roman Catholicism. He was kept in prison for three years, in solitary confinement for much of that in severe conditions for an old man, now in his late 60s.

He was forced to recant what he believed about transubstantiation and have a full retraction of all his, supposedly, heretical views published throughout the land. Under pressure, he went along with it to save his life. But still the Queen decided she was going to put him to death anyway.

As he was led to the stake to be burned in the center of Oxford. As Paul Ayris says, "He's a good Cambridge man." Cranmer, like all the best theologians. And as you know, Cambridge makes all the great performers and Oxford burns them.

Cranmer is allowed to give one final speech. With his very last words, he confessed that he had indeed written a recantation of all his Protestant views, and denied his previous teaching about Communion and then he said: "I did it to save my life. But, all such papers I have written or signed since my degradation, I now renounce as untrue and, for as much my hand had offended (by signing his recantation), it shall first be punished."

His very last words to the Crown defended his views of the Lord's Supper.

He says: "As for the Sacrament, I believe as I taught in my book and the doctrine my book teaches shall stand at the Last Day before the Judgment of God, where the papistical doctrine (the doctrine of the pope) shall be ashamed to show its face."

(John) Foxe reports in the glorious Book of Martyrs (1563) "... there was an iron chain tied around Cranmer. The fire was set onto him. When the wood was kindled and the fire began to burn near him, he stretched forth his right hand, which had signed his recantation, into the flames and there he held it so that people could see it burned to a coal before his body was touched."

That is how passionately Cranmer believed what he had written with that hand about the Lord's Supper. For him it was a Gospel issue, something worth going to the stake for, because of the implications for people's salvation should wrong views of Communion be accepted.


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