a comment in response to Ashley Null’s “Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Way of Reading Scripture,” Anglican and Episcopal History Vol LXXV No 4, December 2006, pages 488-526Canon Ashley Null has written a helpful commentary on Thomas Cranmer’s way of reading Scripture as part of a broader search for a distinctively Anglican approach to Bible-reading. I am happy to say that in large measure the approach Canon Null summarizes at the end of his article is remarkably similar to that which my co-authors outlined in our 2002 paper “Let the Reader Understand.” (This document is available on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.)
Null affirms the obvious truth that a particular approach to Scripture is embedded in the “historical Anglican formularies” — but he gives, in my opinion, a bit too much credit for this to Thomas Cranmer, and inadequate weight to the interplay between Cranmer and the other bishops and scholars of his day, and the crucial adjustments and alterations made to these formularies in succeeding generations. He takes note of Elizabeth’s addition of authoritative weight to the church in matters of controversy — surely the point at which an authority is needed — but fails to note how very much this undercut Cranmer’s main agenda — to downplay the church’s role by expanding that of Scripture. (Null 520) One might also add that one of the things Cranmer was most eager to remove from Biblical discussion — the scholastic tradition — shortly found its way back into classical Anglicanism via Hooker’s reliance, for good or ill, on Aquinas’ methods and the theories of natural law. By emphasizing Cranmer’s admittedly central role, and neglecting these and other later developments in the interest of recovering a “thoroughly Protestant” voice for the “historical formularies” Null engages in a subtle kind of dispensationalism, not unlike that which Cranmer himself applied to the understanding of Scripture.
For Cranmer was, as Null points out, an ardent defender of the notion of the Scripture-over-the-church — opposed to the Catholic notion that “defended the priority of the church over the Bible.” (Null 495) Cranmer accepted his favorite theologian Augustine’s teaching that the witness of the church certified what was Scripture and what wasn’t — but Cranmer held that this power belonged to the ancient church alone. Even at that, as Null duly notes, the church’s power was strictly limited, and did not allow even the Apostolic church to be a vehicle for revelation. The church was to be the interpreter, not the speaker, of the heavenly message of salvation once set down. Cranmer allowed even the Apostles only the same capacity he allowed the later church: establishing ceremonies and changing only those traditions not based on God’s moral commandments.
Cranmer also minimized the role of the larger church in interpreting Scripture, advocating as his primary tool for understanding Scripture a method by which one part of Scripture illuminates another and witnesses to a coherent gospel within the enlightened mind of the faithful reader; as the Homily on Scripture put it: “there is no thing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the self same thing in other places is spoke more familiarly and plainly.” These themes echo through the Articles, the Collects, and the Homilies, and represent a thoroughly Cranmerian — and Anglican principle.
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Unfortunately, this idealized theory falls down in practice, and it has since the time of Cranmer himself; which is why, in succeeding generations, beginning with the Elizabethan revision, the formularies of Anglicanism have been amended and refined — and in some ways fundamentally altered — in practice if not in form. Ecclesiastical dispensationalism — an effort to find ad fontes some “pure” Anglicanism, begs the question of what Anglicanism is today, and even more what it is to become. For if Cranmer, why not Ridley and Jewel; why not Hooker, Laud, Maurice, Pusey, Temple, and, dare we say, ourselves? The church is not simply a source, but a continuing stream, and that living stream has many tributaries that join it along its course, and add their unique contribution to what we now call “Anglicanism.”
The primary flaw in Cranmer’s theory of the self-explaining Scripture — and the primary reason scholars such as Hooker added an authoritative role for the church — lies in his two-fold failure adequately to understand the nature of revelation itself, and to give proper dignity to those who receive it. For revelation is always revelation to — God does not speak (except at the moment of creation itself) into the void: rather the Word that goes forth “accomplishes that which God has purposed.” (Isa 55:11) And the Word of God is efficacious precisely because it is “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” — and the “body” that does this is the church, only beginning with the individual Christian but finding its true locus in the larger community, as the Word cooperates with human flesh in its coming into activity.
This is no novel post-modernist observation dependent on communication theory, but lies at the heart of the Scripture’s own testimony to itself, as well as the method of the church up until Cranmer’s essentially hopeless effort to recover a “pure” method of biblical interpretation, in which the plain meaning of Scripture would be obvious to each, as if protected from abuse by the meddlesome all: the church. Jesus himself advanced the idea later discerned by communication theory: communication requires a recipient. Jesus the Word incarnate portrayed this parabolically in the famous image of the sowing of the Word-as-message: the sower broadcasts the seed over all sorts of terrains, only some of which receive it, where it comes to bear fruit —even as it dies (John 12:24). Broadcasting requires a receiver if it is to “accomplish that which is purposed.” We are after all surrounded at every instant by countless radio waves — but they only become music when received and amplified. In this case the church — in its individual members and in the broader community of faith — is the body which faithfully receives, amplifies, and interprets the message of God transmitted through Scripture. Ironically, pace Cranmer’s peculiar eucharistic theology, receptionism is a far more accurate representation of the church’s engagement with the Word in Scripture, than of the individual believer’s encounter with the Word in the Eucharist — for it really is only in the reception of the Scripture by the church that it truly lives.
To a certain extent Cranmer acknowledged all of this — and the Homilies even make use of the figure of Philip offering timely help to the Ethiopian as testimony to the church’s role in unpacking hard Scriptures. But with the temper of an idealist and an individualist Cranmer resisted the obvious implications of the need for some authority external to the Scripture, suggesting instead a supernatural enlightenment attendant upon continued prayer and study, and sifting of texts.
Where this conflict of ideal with reality came to a head was in the limitations Cranmer placed on the church in its role as the “keeper of Holy Writ.” It is all very well to say that the church is bound not to ordain anything contrary to Scripture, and not to require anything as necessary for salvation that cannot be proved from it; and that the church has the authority to change rites and ceremonies instituted only by human authority, but not the moral law. The problem — recognized and addressed by Hooker — is that without the voice of the church speaking authoritatively as to the intent, meaning, and effect of Scripture, individuals and sects will come up with all sorts of private interpretations — even when they use the method of intertextual comparison advised by Cranmer, or simply read diligently and pray for enlightenment. As Hooker would say, there must be a final authority in the church in order to have some end of contention, even as to the meaning of Scripture itself.
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The failure of Cranmer’s method — and the proof that even supposedly pure methods are capable of deformation under the influence of extraneous agendas — is revealed in a superb example which Null cites for other reasons: Cranmer’s misunderstanding the Apostolic Council in Acts 15 — in which he placed his own judgment (and the judgement of those of his contemporaries who shared his view) over that of the Apostles themselves. In this we see Cranmer (and his church) doing the very thing he thought the church incapable of doing.
In his understanding of Acts 15, the conclusion of the Apostles — that Gentiles were to abstain from fornication (porneia), food sacrificed to idols, the meat of strangled animals, and blood — a decision which the Apostles themselves attributed authoritatively to the Holy Spirit (15:28), was to be rejected as far as the latter two items were regarded, as these were merely ceremonial and dietary, while the first — the prohibition on porneia — was to be understood as part of the eternally binding moral law.
According to Null, Cranmer and the team of scholars summoned to address “the King’s matter” understood the prohibition on porneia to be related to the sexual laws of Leviticus 18, seen as
universal moral commandments that were still biding on the faithful under the New Testament, since these regulations defined the nature of the sexual immorality forbidden by Paul’s epistles and Acts 15. Cranmer owed his place on the king’s team to his sincere insistence that any honest academic would recognize the truth of this understanding of Leviticus. (Null 498)The problems with this thesis begin with the determination that the prohibition on blood was merely a ceremonial or dietary commandment, set down by human authority — these being the only commandments Cranmer believed capable of alteration even by the Apostles themselves. As I pointed out in an appendix to “Let the Reader Understand” the blood prohibition was given to Noah directly from the mouth of God in Genesis (9:4), and therefore was held in Jewish tradition as binding on all humanity. This prohibition was repeated in the Law of Moses (as a “perpetual ordinance” in Lev 3:17, 7:26-27; in 17:12-14 with specific reference to resident aliens as well as the people of Israel, 19:26; and in Deut 12:16,23; 15:23). The prohibition was observed in the historical period (1 Sam 14:34), and later noted by Ezekiel in conjunction with other grave sins (33:25-26). Most importantly it was affirmed by the Apostles — who, it must be presumed, knew that the Lord had set aside the dietary laws, and that this was a different matter entirely. Moreover, the prohibition was continued by the post-apostolic and conciliar church, in some places up to the present day.
So much for what Cranmer set aside. The situation was rendered the more inconsistent in what he chose to retain: asserting that the Apostles were thinking of Leviticus 18 when they forbade porneia. This is singularly odd since none of the sexual crimes described in Leviticus 18 are referred to as porneia, a word (in its various forms) which in the LXX version of the Old Testament is restricted to prostitution or (by metaphorical extension) idolatry. Surely the context of the decision in Acts would suggest one or the other as being at issue — and although idolatry is alluded to in Leviticus 18 by reference to Molech and the use of“abomination” (to’evah, a term intimately connected with idolatrous cults) porneia is not mentioned.
Null does not explore these contradictions, however, nor does he expound on what led Cranmer to focus on the 18th chapter of Leviticus in the first place, and instead returns to his theme of the various authorities to be ascribed to the church and to the Scripture itself. This leaves a hanging question: Why Leviticus 18 and not 19? For the latter chapter is of much more obvious relevance to the matter at hand, and of more evident weight through its dependence on the Decalogue. Chapter 19 expresses high moral principles — and also includes the prohibition on blood (26), and (unlike chapter 18) a specific reference to porneia (29). Why should Cranmer argue that the Apostles were thinking of Leviticus 18 (which has no obvious connection with their decision) when their action has clear connections with the following chapter?
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Clearly the Apostles were thinking no such thing, but Cranmer was. The wonder is that he bothered addressing the overturn of the blood-prohibition — and that Null sees fit to go into it, since it rather undercuts Cranmer’s emphasis on the authority of Scripture-over-the-church. For Cranmer’s church (that is, the scholars and leaders of mid-16th century English Protestantism) held that it was only within their power to set aside or alter “rites and ceremonies established by human authority” — but, most importantly, assumed an unspoken power to decide which items belonged in that category. And once they granted themselves the capacity to declare any given text of Scripture — in spite of what the text itself said — to be merely a human invention or commandment, it was a simple matter then to set the offensive commandment to one side.
But why did Cranmer — with his ostensibly high regard for Scripture — run upon this particular ground? Why bring up the overturn of the blood prohibition (unless perhaps to take some heat off of his favorite theologian Augustine of Hippo, who was among the first to seek the overturn of this ancient commandment)?
But more importantly, Why this peculiar emphasis on Leviticus 18? There was a reason for Cranmer’s focus on this chapter, and it represents the powerfully deformative force that political agendas can have on even the most pious. It all comes down to one verse: Leviticus 18:16 — “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.”
Let us not forget the reason and by whom these biblical scholars had been assembled: Henry VIII had married his late brother Arthur’s childless wife Catherine of Aragon, and the Cranmerian team were marshaling any argument they could find to end the marriage, including that it violated the timeless and eternally binding law from Leviticus.
Rather than use his own method and apply the most obvious text relating to a coherent understanding of this law, and addressing the specific exception to it granted at Deut 25:5-9 (whereby a man is expected to marry his brother’s childless widow in order to raise up an heir — an exception eminently applicable in Henry’s case, as it related to the continuation of the succession); failing to note that Jesus had ample opportunity explicitly to overturn the Deuteronomic law in his confrontation with the Saducees (Mar 12:19, Luk 20:28), Cranmer’s team stuck with Leviticus, for they were interested only in adding weight to this commandment, not in taking any away. They were driven by an agenda — not their own, but Henry’s. Cranmer was, after all, tasked with finding a way to legitimize a second marriage (already anticipated in an adulterous relastionship) on the basis of divorce or anullment, the former rather clearly at odds with any coherent reading of the Gospel, and the latter unknown to it. And so they bolstered the commandment in Leviticus by settling upon the decision of the Apostles in Acts 15— a decision they had also undercut in the furtherance of Cranmer’s other agenda: the diminution of the authority of the church.
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Since closer examination of this treatment of Acts 15 hardly builds a strong case for Cranmerian consistency, one is forced to ask why Canon Null brings it up. His article comes at a crucial time in the development of Anglican self-understanding, in particular a wish to outline an Anglican way with Scripture. To do so, Null brings up Cranmer’s treatment of Acts 15, including the assertion that the Apostles were against porneia as outlined in Leviticus 18. However, as I’ve shown, on close examination this did not advance Cranmer’s biblical agenda and teaching (that the Apostles were not to be held authoritative on the blood prohibition, even though they ratified Leviticus 19), but served only his royal agenda (whereby he claims Apostolic ratification of Leviticus 18 as a matter of universal moral law.)
Just as at the first English Reformation, an appeal to Leviticus 18 is now being made in our present Anglican Deformation. It is a different verse this time, 18:22, which is again being subsumed by some under the Apostles’ decision at Acts 15. Some, such as Robert Gagnon, go further and suggest that Jesus himself referred to Leviticus 18 when he spoke of porneia in Mat 15:19 / Mark 7:21 — interestingly enough, in the context of setting aside the dietary laws. Jesus did indeed distinguish between the eternal laws of God and the commandments of men — including commandments given by God through Moses (such as the one allowing for divorce, Deut 24:1); but Jesus supplied a touchstone for making the determination as to which was which: not consistency with some other biblical text (as Cranmer suggests) but rather consistency with the eternal law of Love of God and Neighbor.
The need on the part of some with a particular agenda to broaden the scope of Leviticus’ admitted condemnation of male-male sexuality among Jews in the Holy Land (as the leading scholar in the field of Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom, accurately describes it) into a timeless moral requirement binding forever on all humanity (including, apparently, women, significantly missing from the Levitical text) — and the need to summon up dominical support for this commandment — is deforming rather than reforming the Anglican Communion today.
Rather than looking for guidance to the moral principle laid out by Jesus — loving ones neighbor as oneself, and giving oneself for the welfare of others — cultic regulations and selected sexual offenses of ancient Israel are elevated to a status unwarranted by either moral or ethical principle, while others are hastily explained away. This is not the way forward.
We need honestly to face the fact that the vast bulk of rites and ceremonies and moral laws of ancient Israel were based on a direct ordinance of God recorded in the Scripture. Ancient Israel made no distinction along Cranmerian lines, and the laws are found interwoven throughout the Torah, and serious penalties are attached to some plainly “ritual” acts. Further, many, if not most of these commandments and ordinances were not overthrown by Christ, or by the early church. Their overthrow came only with the passage of time, in part upon application of Cranmer’s principle of distinguishing between ritual and morality, or a general presumption of lack of current applicability.
And in this one sense Cranmer was right: the church does have the authority to set aside commandments — not only the ones made by human authority, but the ones which even though placed in the mouth of God by the Scriptural authors, can be determined to reside only upon human culture and human agendas and human failings. Ultimately all of Scripture comes to us through human agency — and it is no good idealistically pretending otherwise; to do so is to turn the Scripture itself into an idol. The Scripture is not the Word of God spoken, but the Word of God written — and in all cases apart from the purported engraving of the original Decalogue, the writing is made by human hands. For Israel in its long wanderings, for the church in its pilgrimage, and for us today, the Scripture is an instrument through which God’s will is made known, but an instrument which must be played: and the people of God are the musicians.
Cranmer was quite right to hold that the prohibition on blood was no longer binding — but not because the Scripture described it as a human institution. Rather it is clear that the Scripture contains a great many such cultural artifacts and beliefs which, despite the self-authenticating claims of Scripture, will not stand against right reason, and will not stand against the Gospel standard for all morality, given by Christ himself: to love neighbor as self, and do for that neighbor what one wishes for oneself: as Saint Paul observed, such love fulfills the law. (Rom 13:9-10)
It is this reason and this love which the church today is called upon to exercise: to look with eyes enlightened by an understanding of culture and the human capacity for hatred of the other, and to turn aside from the cultural norms of a defunct world, and embrace the Gospel imperative given by Jesus Christ for the life of the world to come.
It is to be hoped that all of us can return to the principles that Canon Null summarizes at the end of his essay, which echo the conclusions of “Let the Reader Understand,” and which form a core upon which to build a sound biblical understanding and engagement. As I would rephrase them here:
- that our understanding of Scripture be unified around Christ and his commandments — primarily the commandment to love;
- that our reading of Scripture nourish our hearts and minds;
- that the Scripture empower our personal and corporate repentance and reformation;
- that we remain true to the whole Scripture in its redemptive context and avoid the agenda-driven approach that sets texts against each other, and against our sisters and brothers; and
- that we rejoice thereby in the restoration of the divine image in humanity, empowered to mission for the good of the world for which Christ died.
— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I welcome comments on this reflection, but reserve the right to moderate comments posted here. I would respectfully ask two things:
1. That those who wish to comment anonymously at least adopt a “pen name” if they lack the sense of trust to stand by what they say under their own name, and
2. That comments address the primary concern of this reflection: the authority of the church to determine which portions of Scripture are of continuing relevance. As the character in the Python sketch observed, I am interested in cogent argument, not mere contradiction.