Why Should We Care about the English Reformation?
The two greatest issues facing Christianity in the West are (1) the Bible’s growing lack of authority in the Church, and (2) the lack of transformed lives among those who attend. The same two issues confronted English Christians in the early sixteenth century.
The medieval catholic church had rejected the Gospel’s offer of free pardon, teaching instead its own system of rules so that a person, in effect, had to earn forgiveness, even if a person very much needed God’s help to accomplish that task. Yet, at the same time, so many people were failing to lead the holy lives necessary for salvation, especially the clergy and those in religious orders, that the Christian faith itself was being brought into disrepute daily.
The unbiblical teaching of the medieval church had led Christians to lead inauthentic human lives.
The English Reformers confronted both issues head-on, because they realized that that both were intrinsically linked. The unbiblical teaching of the medieval church had led Christians to lead inauthentic human lives. Only loving God more would give people the power to say no to sin, but only the preaching of God’s unconditional love made known in salvation could birth in people that kind of transforming love. By teaching people that they had to earn God’s love by first being good enough, the medieval catholic church had actually cut people off from the only source that could change them from the inside out.
The Reformers, however, recovered Paul’s teaching on justification, that God justified the wicked (Rom. 4:5) through faith in the promise of unconditional pardon because of the cross of Christ. The English reformers taught justification by faith because only gratitude for the free gift of salvation would birth in Christians a love for God and a godly life.
Today, the message of Western Christianity can often sound very similar to medieval catholic teaching, that people have to work very hard to prove that they are good enough for God to love them. It is true that liberals and conservatives disagree about what “being good enough” looks like. Conservatives tend to stress personal morality like the importance of sexual purity as well as evangelistic activity, whereas progressives like to emphasize the importance of working for social justice and living an environmentally aware lifestyle. The prosperity preachers take a third tack. They simply tell people that being “positive enough” is what is required for God’s blessing.
Yet, despite all their differences, these groups of Christians still normally use Sunday worship services to fuss at people how they need to better like God expects them to be. Since so much of Western Christian preaching has ended up sounding a whole lot like the medieval catholic church, the biblical insights from the English Reformation are just what we Christians in the West need to hear afresh today.
Who Was Thomas Cranmer?
Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) was the chief English Reformer. As the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, he was responsible for applying the insights of the Continental reformers to the situation in his own country. He first worked with Henry VIII to bring biblical authority to the Church of England. During Cranmer’s time under Henry, the English Church rejected the pope’s authority in England (1534), monasteries—where religious people tried to earn their salvation through good works—were closed down (1536–1540), bibles translated into English were set up in every parish church for the public to be able to read, even though bibles in English had been banned in the country for over one hundred years (1538), and confession to a priest was no longer taught as necessary for salvation (1539).
The first in a six-volume series, Reformation Anglicanism seeks to be the go-to resource outlining the rich Reformation heritage undergirding Anglicanism, casting a clear vision for what it means to be an Anglican today.
Despite these biblical advances, Henry never accepted the key protestant teaching that salvation was a free gift. Cranmer had to wait until Henry died in 1547 and his nine-year-old son came to the throne before he could implement a thorough theological Reformation of the Church of England.
In six and a half years, Cranmer developed a blueprint for a protestant English church. He wrote a series of required sermons that taught the Reformation’s grace and gratitude approach to Christian faith (1547). He then devised a scheme of praying the Bible in worship through two more progressively reformed prayer books (1549 and 1552). Finally, he wrote up the biblical insights of the Reformation in a series of Articles of Religion so that future generations would know the spiritual DNA of the Protestant Church of England.
What Do the English Reformation and Thomas Cranmer Have to Do with Reformation Anglicanism?
Cranmer and his fellow English Reformers created a biblical church in continuity with the universal truths of the early Christians but which was also relevant to the specific spiritual needs of their generation. Reformation Anglicans are the heirs to this great tradition of proclaiming the unconditional love of God for sinners so that they can begin to learn to love God and others as they have been loved unconditionally in the cross of Christ.
If you want to know more about the great spiritual DNA of Reformation Anglicanism, check out a new collection of essays which explains its origins, teachings, and relevance for the church today.
- You Are Not What You Do (Michael Jensen)
- Does the Reformation Still Matter? (Stephen J. Nichols)
- 10 Things You Should Know about the Reformation (Tim Chester)