As a Calvinistic Baptist I owe a significant debt to early Anglicanism. My seventeenth-century forebears learned much of their Reformed theology from Reformed ministers in the Church of England and it was in the heart of that body that they were nurtured on the spirituality of the Reformation. And in the earliest days of that state Church no figure exercised as great an influence as the “reluctant martyr” Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the first Reformed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Kenneth Brownell, an American who is pastoring in the U.K., has argued that Thomas Cranmer’s influence on the English-speaking Protestant world has been greater than any other figure except his contemporary John Knox (d.1572), and the eighteenth-century preachers George Whitefield (1714-1770), John Wesley (1703-1791) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). “Few men,” Brownell writes, “did more to shape English Protestant spirituality and to drive into the soul of a nation the fundamentals of Protestant Christianity.” [Kenneth Brownell, “Thomas Cranmer: Compromiser or Strategist?” in The Reformation of Worship. Papers read at the 1989 Westminster Conference (London: The Westminster Conference, 1989), 1].

Cranmer’s greatest achievements came during the reign of Edward VI (r.1547-1553). By the end of 1547, the Evangelicals around Edward who were being led by Cranmer had, amongst other reforms, enshrined justification by faith alone in the Church’s official statements. Clerical marriage had been approved. Key Continental Reformers had been invited to come to England to help in the Reformation there, men such as the Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551), who went to Cambridge, Peter Martyr (1500-1562)—an Anglicized form of Pietro Martire Vermigli—who went to Oxford, and Jan Łaski (1499-1560), a Polish Reformer.

And in line with the aims of the Reformation throughout Europe, the worship of the church had been reformed. Cranmer’s work in regard to the latter is probably best seen in The Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which was intended to be the “basis of reformed Protestant worship,” [Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation”, Journal of British Studies, 30 (1991), 7-9] and which, as Peter Toon has recently noted, is “a near perfect embodiment of the principle of justification by faith.” [“Remembering Thomas Cranmer on the anniversary of his martyrdom” (http://listserv.episcopalian.org/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind0203d&L=virtuosity&D=1&H=1&O=D&F=&S=&P=1422].

One gets a marvellous insight into the heart of Cranmer’s Reformed thought by looking at his written prayers. Consider this portion of a prayer from the Communion service in which Cranmer trumpets forth that salvation is by Christ alone:

“Almighty God our heavenly Father, which of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ, to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and 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 of that his precious death, until his coming again; hear us O merciful Father we beseech thee…” [The First and Second Prayer Books of King Edward the Sixth (London/Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons/New York: E.P. Dutton, 1910), 389; I have modernized the language].

The declaration that Christ’s death is “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction” for sin undercuts the entire theological edifice of mediæval Roman Catholicism. For that edifice—with its understanding of the mass as a re-presentation of  Christ’s sacrificial death for sin, both that of the living and of the dead in purgatory; with its indulgences and its rosaries and its pilgrimages and its relics—was built on the supposition that humanity can do something to earn salvation. But Cranmer was convinced that all human endeavours to make appeasement for our sins and gain merit in the eyes of God are utterly futile. Due to the fact that, in Cranmer’s words elsewhere, “all men be sinners and offenders against God, and breakers of his law and commandments, therefore can no man by his own acts, works, and deeds…be justified and made righteous before God.” [An Homily of the Salvation of Mankind by Only Christ our Saviour from Sin and Death Everlasting in T.H.L. Parker, ed., English Reformers (The Library of Christian Classics, vol.26; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 262]. Christ’s peerless death is alone sufficient to appease the wrath of God against human sin and cleanse those who put their trust in him from all unrighteouness.

Little wonder then that Cranmer was of the conviction that salvation by Christ alone and justification by faith alone “is the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion: this doctrine all old and ancient authors of Christ’s Church do approve: this doctrine advanceth and setteth forth the true glory of Christ, and suppresseth the vainglory of man: this whosoever denieth is not to be reputed for a Christian man, nor for a setter forth of Christ’s glory, but for an adversary to Christ and his gospel, and for a setter forth of men’s vainglory. (Homily of the Salvation of Mankind in Parker, ed., English Reformers, 266-267).

Here Cranmer identified what lay at the heart of the Reformation. The one side relied solely on the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death—“a setter forth of Christ’s glory” he calls each individual in this camp. The other side, which denied this biblical truth, Cranmer is convinced cannot be described as Christian, but must be seen as opposed to Christ and “a setter forth of men’s vainglory.”

Within a year or so of the publication of the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer the unbridgeable gulf between these two sides would plunge England, and Cranmer personally, into turmoil and bloody strife as the Roman Catholic successor of Edward VI, his oldest half-sister Mary I (r.1553-1558), sought to destroy the Evangelicals in England and Wales. Cranmer himself would give his life for being a “setter forth of Christ’s glory.” But like Cranmer’s fellow bishops, Hugh Latimer (c.1485-1555) and Nicholas Ridley (c.1500-1555), who were burned at the stake in October, 1555, Cranmer, when he died a martyr in March 1556—450 years ago this month—lit a candle for the gospel in England that could not be easily put out.