Pulling up the Roots of Error:
The Importance of the Eucharist in the Theology of Thomas Cranmer
by Daniel Burns

          In 1550, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, published A Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Savior Christ in which he explained his views on the Eucharist. While the book is largely a technical theological argument, Cranmer departs sufficiently from his academic disputation to reveal his conception of the larger importance of the debate over Eucharistic beliefs. Cranmer believed that the Roman Catholic Church and specifically the Papacy were enemies of true Christians and that the Mass was a superstitious rite that threatened to lead people away from a correct understanding of Christianity. Thus, for Thomas Cranmer, the debate over Eucharistic theology was not simply an intellectual exercise to establish correct doctrine, but was also a matter of saving souls.

          The Mass was at the center of late medieval religion in England and throughout Europe. As Eamon Duffy summarizes, “Christ himself, immolated on the altar of the cross, became present on the altar of the parish church, body, soul, and divinity, and his blood flowed once again, to nourish and renew Church and world.”1 For the laity as well as the clergy, the Mass was the greatest tool the Church had to effect forgiveness of sins, the restoration of well being, and a host of other positive ends for the living as well as secure release for souls in purgatory. For the living, the Mass was their means of “encountering the holy” and for the dead, a means of shortening time in purgatory.2

          However, following the death of Henry VIII, the Mass and the devotional world surrounding it began to disappear. Despite his break with Rome, Henry had largely retained the liturgy and theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism in England. Nevertheless, when Henry died in 1547, he left the country in the control of a council (his son Edward VI was still a child), which was largely sympathetic to Protestantism. Henry left the newly independent Church of England largely in the charge of Thomas Cranmer, whose significant shift in theological views toward Protestantism had become quite clear by the end of Henry’s life. While Henry VIII’s motives for doing this are difficult to establish, it is clear that his decision had a significant impact on the future of religion and politics in England.
Free from the generally conservative influence of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer was able more actively to pursue his reforming goals. One of the key elements of Cranmer’s reforming program was the development of a new liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, which was first published in 1549. The first Prayer Book contained a mixture of tradition and innovation, which allowed the church to move in the direction of a more thoroughly reformed liturgy without shocking conservatives too much. The second and more unequivocally protestant Book of Common Prayer came three years later and contained an Eucharistic rite that more clearly reflected Cranmer’s mature thought on the Sacrament.

          At the same time Cranmer was developing and revising the first two editions of The Book of Common Prayer, he was also engaged in polemical debates on the Eucharist with prominent theologians and churchmen who were unsympathetic to his reforms. One of the most important of these opponents was Stephen Gardiner. As Bishop of Winchester, Gardiner had supported Henry’s break with Rome, but wished to retain Roman Catholic liturgy and theology almost in their entirety. In the course of his debates with Gardiner and other conservatives, Cranmer produced two substantial treatises on the Eucharist: the Defense and An Answer unto a craftie and Sophisticall cavillation, devised by Stephen Gardiner, or the Answer.3 In these works, Cranmer lays out in significant detail his rejections of traditional Eucharistic theology and the reasons for these rejections. In doing so, he also articulates his understanding of the meaning and role of the Sacrament in the lives of Christians.
Like many other early Protestants, Cranmer’s notions about theology and history were linked. Cranmer saw his reforms as a return to early (purer) Christianity based directly on the Bible. According to this understanding of history, in the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the purity of the early church with human additions to its doctrine and worship. For Thomas Cranmer the doctrines laid out in his treatises represent a return to the teachings of Christ and of the early church by paring away the “human inventions” of the intervening years. Thus, his polemical treatises represent not only Cranmer’s defense of his liturgical reforms, but also an effort to return the church to its primitive teachings, the teachings which people must believe in order to be saved.
Thomas Cranmer ‘s rejection of traditional doctrine focuses on four of the central tenets of Medieval sacramental belief: the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Transubstantiation, the physical reception of Christ in the Sacrament, and the Eucharist as a sacrifice to take away people’s sins. Cranmer rejects each of these assertions and explains their inconsistency with many of the central ideas of the Protestant Reformation, such as justification by faith, de-emphasis of the role of the church in uniting the believer to God, and an emphasis on the direct connection between believers and God.
In his preface to the Defense, Cranmer suggests that the chief errors of traditional doctrine as a whole can be eliminated by purging the errors surrounding the Eucharist: “but what availeth it to take away beads, pardons, pilgrimages, and such other like popery, so long as two chief roots remain unpulled up? whereof, so long as they remain, will spring again all former impediments of the Lord’s harvest, and corruption of his flock.”4 Cranmer suggests that these “roots” are, “the popish doctrine of transubstantiation, of the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the sacrament of the altar, (as they call it,) and of the sacrifice and oblation of Christ made by the priest for the salvation of the quick and the dead.”5

          One of the most important questions for Cranmer in the Defense is how Christ is present in the sacrament.6 According to traditional doctrine, Christ is truly and physically present under the forms of bread and wine. While some of the Protestant reformers, such as Martin Luther, accepted the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament, most reformers, including Thomas Cranmer rejected it.7 According to Cranmer the idea that Jesus could physically be present in every celebration of the Eucharist was contrary to his human nature. Since Christ had ascended bodily into heaven and promised to return at the end of time, Cranmer reasoned that he was physically limited by a human body, which made it impossible that he could be “in an hundred thousand places at one time, . . . enclosed in every pix and bread consecrated.”8

          While Cranmer rejected the possibility that Christ could physically be present in the Eucharist, he did believe that Christ was spiritually present:

although Christ in his human nature substantially, really, corporally, naturally and sensibly, be present with his
Father in heaven yet sacramentally and spiritually he is here present.
For in water, bread, and wine, he is present as in signs and sacraments, but he is indeed spiritually in the faithful Christian people,
which according to Christ’s ordinance be baptized, or receive the holy communion, or unfeignedly believe in him.9

          Here, Cranmer not only suggests that Christ is present in the Eucharist spiritually rather than physically, but also suggests that Christ is present in Christians, not only when they receive the sacraments, but any time they truly believe in him. While this does not necessarily suggest that Cranmer believes that the sacraments are unimportant, he clearly does imply a decreased emphasis on the role of the sacraments by suggesting that what Christians receive through the sacraments, they can also receive by faith without the sacraments.
          Beyond rejecting the doctrine of the real presence, Cranmer also rejects the doctrine of Transubstantiation.10 Besides simply affirming the physical presence of Christ in the Sacrament, the doctrine of Transubstantiation offers an explanation of how the real presence occurs. Transubstantiation explains Christ’s physical presence in the Sacrament in terms of Aristotelian philosophy: in the Eucharist, the “accidents,” the outward appearance, of the bread and wine remain the same after consecration by the priest, but their substance, their essential nature, change from bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ when they are consecrated by the priest.11 Cranmer attacks this doctrine, suggesting that it is “not the Doctrine of Christ, but the subtle invention of Antichrist, first decreed by Innocent the Third.”12 He suggests that Jesus’ words from the Last Supper cannot be taken literally and that the notion that the substance of bread and wine can change, while the accidents remain the same is against reason. Additionally, he argues that Transubstantiation detracts people’s attention from worshipping God and encourages them instead to focus on the physical elements of the Sacrament: “The final end of all this Antichrist’s doctrine is none other, but by subtlety and craft to bring Christian people from the true honoring of Christ, unto the greatest idolatry that ever was in this world devised.”13

          After suggesting that the body and blood of Christ can be received only spiritually, Thomas Cranmer goes on to make a distinction between the “godly,” who do receive the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, and the “ungodly,” who do not.14 Cranmer argues that since traditionalists believe in the real presence, logic requires that they must admit that anyone who receives communion receives Christ. While traditionalists would acknowledge that for the “wicked” to receive communion is a great sin, Cranmer points out that such qualifications are evasions and that the traditionalist argument necessarily implies that the ungodly receive Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.

          Cranmer argues that eating and drinking Christ is dependent on the faith of the believer and thus, that the wicked who receive the Eucharist eat only the sign and not that which is signified. According to Cranmer, “all men, good and evil, may with their mouths visibly and sensibly eat the sacrament,” but the body and blood are spiritually eaten and drunk only by “the spiritual members of Christ, which dwell in Christ, and have Christ dwelling in them, by whom they be refreshed, and have everlasting life.” 15 In the fourth book, Cranmer again connects his argument back to the question of idolatry and to his assertion that the traditionalunderstanding of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a means developed by the Papacy to deceive the “simple people” into focusing their religious devotion on the material rather than the spiritual world: “And yet have the very Antichrists, the subtlest enemies that Christ hath, by their fine inventions and crafty scholastical divinity, deluded many simple souls, and brought them to this horrible idolatry, to worship things visible and made with their own hands, persuading them that creatures were their Creator, their God, and their Maker.”16

          The last of Cranmer’s arguments against traditional Eucharistic doctrine revolves around the notion that in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in a sense, repeated, and that through the sacrifice of the Mass the sins of the living as well as the dead in purgatory can be forgiven.17 According to traditional theology, in the Eucharist the priest actually offers Christ as a sacrifice to the Father to bring about the forgiveness of people’s sins.

          The majority of the reformers in the sixteenth century rejected this notion that the Mass repeated Jesus’ sacrifice or that it was propitiatory. Along with many other reformers, Thomas Cranmer argued that this doctrine was dangerous because it tended to detract people’s focus from Christ’s sacrificial death. Cranmer argued that Christ’s death was the only sacrifice to take away humanity’s sins and that the Eucharist served to remind believers of Christ’s sacrifice, but not to repeat it.

          Additionally, Cranmer de-emphasizes the role of the priest (which was extremely important in the traditional understanding), suggesting that the priest has a different role, but one that is no more important than that of the lay person: “the difference that is between the priest and the layman in this matter is only in the ministration; that the priest, as a common minister of the church, doth minister and distribute the Lord’s supper unto other, and other receive it at his hands.”18 Cranmer also suggests that the role of the laity in the Eucharist is quite significant. In the Eucharist, the laity offer to God, not a literal propitiatory sacrifice, but “a sacrifice of laud and praise.”19 Additionally, we again see Cranmer’s emphasis on the faith and inner condition of the receiver as being the most important factor in obtaining benefits from the Sacrament: “Almighty God, without respect of person, accepteth the oblation and sacrifice of. . . every man according to his faithful and obedient heart unto him.”20

          Cranmer’s rejection of the Mass as sacrifice also had important theological implications about his understanding of justification and salvation. Cranmer rejects an assertion by Stephen Gardiner (one of his conservative opponents) that while the Mass is not in itself satisfactory to God as a sacrifice for sin, God chooses to see it as sufficient because it is celebrated in good faith. Gardiner’s claim here is based on the soteriology of the via moderna movement in the late Middle Ages, according to which God chooses to accept people’s imperfect works so long as people sincerely try to do good.21 This notion that people can do something that helps to bring about their own salvation was one of the central elements of traditional theology that the sixteenth century reformers rejected. Cranmer aligns himself with this rejection of the efficacy of “good works” by arguing that while celebrations of the Eucharist may be good works, “they win not his [God’sI favour, and put away his indignation from them that be evil. For such reconciliation can no creature make, but Christ alone.”22 Thus, Cranmer suggests that believers should look to God and not to the rites of the church for salvation.

          Throughout his Defence and Answer, Thomas Cranmer expresses his concern that traditional Eucharistic doctrine is simply a means by which the Roman Catholic Church has attempted to lead people into idolatry and to endanger their souls. In this process of explaining what the Eucharist is not, Cranmer also lays out what he believes it is, a memorial of Christ and a source of spiritual nourishment to the godly. In rejecting the doctrine of “Antichrist,” he attempts to advance an understanding of the Sacrament in which the primary focus is the spiritual encounter between the believer and Christ. For Cranmer, the priests, rites, and outward elements are simply means to an end. Their importance is in their function only: they offer one way for believers to achieve spiritual communion with God and a means by which God strengthens their faith.

End Notes

1.  Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1994), 90.
2.  lbid., 89.

3.  Thomas Cranmer, An Answer unto a craftie and Sophisticall cavillation, devised by Stephen Gardiner.. ., in Writings and Disputations of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr, 1556, Relative to the Lord's Supper, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1844; reprint NY: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1968).

4.  Thomas Cranmer, A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Saviour Christ, in The Work of Thomas Cranmer, ed. G. F. Duffield (Berkshire: The Sutten Courtenay Press, 1965), 57.

5.  Ibid., 57. These three subjects comprise three of the five books of the Defence. Of the other two books, one focuses on the Sacrament generally and the other addresses the way in which people eat and drink Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament.

6. Ibid., Book III: “The Third Book teacheth the manner bow Christ is present in his Supper.”

7.  See Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed., (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1993), Ch. 8.

8.  Defence, 134. A pyx was a small box containing the consecrated Sacrament that was hung
over the altar and used to carry the Sacrament to the sick. See Duffy, Ch. 4.

9.  Ibid., 79.

10.  Ibid., Book II: “The Second Book is against the Error of Transubstantiarion.”

11.  See McGrath, 169.

12.  Defence, 77. Innocent III was Pope from 1198 to 1216 and presided over the Fourth Lateran Council, which defined the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

13.  Ibid., 122.

14.  Ibid., Book IV: “The Fourth Book is of the Eating and Drinking of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ.”

15.  Ibid., 202.

16.  Ibid., 210.

17.  Ibid., Book V: “The Fifth Book is of the Oblation and Sacrifice of our Saviour Christ.”
The notion that Masses could help souls in purgatory was the reason that many people in the
Middle Ages left endowments to pay for Masses to be said for them after their deaths. See
Duffy Ch. 10.

18.  Answer, 224.

19.  Ibid., 227.

20.   Ibid., 227. Here Cranmer also uses the word sacrifice to refer to a “sacrifice of laud and praise” rather than a propitiatory sacrifice.

21.  McGrath, 76.

22. Answer, 362.