Thomas Cranmer's Theology of the Eucharist

Thomas Cranmer was born into a modest Nottinghamshire family in the year 1489. Although his influence and authority was all too apparent after his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, his family were little known and relatively poor. Cranmer’s loyalty to his King and country ultimately led to his growth in stature, and his insatiable appetite for learning naturally drew him into contact with other contemporary continental reformers. Although he was not in essence to be seen as radical, for his programme of reform was more than cautious under Henry VIII, Cranmer wished to return Christianity to its truthful origins, and to do so required reformation.

His theology of the Eucharist underwent many diverse and often contradictory phases before ultimately reaching its conclusion in his Defence of 1550, widely regarded as his final position. Within this essay, I will attempt to trace the development of and influences on his eucharistic theology, in order to define and analyse his final, mature theology of the Eucharist.

Prior to his appointment as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, Cranmer had been required to study ‘grossest kind of sophistry’, i.e. Scholastic theology, at Cambridge; which he finally completed in 1511.1 Of his own free will, Cranmer decided to reject Scholasticism, and, under the increasing influence of Erasmus, who had been appointed to the divinity lectureship in Cambridge in the same year, Cranmer began to favour biblical study, and in doing so acknowledged the importance of reading the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek.2 However, in spite of Erasmus’s public denunciation of ‘papistical abuses’ (cf.

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Erasmus’s Julius Exclusus), which brought sympathy and agreement from Cranmer, Thomas still believed in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation in 1533, for he took part in the denunciation of the heretic Frith, who had denied the existence of Purgatory, and, more importantly Transubstantiation. To deny that Christ was not present really, corporally and substantially in the Eucharist was to deny the fundamental Catholic theology of the Eucharist, and Cranmer duly maintained that Frith’s doctrines were indeed erroneous.

However, his condemnation of Frith seemed a little half-hearted, which in turn has led to certain scholars asserting that he was at this time sympathetic to the cause of the Reformation on the Continent.3 Indeed his knowledge of the work of the Continental Reformers was vast, and on no account did he remain uninfluenced by what he had read. Indeed, his friendship with the Lutheran Osiander, who gave his niece to Cranmer in marriage, is highly significant in determining Cranmer’s theological development, for the marriage would never have taken place if Cranmer at this time still maintained the ‘papist’s doctrine’ of Transubstantiation against that proclaimed by the Lutherans. Such was Cranmer’s interest in Lutheranism that Chapuys wrote in 1533 that Cranmer’s theology was explicitly Lutheran in content.4 It may therefore be asserted that Cranmer had cautiously reformulated his theology from that which adhered to the Roman Catholic Church, to one which contained distinct Lutheran sympathies at some point during, or perhaps even prior to, 1533.

In the three years after his marriage, Cranmer received letters of praise from Bucer and Melanchthon, further evidence of his Lutheranism and his active contact with the Continent. In June 1536, Cranmer addressed the Convocation at which he again made reference to his Lutheran tendencies, not least through the resulting 10 Articles which significantly ignored Transubstantiation, and merely affirmed the real corporal presence of Christ at the Eucharist.5 A valuable letter written by Cranmer in December 1537 to Vadian also sheds light on the development of his Eucharistic theology. He writes ‘…I have seen almost everything that has been written and published either by Oecolampadius or Zwingli, and I have come to the conclusion that the writings of every man must be read with discrimination.’.

It was to ask too much of Cranmer to profess the Zwinglian doctrine of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Real Absence’, by which one asserts that Christ is not in any sense present at the Eucharist which is merely a transaction of remembrance, although he did commend Zwingli and Oecolampadius’s attacks on Papal abuses.7 From this letter, one can see that Cranmer still held to a Eucharistic theology that had at its centre the affirmation that Christ was in some sense present at the Eucharist. Whether he stressed pure Lutheran theology is debatable. Cranmer had not as yet found any strong and persuasive arguments that were to convince him that Christ was not really and corporally present at the Eucharist, although it seems that he was in the middle of a transitional phase, caught between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. In this sense, to assert that Cranmer was exclusively Lutheran in his theology of the Eucharist is to try and contain and relate his thought to a particular theology that it may only resemble. Certain scholars have also debated the influence that the Lutheran Short Catechism of 1529 and the Augsburg Confession may have had upon Cranmer at the time of the letter to Vadian.

It is worthwhile also to refer to the case of Adam Damplip, who had refuted the Real Presence of Christ at the Eucharist. Cranmer admits to Cromwell that his eucharistic theology was indeed altered by the strength of Damplip’s argument against Transubstantiation.9 In consequence, Ayris believes that Cranmer had resorted to Lutheranism, an argument that is apparently strengthened the publication of the 13 Articles (1538), in which Article X is explicitly Lutheran.10 However, to maintain that his eucharistic theology was explicitly Lutheran simply because he is seen to refute Transubstantiation is to discount the possibility of a ‘transitional period’ in which Cranmer may have merely believed in a non-Catholic, but also a non-Lutheran Real Presence of Christ at the Eucharist. However, with the evidence available, especially with regard to the Commonplace Books, composed between 1538-1543, in which Cranmer is seen to refute Zwinglian doctrine with that of Luther,11 it is na�ve to assert that Cranmer remained wholly ignorant to Lutheranism and its theology of the Eucharist.

For numerous scholars 1546 signalled the beginning of Cranmer’s ‘conversion’ process, for in 1546 Cranmer met and discussed his eucharistic beliefs with Nicholas Ridley.12 Cranmer, who at this point in his career still maintained that Christ was really and corporally present at the Eucharist, was deeply impressed with Ridley’s attempt to deny the ‘erroneous’ doctrine of the Real Presence. Ridley argued that Christ was not corporally present at the Eucharist, rather he was merely spiritually present, for his body was at all times at the right hand of the Father in heaven.13 Although Ridley’s assertions were not totally alien to Cranmer, who had obviously read Zwingli, Cranmer was not prepared to abandon his beliefs immediately. To convert from the Real Presence to a belief in a Spiritual Presence was naturally a radical change of theology, and Cranmer, although Ridley was to finally convince Cranmer of the ‘error’ of the Real Presence, did not publicly assert his belief in the Spiritual Presence of Christ at the Eucharist until 1548 in the Lord’s Debate. What is important is that Cranmer was actually convinced, although the date of the conversation with Ridley, and the precise moment of his conversion is subject to great debate. What is known for definite, however, is that Cranmer’s conversion was a ‘gradual and irregular process’, though the process may have even begun as early as 1538.14

With the death of Henry VIII in 1547, and the accession to the throne of the young Edward VI, Cranmer was able to embark on a programme of reform that was not conditioned by a conservative Monarch. The Lord’s Debate of December 1548 was to prove the decisive in the development of his theology. Cranmer now attested to the fact that the doctrine of the Real Presence was erroneous, and maintained that the belief in Christ’s bodily presence at the Eucharist was simply absurd, for Christ’s body is permanently in heaven. It was therefore impossible for Cranmer to assert that the laity were able to physically eat the body and blood of Christ in the sacraments. He refuted the doctrine of Transubstantiation, denouncing the belief that the substance of the bread and wine were in essence the body and blood of Christ, rather the substance of the bread and wine was actual bread and wine. It was therefore demanded that the congregation that ‘the property of His Godhead is everywhere, but his manhood is in one place only’.15 Cranmer also heavily emphasised the necessity of faith in order to spiritually eat on Christ. In doing so he rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine that the pious and the impious, the faithful and the unfaithful are able to eat the body and blood of Christ.

Cranmer now believed that those who had no faith in Christ do not under any circumstances eat his body and blood at the Eucharist. However, at the basis of the above beliefs was Cranmer’s fundamental assertion of the spiritual presence of Christ. Cranmer now maintained that the believer eats Christ spiritually, not bodily, made possible through his faith in Christ.16 Naturally, many scholars have maintained that Cranmer is merely re-iterating the Zwinglian doctrine of the Real Absence due to the fact that Cranmer was seen to refute the Real Presence, which, as we shall see, is over-simplification.17 That he denied the doctrine of the Real Presence is true, but to assume that he therefore relied on that promulgated by Zwingli is a non sequitur, however simple and obvious the conversion may seem. Importantly, Cranmer also denied the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, a sacrifice of appeasement made by the priest on behalf of the laity. To maintain that Christ was offered and sacrificed at each Mass was to assert that he was continually being crucified for the sins of the world. Cranmer now maintained that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was a once-and-for-all action, and was a perfect and non-repeatable oblation. To continually sacrifice Christ in the Eucharist was seen by Cranmer as a fundamental error on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, an error that was to be unconditionally denounced.

Immediately following the declaration at the Lord’s Debate, Cranmer finished the first of his two Book’s of Common Prayer. His theology of the Eucharist, expounded at the Debate was instantly apparent in the first BCP. So too was the influence of Bucer, on whom Cranmer modelled the General Confession and Absolution.18 Cranmer again maintained that the mass was not an offering, rather a sacrifice ‘of praise and thanksgiving’ for Christ’s once-only sacrifice on the cross. The elevation of the host was prohibited in order to alleviate superstition and adoration, and the importance of faith was again maintained.19 Although Cranmer had in the BCP of 1549 referred to the presence of Christ at the Eucharist, its conservatism was all too apparent. Indeed its title, ‘The Supper of the Lord and Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass’ immediately expressed this ambiguity; an ambiguity that resulted in the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, asserting that he could find many explicit references within the BCP that referred to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation.20 Although Cranmer was to deny these claims, passages such as ‘the bread has changed, not in shape or substance, but in nature…not meaning that the natural substance is clean gone, but that God’s word there is added thereto another higher property…’ 21 merely served as ammunition for Gardiner’s attack. It was therefore necessary for Cranmer to defend his theology of the Eucharist.

Although the 1549 BCP was heavily influenced by that which had been publicly expressed in the Lord’s Debate, Cranmer’s theology of the Eucharist had not been fully expressed until the publication of his Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ in 1550. Cranmer’s Defence provides the scholar with the first full exposition of his theology, and indeed an exposition of his mature theology of the Eucharist. Although his theology underwent minor modifications within his Answer of 1551, the second BCP of 1552 and his Disputation and Explication of 1554 and 1555, the Defence remains the definitive guide to Cranmer’s mature theology of the Eucharist.22 In his book, Cranmer methodically deals with the assertions and questions of Gardiner, and once again affirmed that the foundation of his eucharistic theology relied on the denial of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in favour of the Spiritual Presence. Transubstantiation was seen to ‘lead the people unto error and idolatry…’23 and was seen as an erroneous Papal superstition. The absence of Christ’s physical body is heavily emphasised, for Christ ‘now sitteth at the right hand of the Father, and there shall remain until the last day…’

24. However, Cranmer was careful to maintain that although Christ was corporally absent from the Lord’s Supper, he was still spiritually present with the faithful. This was argued with vast and numerous references to the Fathers of the Church in Book II of the Defence. Cranmer’s emphasis on the r�le of faith throughout the Lord’s Supper was in essence hardly surprising given his knowledge of Lutheranism and his previous rejection of manducatio impiorum, although it is wrong to surmise that he held to the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone.25 Cranmer believed that through the faith of the individual it was possible to partake in the spiritual eating of Christ through the ascension of the heart. In expressing his belief in the ascension of the heart to heaven Cranmer introduced the concept of a ‘bi-level eating’ of the bread and wine and body and blood. To engage in the celestial feast on Christ it was necessary to have faith in Christ in order to enter into communion with Christ. In doing so he rejected the Roman Catholic teaching ‘that Christ is in the bread and wine;’ in contrast he teaches ‘that he is in them that worthily eat the bread and wine’; for ‘…as we be fed with bread and wine bodily, so we be fed with the body and blood of our Saviour spiritually.’26 This great emphasis on the Spiritual Presence of Christ in the faithful and the ascension of the individual’s heart into heaven naturally had to be affiliated with the words of Scripture.

The translation of the word est in the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (Hoc est corpus meum) may have presented a problem for Cranmer, but he immediately dismissed the Lutheran and Roman Catholic theology in asserting that the words of Christ were merely figurative. Naturally, such an argument bears great resemblance to that used by Zwingli against Luther, although we shall see that Cranmer’s theology was in essence vastly different to that of Zwingli. Although he maintained that ‘ the sacramental bread and wine, is not really and corporally the very natural substance of the flesh and blood of Christ,..’ and ‘…that the bread and wine be similitude’s, mysteries and representations, signification’s, sacraments and figures of his body and blood…’,27 he differed in essence from Zwingli in proclaiming that Christ was indeed present, although not really and corporally, but never asserted, as did Zwingli, that Christ was physically, really and spiritually absent. It is plain to see that Cranmer’s theology of the Eucharist had developed fully at the time of the composition of the Defence. He had refuted the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the doctrine of the Real Presence, denied that the Mass was a propitiatory sacrifice and placed great emphasis on the r�le of faith in order to feed spiritually on the body and blood of Christ in heaven. Although he had yet to compose the 1552 BCP and write his Answer to Gardiner, his theology was to differ little from his first published work.

Cranmer’s Answer to Gardiner again affirmed the Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The faithful, ‘ chewing it [Christ] by Faith in the cud of their spirit, and digesting it in their hearts…so they eat Christ’s body and blood spiritually…’.28 Again he maintained that Christ offered himself once on the cross, and in doing so eliminated the need for any other sacrifices, that Christ is spiritually present in the midst of the believers, and ‘..that the priest distributeth the bread and wine to feed the body, [and therefore] we must think that inwardly by faith we see Christ feeding both body and soul to eternal life…’.29 Cranmer’s Answer to Gardiner was merely a re-iteration of his previous statement in the Defence, a methodical re-phrasing and strengthening of each individual point as laid out in his 1550 Defence. So too, the BCP of 1552 highlighted little change. Although in the light of the 1549 edition it was to be regarded as radical, it’s deviation from the theology contained in the Defence was relatively minor, save that Cranmer identified and emphasised the ascension of the hearts of the faithful to heaven to feed spiritually on Christ.

Cranmer’s mature theology of the Eucharist in its final position was therefore highlighted within the Defence of 1550. Although we have seen that Cranmer was indeed influenced to a certain extent by the theology of Luther at an early stage in his career, it may be also be worthwhile to assess the influences on Cranmer after the Lord’s Debate in 1548, in order to fully analyse his final position on the theology of the Eucharist. Cranmer’s denial of the Real Presence in 1548 led many scholars to believe that he had turned to the Zwinglian doctrine of the Real Absence; that Christ was not under any circumstances present at the Eucharist.

Most notably, G.Dix asserts that Cranmer’s theology of the spiritual presence was indeed his own form of Zwinglianism, and that he remained Zwinglian from the Lord’s Debate in 1548 until his death in 1555.30 Although Cranmer was under pressure from the Zwinglians in London when composing the 1549 BCP, he never actually held to Zwingli’s theology of the Eucharist. Zwinglianism in 1552 consisted of the denial that the faithful could in any way partake in the body and blood of Christ, that the elements of the bread and wine bear any resemblance and ‘essential relation to’ the body and blood of Christ, and that Christ was physically and spiritually absent from the Eucharist. For Dix to maintain that Cranmer was Zwinglian simply because he did not believe in the Real Presence is a prime example of over simplification and indeed na�vet�, for he discounts the fact that Bucer, Calvin and others publicly and fully denied the Real Presence but were not in any sense Zwinglian. Indeed in 1555 at the Disputation, Cranmer again affirmed that that Christ’s ‘…true body is truly present to them that faithfully receive him; but spiritually…it is most true, that the body of Christ is effectually in the sacrament.

But I deny that he is there truly present in the bread, or that he is under the bread is his organic body.’31 Such a statement obviously contradicts Zwingli’s assertion that the Christ is absent from the Eucharist. To maintain that Cranmer’s theology of the Eucharist was Zwinglian is also to overlook the Oecolampadian influence upon Cranmer. Cranmer believed, as did Oecolampadius, that though the body of Christ remained in heaven, it did not occupy time or space, a belief which Zwingli would have denied, for his eucharistic theology relied on the belief that the physical body of Christ was locally circumscribed at the right hand of the Father, occupying both time and space. It is plain to see that Cranmer did not attempt to align himself with the Zwinglian theology of the Eucharist, and that hid mature position on the Eucharist beared little resemblance to that of Zwingli.

Cranmer’s final position on the theology of the Eucharist has also been assimilated with that of Calvin, in the sense that he maintained that the body and blood of Christ is only given to the faithful believer, and that he explicitly denies any corporal presence of Christ at the Eucharist. As with Cranmer, Calvin seems to have refuted the Zwinglian and Lutheran doctrines, and attempted to steer a middle course between the two. His reliance on the faith of the individual bears great resemblance to that promulgated by Cranmer and in essence, there is little difference between the two. Martin Bucer has also been regarded as an important influence on Cranmer, for Bucer too understood the r�le of faith in the Lord’s Supper. His influence on the BCP of 1549 has already been mentioned, although he too denied the physical presence of Christ, but, at the same time, affirmed that Christ did in a certain sense exhibit his presence.

The affirmation of the Spiritual Presence and the spiritual exhibition of Christ at the Eucharist also beared great resemblance to Bucer’s theology of the bread and wine as ‘signa exhibitiva’,32 and his influence on Cranmer was evident in his belief in the objective reality of Christ as present at the Eucharist in faith, a position which Bucer held immediately after the Marburg debate between Luther and Zwingli. Although Cranmer’s theology of the Eucharist is unique in the sense that it has been formulated independently by Cranmer himself, and contains his own unique thought, it is obviously impossible to maintain that the numerous contacts with the Continent that Cranmer enjoyed throughout his career, his invitations to Reformers to join him in London and his extensive knowledge of the works of many reformers did not have an influence on his final position.

Cranmer’s development of his theology of the Eucharist has been acknowledged as an extremely difficult task due to the diverse number of influences that were apparent within his work. He have already noted from the above that Cranmer may have passed through a Lutheran phase, perhaps influenced by Melanchthon and Osiander, and in turn his belief in the Spiritual Presence beared resemblance to the work of Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin and in a certain sense Peter Martyr.33 Brooks sensibly notes the danger of classification of certain periods in Cranmer’s theology in the sense that he too acknowledges the myriad of beliefs that were evident in Cranmer’s theology. However, with the publication of the Defence in 1550, of which the contents belied his mature theology of the Eucharist, it is obvious that he did not hold to mere Zwinglian Real Absence, although his beliefs were more complex than those attributed to Luther. It seems fair then to assert that Cranmer was indeed a second generation reformer,34 likened to Calvin and Bucer, though his theology of the Eucharist, even though it bore the marks of Calvin and Bucer, was in essence distinct and unique, and due to its uniqueness and its appeal as the most truthful of all theologies it was ultimately to become the cornerstone of a distinct new Church; that of the Church of England.

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Thomas Cranmer's Theology of the Eucharist. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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