10 November 2014

Liturgy 7.2 (2014-2015): Liturgy and the Word (2),
Thomas Cranmer’s ‘Sermon on the Knowledge of Scripture’

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury … his legacy includes The Book of Common Prayer, the Collects and the 39 Articles

Patrick Comerford

TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Mondays, Hartin Room:

17 November 2014

Liturgy 7.2:

Seminar: homiletics in liturgy and homiletics in history: readings in Saint Augustine, Thomas Cranmer, Lancelot Andrewes, John Wesley and Martin Luther King.

The University Church of Saint Mary, Oxford, where Thomas Cranmer preached his final sermon on 21 March 1566 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(2) Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: Sermon on the Knowledge of Scripture Part 2 (The Second Part of the Sermon of the Exhortation to Holy Scripture Against Fear and Excuses)


Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the ‘Father of the Prayer Book,’ was a leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury (1533-1555) during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and (briefly) Mary I. He built a favourable case for Henry VIII’s divorce and supported the principle of royal supremacy.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, he was responsible for establishing the first doctrinal and liturgical structures of the Church of England. He did not make many radical changes in the Church, but succeeded in publishing the first officially authorised vernacular service, the Exhortation and Litany.

During the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer wrote and compiled the first two editions of The Book of Common Prayer, a complete liturgy for the Church of England. With the help of Continental reformers, he developed new doctrinal standards in areas such as the Eucharist.

With the accession of Mary I to the throne, Cranmer was tried for treason and heresy, and he was executed in Oxford in 1556. On the day of his execution, he dramatically withdrew his recantations. As the flames drew around him, he placed his right hand into the heart of the fire and his dying words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit ... I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

His legacy lives on through The Book of Common Prayer – although it is difficult to ascertain how much of the Prayer Book is actually Cranmer’s personal composition – and through the 39 Articles, which are part of his legacy although not his composition. But we can agree that his chief concern was to design corporate worship to encourage a lively faith.

This excerpt from Thomas Cranmer’s preface to the Great Bible of 1539 is an apt introduction to part two of his sermon:

... the Apostles and prophets wrote their books so that their special intent and purpose might be understood and perceived of every reader, which was nothing but the edification of amendment of the life of them that read or hear it ... Wherefore I would advise you all that come to the reading or hearing of this book, which is the word of God, the most precious jewel and most holy relic that remaineth upon earth; that ye bring with you the fear of God, and that ye do it with all due reverence, and use your knowledge thereof, not to vain glory of frivolous disputation, but to the honour of God, increase of virtue, and edification both of yourselves and other.

Thomas Cranmer’s memorial in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Second Part of the Sermon of the Exhortation to Holy Scripture Against Fear and Excuses

In the first part of this Sermon, which exhorteth to the knowledge of Holy Scripture, was declared wherefore the knowledge of the same is necessary and profitable to all men; and that, by the true knowledge and understanding of Scripture, the most necessary points of our duty towards God and our neighbours are also known.

Now, as concerning the same matter, you shall hear what followeth. If we profess Christ, why be we not ashamed to be ignorant in his doctrine, seeing that every man is ashamed to be ignorant in that learning which he professeth? That man is ashamed to be called a Philosopher which readeth not the books of philosophy; and to be called a Lawyer, an Astronomer, or a Physician, that is ignorant in the books of law, astronomy and physic. How can any man, then, say that he professeth Christ and his religion, if he will not apply himself, as far forth as he can or may conveniently to read and hear, and so to know, the books of Christ’s Gospel and doctrine? Although other sciences be good, and to be learned, yet no man can deny but this is the chief, and passeth all other incomparably. What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day, before Christ, that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than his most holy Gospel? and will find no time to do that, which chiefly, above all things, we should do; and will rather read other things that that, for the which we ought rather to leave reading of all other things? Let us therefore apply ourselves, as far forth as we can have time and leisure, to know God’s word, by diligent hearing and reading thereof, as many as profess God, and have faith and trust in him.

But they that have no good affection to God’s word, to colour this their fault, allege commonly two vain and feigned excuses. Some go about to excuse them by their own frailness and fearfulness, saying, that they dare not read Holy Scripture, lest through their ignorance they should fall into any error. Other pretend that the difficulty to understand it, and the hardness thereof, is so great, that it is meet to be read only of Clerks and learned men.

One the fear of falling into error.

As touching the first: Ignorance of God’s word is the cause of all error; as Christ himself affirmed to the Sadducees, saying, that they erred, because they knew not the Scripture (Matthew 22). How should they then eschew error, that will still be ignorant? And how should they come out of ignorance, that will not read nor hear that thing which should give them knowledge? He that now hath most knowledge, was at the first ignorant; yet he forbare not to read, for fear he should fall into error, by the same reason you may then lie still, and never go, lest, if you go, you fall into the mire; nor eat any good meat, lest you take a surfeit [eat to excess]; nor sow your corn, nor labour in your occupation, nor use your merchandise, for fear you lose your seed, your labour, your stock: and so, by that reason, it should be best for you to live idly, and never to take in hand to do any manner of good thing, lest peradventure some evil thing may chance thereof. And if you be afraid to fall into error by reading of Holy Scripture, I shall shew you how you may read it without danger of error.

Read it humbly, with meek and lowly heart, to the intent that you may glorify God, and not yourself, with the knowledge of it: and read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect; and take upon you to expound it no further than you can plainly understand it: for, as St. Augustine saith, the knowledge of Holy Scripture is a great, large, and high place; but the door is very low, so that the high and arrogant man cannot run in; but he must stoop low, and humble himself, that shall enter into it. Presumption and arrogancy is the mother of all error; and humility needeth to fear no error. For humility will only search to know the truth: it will search and will bring together one place with another; and where it cannot find out the meaning, it will pray, it will ask of others that know, and will not presumptuously and rashly define any thing which it knoweth not. Therefore, the humble man may search any truth boldly in the Scripture, without any danger of error. And if he be ignorant, he ought the more to read and search Holy Scripture, to bring him out of ignorance. I say not may, but a man may profit with only hearing; but he may much more profit with both hearing and reading.

On the hardness of Scripture.

This have I said as touching the fear to read, through ignorance of the person. And concerning the hardness of Scripture; he that is so weak that he is not able to brook strong meat, yet he may suck the sweet and tender milk, and defer the rest until he wax stronger, and come to more knowledge. For God receiveth the learned and un-learned, and casteth away none, but is indifferent unto all. And the Scripture is full, as well of low valleys, plain ways, and easy for every man to use and to walk in, as also of high hills and mountain, which few men can climb unto. And whosoever giveth his mind to Holy Scriptures with diligent study and burning desire, it cannot be, saith St. John Chrysostom, “that he should be left without help. For either God Almighty will send him some godly Doctor to teach him – as he did to instruct the Eunuch, a nobleman of Ethiopia, and treasurer unto Queen Candace; who having a great affection to read the Scripture, although he understood it not, yet, for the desire that he had unto God’s word, God sent his Apostle Philip to declare unto him the true sense of the Scripture that he read – or else, if we lack a learned man to instruct and teach us, yet God himself from above will give light unto our minds, and teach us those things which are necessary for us, and wherein we be ignorant.”

And in another place Chrysostom saith, “that man’s human and worldly wisdom, or science, is not needful to the understanding of Scripture; but the revelation of the Holy Ghost, who inspireth the true meaning unto them that with humility and diligence do search therefore.”

“He that asketh shall have, and he that seeketh shall find, and he that knocketh shall have the door opened” (Matthew 7). If we read once, twice, or thrice, and understand not, let us not cease so; but still continue reading, praying, asking of others: and so, by still knocking, at the last, the door shall be opened, as St. Augustine saith. Although many things in Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the self-same thing in other places is spoken more familiarly and plainly, to the capacity both of learned and unlearned.

And those things, in the Scripture, that be plain to understand, and necessary for salvation, every man’s duty is to learn them, to print them in memory, and effectually to exercise them; and, as for the dark mysteries, to be contented to be ignorant in them, until such time as it shall please God to open those things unto him. In the mean season, if he lack either aptness or opportunity, God will not impute it to his folly: but yet it behoveth not, that such as be apt should set aside reading, because some other be unapt to read: nevertheless, for the hardness of such place, the reading of the whole ought not to be set apart.


And briefly to conclude: as St. Augustine saith, “By the Scripture all men be amended; weak men be strengthened, and strong men be comforted.” So that surely none be enemies to the reading of God’s word, but such as either be ignorant, that they know not who wholesome a thing it is; or else be so sick, that they hate the most comfortable medicine, that should heal them, or so ungodly, that they would wish the people still to continue in blindness and ignorance of God.

Thus we have briefly touched some part of the commodities of God’s holy word, which is one of God’s chief and principal benefits, given and declared to mankind here on earth. Let us thank God heartily for this his great and special gift, beneficial favour, and fatherly providence. Let us be glad to receive this precious gift of our heavenly Father. Let us hear, read, and know these holy rules, injunctions, and statutes of our Christian religion, and upon that we have made profession to God at our baptism. Let us with fear and reverence lay up, in the chest of our hearts, these necessary and fruitful lessons (Psalm 1); let us night and day muse, and have meditation and contemplation in them; let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation of them. Let us stay, quiet, and certify our consciences with the most infallible certainty, truth, and perpetual assurance of them. Let us pray to God, the only Author of these heavenly studies, that we may speak, think, believe, live, and depart hence, according to the wholesome doctrine and verities of them. And, by that means, in this world we shall have God’s defence, favour, and grace, with the unspeakable solace of peace, and quietness of conscience; and, after this miserable life, we shall enjoy the endless bliss and glory of heaven: which he grant us all, that died for us all, Jesus Christ: to whom, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, both now and everlastingly. Amen.

The Martyrs’ Memorial at the south end of Saint Giles’ near Saint John’s College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This posting was prepared for the Module TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality, on the MTh course, on 10 November 2014 in advance of a seminar on 17 November 2014

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