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The Christian Hermeneutics of Cranmer’s Homilies

  • Richard S. Briggs

This article explores some of the hermeneutical resources of the two official books of homilies, authorized to be preached in the BCP communion service. The historical contexts and successive editions of the books are explained, and a focused reading is offered of the key texts relevant to the interpretation of Scripture. Some consideration is given to other related texts that highlight Cranmer’s hermeneutical approach. It is suggested that Cranmer’s use of Scripture is not in practice the approach he commends in the first homily, but is driven by concerns with attaining the ‘right’ doctrine of justification. A key issue is the interplay between readerly character, deferral to wise readers, and the pressure of the text against particular traditions. It is argued that the Books of Homilies here offer rich material for reflection upon the nature of Christian hermeneutics in one particular ecclesial tradition, and indicate an Anglican approach to Scripture that has much to offer.

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Revd Dr Richard S. Briggs is Lecturer in Old Testament and Director of Biblical Studies at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham, UK.

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2. Homily II/10: An Information for them which take Offence at certain places of the Holy Scripture, in John Griffiths, The Two Books of Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859), p. 380.

3. The precise dating of the Books of Homilies is noted below, where it will be relevant to be aware that the articles progressed in (at least) three recensions: a largely Cranmerian original 42 articles in 1553 (in Latin though also prepared in English); a 1563 Latin edition; and a slightly expanded English edition in 1571. See O’Donovan, Oliver, On the 39 Articles: A Conversation with Tudor Christianity (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1986), pp. 10-11 .

4. About half of Book I is currently at (accessed 17 January 2017).

5. Fowl, Stephen E., Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Cascade Companion; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), p. 22 (first quote) and p. 73 (last two quotes).

6. The most convenient and up-to-date source for the information that follows is Null, Ashley, ‘Official Tudor Homilies’, in Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 348-365 . The same author offers a slightly more detailed reading of the first six homilies in his ‘Salvation and Sanctification in the Book of Homilies’, Reformed Theological Review, 62.1 (2003), pp. 14-28.

7. It originated separately as a response to the events of 1569–70 and Pope Pius V’s Regnans in excelsis bull. Homily 21 was listed in the 1571 English translation of the articles, which thereby fixed the full list.

8. See Greer, Rowan A., Anglican Approaches to Scripture. From the Reformation to the Present (New York: Crossroad, 2006), p. 11 .

9. I am indebted here to the University of Toronto’s Renaissance Electronic Texts series critical online edition of the Books, which includes a helpful summary by Ian Lancashire, ‘A Brief History of the Homilies’ (revised 1997); available at (accessed 17 January 2017). See also Ronald B. Bond, ‘A Two-Edged Sword: The History of the Tudor Homilies’, the first chapter of his edited edition: Certain Sermons or Homilies (1547) and A Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion (1570): A Critical Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), pp. 3-25.

10. The early Church of England was not in this sense a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism: that is the contribution of the Oxford Movement in the late nineteenth century; see Greer, Anglican Approaches to Scripture, p. xxiii.

11. For analysis of the Marian context see Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), esp. pp. 543-546 on Bonner. On Bonner’s authorship of I/6 see Griffiths, ‘Editor’s Preface’, in The Two Books of Homilies, p. xxvii.

12. Stacey makes this point persuasively. See Stacey, Caroline M., ‘Justification by Faith in the Two Books of Homilies (1547 and 1571)’, Anglican Theological Review 83.2 (2001), pp. 255-279 , especially pp. 255-56.

13. Null, ‘Official Tudor Homilies’, p. 348.

14. Griffiths, , The Two Books of Homilies , especially the ‘Editor’s Preface’, pp. vii-lxxvi. This edition is available in pdf form online at (accessed 17 January 2017).

15. Bond (ed.), Certain Sermons or Homilies.

16. See the draft selections at (accessed 17 January 2017).

17. Listed in an appendix at the end of this article. Griffiths gives full meandering titles to each homily.

18. Null, ‘Official Tudor Homilies’, p. 354.

19. For example, Null, ‘Official Tudor Homilies’, p. 354; cf. also MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 372 .

20. Duffield, G.E. (ed.), The Work of Thomas Cranmer (Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics 2; Appleford: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1964), cf. pp. 45-231 .

21. MacCulloch says this is because plans to reform the Eucharist were not far advanced in 1547: Thomas Cranmer, p. 372.

22. See, briefly, Dean, Jonathan (ed.), God Truly Worshipped: Thomas Cranmer and his Writings (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology; Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012), pp. 41-47 , which incorporates some extracts from Cranmer’s Preface itself.

23. Griffiths, ‘Editor’s Preface’, p. xxxiv.

24. See Griffiths, The Two Books of Homilies, pp. 7-10 and pp. 11-15. Page references to this and all subsequent homilies cited are included in parentheses in the text.

25. I defend this in my The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Studies in Theological Interpretation; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), esp. pp. 28-34, 206-10, including reflection that such character-orientated concerns are markedly different from, for example, Lutheran readings of Scripture (pp. 33, 209).

26. I am indebted here to the fine discussion of Null, Ashley, Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 120-133 . Null writes that though Cranmer ‘did make some straightforward statements about the necessary role of the human will in producing the fruits of true faith, these are best understood as descriptive of what the supernatural gift of justifying faith would inevitably cause to happen in the elect’ (p. 129). Null is here exploring how, for Cranmer, the elect and the justified are one and the same.

27. See especially for this point Wabuda, Susan, ‘Bishops and the Provision of Homilies, 1520 to 1547’, Sixteenth Century Journal 25.3 (1994), pp. 551-566 .

28. ‘Preface to the Bible’, in Duffield (ed.), Work of Thomas Cranmer, pp. 30-43. The reliance is clear in the version reproduced in Dean (ed.), God Truly Worshipped, pp. 42-47, which omits the two long citations and thereby reduces the work by over 50 per cent. Page references are to Duffield’s version.

29. A persuasive reading of their core focus on justification is offered by Stacey, ‘Justification by Faith in the Two Books of Homilies’.

30. Lev. 19.18; obviously also cited in Mt. 22.39 and parallels, but in context Cranmer is referring to Christ’s citing of OT precedent.

31. Null, Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance, p. 215. Null notes scholarly dispute over Cranmer’s views here, which he attributes to the nature of the Homilies as ‘instruction for a popular audience’ which thus ‘lack the technical theological precision which would have avoided the later scholarly debate over their interpretation’ (p. 214).

32. Null, Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance, p. 219. My reading of Cranmer’s ‘solifidianism’ is informed by Null’s treatment (and cites above his definition of the term from p. 5).

33. Page references are to Griffiths (ed.), The Two Books of Homilies, pp. 368-81.

34. Greer, Anglican Approaches to Scripture, p. 10.

35. MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, p. 629.

1. Revd Dr Richard S. Briggs is Lecturer in Old Testament and Director of Biblical Studies at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham, UK.

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