When we talk about church history we often focus on the good parts, and when we talk about key historical figures in the faith we often paint them as hero-like. And rightfully so. As we hope to show you on this site, there are countless heroic stories of Christians overcoming great obstacles of physical persecution, public opposition, and personal demons. But because we celebrate the good and don’t often consider the bad, we can set ourselves up to be unpleasantly surprised when someone brings the skeletons out of the church history closet. That person may say something like, “Luther hated Jews and so that’s how Hitler started the Holocaust—with his writings!” “Calvin killed Servetus for heresy—so much for freedom of religion!” and “Jonathan Edwards had slaves—Christianity is not good for human rights!” When we hear things like this, we’re often tempted to either shove the skeleton back in the closet and pretend it’s not there or hang our heads in shame. I’d like to suggest another way by using the example of Thomas Cranmer, that eminent English Reformer.
When I started to read about Cranmer, I was immediately struck by one disturbing thought—Cranmer is known for helping Henry VIII get a divorce, but Cranmer is also the one who gave us our marriage vows! Cranmer’s liturgy has been so influential that when English-speaking people refer to “the traditional marriage vows,” they are referring to the vows written by Cranmer. Cranmer himself had an interesting personal life when it came to marriage. When he was in the initial steps of becoming part of a fellowship at Jesus College, which required him to take a vow of celibacy, he seemingly out of the blue decided to get married. Sadly, his wife and child tragically died in childbirth soon after they got married, and Cranmer was readmitted to the College and became a priest. However, on a trip to Germany he fell in love again and got married to his second wife, Margaret. This was not only against his priestly vows, but also against the king, who he was now working for on his team of annulment-devisers.
I went into this research with an open mind, thinking that maybe Henry VIII wasn’t really as bad as all of the novels, TV shows, and movies about the Tudors made him seem, and maybe Cranmer was right to legalize Henry’s annulment. But it turned out to be a lot worse than I thought. Henry is portrayed by the most moderate and boring scholars of history as a neurotic and difficult individual; he really did let his unbridled passions get the best of him in his six marriages. Furthermore, Henry’s wives, though victims of his power tripping ego, were not always innocent. Both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour flirted and became intimate with Henry in ways that were inappropriate according to both Catholic and Protestant standards of purity, and this was a factor in the dissolution of his marriages to Catherine and Anne. The worst parts of it all were that God’s Word was twisted to support Henry’s sinful demands and families were torn apart. Catherine was permanently separated from her daughter Mary, Mary was emotionally manipulated by Henry who barred her even from going to her own mother’s funeral, Anne was killed on the basis of false testimony only a few years after giving birth to Elizabeth, and both Mary and Elizabeth were shown that they were not only lesser than sons (the reason for Henry’s divorce was that he wanted a son to succeed him on the throne) but even less than Henry’s own children, since he legally deemed them bastards. Unfortunately, Cranmer’s name was the first signature on most of these documents, and he helped create or support many of the Scriptural arguments. These circumstances set up Henry as the head of the Church of England, a blatant and unrepentant adulterer, liar, and murderer, and Cranmer, who is known for his revolutionary view of marriage as friendship, as the Archbishop who legalized Henry’s annulments.
When faced with a historical hero’s flaws, it is unwise to sweep them under the rug or allow them to characterize that person’s entire life or all of Christianity. Rather, we should 1) contextualize it, 2) recognize it, and 3) use it to share the gospel.
1. Contextualize it
Before jumping to conclusions, we should do our best to understand the situation or statement in question by examining the individual’s context. This is not mutually exclusive to number two, so that we can now make excuses for sin. Rather, it is ensuring that all of the facts are laid out so that the situation is understood properly. In Cranmer’s case, he was not the only Reformer who supported Henry’s annulments. Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Bucer agreed that Henry could or should marry Anne, which shows that Protestant views of marriage and divorce were in flux and differ from later Protestants. Furthermore, Cranmer, Catherine, Mary, Anne, and Jane were all trying to survive under Henry’s rule; as proven by past events, he could order the execution of anyone for anything so it was wise to avoid getting on his bad side. Moreover, Cranmer was pushing for more reform in England, and to do that he not only had to stay alive but also get support from other Protestants like Anne in order to persuade Henry to believe Protestant doctrines and implement Protestant practices in the Church of England. Finally, we should not paint a picture of Cranmer as completely summed up by his sin, but include this sin alongside his shining moments. Again, none of this excuses Cranmer from his failures, but it does help us understand him as fairly as possible, i.e., in his own context.
Overall, this does not mean that every accusation raised against an individual or group is true, or that what is true of one is true of the whole. To discover the former means you may have to do some research by reading what they really said (in context, not just one sentence) or did (in the context of their time period, culture, and other factors). To discover the latter, you may have to look to a different person, group, time, or place for different responses to similar situations. In this case, William Tyndale had stood up to Henry and said, respectfully but seriously, that he had searched the Scripture and could not find a good reason for him to divorce Catherine. Tyndale was rejected for speaking the truth, but we see today that he represents the godly response to this complicated situation.
2. Recognize it
If after contextualizing the problem it is still clear that a historical figure failed, recognize that. Pretending that a sin is not a sin is a sin. Remember, sin is deceptive so it wants us to keep buying into lies. While I was researching Cranmer and Henry, I often found myself questioning my conclusions. Am I being too harsh? Should I be more sensitive to contextual factors? Was their interpretation of Leviticus 20:21 actually right? Even after doing the bulk of my research I occasionally felt persuaded by their arguments because what was sinful was dressed up as something good. In order to stop perpetuating the sin cycle we must call a sin what it is. Don’t call it a shortcoming, don’t call it a mistake, call it a sin. If we don’t do this, we are not only setting ourselves up for failure in the eyes of the world but also in the eyes of God. After researching Cranmer in his context, I had to come to the conclusion that he sinned in this situation by not correcting Henry’s misinterpretations of Scripture but rather using them to justify illegitimate divorces, which led to the dissolution of multiple families and even the death of innocent people.
3. Use it to share the gospel
So the next time someone asks us about Cranmer, what should we do? Contextualize and recognize, and then hang our heads in shame and walk away? No. We should use that situation as an opportunity to speak the gospel into someone’s life. Jesus did not come to heal the healthy but to heal the sick. So many people still see Christianity as a clean-your-act-up type of self-help program, and that is what turns them off. We can say of Cranmer what he would have said of himself—he is a sinner; he did sin! But he was a sinner saved by grace, and that grace is offered to all people. None of us will get to the end of our lives and be able to say we did it all right. We sin, our historical heroes sinned, and even our favorite Bible heroes sinned. The only sinless human being is Jesus Christ; he lived a perfect life and died a substitutionary death for us sinners so that we could be healed of our sin problem, and at the end of the day, this should be the hero story we are most excited to tell.