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Telling Another Old Story

Wolf Hall

Many of us have been watching the gripping drama of Wolf Hall on TV, because we didn’t get around to reading the book. Others of us have watched the tabloid Tudors, or seen Elizabeth or The Other Boleyn Girl at the movies. Period dramas draw us in, and sixteenth century England has sumptuous stories to tell. In fact, most of what a younger generation knows about Tudor England comes through movies, and not books. Movies make for great entertainment, but aren’t so helpful for theological reflection. We forget that King Henry VIII wrote a theological tract that was honoured by the Pope, or that Queen Catherine Parr composed a magnificent conversion account, Lamentation of a Sinner. In fact, many sixteenth century Biblical and theological debates are simply overlooked in modern state and secular universities. Alister McGrath has written fantastic books on the Reformation for undergraduates at Oxford, because while teaching there he realised that so few students had been trained in theological disciplines and were ignorant of motivations, context, and the power of theological ideas. We’ve been watching too many shows.

History and Projection

We misunderstand the shape of the English Reformation for other reasons, too. We project back onto the Tudor dynasty our assumptions about the British Empire, but in the sixteenth century England was a minor player on the European stage compared with France or the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. She was in that period dependent on the European continent in so many ways. Today her independence and claims to exceptionalism are celebrated when she decides to keep the pound or exit the European Union, but in the early sixteenth century England had porous borders and her language was only just adequate to express noble ideas—Latin was still the language of academics and French or Spanish the language of the nobility and court. In Tudor times, England did not yet rule the waves.

In fact, in the period of the Reformation, modern England was only just being born. If we have learnt anything about the Tudors, we know that Henry married six wives, but there is more to his relationships than mere lust. We easily forget that after the disastrous Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, Henry’s deepest drives were generated by the desire to settle England and establish stable government through siring a male heir. England could not be allowed to descend into anarchy again. Witness the tapestries commissioned by Henry in Hampton Court Palace which do not depict Solomon with many wives, nor David wooing Bathsheba, but Abraham beginning a nation. England was in the process of rethinking how it should see itself in the world.

A Very European Reformation

In the end, therefore, the English Reformation was a lot more like the Reformation in Germany or Switzerland than we imagine. There were times when it looked like the Protestant cause in England would fail under Queen Mary Tudor, but failure was experienced on the continent too. After all, Calvin was kicked out of Geneva and all appeared lost. Saxon lands reverted to Roman Catholic faith in the Wittenberg Capitulation of 1547. The fortunes of reform everywhere looked bleak from time to time. But it was not only that reform movements experienced common vicissitudes. People and ideas were mobile, and feeling part of an imperial project was everywhere. Luther’s ideas took ready root in the University of Cambridge in the 1520s, long before they had impacted Paris or Geneva. Melanchthon, Luther’s right hand man, was invited to teach in England. In fact, Lutheran and Reformed thinkers took up positions at Oxford and Cambridge and brought with them assumptions about confessional faith (often summarised under the term “articles”), the reform of the liturgy, and hopes for national (not just regional) transformation. This was a mighty project! Exiles from Poland or Germany moved to England, and under Mary many Protestants fled to the continent where they saw models of church life that they in time brought back to England with them after Elizabeth had acceded the throne.

Luther’s ideas took ready root in the University of Cambridge long before they had impacted Paris or Geneva. Melanchthon, Luther’s right hand man, was invited to teach in England. Lutheran and Reformed thinkers took up positions at Oxford and Cambridge

The English Reformation was not isolated from the continent. There were debates about the doctrine of justification by faith—see the notes in Tyndale’s books—just as there had been in Saxony. When King Henry commissioned and paid for the publication and distribution of the Great Bible to be placed in every parish church, the English thereby demonstrated their commitment to re-evangelising the laity, just like Luther had done through translation work or Zwingli had done by writing in a German dialect and keeping his Swiss name. Since 1415, the Bible in English had been outlawed, but finally it was available in parish churches for all to hear in the vernacular. Homilies were written by Cranmer and others to be read and preached when the priest was unskilled in homiletics, just as Luther had done in his postils some years earlier. Theologically, the English church experimented with and adopted continental scholarship, and promoted a vision for renewal common to many continental reform movements that was based on engagement with the Scriptures.

On the matter of the sacraments, historians as diverse as Diarmaid MacCulloch, Euan Cameron and Peter Newman Brooks all argue that Cranmer’s views of the “true presence” of Christ in the elements was shared by Bucer, Melanchthon, Bullinger and Calvin. As the great Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan says of the English Reformation, it was “Lutheran in its intellectual origins, Catholic in its polity, Reformed in its official confessional statements.” Of course, there were leaders in England (known as Lollards) agitating for reform of the church long before Luther, but theological sparks from Germany or Switzerland were instrumental in fanning English reformist flames.

Via Media: Geneva and Wittenberg

Anglicans like to speak of the via media. By this, we commonly mean that England tried to steer a course between Roman Catholicism on one hand, and Genevan reform ideas on the other. The English temperament tends towards the moderate and the practical, so we allow ourselves to see the English Reformation as avoiding the extremes of continental positions. We forget, though, that Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope in 1570 and the Spanish tried to invade in 1588. She was in no hurry to placate Rome. As Diarmaid MacCulloch argues so eloquently, the true via media for England was not between Rome and Geneva, but between Geneva and Wittenberg. Continental Protestantism was a powerful influence, template and norming strategy for attempts at reform on the other side of the Channel.

Teaching the Reformation is difficult, not least because we live in an age that prizes the immediate, and in which history is marginalised in our schools. We can read about dynastic or imperial politics in the Reformation world, investigate social movements using class or gender or linguistics as our frame of reference, or examine the lived experience of work, worship or warfare to ask how deeply reforming ideas were planted. All these approaches bear some fruit and are worthy of our attention. Furthermore, discussion of the Reformation in our own day carries with it concerns about ecumenical relationships, the nature of private judgement or freedom of conscience, and questions concerning the birth of capitalism and nation states. It is undoubtedly complicated. What we must not do, however, is assume that the English Reformation played by a different set of rules, or was not animated by theological debates or intellectual history. As people all around the world prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 (on October 31 to be precise), let us be included in their number. Luther’s Reformation is ours too as Anglicans. The continental reformation is central to the reformation of the Church in England in the sixteenth century, and the reverberations of the hammer in Wittenberg can still be heard distinctly in Australia today.


Originally published in The Melbourne Anglican as "Behind the period dramas, theological debates"
Photo: Great Bible frontis, 1539 (head); Still from the TV adaptation of "Wolf Hall" ©2015, BBC (inset) 

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