Ashley Null is one of the world’s foremost experts on Thomas Cranmer. He is canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas, visiting fellow at Cambridge, visiting research fellow at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him.
What are you currently working on?
I am preparing a critical edition of Cranmer’s private theological notebooks for Oxford University Press—a five-volume project. The first volume, The Efficacious Word of God, should be available in print this time next year.
What can you tell us about what you are finding and why this is so important?
As part of this project, I have located Cranmer’s massive research notes on the Eucharist during the time he was preparing the prayer books. They shed much more light on his understanding of the Eucharist, including the importance of Eastern sources in his thought. These papers should forever close the debate on whether Cranmer was a “mere memoralist.” He clearly believed the Eucharist was fundamentally a fresh, supernatural encounter with Christ which promoted sanctification in the believer.
How is a better understanding of Cranmer, his influence and his theology, fuel for a more robust focus on evangelism and mission?
Firstly, Cranmer’s commitment to the transforming power of Scripture is the only solid hope any church has for a fruitful mission program. Unless our efforts are built on God’s Word, we have no truth or hope to offer folks. Remembering that this was the foundational truth of our first Anglican formularies can help guide our contemporary sense of what it means to be Episcopalian.
Secondly, Cranmer’s understanding of human nature and the importance of the affections can help us have a much better understanding of those we are trying to reach with the Gospel. According to Cranmer, “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” As shrewd observers of human nature, the Reformers realized that there were forces that drive people, often without them realizing it. Real change can only happen when those sub-conscious needs are addressed, and the greatest need is to be loved. Only when we know we are loved can we gain the power to love others. Until then, all our efforts, whether we be aware of it or not, are directed at making ourselves feel loved. Until then, the role of reason is simply to justify our efforts at self-love, often in the form of self-gratification. Since many people think they have to be good enough first before God can love them, they avoid church, since they fear going there will make them feel unloved. Therefore, any effective evangelistic strategy must begin with proclaiming the unconditional love of God for sinners.
Thirdly, we live in a culture where we are defined by what we do, rather than by whom we are loved. That was the issue that Cranmer faced in his day, and his presentation of the Gospel was tailored to meet that cultural challenge in the light of human nature. We can learn so much from his notion of divine allurement as summarized in the Comfortable Words. Step by step, Cranmer’s gospel sentences begin with felt human needs and gradually lead people to see the glory of God as revealed in his unconditional love for the unworthy in the cross of Christ.
Fourthly, Cranmer was the originator of the Anglican concept of the difference between biblically determined essentials and church-determined non-essentials. In a time when there is so much confusion between these two categories, it is helpful to remember their original meaning in the Anglican context. Cranmer thought Jesus came to proclaim a message that had the power to create a community. How that message was proclaimed would depend on the cultural context of the audience. Just as his gospel of divine allurement was thoroughly biblical but still shaped to address contemporary needs and issues, Cranmer believed that the church in every generation needed to rethink its liturgy and institutional life to make sure it expressed the unchanging Gospel in terms understandable to ever evolving contemporary culture. The great advantage of this understanding of mission is its sensitivity to the great diversity of human flourishing. The church will not be expected to look the same amongst different people groups, although they believe the same truths. Of course, the great danger of this understanding of mission is that cultural accommodation can lead to cultural capitulation, i.e., cultural truths can replace biblical truths in the name of contextualization.
Lastly, we can still learn from Cranmer’s understanding of the relationship between good theology and a great society. According to Cranmer, grace leads to gratitude, gratitude births love, love leads to repentance, repentance produces good works, good works make for a better society. What better mission strategy could a church follow?
Books by Ashley
- Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love
- Divine Allurement: Cranmer’s Comfortable Words