Justification by Faith in the Two Books of Homilies (1547 and 1571)

By Stacey, Caroline M. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Justification by Faith in the Two Books of Homilies (1547 and 1571)


Stacey, Caroline M., Anglican Theological Review


Background to the 1547 Book of Homilies

Read in every church and heard of all congregations, designed for the maintenance of the Establishment, as well as the "maintenance of true religion and venue"-for the suppression of [Roman] Catholicism and the discouragement of Puritanism, as well as for the teaching of "what duty they owe both God and man"-these Homilies were probably, next to the Book of Common Prayer, as well known and as influential as any writings produced between 1547 and 1640. No student of political, ecclesiastical or literary history-no student of the history of ideas or institutions of England in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries-can afford to neglect or ignore these two books.1

The Books of Homilies of 1547 and 1571 were compiled with a doctrinal, ecclesiastical and sociopolitical agenda in mind. Although we will not focus on socioeconomic concerns, the reformers were not insensitive to these; the Rogationtide sermon alludes to the enclosure issue, the collapse of the cloth trade, and rising inflation, which would culminate in 1549 in Ket's Rebellion in East Anglia. Indeed, some commentators have seen the Homilies primarily as tools to manage the political agenda of a respublica Christiana, the vision of a Christian Commonwealth in England, the humanist (Erasmian) ideal society, with all the nationalist agenda that implied. Such commentators argue that the Homilies are espousing particular doctrine not as an end in itself but rather as a means to promote a hierarchical vision of society and the notions of duty and obedience to those in authority consistent with maintaining that societal structure.2 I would suggest that this is twentieth-century eisegesis. Certainly, this was not Cranmer's primary goal in the 1547 Book of Homilies.

It is true that obedience to God and sociopolitical concord are connected in Tudor society, with the newly consolidated sense of national church and national identity, but the very idea of obedience to those in earthly authority is, firstly, thoroughly medieval and not a Tudor convention; and secondly, it is retained in some Protestant thought (such as Cranmer's) because it was a belief rooted in Scripture, and was consistent with patristic scholarship and therefore incorporated within much reformed doctrine.3 It may seem to us misguided, but it is sincere, with any error being on the side of naivete, rather than self-serving and self-justifying statesmanship. Rather than the Homilies serving as a tool of a sociopolitical agenda, the social vision emerges from the scriptural and doctrinal root.

In some aspects, the Homilies are, of course, very much "of their time." There are many passages which are pure polemic against Rome and Romish practices,4 several passages of anti-Semitism,5 and some places where what is being justified is not so much salvation by faith but rather the dissolution of the monasteries or some such recent policy.6 We see great faith in the power of the printed word, and especially the Word printed in the vernacular, to change hearts and minds; this reflects the contemporary optimism following the progress of the printing press.7 We see the influence of Erasmus and Christian Humanism in the structure of the Homilies,8 and Cranmer's early educational agenda in these Homilies was influenced extensively by Erasmus. However, theologically, Cranmer would outgrow Erasmus, especially in his views on predestination.

It is clear as early as the Thirteen Articles of 1538 (and the unprinted extra three) that Cranmer's private thoughts were already along Lutheran lines.9 It may be that as early as his 1532 visit to Nuremburg he had accepted the Lutheran position. After all, he asked the prominent Lutheran pastor Osiander for his niece's hand in marriage and it is unlikely Osiander would have consented if Cranmer had had no sympathy for his beliefs. We know from his Commonplace Books, and "Notes on Justification" (annotations on the King's Book), that certainly by 1546, Cranmer believed the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and disbelieved transubstantiation.

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