Language and History in the Reformation: Cranmer, Gardiner, and the Words of Institution

By Anderson, Judith H. | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Language and History in the Reformation: Cranmer, Gardiner, and the Words of Institution


Anderson, Judith H., Renaissance Quarterly


Over centuries, the fortunes of the verb to be illustrate the involvement of language in history and history in language, and the particular role of figurative language in the early reforms of the established church in Tudor England significantly reflects this involvement. Explanations and controversies regarding eucharistic belief during the archbishopric of Thomas Cranmer, which often draw on Continental sources, show that language and rhetoric were at the heart of Cranmer's basic problem, namely, how effectively to convey a metaphorical conception of presence. These arguments vairously parallel contemporary ones concerning meaning and the nature of metaphor, as evident in writings of Benveniste, Derrida, and especially Ricoeur.

What follows concerns two interlocking interests: the involvement of language in history, history in language, and the particular role of language, especially figurative language, in the early reforms of the established church in Tudor England. Still more specifically, my concerns will focus on explanations of eucharistic belief during the archbishopric of Thomas Cranmer. As Diarmaid MacCulloch, Cranmer's recent biographer, has observed, Cranmer's basic problem "was how best to convey a metaphorical notion of presence" (379). Language and rhetoric, the language art, were at the heart of this problem.

Linguistic history is the larger backdrop against which the theological reformation of the sixteenth century acquires a meaning that appears at moments prophetic. From a modern perspective, Reformation debates about tropology that center on the sacrament, the defining issue of the Reformation itself, at once mask and express the older linguistic displacements that underwrite their inevitability. These displacements -- actually, translations -- involve the verb is in the words of institution, "This is my body," and they are basically metaphoric. They transfer meaning from one language to another and from one mode of conception to another. Instead of being transparent or truly equivalent, they involve shifting registers of meaning.

As controversialists on both sides of the Reformation note, the argument for real presence rests essentially with the verb is, traditionally known as the substantive verb and taken to indicate a real and present existence. Understandably, the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli therefore bases his seminal denial of real presence on a tropic understanding of the verb "is," taking it to mean "represents" or "figures." [1] Zwingli's associate Johannes Oecolampadius, responding to linguistic argument and historical precedent, merely transfers Zwingli's tropic initiative to the predicate nominative, "my body." He translates it as "a representation -- or figure -- of my body." [2] In either of these cases, real presence is displaced in and by "a certain maner of [figurative] spech," a phrase I borrow from Cranmer and his antagonist Stephen Gardiner about three decades later. [3] This manner, or mode, inheres not simply in Zwingli's trope, but also in a second concept of being inherent in the verb to be itself, one tha t is rather "fictive" (from fingere: "to form, make; to conceive, imagine") than substantive.

Not long before the clashes of Zwingli with Martin Luther in the 1520s over the meaning of the words of institution, Erasmus's annotations of the New Testament provoked controversy about these words, specifically calling attention to variants of them in the Greek codices. On the traditional Latin rendering of 1 Corinthians 11:24, Hoc est corpus meum, Erasmus remarks that the substantive verb is absent in the Greek, although, he notes circumspectly, "I find it added (additum) in certain [manuscripts]." [4] His Greek sources read, Touto mou soma, or, in Latin, Hoc corpus meum. Citing Erasmus, Luther, although a proponent of bodily presence and willing enough to invoke the authority of the substantive verb to support it, offers in his Confession concerning Christ's Supper a verbatim translation of the statement of institution without the substantive verb, namely, "'Take, eat this my body which is broken for you"' (3:331-32). …

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