Friday, August 7, 2009

Cranmer on Interpreting Holy Scripture

A post by Mark Thompson on a lecture series by Ashley Null (the world's foremost expert on Cranmer) has led me to the first Homily in the great, but little read, Books of the Homilies. This homily is various entitled, HOMILY ON THE READING OF SCRIPTURE, and A FRVITFVLL EXHORTATION TO the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture. The whole is accessible here (and all the homilies of the two Books of Homilies here).

In the course of this homily on reading Scripture Cranmer (almost certainly the author) writes about understanding Scripture (I have emboldened the most pertinent sentences):

"How most commodiouslie and without all perill the holy Scripture is to bee read. Read it humbly with a meeke and lowly heart, to the intent you may glorifie GOD, and not your selfe, with the knowledge of it: and read it not without dayly praying to GOD, that he would direct your reading to good effect: and take vpon you to expound it no further, then you can plainely vnderstand it. For (as Saint Augustine sayth) the knowledge of holy Scripture, is a great, large, and a high place, but the doore is very low, so that the high & arrogant man cannot run in: but he must stoope low, and humble himselfe, that shall enter into it. Presumption and arrogancy is the mother of all error: and humility nedeth to feare no error. For humility will only search to know the truth, it will search, and will bring together one place with another, and where it cannot finde out the meaning, it will pray, it will aske of other that know, and will not presumptuously and rashly define any thing, which it knoweth not. Therefore the humble man may search any trueth boldly in the Scripture, without any danger of errour. And if he be ignorant, he ought the more to read and to search holy Scripture, to bring him out of ignorance. I say not nay, but a man may prosper with onely hearing, but hee may much more prosper, with both hearing and reading.

Scripture in some places is easie, and in some places hard to bee vnderstood. This haue I sayd, as touching the feare to reade, thorow ignorance of the person. And concerning the hardnesse of Scripture, he that is so weake that he is not able to brooke strong meat, yet he may sucke the sweet and tender milke, and deferre the rest, vntill he wax stronger, and come to more knowledge. For GOD receiueth the learned and vnlearned, and casteth away none, but is indifferent vnto all. And the Scripture is full, as well of low valleyes, plaine wayes, and easie for euery man to vse, and to walke in: as also of high hilles & mountaynes, which few men can climbe vnto.

GOD leaueth no man vntaught, that hath good will to know his word. And whosoeuer giueth his minde to holy Scriptures, with diligent study and burning desire, it can not bee (saith Saint Chrysostome) that hee should bee left without helpe. For either GOD Almighty will send him some godly doctour, to teach him, as hee did to instruct Eunuchus, a noble man of Aethiope, and Treasurer vnto Queene Candace, who hauing affection to reade the Scripture (although hee vnderstoode it not) yet for the desire that hee had vnto GODS word, GOD sent his Apostle Philip to declare vnto him the true sense of the Scripture that he read: or else, if we lacke a learned man to instruct and teach vs, yet GOD himselfe from aboue, will giue light vnto our mindes, and teach vs those things which are necessary for vs, & wherin we be ignorant.

How the knowledge of the Scripture may be attayned vnto. And in another place Chrysostome sayth, that mans humane and worldly wisedome or science, needeth not to the vnderstanding of Scripture, but the reuelation of the holy Ghost, who inspireth the true meaning vnto them, that with humility and diligence doe search therefore. He that asketh, shall haue, and he that seeketh shall finde, and he that knocketh, shall haue the doore open (Matthew 7.7-8).

A good rule for the vnderstanding of Scripture. If wee reade once, twice, or thrice, and vnderstand not, let vs not cease so, but still continue reading, praying, asking of other, and so by still knocking (at the last) the doore shall be opened (as Saint Augustine sayth.) Although many things in the Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken vnder darke mysteries in one place, but the selfe same thing in other places, is spoken more familiarly and plainly, to the capacity both of learned and vnlearned."

Cranmer recognises that Scripture is not always easy to understand, values the role learning and scholarship bring to understanding Scripture, but is confident that even the unlearned and those without access to the learned can understand Scripture with God's help and a willingness to (a) read a passage repeatedly and (b) search for another passage in Scripture to throw light on the difficult passage.


  1. Of course, these are sermons rather than theological treatises, but it's interesting that more than 460 years later, the Homilies are not difficult to follow. The mythical person of 'reasonable' education and intelligence can understand these without much difficulty. (The same can be said for Tyndale's NT, which was recently reprinted, and was obviously hugely influential on the KJV.) Which is to say that style (communicativeness) is as important as content if theological writings are to have perennial worth. It's also important to have something worth saying!

  2. Naturally this blog, if somewhat dimly and faintly, seeks to stand in the Cranmerian tradition of style and substance ...

  3. Just don't forget where Cranmer's convictions led him ....