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Celebrating the Reformation: A Lesson in God's Sovereignty over Human Sin

Most of us would like to think that the Protestant Reformation, whose 490th birthday we celebrate today (October 31st), was always driven by godly motives on the part of people whose greatest desire was for a recovery of the New Testament gospel. Of course, this was indeed the intent of prominent figures such as Martin Luther (who nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on this day in 1517) and John Calvin, just to mention two more well-known names.

 

But such was not always the case. In fact, we see in certain events associated with the Reformation how sinful and politically motivated decisions were made that affected the course of human history and how God, in his sovereignty, used them (without justifying them) to bring about the much-needed renewal of the church.

 

I have in mind particularly the so-called “English Reformation” and the events surrounding King Henry VIII and his progeny. I’m especially intrigued by what happened in England given the release of the film, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” a sequel to the earlier “Elizabeth” (both of which star Cate Blanchett in the title role; although not flawless, I highly recommend both films).

 

The reformation in England differed from that on the continent in several ways. For example, it was dominated by political events rather than theological convictions. In addition, there was no one figure who stood out in the way Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli did in Europe. And perhaps most important of all, the struggle in England, at least in its early years, focused less on doctrinal issues of grace and the authority of Scripture and more on the nature, function and worship of the church.

 

There were undoubtedly influences present in England that tilled the soil, so to speak, for what was to come. I have in mind the presence of the Lollards, the English followers of John Wycliffe; the humanists such as John Colet (1466-1519) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), as well as certain intellectuals at Cambridge who regularly met at the White Horse Inn, a pub that acquired the name “Little Germany” where the latest Reformation intelligence fresh from the continent was discussed. Luther’s writings were being widely circulated in England at this time in spite of the papal decree in 1521 that they be burned. And we should never forget that William Tyndale (1494-1536) published two editions of 3,000 copies of an English New Testament in 1525, while Miles Coverdale provided the world with the first English translation of the entire Bible in 1535.

 

However, the primary impetus for reform in England had little if anything to do with popular disdain for late medieval Catholicism or the spiritual appeal of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. It must be traced to the political ambition, sexual lust, and overblown ego of Henry VIII.

 

Henry was driven by many things, one of which was his passion to ensure that he had a legitimate male heir to succeed him on the English throne. Henry was a well-educated and scholarly man, a competent theologian and musician, who spoke Latin, French, Spanish and English.

 

Henry's father had arranged for Henry's brother, Arthur, to marry Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain). But Arthur died, forcing the elder Henry to press his younger son to marry Catherine. Pope Julius II first had to set aside Arthur's marriage to Catherine lest Henry be guilty of incest. He did so reluctantly. Henry and Catherine had one child, a girl named Mary (Catherine suffered numerous miscarriages, still births, and infant deaths). By 1525 Catherine was forty and had gone seven years without a pregnancy. Henry's desire for a son, plus his growing attraction for Anne Boleyn (with whose sister, Mary, Henry had already had an affair), led him to divorce Catherine (he appealed to Lev. 20:21), an action denounced by the Pope. The Pope had come under the influence of the emperor Charles V, Catherine's nephew!

 

Henry proceeded to secretly wed Anne (who was pregnant by this time), while deposing Catherine. The Pope demanded he do away with Anne and reinstate Catherine, under threat of excommunication. Henry gained control of the English church and manipulated the Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy in 1534 which declared him, the king, to be the supreme head of the Church of England. This constituted the political break with Rome.

 

Not all of Henry's advisors agreed with his assertion of authority. Sir Thomas More, the brilliant humanist and author of Utopia, refused to renounce allegiance to Rome and was subsequently beheaded for treason. His head was displayed on London Bridge on the end of a pike as a warning to others whose loyalties might be divided between pope and king.

 

In 1536 Henry dissolved all the monasteries in England, largely because he desired their wealth. Still, it was not Henry's desire to break theologically with Rome, as the doctrinal affirmation known as the Six Articles (passed by Parliament at the king's request, 1539), demonstrate: they reaffirmed transubstantiation, celibacy of priests, and other RC distinctives. The fact is, Henry appears to have had little interest in the reforms advocated by Luther or Zwingli. His aim was to retain an English form of Catholicism stripped of its allegiance to the Pope (an allegiance Henry coveted for himself alone).

 

Henry soon tired of Anne Boleyn, who had given him only a daughter (Elizabeth), so he had her tried and eventually executed for adultery (along with five of her lovers). Henry persuaded Thomas Cranmer to declare his marriage to Anne void so that the child Elizabeth could not succeed to the throne. Ten days later he married Jane Seymour who bore him the son he always wanted, Edward. Nine days after Edward's birth, his mother died.

 

Henry's next marriage was politically motivated. He married Anne of Cleves (without having laid eyes upon her), sister of a German prince, hoping thereby to solidify relations with that country and strengthen his position against France. When Henry finally saw her, he was repulsed and divorced her six months later. He then married Catherine Howard, whom he had executed in 1542 (she was charged with numerous adulterous affairs), and lastly Catherine Parr, who alone of his many wives outlived him.

 

When Henry died he arranged for Edward to rule first, followed by Catherine's daughter, Mary, and then Anne's daughter, Elizabeth (about whom the two films noted above are concerned).

 

Several important changes were made during Edward’s short reign (1547-1553): the reading of the Bible in public services was approved, the Six Articles of Henry were abolished, the clergy were allowed to marry, and the cup was granted to the laity. In 1549 the Book of Common Prayer was published, reflecting a conservative, Calvinistic theology. A doctrinal confession called the 42 Articles was drafted, largely by Thomas Cranmer, with the help of John Knox of Scotland (1553). Three weeks after signing it, Edward died. The significance of Edward's reign is that during this time England broke with Rome theologically. But this was not to last.

 

It was also during this time that a number of Reformed theologians from the continent settled in England and were assigned by Cranmer to influential positions at several universities. Among the more influential were Martin Bucer (Strasbourg reformer and mentor of John Calvin), Peter Martyr Vermigli (an Italian by birth), and John a Lasco. Their contribution to the Protestant movement in England was profound.

 

Bloody Mary, as she became known to history, was Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon and thus had ties with the RCC. Her reign, although only five short years (1553-1558), coincided with the Catholic Counter-Reformation on the continent and she was undoubtedly influenced by it. She forced Parliament in 1553 to repeal everything Edward had done and returned England to the religious conditions that prevailed under her father.

 

Persecution was intense and martyrdom frequent [Foxe's Book of Martyrs chronicles much of what occurred]. Among the more than 300 who died for their Protestant faith were Hugh Latimer (1485-1555) and Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555). These two stalwarts of the reformation were ordered to be executed outside the city gate of Oxford. As they were being led to the stake, they passed the prison in which Thomas Cranmer was jailed, hoping to catch a glimpse of him and shout a word of encouragement. Indeed, Cranmer was brought to the tower of the prison by the government to watch the proceedings. Their aim was to frighten him out of his defiance. Whereas Cranmer was overcome with anguish by what he saw, falling to his knees and bewailing the event, he remained steadfast.

 

Engulfed by flames, and with his last breath, Latimer uttered the famous words: "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

 

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and is generally regarded as the founder of English Protestantism. He was imprisoned when Mary ascended the throne. He was brainwashed while in solitary confinement and was compelled to write a denial (recantation) of his Protestant faith.

 

Despite his recantation, the law required that he suffer death. He was led to a packed church on the day of his execution, at which time the government and RCC anticipated that he would publicly denounce the reformation and affirm the authority of the Pope. Much to everyone's surprise, Cranmer seized the opportunity to proclaim his faith in the doctrines of the reformation. "And as for the Pope," he shouted, "I refuse him, as Christ's enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine."

 

Shocked, the authorities rushed to pull Cranmer from the pulpit and led him immediately to the stake. As he stood before the flames, he fulfilled a promise which he had made in his last shouts in the church. He stretched forth into the fire the hand that earlier had signed the document of recantation, declaring aloud:

 

"Forasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished for it."

 

Virtually all those who were martyred lost their lives because they would not embrace the RC mass and its doctrine of transubstantiation. Those who were able to escape Mary's bloody persecution fled to Geneva (called Marian Exiles) where they studied under Calvin and Theodore Beza (among whom was John Knox).

 

When Mary died in 1558 she was succeeded by Elizabeth (1558-1603), daughter of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth sought a middle ground between Protestantism and Catholicism (although her inclinations were toward the former). She passed the Act of Supremacy in 1559 that made her supreme ruler in both ecclesiastical and temporal affairs. She re-instituted the Book of Common Prayer with slight revisions and adopted the 39 Articles, a revision of Edwards' 42 Articles. In 1571 the 39 Articles were adopted by Parliament as the official creed of the Anglican Church and remain such to this day.

 

Pope Pius V proceeded to excommunicate Elizabeth and sent Philip of Spain to take back England for the RCC. Philip himself laid claim to the English throne via his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary's grandmother was Henry VIII's sister). Philip's Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. Countless explanations have been given for the demise of the purportedly superior Spanish fleet, one of which is noted by Thompson:

 

"As the armada came around the northern coast of Scotland and met the gales of the Atlantic Ocean, what remained of the great Spanish engine of war was hurled against the rocks or swamped in mid-ocean. No more than half of the Spanish Armada managed to struggle back to Spanish ports in 1589. History interprets the defeat of the Spanish Armada as an English victory. It was not thought so at the time. The armada had not sunk under English bombardment, but under the wind of God. 'Afflavit Deus,' said the English --- 'God blew!' (And the God who blew was no doubt Protestant). . . . It is probably an instance in which Divine Providence is given too much credit" (656-57).

 

Whatever explanation is most cogent, the fact remains that divine providence can hardly be given “too much credit”! Indeed, if we learn nothing else from these remarkable and often sordid events, let it be that divine sovereignty alone is sufficient to turn the arrogant, selfish, and sinful choices of men such as Henry VIII for his glory and the recovery of the gospel of grace.

 

Happy Reformation Day!

 

Sam