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Wrestling with our past: Cranmer, primitivism, and tradition

This post is the first in a brief series on how we handle tradition, specifically the instinct to imagine a primitive golden age to which we might return. The cause of this series is the 500th anniversary of the reformations of the 16th century (1517 being a convenient placeholder), and in this first post I want to reflect on the nature of tradition. But my focus will narrow to Thomas Cranmer and his work. Today is the anniversary of his execution.

In the second century, Tertullian wrote in his Prescription against Heretics, “We must keep what the churches have received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God.” In a similar way, the author of Jude charged even earlier Christians to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Language like this has long been used to rally would-be reformers. Instead of seeing the organic emphasis in Jude and Tertullian, an emphasis on passing and handing by broken humans, it’s not uncommon to slip into primitivism.

A timeline often appears. A pure moment is imagined, a “golden age” with its simple, saintly figures. And likewise, a moment of corruption can be located: wicked bogeymen appear, and they are as one-dimensional as the saints were good. Consequently, the present moment is a crossroads, a time of opportunity to cleanse the corruption — specifically, by mimicking the patterns of life in that rediscovered golden age when all was well.

I’ll say more in a later post about how that “golden age” might not only be the first century, but just as easily an imagined 16th or 17th century, any time when favored “founders” thrived and constituted the Church rightly. We’ll come back to that and to Cranmer specifically, but let’s think more about tradition, how we approach the past, and how we have had the gospel handed to us.

The modern discipline of history, characterized by the rigorous use of primary sources and university departments of history, emerged in the 19th century in Germany. While Leopold von Ranke is probably not a household name, the premises of his style of historicism may seem so familiar as to be instinctive.

Those early German historians were the heirs of reformers and early modern humanists who shared the conviction that a golden age of either classical society or of the early Church was awaiting discovery under the accumulated barnacles of the centuries. Generally speaking, reformers of varying stripes and humanists had three basic action items: (1) find the early sources — invariably texts, as these men were logocentric; (2) recreate the life those sources describe; and (3) keep vigil against those who would dissuade the recreation of that life, dismissing them as colluders with those wicked forces that corrupted the truth in the first place. Such a pattern applies to humanists hoping to revive Ciceronian rhetoric, as well as Anabaptists, Lutherans, Reformed Protestants, and Catholic reformers, all of whom attempted to recover the Church of the apostles.

In each case, the mythos hinges on a primitive disaster. Examples include:

  • The medieval church warped a perfect Early Church.
  • The pope has taken the Church and Scripture hostage.
  • Greek philosophy warped the gospel proclamation.
  • Patriarchal hierarchy covered up an egalitarian early Church.
  • Doctrines about an incarnate God have covered up a simple rabbi who taught love and acceptance.

All of these models presume a primitive proclamation that suffered distortion.[1] What needs to be noted is that persistent mythos of a primitive corruption and how natural it feels to us when we do history: something was lost and now needs to be found.


But is this good history? What burdens are we placing on a specific moment in time? And, perhaps more importantly, what does this method ask of us theologically?

There is a strangeness to the past that we have to admit. But, at the same time, it is our past. The world we inhabit is very different from first-century Palestine, but it is the same world! There was a created world before the Incarnation and that world is still here, though now changed by God’s work. And as members of one Church — composed of the living and the dead — we share our lives with people from very different contexts (again both living and dead). Christians are in communion with each other: with persons all over the globe, and persons who have been at rest with Christ for centuries. We have obligations to each other. To put it lightly, those relationships are hard; it is not natural to be in relationship with people so different, but rather supernatural, a work of God drawing together so much diversity.

Rowan Williams describes two ditches into which Christians can stumble when thinking about the past. On the one hand, we can view the past as a foreign country whose language we can never learn. We are disconnected from it. Reading Augustine, we might find him quant or interesting, but he has no authority in our lives, no right to ask anything of us; he is alien. We study these people only from a great distance. This might be described as a liberal ditch.

On the other hand, primitivism can lead to another ditch, one in which we look to the past and see people as ourselves in fancy dress. We imagine the concerns of people centuries ago as the same concerns that occupy our hearts and minds today. Perceptions about life and the world are exactly ours; fears and hopes have not changed. In a memorable phrase, Archbishop Williams indicts us: we study people from the past as if they sit at our dinner table. This is the conservative ditch. If we, however, allow the familiar and the strange to jostle together, with all its roughness and challenge, then perhaps we can see something of the Incarnation.[2]

In a similar way, the great Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that we can easily approach tradition as mere token, something like a ladder we kick away once we reach a higher, universal truth (the liberal ditch again). For example, I might like the Book of Common Prayer, or even Christianity, but these are construed merely as paths to something higher. I’m reminded of the Buddhist concept of upaya, a “helpful trick” that becomes irrelevant once higher truth is achieved.

On the other hand, Pelikan continued, we can approach tradition as an idol. Our goal becomes the preservation and repetition of a lifeless past; we give everything over to a ravenous monster that gives nothing back.[3] Surely, we have no shortage of romanticism in our communities to want for examples! Tradition, in this light, claims to have the transcendent reality captive in the past and one must submit to the encapsulation (the conservative ditch again).

Pelikan advocated instead seeing tradition as an Icon. This healthy approach refuses the false choice between the universal (token) and the particular (idol). Tradition is an Icon when it (1) does not purport to be coextensive with the truth it teaches, but nevertheless (2) insists that it is the way we must follow to go beyond it to that truth. Thus Pelikan’s famous aphorism that tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. He wrote, “By including the dead in our circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. Of course, we do not listen only to the dead, nor are we a tape-recording of the tradition.”[4]

Yves Congar put it beautifully: “tradition, like education, is a living communication whose content is inseparable from the act by which one living person hands it on to another.” Faith in the gospel is not a work of archaeology, found by dismissing some forbears while accepting a caricature of other forbears. No, for all their flaws and strangeness, each generation has handed down (tradere) something to us: the gospel. This is the treasured gift of an apostolic community.

Congar likewise argued that those Christians in Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome did not have faith by listening to a few words of instruction, but by living with Paul and others into a reality “believed, loved, celebrated, lived, and finally possessed.” This apostolic gift, found still in our common life, remains a possession to be handed over. Thus tradition, tradere, to hand over, to hand down.

For tradition to exist — tradition understood as the environment in which we receive the Christian faith and are formed by it — it must be borne by those who, having received it, live by it and pass it on to others, so that they may live by it in their turn.[5]

In the next post I want to examine Cranmer more closely to show his strangeness. The goal, however (which will come in the third post), is how we approach, rediscover, and resource from Cranmer and by extension the reformations of the 16th century in a healthy way.


[1] Seemingly well-intentioned “conservative” Protestant efforts end with Rudolf Bultmann and the notion of a “Jesus of history” and a “Christ of faith.” We can even see this among feminist theologians who insist that there was an egalitarian early Church before Paul, or perhaps before oppressive bishops squeezed out women leaders, possibly even women presbyters.

[2] Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 4-31.

[3] One might imagine, as a Christological corollary, a Christ who takes on our sin and death, but does not give us his life, a kind of half-theosis.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 43-65.

[5] Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition (Hawthorn, 1964), pp. 17-24. See also the fantastic work of the Reformed philosopher of formation, James K.A. Smith.


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