A Peek at the Great Bible: Cranmer’s Preface

In 1536, by the permission of King Henry VIII, England lawfully received her first whole English Bible, that of Myles Coverdale. Then in 1537 came the Mathew Bible, a synthesis of the translations of Coverdale and William Tyndale, containing also notes and study helps prepared by John Rogers. But the Roman Catholics complained loudly about these versions. Lord Thomas Cromwell, vice-regent to King Henry, then commissioned Myles Coverdale to revise the Matthew Bible. He hoped to resolve some of the complaints of the conservatives and finally establish an English version in the Church.

Coverdale was the obvious choice for this work. He was intimately familiar with the Matthew Bible and had more experience in Scripture translation than any other Englishman at the time. And he worked quickly. The revised version was printed in England in April 1539. It assumed the place of “the Byble of the largest and greatest volume” proclaimed for use in the churches, and thus became known as the Great Bible. In 1540 it also earned the epithet Cranmer’s Bible, because of a preface that Thomas Cranmer wrote to the second edition.

Cranmer’s Preface to the Great Bible

Cranmer’s preface to the 1540 Great Bible was entitled “A Prologue or Preface made by the most reverend father in God, Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan and Primate of England.” It was very Protestant in tone. Part of its interest lies in the picture it gives us of how Englishmen were receiving vernacular Scriptures at the time. Reactions were mixed.

Cranmer addressed two sorts of people. First were those who were “too slow and need the spur,” who refused “to read or hear read the Scripture in the vulgar tongue.” These were the Roman Catholic faithful, who still resisted an English Bible. Cranmer marvelled that they would “be so mad as to refuse in darkness, light; in hunger, food; in cold, fire. For the word of God is light … food … fire.” He understood that at the first people had drawn back because English Scriptures were new and strange, but, he said, “Such as will persist still in their wilfulness, I must needs judge not only “foolish, froward, and obstinate, but also peevish, perverse, and indurate.” The worst of these peevish souls actively discouraged their fellows from reading or learning the Scriptures, as if it were a bad thing.

The second sort of person Cranmer addressed in his preface were those who were “too quick and need more of the bridle,” and who, by “inordinate reading, undiscreet speaking, contentious disputing, or otherwise by their licentious living, slander and hinder the word of God most of all other, whereof they would seem to be the greatest furtherers.” These people proclaimed themselves defenders of the Scriptures, but with evil living, or with constant disputing and wrangling, only hindered its progress. The churches were sometimes scenes of needless strife.

Proclamations to aid the going forth of the Scriptures

The risk of contention had been foreseen by the authorities. In a draft 1536 injunction to the clergy (never proclaimed), in which Cromwell had directed the churches to obtain copies of Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, he had warned against untoward disputing:

Every parson or proprietary of any Parish Church within this realm, shall on this side the Feasts of St. Peter ad Veneula next coming, provide a book of the whole Bible, both in Latin, and also in English, and lay the same in the quire, for every man that will to read and look therein, and shall discourage no man from the reading any part of the Bible, either in Latin or in English; but rather comfort, exhort, and admonish every man to read the same as the very word of God, and the spiritual food of man’s soul … ever gently and charitably exhorting that, using a sober and modest [be]havior in the reading and inquisition [searching] of the true sense of the same, they do in no wise stiffly or eagerly contend or strive one with another about the same.

But despite such exhortations, people were, it seems, forever arguing. Six years later, in 1542, we have from King Henry a proclamation in which he bemoaned the widespread discord. He said he had always

intended that his loving subjects should have and use [enjoy] the commodities [blessings] of the reading of the said Bibles … humbly, meekly, reverently, and obediently, and not that any of them should read the said Bibles with high and loud voices, in time of the celebrating of Holy Mass, and other divine services used in the Church; or that any [of] his lay subjects reading the same, should presume to take upon them any common disputation, argument, or exposition of the mysteries therein contained; but that every such layman should humbly, meekly, and reverently read the same for his own instruction, edification, and amendment of his life.

Cranmer on how people ought to receive the Scriptures

But to return to Cranmer’s 1540 preface. Here we find the archbishop earnestly contending for the people’s right to have the Scriptures in English, and urging them to take advantage of this opportunity. In support of his arguments, he quoted from the writings of early Church father St. John Chrysostom. By quoting this revered teacher, an archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century, Cranmer was showing that vernacular Scriptures and Bible study by the laity were not new things. They were not 16th century innovations by the Reformers, as the Roman Catholics alleged. The early patriarchs had also thought it important for ordinary people to oft read and study the Bible. It is interesting to see what Chrysostom wrote (and how his words to ancient peoples remain relevant always):

“What sayest thou, man?” sayest [Chrysostom], “Is it not for thee to study and to read the Scripture because thou art encumbered and distracted with cares and business? So much the more it is behoveful for thee to have [the] defence of Scriptures [than monks and cloistered men, seeing] how much thou art the more distressed in worldly dangers … Thou art in the midst of the sea of worldly wickedness, and therefore thou needest the more of ghostly succour and comfort. They sit far from the strokes of the battle, and far out of gunshot, and therefore they be but seldom wounded. Thou that standest in the forefront of the host and nighest to thine enemies, must needs take now and then many strokes and be grievously wounded, and therefore thou hast more need to have thy remedies and medicines at hand … briefly, so divers and so manifold occasions of cares, tribulations, and temptations besetteth thee and besiegeth thee round about. Where canst thou have armour or fortress against thine assaults? Where canst thou have salves for thy sores, but of holy Scripture?”

Cranmer then turned to instruct those who like to opine and dispute about the Scriptures. For this he quoted St. Gregory Nazianzene, also a 4th century archbishop in Constantinople. Nazianzene wrote, “It is not fit for every man to dispute the high questions of divinity; neither is it to be done at all times, neither in every audience must we discuss every doubt; but we must know when, to whom, and how far we ought to enter into such matters.” There follows a discussion of how to judge fitness of topic, time, or audience. The high questions, he says, are generally for “such as be of exact and exquisite judgments, and such as have spent their time before in study and contemplation, and such as before have cleansed themselves as well in soul as body, or at the least endeavoured themselves to be made clean.” Not only long study, but also purity of heart and flesh, are necessary for a clear vision of the high things.

And so the king’s subjects were expected to humbly and gratefully receive the gift of God’s word in their own tongue, and to avoid presumption in disputing of the Scriptures.

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© 2018, Ruth M. Davis, Editor, New Matthew Bible Project, www.newmatthewbible.org

See longer and fully referenced version of this paper at:  https://goo.gl/2Kki5k

May be copied and used at no charge, with credit to the author and mention of the New Matthew Bible Project.