Bringing up the Body: Martin Luther vs Thomas Cromwell

GenericsLike my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope. – Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel)

Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather drink sheer blood with the Pope. – Martin Luther

In his book Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (see previous post), Heiko A. Oberman contrasts Luther with other Reformation figures such as Andreas Carlstadt and Ulrich Zwingli. Luther famously disagreed with Carlstadt and Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper, insisting on the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the consecrated bread and wine, and rejecting the “fanatics'” symbolical interpretation of the Words of Institution.

Oberman argues that this theological disagreement reflects a sociological disagreement over the nature of the Reformation. As we saw in my previous post, Luther didn’t see what he was doing as “reformation” or himself as a “reformer”: he was a prophet and an evangelist, proclaiming the Gospel while the Devil and his Antichrist raged and the End Times drew near. Other Reformation leaders – Zwingli, Carlstadt, Bucer and so on – were indeed reformers, intent on forging a new model of urban, bourgeois Christian citizenship, freed from the mediaeval past. As Oberman observes:

The contrast between the community-oriented urban reformers and Luther, minister to a godless world, is sharp. Luther focuses on the individual Christian, not because the “individual soul” is more important “before God” than a responsible forging of political life, but because service to the world demands a stout heart. For it is not a question of honour and dignity, but—whether in city or country, townhouse or farmhouse—of resistance to the destructive power of the Devil. Political affairs make enormous demands on Christians, and that is why they must be fortified in their faith. (p.235)

The urban reformers were rejecting a “sacramental, sacerdotal Church” in favour of a “spiritually unified, true community of faith.” This was then inextricably linked with their rejection of the real presence:

The presentation of one’s position on the Eucharist showed where one stood: on the side of the privileged clerics and ruling elite, or in the ranks of the citizens united in true faith.

This shift from a a “sacramental, sacerdotal Church” to a “spiritually unified, true community of faith” has been acted out for us in recent weeks in the superb BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

An underlying theme of both the novels and the TV adaptation is Thomas Cromwell’s covert links with English Protestants. Some of these Protestants are outspoken in their rejection of the real presence, even when it means their death. As John Frith says when Cromwell visits him in the Tower to urge him to take the opportunity to escape martyrdom (Wolf Hall, p.435):

I will say before any tribunal what I will say before my last judge – the Eucharist is but bread, of penance we have no need, Purgatory is an invention ungrounded in scripture –

Cromwell would never be so incautious. However, the “citizens united in true faith”, the “privileged clerics” and the “ruling elite” all suspect him of Protestant sympathies – partly, no doubt, because he is the epitome of the upwardly-mobile, reform-minded bourgeoisie who were turning most eagerly to the new teachings. Cromwell’s great skill is to navigate the treacherous waters between the old mediaeval elites and the emerging modern world – as seen in his heavily ironical rejection of the suggestion that Tyndale is his “co-religionist”, quoted at the start of this post.

Cromwell’s views on the Eucharist, as perhaps befits such a chameleon, are harder to discern. When accused directly of being a Lutheran, he denies it (“No, sir, I am a banker. Luther condemns to Hell those who lend at interest.”). In conversation with the King, though, he expresses a very Lutheran-sounding position:

Christ taught us how to remember him. He left us bread and wine, body and blood. What more do we need? (Wolf Hall, p.533)

In the end, though, Mantel’s Cromwell is probably closer to Philip of Hesse, as described by Oberman: a sincere Evangelical but a political realist, frustrated by the divisions within the Reformation resulting from Luther and Zwingli’s disagreement. For Luther, however, political unity in the name of a bourgeois reform programme was never the aim.

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