Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (2)

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Image: Unsplash (CC0)

In my previous post, we looked at how Luther applies the principles of promise, necessity and faith to the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — where we exercise our faith in God’s promise to meet our dire need for the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, and protection from temptation and doubt. Now let’s turn to the second half of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread

What does this mean?
God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers; but we pray in this petition that he would lead us to know this, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What is meant by daily bread?
Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, property, fields, animals, money, goods, a believing spouse, believing children, believing servants, believing and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and so on.

Once again, we see how our prayer is not needed to persuade a reluctant God, but is founded on an unconditional promise: “God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers.”

As for the “dire need” that is addressed here: well, it amounts to pretty much every need we have in our everyday lives; “everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body,” ranging from the basics of food, drink and shelter, to the need for “good government,” “peace,” and so on.

Many expositions of the Lord’s Prayer would put matters such as social justice (“good government”) and peace under the first half of the prayer: the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of his will. However, there is something refreshing about Luther’s perspective here, particularly in a time where world events can otherwise lead us to despair. For those of us who feel that a President Trump or a vote for Brexit would be the opposite of “good government,” perhaps even (in our more despairing moments) the opposite of “peace,” it is healthy to be reminded that all these are matters of “daily bread,” not “the kingdom.”

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, or deny our prayers on account of them; for we are not worthy of any of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. Instead we pray that he would grant all our petitions by grace; for we sin greatly every day, and all we deserve is punishment. In the same way, for our part, we will sincerely forgive those who sin against us, and readily do good to them.

Luther’s exposition of this petition is the first not to include an explicit statement of promise — but then, the promise on which the forgiveness of our sins is based has already been set out in the first half of Luther’s exposition.

Indeed, what we find in this petition is a personal appropriation of the promises of the first three petitions: that the promise of forgiveness held out in the proclamation of the Word, which we receive by the faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit, would be ours; and that we would lead a “godly” life as a result, at the heart of which is our imitation of God in extending to others the same forgiveness and goodness that he has shown to us.

And lead us not into temptation

What does this mean?
God tempts no one. However, we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and that, though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.

Again, the promise: “God tempts no one.” But again, the dire need: “that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us.” And again, the faith we exercise as we pray, confident in God’s promise that “though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.”

But deliver us from evil

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would deliver us from every evil of body and soul, property and honour; and that in the end, when our last hour comes, he would grant us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to himself into heaven.

Again, the promise is implicit here, this final petition being based on everything that has gone before, and with our every dire need encompassed in that single word “evil”. The need for salvation, for daily bread (in all its multiple aspects), for forgiveness, for preservation from temptation, and — finally — from the fear of death itself. In this final petition, our faith develops into hope as we look forward to “our last hour,” the promise of “a blessed end,” and the hope of being taken from “this vale of tears” to be with God forever. (Note that the Creed has already reminded us that our ultimate hope is not “going to heaven” but the resurrection of the dead.)

Amen 

What does this mean?
That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that He will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

The promise that has undergirded every word of our prayer has been the promise that “these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them”; a promise that addresses the direst need of all when we pray, our need to be heard, for us not to be talking into the air. So we make our final affirmation of faith in that promise by saying “Amen”: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

 

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Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (1)

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Photo: Greying_Geezer (CC BY-NC-SA)

In my previous post, we saw how Luther describes the five ingredients for “valid” prayer:

  • the promise of God;
  • our dire need;
  • faith;
  • earnestness;
  • praying in and through Christ.

It’s worth looking at how the first three of these, in particular, undergird Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism (the final two are more pervasive in nature). Let’s look at each petition, and see how Luther’s exposition can be related to God’s promise, our need, and our faith in the promise.

Hallowed by thy name 

What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.

How is God’s name kept holy?
When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead holy lives in accordance with it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches and lives other than as taught in God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Preserve us from this, Heavenly Father!

This establishes the pattern found throughout Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. First, a clear declaration of God’s promise: “God’s name is certainly holy in itself.” As we saw in my previous post, it’s the assurance that our prayer is, in a sense, unnecessary — because God’s love and goodness towards is so unshakeable in any event — that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place: “that it may become holy among us also.”

So there is the dire need we face: the need for God’s name to “become holy among us also,” a need that is met “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity.” Our greatest need, Jesus tells us in teaching us this prayer, is the Word of God; and not just the Word of God in the abstract, but the Word of God “taught”, the Word proclaimed in the life and ministry of the church. And to pray this petition is itself an act of faith in God’s promise that this Word will be taught and proclaimed among us.

Thy kingdom come 

What does this mean?
The kingdom of God comes by itself even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.

How does God’s kingdom come?
When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.

It’s one thing for us to hear the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, taught and proclaimed, but to receive the benefits of that gospel we need faith — and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is in the coming of the Holy Spirit, working faith in us, that the kingdom of God comes to us, Luther tells us; echoing here, perhaps, Christ’s words in Luke 11:13.

In telling us to pray this petition, Christ assures us of the promise that “the kingdom of God comes by itself”. He also shows us our “dire need” for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us. After all, as Luther has told us in his exposition of the Creed, to confess my faith in the Holy Spirit is to admit that I am incapable of such faith under my own steam:

I believe that I cannot … believe.

So we pray, confident in the promise that as we hear Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit is working in us the faith that enables us to pray at all.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

What does this mean?
The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

How is God’s will done?
When God breaks and hinders every evil plan and intention which do not want to let us hallow the name of God or to let his kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; and when he strengthens and keeps us steadfast in his Word and in faith until our end. This is his gracious and good will.

Again, Luther starts with the unconditional promise that is implied by Christ’s instruction to us to pray this petition: “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.” But our dire need is “that it may be done among us also.”

Above all, our need is for protection from the opposition that the proclamation of the Word of God (first petition) and the Holy Spirit’s working faith in us (second petition) arouse: every “evil plan and intention” of “the devil, the world, and our flesh”; the temptation and doubts of Anfechtung, which undermine our ability to keep us “steadfast in his Word.” Once again, Christ’s instruction to pray this petition gives us the confidence to do so in faith, assured of the promise that “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.”

So we reach the halfway point in Luther’s exposition. In my next post, we’ll look at his explanations for the final four petitions, but in the meantime, let’s review where we’ve got to so far.

To be honest, in the past I have found Luther’s exposition of these petitions somewhat narrow and repetitive in scope. Other, more modern, expositions of the Lord’s Prayer cover a seemingly wider vision for these petitions, including a lot of material — social and political transformation, the needs of those around us, and so on — which (as we’ll see) Luther compresses into the single petition “give us this day our daily bread.”

But I don’t think Luther’s intention here is to give an exhaustive explanation of what these petitions mean, but to focus our attention on what is of first importance in them, and in our lives as Christians. The dire needs we have that we can otherwise so easily overlook; the promises of God we can so easily take for granted: for the Word of God to be proclaimed, for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us, and for us to be protected from the assaults of “the devil, the world, and our flesh.” A prayer we need to repeat, for our own sake, morning, noon and night.

Prayer and the “happy exchange”

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Martin Luther praying for the life of Philip Melanchthon, by Gustav König (1897)

How should we pray? Not in the sense of “what words should we use?”, but in the sense of: “In what frame of mind should we pray? With what expectations? And how can I pray with confidence that God will actually listen?”

Martin Luther addressed this question in his sermon for Rogate Sunday on 13 May 1520, a sermon that is quoted by Oswald Bayer in the concluding chapter of his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (see previous post).

This sermon “documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer,” Bayer writes, an understanding that is deeply trinitarian in nature. Luther identifies five characteristics of true prayer, saying: 

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]: otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

  1. The promise of God (promissio)

This is “the foundation on which the entire prayer relies,” declares Luther:

if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favourable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

  1. Dire need (necessitas)

True prayer requires that we state “the specifics of the dire straits or else the substance of what is desired”: which in turn requires “gathering one’s thoughts” to focus on “the godly promise”:

Based on this, [self-]selected little prayers, rosaries, and the like are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution.

Where does that leave a prayer such as the Jesus prayer, which I’ve written on before? Good question: but at the very least, Luther’s words are a warning that this type of spiritual discipline is no substitute for specific heartfelt prayer, a prayer that involves the conscious “gathering of one’s thoughts” to concentrate both on “the dire need that is identified” and on “the help that is expected” – that is, the “divine promise” (Bayer, p.352).

  1. Faith (fiducia)

In order to pray with confidence, we need the faith “by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises”. But prayer that is based on a confident trust in God’s goodness has a paradoxical element that Luther proceeds to tease out:

To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promised that he will give it. Thus, only trust can expect that the faithfulness of God is at work to ensure it will happen.

In other words: we pray, trusting that God’s goodness will provide for us even if we don’t – because God is so completely trustworthy. It is, in a sense, the assurance that our prayer is unnecessary (in the sense of our not needing to alert God to what we need or persuade him to give it to us) that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place.

As Bayer observes (p.352), this is the faith that can say “amen” in the sense that Luther expounds it in the Small Catechism, where to say “amen” means:

That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for he himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that he will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

  1. Earnestness (desideratio)

Prayer should not be half-hearted or “vacillating”, Luther continues. We should pray as those who “urgently desire” what we are praying for, in contrast to those who pray:

as if on an adventure, where whatever happens happens, as if one throws something at a pear to knock it out of a tree

To pray in such a casual, “taking a punt” way is “a mockery of God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised” – one that may “provoke God instead, with evil results.”

  1. In the name of Jesus

This is undoubtedly the most important requirement for prayer, that it “takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command […] and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things.”

It is praying in the name of Jesus that gives us confidence that we will be heard:

Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument.

But what about our sins? Don’t they get in the way of effective prayer? If anything, Luther concludes, it’s the opposite: Christ’s prayer in heaven for our sins gives us confidence that our own prayers will continue to be heard:

And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: What could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name.

All this is based on what Luther elsewhere refers to as the “happy exchange” that lies at the heart of the gospel, an exchange that he describes in a beautiful and delicately ironic statement in this sermon

Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange.

So our prayer is intimately connected with that “happy exchange”, an exchange which not only removes the barrier of sin between me and God, but also – to give me even greater confidence that I will be heard – gives me the positive holiness of Christ:

And both come to purity, connected together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life.

It is this exchange which also gives prayer its trinitarian character: “I come through him to the Father … at the same time [that] he is coming before the Father on my behalf” (Bayer, p.349), all this being enfolded in the work of the Holy Spirit, who “gives public witness to Christ’s own words in his testament” and “[frees] us from being under our own power” (Bayer, p.351).

So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

“Inherently full”

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This striking painting, by Michael Mathias Prechtl, is titled “Martin Luther: An Inherently Full Figure.” Painted in 1983, Oswald Bayer refers to it (and reproduces it) in the opening pages of his book, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation.

Bayer describes the painting in a footnote on page 2:

Prechtl adapts a picture of Luther as an old man, sketched in 1545 by the Reformer’s assistant, Johann Reifenstein. […] His conceptualization of the aged Luther is overlaid by the figure of Luther from the central panel of the triptych at the altar of the city church at Weimar (by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1553). Prechtl takes Luther’s face from Reifenstein’s sketch; from Cranach’s portrait he takes the collar with conspicuous streak of cardinal red, the way the hands are positioned around the open Bible, and the figure of the Crucified that Cranach positioned separately from Luther but which is positioned “inside” the body of Luther by Prechtl, along with the stream of blood that spurts from the wound in the Lord’s side. Prechtl’s watercolor leaves the pages of the open Bible blank. ln Cranach’s portrait they have writing on them and can be read by anyone who looks at the scene depicted by the altar. Luther’s index finger points to Heb. 4:16 […]: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness [= freedom. sincerity; Greek: παρρησία], so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

On page 6, Bayer adds:

As the artist makes it clear to see, the Crucified One does not simply remain merely a figure in the picture, but lets himself be heard; he has something to say: he comes in the Word of the Bible that is preached. The ray cast forth by his blood opens the meaning of Holy Scripture, opens the testament, as the message from the cross, which bequeaths to us eternal communion with God by means of forgiveness, in the midst of our hellish personal history and our world’s history.

Luther, as the servant of the divine Word, points to this message from the cross, promises the forgiveness of sins in the name of God, offers it, imparts it. The Bible is not somehow — bound up tightly — a closed document, not a weapon of fundamentalism, but it is open — opened by the One who alone can open it: opened by the Crucified One, who lives (Luke 24:30-32).

This is a vital element of Lutheran theology and practice: that it is not the Word of the Bible per se that is God’s Word to us, but the Word of the Bible that is preached, a living Word that proclaims Christ Crucified, in which the Crucified One is heard; a dynamic process in which, as the gospel is proclaimed in word and sacrament, Christ is revealed to us through the Word that Christ opens to us through that proclamation, by (since I haven’t forgotten that today is Pentecost!) the Holy Spirit working faith in us.

Four odd (but mostly loveable) things about Lutheran hymns

A discussion with a friend earlier tonight got me thinking about ways in which Lutheran hymnody differs from Anglican. So as we live in an age of listicles, here are four features of Lutheran hymns that have always struck me (as an adult convert) as distinctive, three of which I have learned to love…

1. The metres can be rather strange

Anglican hymn metres (a measure of syllables per line) are usually pretty straightforward. The classic is “common metre”: 8.6.8.6. Then there’s “short metre” (6.6.8.6) and “long metre” (8.8.8.8). These can be doubled up (“DCM”, “DSM”, “DLM”). You might also get 8.7.8.7.8.7, and so on.

Some Lutheran hymns have predictable metres, but with others, all bets are off. The Easter hymn “I am content! My Jesus ever lives” has a 10.6.10.6.9.9.4.4 metre. Move forward to Pentecost, and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” meanders around a 7.8.8.8.8.8.10.8 pattern. Then there’s the Communion hymn, “O Lord, we praise thee”, an 11.8.11.8.5.9.9.6.7.5 epic that causes even the Lutheran Service Book to throw up its hands and label it as “peculiar meter”:

2. The hymns can be really long 

As the examples above show, Lutheran hymns often have really long stanzas. You might think the writers would make up for it by only writing a few stanzas per hymn. Not so! In the older hymnals, it’s routine to see hymns with 9, 10, 12 or more stanzas, even where the stanzas are as long as those cited above.

In the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first hymnal, the classic hymn “Salvation unto us has come” has 14 stanzas (each of 8.7.8.7.8.8.7 metre). The video here spares us most of these:

The latest LCMS hymnal has reduced this down to 10 stanzas, and other hymns are even more drastically cut – a tendency lamented by ELCE pastor, Tapani Simojoki, in this post defending long hymns as a form of catechesis (and fondly recalling singing a 41-stanza hymn on one occasion).

The good thing about hymns of this length is that they can include some really solid material. The Kindle edition of Walther’s Hymnal is a fine (if regrettably pricey) resource for personal devotion, even if most congregations would riot if forced to sing some of the hymns in their entirety.

3. The hymn tunes can be quite bouncy, though 

The good news is that the hymns often keep you on your toes, reducing the chances of your nodding off midway through verse 18. Early Lutheran chorales often had very bouncy rhythms, many of which were later regularised to fit with changing fashions.

Everyone knows Luther’s hymn Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), but the original can come as a surprise to those familiar with its incarnation in Anglican hymnals:

To be honest, it’s the four-square, un-dotted version that strikes me as odd these days.

4. We sit down to sing them

This is the one I really can’t reconcile myself to. I’ve not been to many Lutheran churches – there aren’t many in this country to go to – but it seems pretty universal to sit down for most hymns: 

(Image via Duluth News Tribune.) 

It’s even in the rubrics in our service books, with a special symbol (△) indicating when people should stand for the final verse.

This probably makes sense when you’re singing a 27-stanza chorale. Speaking as my church’s organist, though, who sits at the front of the church to play, the impact on the quality of singing is enormous. When people stand for that final verse, or for the closing hymn, the difference in the sound is transformational. Now that we rarely sing more than five or six verses per hymn, I really don’t see what excuse we have for not standing. Hey ho…

Bonhoeffer and Luther on the Psalms

Dietrich BonhoefferI’ve just been reading the last book published by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lifetime, before his arrest in 1941: The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible.

It’s a very short book – really only an essay, 24 pages long – but full of profound reflections on the psalms as a model for Christian prayer. Martin Luther was also a great lover of the Psalter, and Bonhoeffer quotes him on a number of occasions in the book. The interaction between Bonhoeffer and Luther is a good way to get a flavour for the book as a whole.

Bonhoeffer begins by reflecting on how the psalms are prayers that God has given us in his Word to pray back to him, just as Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. As such, the two are closely interrelated:

All the prayers of the Bible are gathered together in the Our Father, taken up into its measureless scope. The Our Father does not make them superfluous, but they are themselves its inexhaustible riches, even as the Our Father is their crown and unity. Luther says of the Psalter: ‘It is interwoven with the Our Father in such a way that we can understand each through the other very well and see their happy harmony.’ (p.4)

This relationship between the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer is, incidentally, reflected well in the Daily Office, whose twin poles are the chanting (or reciting) of psalms and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, just as the two poles of the Mass are the ministry of the Word (supremely, the Gospel lesson) and the ministry of the Sacrament.

A little later, Bonhoeffer is discussing the musical nature of the psalms (the word “psalms” itself being derived from the word “psaltery”). Again, he is able to call on Luther in his support:

Many of the rather baffling headings of the psalms are directions for the choir master. Equally, the ‘selah’ which frequently occurs in the middle of a psalm probably indicates an interval. ‘The selah is telling us to pause and reflect diligently on the words of the psalm; for they require a calm and tranquil soul who is able to grasp with understanding what the Holy Ghost is presenting to his thought.’ (Luther). (p.7)

One of my favourite Luther quotations from the book comes when Bonhoeffer describes what a blessing it is for a church to have a liturgical life that is built around the psalter:

In many Churches the Psalms are recited or sung antiphonally every Sunday, or even daily. These Churches have preserved a treasure of incalculable value, for only through daily use do we grow into that divine prayer book. If we read them only now and again we shall find these prayers so overwhelming in thought and power that we shall always want to turn back to lighter fare. But anyone who has begun to pray the Psalter regularly and in earnest will soon have done with his own easy, ‘trifling little devotions and will say: Ah, here there is none of the sap, the strength, the fervour and fire that I find in the Psalms, this is too cold and hard for me.’ (Luther). (p.8)

Moving on, Bonhoeffer quotes Luther’s description of Psalm 110 as “the foremost among the chief psalms of our dear Lord Jesus Christ” (p.13). He also cites Luther on the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) as “the Pauline psalms” (p.18), for the way in which they “take us to the very depths of what it means to acknowledge our sin before God, they help us to confess our guilt, they direct our whole trust to the forgiving grace of God.”

In his conclusion, Bonhoeffer describes the purpose of his book as follows:

We have undertaken this short journey through the Psalter in the hope of learning to pray some of the psalms better. […] [A]ll that really matters is that we should begin afresh faithfully and lovingly to pray the Psalter in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (p.24)

He then gives the last word to Luther:

May our dear Lord, who has given us the Psalter and the Our Father and taught us how to pray them, grant us also the spirit of grace and supplication, that we may with delight and resolute faith truly pray without ceasing, for thus it behoves us. He has commanded it and desires that we should. To him be praise and honour and thanksgiving. Amen.

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.