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Vol I No. 1
English Reformation

On the Homilies: The Reading and Knowledge of Scripture

by Sydney Nicole Thomas

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The following is the first in a series of posts on the Book of Homilies. See our introduction to the Homilies here.

The first of the Homilies, titled “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” is supposed to have been written by Archbishop Cranmer. It belongs to the first of the two Books of Homilies, published in 1547 within a collection of twelve sermons. This exhortation treats the reading of the Scriptures, and the necessity and profitableness of such knowledge for the Christian, in two parts.

In the first part, Archbishop Cranmer suggests that those who desire to enter into the right and perfect way of God must apply their minds to know the Scriptures. Without these, he says, one can know neither God and his will, nor one’s office and duty to neighbor.

Cranmer contrasts the love of “worldly vanities” and the knowledge and love of God. The hearing and keeping of Scripture makes us blessed, turning our souls away from the love of temporal things. While the sweetness of God’s word is “bitter” to those who have their minds corrupted with long custom of sin, he says:

This word whosoever is diligent to read, and in his heart to print that he readeth, the great affection to the transitory things of this world shall be minished in him, and the great desire of heavenly things (that be therein promised of God) shall increase in him.

The person who profits most in this reading is the person who is altered and changed most in heart and life into that thing which he or she reads. That person daily, forsaking his old vicious life, increases in virtue more and more; he is “daily less and less proud, less wrathful, less covetous, and less desirous of worldly and vain pleasures.”

In the second part of the homily, Cranmer points out that one would be ashamed to be called a philosopher if one did not read philosophy books, or to be called a lawyer if ignorant of the law. So, he asks, if we profess Christ, why are we not ashamed to be ignorant of his doctrine?

People make two excuses for not reading the Scriptures: 1) some feign that they do not dare to read the Scriptures because they fear falling into error through their own ignorance, and 2) others pretend that the difficulty in understanding it is so great that the Scriptures should be read only by those who are learned.

To the first objection, Cranmer responds that ignorance of God’s word is the cause of all error. How should one expect to come out of ignorance, if one will not read and hear the thing that gives knowledge? If you are afraid to fall into error by reading the Scriptures, he says, read it humbly with a meek and lowly heart seeking to glorify God and not self. Do not read the Scripture without daily prayer to God, and don’t expound it further than it can be plainly understood. Humility does not need to fear error, because humility will search out the truth and ask of another if it does not know. “Therefore the humble man may search any truth boldly in the Scripture,” he says, “without any danger of error.”

To the second objection, concerning the obliqueness of Scripture, Cranmer argues that whoever gives their mind to the Scriptures with diligent study and burning desire should not be left without help. Either God will send a godly doctor to teach his student or else, “God himself from above will give light unto our minds, and teach us those things which are necessary for us, and wherein we be ignorant”.

God’s word is “one of God’s chief and principal benefits, given and declared to mankind here on earth.” Cranmer is clear that those things which are plain to understand in the Scriptures, and necessary for salvation, are every person’s duty to learn, to print in memory, and to exercise.

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen. —Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent