Why were the Reformers burned?


Portrait by Gerlach Flicke, Wikipedia.org Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556)

The question was raised by Bishop J. C. Ryle in his book "Light From Old Times" published in 1890 and reprinted by Evangelical Press in 1980. In fact, he devoted a whole chapter to the question.

In general, those Reformers burned at the stake were resistant to the Church of England going back from where it came—Roman Catholicism. The time was the reign of Queen Mary (or "Bloody Mary") daughter of Henry VIII. From early 1555 Protestants were targeted and, under threat of life, were ordered to recant principles of the Reformation.

While statistics vary, a conservative count shows 288 Protestants were burned at the stake between 1555 and 1558 for refusing to recant. According to Ryle, who looked at leading reformers of the day, the principal reason they were burned was their refusal of one particular doctrine—transubstantiation, where the presiding priest allegedly has the power to change the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the ceremony of the Mass, and that there is an alleged ("unbloody") sacrifice of Christ’ body in that ceremony. “On that doctrine, in almost every case, hinged their life or death. If they admitted it they might live; if they refused it, they must die."

In an act he later regretted, Thomas Cranmer recanted but was later burned anyway. He withdrew his recantation and thrust the hand with which he signed the recantation into the flame while uttering the words "This unworthy right hand." He then steadily lifted his left hand toward heaven as the flames took the life from his body.

Why were the Reformers so dogged in rejecting, even to death, the doctrine of the Real Presence as taught by the Roman Catholic church under Transubstantiation? After all, isn’t the Gospel all that matters and isn’t Romans 10:9 ("That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved") a summary of that Gospel? Isn’t it possible that transubstantiation can somehow take place in a way we don’t understand, and why get hung up on it anyway?

Wouldn’t it have been better for peace and harmony to just accept this seemingly “side issue” doctrine? This would have meant survival and the opportunity to go about the nation sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Doesn’t this make sense?

Image commons.wikipedia.org Thomas Cranmer initially recanted but was later burned alive anyway. He withdrew his recantation and thrust the hand with which he signed the recantation into the flame while uttering the words ‘This unworthy right hand.’ He then steadily lifted his left hand toward heaven as the flames took the life from his body.
Thomas Cranmer initially recanted but was later burned alive anyway. He withdrew his recantation and thrust the hand with which he signed the recantation into the flame while uttering the words ‘This unworthy right hand.’ He then steadily lifted his left hand toward heaven as the flames took the life from his body.

Bishop Ryle answers all of that on page 45 of his book, by pointing out that if this doctrine is pursued to its legitimate consequences, it “obscures every leading doctrine of the Gospel, and damages and interferes with the whole system of Christ’s truth. Grant for a moment that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice and not a sacrament … [and all the contingencies of the Real Presence]—You spoil the blessed doctrine of Christ’s finished work when he died on the cross. A sacrifice that needs to be repeated is not a perfect and complete thing.—You spoil the priestly office of Christ. If there are priests that can offer an acceptable sacrifice to God besides Him, the great High Priest is robbed of His glory.—You spoil the Scriptural doctrine of the Christian ministry. You exalt sinful men into the position of mediators between God and man.—You give to the sacramental elements of bread and wine an honour and veneration they were never meant to receive and produce an idolatry to be abhorred of faithful Christians.”

So Bishop Ryle saw in the writings of the Reformers that this doctrine ultimately obscured every leading doctrine of the Gospel, damaging and interfering with the whole truth of Christ Jesus. To resist this they were prepared to die.

Would evangelical Christians today have the conviction and courage of the Reformers to resist, to death, the doctrine of the Real Presence as practised under Transubstantiation? I suspect most would be saying "Yes" at this point.

Let me now make life a little uncomfortable for those same people.

In a sorry chapter in the life of the Church, the majority of evangelical Christians today avoid the topic of Biblical Creationism. But consider this: biblical creationists are united with the Reformers on the subject of the Creation account. Both have read Genesis 1 as real history, indicating that each of the six days of Creation were of 24 hours and thus the age of the world amounts to somewhere near 6,000 years.

Further, these same creation-believers maintain that the majority of their evangelical Christian brethren have become selective in their reading of Scripture and selective in regard to those they listen to on the subject of the Creation event. Having admired and given assent to the criteria applied by Reformers in resisting the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the majority of evangelicals today neglect similar criteria when it comes to the subject of the Creation event.

Theistic Evolution, which many hold dear, is in fact an odious doctrine. By embracing that doctrine, taken to its logical conclusion:

  • You spoil Christ’s finished work of Creation completed as "very good" on day six as Gen 1:31, Gen 2:2 and Ex 20:11 make clear (John 5:17 refers to God working continuously post-Fall and is not to be applied here). As Bishop Ryle implies, a work that requires repeated refinement is not a perfect and complete thing.
  • You spoil Christ’s office as Creator by applying to Him a faltering, dead-end, mutation-and-death-filled process of Creation.
  • You rob Christ of His glory as Creator.
  • You spoil the doctrine of the authority of Scripture (or Word of God) by exalting sinful men to knowledge of origins, to the subjugation of the inspired writing of Moses. In so doing you engage in idolatry (Romans 1: 23–25).
  • You overthrow the true doctrine of the righteousness of Christ by asserting He created by causing the weak to suffer and die for the strong (in a process over millions of years prior to the Fall) which is a complete reversal of His nature expressed in Law, Teaching, Redemptive Work and Person. In your doctrine (and in its corollary, “old-Earth creation”) death cannot be an enemy which invaded the created order through sin (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is simply an outworking of the Nature of Christ before and after Creation and therefore is no reason for Him to take on flesh to redeem the Creation by dying on the Cross.

With appropriate adjustment, then, I repeat Bishop Ryle: "Whatever men please to think or say, [the worldly doctrine of Theistic Evolution] if pursued to its legitimate consequences, obscures every leading doctrine of the Gospel, and damages and interferes with the whole system of Christ’s truth."

The Reformers saw the doctrine of Transubstantion as heresy. But we have seen that the same charge applies to the doctrine of Theistic Evolution. Of course, some people can be saved despite unknowingly holding to doctrines which, in their outworkings, are frankly heretical. But there are some tough questions which need to be faced. And wilful ignorance is no resort because ultimately, the Gospel, in all its strength, is surely something more than the simple, formulaic presentation commonly offered today.

As esteemed Puritan theologian John Owen put it in his work "The Holy Spirit—His Gifts and Power" the Gospel is alternatively considered the new creation of all things in and by Jesus Christ. The “big picture” of the gospel—a good world, ruined by sin to be restored through Christ to a sinless, deathless state—is totally undermined by any doctrine that puts millions of years1 prior to the Fall of man.

We could well ask ourselves, too, as biblical creationists, the question: given similar circumstances as prevailed in England at the time, would we be prepared to resist, to the point of death, this long-age creation doctrine that pervades the Church today?


The term ‘Real Presence’ is apparently used today in association with three separate positions:

  1. Martin Luther’s doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of Communion, often called by others consubstantiation (which rejects the idea that Christ is being resacrificed)
  2. Transubstantiation.(which includes the idea that Christ is being resacrificed)
  3. Something that allies itself with aspects of consubstantiation but is really a modified form of transubstantiation.

CMI’s mandate does not include involvement in extraneous doctrinal issues that divide sincere Bible-believers. The use of Ryle’s writings on the martyrs was to highlight the crucial issue of theistic evolution. Ryle (and certainly the article’s author) was not using the term ‘Real Presence’ in the sense of a) above. The article was modified on 17 August 2009 to ensure that this distinction was clearer, and we regret any offence inadvertently caused to Lutheran brethren prior to then.

Addendum 14 August 2009:

A reader wrote:

I really liked todays fp article “Why were the Reformers burned?” It was great! Although to call TE heretical is to say that those who teach theistic evolution are going to Hell along with any who believe it … so I don’t think I’d go that far. There is no such thing as believing a heresy yet being saved. When you say, “This is heresy,” you’re talking about a belief that, no matter how well-intentioned the one who holds it, is so contrary to the true nature of Christ that the person who believes it believes in a Christ other than the one preached in Scripture, and is thus damned. So he should be careful with the word heresy! Otherwise, I wholeheartedly agree with the article.

To which one of our staff scientists responded:

I agree with all that. Denying the deity of Christ, or His atoning death and Resurrection, is heretical. Denying 6 day creation is a serious heterodoxy, which can lead to outright heresy and would do so even more often were it not for “blessed inconsistency”. [Ed. note: Some dictionary definitions of heresy suggest that the word can also be understood in a milder sense than the definition adopted in the above exchange, but it is important nonetheless to have herewith clarified CMI’ stand on theistic evolution vis-a-vis salvation.]

Neil Moore is the pseudonym of a keen supporter of CMI in southern Australia who participates in many internet discussions on this sort of topic, particularly within his own church circles, the Sydney Anglican Diocese.

Published: 13 August 2009


  1. In such long-age creation views, the fossils are regarded as having been laid down millions of years before people arrived on the scene. But the fossils record death, violence and disease, e.g. cancer.