The Historical Journal


The crisis of obedience: God's word and Henry's reformation

Richard Rexa1

a1 Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University


The new political theology of obedience to the prince which was enthusiastically adopted by the Church of England in the 1530s was essentially founded upon Luther's new interpretation of the fourth commandment. It was mediated to an English audience by Tyndale, but his ideas were not officially adopted as early as some recent research has suggested. The founding of royal authority on the Decalogue, and thus on the ‘word of God’, was a particularly attractive feature of this doctrine, which became almost the defining feature of Henrician religion. Rival tendencies within the Church of England sought to exploit it in the pursuit of their particular agendas. Reformers strove to preserve its connections with the broader framework of Lutheran theology, with the emphasis on faith alone and the ‘word of God’, while conservatives strove to relocate it within an essentially monastic tradition of obedience, with an emphasis on good works, ceremonies, and charity. The most significant achievement was that of the Reformers, who established and played upon an equivocation between the royal supremacy and the ‘word of God’ in order to persuade the king to sanction the publication of the Bible in English as a formidable prop for his new-found dignity.