Luther in english
Law and Gospel in the Theology of John Frith-
by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Law and Gospel in the Theology of John Frith
THE IMPORTANCE OF JOHN FRITH TO THE HISTORY OF THE EARLY ENGLISH Reformation in the 1520s has often been overshadowed by more high profile figures like William Tyndale, Robert Barnes, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Bilney. There is actually very little secondary scholarship on either the life or theology of Frith in comparison to Tyndale or Barnes. This is interesting to note in the light of Foxe’s own high praise of Frith in his Acts and Monuments: “there hath bene none a great tyme which seemed vnto me more greueous, then the lamentable death and cruell handlyng of Ihon Fryth, so learned and excellent a yong man: who had so profited in all kinde of learning and knowledge, that skarsly there was his equal amongest al his companions, and besides withall had suche a godlines of life ioyned with his doctrine, that it was hard to iudge in whether of them hee was more commendable, bring greatly prayse worthy in them both.” Similarly, C. S. Lewis, although describing Frith as looming “larger as a man than as an author,” stated that he was “not contemptible even in the second capacity.”3
John Frith was born at Westerham in Kent in 1503. In the most recent biography, Raynor suggests the possibility of 1506 on the basis of a comment made by John Bale that Frith (d. 1533) was “not twenty-seven years old the year he was executed.” Furthermore, Raynor observes that, if Frith was born in 1503, he would have been older than was typical for entering college. However, the evidence Raynor provides is inconclusive, and he acknowledges that the date of 1503 has been generally accepted by scholars and is based on a comment by Frith’s own parents recorded in Foxe’s Whole Works that he was martyred at the age of thirty.4
More important than the date is the location of his birth and upbringing. The consensus among scholars is that Kent was a known stronghold of Lollardy in the early sixteenth century. However, there is simply no historical evidence to link the Frith family to Lollard sympathies. It was Humanism, rather than Lollardy, which made the earliest visible intellectual impression upon the young Frith.
Early on in his childhood, the Frith family moved to Sevenoaks where his father became employed as an innkeeper. Wright suggests that Frith was first introduced to humanist educational reforms, and possibly even to the study of Greek, when he was sent to Eton College at the age of seventeen. What is doubtless, however, is that Frith encountered the new scholarship when he transferred first to Queen’s and then later King’s College, Cambridge University, where he obtained his BA in 1525.
Humanism had taken root at Cambridge by the early sixteenth century in the co-founding of St. John’s College by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and the Bishop of Rochester and University Chancellor, John Fisher. However, the scholastic curriculum was also still in place. It was also at Cambridge that the famous humanist Erasmus taught Greek between the years 1511 and 1514 at the request of Bishop Fisher and began work on his monumentally influential Greek and revised Latin text of the New Testament (Novum Instrumentum) published in Basle in 1516. Erasmus spoke fondly of Cambridge at least as a suitable environment for his Greek scholarship.
Foxe describes Frith as being a diligent scholar of both Latin and Greek. In the Acts and Monuments of 1570, Foxe mentions this in the context of Frith’s Cambridge period, but in his edition of Whole Works it follows after his transfer to Oxford in 1525. The reason for this discrepancy is uncertain, but it seems likely that Frith would have flourished in Greek studies first at Cambridge. In any case, his scholarly aptitude was recognized by Cardinal Wolsey who chose Frith to join other junior canons of his newly established Oxford college (later Christ Church). This might suggest that Frith at this time was still an orthodox Catholic influenced by humanist sympathies, but it is possible that Frith’s more radical theological loyalties were undetected by Wolsey. Foxe mentions that the men chosen were not just from Cambridge and that the list was much longer than what he recorded. This certainly makes it possible for individuals and their deeper doctrinal convictions to sneak below Wolsey’s radar.11
Although Foxe states in his earlier Acts and Monuments (1563) that Frith met Tyndale while in attendance at Mary Hall, Oxford, he later records that it was during his years at Cambridge. Foxe also claims that it was through Tyndale that Frith “first receyued into his hart the seede of the gospell and syncere godlines.” J. F. Mozley and Marcus Loane argue that this meeting most likely took place at Cambridge in the early 1520s, although Foxe himself is not actually explicit about the precise location, and Tyndale’s presence at Cambridge at this time is not accepted by most recent scholars. Both Mozley and Loane are right to discredit the account given in Whole Works, which indicates that Frith first became acquainted with Tyndale in London after his release from imprisonment. This would mean that they met in London sometime in 1528, which is impossible since Tyndale had left for the continent four years earlier. Yet it is also doubtful that Tyndale met Frith at Cambridge in 1520–21. It is more likely that the two met sometime in 1523 or 1524 near the completion of Frith’s B.A. and before he was transferred to Oxford by Wolsey. Furthermore, Raynor only considers the possibility that Tyndale visited Frith at Cambridge, but this meeting probably took place in London where Tyndale was residing prior to his departure for the Continent in the spring of 1524. It is also in London that Tyndale first conferred with Frith about translating the Bible. Thus, Foxe’s Whole Works is probably correct in identifying London as the location of their initial acquaintance, but the chronology in Acts & Monuments is more consistent with what is known about Tyndale’s own whereabouts in the mid-1520s.
Sometime after transferring to Oxford, Frith and others were accused of “conferryng together vpon the abuses of Religion being at that time crept into the Church,” and “were therefore accused of heresie vnto the Cardinall, and cast into a prison … where their saltfishe was layde.” Foxe’s account in Whole Works more specifically identifies the suspected heresy to be sympathy with “Martyn Luthers doctrine.”16 The simple fact that Frith was imprisoned does not necessarily prove that he was beyond the bounds of mainstream orthodox Catholic theology at this time. According to Foxe, it was not until after the men were imprisoned that they were even formally examined. Neither does all criticism toward religious “abuses” indicate the necessary stamp of Luther’s influence, and it must be kept in mind that the name of Luther overshadowed nearly every heresy hunt of the 1520s.
Yet there are good reasons to believe that Frith had indeed moved well beyond a mere Erasmian critique of religious abuses after 1525. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that Frith was well acquainted with the name of Luther before he ever arrived at Oxford, and Foxe does claim that he was evangelically “converted” through acquaintance with William Tyndale before this. Wolsey certainly had good reason to be cautious of heretical activity at his newly established Oxford college. He and Bishop Tunstall’s earlier efforts to stop the trafficking of evangelical works into England proved ultimately unsuccessful and now a new wave of trouble was emerging with the publication of Tyndale’s English New Testament in 1525–26.
Foxe indicates that the investigation of Frith and his companions at Oxford included a search for prohibited “bookes” in their bedrooms. Among these “bookes” were likely the works of Luther and perhaps other continental reformers, but even more significant was Tyndale’s recently printed English New Testament of 1526, a work which Frith himself appears to have been involved with in its earliest stages in London in 1524. Although the statement made by Foxe that Tyndale “consydering in his mynde, and partely also conferring with Ioh. Frith …” chronologically follows Tyndale’s departure for Germany in the narrative, this conferral could not really have occurred at this time since Frith remained in England until 1528. Although Trueman is probably right in asserting that Frith did participate with Tyndale in the later translation of the Pentateuch and the book of Jonah in the later 1520s, the context of Foxe’s narrative is referring to the translation of the New Testament and to Tyndale’s initial flight to Germany. Furthermore, the section that follows is actually a parenthesis describing the whole development of Tyndale’s vision for the work of Bible translation, after which the story picks up again with his departure from England. Therefore, this conferral mentioned only in passing by Foxe probably refers to Frith and Tyndale’s early acquaintanceship in London in 1523 or 1524.
Tyndale’s English New Testament and other proscribed books were being sold in London and Oxford by a parish priest named Thomas Garrett, and it was knowledge of this fact that aroused suspicion and eventually brought charges against Frith and the other men who were imprisoned. Frith, therefore, was linked to an underground evangelical reform movement that was being fueled by forbidden works, including one by an English exile, imported from the Continent.
After the prisoners became infected and a few died from the stench and diet of the saltfish, Wolsey released Frith and the other survivors “vpon the condition, not to passe aboue ten myles of Oxford.” Hearing of the heresy trials of Oxford colleagues Thomas Garret and Anthony Dalaber, however, compelled Frith in 1528 to flee “across the sea” to join Tyndale in Flanders. Foxe provides no other details concerning Frith’s sojourn other than that this initial visit lasted a little more than two years. Except for a brief return to England during Lent in 1531, Frith resumed his exile on the Continent until the summer of 1532. Throughout his exile, Frith was in attendance at the colloquy of Marburg (1529), was married in Holland, and authored his first three works expressing an evangelical theology.
One of those three works that Frith composed during his exile was a translation from Latin into English of the Scotsman Patrick Hamilton’s Divers Fruitful Gatherings of Scripture and dubbed by Frith as “Patrick’s Places” (1531): “For it entreateth exactelye of certeyne comen places/ which knowne/ ye haue the pith of all divinite.” The story of Patrick Hamilton is important in itself for understanding Frith’s connection to Luther and the influence of his theology of Law and Gospel.
Hamilton (1504?–1528) was born of Scottish nobility, was made a titular abbot in 1517, and studied at the University of Paris where he received his MA in 1520. Hamilton probably learned of Luther while at Paris since his works were receiving significant attention at the Sorbonne by 1519. However, it is impossible to know precisely what impact Luther had on Hamilton at this time, and his reforming sympathies may not have extended much beyond Humanism. Hamilton moved to the University of Louvain in 1520–22, and then returned to Scotland as a new faculty member at the University of St. Andrews in 1523. His reforming criticisms, however, made him an enemy of Archbishop James Beaton, and he fled first briefly to Wittenberg and then soon after to the recently established University of Marburg in Hesse in 1527. One of Hamilton’s teachers was a former Franciscan, now Luther-sympathizer, named Francis Lambert, who had just been appointed to the faculty at Melancthon’s recommendation. While in Marburg, Hamilton composed the Fruitful Gatherings, a series of biblical theses expounding the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone under the rubric of Law and Gospel. Hamilton returned to Scotland after just six months and was tried and executed for heresy in 1528. John Knox later considered Hamilton’s martyrdom to be the starting point of the Scottish Reformation, and he published Frith’s Patrick’s Places in his History of the Reformation in Scotland (1559–71). Frith never had the opportunity to meet Hamilton, who returned to Scotland before Frith arrived on the Continent, though Loane suggests that Tyndale met him during a brief hiatus in Marburg in 1527. Yet Frith’s decision to publish Patrick’s Places shows not only his admiration for Hamilton as a reformer and martyr but also his adoption of an evangelical theology of Law and Gospel influenced by Luther.
Patrick’s Places is organized by pithy theological propositions and Scripture quotations that follow an intentional progression from Law to Gospel and from faith to hope, love, and good works. The central theme underlying the entire work is justification by faith in Christ alone apart from, but resulting in, good works. Hamilton begins the work with a discussion of the Law, which he identifies with the commandments and prohibitions of God encapsulated in the Ten Commandments and interpreted by the law of love. The Law is then characterized by Hamilton as something impossible for any natural person to do without first having faith and grace: “He that hath the fayth/ loveth god/ and he that loveth god kepeth all his commaundementes: ergo he that hath the faith kepeth all the commaundementes of god.” Thus, the Law by itself only makes a person aware of his or her weakness and guilt without providing any remedy or solution. That remedy is found in the Gospel, which Hamilton defines as the “good tydyngs” that in Christ all the requirements of the Law have been satisfied and He is “oure rightwysenes … oure satisfaccyon … oure redemptyon … oure goodnes.” Hamilton effectively establishes the dialectical relationship of Law to Gospel with an evangelical theology of justification by faith alone through a series of propositional dialogues: “The lawe sayeth/paye thy dette. The gospell sayeth Christ hath payed it … The lawe sayeth thou art a synner/ despayre and thou shalt be dammed. The gospell saieth/ thy sinnes are forgeuen the be of good comforte thou shalt be saued.”
The work then proceeds to exalt the priority of faith and all that springs from it as pleasing to God: “He that hath the faith is iust and good / and a good tre bereth good frute: ergo all that is done in fayth pleaseth god.” The work clearly upholds the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone apart from works and that “faith onlye maketh a man good and rightwise … faith onlye saueth vs.” At the same time, hope and “cherite” are inherent to justifying faith, with hope pertaining to the promises made to faith and love pertaining to the welfare of others for their own sake with no thought of reward. According to Hamilton, works possess neither the ability to condemn nor to justify. Rather, condemnation comes by unbelief, and justification comes by faith in Christ alone, although works flow naturally from a heart of true justifying faith: “A man is good ere he do good workes/ and evell ere he doo evel workes/ for the tre is good ere it bere good frute and evel ere it bere evel frute.”
This short work breathes the inspiration of Luther and the influence of his evangelical theology of Law and Gospel. It might also be argued that Hamilton’s emphasis on the preaching of the Law as the revelation of human culpability and weakness apart from grace so that faith in Christ only justifies or makes a person righteous reflects the influence of Augustine as a legacy of Humanism. However, it should not be assumed that Luther’s own way of speaking about justification was wholly dissimilar to Augustine, though with some important qualifications. Furthermore, the particular Law-Gospel organization of Hamilton’s Fruitful Gatherings, the emphasis in his understanding of the Gospel and his theology of justification on the remission of sins in the righteousness of Christ through faith alone, and his time spent in Wittenberg and Marburg all point strongly toward the influence of Luther. It is uncertain to what degree Hamilton had adopted Luther’s theology before fleeing Scotland, although this was assumed by Archbishop Beaton to be the case, but Hamilton most assuredly knew of Luther’s evangelical theology and of Tyndale’s English New Testament prior to his departure for the Continent in 1527. It may be that his time at Wittenberg and Marburg only confirmed his evangelical sympathies developed earlier between 1523 and 1527.
According to Foxe, Frith had already been converted through the influence of Tyndale, so it is questionable what amount of direct impact Hamilton’s work had upon the shaping of his evangelical theology. Nevertheless, his decision to translate it obviously shows that he valued its author and his theological message, a message that reflects the evangelical priorities Luther had outlined by 1520. Of course, as Clebsch argues, the fact that Frith translated the work does not necessarily mean he agreed with Hamilton on every particular, but this point is impossible to prove.
In 1529 Frith published a three-part work under the pseudonym of “Richarde Brightwell,” the core of which was a translation of Luther’s own antipapal exposition of the eighth chapter of Daniel (Ad librum eximii Magistri Nostri Magistri Ambrosii Catharini, defensoris Silvestri Prieratis acerrimi, responsio, 1521). In the prefatory A Pistle to the Christian reader, the influence of Luther is evident in Frith’s description of the possessive character of saving faith, that it “is not therefore sufficient to beleve that he is a sauiour and redemer,” since even the Devil and his demons have such belief, “but that he is a sauiour and redemer vnto the …” Like Luther and also Tyndale, Frith asserts in the A Pistle that repentance is necessary “in the order of thy iustification,” although this does not mean that enumerating sins itself justifies. Rather, the faith in Christ that alone justifies must by its very definition follow a humble acknowledgment of guilt and weakness before the Law of God that seeks such grace. Frith quotes directly from Augustine whose claim of helplessness before the demands of the Law had aroused the ire of Pelagius in the fourth century. The preaching of the Law does not imply that the works it commands are possible for people to accomplish on their own strength, but instead reveals the need for the help of the grace of God. The self-consciousness of moral weakness accompanied by an acknowledgment of the righteousness of the will of God in the Law is not meant to bind a sinner indefinitely to despair. The answer is in the Gospel, which is the promise that Christ has made atonement to God for sins and is “wisdome/rightewesnes/holynes/ and redemption/ fulfillinge the lawe for us.”
Trueman argues that while Frith and Tyndale are in complete agreement concerning the relationship between faith and good works, although Tyndale develops a much more explicit emphasis on this in terms of covenant conditionality, Frith has a much more objective (theocentric) view of the atonement. Guilt and propitiation are at the center of Frith’s doctrine of atonement rather than the liberation of the will as in Tyndale. Trueman is right that Tyndale does not speak explicitly or as often about the “propitiation of the wrath of God” as Frith does, but the contrast he establishes seems unwarranted and misleading. It is obvious that Tyndale assumes along with Frith that an important work of Christ on the cross was the objective removal of moral guilt. Tyndale spoke openly about being “hated of god” for the poison of sin and for the vengeance deserved for human guilt. Though he did stress the liberation of the will that results from faith in the work of Christ, he also clearly describes the blood of Christ as pardoning, atoning, and making satisfaction for sins condemned under the Law. In fact, he states openly that by His work on the cross Christ “peased the wrath of God.”36 According to Tyndale, it is the objective work of Christ that makes it even possible to speak about the subjective conversion of the sinner, and he assumed along with Luther that the bondage of the moral will to sin results precisely from the estrangement of the conscience from God and from the assurance of His absolute favor.
The A pistle to the Christen reader then proceeds by arranging Scripture quotations and paraphrases into a progressive narrative expounding the biblical themes of spiritual bondage, the Law, flesh and spirit, faith and the Gospel, the obligation of the Christian to resist the “old man of synne,” and good works as the fruits of genuine faith. With regard to his interpretation of “flesh” and “sprete,” Frith’s anthropology reflects the particular influence of Luther in that “flesh” refers to “all thinges that we do/ thinke or speake/ yee our hole body soule reason/ with the cheffe and hyghest powers of them/ yf they be not led and gowerned with the Sprete of God” and “sprete” as “every outward and inward worke that a man havinge faith and cherite (which are the frutes and gyftes of the Sprete) doth worke seakinge spirituall thinges.”
The whole arrangement of the A pistle shows the influence of Luther’s dialectic of Law and Gospel on the evangelical theology of Frith as was the case in Patrick’s Places. Most of the text is simply extracted from Scripture with little or no personal exposition added by Frith, and it serves as a backdrop for his principal point that false prophets and Antichrists are identified by the ungodly behavior and lifestyle that is out of step with their profession of faith: “And perfect fayth hath with him sure hope and cherite and of these foloweth the fulfillinge of the commaundmentes necessarylye/ Even as the light foloweth the fyre.” Frith blames the ignorance of the laity on the purposeful withholding of the truth by the leaders of the Church who oppress the people by religious fasts and penances. The persecution of those who try to give the light of truth to the people shows that those in power are indeed the offspring of Ishmael, the persecutor of Isaac and the symbol of all who oppress God’s chosen. On account of this, Frith identifies such religious oppressors as Antichrists.
Frith’s quoting from Augustine in the A pistle reflects certain methodological legacies inherited from Humanism and does show his theological agreement with the ancient bishop at least concerning the powerlessness of the Law to make sinners righteous in the sight of God. However, his use of Augustine must not be stressed too far as if to diminish the particular influence of Luther’s evangelical theology of Law and Gospel, and it must be remembered that the A pistle prefaces a translation of a work authored by Luther himself.
The Revelation of Antichrist is largely a translation of Luther’s own exposition published in 1521. The chief charge brought against the unholy rule of the pope and his successors in both treatises is the suppression of the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone. Through a preaching of works-righteousness (especially ceremonial and ritualistic righteousness), and under the deceptive front of power and prestige, the ecclesiastical rulers spite the truth concerning faith, “which alone doth truly iustifye and make holye.” New Testament passages, especially the epistles of Paul, are used to demonstrate that such attacks on the Gospel had been prophesied long ago by the apostles. Not only popes are arraigned, but all those who are in his service, including bishops, cardinals, and priests. Even Thomas Aquinas is referred to acrimoniously as the theologian chiefly responsible for introducing the works-righteousness of Aristotle’s ethical philosophy into the medieval university.41
The influence of Luther is apparent in objections to making Christ into a new Moses, as if Christ also compels externally without providing any spiritual assistance to accomplish good works. Instead, Christ purchased people so that He might live and reign within them and in all their works through faith. Frith largely translates Luther’s expanded discussion on the topic of the liberty of the Christian in rebuke of the papacy and the compulsory works it enforces upon people. Christ not only takes away the condemnation deserved by sin, but also the very occasion for sin prompted by the compulsion of the Law, which only arouses rebellion and forces the doing of works reluctantly without a free and willing heart. These are not good works at all but are sin. A righteous and true Christian needs no such compulsion, but does good works even as if there were no commandment. In the New Testament, Christ and the apostles are ministers of the Spirit, or Gospel, and not the letter, or Law.43 On at least one occasion in another work, Frith does explicitly use “letter” and “Spirit” to differentiate a literal (physical) from an allegorical (figurative or spiritual) interpretation of Scripture. The most notable example of this is Jesus’ command to “eat his body and drink his blood” in John 6. Frith quotes Augustine, though also in agreement with Luther, and interprets this not as a reference to the sacrament of the Eucharist but as figurative of abiding in Christ through faith. Nevertheless, the hermeneutical association of “letter” and “Spirit” with “Law” and “Gospel” is more typical of Frith’s writings. Although Augustine also spoke in this way and influenced Luther to a certain degree, Frith’s contrast of compulsory obedience under the force of the Law versus the freedom of the Christian for true obedience through justifying faith in the Revelation of Antichrist is carried directly over from Luther’s own treatise.
Although the proper ministry of Christ and the apostles was the preaching of the Gospel, Frith’s treatise also acknowledges that the gospels teach good works, but they do not do this harshly or with the same force of compulsion as under Moses. Rather, Christ and the apostles exhort gently concerning what to do and leave undone: “So he hath not delivered vs from the lawe/ but from the power and violence of the lawe/ which is the very true losinge/ gevinge all men libertye at their awne perill to do other good or evill.” True Christian freedom is not freedom from obedience to the Law, but freedom from the obedience compelled by the fear of punishment. In Christ fear is removed and replaced by the freedom of a willingness to obey. The temporal government, however, is still necessary for the compulsion of outward obedience and for the punishment of evil, but they serve those who are not yet of His kingdom, “untyll they are made spirituall/ and then frely and with a glade harte serve god.” The popes, then, corrupt the faith by creating new opportunities for sin by binding consciences to so many laws, traditions, and ceremonies, and by deceiving the people into thinking they are righteous in obeying them. In this way they have put consciences in bondage all over again after Christ came to set them free. For Luther and Frith, this is nothing less than the work of the Antichrist.
Frith appends his own brief statement encouraging the Christian reader to charity, patience, and to fighting the antichrists in the Church with good living rather than with violence. Though Wright is correct to point out that Luther’s treatise rages on to the end of the work without a similar word of explicit restraint or caution, the German reformer likewise in the 1520s argued that such corruption in the leadership is not justification for militant insurrection, even when that corruption could be interpreted with such apocalyptic invective.
Following the Revelation of Antichrist, Frith attached the Antithesis, wherin are compared to geder Christes actes and oure holye father the Popes. This is an adaptation and considerable expansion of an anonymously published tract probably belonging to Philipp Melancthon entitled Passional Christi und Antichristi (1521), which included a series of illustrative woodcuts designed by Lucas Cranach. Whereas Melancthon’s Passional contained only thirteen theses, Frith’s Antithesis expands the number to seventy-eight, and only eleven from the Passional are paralleled in the Antithesis.
The series of theses vividly contrast the humble lifestyle of Jesus and his teachings on faith and love over against the material opulence, power obsession, and legalistic tyranny of the Pope and his bishops. A few theses in particular speak more directly to the subject of Law and Gospel and the priority of faith before good works.
Frith contrasts the teaching of the “lawe” by Christ and Moses with the “Pope and his Bisshopes” and “their awne traditions.” Although Frith could differentiate between the law of Christ and the whole Law of Moses, this does not mean that Christ’s moral teachings are anything new in substance from the Law of the Decalogue. Rather, his point here is to contrast the divine origin of the Mosaic laws and the teachings of Christ with the man-made accretions of the medieval Catholic Church. Furthermore, Christ not only practiced what he preached, but He “confirmed it with his awne death.” In fact, as a later thesis testifies, Christ satisfied both the “old law and the new/ and all rightewesnes.” Another thesis states that “Christes lawe is fulfilled thorow charite.” The clergy, however, have utterly ignored “christes” law so as to erect their own to “maynten their fatte belyes.”
Frith sounds like Tyndale when stating that “Christ promisseth forgyvnes of synnes. And the kingdome of heven vnto them that repent and will amend their lyves.” As often the case with Tyndale in the 1530s, faith in Christ alone is not explicitly mentioned here in connection with the forgiveness of sins, but it is assumed by Frith as much as it was by Tyndale. The stress in this particular statement is on the concomitance of a true justifying faith in Christ with a heart of repentance.
In another thesis Frith uses the tree and fruit analogy used before by Luther and Tyndale to illustrate the priority of faith before all good works, which are the outward testimony of inward faith. Nevertheless, Frith cautions that human judgment in discerning inward justification by outward works is not infallible. Only God is able to see true faith in Christ before that faith, working through love, is demonstrated in deeds before the watching eyes of the world: “although we can not know the tre is good/ but by his frute (for we can iudge nothinge but by his outward operation) yet god seyth the quickenes in the rote/ which in the tyme that god hath apoynted him/ shall bringe forth his frute. And approveth the tre to be good/ although he seme dead vnto vs. The tre is faith which is the mother of all good workes/ which ever worketh by charite when he seyth occasyon.” Thus, Frith shares Luther’s evangelical theology that true justifying faith in Christ produces love and good deeds and that God, and only God, knows infallibly that such faith (“the tre”) is good and right for justification before any outward actions (“frute”) are observable to others.
Frith returned to England for a brief period during Lent in 1531, and this is somewhat surprising since Thomas More had succeeded Cardinal Wolsey as Chancellor to King Henry VIII. Despite the intensity of Wolsey’s campaign to suppress heresy, it is said that he “lacked the persecutor’s temperament.” It was under Thomas More, who was given license in 1528 from Bishop Tunstall to refute heretical works in the vernacular, that focus shifted with intensified urgency to the burning of heretics more than their writings.53 Thomas Bilney, who had been persuaded to abjure for his earlier offense, resumed his reforming activities and was martyred at the stake in August of 1531. Others, such as Richard Bayfield and John Lambert, experienced a similar fate. The list of prohibited books had grown considerably by 1530, and now more works were appearing by English exiles. The King had been mustering support in the latter half of the 1520s for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and though Henry had earlier praised Tyndale’s fealty to higher authority in Obedience of A Christian Man (1528), he now had to contend with Tyndale’s objection to the divorce in his Practice of Prelates (1530). Thus, on the one hand, things had become worse, not better, for English evangelicals by 1531. On the other hand, Stephen Vaughn had been commissioned by the English court to seek out and persuade both Tyndale and Frith to return to England under royal protection, albeit unsuccessfully. Indeed, the situation for protagonists of evangelical reform would shift in their favor by the mid-1530s, beginning with More’s resignation as Chancellor in 1532, the appointment of Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, the crowning of Anne as Queen in 1533, the elevation of Thomas Cromwell to the role of Vicegerent of Spirituals in 1535, and parliamentary negotiations with German Protestants that peaked between the years 1536 and 1538.
Foxe narrates the arrest of Frith at Reading, and this most likely took place during his brief return to England in 1531, though some scholars have dated it to his final return to England in July of 1532 (Daniell’s article in the ODNB incorrectly identifies 1531 as the year of his final return). Raynor at least leaves open the possibility that the arrest took place in 1532.
Foxe records that Frith “came over for exhibition of the Prior of Readying (as is thought) and had the Prior ouer with hym.” In Foxe’s Whole Works, the Prior of Reading Abbey is described among Frith’s “frendes,” and scholars have indeed identified this Prior as one who had for some time been actively involved in the underground evangelical reform movement. Reading was a monastery known early on as a receptacle of Luther’s works.63 While at Reading, Frith was arrested as a “vacabound” and “set in the stockes.” He was eventually released due to the intervention of the local schoolmaster, Leonard Cox, a very learned man who developed a scholarly admiration for Frith. Again, Foxe leaves out the details but seems to imply that Frith then fled persecution and returned to the Continent before his final return to England and arrest in London in 1532. Many scholars have overlooked Foxe’s claim that after Frith was released from the stocks, Thomas More, identified as still “Chancellour of England” (until May 1532) “persecuted hym both by lande and sea” (my italics).
After this first brief return to England, Frith reappeared in Antwerp and published his A disputacio[n] of purgatorye. He was also probably involved in seeing Tyndale’s Answer to More (1531) through the press. As Wright suggests, the Disputation of Purgatory moves Frith more into “the realm of original theological writing.” It demonstrates his abilities as a skilled theologian as well as his confidence as a polemicist. It certainly is the first ever extensive biblical and theological argument against the doctrine of purgatory published by an English evangelical. However, the assertion that this work reflects originality can be potentially misleading. While it must be acknowledged that, unlike his earlier works, the Disputation of Purgatory is neither a translation nor direct adaptation of any single writing belonging to another reformer, its evangelical theology reflects the influence of Luther.
As far as his rejection of the doctrine of purgatory itself is concerned, the influence of Luther cannot be dismissed, although Zwingli also objected to the existence of purgatory in the 67 Articles (1523). In the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) the existence of purgatory was simply assumed by Luther despite the abuses surrounding the sale of indulgences. Even by 1521, Luther still retained a personal belief in it though admitting he was unable to prove it by Scripture or reason. For this cause, he left the matter open to individual conscience. However, by this time Luther was also arguing that certain passages of Scripture had been incorrectly interpreted as referring to purgatory when they actually spoke about the suffering of the saints on earth. He also objected to grounding belief in purgatory on a statement about praying for the dead in the intertestamental apocryphal book 1 Maccabees, the canonicity of which he rejected. Although Trueman pushes Luther’s objection to the doctrine of purgatory all the way back to 1530, by 1522 and thereafter, Luther, still of the opinion that purgatory is not an article of faith provable by Scripture, had now come to openly deny that it was even a particular place. Instead, he stressed the taste of hell that the just experience in this life as the true purgatory and suggested that all souls after death, with few exceptions, lie in a bodiless sleep until the final resurrection and Day of Judgment. Frith echoes both Luther and Tyndale in expressing some agnosticism concerning the experience of dead saints on the basis of the silence of Scripture, and he simply affirms as they did that justified souls are “resting in peace” in God’s keeping and will be reunited with their resurrected bodies in full glory at the Last Judgment.71
Frith’s own objections to the existence of purgatory on the basis of the lack of exegetical support reflects the influence of Luther, but even more significant to his case is the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone, which Frith concludes does away with any need for purgatory. Luther’s own increasing objections to the existence of purgatory in the early 1520s seem to be made more on the grounds of its lacking exegetical support in Scripture rather than by emphasizing the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone, although he later recounts how the preaching of the Gospel naturally swept away belief in purgatory and all the ritual piety associated with it. Whether or not Frith’s application of the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone in objection to the existence of purgatory was itself influenced by Luther, his understanding of justification and his evangelical theology of Law and Gospel is very much the legacy of the German reformer.
The Disputation on Purgatory is split up into three books, each dealing with a different Catholic opponent and his unique contribution to defending the doctrine of purgatory. The first book is a response to the printer and brother-in-law of Thomas More, John Rastell, and his use of natural reason in A New Book of Purgatory (1530). The second book is predominantly a response to the exegetical arguments of Thomas More in The Supplication of Souls (1529). Rastell and More’s own treatises were both inspired by recent objections to purgatory made by Simon Fish in his The Supplication of Beggars (1528). Fish is mentioned by name in Frith’s prologue. His attack on the doctrine of purgatory, however, was not so much on theological or exegetical grounds but on the basis that the doctrine of purgatory is a front for the greed of the ecclesiastical magisterium: “that the pope were a mercilesse tyraunte whych (as he sayeth humsilfe) maye delyuer them from thence and wyll not excepte he haue monye.” The criticisms Fish made against the claims of papal power over souls in purgatory are reminiscent of Luther in his Ninety-Five Theses, wherein Luther acknowledges the justifiable complaints of the laity regarding the selling of indulgences. Frith’s third book critiques the patristic resourcement and biblical exegesis of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, in his Assertionis Lutheranae Confutationem (1523). Fisher had denounced Luther in two public sermons preached at St. Paul’s in London (1521 and 1526), and his Confutatio was written in refutation of Luther’s Assertio Omnium Articulorum (1520), a work of self-defense against the papal bull Exurge Domine. In the case of both Rastell and Fisher, Frith argues somewhat on their terms but makes his ultimate and definitive appeal to the authority of Scripture: “Suffer therfore all thinges, whatsoeuer they be/ to be tryed and examined by the Scripture.”75
Rastell’s book is a dialogue between a Muslim Turk named Gingemin and a Christian named Comingo, the former proving to the latter by the use of natural reason the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the doctrine of purgatory. Frith does not even deal with the first two doctrines and encapsulates his objection to the third by arguing that “it is hoellye iniuryous vnto the bloude of Chryst and the destruccyon of all chrysten fayth” to believe in purgatory. The only “purgatoryes” necessary are, first, the cleansing of the heart through faith in Christ who made full atonement for sin and appeased the wrath of the Father: “This faith purefyth the harte and geueth us a will and gladdnes to do what so euer oure most mercifull father commaundeth us.” The second is the experience of adversity and tribulation. This is necessary even for the elect because of the weakness in “oure membres,” “that we can not eschewe sinne as oure harte wolde and as oure will desyreth,” and so “that we maye remembre his lawe and mortefye the olde Adam and fleshlye lust which els wolde waxe so rebellious that it wolde subdue vs/ raigne in vs and holde vs thraulde under sinne.” These purgatories will cease to be necessary after death, “when deeth hath subdued oure coruptible bodye/ and oure flesh committed to rest in the erth …”77 Even though Christians are still sinners in the imperfection of their faith and love, and though the rebelliousness of the flesh wages war against the obedience of the Spirit, yet they are fully righteous in Christ and His atonement so that sin is neither “imputed nor rekened” to them. The idea that Christians have the beginnings of the Spirit and love while their remaining sins and imperfections are not imputed to them is certainly Augustinian in form but is not so unlike Luther’s own doctrine of “simul justus et peccator” and the proleptic element in his theology of justification. The particular influence of Luther’s evangelical theology is found in Frith’s emphasis on Christ and His atonement as the extrinsic righteousness that justifies the sinner in acceptance before God. Frith’s stress on suffering and affliction as a necessary “medicyne” for aiding the Christian in the mortification of the sinful flesh until the redemption of the body also echoes statements made by Luther.
Frith objects to the idea that a loss of the fear of purgatory would encourage people to sin, when in fact to abstain only because of fear is itself already sin and is to live under the Law: “For we ought not to abstayne from euel because of the punishment that foloweth the cryme but onlye for the loue that we have vnto god with out any respect either of saluacyon or of damnacyon.” Whereas human laws are satisfied by outward observance, God “requireth a thinge to be done with a wel willinge harte/ and euen for pure loue.” A heart that obeys begrudgingly resists both the Law and the God who made it. This reflects the influence of Luther’s own thoughts on the power of the Law, Christian liberty, and the nature of truly good works.
Frith describes God dealing with Christians on the basis that He “clothe[s] vs with a nother mannes iustice [that is Christes].” Christ’s obedience even unto death belongs to the sinner through faith and is counted as if it were his or her own obedience and death. Scholars have argued that Frith never expresses an understanding of justification as imputed righteousness in Christ. McGrath argues that Frith stresses the non-imputation of sin within an entirely sanative, proleptic, and Augustinian theology of justification. This claim, however, rests largely on the consideration of only one single statement, wherein Frith in a series of antitheses contrasts the inheritance of original sin with the gift of the righteousness of Christ: “Thorow Adam/Adams sinne was counted oure awne. Thorow Christ/ Christes rightwysness is reputed unto us for oure awne.” McGrath argues that this contrast utilizes “Augustinian presuppositions.” To be sure, the Adam-sin/Christ-righteousness dialectic of Romans 5:12–21 was a favorite of Augustine with regard to his doctrine of original sin contrasted with divine grace, but Frith’s particular use of “reputed unto us for oure awne” is significant when interpreted in the light of other similar statements. Trueman agrees that nowhere does Frith speak explicitly of the “great exchange” occurring between the sinner and Christ in justification, but nevertheless observes that the concept of union with Christ was an intricate part of his understanding of justification: “Christ deals with God on man’s behalf, and man is thus saved by virtue of this union.”84 Trueman is right to highlight the importance of union with Christ in Frith’s doctrine of justification by faith, but he gives no explicit consideration to the likelihood that this was borrowed from Luther. It was the legacy of Melancthon upon later Lutheranism that more strictly described the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in justification using legal and forensic terminology whereas Luther often used the language of personal union. On the basis of other statements made by Frith indicating that Christ’s righteousness “clothe[s]” the Christian and that His righteous obedience unto death belongs to the sinner as if it were his or her very own, it seems just as accurate, if not more, to paraphrase Frith as saying that “God deals with man on Christ’s behalf.” Though perhaps not using the precise terminology of “imputed righteousness,” which only becomes most prevalent in Luther in the 1530s, Frith does clearly indicate that the atoning righteousness of Christ that satisfied the wrath of God belongs completely to the Christian through faith alone as if it were his or her very own. At the same time, the particular stress Luther himself placed on the reckoning of the alien righteousness of Christ in justification did not prevent him from speaking of justification using proleptic and sanative language and of the non-imputation of sin in the life of the Christian led by the Spirit.
According to Frith, apart from the work of Christ, “al the repentaunce in the worlde coulde not satisfye for one synne.” This does not mean that Frith considered repentance unnecessary. Luther and Tyndale were both adamant that justifying faith in Christ cannot exist without following the humility of repentance under the Law, but that there is also a repentance and contrition that, without faith and hope in the Gospel, actually keeps one in bondage to sin.88 In the context of Frith’s statement, his intention is to refute the reasoning of Rastell that he perceives logically excludes the need for the work of Christ by giving repentance itself justifying power. Frith had already rejected this idea in his A pistle to the Christen reader in 1529. Frith describes a “repentance without fayth and is such a repentance as Judas and Rastels christen men which continue styll in synne/ haue at the later ende whych doth rather purchace them an halter then the remission of synnes.” Although the only other repentance Frith identifies explicitly in this context is that which follows after justification, this is not to say that Frith ever denied the role of repentance or contrition as a necessary antecedent to justifying faith in the Gospel. In 1533, Frith received a letter from Tyndale encouraging him to avoid disputation on more complex matters involving the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and instead to “expounde the law truly, and open the vayle of Moses to condemne all flesh, and proue all men sinners, and all deedes vnder the law, before mercy haue taken away the condemnation therof, to be sinne and damnable.” The point Frith is making in his dispute with Rastell is that repentance in itself cannot satisfy the Law of God and remove the guilt of sin. Frith is also clear that the life of repentance that follows after faith in the Christian life cannot satisfy or remit the guilt of past sins but is only concerned with chastening the flesh out of love for God.
Although Frith denies that any person can make satisfaction to God, he does believe that there is such a thing as making satisfaction to another person against whom an offense has been made. In fact, God will not forgive the offense of the guilty party “unlesse” he or she is willing to set things right. On the other hand, neither will God forgive the sins committed by the one offended unless he or she is willing to receive his or her repentant neighbor with forgiveness. Frith’s comments appear to make God’s forgiveness conditional upon the work of human reconciliation and forgiveness. Though Frith does not explicitly elaborate the point, his theological assumptions were the same as that of Luther and Tyndale in that working toward reconciliation and peace and having a willingness to forgive others is a sign of the indwelling Spirit and of justifying favor with God through a repenting faith in Christ.92
Frith’s response to the common objection that the evangelical gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone renders good works irrelevant is reminiscent of earlier comments made by Tyndale, and before him Luther. Although good works do not justify because Christ alone is “thy wisdome/rightwysnes/halowinge and redempcyon,” they should be done for the simple fact that God has commanded them, for the good and welfare of others, drawing them to God by the means of charity, as well as for the taming of the flesh. According to Frith, good works are also a “testymonie” of belonging to God. Trueman argues that Frith is similar to Tyndale in allowing works to have a “secondary role” in assurance, but that he does not develop this as profoundly as does Tyndale in his theology of covenant conditionality. Luther also believed that works reassure Christians of the authenticity of their faith, but not just any works. Like Luther and Tyndale, Frith defines truly good works as characterized by selfless motivation: “Therfore must thou do thy workes with a single yie/ hauinge neither respecte vnto the ioyes of heauen/ neither yet to the paynes of hell/ but onlye do them for the profyte of thy neyghboure as god commaundeth thee/ and let hym alone wyth the resydue.” Frith recognizes that the intent of the Christian to do good works and to refrain from sin is always obstructed and opposed by the desires of the flesh. His description of the Christian struggle with sin is a close paraphrase of Romans 7 and hearkens back to the earlier prologues to Romans written by Luther and Tyndale. Frith asserts that God is “pacefyed” by the will and conscience that delights in and consents to His Law, hates sin, and desires to do what is right even though the old nature continues to desire the exact opposite. This does not mean, however, that love toward the Law is what justifies the sinner in the sight of God. Frith has already stated that Christ atoned the wrath of God and that the sinner is justified in Him through faith alone, but, as Luther and Tyndale both argued, God also promises that He does not impute sins to those who earnestly desire to do what is right, not giving consent in the conscience to sin despite the sinful impulses of the flesh: “pardone us oure trespaces/ and accepte oure good will for the full dede.” Such a person who has these qualities is indeed already justified in the sight of God and has the Spirit of God through genuine repentance and faith in Christ. For Frith, this fact removes any need for a post-mortem satisfaction of sins in purgatory. Frith also uses phrases like “consenteth to the law of god,” “begynneth to loue the lawe,” and “desyre to fulfylle the law of God,”95 which are characteristic of both Tyndale and Luther.
In his second book, after pointing out Augustine’s own ambivalence toward the doctrine of purgatory nearly 400 years after the time of Christ, Frith then predominantly challenges More’s exegesis of Scripture. Many of the passages he discusses are those already treated by Luther earlier in 1521, which actually speak of the hellish experience of the saints living on earth, including Hezekiah, David, and the saints passing through the fires of persecution in 1 Corinthians 3. Frith also follows Luther in rejecting the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees as a valid authority on which to establish the doctrine of purgatory as an article of faith.
Although exegetical arguments resurface in the third book, Frith’s unique contention with Fisher in the last part of the Disputation of Purgatory is his use of the opinions of the Church Fathers. Frith’s attack against Fisher is itself written in response to Fisher’s own blast against Luther’s theology. Rex argues that Fisher was the first Catholic polemicist to target the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone as central to Luther’s thought and, thus, to identify it as his principal error. Fisher also attacked Luther’s objections to making purgatory a necessary article of faith. Therefore, it can reasonably be said that Frith’s reply is, at least in part, written in defense of Luther and his theology of justification.
Frith’s argument with Fisher on the basis of biblical exegesis and patristic testimony shows influences of his background in Humanism but it also demonstrates that two scholars could equally appropriate its methodology with different theological presuppositions and conclusions. With regard to Fisher, this was to uphold Catholic orthodoxy on the doctrine of justification and purgatory. Frith quotes from Fisher who openly acknowledged that the Fathers seldom discuss purgatory, but goes beyond him in actually using the words of Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome on the afterlife to support his argument for its complete non-existence. Yet, this does not mean that Frith was looking to the Church Fathers as the final authority in doctrinal matters. Regardless of patristic opinion on purgatory, Frith argues that the authority of the Fathers is secondary and only derivative of the supreme authority of Scripture. Although even Fisher recognized the possibility of error in the Fathers, Frith parts with Fisher in denying that the Pope acts as the rightful arbiter of truth and error in such disputed matters. Frith’s response echoes Luther’s own position in debate with John Eck of Ingolstadt at Leipzig in 1519. Although Frith references the words of Augustine in support of the Word of God in Scripture as alone trustworthy, Frith is undoubtedly influenced by the evangelical theology of Luther and Tyndale.
Other themes in the Disputation on Purgatory that show the influence of Luther’s evangelical theology are found in Frith’s objection to the use of outward coercion in matters of the conscience where faith, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God alone should rule, as well as his identification of the “keys” in Matthew 16 as the preaching of repentance and faith, or Law and Gospel, rather than the sacerdotal imposition of penances and the exercise of power over purgatory. Many of these ideas certainly might have come by Luther to Frith through the influence of Tyndale, and Frith does explicitly refer his readers to the description of “what the church of Christ is” in Tyndale’s Answer to More (1531).
In July of 1532, Frith made his second and last return to England. Why he did so continues to puzzle scholars, but some have suggested that the resignation of Thomas More as Lord Chancellor in May might have encouraged Frith to return to England to help shepherd the evangelical reform movement. Whatever the reason for his return, Frith found himself a target of the policies of More still in activation under Bishop Stokesley of London, and he had to constantly elude capture. He was eventually arrested in October on Milton Shore in Essex, apparently in the middle of preparing to leave for the Continent with the Prior of Reading and to be reunited with his wife and children. Instead, Frith was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he would compose most of his last writings and live out the greater length of his final months before being transferred to Newgate prison and executed at Smithfield on July 4, 1533.
It must have been in the tower that Frith composed the prefatory letter to his commentary on the last will and testament of William Tracy. Though there has been some confusion concerning where and when the writing of the commentary actually occurred, John Day has recently provided strong evidence suggesting that it was written between March and October of 1531 during or shortly after Frith’s first return to England. In the commentary itself, Frith makes no mention of Tracy’s body being exhumed (October 1532), so it is likely that the commentary was written prior to this event. On the other hand, Frith does appear to refer implicitly to the sentence that was passed by Convocation against Tracy’s will, which means that the commentary cannot be dated any earlier than March of 1531. Since Tyndale does refer twice to the posthumous burning of Tracy’s body in his own commentary, Day concludes that Frith must have written his commentary first. However, Frith does make mention of the exhuming in the brief prefatory letter to his commentary, which Day dates separately to the time of his imprisonment in 1532. It is difficult to ascertain how Frith’s commentary and prefatory letter found their way from London to Antwerp where they were later discovered in 1535 bound together with Tyndale’s commentary in Frith’s handwriting. Day admits that this does amount to a “strange preprinting history for Frith’s contribution.”
Frith’s commentary is so distinct in form and so much longer than Tyndale’s that no direct literary relationship can be established. Nevertheless, Tyndale and Frith both equally praise Tracy for his denial of purgatory on the basis of his faith in the sufficiency of Christ alone for his salvation. Frith attacks with biting sarcasm the canonists’ greedy desire for Tracy’s wealth, as well as the empty threats of purgatory they ironically nullify by their sale of half-penny pardons. Yet the faith praised by Frith is not a “dead historical faith which the devils have and tremble,” but only that faith that is “formed with hope and charity” or “that worketh by cherite.” The latter phrase is biblical and comes from Galatians 5:6 and it was used frequently by Augustine and other medieval theologians to stress that faith alone unaccompanied by love is not sufficient to justify, or make righteous, for acceptance with God. Frith, however, means to emphasize that acceptance with God established in justification through faith in Christ alone by its very nature results in love and not, as in Fisher’s concept of “fides caritate formata,” that love exercised in good works completes or perfects faith for justification and acceptance with God. Frith speaks of justifying faith as being the “root of the tree, and the quickening power out of which all good fruits spring.” Works are vain if done without faith and they merit nothing before God. The goodness of the heart resulting from justifying faith comes before all good works, like the health of a tree before the quality of its fruit. God, the “iuste iudge,” justifies the heart “inwardely,” “gyuinge sentence accordinge to faith,” which is the root from which spring love and all good works. Only God can see and judge whether inward faith is truly justifying, whereas people can only judge outwardly, though fallibly, on the basis of the fruits of faith in good works, “which iustifye us before men.”
Clebsch wrongly interprets Frith as saying that the inability to make an infallible judgment about the justification of another person on the basis of works precludes ever speaking of works as the outward testimony of inward faith and justification. On this basis, Clebsch argues that Frith rejects the concept of “double justification” and is actually much closer to Luther on the centrality of faith than either Tyndale or Barnes. Trueman also points out Clebsch’s error, although he goes on to criticize his misleading reference to the concept of “double justification,” which in its formal sense developed in the context of Protestant-Catholic dialogues in the 1540s and in the proceedings of the Council of Trent. Many scholars, however, see Frith as actually in implicit agreement with a Reformed understanding of “double justification,” which supposedly owes more to the influence of Martin Bucer than to Martin Luther. In the theology of Bucer, double justification refers to the distinction between the “iustificatio impii” and the “iustificatio pii,” the former referring to the gratuitous imputation of righteousness by faith alone and the latter the consequent good works and moral transformation of the Christian that testifies outwardly to faith. Although Bucer contributed to the Protestant-Catholic dialogues on justification at Regensburg in 1541, McGrath distinguishes his position from the concept of “double justification” in the most proper sense of the term, or the combined merit of imputed righteousness in Christ with the inherent righteousness of infused grace as double grounds for justification, which he argues was discussed during the proceedings of the Council of Trent.
Frith, of course, never uses the phrase “double justification” nor does he ever, like Bucer, explicitly distinguish a “justification of the wicked” from a “justification of the righteous.” There is no evidence of any direct influence of Bucer on his theology. The tree and fruit analogy used by Frith to explain the relationship of faith to good works was a favorite of Luther. Luther could also use “justified” in more than one sense and believed that justifying faith by its very nature produces love and good works through the presence of Christ and the power of the Spirit in that faith. In fact, Luther specified in his own writings that God justifies sinners with the proleptic view of making them new creatures, perfected only in the future resurrection, and that only the ones who struggle against sin while trusting in Christ for righteousness can rightly be said to be justified and under His grace. Furthermore, Luther openly spoke of love and good works not only as self-evidences of justifying faith, even to the point of strengthening faith, but also as outward testimonies to others of justification before God.111 Nevertheless, both Frith and Luther understood that outward works are not an infallible reflection of the inward condition of the heart. On the one hand, only God sees the faith working through love that makes a deed truly good and, on the other, God knows whom He has justified through faith before they ever have the opportunity to put that faith to good work.
To be sure, Frith shows his admiration for the theology of Augustine by citing him throughout the commentary, and perhaps this is because he shared Tyndale’s opinion that Tracy was the greatest scholar of Augustine in all of England. Thus, Frith defends Tracy and the theological convictions for which he died using the writings of Augustine who was generally respected by his Catholic opponents as among the greatest of the Fathers of the ancient Church. Yet Frith’s use and interpretation of Augustine does not negate the particular influence of Luther that overshadows the whole development of his evangelical theology of Law and Gospel and his understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone.
While in prison in 1532–33, Frith authored a number of new works. A mirroure to know thyselfe was written to a friend instructing him to show by his deeds a humble gratitude to God for the mercy in all His gifts. As Trueman argues, the idea of knowing oneself in relation to God is probably borrowed from Augustine and it was also used by both Zwingli and Calvin. Among the gifts listed by Frith is faith itself, which he states will be taken away by God if not exercised continually in responsible action, mortification of sin, and the doing of good works: “Let us therfore with feare and tremblynge seke our helth and make stable oure vocation and eleccion/ mortifying oure membres and man of synne/ by exercisinge oureselues in Christes preceptes/ that we maye be the children of oure father that in heuen and felow heyers with oure sauioure …” The loss of faith seems to imply the possibility of the loss of the forgiveness of sins, since it is only “wher fayth is present” that “no synne can be imputed,” yet Frith’s doctrine of predestination also indicates that the elect known only to God have been given the gift of a persevering faith and are not of those who fall away beyond the reach of repentance. Elsewhere, in another treatise, Frith speaks of the “pure congregacion” predestined by God that can never ultimately perish in unbelief.115 Frith also reiterates his understanding of absolute human depravity (“the unstablenes of my flesh being prone to all synne/ and rebellyous to ryghtwesnes, and that there dwelleth no goodnes in me”), justification by faith in Christ alone (“neyther of the worckes going before nor of the workes commyng after/but only of the fre fauoure of God”), and the obligation of the Christian to love his or her neighbor in fulfillment of the Law (“And the lawe of God and nature byndeth me therto/which chargeth me to loue my neyghboure as myselfe”). Although many of these themes also echo the sentiments of Augustine, they must be viewed in the light of the whole development of Frith’s theology, which reflects the particular influence of Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel and the righteousness of justification reckoned in Christ through faith alone.
That Frith was no mere admirer of Augustine is greatly illumined by his treatise on baptism, A myrroure or lokynge glasse wherin you may beholde the sacramente of baptisme described (1533). Frith emphasizes the spiritual meaning reflected in the sacrament of baptism over against a perceived stress in the Catholic Church on the mere performance of the external rite in mediating actual grace. He also defends his interpretation of the significance of the rite of infant baptism against both Catholic and Anabaptist extremes. Nowhere does Frith quote Augustine in this entire treatise. In fact, his argument is more focused on biblical exegesis here than anywhere else. His objections to the idea that unbaptized infants are condemned, his emphasis on the communal participation of baptism, and his understanding that the performance of the rite itself does not communicate grace but rather symbolically reflects the receiving of grace, could be argued as showing the influence of Zwingli. Indeed, Frith’s arguments for infant baptism follow closely the traditional line of argument articulated by Zwingli. According to Frith, although baptism much like Old Testament circumcision signifies belonging to God and His people, it does not “testyfy” conclusively to others that one is of the invisible congregation known only to God by election: “but euerye man may know his owne thorowe his fayth and wil that he hath to fulfil the law of god.” Even so, baptism should not be withheld from anyone who professes to believe. Neither should it be withheld from infants any more than Hebrew children were restricted from circumcision. This is on account of the fact that the promises of God are offered inclusively to the children of the congregation, Christ Himself welcomed children, and such children should be treated as among the elect when there is no reason yet to suggest otherwise.
Yet Luther’s theology, such as expressed in his A Treatise on the Holy Sacrament of Baptism (1519), could certainly be another influence behind Frith’s understanding that the spiritual meaning reflected in baptism applies to the daily mortification of sin in the life of the Christian. Furthermore, Frith’s opinion that the liturgical symbols surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist are theoretically indifferent to the Christian faith, so long as this is properly taught and absorbed by the congregation, is more compatible with Luther and Wittenberg than with Zwingli and Zurich. Also, the liberality with which Frith characterizes the observing of the Sabbath hearkens back to Luther’s own position.
Frith’s treatise on baptism, then, demonstrates an important point that he was never fully “Augustinian” anymore than he was fully “Lutheran,” but it does show a certain selectivity of the theological influences he chose to follow on various doctrinal themes. Frith was obviously influenced by and used a variety of sources on different theological subjects so long as they appeared to him to make the best sense of Scripture.
This is also apparent in Frith’s treatment of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, written in reply to Thomas More in 1533. It was the first of its kind written by an English evangelical in thorough objection to the doctrines of transubstantiation and the Real Presence. It shows Frith to be more in line with the “spiritual feeding by faith” interpretations of the Lollards, Zwingli, Tyndale, and Oecolampadius. Wright points out the affinities of this treatise with Lollard beliefs as recounted in Wycliffe’s Wicket (1546), but he argues that the single most influential theologian on the formulation of Frith’s Eucharistic theology was the Basel reformer and patristic scholar Johann Oecolampadius (1482–1531). Augustine appears again as the most numerously cited Father throughout the treatise and is used liberally by Frith as the chief ancient authority to support his own theological interpretation of the sacrament. For example, in objection to transubstantiation, Frith quotes Augustine’s interpretation of Jesus’ words about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” in John 6 as referring to the life of faith and not to the Lord’s Supper. This interpretation, however, was also shared by Luther.
With regard to Frith’s use of Augustine in general, it must be remembered that Augustine was one of the most respected saints of the ancient Church. Thus, it would make more obvious sense for Frith to quote from Augustine so profusely than to reference the name of Luther, Zwingli, or Oecolampadius in argument with his Catholic opponents. Indeed, other than his early translations of Hamilton and Luther, Augustine is the only theologian that Frith borrows from so explicitly in his more original writings. His use of Augustine and the Fathers in general probably points back to his background in Humanism, although not all trained in Humanism made such frequent and explicit use of the Fathers. Tyndale is a case in point. Furthermore, not all humanists showed favoritism towards the theology of Augustine. Erasmus is a case in point. Frith’s use of Augustine in his writings was obviously to reinforce his interpretation of Scripture. Nevertheless, Frith was also willing to differ openly with Augustine and other Church Fathers when they could not be squared at all with his interpretation of Scripture, and it was noted that nowhere in his treatise on the sacrament of baptism does Frith ever refer to the name or writings of Augustine. Therefore, Frith made liberal use of Augustine only when he agreed with him or, some might argue, when he could interpret Augustine in a way that agreed with his own theology. It cannot be simply assumed that Frith’s interpretation and use of Augustine was equivalent to the actual theology of Augustine, which was obviously used on both sides of the argument. Frith was influenced by Luther’s evangelical theology of Law and Gospel in the 1520s and it was through the presuppositions he inherited from Luther that he later interpreted and used Augustine.
With regard to his theology of Law and Gospel and the related themes of spiritual bondage, repentance under the Law, faith in Christ alone for justification, and the love and good works that flow from justifying faith in the life of the Christian who nevertheless remains a sinner, these all show the influence of Luther. Although elements within Frith’s theology of justification and the Christian life also reflect his use of Augustine, including the contrast between powerlessness before the Law through spiritual bondage to sin and the love, righteousness, and good works that flow from justifying faith, as well the proleptic non-imputation of sin in the life of the justified, these must be interpreted in the light of other statements that clearly speak of the justifying righteousness of Christ that atoned the wrath of God and that “clothe[s]” the Christian as his or her very own in union with Christ through faith alone. It was Frith’s exposure to the theology of Luther, even though this may have been significantly mediated through his acquaintanceship with Tyndale, that brought about his evangelical conversion in 1524–1525. In his own words, Frith had this to say about the legacy of Luther: “I do nether affyrme nor denye any thing because Luther so sayeth: but because the Scrypture of God doth so conclude and determe. I take not Luther for soche an auctour that I thynke he can not erre/ but I thynke verely that he both may erre and dothe erre in certayne poyntes all though not in suche as concerne saluacyon and dampnacyon, for in these (blessed be God) all thes whom ye [Thomas More] call heretykys [Wycliffe, Tyndale, Oecolampadius, Zwingli] do agre ryght well” (my italics). Notwithstanding the possibility that Frith was simply unaware of subtler differences between him and Luther concerning the doctrine of salvation, as well as between Luther and the other reformers mentioned, his explicit and conscious endorsement of Luther’s theology on this central matter in the early 1530s is a significant point that cannot be overlooked.
In Frith’s own words, it was not on account of his denial of transubstantiation that he was eventually sentenced to death in 1533, which is quite ironic in that this happened under the archbishopric of Thomas Cranmer who later espoused Frith’s view, but for his conviction that tolerance should be shown to a variety of opinions so long as idolatrous reverence to the sacrament was discouraged. Even if it could be proven by Scripture and the Fathers, and Frith argues that it cannot, transubstantiation should not be constituted an article of faith compulsory for all Christians to believe on pain of persecution. It seems that Frith followed Tyndale’s advice in treading softly with regard to the sacrament.123
Despite the sympathies of Thomas Cromwell, the hard-line conservative opposition of his former Cambridge tutor, Bishop Gardiner of Winchester, eventually won the day. Frith was removed from the Tower of London to Newgate Prison in Croydon and was tried before Bishop Stokesley on account of refusal to submit to the Church’s teachings on purgatory and the corporal presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Frith was burned at the stake at Smithfield on July 4, 1533.
Whiting, M. S. (2010). Luther in English: The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35). (K. C. Hanson, C. M. Collier, & D. C. Spinks, Hrsg.) (S. 273–308). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.