An Introduction To

THE THEOLOGY OF WILLIAM TYNDALE

 

By Gary Ray Branscome

 

Although English speaking Christians, and to a certain extent Christians around the world, owe a great debt of gratitude to William Tyndale, many know little about him. In fact, no one even knows the precise date and place of his birth, although there is some evidence that he was born near the border of Wales in the years just prior to 1495. Likewise, we know little about his childhood and family background. However, the Tyndale family enjoyed enough prosperity for William to begin an education at Oxford University by 1510. There he excelled as a linguist, earning his BA degree in 1512, and his MA in 1515. From Oxford he moved to Cambridge, and at the end of 1521 entered the household of Sir John Walsh (a knight of Gloucestershire) as chaplain and domestic tutor.

While he was at the university he had come to faith in Christ through reading the Greek New Testament. And, while living in the home of Sir John Walsh, he resolved to translate the Bible into English. At that time he was primarily a critic of clerical ignorance and corruption who saw instruction from the Scriptures as the best means to promote popular piety and church reform. However, finding publication impossible in England he sailed for Hamburg in May 1524. After a brief stay in Hamburg, he went on to Wittenburg where he embraced the Evangelical doctrines. Thereafter – although he did have to go into hiding because king Henry’s agents were trying to capture him – he was in agreement with Luther on all great matters, save perhaps the doctrine of eucharistic presence.

 

Scripture Alone

 

Although the writings of Tyndale are far less extensive than those of Luther, on careful examination, there are hardly any points where disagreement between Luther and Tyndale can be found. Like Luther, Tyndale believed that the Bible constitutes the only saving revelation from God, that personal faith in Jesus Christ as one's only Savior is prerequisite to the proper understanding of the sacred text, and that Scripture must be allowed to interpret itself. Concerning doctrine, Tyndale wrote:

 

All doctrine that builds… upon Christ to put your trust and confidence in His blood, is of God, and true doctrine; and all doctrine that withdraws your hope from Christ is of the devil. [Tyndale, Expositions and notes, p. 196]

 

That statement is in full agreement with what Luther taught. And the shared hermeneutic explains the fundamental agreement between the theology of Tyndale and Luther. Both Luther and Tyndale were committed to the doctrine of “Scripture Alone”, held firmly to the plain, grammatical, meaning of the words, put Christ in the center of all they believed and taught, and regarded the proper distinction between Law and Gospel as utterly indispensable for a correct understanding of the Bible.

 

Like Luther, Tyndale held that Law and Gospel are found together throughout the Bible, but that the Old Testament was primarily a book of Law and the New Testament a book of Gospel. Since man cannot possibly fulfill all the requirements of the Law, he must turn to the Gospel with its promises of mercy in Christ. [Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 8-11]

 

However, unlike many, who claim to go by Scripture alone, but in truth teach their own opinions for doctrine, the hermeneutic followed by Luther and Tyndale eliminated man made explanations (which the Bible calls tradition) from the body of doctrine, insisting that all doctrine must be clearly and explicitly set forth in the words of Scripture.

 

The Role of the Law

 

One of the points where some try to drive a wedge between Tyndale and Luther has to do with the role of the Law in the life of the believer. Martin Luther taught that, insofar as the Christian man is righteous, he needs no law. His love for God will prompt him to do God's will with spontaneity. And, that is undoubtedly true in the life of a mature Christian. Once we come to faith in Christ, the fruit of the Holy Spirit should be evident in our lives. However, many believers are inconsistent in their thinking, and hold to views that hinder the work of the Spirit. Some seek to please God through their works, others are blind to sin or rationalize sin, and some even tread the Gospel underfoot by using God's goodness as an excuse to sin. For that reason, Luther, like Tyndale, came to see that the Law still has a role in the life of a believer. The Law needs to be used to train the conscience, open our eyes to our own sin, convict us of sin, and point us to Christ as the source of forgiveness. However, unlike those who err from the truth, Luther and Tyndale both saw works as the fruit of faith, not a cause of salvation.

 

Obedience to the State

 

While Tyndale emphasized obedience to the state, we must never read legalistic motives into what he said. Unlike those who give people the impression that God's grace is contingent on our obedience to human authority, Tyndale taught that the only king who possesses absolute authority is God himself. Earthly princes rule only by authority delegated from heaven. In their standing before God, rulers and subjects are equal. The Word of God is superior to all temporal kings, and the lowest subject armed with God's Word may admonish a king who violates God's Word. [Tyndale, Expositions and notes, pp. 36 & 86] Tyndale emphasized obedience to rulers because the king regarded him as a rebel, and because the followers of John Wycliffe had been persecuted unmercifully for over a century, simply because some of them had once joined a revolt. However, the fact that Tyndale spent much of his life in hiding, and was eventually executed for translating the Bible into English, makes it clear that he believed we should obey God rather than men.

 

Church and State

 

Although Luther and Tyndale both advocated separation of church and state, they most certainly did not advocate a total separation of Christianity and state. The idea of a secular society, and rulers who reject the Word of God, refusing to take what it says into account when framing laws, would be abhorrent to them. What they objected to were kings who condemned the Gospel, Popes who led armies, bishops who wielded political authority, and ecclesiastical courts with the power to try and sentence to death anyone who disagreed with the church.    

 

The Church of Rome

 

While Luther and Tyndale were in agreement as to the nature of the true church, and believed that the true church (throughout history) has consisted only of believers, they did differ in their attitude toward the pomp and ceremony of the Church of Rome. While Luther saw much in the church of Rome as beautiful, and was willing to retain much of the ceremony, and even statues, as long as the papal abuse and idolatry was removed, Tyndale could see no good whatsoever in the papal church. To him it was "a terrible chimera, devouring the life of all religion and all thought; or a huge, pitiless machine, remorselessly pursuing its own purposes. [Demanus, Tyndale, p. 209] The difference between the way Luther saw the Church of Rome, and the way Tyndale saw it, may have stemmed from the merciless way the followers of Wycliffe were persecuted in England. At the very time William Tyndale was beginning his work, parents were being burned at the stake for simply teaching their children the Lord's Prayer in English.

 

Confession

 

          Because Tyndale regarded the Church of Rome as a perversion of true Christianity, he detested the claim that the Pope and his agents could actually use the keys to permit or deny a person access to heaven. Therefore, instead of accepting confession as it was practiced in the church of Rome, and then attempting to rid it of abuses, he looked to the New Testament for examples of how the keys are to be employed properly (Matthew 9:1-6).

 

Baptism

 

Like Luther, Tyndale saw baptism as consisting of two parts. 1- the divine promise, which says: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” 2- the outward sign of God’s forgiveness, the immersion in water from which baptism gets its name. [See Luther’s essay on the Babylonian Captivity of the church.] Like Luther, he also accepted infant baptism. However, he was not willing to use some of the arguments that Luther used in defense of infant baptism. Moreover, even though he believed that infants were to be baptized, he did not assume that those who were baptized automatically received God’s gift of faith. On the contrary, he held that just as circumcision did not guarantee salvation to children under the Old Covenant, baptism does not guarantee it under the New Covenant. “As the circumcised in the flesh, and not in heart, have no part in God’s good promises; even so they that are baptized in the flesh, and not in the heart, have no part in Christ’s blood”. [Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises, p. 351.]

Just as God uses preaching to give us His promise of forgiveness in Christ, He uses baptism to give us that same promise. However, it is only through personal faith in Christ that we receive what is promised (Romans 5:2, Galatians 3:22).

 

The Lord’s Supper

 

          Tyndale also stood with Luther in rejecting the medieval concept of the Lord’s Supper as a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Because, the Roman doctrine denies the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, Tyndale disavowed it vehemently. [Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 359-362] As with baptism, he saw the Lord’s Supper as a ceremony that God uses to give us His promise of forgiveness in Christ, and, through that promise, His assurance of forgiveness.

However, unlike Luther, Tyndale clearly rejected any concept of a physical presence in the Lord’s Supper. On the contrary, he argued that because, “the righteous lives by his faith; ergo, to believe and trust in Christ’s blood is the eating that there was meant.” [Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises, p. 369.] In other words, when Christ said, “this is my body which is given for you” He was saying, “this is my sacrifice which I made for you”. Therefore, when we receive Christ’s sacrifice, by placing our faith in that sacrifice as the source of our salvation, we are clearly and truly receiving the body that was given for us and the blood that was shed for us, not as something to ingest, but as the atonement for our sins.

Therefore, even though Tyndale departed from Luther in rejecting the idea that Christ’s flesh and blood are somehow physically present in the Lord’s Supper, he did not deny that those who partake truly receive Christ’s body and blood. We truly do receive it, not as something to ingest, but as the atonement for our sins. For that reason, he would have agreed unconditionally with the following statement from Luther’s Large Catechism.

 

This treasure is conveyed and communicated to us in no other way than through the words “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”… And inasmuch as he offers and promises forgiveness of sins, there is no other way of receiving it than by faith.… That which is given in and with the Sacrament cannot be grasped nor appropriated by our body. It is accomplished by faith in the heart. [pp. 144-145, Lenker edition]

 

          Even though Tyndale would have disagreed with what the Formula of Concord says about a twofold eating of the flesh of Christ, or unbelievers receiving Christ’s body and blood, he was not a Zwinglian. On the contrary, unlike Zwingli, Tyndale saw the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. The ceremony was instituted to convey grace, not through some power in the ceremony, but through personal faith in God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ.

That Idea of God’s promise as the means of grace comes straight from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and is at the very heart of what Lutherans believe about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is through faith in God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ, not some power in the ceremony, that we receive Christ’s death on the cross as the atonement for our sins. As Edward W. A. Koehler put it:

 

The Sacraments are means only because of the Gospel promises connected therewith. Therefore we may say that there is but one means by which the knowledge of grace and salvation, and grace and salvation itself, are imparted to us; it is the Gospel, the glad tidings of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. (“A Summary of Christian Doctrine”, p. 189)

 

Conclusion

 

Since the purpose of this essay is to introduce the reader to what William Tyndale believed and taught, I have made little more than passing mention of his greatest work, the translation of the Greek New Testament (and much of the Old Testament) into the English language. Moreover, because what I have said is largely a summary of what James Edward McGoldrick said about William Tyndale in his book, “Luther’s English Connection”, some statements in this essay have been taken from that book with little or no alteration. Therefore, I want to give adequate credit to Mr. McGoldrick, and the research he has done, and I urge any of you who would like to know more about William Tyndale to read the book, “Luther’s English Connection”. While I am making recommendations, let me also recommend the movie (DVD), “God’s Outlaw, The Story of William Tyndale”. In my opinion, that movie ought to be shown in every congregation and seen by every believer.

 

All Glory for Our Salvation Belongs to God Alone