His Theology of the Word
In our last post, we considered William Tyndale’s writings and will now examine his theology more closely touching on key themes. It was my intention to briefly discuss these in one post, but I quickly realized that such would simultaneously become too lengthy and superficial. So, I will treat key themes in Tyndale’s theology in at least the next few posts (ambiguity begets liberty!).
Concerning the background to and the influences on his theology, we have made some brief observations already. The most extensive work done in this area is Ralph S. Werrell’s The Roots of William Tyndale’s Theology. Most importantly, Werrell shows the significant impact of the Wycliffite tradition (contrary to many scholars who downplay such) in tracing the roots of Tyndale’s thinking. This, in turn, goes hand-in-hand with Werrell’s assertion, “The source of Tyndale’s theology is Scripture.” In his development, Werrell does not ignore the influence of early Reformers such as Luther and Zwingli, but he does question (perhaps too strongly) how much Tyndale depended on them. In support of his claims, Werrell rightly calls attention to Tyndale’s original Scriptural thinking and confidence to depart from anyone who, as far as he was concerned, departed from the truth of God’s Word.
Speaking of Tyndale’s doctrine of Scripture, he upheld the authority of Scripture as God’s Word in the tradition of Wycliffe and in line with other Reformers. Unlike Wycliffe, he rejected the Apocrypha and unlike Luther he embraced James as part of the canon. While Tyndale never made an explicit statement concerning the doctrine of inspiration, it is safe to say that he regarded the books of Scripture (the 66 generally recognized at the time), simply as the Word of God.
In what could be his clearest statement on how Tyndale viewed the Bible, he connects inspiration and illumination (without the terms) attesting that as the Scriptures “came by the Holy Ghost, so must they be expounded and understood by the Holy Ghost. . . The scriptures spring out of God, and flow unto Christ, and were given to lead us to Christ.” Notice the redemptive-historical sensitivity of Tyndale as he would have readers approach the Bible in a Christocentric manner with all things pointing to and leading from Christ. “Thou must therefore go along by the scripture as by a line,” continues Tyndale, “until thou come at Christ, which is the way’s end and resting-place. If any man, therefore, use the scripture to draw thee from Christ, and to nosel [nurse] thee in anything save in Christ, the same is a false prophet” (The Obedience of a Christian Man, 1528).
Tyndale also affirmed the self-authentication of the Scripture as the authoritative Word, which does not depend on the church. In his Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue (1531), he discusses More’s argument that just as a letter gets authority from its sender, “so hath the scripture her authority of the church.” Tyndale objects with a resounding, “Nay,” for, “the scripture hath her authority of him that sent it, . . . of God.” Speaking of Scriptural authority itself, Tyndale claims that it “only is true” and is the “trial of all doctrine” (Obedience). He placed his own writing under such scrutiny with the challenge, “Whosoever, therefore, readeth this, compare it unto the scripture. If God’s word bear record unto it, . . . give God thanks. If God’s word condemn it, then hold it accursed” (The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, 1527).
Speaking of the sufficiency of Scripture for all matters pertaining to salvation, Tyndale tells us, “Read God’s word diligently and with a good heart, and it shall teach thee all things.” (Prologue to Numbers, 1534). In critiquing More’s views on the Lord’s Supper, Tyndale alleges that More “blasphemed Christ and his sufficient scriptures,” with his argument, “They wrote not all things necessary for our salvation, but left out things of necessity to be believed.” This says Tyndale, makes “God’s holy testament insufficient and imperfect; first revealed unto our fathers, written oft since by Moses, and then by his prophets, and at last written both by his holy evangelists and apostles too” (The Supper of the Lord, 1533).
Tyndale’s burden to translate the Bible into English accentuates his conviction on its clarity. Such work “unlocked and opened” for them “all the scripture” in a manner in which “lay and unlearned people . . . read the scripture, and understand and delight therein.” Tyndale then sarcastically notes, “our great pillars of holy church . . . bark, and say the scripture maketh heretics, and it is not possible for them to understand it in the English, because they themselves do not in Latin” (A Brief Declaration of the Sacraments, 1536). This echoes his earlier criticism of the church’s claim (in Tyndale’s words), “the scripture is so hard, that thou couldst never understand it but by the doctors” (Obedience). Regarding the tendency of the church to hide and distort the truth, Tyndale observes, “all, that can read English, shall see the truth of God’s word openly bear down their . . . lies” (Supper). Such false teachers, Tyndale argues, must be rebuked with “the clear and manifest scripture” (Obedience).
In connection with the clarity of Scripture, Tyndale opposed the church’s complex four-fold method of interpretation (a matter I treated at length in an earlier post on Tyndale’s exegesis) in favor of the literal sense of Scripture. The church goes astray, he argues, in that “they rend and tear the scriptures with their distinctions, and expound them violently, contrary to the meaning of the text, and to the circumstances that go before and after, and to a thousand clear and evident texts” (Mammon). Tyndale calls attention here to the importance of surrounding context for determining the meaning of the text, which is coupled to viewing the entire canon of Scripture as the passage’s broader context. Thus, Tyndale was an early proponent of a contextual and holistic reading of the harmonized Word and the concept that the Scripture interprets Scripture:
One scripture will help to declare another. And the circumstances, that is to say, the places that go before and after, will give light unto the middle text. And the open and manifest scriptures will ever improve the false and wrong exposition of the darker sentences (Obedience).
Without a doubt, Tyndale helped set the stage for the straightforward hermeneutical approach of William Perkins after him and beyond for 17th century Puritanism and its lucid doctrine of Scripture in the Westminster Confession (1646).
Life in England
Life in Exile
His Translation Work
Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is program coordinator of the Puritan Studies Program in connection with the Jonathan Edwards Center Africa at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is also lecturer in Historical Theology at John Wycliffe Theological College in Johannesburg, South Africa, and extraordinary senior lecturer at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism.