The idea of Tyndale having an ecclesiology is new for me. Tyndale is famous for being the father of the English Bible, not for having founded any church. Yet Tyndale did have an ecclesiology, and he did help to found a new church. Just as Tyndale’s translation work lies hidden in plain site within the King James Version Bible–about 80% of the KJV NT matches Tyndale’s–so his influence on ecclesiology lies hidden in plain sight in the many branches of the English Protestant church.
Tyndale’s ecclesiology was hammered out in the context of his experience, a scholar on the run, a theologian in exile… Even Menno Simons, who faced harassment and persecution, seems to have had a respected leadership role among the scattered Anabaptist communities in the Low Countries. He was able to get married and have a family. Not so William Tyndale. He lived hand to mouth, so to speak, depending on the generosity of a few friends, never knowing when the creak on the stairs or the turn of the lock would be his summons from the authorities. And yet he thought and wrote a great deal about the church, which he frequently referred to as God’s “little flock”: “The Kingdom of heaven is the preaching of the Gospel, unto which come both good and bad . But the good are few. Christ calleth them therefore a ‘little flock’ (Luke 12:32).” (Kindle Locations 7737-7744, emphasis added)
This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, and Simons. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for, hopefully, some wrap-up thoughts.)
One of the first things I noticed while reviewing George’s survey of Tyndale’s theology was that Tyndale’s Bible translation had ecclesiological effects. Even if Tyndale would have had no conscious theology of the church himself, he still would have shaped the ecclesiology of the English world simply through his translation. This happened in at least two ways: (1) through the gatherings that were formed by readers of his translation and (2) through the vocabulary choices he made as he translated.
Tyndale didn’t aim to produce a new church through his translation work:
At first Tyndale tried to accomplish his mission by working through official channels of the established church… The decree of 1408 forbidding English Bible translations provided only one loophole: Such a project could be undertaken with the permission and supervision of a bishop. (Kindle Locations 7176-7179)
Though the established church denied him support, Tyndale refused to deny the common plowman the chance to read “God’s Word.” Tyndale’s declared goal was to work for spiritual renewal of both individuals and the English nation at large:
Tyndale believed that the translation of the Bible and its dissemination into the hands of ordinary people were the means God had appointed to bring about genuine reformation and spiritual renewal in his time. In his brief epistle “To the Reader,” Tyndale commended his translation of the New Testament in this way: “Give diligence dear reader (I exhort thee) that thou come with a pure mind and as the Scripture saith with a single eye unto words of help and eternal life: by the which (if we repent and believe them) we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the love of Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7225-7233)
Tyndale longed for God to use his translation to create new creatures in Christ Jesus. It did more than that; it also created new gatherings of believers.
Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament entered England as contraband and began to circulate in this way. Literacy was on the rise but still not common. Those who did not know how to read gathered eagerly around others who did to hear for the first time the words of the New Testament read aloud in English. Here and there, in the dark corners of the land, common folk gathered for such secret readings of Tyndale’s New Testament. Imagine being in such a group and hearing for the first time these words from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son for the intent, that none that believe in him should perish: But should have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world, to condemn the world: But that the world through him, might be saved” (John 3:16–17 Tyndale).(Kindle Locations 7215-7221, emphasis added)
King Henry VIII banned Tyndale’s translation; it was burned in St. Paul’s churchyard; and Tyndale remained on the run throughout the continental Europe. Yet his translation continued to find readers and to gather these readers into groups.
The case of William Malden illustrates the impact of Tyndale’s New Testament as it began to circulate throughout England in the late 1520s. Malden was a teenager, fifteen years of age, who lived with his family in the town of Chelmsford. At that time all of the services in the parish church there were still conducted in Latin. But, as Malden later recalled, “Divers poor men in the town of Chelmsford . . . bought the New Testament of Jesus Christ and on Sundays did sit reading in the lower end of the church and many would flock to hear their reading.” When Malden’s father found out about his son’s attendance at these Bible-reading sessions, he forbad him to participate anymore, insisting that he could get all the Bible he needed by going to Latin matins. Contrary to his father’s wishes, young William learned to read so that he could have access to the Scriptures for himself and not depend on its being read to him by others. (Kindle Locations 7259-7266, emphasis added)
Given this result of Tyndale’s efforts, it is interesting how he has been compared to the Paul the apostle and church planter:
Tyndale had enemies in high places, but he also had his champions, among whom there was none greater than John Foxe. In his Acts and Monuments, Foxe referred to Tyndale as one “who for his notable pains and travails may well be called the Apostle of England in this our later age.” Foxe invited one to think of Tyndale as a kind of apostle for his time, like Paul. The parallels between the two are, in fact, striking. Both were unmarried celibates who had no family of their own. Both Tyndale and Paul skirted danger in the fulfillment of their mission. Both were betrayed by untrustworthy companions, both spent time in prison and produced letters in their confinement, both were shipwrecked and finally put to death at the hands of imperial power . What Paul said about himself in his “catalog of sufferings” could be echoed by apostle Tyndale in the sixteenth century… (Kindle Locations 7241-7248)
A second way that Tyndale’s translation had ecclesiological effects was through the vocabulary choices that Tyndale made as he translated.
Tyndale’s desire to put the Scriptures into “plain plowman’s English” led him to introduce a new biblical vocabulary. As we have seen, charity became love. He turned penance into repentance and rendered confess as acknowledge. And, just as Luther preferred Gemeinde (community) to the German word Kirche (church), so Tyndale translated the Greek ekklesia as congregation. (Kindle Locations 7748-7752, emphasis added)
According to George, Tyndale recognized that there were four ways that the terms church and congregation were used. Tyndale didn’t approve of all these uses:
…Fourth, in Tyndale’s day the word church was used in a technical and exclusive sense to refer to all the clergy, who were also known as “the spirituality.” Tyndale called them “a multitude of shaven, shorn, and oiled.” Tyndale pointed out that this use of the word is found nowhere in the Scriptures; it represents a false institutionalization of the people of God.
So, what did Tyndale mean by congregation?
Congregation, as Tyndale often used it, refers to the true remnant, the “little flock,” Christ’s elect church, which is
The whole multitude of all repenting sinners that believe in Christ, and put all their trust and confidence of God; feeling in their hearts that God for Christ’s sake loveth them, and will be, or rather is, merciful unto them, and forgiveth them their sins of which they repent; and that he forgiveth them also all the motions unto sin, of which they fear less they should thereby be drawn into sin again.
Upon the rock of the faith that Peter confessed in Matthew 16, Jesus said that he would build his congregation. “And against the rock of this faith can no sin, no hell, no devil , no lies, nor error prevail,” Tyndale declared. It is this knowledge and faith that “maketh a man of the church.” Furthermore: “And the church is Christ’s Body (Col. 1); and every person of the church is a member of Christ (Eph. 5). Now it is no member of Christ that hath not Christ’s Spirit within it (Rom. 8); as it is no part of me, or members of my Body, wherein my soul is not present and quickeneth it. And then, if a man be none of Christ’s, he is not of his church.” (Kindle Locations 7753-7772, emphasis added)
Given this emphasis on knowledge and faith, we can see that Tyndale’s translation work was urgent and essential. He rested his hopes for individual salvation and for church renewal on the power of the written Word. To put it another way, Tyndale’s beliefs about the Word and about salvation shaped his understanding of the true Church. The Word awakens faith in the individual, and the gathering of the faithful is the Church:
“In as much as the Word is before the faith, and faith maketh the congregation, therefore is the Word or Gospel before the congregation.” (Kindle Locations 7777-7778)
Once again, as we’ve seen before in this series, ecclesiology rests on soteriology–that is, what we believe about the church is based on what we believe about the gospel and how it saves us. Differences in soteriology (doctrine of salvation) inevitably led to division between Tyndale and the Roman Catholic Church:
Both Thomas More [Catholic English statesman] and William Tyndale, like all Catholics and Protestants engaged in sixteenth-century salvation debates, believed in both faith and works. But how these two dimensions of the Christian life are related, which came first, whether either involves the accrual of merit, and what role each plays in the economy of grace—these were church-dividing matters that could not be resolved. (Kindle Locations 7607-7610, emphasis)
So what did Tyndale believe about salvation? In summary, according to George: Tyndale “was the first English-speaking theologian to give” justification by faith “due attention” (Kindle Locations 7495-7496). He emphasized the covenants God made with humanity, God’s work of electing and granting faith to his chosen ones, and how God grants sinners “totus Christus, the whole Christ: ‘His blood, his death, all that he ever did, is ours. And Christ himself, with all that he is or can do, is ours.’” (Kindle Locations 7581-7582)
At some points Tyndale sounds very Anabaptist:
None of this happens apart from the Holy Spirit. Tyndale’s emphasis on regeneration, the new birth, resonates more with Menno Simons and the Anabaptist vision than with the other reformers studied in this book. (Kindle Locations 7581-7584)
Unlike Luther, Tyndale placed a high value on the letter of James and quoted from it often. Tyndale saw no real contradiction between Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law and James’s statement that one is justified by works and not by faith only (Jas 2:14–24). James was not opposing works to true faith, Tyndale said, but rather works to a false conception of faith. (Kindle Locations 7682-7684)
And at other times not so much:
In his prologue to Romans, Tyndale declared that “predestination, our justifying and salvation are clean taken out of our hands, and put in the hands of God only, which thing is most necessary of all. For we are so weak and so uncertain, that if it stood in us, there would be of a truth no man be saved, the devil no doubt would deceive us.” (Kindle Locations 7538-7540)
Now may not we ask why God chooseth one and not another; either think that God is unjust to damn us before we do any actual deed; seeing that God hath power over all his creatures of right, to do with them what he list, or to make of every one of them as he listeth. (Kindle Locations 7545-7547)
Tyndale’s soteriology–with its ecclesiological ramifications–was not just communicated subtly through vocabulary choices in his translation:
Tyndale was not only a translator of the Bible, but he was also a teacher of the church.
In the preface to his commentary on 1 John, he gave this as the reason for writing that book and everything else he produced : “to edify the layman, and to teach him how to read the Scriptures, and what to seek therein.” In addition to translating most of the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek—a formidable task no one had ever done before or has been required to do since—Tyndale produced an amazing theological corpus: prologues, introductions, expositions, and commentaries on the Bible as well as polemical and doctrinal treatises, not to mention sermons , letters, and liturgical writings, only a small portion of which have survived. (Kindle Locations 7334-7338, emphasis added)
Nor was Tyndale afraid to directly criticize the established church:
Among many complaints registered by Tyndale against leaders of the church, two stand out as especially offensive. The first was their avarice, greed, and exploitation of the flock over which they had been placed as shepherds… Every priest took his cut, as Tyndale wrote with sarcasm: “The parson sheareth, the vicar shaveth, the parish priest polleth, the frier scrapeth, and the pardoner pareth; we lack but a butcher to pull off the skin.” (Kindle Locations 7788-7794, emphasis added)
Tyndale also excoriated religious leaders for their moral laxity and sexual sins. Although he did not regard marriage as a sacrament—only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were New Testament institutions with a “promise”—he held a high view of married life… He strongly opposed the imposition of enforced clerical celibacy. This practice, Tyndale believed, invariably led to two extreme responses: On the one hand, the shunning and despising of all women—an attitude he detected in Jerome among others—and, on the other hand, a “false feigned chastity” that resulted in lust, lechery, and sexual abuse. (Kindle Locations 7801-7807, emphasis added)
Tyndale’s criticism of the established church clarifies that his vocabulary choices as a translator were very intentional, loaded with theological significance:
In criticizing late medieval religious practices, Tyndale made the priesthood of all believers the basis of his own ecclesiology. William S. Stafford has pointed to the significant change signaled by Tyndale’s choice of the term congregation over church. It amounted to “the re-evaluation of the laity, a religious, social and political relocation of the multitude who were baptized but untonsured.”1 (Kindle Locations 7816-7819, emphasis added)
Tyndale’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers reminds me of Luther. The similarities between the two men go beyond the fact that both permanently shaped their respective national languages through their exceptional linguistic and translational skills. Tyndale was strongly influenced by Luther’s theological writings and may have even studied directly under him for a time. The following, though written of Tyndale, equally accurately describes Luther:
He believed that everyone in the congregation, informed by the Scriptures, had the right to admonish teachers and pastors when they went astray. All walks of life are holy callings. (Kindle Locations 7827-7829)
However, we should not imagine that Tyndale had no concept of an ordered ministry. Certain persons, mostly men, Tyndale thought, but also women (in case of emergency) were charged with preaching openly to the entire congregation. Tyndale opposed the idea that “the wagging of the bishop’s hand over us” had some supernatural power to make a preacher where there was none before. What mattered most was neither the ceremony of induction nor degrees earned at a college or university and certainly not the social status or rank of the preacher. Rather, what mattered most was the integrity of the message and the endowment of the Spirit. “When a true preacher preacheth,” wrote Tyndale, “the Spirit interrupts the hearts of the elect…” (Kindle Locations 7831-7837, emphasis added)
I want to end this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology where I began–by observing how fellowship around the Bible was central to his ecclesiology. Yet this fellowship, for Tyndale the “true preacher,” was not a self-centered withdrawal from the world, but one more way of sharing the love of God with all he met.
For nine months before his arrest, Tyndale lived in the English Merchants House in Antwerp… On Sundays he could be found in one of the largest rooms in the house reading a portion of the Scriptures, no doubt from his own translation. These readings would have included expositions of the text and pastoral applications as well. He repeated this exercise after dinner, “so fruitfully, sweetly, and gently” that he brought heavenly comfort to his listeners. On Mondays he would visit the English refugees who had come to Antwerp. On Saturdays he would walk around the city, looking into “every corner and hole” for those especially destitute—the elderly, women, children, the outcast. He gave liberally from the means he had to help those in need. He maintained a study in Merchants House and on all other days gave himself “wholly to his book.” In this brief sketch we see something of the pastoral calling at the heart of Tyndale’s work. (Kindle Locations 7850-7860, emphasis added)
Although the theme of this series is ecclesiology, I am so impressed by Tyndale’s words about loving our neighbors that I cannot help sharing them also. And where better to begin loving our neighbors than right in our own churches? Listen and live:
“For as a man feeleth God in himself,” Tyndale wrote, “so is he to his neighbor.” Behind this principle is a view of Christian sociality that denies private ownership of one’s possessions in any absolute sense. This is how Tyndale put it: “For if my neighbor need and I give him not , neither depart liberally with him of that which I have, then withhold I from him unrighteously that which is his own.” And again: “Among Christian men love maketh all things common: every man is other’s debtor, and every man is bound to minister to his neighbor, and to supply his neighbor’s lack, of that wherewith God hath endowed him.”
But who is my neighbor? Tyndale answered that our neighbors are, in the first place, the members of our own family and household. Second, our neighbors include all those who live in proximity to us, “them of thine own parish,” as Tyndale put it, or, as we might say, the folks in our neighborhood. But our indebtedness to our neighbors extends far beyond this close circle, even to “the brethren a thousand miles off,” and, beyond that, “to the very infidels.” All these “have as good right in thy goods as thou thyself: and if thou withdraw mercy from them, and has wherewith to help them, then art thou a thief”! …“Neighbor is a love word,” he wrote. Loving our neighbors means that we pray for them, extend help and mercy to them in their need, and also share with them the message of Christ’s gospel. “Them that are good I love, because they are in Christ; and the evil, to bring them to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7710-7724)
Tyndale extended the scope of Christian witness to include those outside the bounds of Christendom: “I am bound to love the Turk with all my might and power; yea, and above my power, even from the ground of my heart, after the example that Christ loved me; neither to spare goods, body, or life, to win him to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7726-7728)
(Next up: some of my conclusions and questions as I reflect on the ecclesiology of the reformers.)
What did you learn from this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology? What should we learn from Tyndale yet today? Do we need to relearn the importance of choosing sound vocabulary when talking about the Church or our congregations? How does our ecclesiology line up with our soteriology? Are our churches gathered around the reading of the Scriptures? Share your insights and questions in the comments below!
PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)
- William S. Stafford, “Tyndale’s Voice to the Laity,” in Day, Lund, and O’Donnell, Word, Church, and State, 106. ↩