Tyndale and His Successors

Christopher Hill
formerly Balliol College, Oxford

Professor Daniell's biography has started us all thinking afresh about Tyndale. Such English history as I know is limited to the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but I have been very impressed by the presence of ideas deriving from Tyndale in this later period; he seems to have anticipated much subsequent radical protestant thinking.

That Tyndale was a Gloucestershire man is important. Gloucestershire was a county in which Lollardy survived; and it was a clothing county. Contemporaries noted the connection between clothing and heresy. Some historians have attributed this connection to the sedentary nature of cloth-making, giving time for introspection and meditation. I suspect the opposite was the case. Clothiers from the nature of their occupation were extremely mobile — first in collecting wool, then selling the finished products. They had close contacts with London — Gloucestershire clothiers in particular. The Tyndale family had London connections. London brought together people from all parts of the kingdom to exchange goods and ideas. And London was the centre of the English reformation. Many Gloucestershire men established themselves There, some of whom gave Tyndale financial support.

The Vale of Berkeley was an interesting area. First, because there is a long history of Lollard heresy there, and secondly because the traditional feudal power of the hitherto dominant Berkeley family had collapsed, leaving no successors. Power fell naturally into the hands of lesser gentry and yeomanry, already involved in the clothing industry.[1] Wood-pasture areas like Gloucestershire could not sustain large numbers of agricultural labourers. As population increased, industry was the only resort for the growing number of landless peasants. Rollison suggests that 'the individual-centredness of protestantism' met the needs of rural masterless men. 'Possession of a pure conscience became more important than the possession of land'. Tyndale's theology, he insists, was in practice 'meritocratic'. The collapse of the Berkeley family left the area open to a precocious development of capitalism and its ideas. There was to be no Pilgrimage of Grace in Gloucestershire, Rollison remarks. On the contrary: under the Marian persecution the majority of those burnt in Gloucestershire were cloth workers and heretics in the Lollard tradition. The gentry of this area protected Tyndale when the ecclesiastical authorities began to smell his heresies; in London and in exile he was financed by merchants of Gloucestershire origin.

Tyndale was not unique. Simon Fish came from Bristol. Hugh Latimer won fame by his heretical preaching in Bristol. This revolutionary-heretical tradition continued down to the seventeenth-century English Revolution. There were antinomians, Brownists and enclosure riots in Gloucestershire in the 1630s, 1640s and 1650s. There was a Digger colony; later there were Ranters.[2] The anti-Trinitarians John Bidle and John Knowles were Gloucestershire men. Levellers and Quakers found their greatest support in southern England outside London in Bristol. Economics and politics in a county like Gloucestershire meant that the gentry and yeomen looked to London. Tyndale thus had deep roots in a county where feudal landlords had almost ceased to exist. In the absence of feudal overlordship village communities dominated by better-off farmers took over — in Tyndale's terms congregations with elders. Tyndale's family were well-to-do farmers, yeomen verging on gentry. He spent time at Oxford and Cambridge, each of which was infected by Lutheranism. When he had to go into exile to translate the Bible he was largely financed and protected by London merchants of Gloucestershire origin, some of them perhaps Lollards.[3] Tyndale personifies the new England, county communities linked to the capital by trade, by-passing the traditional feudal rulers and the authority of the international church. Hence the significance of Tyndale's translating 'ekklesia' as 'congregation', not 'church', and 'presbuteros' as 'elder', not 'priest'. 'The church' by the sixteenth century meant not the local communities which we meet with in the New Testament, but a great power structure, stretching out over the whole of Christendom, whose personification in England was Cardinal Wolsey. When the separatist John Greenwood in March 1589 told his interrogators that 'the whole commonwealth is not a church'[4] he was following Tyndale, whether he knew it or not. The logic that Tyndale used against the international papal church could be turned against a state church. Tyndale was the father of congregational independency, whether or not that was his intention.

Tyndale's translation of these words, to which Sir Thomas More so fiercely objected, had social roots as well as being linguistically accurate. He was always concerned not only to reproduce the sense of the original correctly but also to ensure that his translation made sense, including social sense. The congregation was the village community. 'Elders' were those laymen whom Tyndale saw as enjoying recognized authority in the community. They were not 'priests' appointed by some outside authority or lay patron over whom the congregation had no control. 'Charity' had not yet acquired its association with the poor law, but it was not the same as Tyndale's 'love', which should unite the members of the congregation. 'Love' or social solidarity was a more appropriate word for relations between a congregation of equals. Social relations in Tyndale's society more closely corresponded to those of Palestine in the first century AD than they had done in the Middle Ages. Above the congregations was now not a feudal hierarchy but the King and London, symbols of the national unity which became increasingly necessary for a mobile market economy.[5]

When Convocation argued in 1606 that by the words 'Tell it unto the church' Matthew 18:17) Christ had authorized church courts such as had survived in the Church of England,[6] they were rejecting Tyndale's view of the church: by then it was held by separatists only. The gloss on this text in Tomson's version of the Geneva Bible (which so largely derives from Tyndale) is relevant: Christ 'had regard to order used in those days [of the primitive church] at what time the elders had the judgment of church matters in their hands'. That suggests Tyndale as the father of presbyterianism too.

Tyndale had a historical theory which blamed most of England's ills on papal politics. The Pope incited the Norman Conquest, sending William Duke of Normandy 'a banner to go and conquer England', promising 'forgiveness of sins to all in the invading army'. Tyndale associates himself fully with the popular legend of the Norman Yoke, which attributed all evils to the Norman Conquest of the free Anglo-Saxons. 'What blood did that conquest cost England, through which ... the Normans became rulers, and all the laws were changed into French! But what careth the holy father for shedding of laymen's blood?[7] Tyndale was not original in using the Norman Yoke theory; but his addition of an anti-papal element added to the popularity of the old myth among English radicals — down to Paine, Spence and the Chartists.

Tyndale depicts King John as a patriot who would have brought about 'a good and godly reformation' in England, forbidding appeals to Rome and denying papal authority over kings. The Pope sent 'also unto the King of France remission of his sins to go and conquer King John's realm'. In Richard II's reign the bishops incited an Irish rebellion 'against King Richard as before against King John'. The Pope slew in England 'many a thousand' Lollard heretics, and slew the true King (Richard) and set up a false (Henry IV). The wars of the Roses followed.[8]

So Tyndale linked the fifteenth-century anarchy to papal interference in English politics. 'The bishops sent King Henry V out to conquer France. The cause was, saith the chronicles, that the King was about to take their temporalities from them, and therefore, to occupy his mind and bring the King into another imagination, they monied him and sent him to France'.[9] Some may remember encountering this idea before. Inciting Henry V to invade France lest he agree to Parliament's proposal to confiscate church lands is the starting-point of Shakespeare's Henry V.

I am not putting forward Tyndale as a hitherto unrecognized author of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare might have read any one of the many historians who had incorporated Tyndale's view of the fifteenth century — starting from numerous works by Bale and from Foxe's Book of Martyrs,[10] and including Hall's Union of the Two Noble Houses of Lancaster and York (1548), Holinshed's Chronicle (1678) and many others who took over Tyndale's protestant interpretation of English history. But ultimately I think Shakespeare's history derives from Tyndale, who first popularized it in print.

In The Obedience of a Christian Man Tyndale summed up what he saw as the lessons of English history: 'the King ought to count what he hath spent in the Pope's quarrel since he was king'. Tyndale estimated the sum at 400,000 or 500,000. 'The King ought to make them pay this money every farthing', as well as 'look into the chronicles, what the Popes have done in time past, and make them restore it also' including 'their lands which they have gotten with their false prayers'. Indeed a book for all kings to read.

Scholars disagree as to the relative importance of Lollardy or Luther in the formation of Tyndale's ideas. I think this is a question mat posee. Of course Tyndale was influenced by Luther's translation of the Bible into the vernacular, and he frequently quotes Luther's works verbatim. But his theology is not just Luther's: it is Tyndale's own. It makes much better sense to suppose that he was predisposed to agree with Luther by growing up amongst Lollard ideas in his native county and in his own family. These ideas offered solutions to what he saw as the urgent politico-religious problems of his own day. Luther's most important contribution was to demonstrate the power of the newly-invented printing press to give mass circulation to the Bible in the vernacular.

Lollards had their own manuscript copies of Wyclif's translation, transcribed by hand, and therefore rare and expensive, which was read out and discussed in secret groups. The causes of the demand for a vernacular Bible were the same in England as in Germany: it was not invented by Luther or by Tyndale. Luther's example made the old Lollard ideal of mass Bible-reading possible of realization; the printing press opened up the possibility of preaching to a far wider audience that the few who attended furtive underground meetings of the faithful. Tyndale used the printing press to great effect, broadcasting ideas which Lollards could spread only orally and at great risk to themselves. Foxe thought that the coincidence in time of the invention of printing and the reformation was a divine miracle. To import and circulate Tyndale's illegal publications must have called for a large-scale organization.

Tyndale's support certainly derived in large part from former Lollards, for whom his translations and theological writings, published in small and pocketable editions, far cheaper than the clandestinely circulated manuscript copies of Wyclif's writings, gave a new confidence; and they proved acceptable to far wider circles. The official protestant Institution of a Christian Man (1537) and the Elizabethan Homily on Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion (1571) drew much from Tyndale's The Obedience of a Christian Man.[11] England was ready for Tyndale. Nowhere else in Europe was the Bible in the vernacular prohibited.[12]

Tyndale is frequently remembered only for writing The Obedience of a Christian Man (1527-8). Perhaps the most important action of Anne Boleyn's hectic career (apart from producing the future Queen Elizabeth) was giving this book to Henry VIII after she had marked in the margin passages which she thought it especially important for him to read. Her selections emphasized the absolute power of kings, and made Henry think it 'a book for all kings to read'. If the King had been a more careful reader he would have noticed Tyndale's many qualifications to the absolute power of kings, and might have regarded the book less favourably. But Anne knew her man.

Tyndale emphasizes that we must always obey God rather than man. 'No king, lord, master, or what ruler he be, hath absolute power in this world'. 'The authority of kings is but a limited power, which when they transgress they sin against their brethren'. 'The most despised person in his realm is the king's brother, and fellow-member with him, and equal with him in the kingdom of God and of Christ'. 'Though every man's body and goods be under the king, do he right or wrong; yet is the authority of God's word free, and above the king; so that the worst in the realm may tell the king, if he do him wrong, that he doth naught, and otherwise than God commanded him'. 'When men say a king's word must stand, that is truth, if his oath or promise be lawful and expedient'. Who decides what is expedient? In his The Practice of Prelates (1530) Tyndale warned kings against priestly hypocrites who put them 'in fear of the rising of your commons against you'. 'If ye fear your commons, so testify ye against yourselves, that ye are tyrants. For if your conscience accused you not of evil doing, what need ye fear your commons" What commons were ever so evil that they rose against their heads for well-doing?'[13]

In papal theology 'obey God rather than man' meant obey the Pope and the church rather than secular authority, when they clashed. But Tyndale's object was to reject the political power of the church, personified in the Pope and Cardinal Wolsey. the effective ruler of England. Papal political power could be overthrown in England only with and through the power of the king. The Obedience of a Christian Man was adapted to the occasion — no doubt with the intention that Henry should read it. So long as Wolsey remained in office there was no hope for any of the reforms which Tyndale wished to see realized. Only the king could overthrow Wolsey, or the king in alliance with Parliament. The clergy asserted that translation of the Bible into the vernacular 'causeth insurrection and teacheth the people to disobey their heads and governors'. They claimed that 'these heretics would have us down first, and then you [king and lords], to make all common'. Henry had to be convinced, for only with his full support could the Pope be got rid of without social upheaval; and Tyndale thought that 'it is better to suffer one tyrant than many'.[14]

So the elevation of monarchical power in The Obedience had a specific and limited objective; for anyone who reads the treatise more carefully than Henry did, royal authority is balanced by repeated reminders that we must obey God rather than man. Worldly powers are to be obeyed only so far as their commands 'repugn not against the commandments of God'. 'Though the rulers which God hath set over us command us against God', we still must not resist, 'remitting the vengeance unto God...until the hour be come'. God hath 'all tyrants in his hand, and letteth them not do whatsoever they would, but as much only as he appointeth them to do, and as far forth as it is necessary for us. If they enforce to persecute us any further', Scripture examples shew us that 'then God destroyed them utterly'.[15] But Tyndale left undetermined the question of who is to decide what God wishes. Anybody'? Or only the elect? How do we know who they are?

Above all, Tyndale insisted, kings must exclude the clergy from political rule. Churchmen are subordinate to the King. Their duty concerns the next world, not this. 'No king hath power to grant them such liberty' as the church has assumed, and kings will be 'damned for the giving, as well as they for their false preaching'. All ecclesiastical jurisdiction and liberties should forthwith be abolished and taken over by the secular power. Until that is done 'the Emperor and kings are nothing nowadays but even hangmen unto the Pope and bishops'.[16]

I have often wondered whether, if Tyndale had survived until Edward VI's reign, he would have become a bishop. He was the most eminent English protestant theologian. He might have thought it his duty to rally to Edward VI's church, but he would have had to swallow a great many rude words about bishops and liturgies, about tithes and a state church. In the 1590s Francis Johnson, preacher to English merchants at Middelburg, cited Wyclif and Lollards, Tyndale and the martyr John Frith, to demonstrate that bishops were antichristian.[17] As for liturgies, Tyndale thought that prayer was talking to God, which could not be done satisfactorily by repeating words composed by others. Tithes 'were ordained at the beginning to find [finance] preachers and the poor people who now go a-begging'. Tithes should be confiscated, and divided between the poor and a fund for preachers (with no settled parish minister). There would not have been much left of the sixteenth-century Church of England if there were no bishops, no tithes, no liturgy, no church courts, no national organization of the church, no resident parochial clergy. Churches, Tyndale said, were for preaching in, not for singing or processions. Again Tyndale appears as the father of dissent rather than Anglicanism.

For Tyndale, obeying God rather than man meant obeying God's commandments in the Bible rather than the traditions of the church. But here inevitably a subjective element entered in. Who is to interpret the Bible? The Roman church preferred to keep the Bible in a tongue unknown to most subjects and leave its interpretation to the church under the authority of its hierarchy. How right it was! Tyndale's agreeable hope that a ploughman might understand the Scriptures translated into English as well as (or better than) the learned had wide implications. How did the ploughman know he was right? Might he perhaps run the state more efficiently than some prelates? Shakespeare's plebeian rebels in Henry VI, Part II, drew this conclusion; so did Hamlet, and King Lear seemed to agree with them.

Tyndale sometimes has difficulty in distinguishing between the priesthood of all believers and of all men. He said that a kitchen page who washes his master's dishes and an apostle who preaches the word of God are equal in God's sight. 'The love that springeth out of Christ excludeth no man, neither putteth difference between one and another'. This anticipates George Herbert's 'A servant with this clause/ Makes drudgery divine'. For Tyndale all men are God's sons; even though 'they be not under the everlasting testament of God in Christ, as few of us who are called Christians be.... yet are they under the testament of the law natural'. 'If the whole world were thine, yet hath every brother his right in thy goods' when in need.[18]

'Christ is a priest for ever; and all we priests through him, and need no more of any such priests on earth to be a mean for us unto God'. So there is no need for a priesthood. 'As good is the prayer of a cobbler as of a cardinal...' Milton's 'the laity, as priests call them', and Oliver Cromwell's 'so Antichristian a term as clergy and laity' — and the 'mechanic preachers' of the seventeenth-century revolution" — follow in Tyndale's footsteps. Tyndale criticizes the rich and insists on equality among believers. All the commandments can be reduced to 'love God and love thy neighbour', and in effect that means that they can be reduced to one commandment, for 'We have God dwelling in us ... if we love one the other'.[20]

Tyndale anticipates not so much the religion of the English state church as of Puritans and separatist congregationalists. He was martyred before religious 'sects' existed, but his influence extends to Milton and Bunyan. Like Milton, he had not much use for bishops or tithes or liturgies: he was always rather a doubtful Anglican saint, which is perhaps why his significance has been under-estimated.

The covenant theology is often seen as the hallmark of Puritanism. All the best books and articles on the covenant theology start from Tyndale, who appears to have introduced it to England.[21] As developed by later Puritans like Perkins, Preston, Ames and Sibbes, the covenant theology looks like an attempt to smuggle works back into predestinarian protestantism. God covenants with the elect to give them eternal salvation in return for faith in Christ's sacrifice on the cross, by which he redeemed those who believe in him. The elect are not saved by their good works; and they cannot be known on earth. The only way one can know that he is one of the elect is by a strong but humble inner conviction of union with Christ. A formal, legal and irrevocable act for our justification has been 'passed and enrolled in that court of heaven between Christ and God'. It is a 'conditional covenant' into which men can enter freely. The elect believe because they are saved, justified by Christ's imputed righteousness, 'even then when himself knows nothing thereof'.[22] No man can be a member of the church unless he believes himself to be one of the predestined elect. Tyndale's ideas profoundly affected this tradition within English protestantism. The covenant theology was developed fully by Preston, Ames and Sibbes, who coincided in time with a new emphasis on contracts in political theory and with new attitudes towards contract among business men and lawyers. The appeal to the business classes reached caricature form in Jeremiah Burroughs, who said that the covenant is 'God's insurance office', at which we pay no premium. 'You may be sure of his bond written and sealed, and he cannot deny it'. Man is born in debt to God because of Adam's sin: Christ has obtained easier terms for his clients.[23] As the Shorter Catechism of 1647 had it, 'God must punish all sin, either in the sinner or in Christ the surety'.

The protestant emphasis on faith as against works goes with rejection of external aids to salvation, of sacraments as vehicles of grace. There is a direct relationship between each individual and God, with an emphasis on God's promises in the Bible, on mutual covenants between the two parties. So the inner state of mind of the Christian becomes all-important, not his external actions. There are no saints mediating between man and God.[24]

Tyndale's description of the covenant was accepted by many later theologians. God receiveth men 'to be his sons and maketh a covenant with them, to bear their weakness for Christ's sake, till they be waxen stronger; and how often they fall, yet to forgive them if they will turn again'. 'Though forgiveness of sin be promised unto thee, yet challenge it not by thy merits but by the merits of Christ's blood'. 'When such things being before impossible ... now are easy and natural, we feel and are sure that we be altered, and [have become] a new creature, shapen in righteousness after the image of Christ'. The sins of the elect are evidence of weakness, not of evil motive: hence they may remain assured of salvation. 'So long as thou findest any consent in thine heart unto the law of God, that it is righteous and good, and also displeasure that thou canst not fulfil it, despair not; neither doubt but that God's Spirit is in thee, and that thou art chosen for Christ's sake to the inheritance of eternal life'. 'The Spirit of Christ hath written the lively law of love in their hearts; which driveth them to work of their own accord freely and willingly, for the great love's sake only which they see in Christ, and therefore need they no law to compel them'. We are not saved because of our works; our works are the consequence of our salvation. 'The deed is good because of the man, and not the man good because of his deed'. Works without faith are no better than ceremonies.[25]

'Without a promise there can be no faith', Tyndale declared. 'All the promises throughout the whole scripture do include a covenant: that is, God bindeth himself to fulfil that mercy unto thee only if thou wilt endeavour thyself to keep his law, and consenteth that it is righteous and good, and fain would do it.... Let love interpret the law, that thou understand this to be the final end of the law, and the whole cause why the law was given; even to bring thee to the knowledge of God,...that thou mightest love him again with all thine heart, and thy neighbour as thyself, and as Christ loved thee: because thy neighbour is a son of God also...' This is 'a freedom to do good only with lust, and to live well without compulsion of the law'. 'Therefore is this no wild fleshly liberty, that should do nought, but that doth all things and is free from the craving and debt of the law'.[26]

This is treacherous territory. It is easy to confuse true salvation issuing in good works with a desire for salvation accompanied by good works. 'Beware of thy good intent, good mind, good affection, or zeal, as they call it', Tyndale warned. Good works do not earn salvation: they testify to it. As Perkins famously put it, God accepts the will for the deed from his elect. But Tyndale did not go so far as Preston in telling us to 'oppress the promises', to demand salvation from God. On the other hand, the covenant helped to liberate those who believed themselves to be the elect from the constraints of a traditional status society. If they could demand their rights from God, how much more so from princes? If God could be held to his contract with his elect, why not the King with his subjects'? So the High Court of Justice which condemned Charles I to death became for his prosecutor (and for Milton and many others) a 'resemblance and representation of the great day of judgment when the saints shall judge all worldly powers'.

'Natural man', St Paul had said, 'understandeth not the things of God, but the Spirit of God only', without which such understanding is impossible. Tyndale said that 'to steal, rob and murder are no holy works before worldly people; but unto them that have their trust in God they are holy when God commandeth them'. So it is important to be absolutely certain how we know when God has commanded something, and when he has not. How can we know with absolute certainty'? 'Faith in thine own works can never quiet thy conscience'.' Sir Simonds D'Ewes. a cautious man, calculated that he had got assurance from sixty-four signs or marks from several graces; but he admitted to himself that the assurance 'is but conditional'.'-" Fasting for one day a week, Tyndale insisted, or at fixed times, is neither here nor there, nor is 'saying of the gospel to the corn in the field in the procession week, that it should the better grow', nor 'a false kind of praying, wherein the tongue and lips labour...but the heart talketh not with God'. The passionate anger as well as the wit present in such remarks is one of Tyndale's most attractive strengths. Things, not words, are what matter: 'as a man rehearseth a tale of another man's mouth, and wotteth not whether it be so or no as he saith, nor hath any experience of the thing itself'.[29]

The transition from a religion of ceremonies to a religion lodged in the conscience of the individual believer is a transition from a static to a dynamic theology. Ceremonies are fixed by custom and authority; the society in which they are all-important ticks over in a changeless routine. The appeal to the individual conscience opens up wide possibilities of disagreement. We might paraphrase Marx: 'previous theologians had explained the world; Tyndale's point however was to change it'. 'If thou dost not act thou dost nothing', as Gerrard Winstanley was to say.

There was a paradox in protestantism: preaching was the way to produce a new creature, free to cooperate with God; and yet when he found God, he knew that this was God's doing, irrespective of his apparently free decision to acknowledge it. Predestinarian theology produced activist believers, who strove to carry out God's will in whatever calling they found themselves.

We must love our fellow-men, Tyndale tells us, since loving our neighbour is equivalent to loving God. It is no doubt relatively easy to love fellow sons of God but should we love all our neighbours? How should we treat the reprobate? At one moment Tyndale tells us that we should pray for their destruction." But he also tells us that many reprobates may receive God's grace at a late stage of their careers, to the edification of their fellows.

Tyndale's high line on predestination opened up the risk of antinomianism. Once a man became aware that he was one of the elect through his faith in Christ, he became 'a new creature, shapen in righteousness after the image of Christ and God our Father'. A new creature will 'live a new life after the will of God, and not of the flesh'. 'Now he loveth that which he before hated, and hateth that which before he loved'. Right faith 'maketh us the sons of God'. 'New creature' and 'sons of God' became catch-phrases among radical protestants down to Milton.[31]

Lord Brooke may have been recalling Tyndale in the opening words of his Discourse Opening the Nature of that Episcopacie which is Exercised in England (1641): 'I aim not at Words, but at Things'. 'True experience of Christ', the Puritan Thomas Taylor wrote over a century after Tyndale's death, 'is experimental'. It is not acquired 'out of books or relations ... but by experience of himself'. 'Honour thy father and thy mother', Tyndale explained, 'is not to be understood in bowing the knee and putting off the cap only, but that thou love them with all thine heart'.[32]

Tyndale himself deliberately broke the law by publishing the Bible in English. 'Right freedom, and liberty from sin and from the law', he wrote, following Luther, 'is a freedom to do good only with lust, and to live well without compulsion of the law Re understanding of all commandments stands so greatly in love, that the very commandments of God bind not where love and need require'. Milton shared that spirit when he wrote 'the practice of the saints interprets the commandments'.[33] Bunyan's Justification by an Imputed Righteousness (published posthumously in 1692) is a longer treatise on the same theme. 'Take heed that thy conscience be not entangled by the law'.

Sin ... will make a law where God hath made man free
And break through laws by which men bounded be.[34]

We can see how easily this doctrine could slip over into antinomianism. Antinomians hold that the elect cannot sin, are not bound by divine laws.[35] When Tyndale wrote 'to steal, rob and murder ... are holy when God commandeth them', I presume he was thinking of various patriarchs and others in the Old Testament who committed such sins. But today — how are we to know what God commands us to do? The covenant theology offered no outward test of a man's sense that he was acting according to God's will. Yet Tyndale warned that 'to follow one's own lusts is not freedom but bondage'. [36]

A few quotations may illustrate my point: 'He that loveth his neighbour in God and Christ fulfils all the commandments' (New Testament, p. 4). 'All inferior laws are to be kept as long as they are servants to faith and love; and then to be broken immediately, if through any occasion they hurt either the faith which we should have to Godward...or the love which we owe to our neighbours for Christ's sake' (my italics). Tyndale puts it strongly in Obedience: 'A Christian man is the temple of God and of the Holy Ghost, and hallowed in Christ's blood'. He is 'holy in himself by reason of the Spirit that dwelleth in him'. 'Let love interpret the law.... Thy neighbour is the son of God also and created unto his likeness as thou art, and bought with as dear blood as thou art.... Love is the light of the law, to understand it by'. Tyndale never tells us how we should behave towards those who are not sons of God, apart from saying that idolaters should be slain.[37] But apart from them, we cannot be sure who are the elect and who not. The greatest reprobate may receive God's grace, at any time.

In the free discussion of the revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century those whom we call Ranters raised exactly this question. Laurence Clarkson said that at one time or another God had told him to break all ten commandments except the sixth -'thou shalt do no murder'. He wondered innocently whether God might not one day tell him to break that one too. (Tyndale, we recall, had said that 'to steal, rob and murder are holy when God commandeth them'.) Clarkson added 'what act soever is done by thee in light and love, is light and lovely, though it be that act called adultery... .No matter what scripture, saints or churches say, if that within thee do not condemn thee, thou shalt not be condemned'. Not only Tyndale: Clarkson is almost quoting Luther, who said 'whatsoever thou shalt observe upon liberty and of love, is godly; but if thou observe anything of necessity, it is ungodly'. 'If an adultery could be committed in the faith', Luther added, it would no longer be a sin'. Or take Calvin: 'the consciences of believers may rise above the law, and may forget the whole righteousness of the law'. Milton believed that the elect were 'released from the decalogue'. Seventeenth-century Ranters on principle rose above 'the whole righteousness of the law' in respect of adultery. Clarkson taught that 'no man could be freed from sin till he had acted that so-called sin as no sin.... Till you can lie with all women as one woman, and not judge it as sin, you can do nothing but sin'.[38]

I am not suggesting that Tyndale sponsored any such ideas: he went out of his way to reject them. But doctrines which he did preach opened wide doors, through which many passed during the freedom of the 1640s and 1650s. Tyndale might be regarded as the father of antinomianism as well as of congregational independency.

Tyndale early committed himself to saying that the Pope was 'that very Antichrist' — a declaration of war. 'It is impossible to preach Christ', he declared flatly in The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528), 'except thou preach against Antichrist'.[39] Persecution and failure to preach are the marks of Antichrist. In the Answer to More Tyndale devotes many pages to establishing that the Pope is Antichrist: 'As M. More feeleth that the Pope is holy church. I feel that he is Antichrist'.[40] But Tyndale also makes a point which later protestants developed: Antichrist is not 'a man that should suddenly appear with wonders .... Antichrist is a spiritual thing .... one that preacheth false doctrine'. He has existed in many forms.[41]

Among other heresies which Tyndale shared is soul-sleeping, the doctrine that the soul has no conscious existence between death and the final resurrection.[42] He no doubt got the doctrine from Lollards as well as from the early Luther. In defending Luther's soul-sleeping against Sir Thomas More Tyndale said boldly, 'Christ and his disciples taught no other'. The doctrine came as part of a rejection of the Roman doctrine of purgatory, which Tyndale thought destroyed 'the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection'.[43]

There is evidence for the doctrine's fairly widespread existence in England. The forty-two Articles of the Church of England condemned soul-sleeping in 1553, though this clause was dropped in the 39 Articles of 1563. There is evidence for soul-sleeping beliefs in Bristol, Kent, Sussex, Lancashire, Cheshire, London and elsewhere.[44] The heretics Francis Kett and Edward Wightman, burnt respectively in 1589 and 1612, had been soulsleepers. The heresy spread to New England, where Mrs Hutchinson claimed to have arrived at the idea independently.[45] The doctrine was attributed to Thomas Hariot; Sir Thomas Browne flirted shame-facedly with it for a time.[46] Richard Overton's Man's Mortalitie appeared in the freedom of 1643, a serious defence of the sleep of the soul. Muggletonians and some Ranters were mortalists, and some Quakers were alleged to be. The greatest of the mortalists were Milton and Hobbes,[47] polar opposites in so many other respects.

We should not attribute too much to Tyndale in handing on the mortalist heresy. He may only have given theological respectability and the dignity of print to ideas long current in the Lollard underground. But Tyndale clearly attached theological importance to the subject, and his words must have contributed to discussions among radical sectaries.

Tyndale insists that 'the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense .... That which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently'. Understanding scripture is a matter involving textual criticism, not inventing 'tropological' and 'anagogical' senses.[48] That is why all men must have access to the Bible in the vernacular. 'How shall I know whether ye are that Against-Christ, or false prophets, or no, seeing you will not let me see how ye allege the scriptures?' This opens up the Bible to discussion by laymen of the meaning, the literal sense as against allegories; textual criticism and rational discussion against mysteries and analogies and against the authority of an institutional church.[49]

Tyndale was not unaware of class conflict. His favourites are the godly middling sort rather than the lowest classes. 'The rich (as James saith) persecute the true believers. The rich will never stand forth openly for the word of God'. 'Woe be to you rich', saith Christ'.[50] 'Prosperity is a right curse, and a thing that God giveth to his enemies....' But God 'will come upon them as a thief in the night ... and destroy them utterly'. This last image of God as a thief was used by the Ranter Abiezer Coppe in 1649.[51]

In The Wicked Mammon Tyndale lays down the economic obligations of property-owners in a way that Sir Thomas More particularly disliked. He told landlords to protect their tenants; not to rack rents or fines, not to oppress tenants by imposing new customs. They should not enclose to make parks or pastures of whole parishes, 'for God gave the earth to man to inhabit, and not to sheep and wild deer' — another Biblical sentiment often echoed later.[52] William Dell cited Tyndale's criticism of the universities and their reliance on Aristotle; he also quoted The Plow-mans Complaint (probably published by Tyndale) attacking divinity degrees.[53] 'Man's wisdom is plain idolatry', wrote Tyndale in the Preface to his Obedience of a Christian Man.[54]

Others of Tyndale's ideas were picked up by seventeenth-century radicals, e.g. abolition of tithes, which Milton thought essential to religious liberty. Tyndale laid himself open to the accusation that he justified expropriating the rich. 'Christ is Lord over all; and every Christian is heir annexed with Christ, and therefore lord over all; and every one lord of whatsoever another hath. If thy brother or neighbour therefore need, and thou have to help him and yet shewest not mercy but withdrawest thy hands from him, then robbest thou him of his own and art a thief'.[55] Ranters and Diggers took this up in the 1640s.

Tyndale's writings remind us of an aspect of pre-Reformation life which we often forget, and that we are encouraged to forget by a recent school of historians who wish to persuade us that everybody loved the pre-Reformation church, and that reformation was forced on an unwilling populace from above. Tyndale reminds us of the fear in which many people lived — 'fear lest [the saints] should be displeased and angry with us, and plague us or hurt us; as who is no afraid of St Laurence? Who dare deny St Anthony a fleece of wool for fear of his terrible fire, or lest he send the pox among our sheep?' The church of course got the propitiatory offering to the saint. The lesser clergy were terrorized too: if the priest failed to make all the right gestures in the mass, 'or make not his crosses aright, now trembleth he! How feareth he! What an horrible sin is committed!' Tyndale insisted that these fears were used to extort money. The clergy 'compel ... all men to buy redemption and forgiveness of sins. The people's sins they eat, and thereof wax fat. The more wicked the people are, the more prosperous is their commonwealth'.[56]

Time does not permit to give more than one example of Tyndale's wit; but there is plenty of it to enliven his writings. The Pope 'taketh authority also to bind and loose in purgatory. That permit I unto him; for it [purgatory] is a creature of his own making. He also bindeth angels: for we read of popes that have commanded the angels to put divers out of purgatory. However I am not yet certified whether they obeyed or no'.[57]

I give a few further examples of quotations from or echoes of Tyndale which I have come across.

John (later Bishop) Bale's King Johan was not printed until 1838, but it was probably written towards the end of Henry VIII's reign, with later additions. It derives from Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man.

John Hall's very popular The Court of Virtue (1565) also follows Obedience. (See pp. 101-102 above.) Hall insists that there must be no revolt against royal authority; but the godly can contemplate with some satisfaction the 'right hard judgment' and 'sore punishment' which will befall kings who rule unrighteously.

Patrick Collinson, speaking of Bishop John Jewel's Apologia pro Ecclesia Anglicana (1562), says 'the whole burden of Jewel's defence of the course taken by his church' goes back to Tyndale (Godly People: Essays on Protestantism and Puritanism, 1983, p. 160). The title of the anonymous The unlawful practices of prelates (1585) echoes Tyndale's The Practice of Prelates (1530).

Alexander Leighton, An Appeal to the Parliament, or Sion's Plea against the Prelacie (1628), quotes Tyndale's remark that you cannot preach against sin without beginning with bishops.

William Prynne, in A Breviate of the Prelates Intolerable Usurpations (1637). quotes the same passage.

Lord Brooke, in his Discourse Opening the Nature of that Episcopacie which is Exercised in England (1641) follows Tyndale closely in equating 'presbuteros' with elder. He was as fiercely opposed to bishops as Tyndale, and like him thought the Pope was Antichrist. His opening words were 'I aim not at words but at things' (cf. p. 105 above). He thought that ministers should be elected, and insisted (also with Tyndale) that 'every master of a family may and must read, pray, catechize and the like in his own family, if he have none that can do it better himself.'

William Dowsing the iconoclast possessed a copy of Tyndale's Obedience.[58]

Bunyan, in discussing Psalm 51, quotes and criticizes 'Tyndale's translation' (though it is not in fact Tyndale's). Like Tyndale Bunyan heavily emphasizes 'claiming the promises', 'acceptance of grace'. It is difficult to think that Tyndale does not underlie passages like 'It is God that worketh in thee to will and to come to Jesus Christ ... Bless God for slaying the enmity of thy mind; had he not done it thou wouldest, as yet, have hated thine own salvation'.[59]

I have referred, semi-seriously, to Tyndale as the father of presbyterianism, congregational independency, and antinomianism. My point is that he represents primitive protestantism, before it had split up into squabbling sects. Tyndale had only one enemy, the political and ideological power of the Roman church. His lively mind ranged actively over alternative possibilities for God's people. Charles II astutely perpetuated sectarian divisions by granting 'indulgence' only to congregations which accepted a sectarian label and a named minister. Interestingly enough Bunyan and his congregation had great difficulty in deciding whether to call themselves Baptists or Congregationalists. Tyndale would have sympathized with their difficulty, and with their rejection of a state church.

The Bible is a huge palimpsest, incorporating ideas from different individuals, different communities, different historical epochs. During the English Revolution radicals like William Erbery, William Walwyn, Gerrard Winstanley, Laurence Clarkson and Samuel Fisher were to point out that the Bible contained contradictions.[60] Rome had solved this problem by resort to 'the traditions of the church', of which it was the sole custodian. Protestants had no such cure-all, and this led ultimately to its fragmentation into different sects emphasizing different Biblical ideas and emphases. Tyndale antedates sectarianism, and he combines ideas which his successors were to find incompatible. He reproduces the full riches of the Biblical text by sacrificing strict consistency. For this among other reasons he has not been sufficiently appreciated, either by Anglicans or dissenters — or literary critics. But he more than any single individual made English men and women 'the people of the Book'. Thanks to David Daniell, we can now begin to study seriously his place in history.


[1]K.G. Powell, 'The Social Background to the Reformation in Gloucestershire', Trans. of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Soc., 92 (1973), pp. 115-19; Rollison, The Local Origins of Modern Society: Gloucestershire (1992), pp. 86-96.
[2]See S. E. Lehmberg, The Reformation Parliament (Cambridge U.P., 1970), p. 117, 145; my 'From Lollards to Levellers' in Rebels and their Causes: Essays in honour of A. L. Morton (ed. M. Cornforth, 1978), pp. 54-8; M. R. Watts, The Dissenters from the Reformation to the French Revolution (Oxford U.P., 1978), pp. 94,355.
[3]Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church (ed. J. Pratt, n.d.), IV, pp. 617-19; E. G. Rupp, Studies in the Making of the English Protestant Tradition (1949), p. 11.
[4]The Writings of John Greenwood, 1587-1590 (ed. L. H. Carlson, 1962), pp. 22-9.
[5]Rollison, op. cit., pp. 5-7, 94.
[6]Bishop Overall's Convocation Book (1689), pp. 130-31; cf. p. 137.
[7]The Practice of Prelates, in Expositions of Scripture and Notes on ... The Holy Scriptures... (ed. Henry Walter, The Parker Society, 1849), pp. 294--5.
[8]The Obedience of a Christian Man, in Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scripture (ed. Henry Walter, The Parker Society, 1848), pp. 185-6, 339; The Practice of Prelates, p. 295; An Exposition upon the V, VI, VII Chapters of Matthew, p. 19.
[9]Practice of Prelates, pp. 302-3.
[10]Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (Hambledon Press, 1984), pp. 278-93.
[11]Tyndale, Old Testament, p. xxiii; H.C. White, Social Criticism and Popular Literature of the 16th century (New York, 1944), pp. 136-7.
[12]Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (Yale U.P., 1994), p. 94.
[13]Obedience of a Christian Man, pp. 202-4, 332-4; italics mine; Practice of Prelates, pp. 243-4.
[14]Obedience, pp. 165, 247, 178-80.
[15]Ibid., pp. 140-42.
[16]Ibid., p. 242.
[17]In The Writings of John Greenwood and Henry Barrow, 1591-1593 (ed. L H. Carlson, 1970), pp. 458-66.
[18]The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, in Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 99-101; Obedience, p. 204. For natural law see also Obedience, p. 204.
[19]Obedience, pp. 255-8; cf. Milton, Complete Prose Works, VI, p. 571; Cromwell, Writings and Speeches (ed. W.C. Abbott, Harvard U.P., 1937-47), II, p. 197.
[20]Tyndale, The New Testament, p. 4.
[21]See esp. J. G. Moller, 'The Beginnings of Puritan Covenant Theology', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 14 (1963) and M. McGiffert, 'William Tyndale's Conception of Covenant', ibid., 32 (1981).
[22]See my 'Covenant Theology and the Concept of "A Public Person"' in People and Ideas in 17th-century England, Chapter 14. The last phrase is from Bunyan's Discourse upon the Pharisee and the Publicane (1685), in Miscellaneous Works, X (Oxford U.P., 1988), p. 194.
[23]Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (1964), pp. 79-80, 201; first published 1648.
[24]Tyndale, Obedience, pp. 252-3; cf. The Wicked Mammon, p. 93.
[25]Tyndale, Expositions of Scripture, pp. 9, 76, 90-91; cf. pp. 87, 96; An Answer to ... More... (ed. Henry Walter, The Parker Society, 1850), pp. 32-3, 114, 202-5; cf. p. 273; Wicked Mammon, p. 49; cf. pp. 54, 79, 86; Obedience, pp. 196-202, 297, 332-4, 401.
[26]Obedience, p. 276; Expositions, p. 403. This heavy emphasis on the promises was repeated by Bunyan: see my A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People (Oxford U.P., 1988), pp. 172-3.
[27]Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 88, 407, 509.
[28]D'Ewes, Autobiography and Correspondence, I (ed. J. O. Halliwell, 1845), p. 369.
[29]The Wicked Mammon, pp. 75, 55-6; Answer to More, p. 62; cf. pp. 6-9, 74-6, 88, 114, 273; Expositions, p. 80.
[30]Cf. Milton, who was sure that all bishops, ex officio, were condemned to everlasting damnation.
[31]Tyndale, Expositions, p. 91; Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 53-6, 418, 510, 493-6.
[32]Thomas Taylor, Works (1653), p. 411; Tyndale, Obedience, p. 168; cf. pp. 170-1, 181-5, 192-3, 206-7, 243, 252-3, 264; cf. Expositions, pp. 80-1, 94, 194, 214-18, 221, 325; my The World Turned Upside Down (Pelican, 1975), p. 369.
[33]Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises, p. 501; Expositions, p. 234; cf. Milton, Complete Prose (Yale U.P.), VI, p. 368.
[34]Bunyan, op. cit., in Miscellaneous Works (Oxford U.P.), XII, pp. 322-36; Poems,.*ibid.*, VI, p. 179.
[35]I discuss antinomianism at greater length in Chapter 10 of my Religion and Politics in 17th-century England (Brighton, 1986).
[36]Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 407; Obedience, pp. 182-5.
[37]Tyndale, Old Testament, pp. 85, 10-11; cf. p. 190; New Testament, p. 358; Milton, Prose, VI, p. 191.
[38]Clarkson, A Single Eye (1650), pp. 8-12, 16; Luther, Thirty-Four Sermons (trans. William Grace, 1747), p. 281; Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. H. Beveridge, 1949), II, pp. 135, 683.
[39]Obedience, pp. 185-8; pp. 232-52 discuss the Pope as Antichrist.
[40]Answer to More, pp. 143-4, 232-52; cf. pp. 102-10, 174; Expositions, pp. 181-90, 196-8, 281, 294-9.
[41]The Wicked Mammon, pp. 41-3; cf. Obedience, pp. 147-8, 224, 264, 283, 286-7,295-6.
[42]N.T. Burns, Christian Mortalism from Tyndale to Milton (Harvard U.P., 1972), pp. 100-101; Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises, p. lxii-iii.
[43]Burns, op. cit., pp. 23, 31-2, 100, 106-11; Tyndale, Answer to More, pp. 180-81, 188-9.
[44]See my Milton and the English Revolution (Penguin, 1979). pp. 318-19; Burns, op. cit., pp. 118-20.
[45]Milton and the English Revolution, p. 74; P. F. Gura, A Glimpse of Sion's Glory, pp. 90-91, 260-63, 350.
[46]My The World Turned Upside Down, p. 174; Burns, op. cit., pp. 1-5, 10, 151.
[47]Milton and the English Revolution (1977), Chapter 25; Burns, op. cit., pp. 183-91.
[48]Obedience, pp. 303-6, 343.
[49]Ibid., pp. 146-7, 304.
[50]Tyndale, Expositions, p. 179.
[51]Obedience, pp. 138-42; cf. p. 135. In Doctrinal Treatises (p. 122) Tyndale gives a list of sins which seem specifically captialist offences.
[52]Obedience, pp. 201-2, 251.
[53]Dell, Several Sermons and Discourses (1709), pp. 591-2, 619-20. First published 1652.
[54]Obedience, p. 160.
[55]Doctrinal Treatises, p. 97.
[56]Expositions, p. 165; Obedience, p. 248. cf. K. V. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), pp. 27, 36.
[57]Obedience, p. 269; cf. Answer to More, pp. 287-8.
[58]John Morrill, 'William Dowsing, the Bureaucratic Puritan', in Public Duty and Private Conscience in Seventeenth-century England: Essays presented to G. E. Aylmer (ed. Morrill, Paul Slack and Daniel Woolf, Oxford U.P., 1993), p. 179.
[59]Bunyan, The Acceptable Sacrifice (1689), in Miscellaneous Works, XII, p. 27; cf. p. 426; Come, and Welcome, to Jesus Christ (1685), ibid., VIII, pp. 391-2.
[60]See my The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution (Allen Lane, 1993), Chapter 8.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional