Tyndale died praying, ‘Lord, open the King of England's eyes’; and much of his polemic takes it for granted that the monarch is the only authority capable of carrying out a full reformation of the Church. We moderns easily misread this, supposing the Reformers to have been ‘Erastians’, a term that has become so loose in usage that it has almost ceased to be helpful; we suppose that the appeal to the monarch implies a doctrine that the ‘secular’ power is above the ecclesiastical. But to put the question in that way already presupposes that there are two quite distinct kinds of authority, and it was this presupposition that the Reformers did not share. Like Luther ‑ but, arguably, with more clarity and certainly a more radical edge ‑ Tyndale believed and taught that the Christian commonwealth was one. If you had asked him about the relation of the Church to the state, he would not have understood ‑ or else he would have assumed you were a benighted papist, concerned about the legal securities of those who had in the Middle Ages made up the ecclesiastical municipalitas, the corporate body of clerics governed by canon law over against the corporate body of the king's subjects. One of the themes of Tyndale's treatise on The Obedience of a Christian Man* is the need to distinguish the diversity of callings in the Christian commonwealth. The exercise of rule in this commonwealth is something quite other than the calling to preach and pastor. Preaching the gospel, he insists (207) involves the whole person; there is nothing left over for the regulation of society, and that must be left in other hands. Thus the pretensions of the clergy to tell monarchs their business are both theologically illiterate and politically dangerous. It is popes and bishops who provoke wars between princes (186-7).. The prince ‑even the non-Christian prince (177-8) ‑ holds the place of God as judge in the commonwealth; but it must always be remembered that apart from this role he is no more than a fellow human being, and, if a Christian, simply a brother among brothers. So it is because the prince has the right to rule and discipline the commonwealth that he may discipline the Church. Nothing ‘secular’ about this; authentic evangelical belief repudiates the idea that an independent entity claiming legal exemptions and rights of interference in the relations between persons in the commonwealth, as it were from outside, can claim to be ‘the Church’. This, incidentally, is why Tyndale, in the same treatise, interprets Catholic practice in respect of marriage as an offence against the God-given rights of parents and kinsfolk within the commonwealth: the Church permits marriages on the basis of the consent of the parties alone, and so encourages disobedience to natural familial authority as endorsed by Scripture (168-9). Similarly, the idea that entry into the clergy or the religious state releases people from servile status is an offence against the good order of the commonwealth, fostering resentment against masters set in their position by God (173).
All this may now seem doubly and trebly strange to the twentieth century reader. Tyndale may not be an Erastian exactly; but is he not, more worryingly, simply a defender of unexamined patriarchy, of the tyrannous hierarchies of family loyalty and patronage? Well, possibly; but my aim is to uncover more fully what Tyndale thought he was doing, what theological vision underlay these uncongenial views, so as to ask what exactly such a theological vision might have to say that is of continuing value. And I have begun in this way in order to remind us all that Tyndale ‑ again, like Luther ‑ saw his project of reformation as what we should certainly call a political one. He is not arguing that people should accept new concepts and no more; he is not expressing the hope, in his dying words, that hitherto unorthodox views should be tolerated by the King of England. He is pleading for a reconstruction of the Christian commonwealth in conformity to the basic commitments of evangelical faith. He is asking ‑ we might say ‑ what a society might look like that took justification by faith as its cornerstone. He does not ask how Christian morality might be imposed upon a ιsecular᾿ environment. Rather, he begins by examining what the behaviour is, in respect of God and the neighbour, that naturally flows from the conviction of the causeless, unearned love of God towards us. He assumes that such a conviction inevitably shows itself in the form of an altered social pattern. The modern problem of how social patterns are to be shaped and imagined in the total absence of a shared theological conviction is none of his concern ‑ though I shall want to return to the question of how we might use his insight for our own, infinitely more confused, situation.
The chief source for understanding Tyndale's picture of Christian sociality is not so much the Obedience, significant as that is, but his treatise on The Parable of the Wicked Mammon. This is a remarkable work in any number of ways. It is a lengthy meditation (more than eighty pages in the Parker Society's edition) on the dominical story of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16.1-13), encompassing a fresh and profound statement of the doctrine of justification as well as a scathing moral critique of the current practices of ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical society in respect of the use of money and possessions. It is perhaps the most powerful treatment of social morality to come from the Reformation era in Britain — more systematic and theologically acute than Latimer's sermons, for instance, and with some strong affinities with the radicalism of Winstanley's Diggers more than a century later. It builds on Luther, above all his Freedom of the Christian, but goes well beyond the German Reformer in specific social application. It deserves a far wider readership than it has ever yet gained.
Part of its skill and interest comes from its nimble deployment of a basic paradox. We are delivered by Christ from slavery into freedom; and that freedom is experienced and expressed as indebtedness ‑ not to God, but to each other. This is the fundamental point I want to explore in these pages. Luther's Freedom of the Christian had already made the point that the Christian through faith shares the lordship of Christ, and that this lordship must be exercised as is Christ's ‑ in self‑humbling and service. God's service to us in Christ is both the model and the motive force for our relation to our neighbour, a ‘free, eager, and glad life of serving ... without reward’ (ch.27). The heart of the argument is that Christ does not perform his works of love towards us in order to achieve something: he is already divine, already in the bliss of the Godhead. His works are the outflowing of what he is. The fact of holiness comes first; good works cannot make you holy, since holiness is always the action of God.
Tyndale begins from the same Christological foundation and the same doctrine of God's uncreated action in the believer. ‘Supernatural goodness’ (an unusually scholastic turn of phrase for Tyndale) is the sole source of authentically good works. And this supernatural gift is the receiving of God's promise in Christ of his favour. What critics of the doctrine of justification by faith fail to understand is that faith is not a human action (‘imagination’ or ‘opinion’) but God's, and is therefore ‘ever working’. It renews the whole human subject, making us hungry to do God's will (50-55). Only as we see this divine working in action, in love and service, can we have any certainty about the reality of our faith: the idea that we could be assured of our faith by any kind of introspection would have been bizarre in Tyndale's eyes. But all this is only really intelligible when we look at Christ. He ‘was full and had all plenteousness of the Godhead, and in all his works sought our profit and became our servant’ (62). What he does, he does not to gain anything but as the outpouring of his nature. So ‘How can or ought we then to work, for to purchase that inheritance withal, whereof we are heirs already by faith?’(63).
If our works are thus devoid of any thought of advantage gained by them, they are necessarily directed to the good of the other. They are not done so as to meet the requirements of God (in the straightforward sense, anyway), as if they could affect God's judgement. God is supremely free, and has given us the gift of his life, his supernatural caritas, through faith; so that any notion that we are acting to satisfy God takes away from God's liberty, as if we sought to put him in our debt. The debt that now matters is the debt of love owed to each other; and it is here that Tyndale's interpretation of Jesus' parable shows most originality. In the parable, the dishonest steward is the model for those who make friends for themselves by the use of ‘unrighteous mammon’. Why is mammon ‘unrighteous’? Not, says Tyndale, because it was unlawfully come by: there is a simple course of action with that sort of money. ‘Of unrighteous gotten goods can no man do good works, but ought to restore them home again’(69). No, the problem is the evil use of money; and the definition of evil use is the failure to use it to meet the need of another. Tyndale apparently would not have sympathised with Dr Johnson's remark that ‘a man is seldom so innocently employed as in making money’; or at least, he would have asked some unsympathetic questions. For, ‘In those goods which are gotten most truly and justly are men much beguiled’ (70) To have made a profit without apparently injuring anyone leads to the supreme delusion that no moral burden attaches to money so made. Wealth is there for the purpose of making friends, and those friends are, without any qualification, the poor on your doorstep. Tyndale ‑ characteristically takes the opportunity for a sideswipe at Catholic practice: to use your wealth to endow churches in honour of saints, or even in honour of your dear departed mother, is a serious mistake. They are not your ‘friends’ in the sense Jesus means; you do not need to bring them on your side by relieving their needs. In their day, if they were indeed holy people, they were friends to the poor, and we should be better advised to follow their example than to raise altars to them (a very similar argument can be found in the Obedience (171), in connection with the honouring of female saints rather than the imitation of their virtues of domestic obedience). But the poor ‘which are now in thy time, and live with thee’ are your immediate creditors ‑ so much so that the withholding of your surplus is ‘murder and theft’ (66‑7).
The righteous use of wealth is thus one of the exercises of Christian freedom, Godlike freedom. It is not the payment of any kind of conditional requirement to God, and neither is it simply payment to those we think we are particularly obligated to or those we deem to be deserving. We must be to the neighbour as God is to us. Tyndale refers to Mt. 5.44-45: God distributes his gifts indiscriminately (freely), and so must we. But this presupposes our awareness of the nature of God's gift, our sense of its gratuity, its unearned character. ‘As a man feeleth God to himself, so is he to his neighbour’(77); and that ‘feeling’ is the Spirit-given sense of release and causeless forgiveness. ‘Where the Spirit is, there is feeling’ (78). But this ‘feeling’ of one's own undeservingness is intimately connected with another kind of feeling: our experience of need met and want supplied opens us to the need of the other, so that the believer ‘feeleth other men's need’ and ‘[h]is neighbour is no less care to him than himself’ (93).
The argument is more intricate and more interesting than Luther's, although the Lutheran doctrine of works as the outgrowth of faith is presupposed at every turn. The awareness, bestowed by the Spirit, of what God has freely done for us reveals to us that the nature of the supernatural love that indwells us is gratuity — the pure act of God (to borrow another scholastic term). Love as it is in God is initiative and bestowal before it is response. Prior to any created event or circumstance, God is active; the miracle of grace is that we are caught up in the same movement of uncaused love. Thus our love never waits upon any outer prompting, never looks for any ‘natural’ ground in kinship or merit. And this is why also Tyndale can say, in a passage that greatly outraged his critics, that the exercise of supernatural love was not restricted to our fellow Christians. ‘When thou hast done thy duty to thine household, and yet hast further abundance of the blessing of God, that owest thou to the poor that cannot labour, or would labour and can get no work, and are destitute of friends ... If thy neighbours which thou knowest be served, and thou yet have superfluity, and hearest necessity to be among the brethren a thousand miles off, to them art thou debtor. Yea, to the very infidels we be debtors, if they need, as far forth as we maintain them not against Christ or to blaspheme Christ... [T]hey have as good right in thy goods as thou thyself’(98-9). It was a sentiment that embarrassed Tyndale's defenders, if we are to judge from Foxe's awkward gloss, claiming that Tyndale spoke only of apostate or delinquent Christians. This is certainly the meaning of one section of this discussion; but the passage quoted, referring as it does to the infidels, cannot refer to anything other than non-Christians; it remains a startlingly bold and clear injunction, echoing at many centuries' remove the observation of Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis II.xvi) that Christian love, like God's, is not based upon any mere natural kinship, but is intrinsically a love crossing barriers of all kinds.
This passage also brings into plain focus the importance of Tyndale's view that the freedom of divine love sets up a ‘debtor’ relationship between every human being: ‘every man is other's debtor’, since ‘love maketh all things common’ (95). All human beings have rights over each other's property, in the light of the relations established by God's grace. This is reinforced by another set of implications drawn out from the affirmation of the Christian's share in Christ's lordship. That the Christian is ‘lord of all’ is asserted in Luther's Liberty (ch.14); Tyndale goes further. ‘Christ is lord over all; and every Christian is heir annexed with Christ and therefore lord over all; and everyone lord of whatsoever another hath.’(97) This is indeed a drastic doctrine, yet it is possible to see how Tyndale deduces it. Each one of us is equally free in Christ, equally possessed of God's initiative of love; and therefore each one of us is by theological right the recipient of love ‑ including the practical love represented by wealth ‑ from any and every other, since there is no circumstance that could justify withholding love.
But lest this should be read as simply a charter for indiscriminate generosity towards passive recipients, Tyndale is careful to stress that the goal of any specific act of practical charity is to enable the recipient to discharge their own duties and debts effectively. The poor should be ‘set a-work’ by the rich, so that they may obey the scriptural injunction to live by the labour of their hands (99). The ideal is a fully co-operative society: ‘Let every man ... refer his craft and occupation unto the common wealth, and serve his brethren as he would do Christ himself’. (102-3) The poor cannot be allowed to remain an anonymous mass, but must be assisted to realise their dignity as participants in the freedom God gives. Here Tyndale moves most decisively away from a mere doctrine of almsgiving towards the ideal of the Christian society as a pattern of reciprocal action and shared dignity: he could not have been content to see anyone as passive in a community that had been made participant in God's action.
Tyndale rightly observes towards the end of the treatise that he is turning Aristotelian ethics upside down (108): the love of God is not something attained to at the end of a gradual process of ascent through the love of the things of the world, slowly purified by asceticism; all our love is grounded in the prior acknowledgement of the love of God, as 1 Jn. 4.10 makes plain: ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us’ ‑ one of those unimprovable phrases taken over wholesale by the translators of King James' commission from Tyndale's version. He is wary of a bland appeal to the cultivation of virtue (‘Beware of thy good intent, good mind, good affection’) because we must not allow our neighbourly love to be affected by considerations of merit and congruence. Once delivered from the ‘possession and kingdom’ of Satan (47), we are indiscriminately sovereign over each other's goods and services ‑ and thus always ourselves deprived of sovereignty over our possessions because we are sovereignly free in Christ to meet each other's need. It is of course possible to exaggerate Tyndale's distance from earlier tradition (and he has no compunction himself about doing this). Despite his attack on the Augustinian language of an ‘order of love’, in which a proper self-love holds a pivotal position, his insistence that ethics arises from considering the implications of God's love towards us is actually strongly Augustinian, as is the assumption that love in the Body of Christ is a seeking for the other what one desires for oneself, and a recognition that the good of the other is eventually intrinsic to the good of oneself (e.g. de trin VIII.iv ff). Tyndale's repudiation of the idea that faith is a human mental activity has analogues in Bernard's debate with Abelard, where Bernard angrily denies that faith is aestimatio, a kind of opinion or judgement (de erroribus Abaelardi, iv). And I have noted that distant echo of Clement audible in some of his words about love. Yet overall the impression is of a remarkable originality and breadth of theological thought. It is not at all surprising that this work became a sort of test of doctrinal aberration for the persecutors in Britain in the 1530's ‑ as in the well-known examination of Tewkesbery.
But forget for just a moment the stark specifics of Tyndale and the question of whether or not they represent a viable political programme for the twentieth century or the sixteenth century Christian. What is the centre of this vision, and how might it be stated in such a way as to provide at least a foundation for what a modern might want to say about the community of God's people in relation to the wider human community? The first part of an answer may be expressed by saying that Tyndale refuses to contemplate the notion of an ‘abstract’ individual in Christian terms. As recipients of God's love, we are always already implicated in one another's welfare, and our freedom is always and necessarily bound to the concrete form of service (as God's freedom is in Christ; you might compare Tyndale with Karl Barth on the mystery of an eternal freedom eternally self-limited by self-forgetting). This is more than saying, in the modish phrase, ‘no rights without responsibilities’: our ‘right’ is to experience the whole of our environment, including our economic environment, as gift and grace, as there for us by God's bounty; but that includes the immediate recognition that we are likewise there for each other. No one is in a position to separate out rights and responsibilities belonging to individuals in a vacuum, negotiated with each other, balancing awkwardly. The focus is upon the flow of life in which persons participate together. And this means too that there is, theologically, no such thing as what we can call ‘abstract wealth’, wealth that exists intelligibly outside the context of specific human exchange. Here perhaps Tyndale is Aristotelian to the extent of denying that money has a life of its own; but his denial is based on the conviction that the use of wealth is simply bound up with the movement of love and attention between persons, in and out of Christ's Body. The strange anthropomorphisms we hear of capital ‘seeking’ high interest or low charges or cheap labour would not have made any sense to Tyndale. The wicked mammon is not a kind of agent; we are the agents, in virtue of the agency of God enabling us. The use of our resources is one part of a general process by which we realise the mutual service working in us by the supernatural caritas empowered through faith. In that sense, we are not masters over our capital; we cannot bend the market to our will and our concern unilaterally. Of the Christian, Tyndale says, ‘Let him by buy and sell truly and not set dice on his brethren’(Mammon, 103) — a phrase that should surely mean not wagering on anyone's labour so as to increase profit. Unsurprisingly, his Obedience treatise (201) contains a sharp attack on enclosures and the inflation of rents by landlords ‑ the kind of thing that provoked Latimer's anger, not least in the disastrous days of young King Edward, when the moral integrity of the English Reformation was dramatically and almost terminally lost. Unshared wealth, wealth that is not working for the common wealth, is poisonous. And in our own time of preoccupation with the burdens of international debt, it is salutary to hear Tyndale baldly redefining the debt relationship with the emphasis upon the debt incurred by the wealthy simply in virtue of their wealth, (Mammon, 81-2,95ff) and the indebtedness to every other human person entailed in welcoming the free grace of God in your own life.
Debt is redefined because the whole idea of ownership becomes destabilised in Tyndale's scheme. An owner is, almost by definition, someone who enjoys an incontestable claim upon certain sorts of property ‑ an abstract person, in the sense already sketched, someone who can properly draw a line around certain aspects of their lives and say, this is simply mine and I enjoy sole right to it. In Tyndale's social universe, there are no such atomised claims; everyone's property is ‘on its way’ somewhere, away from its present holder or else it is theft. But before we conclude that Tyndale is in this particular an anarchist in doublet and hose, we should note what he does not say. He does not think that the primary obligations of persons are to humanity in general; he addresses his exhortation to people already involved in very specific relationships, especially families and households. This is where the Wicked Mammon has to be read in tandem with the more obviously ‘patriarchal’ Obedience. The obligations traced in the latter are the obligations of ruler and ruled (see especially 173-188, 202-231) at several levels; and, uncongenial as some of this may be to the modern, the point is that these relations are, for Tyndale, the most obvious and immediate context for the exercise of political virtue. I am not an independent individual addressed by the Word of God, but someone who already has a social identity which includes the duty of obedience to various natural authorities ‑ and, no less importantly, the duty of pastoral oversight towards those whom I command. I owe specific duties or debts in both directions, upwards and downwards, and the radical universalism of the Wicked Mammon is in no way meant to displace these.
Tyndale's ideal is not abstract fraternity, a community in which all are equal because all relate ‘laterally’ to one point. Indeed, you could say that his attack on monasticism and the clerical state as conceived in mediaeval canon law is precisely an attack on something like an abstract fraternity, a corporation of persons bound together by voluntary rather than natural ties. The monk or cleric or nun has opted out of a God-given order ‑ not only the family but the social order of command and obedience in household and kingdom. The bishop or pope trying to direct the prince, (Obedience, 186-7, 207) and the servant or bondsman attempting to change his social status by entering ‘religion’ are equally guilty of seeking to improve on the order of natural society as regulated by God's law in Scripture, setting up bonds and obligations to which natural affinity is irrelevant. Tyndale would fully have understood why the Victorian paterfamilias was so shocked by the revival of convents in the nineteenth century Church of England. But what stops all this becoming a pure ideology of traditional social power is the assumption that, because we are none of us isolated social units, the power possessed and exercised by those who bear rule, in family or kingdom, is not strictly a possession at all: its destiny is to be the vehicle of the act of God, passing from hand to hand in the formation of a ‘common wealth’.
Of course Tyndale is far from wholly consistent or systematic on these points. What he has done is to bring into focus a political problem that still haunts our discussions. A universalist ideal of justice can leave us with a community of abstract individuals, separate negotiators before the tribunal of universal law; it can lead to precisely the rights-obsessed society of our own age, in which each individual arrives in the social process equipped with a variety of enforceable claims. Because of the number and variety of claimants, social life is a constant adjustment of rival interests; the common good is reduced to an uneasy and minimalist consensus in which nobody is doing too much harm to anyone else. Yet a social philosophy that builds solely on the obligations of kinship and lordship leads to a situation of corporate rivalries, the tribalism of competing nations, clans, language groups or whatever. Tyndale does what a Christian theologian should: he recognises that abstract fraternity is a dangerous and narrowing thing (he would probably not have been surprised by the fact that modern revolutions of the left and the right invariably seek to break down both familial and local loyalties); but he also sets out to shock by challenging those local loyalties in the name of the claims of strangers ‑ the ‘rights’ of the infidel, the one who does not belong, over my own substance and comfort. How any political order might embody this he does not resolve: who has? But he might well give the Christian ammunition for arguing that universal justice entails support for local loyalties and family bonds; and that such loyalties cannot be reduced to a private and protected sphere quite separate from public morality. The good family man who operates professionally with ruthlessness and greed would be unintelligible to Tyndale, as would the notion that morality could be transmitted solely by private and interpersonal contact, away from the business of the realm.
His attack on monasticism and clericalism, the mediaeval notion of the clerical body as a sort of para-state, is typical of the Reformers' tendency to throw out babies with bathwater; like others in the period, he is so concerned to guard against the risks of the abstract fraternity that he fails to see the way in which the New Testament itself challenges the ‘obviousness’ of familial and tribal belonging. Christ and St Paul alike assume that the community of the new humanity may cut across ‘natural’ belonging, in family or polity, and that these loyalties are capable of seriously interfering with the reconciling work of the Kingdom. The firm hand pushing us back towards the sovereignty of ‘natural’ communities suggests a striking short-sightedness (from our perspective) about the corruptions and tyrannies of family and state. In the wake of the Third Reich and its pseudo-Christian apologists, we are bound to look less kindly on this monolithic (however benign) patriarchalism and to see more clearly the need for some sorts of institutionalised counter-communities. By the end of the reign of Tyndale's earthly king, whose eyes were certainly not opened in any of these ways, many of Tyndale's allies would have had good reason to feel some scepticism.
And perhaps it is the same excessively tight focus that might make us uncomfortable with the robust denial that we can properly count the communion of saints or the faithful departed as ‘friends’. If you remember, Tyndale attacks the use of wealth to endow churches and masses honouring the saints or devoted to rescuing souls from Purgatory. Wealth must be used to make friends; and the departed cannot stand to us in that relationship. Again, the solid immediacy of the community here and now, the poor at the gate, overrides the idea that there might be other kinds of belonging, less tangible and manageable. Tyndale's insistence that the present needs of the poor always ‘trump’ the desire to honour the dead, because the dead do not need what we can give is unanswerable; but it succeeds in pushing away the question of what kind of exchange between dead and living might be imaginable within the Body of Christ. Tyndale here is part of that highly ambivalent trend in reformed religion in the sixteenth century which effectively encouraged people to regard the departed as no longer members of the community, a trend whose complex social and imaginative results have been charted by several historians of the age. It is as if, in defending the priority of the concrete community here and now, Tyndale introduces a kind of abstractness elsewhere, in our thinking about the wholeness of Christ's Body across time.
In sum then, Tyndale's Christian society has some searching questions for us about how we understand justification, ownership, lordship, debt, duty and feeling. He protests about doctrines of human solidarity that level off the diverse kinds of belonging that are simply given in our social existence, and warns the Church against a universalism that flattens all our relations into the form of a notional fraternity. Above all, he sends us back to the foundation of our faith ‑ especially those of us who, whatever our qualifications and queries, still stand in a reformed tradition: how does our thinking about sociality and authority reflect or fail to reflect our belief in justification by faith? Good questions all. But there is one final point worth underlining, though it is not one that Tyndale himself makes. He spent his greatest energies in framing a vernacular language for speaking of God ‑or rather for God to speak. He is searching for words that will be capable of being owned by the poor and dispossessed as words of promise and of transfiguration. By common consent, he achieves a vigour and a music in his work as a translator which no one has really rivalled in our language. And I should want to say in conclusion that the best testimony to his vision of communities and relationships that are not abstract or formal is the language he heard and wrote. He does not write for rootless individuals but for persons with flesh and history. The Bible is no record of God's will for abstract fraternity but the story of peoples and families working justice in their concrete situations and finding universal vision only through the specifics of local and particular callings. And therefore it needs in translation a language that can be spoken confidently aloud by actual persons who live by the rhythms of the breath and the temperature and who address one another familiarly. One of the reasons we are so bad these days at the language of scriptural translation and the language of liturgy is, I suspect, the terrible and false universalism of global culture and atomised humanitarianism, our peculiarities smoothed out by the promises of a universal distributive justice and (what in fact sits very awkwardly with the former) a universal set of consumerist goals, homogenised objects of desire the world over. Our speech betrayeth us. Not the least of Tyndale's gifts is to remind us what angular and particular persons sound like when they re praying, arguing or wooing. Christian society needs a Christian language. Those concerned for Tyndale's language do well to remember what it serves; and those inspired by Tyndale's social vision need to learn how to speak with vigour and honesty about it, in a world of easy and glib speeches.
© Rowan Williams