Tyndale’s Theology.[1]

Ralph S. Werrell


Until recently we were taught that modern English stemmed from Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible. (Although Alister McGrath still took this position in the year 2000.)[2] We now know that modern English stems from William Tyndale and others in the early sixteenth century. Tyndale was martyred at Vilvoorde in Belgium in 1536. Shakespeare was born in 1564. The Authorised Version of the Bible was 1611. Tyndale’s translation is approximately eighty percent of the Authorised Version in those Books Tyndale translated. Many of the changes made in the Authorised Version do not improve it. The AV has ‘charity’, Tyndale has ‘love’ in 1 Corinthians 13.

Thomas More called Tyndale, “the captain of our Englyshe heretikes”. Tyndale was a threat to the mediaeval Church because his writings attacked Church doctrine harder than Luther’s. Thomas More could write about Tyndale, “He barketh agaynst the sacramentes moche more than Luther. For where as Luther lefte yet some confesson / and rekened his secrete confessyon necessary and profytable … / Tyndall taketh it away quyte / and rayleth theron and sayth it was begonne by the deuyll. … Luther also somtyme affermeth purgatory / somtyme doubteth / and somtyme denyeth. But Tyndall putteth no doubte at all / but denyeth it as vtterly / as folysshly / withoute grounde / cause / or colour layde wherefore. Concernyng ye holy masse / Luther as mad as he is was neuer yet as mad as tyndall is / ...”[3] William Tyndale was probably born in 1494, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Berkeley, near Slimbridge in South Gloucestershire. Unfortunately we know little of his early life.

A hundred years before Tyndale was born John Trevisa was Vicar of Berkeley. He was a contemporary of John Wycliffe and was interested in the vernacular. He translated several works into English, and may have helped translate the second Wycliffe Bible. Had the importance of the vernacular remained in the Berkeley area in the century between Trevisa and Tyndale?

William Clebsch has been accepted as the definer of Tyndale’s theology over the years. He assumed Tyndale’s theology depended on Luther; then it changed, influenced by the Swiss Reformers. Finally, he developed his covenant theology. Clebsch was guilty of having a theory and making the evidence fit, ignoring anything which did not conform. It is what I call the Glass Slipper Syndrome (trying to make Cinderella’s slipper fit her sisters’feet). Neither I nor others who have closely examined Tyndale’s writings can find his theology changed.

Possible sixteenth century influences

The first main section of my thesis looks at the influence of, and Tyndale’s divergences from, the various theological systems of the early sixteenth century, which are supposed to have contributed to his theology.

Tyndale accepted the central doctrines of Christianity, but there are no traces of the speculative theologies we associate with the Scholastic movement, nor did Catholic humanism influence his thinking.

Wycliffite doctrine does appear to have influenced Tyndale, possibly an influence going back to his childhood. He used words freely which had a Lollard meaning. His theology would not have seemed strange to a Lollard, although he had moved further from Roman Catholicism than the Lollards.

Luther’s influence was not as great as it appears from his use of large passages from Luther, for he makes radical changes to Luther’s theology, which is why Thomas More could write that Tyndale is more extreme than Luther. Tyndale was influenced by Humanism, but there are few signs of Erasmian Humanism in Tyndale’s writings.

The covenant

Tyndale’s covenant theology is his theology. It has no links to the Swiss Reformers or Calvin. The covenant’s legal aspect, for Tyndale, is between the Persons of the Trinity. Man’s salvation from first to last depends on God alone. Any idea of a covenant between God and man detracts from the sovereignty and glory of God and gives man a part in his salvation. Tyndale regarded this as semi-Pelagian.

The covenant is revealed in the Scriptures, and from scripture our understanding of God and his creation is drawn. However reasonable and rational man’s thinking may seem, if it cannot be found and proved from Scripture it is damnable falsehood and to be rejected. Tyndale’s theology was possibly the most scriptural of all the Reformers, and this saved him from many problems other theologians faced. The mediaeval Church believed God only required us to do our best. The federal covenant had the problem of double predestination. Tyndale found neither of these in Scripture and rejected both.

Tyndale’s doctrine deprived fallen man of everything and is harder on him than Calvin or the Synod of Dort. Man can do nothing. He is powerless to even desire to escape since he is nailed, glued, and bound with a hundred thousand chains to the devil’s will. Moreover, “we were stone dead and without life or power to do or consent to good. The whole nature of us was captive under the devil, and led at his will. … ; and we consented unto sin with soul and body and hated the law of God.”[4] In Adam man chose to disobey God in spite of God’s warning of the consequences of disobedience, and all are under God’s wrath and condemned to eternal damnation. Man chose to have Satan as his father. Tyndale wrote, “God and the devil are two contrary fathers, … as Christ saith, (John viii.) ‘Ye are of your father the devil, and therefore will do the lusts of your father.’”[5]

Commenting on the situation of those not God’s children, Tyndale drew a family picture. If a child has received a new coat and is asked, “Why did not your father buy another boy a new coat also?” The child would reply, “My father bought me my coat, let his father buy him his!”

To understand Tyndale’s soteriology we must go to the beginning. Before the foundation of the world God made a plan for man’s salvation. The covenant was made: God the Father would elect those to adopt as his children: God the Son would shed his blood to make this possible: God the Holy Spirit would apply the covenant to those God chose to be his children, who then cease to be children of the devil. For Tyndale there are no legal obstacles to be overcome between God and man.

Election means the chosen have God for their Father and are his children and part of God’s family. Tyndale stresses many times the Father/child relationship as the key to our Christian life. This is important throughout our Christian life.

The blood of Christ is the key to Tyndale’s theology. Every doctrine depends on it except the Fall. Through Christ’s blood the Father is able to adopt the elect making them his children. The Holy Spirit can apply Christ’s blood to make the elect part of God’s family. For Christ’s blood has satisfied God’s justice breaking down the barrier between God and man. This is the legal aspect of the Covenant. For man, dead in sin, has no freedom or power of himself until he is born again when the covenant has been fulfilled.

The covenant works when the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s blood to the heart and life of the elect and we are born again; he opens our ears to hear the gospel, giving us the will to respond, and the power to love God’s law. Through Christ’s blood we are given repentance and faith; and we know God is our Father and we are his children and members of his family. The blood of Christ changes our whole attitude to God’s law. It enables us to love and keep God’s laws and commandments, which we keep out of love and not for fear of punishment. The law becomes a delight to us as an expression of our love. We are part of God’s family, and if we break his law we let ourselves and our loving Father down. The blood of Christ enables us to love our neighbour, and to please God with our good works. The blood of Christ also opens up our way to heaven.

Luther believed the Christian is simul justus et peccator. Tyndale would not agree for two reasons. Firstly, it denies the power of the blood of Christ to effect a full salvation for us. Secondly, the Christian’s righteousness is not his own; we are righteous because Christ alone is our righteousness. Otherwise our position in God’s family would be insecure, and the power of Christ’s blood to save the elect would be denied. Like any child the Christian is not perfect, even though he wants to obey his Father, he sometimes lets him down and sins through frailty. Or, perhaps he disobeys his Father and does wrong, then our Father is angry with us, we feel rejected and want to run away from home, yet deep down we know we are still loved and still our Father’s child. The blood of Christ cleanses us from sin and restores us to fellowship again with our loving Father.

The sacraments are covenantal signs, which are important. For Tyndale the sacraments of the Old Testament and the New are the same. The only difference is that Christ has now come and shed his blood for the salvation of the elect. All the sacraments are signs of Christ’s blood; the Passover and the Lord’s Supper clearly show a sacramental meaning linked to the sacrificial blood-shedding of Christ, the Lamb of God.

Circumcision and baptism are the sign that the blood of Christ has made us children of God. We have promised to live lives worthy of God’s children and this profession of our baptism (which is all important for us) is seen in our obedience and love of God’s law and commandments.

The Lord’s Supper is a constant reminder of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross when his blood was shed and his body was broken. The wine, which should be red, represents the blood of Christ, by which and through which the whole of our salvation and Christian life becomes a possibility. Tyndale rejected both Roman transubstantiation and Lutheran consubstantiation. Christ is in heaven, and the Lord’s Supper is in remembrance of Christ’s death on the Cross.

Society makes all equal as brothers and sisters. However, there are differences which enable society to function. God is king, and he gave kings and rulers, fathers and mothers to have rule in his stead, and we must submit. Through creation we are equal whether we be king or beggar, only the needs of society have made a difference.

The blood of Christ gives us love to our neighbour and a desire to do works which demonstrate our love. We love our neighbour because we are all created by our heavenly Father, and all brothers; therefore we will do anything to help him. Love to our neighbour depends only on God’s creation and not our new birth as God’s children. This is true if he is a Turk, Jew or our enemy and the good works we do for them are done in order to win them to Christ. The good works we do for other Christians is to strengthen their faith.

Unlike the mediaeval Church, Tyndale taught that the clergy belong to the temporal regiment and kings belong to the spiritual regiment: and their authority is only in the regiment in which they hold office for God. All mankind belong to the temporal, and all Christians belong also to the spiritual regiment. In both regiments all are equal, though God gives authority to some to govern on his behalf.

In the spiritual regiment we are doubly God’s, through creation and through redemption. The blood of Christ enables God to blot out our sins, adopt us as his children and give us a place in the spiritual kingdom. Christ’s blood has opened the way for us into God’s presence, giving us eternal life and it has opened for us the gate in the kingdom of heaven.

Through Christ’s blood we can always come to our Father’s presence, even as children come to their Father. It is through our prayers and our worship we enter into our Father’s presence, and experience his love. “Neither is it possible to believe in God, to love him, or to love thy neighbour, but that prayer will spring out there-hence immediately. For to believe in God is to be sure that all thou hast is of him, and all that thou needest must come of him: which if thou do, thou canst not but continually thank him for his benefits, … Secondarily, this heaping of so many words together, ‘ask, seek, knock,’ signify that the prayer must be continual; and so doth the parable of the widow, that sued to the wicked judge.”[6]

It is in society and the state; and the church and its worship that we find the Covenant people here on earth. But, as Christ taught, in the spiritual regiment there are tares mixed with the wheat, and the elect are “the little flock.”

The mediaeval Church had departed from God, the pope and the spirituality had erected barriers against the faithful, preventing them from reading God’s Word, substituting works for faith, and, with their covetousness, making people trust in vain and false ceremonies.

There was need for reform because the covenant had been broken, the pope and the spirituality had failed on three grounds. They taught a false faith, believing God would accept man by his works. God only required man to do his best, then the sacraments would make right what was lacking. Purgatory had been invented, so that after death through indulgencies, the saints’ and our prayers, any deficit could be made up. But as it was not according to God’s Word it had no real benefit. Secondly, the spirituality taught false actions as a means of appeasing God, especially if they provided benefits for the Church. Thirdly, they taught a false worship. Idolatry, through the Mass and worshipping the saints, encouraged the people to fear God as a stern judge, and not to know him as a loving Father.


There is a unity in Tyndale’s theology found in all his writings, from the 1525 Preface to the New Testament through to his last published work.

The Covenant runs through every aspect of God’s dealings with fallen man. It stretches from before the foundation of the world when the covenant was made between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, through to the day when God’s chosen people will take their place in heaven.

The blood of Christ alone made the Covenant possible. Without the blood of Christ God could not choose the elect to pour his love on them and be to them a loving Father. The Holy Spirit could not give life to the elect, enabling those who are born again to desire to love and serve God, and to walk in obedience to God’s laws.

Fallen man might still have some knowledge of his former glory, but he neither desires nor seeks the means to find the way back to God. The devil gives him ideas to quieten him, and make him feel ‘safe’, but which serve to bind him closer to the devil’s will.

Today we could do with returning to Tyndale’s theology. It is scriptural. It does not seek to give man a false hope in himself. It reveals the love and the power of God to save. It reveals the way God’s plan for man’s salvation is fulfilled leaving nothing to chance. It reveals love, enabling us to fulfil the law of love: to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

Tyndale had a broader vision of who is my neighbour than is common even today. A neighbour is anyone who needs our help, friend or enemy, those of other faiths or none. Their greatest need is their need of salvation. It is by being a good neighbour we help them by an act of love with the intent that, through love, we may win them to Christ.


[1]Summary of a paper given to The Lambeth Diploma Association at their A.G.M. in 2000, and was published in The Lambeth Diploma Association Journal, 2000-2001.
[2]McGrath, In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible, wrote, “The two greatest influences on the shaping of the English language are the works of Shakespeare and the English translation of the Bible that appeared in 1611.” p. 1.
[3]More, Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol 6. p. 424f
[4]Tyndale, Exposition I John, 2/199
[5]ibid. 2/190
[6]Exposition Matthew v, vi, vii, 2/115f

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