ploughboy with plough

Ploughboy Notes

The Gospel Truth
David Ireson, Ploughboy Group Convenor

I don’t suppose many ploughboys ever read the 1526 New Testament for themselves, but many heard it read and grew in faith. The Bible Society has followed Tyndale’s thinking by launching ‘Faith Comes By Hearing: the Complete New Testament’ on audio CD or cassette. The text of the King James or a modern translation can now be heard as you drive your car or while eating your toast at breakfast time. The Bible Society says that to hear or read the text just as it stands will encourage “greater participation in church ministry and stronger personal commitment” to the faith we live by. I have my doubts.

It is clearly the Bible Society’s belief that the text will speak for itself without scholarly exegesis. In Tyndale’s time just to have the text in English was something to die for. The 1526 New Testament had no footnotes or introductions but with his second edition, William felt the need to include some comment. In our present age the Bible Society states that it wishes to ‘recognise a new challenge to make the biblical message more relevant and credible to the millions of people in our society who are genuinely seeking a sense of purpose and direction in life’. I wish that simply listening to the text could do that, but I do not think it can.

Before the Reformation in England, the interpretation of the Bible was exclusively in the hands of the priests of the Church. They alone could preach on the Latin texts read at Mass each week. The Bible was in Latin and could not be read in English for fear that the layman might interpret the text for himself. In 1526 William Tyndale’s New Testament was printed, he said, for the ‘ploughboy’ to read. The text was plain enough to understand.

We may delight in reading the Tyndale New Testament rather than one of the 3000 or more translations which have followed. We treasure the language itself, and most reading this Journal will have an informed theological framework into which the Gospels can be placed. However, most ‘ploughboys’ and ‘checkout girls’ of today have not been given an awareness of the unique literary form of the Bible. The danger is that they will either hear the text and accept, in faith, every word as literal truth or they will dismiss all of Scripture as an anachronism which no longer has anything to say to people today. Both responses are contributing to the death of Christianity. Evangelical fundamentalism may be bringing many into church, but it is alienating many more.

By the time most young people leave school they have constructed frames of reference into which all truth is made to fit. Those who have not progressed beyond a Sunday School understanding of the Gospel are as good as lost. ‘Truth’ is not an objective reality. We like the truth to fit into our prejudices: yes, our prejudices. The reader of the Telegraph or the Times looks upon the world in a different way from those who read the Guardian or the Independent. The Sun reader avoids reading the Mirror. We help shape the truth ourselves before we even try to approach it.

‘Did you put anything on the leg my dog bit yesterday?’ you ask the postman anxiously. ‘No’ he replies, ‘He liked it just as it was’. The Bible can no longer be heard or read just as it was in 1526. We ploughboys of today have to prepare the ground. We have to make the effort to understand. We have to plough the ground ever deeper in this century of ever greater learning. Because the Christian faith is not simply a philosophy but an interpretation of historical events, we all have to begin to appreciate the history of the Jewish world of the 1st Century. As John Dalrymple says, there are at least three gaps to be bridged between us and Jesus. First there is the culture gap. Jesus was a wandering Middle Eastern religious preacher, socially and culturally miles away from us. Secondly he was a man of his age who knew nothing of the knowledge explosion of the present era. Thirdly he was a layman. ‘Jesus of Nazareth belonged to a definite time, class and society which is not that of any of modern followers’ he writes.

We can only understand the Gospel if we are prepared to make the effort to cross over the gaps of history, geography and culture. The ‘Gospel truth’ was written tens of years after Jesus walked this earth. The original historical events of his life were passed down by word of mouth for at least a generation before any Gospels were written. Mark, then Matthew and Luke and eventually John, wrote the ‘Good News’ for the early Christian communities they belonged to. Their Gospels were written for liturgical use to strengthen the faith of their community. Once the effort to understand the language and meaning of the 1st century writers has been made, and the nonsense of isolating phrases and hanging beliefs on them which were never intended, then we can indeed listen or read the passages of New Testament and rejoice at its relevance for today; yes, even in Tyndale’s rich language of the 16th century.

A Ploughboy’s Activities

David Green
June 2004.

Not every Tyndale Society lecture is received with such generosity as the one I gave to friends last autumn at the Abbey Road Baptist church in Great Malvern. A most generous retiring collection was made, followed by a second cheque which arrived the next week! A personal ‘plus’ was the commission I received from the Rev. Ian Green to paint a small picture of that church, a fine stone building sheltering under the Malvern Hills. It is Ian’s first church for which he is sole pastor and I felt honoured to be asked.

A second surprise during that same month was an approach by the friend of a local folk singer, Dave Gass. Dave had written a song which he calls ‘The Ballad of William Tyndale’ (printed below) and he has now sent me the recording with a group of other songs on a CD. For those who appreciate this idiom I would judge it to be a fine example and I will send taped copies to anyone who would like to hear it. I have planned to meet the composer but at the time of writing, I have not yet been able to do so.

Tyndale Ballad

in reggae style

by David Gass

William Tyndale, he had a plan
To put an English Bible in a ploughboy’s hand
He studied Greek, learned Hebrew too
So he’d know his translation was true.

There’s always something` they don’t want you to see,
There’s always someone don’t want you to be free.

The Church said `No, No, No, with all our power an’ wealth
We don’t want people thinkin` for themselves
`Cos his book didn’t say this, an` it didn’t say that
An` it didn’t justify `em bein` rich an` fat

They burned his book, all they could find
`Cos Tyndale lit a fire in men’s minds:
Tyndale got burned on a charge of heresy
For bringin` the word of God to you an` me.

But you can’t turn back the tide an` the people had their say
An` they had to give it to us anyway!
We got the Bible, written in our own tongue -
But shame on the Church for the way it was done.

The Church they got together and they authorized
The very book they said that they despised:
They took his work an` called it the King James
An` it don’t even mention Tyndale’s name!
(Final chorus)

But William Tyndale he had that plan
To put the Bible in a ploughboy’s hand.

A Talk on Tyndale’s Theology?

William Tyndale has generally been thought of as a poor theologian. My research for my doctorate proved that he was a great theologian. His theology was consistent from his first writing (1525) to his last. His theology was scriptural, and because his covenant theology was not a federal covenant he did not have the problems associated with Reformed theology. In many ways Tyndale’s theology has a very modern ring about it, for instance his attitude to the welfare of animals as God’s command to us.

I am prepared to speak about William Tyndale’s theology to any group who would be interested in learning about it.

Please contact: - The Rev. Dr Ralph S. Werrell, 2a Queens Road, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8 1JQ, UK. Tel. +44 (0)1926 858677.

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