William Tyndale and the Politics of Grace 1

The Rev. Dr Simon Oliver, University of Wales
A paper given at the Fourth Oxford Tyndale Conference, Hertford College, Oxford September 2005

It will be pleasing to everyone at this conference that William Tyndale is increasingly well known to the public as the first to translate and print the Bible in English. That being said, while I was Chaplain of Hertford College I usually heard him described with horrible inaccuracy by tour guides as simply ‘the first to translate the Bible’. St Jerome and others might have a view on that.

The beauty and erudition of Tyndale’s translation are now widely recognised as forming a seminal contribution — perhaps the seminal contribution — to the development of literature in English, and theology and liturgy in the English-speaking world. He is perhaps also well-known for bringing the worst out of Sir Thomas More.

In addition to his achievement in translating and publishing the scriptures in English, Tyndale also wrote around 40 short works which one might regard as theology-proper, whether they be explicitly concerned with particular doctrines — the sacraments or the nature of Christian obedience, for example — or whether they address theological issues through commentary on, and exposition of, a particular book or passage of scripture. Yet it is only very recently that Tyndale the theologian has drawn any significant attention. Is there any merit in paying more attention to Tyndale’s contribution, or is he only derivative in his theologising, merely expanding what are essentially Lutheran ideas? Might we think of Tyndale as simply the first tentative expression of a modern or puritan theological outlook that was to flourish much later in the Reformation and the Enlightenment?

In this lecture, I would like to suggest that Tyndale is not just a first intimation of the mature ‘Reformation Theology’ and that he merits far more than passing consideration as a theologian. I will follow other Reformation commentators such as Carl Trueman2 in describing how Tyndale is quite different from the prolific theologian whose works he translated and upon whom he is often thought to be very dependent, Martin Luther. I would like to suggest that, in certain important respects, Tyndale is very traditionally and genuinely Augustinian in his theological writings. The Catholic tradition which he so roundly rejects is not that of St Augustine or even, in some respects such as the doctrine of grace, St Thomas Aquinas. The tradition Tyndale rejects is, ironically, the same tradition rejected by Thomas More and Erasmus, namely the nominalist and voluntarist scholasticism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which so dominated the Catholic schools. In this later medieval period, Tyndale was right to note that quarrels over Aristotle had overtaken knowledge and exposition of the Church’s book, the Bible. It was a constant complaint from humanist reformers — and Thomas More — that the prevalence of plodding dialectic had eclipsed the obvious need for rhetoric, translation and commentary.3 Christian teaching had been reduced to highly technical debates amongst a theological virtuosi. Moreover, the Christian life was characterised by a voluntaristic ethic which had been articulated clearly as long ago as the very early fourteenth century in the works of Duns Scotus, one which emphasised the power of the human will, exercised through good works, to make the way to salvation.

In examining how Tyndale responds to this situation, I do, however, want to keep in careful focus the style and intent of his theologising. In particular, one should note at the outset that Tyndale was absolutely focussed and consistent in his priorities throughout his career; his theologising and his work as a translator are of a piece. Tyndale wrote short theological tracts which are, of course, in the vernacular and generally of a length which would fit them for pocket-sized printed editions. Tyndale’s tracts are clearly structured and simply written. They expound biblical ideas and themes and they have a crucial purpose: to teach the reader how to approach and read scripture. One of the central criticisms which Tyndale and other reformers made of the late medieval church is that it did not know how to read the text of scripture. Verses were dissected out of context down to the finest minutiae. Along with others influenced by humanism, Tyndale argued that it was the sense of an entire text — a letter or a gospel, and in the end the whole body of scripture, rather than isolated verses — which the Christian should glean, and Christ is the essential key to reading both the Old and New Testaments.4

So the hermeneutics of the Bible — how to read and interpret scripture — is a principal concern of Tyndale’s theology. It is therefore unsurprising that perhaps his most significant work is an intense reflection upon a particular passage of the Bible, what we now call the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16. The Parable of the Wicked Mammon was written in 1528. As we will see, by careful reading of various scriptural texts, Tyndale unfolds a theological ethics and doctrine of grace, and we can detect much else besides. It was intended not for the theological virtuosi, but for the ploughboy.

With this clear pastoral intention in mind, I should like to address three themes which are prominent in Tyndale’s theological writings: justification, ethics and covenant. In particular, I would like to point to the way in which justification, ethics and covenant combine to form a view of our salvation in which we are enabled to partake of God’s work of drawing us to himself. In other words, grace is not something that is ‘done to us’, but a work in which we participate. What I hope we will see is that Christian theology is an entirely practical rather than theoretical science for Tyndale, and that he is concerned with the kinds of people we should be. The form of that participation in the salvific work of God, I will suggest is, for Tyndale, proclamation. The scriptures proclaim, our deeds proclaim, the sacraments proclaim the justifying grace of faith by which alone we are saved from the evil and violence which scars our humanity. So having discussed the way in which justification, ethics and covenant are combined to form an image of the Christian partaking in what is fundamentally Christ’s work of salvation by faith, I will examine briefly the way in which this informs Tyndale’s politics of grace, namely his understanding of the nature of the Christian commonwealth. I begin with the issue which, partly under the influence of humanism and a greater focus on the individual, came to characterise theological reflection in the first decades of the sixteenth century: soteriology - the doctrine of salvation - and particularly the justification of the individual Christian.


In describing what is at once distinctive and quite traditional about Tyndale’s understanding of justification, it will be helpful to draw some comparisons with Martin Luther, upon whom Tyndale, in this area of Christian doctrine, is thought to be heavily reliant. This is a necessarily truncated and oversimplified description of Luther’s complex view.

Early in his career, Luther had believed that a precondition for our being justified before God is that we perform good works. Following Augustine, it became clear to Luther that, after the Fall, the performance of good works to bring about our justification is simply not within our power. None of us can bring about our own release from those habits of thought and practice which diminish our shared humanity. After his study of Romans, Luther came to see that God can impute to us the righteousness necessary for our justification. Rather than God rewarding individuals according to their wholly inadequate merits, God gives righteousness to us in Christ as a free gift. This gift is what we call grace. This shift in emphasis in Luther’s thought — from the righteousness of God which condemns us because it only reveals our sinful frailty to a righteousness which is given to us in the form of faith because God is love — this shift took place some time around 1515, the year in which Tyndale graduated from Magdalen Hall, one of the two institutions which became Hertford College. This was to become the mantra of the reformation: justification by faith alone, faith being understood as an unearned gift. Therefore justification through or by faith, our salvation, is an initiative of God, not humanity.5

So far, so Augustinian. But Luther was to add a twist. Perhaps something which concerned Luther was that, even after the gift of justifying faith had been received by the believer, that person could lapse and fall away from God’s righteousness. Against the Calvinists, both Luther and Tyndale agree on this point: justification has no unconditional security. This led Luther to develop the idea, expounded particularly in his Romans lectures of 1515-16, that Christ’s righteousness, although given, remains alien to the human. It is imputed to the believer rather than, as Augustine had taught, becoming part of the believer’s very person. We remain sinners who are clothed with Christ’s righteousness. When looking upon ourselves, we perceive a sinner, but God looks upon us and sees the garments of his goodness, and thereby a justified sinner. Thus, for Luther, that imputed righteousness could be lost. This allows Luther to account for the persistence of sin within the righteous believer, while also providing a means by which one might describe the progress of the Christian life in terms of a deepening, gradual righteousness which more slowly becomes part of our identity.

In the hands of later reformers, Luther’s doctrine was to become known as ‘forensic justification’ because it has certain legal overtones. The justification of the sinner involves God’s pronouncement of judgement in the heavenly court. The process of being made righteous, known as sanctification, is then quite separate from that pronouncement. For Augustine, the whole is singular: we are quite simply sanctified by God. For Luther, our righteousness, at least at the outset, is merely an appearance, so we are treated by God as if we were righteous.

Turning now to examine Tyndale’s view as this is expounded particularly in his later work The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, we will see that his understanding of faith and justification is much closer to Augustine than Luther. The Parable of Wicked Mammon, the first tract to be printed bearing Tyndale’s name, is a work that is usually thought to be based very heavily on Luther’s 1522 sermon for the ninth Sunday after Trinity. In fact, the legalistic overtones of Lutheran imputed justification are quite clearly not of a kind with Tyndale’s understanding of the gratuitous grace of sanctification.

The parable of the unjust steward upon which The Parable of Wicked Mammon reflects tells of a manager who is accused of squandering the property of a rich man. The manager faces the sack, so he calls the rich man’s debtors and reduces their debts dramatically, thus making friends for himself before he is thrown into unemployment by his master. The manager is commended for his shrewd actions, namely his works. From this and many other passages, Tyndale gleans an understanding of the relationship between faith and works, and he does so by focussing very directly on the works of the manager in Christ’s parable. This was a central theological question of the time: does the emphasis on sola fide negate the need for us to perform good works? Or is there some way of articulating the relationship between the two which does not entail that our salvation or justification is dependent upon our ability to perform good works?

Here is the essence of Tyndale’s view in his own words.

‘This is therefore plain, and a sure conclusion, not to be doubted of, that there must be first in the heart of a man, before he do any good work, a greater and a preciouser thing than all the good works in the world, to reconcile him to God, to bring the love and favour of God to him, to make him love God again, to make him righteous and good in the sight of God…Or else how can he work any good work that should please God, if there were not some supernatural goodness in him, given of God freely, whereof the good work must spring? even as a sick man must first be healed or made whole, ere he can do the deeds of an whole man.’
(The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, p.50)

Tyndale is not concerned with the imputation of goodness, but with the sanctification, namely the transformation, of the whole person. Notice the analogy with health: one cannot ‘impute’ health; rather, health constitutes the renewal of the essence or constitution of the whole person. Justification is imparted to us by God, not merely imputed, in such a way that it works not as something alien to human nature, but rather as the perfection of that nature. Such a notion is strikingly reminiscent of Aquinas’s infused grace in the prima secundae of his Summa Theologiae.

This part of Tyndale’s doctrine is not Christological in form, but pneumatological. It is the inner working of the Holy Spirit which brings about over time the sanctification of the believer.6 The Spirit has a two-fold assurance, namely of sorrow over sin and desire to do the good, and these are both ‘felt’ by the believer. ‘When a man feeleth that his heart consenteth unto the law of God’, says Tyndale in The Obedience of a Christian Man, ‘and feeleth himself meek, patient, courteous, and merciful to his neighbour, altered and fashioned like unto Christ; why should he doubt but that God hath forgiven him, and chosen him, and put his Spirit in him, though he never crome his sins into the priest’s ear.’ As Donald Dean Smeeton points out, such a confidence in the subjective witness of the Holy Spirit is most certainly not Lutheran or Calvinist.7 It might even remind us of the subjective and experiential outlook of much later liberal protestant theology which was to arise at the end of the nineteenth century.

Does such a subjective understanding of the working of the Spirit in us not present Tyndale with some real theological problems? When someone claims to know through feeling that the Spirit is working within them, how could this have any significant meaning or implication for other Christians? Surely experience is too conditioned and variously interpreted to bring individuals into one corporate body, either political or ecclesial?

I will return to this question shortly, but in order to see why Tyndale’s understanding of justification by faith does not end in isolated subjectivism, we must turn to his theological ethics, which flows directly from his doctrine of justification.


Like Luther, Tyndale regards faith which justifies as the precondition of good works. This is expressed most vividly by Tyndale in his discussion of Jesus’ anointing by the woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee, told in Luke 7. The last verse of that passage reads: ‘Wherefore I say unto thee: many sins are forgiven her, for she loved much.’ Tyndale explains in great detail that Jesus does not intend by this that, because this woman has loved much in anointing Jesus, her sins have been forgiven. Rather, what this means is that, because the woman’s sins have been forgiven, she has received the grace which enables her to love much. It is not that in anointing Jesus the woman has worked to earn her forgiveness, but that her forgiveness has transformed her into a person of gracious love capable of such action as the anointing of Jesus.

This is the essence of Tyndale’s ethics, and the contrast with the voluntarist ethics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and indeed with ethics in its more modern guise, is stark. For the voluntarists, good human actions tend to receive more praise if they involve an effort of will or the overcoming of temptation. This is how we tend popularly to think of good actions today: such works must involve some hint of heroism, some suggestion of cost or sacrifice, some reaction to the need or lack of another.

Not so with Tyndale. Following a much deeper tradition which reflects the Christian appropriation of Greek virtue ethics, Tyndale believes that, motivated by the gift of faith, our good works flow from us naturally and easily. In the Prologue to Exodus, he puts it thus:

‘…that is, all good works and all gifts of grace spring out of him naturally, and by their own accord. Thou needest not to wrest good works out of him, as a man would wring verjuice out of crabs: nay they flow naturally out of him as springs out of rocks.’

Tyndale does not suggest that, once we are justified by faith, we no longer need to combat sin. Our sanctification by the Spirit deepens as our nature is transformed. But the more our nature is transformed by God’s justification of us in faith, the more easily and naturally will good works flow from us. The contrast with modern ethics is striking. For Tyndale, ethics is not a matter of what we should do in a given situation, as if we only reflect on moral ‘quandaries’. No: the ethical question is ‘what kind of people should we be’, not ‘what should I do in situation ‘x’?’ This is a matter of the nature and character of the justified Christian, not a matter of casuistry or the abstract discussion of moral dilemmas. Neither is the good person the one with the most power to resist temptation. C. S. Lewis expressed this very well when he wrote that ‘The whole purpose of the ‘gospel’, for Tyndale, is to deliver us from morality.’ In other words, Tyndale is not interested in ‘morality’, or moral philosophy, which is separated from reflection on the remainder of human nature and society, or the nature of God and the specifically Christian life. Christianity does not harbour ‘values’ or ‘principles’ or ‘morality’ which can be understood outside justification by faith.

We should now have some sense of how justification by the grace of faith, the work of the Spirit and ethics fit together in Tyndale’s theology. But it remains unclear what prevents the life of faith from becoming a subjective experience of the working of the Spirit in the life of an individual. What, for Tyndale, is the basis of the church and the commonwealth?

Returning to The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, we can glean some kind of answer. The grace of God given in faith is understood by Tyndale as a gratuitous pure gift. It is not a mere reaction to our sin or earned by us, but its effect is to overcome the division between humanity and the divine. This is, however, not the only gift of God. In fact, gift is the basis of Tyndale’s doctrine of creation: all things, our very selves, nature and all, are ultimately gifts of God. In order to remain as such, they must flow through us and be passed on to others. The gifts of God are indiscriminately and abundantly given, so we have no ‘rights’ over this rather than that. As Rowan Williams points out, this establishes a debt not between God and humanity, but between persons.8 Why? Because the gifts I receive are not mine to hoard, and they’re not mine by right, but they belong as well to others as to myself. I owe it to others to pass on my gifts in whatever form, for example by passing on knowledge by teaching. The use of these gifts, and in particular that of wealth, is Tyndale’s concern in The Parable of Wicked Mammon. Like the gift of faith which overcomes the division between God and humanity brought about by sin, so ‘wicked mammon’ should be put to use in overcoming the division between ourselves caused by our sinfulness towards each other, and in particular the division of rich and poor caused by human greed. We are to use wealth to build friendships, and particularly with the poor, in the same way that the infinite wealth of God overcomes the division between himself and the poverty of our human nature as he makes of us friends. The work of the Spirit, which earlier we characterised as potentially subjective and individualising, is in fact for Tyndale the work of making us supremely aware of the gratuity of God and our gifted nature in such a way that we are moved to acts of generosity which overcome the division of wealth and poverty (whether spiritual or material) so forming the bonds of common-wealth and Church. The work of the Spirit, then, does not turn us towards interiority, towards our own subjective experience. Quite the reverse: the work of the Spirit, stirring in us our sense of giftedness and debt to each other, points us outwards, to relations with each other, to friendship with the poor.

This sense of the intimacy of God’s work in us is then reflected in the intimacy of our relations with those closest to us. However, this belies a particular reading of a crucial feature of Tyndale’s theology, arising with increasing clarity in the later part of his career: the theology of covenant. Although a detached legalism might be missing from Tyndale’s understanding of the grace of justification, the notion that God’s promise to humanity and humanity’s promise to God has the character of contract has been seen by a number of readers of Tyndale. What, then, is the role of covenant within the theology of free and gratuitous sanctifying grace, given by Christ and stirred by the Spirit, which I have thus far described?


Covenant theology come to occupy a prominent place within early 16th century theological reflection, particularly amongst the reformers. Tyndale was one of those English reformers who placed covenant at the heart of his Biblical hermeneutics and theology. The Bible is God’s testament which contains ‘both what he would have us do and what he would have us to ask of him.’ There is a sense of God, as it were, ‘limiting’ himself by covenantally binding himself to us with certain promises.

To what extent, if at all, did Tyndale regard the covenant between God and humanity as a kind of conditional ‘if/then’ pact? To what extent did he fall into the voluntaristic trap of believing that justification in the end depends upon our ability to meet our side of a contracted bargain? Despite the fact that Tyndale’s discussions of covenant almost always revolve around the Beatitudes, some have suggested that when he came to translate the Pentateuch towards the end of his career he did indeed understand covenant as entailing a contractual requirement upon us to meet the demands of the law.

Yet it is possible to glean a quite different sense of Tyndale’s covenant theology, one which is more conducive to the remainder of this thought as I have described it thus far. There is no doubt that, following the scriptural texts, Tyndale believed there are conditions and demands which constitute the Christian life. Yet those conditions have a definite theological purpose which has little to do with contracts and pacts. What Tyndale wanted to avoid was the view, later labelled antinomian, which regarded salvation as having no practical ethical demands or requirements, particularly as regards the keeping of biblical law. Such a view would suggest that God imposes salvation upon people, taking them up into heaven despite themselves, and simply decreeing grace upon persons. That antinomian view would stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to salvation by works. The whole thrust of Tyndale’s doctrine of justification, pace Luther, and likewise his theology of covenant, is that God does not impute, impose or force salvation upon us, but enables us to participate in our own justification. So justification is not ‘alien’ or ‘forensic’, for this implies that God only and always justifies us despite ourselves. Rather, justification through an imparted grace which transforms our nature enables us to be fully partakers of the work of our salvation. The grace of God enables our good works to be genuinely our works. We might even put it like this: our works are indeed part of our salvation, but it is God who makes it possible for us to perform those works. There is an intimacy between God and humanity in this work, an intimacy which Aquinas called co-operative grace. And so too with Tyndale’s understanding of covenant. God makes a covenant with humanity which illicits our interest, response and obedience. This is described by Tyndale as an invitation to co-operative communion rather than a unilateral declaration or pactum dei.

But this needs to be made clearer. Exactly how does a non-contractual promise enable us to take part in our justification? There are, I think, three aspects of Tyndale’s thought to which we might very briefly point. First, although very early in his career Tyndale inherited from Luther a rather legalistic view which draws an analogy between the promises made by someone in their will to dispense their goods in a certain way and Christ dispensing the promise of his benefits, Tyndale in his later works writes of God’s covenant in intimate, familial terms. In The Parable of Wicked Mammon, Tyndale writes,

‘the scripture speaketh as a father doth to his young son, Do this or that, and then will I love thee; yet the father loveth the son first, and studieth with all his power and wit to overcome his child with love and with kindness, to make him do that which is comely, honest, and good…’

This anticipates later works and covenant theology articulated through the image of the family. It hardly resembles the contracts of masters, servants, landlords, tenants, creditors, debtors. Familial images do, however, express the covenant relationship between God and his people in a way that would be immediately clear to Tyndale’s readers.

Secondly, Tyndale is clear that the merits of Christ could never be the reward for the trifles of human conduct, law keeping or adherence to a contract. Whatever the role of works or the law in Tyndale’s theology, they can hardly balance one side of a contractual obligation which results in our salvation. The gratuity of God remains at the heart of his thinking.

Thirdly, according to his work A Pathway to Holy Scripture, our deeds ‘certify us…of everlasting life, kill the sin that remaineth yet in us…and do our duty unto our neighbour…unto our own comfort also.’ Tyndale simply does not assume that our works are somehow of necessity orientated towards a deserved reward from God, as if we were God’s contracted employees. But covenant is the ground of trust in God. What does this mean? It means that, just as works proclaim to others the justifying faith that is within us, thus avoiding a kind of isolating subjectivist view of justification, so too works proclaim to us ourselves that God fulfils his covenantal promises. As our good deeds in God’s sight become more natural, more part of who we are, and flow more freely from our nature, so we become more bold and sure, and we understand that the covenant is active. The covenant is not contractual when applied to good works because such works could lay no claim on God after the fashion of a legal agreement. Instead, the covenant for Tyndale gives to humanity a promissory assurance, the dignity, confidence and boldness to trust in God for mercy. In a period of high political anxiety, of diminished trust, of enclosures and inflation of rent by landlords, all of which are attacked in The Obedience of the Christian Man, Tyndale’s concern in placing the covenantal promises of God at the heart of his theology and reading of scripture must surely be substantially motivated by pastoral concerns.

However, as with many of the Reformers (most obviously Luther and Calvin), Tyndale’s theology is not restricted to the life of the individual Christian. His thought is political, and, particularly in The Obedience of the Christian Man, Tyndale is concerned with the way in which Christian society should be ordered. Given my comments concerning the interweaving of justification by faith, ethics and covenant, what would a Christian society look like which lived in this way? I would now like to outline briefly the way in which Tyndale’s theology issues in what we might call a politics not of debt and account, of contract and law, but a ‘politics of grace’.

The Politics of Grace

As a number of commentators on Tyndale’s thought have noted, he did not believe in the so-called Erastian notion of two competing authorities or loci of power, one secular and the other ecclesial. Why would such a dualistic view make no sense to Tyndale, and why would the obvious alternative, theocracy, fill him with confusion and dread? In one sense the answer to this is simple: The Obedience of the Christian Man wholly accepts God’s appointment of authority and rule as we find it in the Bible. It is simply the case that God has appointed kings and princes to rule over peoples — this is the Old Testament witness. Yet it is not the case that the service of the temporal political realm is ultimately differently orientated to the service of the church, which is the preaching of God’s word and the ministration of the sacraments. Tyndale’s description of the duty of rulers is couched in terms strikingly reminiscent of the description of clergy. He writes,

‘And he that hath the knowledge whether he be lord or king, is bound to submit himself and serve his brethren and to give himself for them, to win them to Christ.’ ‘Let kings…give themselves altogether to the wealth of their realms after the example of Christ: remembering that the people are God’s and not theirs: ye are Christ’s inheritance and possession bought with his own blood.’

More fundamentally, Tyndale would not have understood the Erastian position and would reject theocracy because these are essentially two sides of the same coin. They both assume the legitimacy of a separate and autonomous secular realm which somehow lies outside God’s economy of grace. In the case of theocracy, for the religious rulers to be enthroned there must be a drained secular space for them to take over, inhabit and rule. It was this pretension to power, with a creeping sense of theocracy in Europe, which Tyndale feared.

For Tyndale there is no secular realm which is the exclusive purview of a rule lying outside God’s ordination or economy, and there is no secular realm which might be ‘taken over’ and drained by the church. Tyndale’s vision is, instead, properly evangelical: all authority is ultimately for the proclamation of the word, the grace of justification, given in covenantal form, which sanctifies human lives. Looking back to the image in The Parable of Wicked Mammon, we might think of authority — ecclesial and political — as ‘wealth’ which must be used in the form of proclamation to make of all people friends of God. That proclamation, by which is not meant merely preaching but the outward flow of grace, knows no boundaries of kinship, church or kingdom. This is perhaps best expressed in the striking passage from the heart of The Parable of Wicked Mammon which caused such embarrassment to Tyndale’s supporters:

‘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…They have as good right in thy goods as thou thyself.’

Even the realm of the infidel does not stand outside the economy of God’s grace for Tyndale. There is no secular sphere.9

So if we understand ‘wealth’ in the broadest sense, not only as monetary gifts but the full complement of that which is bestowed upon us by God in creation as free gift, then we can see that, according to Tyndale, all kinds of unshared wealth becomes poisonous. The Church had established around itself a dam in the form of usurped power which prevented the flow of God’s word in scripture and sacrament. It prevented the proper exercise of the political economy of God’s grace.


What I have tried to describe as lying at the heart of Tyndale’s theology is a sense of God’s gift of grace in faith flowing through the individual and out into the Commonwealth. This grace is not imputed and it is not alien to our nature as God’s creatures. It is rather imparted to us in order to perfect that nature, so that works might flow easily and naturally from the Christian justified by faith. Ethics is not ultimately a matter of fighting a recalcitrant will or acting heroically only in response to need and lack. Rather, the good life is a life that is gratuitously generous at all times, not just in the face of lack or need, and a life in which deeds are not that which saves us, but the expression of the kind of people we are, a people justified by faith alone.

The proclamation of God’s gift in creation and redemption does stop at boundaries of country or church, but rather extends even to the infidel. This is why grace and gift is not just the form of the doctrine of the church for Tyndale, but is rather the form of the whole of creation. It is not only those within the church who are the recipients of God’s grace in such a way that nothing and no one can stand outside the politics of grace.

So the work of the translator and expositor, the work of the preacher, the work of the prince and king, the work of the ploughboy, are all proclamations in the form of gifts to our commonwealth, proclamations — that is, outpourings — of a primary and fundamental faith which enables these works and which constitutes our justification. This, then, is the theological reading of Tyndale’s work as one of the greatest writers in the English language: the gifts of literary genius in translating the scriptures with such power point to the measure of faith stirred in him by God’s Spirit.

We live in an economy dominated by contracts, debt and account. I have recently been ‘rewarded’ with an increase of my overdraft allowance on my bank account, a facility all too tempting to junior academics and clerics such as myself. We hoard power and wealth such that, as Tyndale understood, it becomes to us poison. But Tyndale present us with the consequences of the realisation that our gifts are not of our own making and that, because of our wealth, we are in debt to others. He presents us with a particular anthropology based around familial kinship and a view of nature which regards everything fundamentally as a gift, and challenges us to act accordingly. It seems to me that this is a coherent and pastoral theological vision which is subtly different to aspects of Luther and quite different to the puritan strand of the Reformation with which Tyndale is so often associated. In the light of this very general brief assessment, I can only suggest that, having examined so fruitfully in recent years Tyndale’s work in the literary sphere, we now pay much closer attention to the theologian to see how the whole corpus of his work fits together to reveal the greatness of the man and his place within a tradition that is at once both literary and theological.


  1. Throughout this lecture, I make use of the edition of Tyndale’s doctrinal works edited for the Parker Society: William Tyndale, ed. Henry Walter, Doctrinal treatises and introductions to different portions of the Holy Scriptures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1848). I also make use of the only recent edition of a doctrinal treatise by Tyndale: William Tyndale, ed. David Daniell, The Obedience of a Christian Man (London: Penguin, 2000), including David Daniell’s excellent introduction and notes. A new edition of Tyndale’s doctrinal works is very long overdue.
  2. See especially Carl Trueman, Luther’s legacy: salvation and English reformers, 1525-1556 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  3. In the treatise The Practice of Prelates, written in 1530, which is largely concerned with the status of King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Tyndale remarks: ‘Whatsoever they read in Aristotle, that must first be true; and to maintain that, they rend and tear the scriptures with their distinctions, and expound them violently, contrary to the meaning of the text, and to the circumstances that go before and after, and to a thousand clear and evident texts.’ (William Tyndale, ed. Henry Walter, Doctrinal treatises and introductions to different portions of the Holy Scriptures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1848), p.46).
  4. Take, for example, Tyndale’s reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He says this: ‘Remember, this is a parable, and a parable may not be expounded word by word; but the intent of the similitude must be sought out only, in the whole parable. The intent of the similitude is to show to whom a man is neighbour, or who is man’s neighbour, which is both one, and what it is to love a man’s neighbour as himself.’ In traditional interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the two pence left behind with the innkeeper by the Samaritan had been taken to stand for the Old and New Testaments, and the Samaritan’s pledge to meet the cost of further care had been taken to stand for works of supererogation. But Tyndale demonstrates to his reader a more straightforward understanding which allows the main theme of the parable – the meaning of neighbourliness — to breathe throughout. Despite his departure, the Samaritan’s promise of care indicates his continual neighbourly presence to the man beaten by robbers. ‘Which example’, Tyndale writes, ‘I pray God men may follow and let opera supererogationis alone.’,
  5. Tyndale, The Parable of Wicked Mammon, p. 52: ‘But the right faith springeth not of man’s fantasy, neither is it in any man’s power to obtain it; but it is all together the pure gift of God poured into us freely…’
  6. In his Prologue to Romans, Tyndale writes, ‘All our justifying then cometh of faith, and faith and the Spirit come of God, and not of us. When we say, faith bringeth the Spirit, it is not to be understood, that faith deserveth the Spirit, or that the Spirit is not present in us before faith; for the Spirit is ever in us, and faith is the gift of the working of the Spirit; but through preaching the Spirit beginneth to work in us.’ (Prologue to Romans, p.488)
  7. See Donald Dean Smeeton, Lollard themes in the Reformation theology of William Tyndale (Kirksville, Mo: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1986).
  8. See Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (London: DLT, 2004), ch.1.
  9. The proclamation of God’s grace lies at the heart of the Commonwealth for Tyndale. It was this proclamation which he perceived to have ceased at the hands of Rome and corrupt princes. Most obviously, the Bible remained in a language which could not be understood by the vast majority. It could not, then, be properly preached. Proclamation lies also at the heart of Tyndale’s sacramental theology, for the Eucharist and Baptism are intended to make known the grace of God. Of Baptism, he writes, ‘Now as a preacher in preaching the word of God saveth the hearers that believe, so doth the washing in that it preacheth and representeth unto us the promise that God hath made unto us in Christ.’ (The Obedience of a Christian Man, p.109). Tyndale’s theology of the Eucharist, although symbolic and, as with Calvin, separated from the reality of Christ which lies in heaven, was not restricted to Zwinglian memorial but at least had the discernible effect of expressing by sign — but not of course constituting - the covenant of God. Again like Calvin, he insisted the sacrament be celebrated at least on a weekly basis. The early sixteenth century liturgy remained in Latin, was invariably orientated towards private concerns for deceased family members, and was situated not within the economy of God’s free gracious gift but within the economy of debt and exchange involving payment to priests. The sacramental work of proclamation was choked.