William Tyndale – Independent Thinker in the Lollard Tradition

Introduction


William Tyndale is, if anything, a "Tyndalian" and a forerunner of later English Puritan-Separatist ideology.


The Englishman William Tyndale (c. 1494 – c. 6 October 1536) is well known as a major contributor to the development of the English Bible and even to the English language. For example, some 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament is reckoned to be his work in all subsequent translations of the Bible, until the modern era. Many of the turns of phrases he created while translating have entered the English language such as “a moment in time”, “a low unto themselves”, “filthy lucre” and “the signs of the times”, to name a few.

Unlike he life story and his work as a great translator, Tyndale’s Theology is less well known. This article is an attempt to define in general terms his particular form of Christianity.

Tyndale’s theology is here seen as influenced by several movements, the first being Lollardy, the second Humanism, the third Lutheranism, and the fourth his own study of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. From these influences Tyndale developed a unique theology, for which he suffered a heretic’s death, but who nevertheless became a forerunner of some forms of Puritanism, especially the Separatist tradition in English religious history.

William Tyndale.

William Tyndale. Portrait from Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

The recent debate in Tyndale historiography has focused on whether he was a Lutheran. Tyndale as a Lutheran persists as the most accepted understanding of his theology1. However, new studies are linking him to the Lollards2 and this has found some acceptance. At the same time, Tyndale has been separated from the Lutheran tradition and given a unique status as an independent thinker who, although absorbed thoughts from Luther, differed from him in significant ways.3 Yet, Tyndale is still seen as a Lutheran because most historians lack a better label for him4. This essay, however, resists the attempt to label Tyndale as a Lutheran or as a Lollard. The English reformer believed elements of both the Lutheran and Lollard traditions but also incorporated into his system his own ideas. Tyndale does share Lutheran elements and could be considered Lutheran if that term is not to tightly defined. He also shares Lollard ideas and for the same reasons as above could be considered a Lollard. However, William Tyndale is, if anything, a “Tyndalian” and a forerunner of later English Puritan-Separatist ideology.

To examine Tyndale’s theology, this essay will consider the influences on his thought by Lollardy, Humanism, Lutheranism, and his own study.

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Footnotes

  1. For example, see A. G. Dickens, B. F. Wescott, W. Giller, B. Edwards, James E. Mcgoldrick, W. A. Clebsch, and C.H. William. See bibliography. 

  2. Such as Smeeton, D. D. Lollard Themes in the Reformation theology of William Tyndale. (Kirksville, Mis: Sixteenth Century Publishers, 1986). 

  3. Such as Rupp, G. Studies in the Making of the English Protestant Tradition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947). “The Historian’s duty is to try to make clear the events and movements of the past, and to show their interrelation, but the temptation to tie things up in neat little bundles and put them in a pigeon-hole besets the historian no less than the lawyer or the business man … to dismiss … Tyndale as a ‘Lutheran” … has the sole merit of being a simplification of the issue involved.” C. W. Dugmore. The Mass and the English Reformers (London: 

  4. Macmillian, 1958), p. 85, as quoted in D. D. Smeeton, Lollard Themes p. 250.