William Tyndale – Independent Thinker in the Lollard Tradition
"Every man had the right and duty to examine the Bible for himself" - John Wycliffe
- Rejection of Transubstantiation
- Supremacy of the Bible
- Rejection of the Quadriga
What were the influences of Wycliffe and the Lollards on Tyndale? According to Smeeton1, Tyndale was heavily influenced by them. Tyndale wrote,
“Wycleffe preached repentaunce un to oure fathers not longe sens: they repented not for their heretes were indurate (there eyes blinded with their awne Pope’s holy righteousness…” 2
Here Tyndale in his Prologue to Jonah expressed his support for the Lollard cause. Tyndale considered himself working to achieve the same reformation of England’s spiritual life as Wycliffe sought in his day and those Lollard goals can be summed up as follows,
“1) the church as the predestined body of the elect, with primitive organization held as the ideal, and no priestly ministry, 2) the Eucharist without transubstantiation where the determining factor was the individual participant, and 3) the supreme place of Scripture.” 3
Tyndale, it will be seen, identified with all three Lollard concerns. Wycliffe identified the Church as those who were believers and not those who were members of the holy Catholic Church. Tyndale wrote in a gloss to Acts 7, “God dwelleth not in temples or churches made with hands”.4 God dwells with those who are believers and these faithful are the “congregation”, as Tyndale consistently translated the Greek word, “ecclesia”. The true Church was a congregation or gathering of believers and not a building or even an organization like the Roman Catholic Church. Take, for instance, Tyndale’s translation of III John,
“Beloved, thou dost faithfully whatsoever thou dost to the Brethren, and to strangers, which bare witness of thy love before all the congregation.” 5
The Church was to both Tyndale and Wycliffe a congregation of true believers built by faith upon the Word of God.
This led logically to Anticlericalism. The Lollards and Tyndale objected to the political power of the prelates.6 They regarded the temporal power of the Church as a usurping of an authority not rightfully theirs. The Church had no right bear the sword. This was the role for the temporal powers who were given the divine right to bear the sword and the rule on behalf of God. The Church was given the mandate to nurture the flock of God, not for the accumulation of wealth, influence and political power. Tyndale therefore wrote,
“Thus ye may see that Christ’s kingdom is altogether spiritual; and the bearing of rule it is clean contrary unto the bearing of rule temporarily. Wherefore none that beareth rule in it may have any temporal jurisdiction, or minister any temporal office that requireth violence to compel withal.” 7
Similarly, Tyndale and the Lollards objected to the moral condition of the clergy. They denounced the behaviour of clergy who would act in ways totally inconsistent with their high office, such as bribery, covetousness and sexual improprieties.
Rejection of Transubstantiation
Furthermore, both Tyndale and Wycliffe rejected Transubstantiation.8 Wycliffe also insisted that all sacraments9 were signs that did not affect a person’s justification before God. They signified some aspect of God’s redemption of mankind. For example, Wycliffe ranked the Lords Table and Baptism as the most significant signs while those signs not found in the Bible he considered insignificant.10 The Lollards did not reject the mass altogether and they continued to attend it.11 However, “Wycliffe argued that transubstantiation was a new interpretation which had not been held by the church fathers… the words this is my body had to be interpreted figuratively.”12 In a passage from 1 Corinthians, the phrase, “This is my body” was glossed by Tyndale with only a short comment, “The institution of the sacrament”. But Tyndale rejected Transubstantiation, as did the Lollards. Tyndale writes,
“We be bound by these words only to believe that Christ’s body was broken, and his blood shed for the remission of our sins; and that there is no other satisfaction for sin than the death and passion of Christ.”13
This position rejects transubstantiation and it also rejects the mass as a means of redemption. Only Christ’ blood, as Tyndale often repeated in his glosses, provided satisfaction (or redemption) for sin. In this position Tyndale departed from Luther. C. H. Williams called Tyndale an “uncertain Zwinglian”14 because Tyndale agreed with Zwingli that the Eucharist was a memorial, but he added that it had a role in changing a believer’s behaviour. To Tyndale, the Eucharist was a sign of Christ’s death and to understand its significance was to influence the believer to love Christ and to love one’s neighbour.15
Supremacy of the Bible
The third major concern of Wycliffe and the Lollards was the supremacy of the Bible. In Tyndale’s theology, the only spiritual authority was the Bible. Tyndale rejected the authority of the Church Fathers and Church Tradition and only occasionally sought their opinion on spiritual matters. On most matters he ignored them altogether. The reason for both Wycliffe’s and Tyndale’s concern for the supremacy of the Bible was that it was required for a moral and spiritual reform of England and they believed that this reform could not happen until all Englishmen had access to the Bible. Therefore, both Wycliffe and Tyndale sought an English Bible for all to read. Yet, “Scripture in English was not an end in itself”.16
Both English reformers sought a wholesale reform of England and they both realized that this could only occur if every English man and woman had direct access to an English Bible. Wyliffe believed “Every man had the right and duty to examine the Bible for himself”17 and Tyndale wholeheartedly agreed. The Lollards “were marked by the intense reading, studying, and memorizing of God’s law”18 and here the Lollard’s influence on Tyndale is most striking. Tyndale absorbed himself in the study of the Bible and by so doing recognized the importance of personal Bible study for the ordinary Englishman. Through his experiences while ministering to a petty noble family in South England, Tyndale realized that the priests knew very little about the Bible. Tyndale complained that many parish priests could not read the Latin Bible and therefore were next to useless as “Shepherds over the flock in their care”. To be effective teachers and caregivers, priests needed to read the Bible to understand its message and thereby admonish and aid those in their care.
Tyndale argued that the primary cause of England’s moral and spiritual decay was that many parish priests could not read the Bible. In this respect, Tyndale was first and foremost a reformer in the Lollard tradition as he sought a return to the direct reading of the Bible. Lollards believed, “holi scripture is so nedful to soule helthe in knowinge, and kepinge, and loue”.19 The Bible was absolutely necessary for a “healthy soul” and for the development of love in the Christian. Tyndale believed that,
“Christ must be thy master, and thou must be taught of God, and therefore oughtest thou to examine the doctryne of thyne elders by the worde of God”.20
Erasmus had also argued for a vernacular bible, but indigenous Lollardy stressed the importance of personal Bible study for proper Christian doctrine and life and it is more likely that Tyndale would have been influenced by the Lollards before he encountered Erasmus at Cambridge. The Dutch humanist Erasmus only strengthened Tyndale’s conviction that England needed an English Bible.
The primary Lollard influences on Tyndale were a primitive “Believers church”, the Eucharist as memorial, and personal Bible study. However, according to D. Smeeton, the English movement affected him in many other ways as well. Smeeton examined almost every aspect of Tyndale’s thought and saw Lollardy at almost every turn. Tyndale’s Christ-centred theology reflected Lollard understanding of the gospel message. His emphasis on the pastoral care of the flock of God had its counterpart in Lollardy. The importance he gave to love, faith, and the works of love and faith also reflected the thought and teaching of Wycliffe.21 So too was Tyndale’s rejection of purgatory. Furthermore, both Wycliffe and Tyndale rejected a celibate priesthood and accepted marriage for priests, although Tyndale himself never married. This was a natural step from the rejection of the priesthood as a mediator between God and man. Justification, forgiveness, and confession was done personally between the believer and God and accomplished through faith, baptism, and obedience to God’s law.
Baptism was not a major issue before the Reformation and it did not play a major role in Lollard theology, at least not as large as in Tyndale’s. In Tyndale’s theology, the most significant doctrine was the concept of the Covenant, an agreement entered into between the believer and God through the act of Baptism. Baptism became the means whereby the believer entered into a relationship with God through a covenant. The Believer then was expected to fulfill certain moral obligations which God’s law set out for the believer. This concept of Covenant, a part of Lollard beliefs, carried over into Tyndale’s theology and became increasingly central to his system.22 In fact, it became the distinguishing element of Tyndale’s system. With respect to the actual performance of the rite, the Lollards presumably accepted infant baptism, as indicated by some of their writings.20 Whether Tyndale also accepted infant baptism or instead regarded adult baptism correct is left in doubt by all the historiography studied for this essay. Certainly, because Tyndale increasingly stressed the importance of an understanding and significance of Baptism, it is unlikely he would have accepted infant baptism as infants do not know what is being done to them. Nevertheless, the issue is still open for debate. He probably would have accepted the Anabaptists as believers because they both shared similar positions on several issues including the believer’s Church. Nevertheless,Tyndale remained silent on this issue.
Rejection of the Quadriga
Another Lollard position Tyndale accepted was the rejection of the Quadriga, the four-part interpretation of the Scripture.23 Tyndale, like the Lollards, accepted only the literal interpretation of texts with allegory interpreted on the basis of the literal texts.
Finally, Tyndale concurred with Lollard pacifism. Both the Lollards and Tyndale rejected warfare except according to New Testament conditions.22 Tyndale could find very few occasions were warfare was justified.24
Although this overview does not do justice to the connections between the Lollards and Tyndale, it will be clear that the English reformer stood in the Lollard tradition on practically every point. Smeeton provided a good detailed case for a Lollard connection in Tyndale. It is hoped that this will demonstrate Tyndale continued in the spirit and substance of the teachings of Wycliffe.
Smeeton, D. D. Lollard Themes in the Reformation theology of William Tyndale. Kirksville, Mis: Sixteenth Century Publishers, 1986. ↩
Tyndale, William, The Prophete Jonas: a Facsimile with an Introduction, ed Francis Fry (London: Willis and Sotheran, 1863). As quoted in D. D. Smeeton, pg 76. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. Pg. 27. ↩
Tyndale, William. Tyndale’s New Testament: Translated from the Greek by William Tyndale in 1534. Modern spelling by David Daniell. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). pg. 175. ↩
Tyndale, William, New Testament. Daniell ed. pg. 344. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 176. ↩
Tyndale, William, Expositions and notes on Sundry portions of the Holy Scripture Together with the Practise of Prelates. Edited by Henry Walter, the Parker Society, vol 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1849). As quoted in D. D. Smeeton, pg. 176-7. ↩
Class Handout, History 305. University of Waterloo, Spring, 1993. Edmund Pries. pg. 1-2. Also D. D. Smeeton, pg. 27-8, 206-8. ↩
Wycliffe never reduced the number of sacraments down to two as Tyndale and others did. See D. D. Smeeton, pg. 203. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 203. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 207. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 206. ↩
Tyndale, William. A Brief Declaration. PS 1: 367. As quoted in Smeeton, pg. 209. ↩
Williams, C.H. William Tyndale. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969. pg. 129. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 211. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 95. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 95. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 96. ↩
From, “of the leaven of the Pharisees” in English Works, ed. Matthew, 26. as quoted in Smeeton, pg. 96. ↩
See Smeeton, D. D. pp. 137, 132. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pg. 102. ↩
Smeeton, D. D. pp. 235, 237. ↩