William Tyndale and ‘The Obedience of a Christian Man.’
‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause that a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.’
The sickness of our culture was manifested in early December when Winston Churchill only narrowly beat Lady Diana the Princess of Wales into second place for the title, “The Greatest Englishman.’ William Tyndale came nowhere in the top fifty and yet transcends even Churchill to this title. Erroll Hulse in the current Reformation Today (www.reformation-today.org) gives us this delightful and succinct summary of the great Englishman’s life:
The first Englishman to write a book to explain to his fellow countrymen how they should live in this world was William Tyndale. His book was called The Obedience of a Christian Man (Penguin, 230pp) and was first published in 1528. The Penguin edition is wonderfully introduced by David Daniell who has written a superlative definitive biography of Tyndale (Yale University, 428 pp., 1994).
William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire in 1494. For about ten years he studied at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, a college with a reputation for advanced studies in Latin and Greek. He was ordained into the Roman Catholic Church which then reigned supreme. Tyndale returned to Gloucestershire to serve as tutor to the children of Sir John and Lady Walsh. It was about this time that Tyndale was taunted by an ignorant priest stuck in tradition and opposed to Scripture. Tyndale responded, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause that a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.’ In this resolve his prayers were answered and he was given success.
Church leaders of those times were seduced at every level by worldly power. Celibacy was known to be hypocrisy. Tyndale: ‘The Scripture says that a bishop must be faultless, the husband of one wife. Nay, saith the Pope, the husband of no wife, but the holder of as many whores as he liketh.’ (Obedience of the Christian Man, p.88). The gospel of saving grace was not preached. Pope and bishops pursued their own comfort and power and used their authority to accumulate vast wealth. The people deprived of the light of Scripture were kept in darkness. They followed meaningless rituals which had no effect whatsoever on their lives. A further tragedy of those times was the interference of Church leaders in civil government to advance their own interests.
Tyndale knew that the only way out of this impasse was to provide the people with the Word of God. The Bible was locked up in Latin. The exception was a widespread underground movement, the Lollards. They stemmed from the ministry of John Wycliffe (l329-l384). This movement of true believers continued for about 200 years and formed a line to the Puritan movement of the 16th century.
Translating the Bible was fiercely opposed by Church leaders. Tyndale was gripped by the realisation that there could never be a reformation without the Word of God. He determined that he would translate the Scriptures himself and set about that daunting task with total commitment. To do so he was compelled to leave England to work on the Continent. In spite of living as a fugitive he translated the New Testament and much of the Old. About 20,000 copies of the NT were smuggled into England. In spite of dire threats against anyone in possession of the NT they were eagerly read.
Tyndale was motivated to write his book The Obedience of a Christian Man in order to affirm the supremacy and authority of the Bible over all human tradition. He boldly advanced the truth that believers should live by the Word of God and jettison popish superstitions. The book is practical. Some of the headings read: The office of a father and how he should rule; The office of a husband and how he ought to rule; The office of a master and how he ought to rule; The duty of landlords; The duty of kings and of judges and officers.
Tyndale was the first Englishman to expound the concept of dual citizenship as against the idea that real Christianity consists of withdrawal into monastic life. Tyndale never lost sight of the necessity of personal salvation: ‘Neither needeth a Christian man to run hither or thither, to Rome, to Jerusalem to Saint James or to any other pilgrimage far or near, to be saved thereby, or to purchase the forgiveness of his sins… If we believe the promises with our hearts and confess them with our mouths, we are safe. But how will people know this unless God gives the gift of preachers? (‘Obedience of a Christian Man’, p.134).
In May 1535 Tyndale was tricked, and for money was cruelly betrayed by a Judas, arrested and taken to Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. For sixteen months he was interrogated by Church officials. He was denounced as a heretic, stripped of his priesthood, and handed over to the secular authorities to be publicly strangled and then burned. Thus in 1536 was martyred one of England’s greatest heroes.
At the Westminster Conference held in Westminster Chapel on Tuesday 10th December 2002 Rev. Mostyn Roberts of Welwyn (accompanied by his bride) summarised William Tyndale’s ‘The Obedience of the Christian Man.’ It is the most important book he wrote and was that in the entire English Reformation corpus. He wrote an earlier complementary volume entitled ‘Wicked Mammon.’ ‘Obedience . . .’ emphasises the importance of Scripture and the need for Christian submission to God. There are the two extremes of legalism and antinomianism to avoid. Tyndale got it right. His emphasis on the law avoids the whole concept of merit. Tyndale’s ethics were grounded in new creation in Christ. His views on justification were sound, though his tendency was to ground the believer’s mercies in God’s grace rather than in the work of Christ. He did not have a clear statement on the atonement; the book is rather gripped by the practicalities of Christian living. He sees good works as consent to the law of God motivated by love and done with a single eye being even a form of outward sacrament. Tyndale saw the law in three categories of civil, ceremonial and natural. Morality is put to the service of piety. Tyndale stresses salvation for ethical obedience. What sort of faith is it that justifies? Like James Tyndale replies, a faith that works.
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