Tyndale as Reformer in his English Bibles
Lecture given to the Conference
The English Reformers: Erasmus, Colet and Tyndale
at Tyndale College and Seminary, Toronto, 7 June 1999.
There is an interesting book by a British Renaissance scholar, Julia Briggs, called This Stage-Play World. It is in two states; an earlier version from 1983, and a completely re-written version in 1997. Both are attractive attempts, as she says,
to introduce students of Renaissance literature to its social, political, and cultural context, and to introduce history students to a literature that gives thrilling and powerful expression to thought and life in early modern England. 
Julia Briggs is alert to the differences between the fields, and sets out not to be fashionably theoretical. She is learned and up-to-date in everything.
I want to quote from her Preface to the revised edition. She is commenting on the developments since she first wrote in the nineteen seventies, in the understandings of sixteenth-century history.
Since then, the wide appeal of the Reformation has been called in question. Was there really a broad-based popular Protestant movement at all? Patrick Collinson still argues forcefully for it, but Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy have investigated the role of the Church as it was at the moment of Henry’s Reformation, when corruption and venality were supposed to be its dominant characteristics. Instead of enthusiasm for change, they have identified a sense of communal loss as the Churches’ rich and colourful ornaments were torn down, and the public celebrations of saints’ days and the cult of the Virgin were abandoned. Haigh has distinguished between Anglicans and Protestants, identifying the latter as a small but noisy minority.
What is alarming here is that some-one so balanced and fair as Julia Briggs, so neutral in the academic wars, a scholar who is a good general reader of the material, has been so swayed by Eamon Duffy’s and Christopher Haigh’s particular revisionism that she can suggest it on the second page of a seminal and popular book as the thing that we all now understand about the non-existent popular Reformation. Duffy and Haigh, interesting as their books are, are both in fact partisan, writing (though not explicitly saying so) from Roman Catholic positions.
What Duffy and Haigh (and there are others) ignore totally is one very large fact. They are by no means alone in this. The presence of that fact insists on a completely different view of England in the early sixteenth century from their revisionism. What is still, I maintain, the hidden story of England in those decades is that suddenly, from the early 1530s, everyone read the Bible. The evidence, still strongly coming into view, is that the printed Bible in English, first available in Tyndale’s New Testament in 1526, was then widely accessible in sundry forms in the 1530s and thereafter. The key words are ‘widely accessible’.
Moreover, the Bible was read in those sixteenth-century decades with an eagerness, a skill and a profundity of understanding that takes the modern breath away. And we must understand the word ‘read’: silent reading to oneself alone was a late development – there is alarm about it in the preface to Henry Fielding’s Shamela in 1741. Reading meant reading aloud. Tudor schoolrooms were noisy places. Bible reading by the hearth was aloud to all the family and servants. And, from 1535, this meant the whole Bible: the Reformers were all passionate about everyone having the whole thing (Apocrypha and all, in spite of what is commonly said) so that it could interpret itself, something not possible with little bits.
Eamon Duffy writes 650 compelling pages in his principal revisionist book, The Stripping of the Altars (1992), on religion in England in the Reformation decades. It is a book which has sold massively in Britain and N. America. It wholly discounts, by ignoring, that huge flood of Christian radicalism – seen earlier in Europe in the flowing springs of the Waldensians in France and Italy, the Hussites in Bohemia and the Lollards in England – which, triggered by Luther, dominated Northern Europe from the early sixteenth century. Duffy’s index shows that he mentions the Bible, always in passing, only eleven times. One of these, a typical entry in his index, is ‘at Chelmsford, 222’. Look it up, and you find the well-known story of William Malden, a young man who in 1538, with his mates, bought an English New Testament. They all spent Sundays hearing it read ‘in the lower end of the church’. His father found out and forbade him to go to the Bible-reading any more, and insisted that they both read the Latin matins together instead. So young William decided to learn to read, so that he could read himself rather than just hear the New Testament. This is splendid – except that the point of Duffy’s story is entirely ‘the extraordinary fact of the son of a tradesman literate in Latin before he could read English’. Nothing more. Nothing at all about the eagerness to read the Bible.
Duffy’s six index sub-entries on Bible-reading are, in total:
forbidden during services 423
proclamation about, May 1541, 430
forbidden to women and lower orders, 1543 432-3
discouraged in Kent 438.
The fourth one is interesting. This was King Henry Vlll’s proclamation that a copy of the Great Bible be placed in every parish church, which Duffy mentions, but only after stressing Henry’s concern about it provoking disputation or ‘exposition of mysteries’ by laymen. Duffy makes no other mention of that Great Bible and Cranmer’s concern that it should reach everyone, a matter totally passed over by Duffy.
This, it seems, is the new orthodoxy about the Reformation in England. It has been created by dedicated historians who are simply blind to the Bible, for whom it is a thing barely worth a mention. (We might recall that the Council of Trent actively discouraged Bible-reading by lay people.) There are of course today Catholic Bible scholars, and the (Catholic) Jerusalem Bible revision was done by Henry Wansbrough, who is a great admirer of William Tyndale. But the point remains. The new orthodoxy, if we can trust Julia Briggs, is that there was no popular Reformation to speak of, and all that happened was that a few Protestants were noisy. I shall argue this evening that this is the opposite of what happened, and that the large popular English reforming movement, whose existence is denied by the revisionists, can be identified in the reading of the printed Bible in English for the first time.
Of course Bible stories were known to the common people before printing. But in fact very few stories, and often corrupted. Yes, the Church sanctioned manuscript and printed Harmonies of the Gospels, telling the story of Jesus. Yes, stained glass windows in churches had Bible scenes – Noah and the Ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, the Nativity. Yes, the late medieval play-sequences told the stories of Creation, of Noah, of the Nativity, of the Crucifixion and so on. But the stained-glass windows often included wonderful, colourful things like Hell Mouth in crimson and scarlet with the pale, falling, naked damned being devoured, which is not in the Bible. Eamon Duffy says that the Protestant translations of the Bible were not needed, as the people already had those gospel harmonies. True, they did. But those harmonies, when you look at them, tell very little about Jesus, his life or what he taught, but a great deal about the Virgin and her piety and her thoughts, including, just as one example, a many-page meditation by the Virgin on the infant Jesus at her breast. And the windows and plays? – well, it is very difficult to make a stained-glass window of the Parable of the Unjust Steward, or a play out of the Epistle to the Romans.
Of course there were the two Wycliffite ‘Lollard’ versions of the Bible in English from the 1380s. But they were hand-written, expensive and rare; and ownership of even a torn leaf of one could be punishable by being burned alive. And they were from the Latin text, itself in places seriously corrupt.
I have my own three-word definition of the Reformation: people reading Paul. Or rather, putting it in a few more words: people reading Paul from the Greek in a good vernacular translation.
So what I want to say this evening is that the spear-head of reform in England was the English Bible being read by and to everybody, an English Bible that was a work of high scholarship. We know that in the second half of the sixteenth century, half a million English Bibles were bought, by a population of 6 million. And because the Bible is a long book, and the readers multifarious, I shall later on concentrate on a further spear-head, one particular part of the Bible of the greatest concern to the Reformers, Paul’s epistle to the Romans, suddenly available to every household. And because the ordinary Englishman and woman were introduced to Paul through Tyndale, I shall soon focus narrowly on how Tyndale gave us Paul.
But not quite yet. I want to take a further moment briefly to enlarge the point of the size of the readership of the Bible in English. I am in touch with scholars who are producing clear new evidence of Bible readers in the 1530s and after. This will take a while to assimilate. For the moment, consider Tyndale’s first New Testament, the first in English ever printed, and the first from the Greek. He made it in 1526 in the small German Lutheran town of Worms. His printer there, one Peter Schoeffer, was not a great printer at all, and had to extend himself a lot to do a complete New Testament. He made a beautiful small book which is rightly famous. Some authorities say he printed 3,000 copies. At a time when the usual print-run of a book was about 700 copies, or less, rarely extending to 1,000, that is a lot of books. He may have been influenced by Luther’s 1522 New Testament in German, with a sale of many thousands by 1526. But let us hear what we are saying: the small printer Peter Schoeffer was prepared to risk 3,000 copies. He must have been absolutely certain how many buyers there were in England – even though the only way of getting the copies to them, as they were forbidden in England under the severest penalties, was in bales of cloth smuggled down the Rhine. Already the ‘small number of noisy Protestants’ described by Christopher Haigh has reached a potential 3,000 in 1526. Yet, in fact, the more likely figure for Schoeffer’s print-run comes from Tyndale’s (and Luther’s) enemy, John Dobneck, known as Cochlaeus, who had successfully made the authorities in the city of Cologne stop Tyndale’s earlier attempt the year before. Cochlaeus had a professional interest in killing English Bibles. He said (three times) that Schoeffer’s print-run in Worms of Tyndale’s New Testament in 1526 was not 3,000 but 6,000. So Schoeffer and Tyndale knew of a market of well over 3,000 in England, probably more like 5,000, allowing for probable losses on the way. And that is not the end of the story.
Tyndale revised his New Testament in 1534, very significantly, and I’ll come to that in a little while. In one of the two prefaces to it he attacked a fellow English reformer in Antwerp, which he was justified in doing. This man, George Joye, who had pretensions to Bible scholarship, had been employed by a printer in Antwerp to oversee a further issue of Tyndale’s first New Testament. In the world where there was no copyright, not even yet a Stationers’ Register to be entered in, that was fair enough, especially as it was God’s Word that was being reprinted. Unfortunately, George Joye made silent alterations to Tyndale’s text, and very significant ones at that. A controversy was active among English reformers at home about the resurrection, and one of the several things that Joye did was to silently alter every use of that word to ‘life after this life’, which is wrong for the Greek anastasis. But as Tyndale rightly pointed out, he was entitled to do what he liked as long as he put his own name to it. (Occasionally hostile scholars have accused Tyndale of being mean and unpleasant, even malicious, about this. But no true scholar would fail to agree with Tyndale: anyone who has been copy-edited by an ignorant publisher’s minion into the reverse of the original sense will know a little of the justified indignation this produces.) But to silently alter the word of God …! Words fail. But notice what is happening. The publication Joye was overseeing (he was brought in because few, if any, in Antwerp knew enough – or any – English) was technically a piracy of Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament; the print-run was apparently 3,000. And this was one of no fewer than five such piracies – we should do better to call them ‘reprintings’. That particular printer got through 7,000 copies from the first three printings, and kept at it. Adding all the print-runs together, on top of the original Worms edition, we can easily reach a total of 20,000 English New Testaments printed on the continent for smuggling in to England in the eight years between 1526 and Tyndale’s revision of 1534, which was then reprinted in large numbers, and before long in London. Printers are not fools. Bibles are not cheap to make (America had to wait until the 1780s before it had printing-houses well-enough equipped to make complete Bibles). We can surely measure the market from such figures. Is this really Christopher Haigh’s ‘small but noisy minority’?
Evidence can be drawn from the opposite end, and I could talk about the tradition of Bible-reading in England, especially among what soon became the Separatists. Separatism had been a powerful nationwide movement across England since the middle of the sixteenth century, the gathering of those many Bible-readers who believed that reform in England had not gone far enough in reformation. (It is absolutely not to be confused with that weasel word ‘Puritan’, which can mean six different things before breakfast.) I argue elsewhere  that Tyndale had he lived would not have been an Anglican, and certainly not (like his colleague and fellow-translator Coverdale) spent some of his days as a bishop. He would have been a Separatist, out of whose communal Bible-readings came the great dissenting denominations at the end of the sixteenth century, Baptists and Congregationalists. Some of the early big Separatist conventicles in the cities – especially London and Bristol – were so powerful that the persecuting Queen Mary left them alone, a startling fact. Most were smaller and humbler. They are quite unsung today: but all those little Separatist Bible-reading groups in their small way laid down, like coral, reefs on which, to extend the metaphor, Queen Mary’s attempts between 1553 and 1558 to restore Roman Christianity foundered. Before her coronation, the Bible in England had arrived, and had been read. England became a Protestant nation under Henry Vlll, and again on Mary’s death in 1558, and has been ever since. Bible-reading was the people’s engine of change.
The English Bibles that were being read were the various editions of the Geneva Bible, which – though things are getting better in this area – still needs consciousness-raising in the minds of writers on all matters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There is enough here for a month of lectures, but I’ll confine myself to twenty seconds. The three main complete English Bibles before 1560 – Coverdale’s of 1535, ‘Matthew’s’ of 1537 and the Great Bible of 1539 – had varying marginal notes and apparatus. Geneva Bibles from 1560, largely handing on Tyndale, had copious marginal notes, giving glosses and doctrinal explanations, and maps and illustrations and diagrams and essays, making each volume a complete home-study kit of the Bible.
I want to turn now to the source of them all, Tyndale’s English Bibles. As you know, his 1526 New Testament from Worms had no notes at all, being a bare text. It was followed in 1530 by his Pentateuch from Antwerp, which had a few marginal notes (only six in the whole of Genesis) and prefaces to each book. (His translations of the Old Testament historical books were not printed until after his death, in ‘Matthew’s’ Bible of 1537: the notes may not be his.) His 1534 New Testament revision, also from Antwerp, had some marginal notes on each page, usually printing one or two words only, like ‘babes’ or ‘sheep’, but with some doctrinal sentences. This was no doubt to assist location (there were no verse-numbers yet). This revision also had prologues, two to the whole small volume (the second one being that against George Joye) and one to each New Testament book except Acts and Revelation. All the prologues are valuable, but that to the Epistle to the Romans is very significant.
This prologue is the second main spear-head of Tyndale as reformer, to which I’ll come in a minute or two. The first is what I have already described, the New Testament itself in its bare English text, in at least 20,000 copies printed and smuggled into England in eight years, a work of the highest scholarship in Europe – higher, it can be shown, than Luther’s: and Erasmus never translated the Scriptures.
We need to consider what the impact of those New Testaments was. What was it that the young Master William Malden and his friends were reading with such eagerness ‘at the lower end of the church’ on Sundays in the 1530s? The Gospels of course, the stories and the teaching of Jesus, a great deal of which would before have been hidden from them, both because the Bible had been in Latin, and because Bible-knowledge was in any case greatly discouraged. A sentence or verse of those Gospels had been since the time of the Fathers of the Church, a plum for picking, not part of the ongoing sweep of four systematic narratives with power to release, to heal, to convert, to start a revolution. So In late medieval England there could be sermons as part of the mass, some of which would expound the Latin texts in English: it seems to have been a lottery whether you had a learned priest who would do this. Chaucer, amid all the wealthy church rogues – evildoers would be a better word – that he described in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – Monk, Friar, Summoner, Pardoner – wrote with love and respect of the ‘Poor Parson of the Town’, a learned man and a scholar, ‘That Christ’s gospel truly would preach’ Chaucer says at the beginning of his account: and at the end ‘But Christ’s lore and his apostles twelve / He taught, but first he followed it himselve.’ That was good preaching from the pulpit: but, Chaucer clearly implies, rare enough for special celebration.
But now, thanks to Tyndale, all four Gospels read right through would bring to those young men ‘at the lower end of the church’ some unfamiliar teaching and events. Each gospel as we know is carefully constructed: Mark, for example, begins with a run of healing miracles, showing Jesus the releaser. The Greek verbs are faithfully caught by Tyndale:
the unclean spirit tare him, and cried with a loud voice, and came out of him …. the fever forsook her … he cast out many devils … the leprosy departed from him … he arose, took up the bed, and went forth …
and so on. To hear chapter after chapter continuously for the first time must have been in itself extraordinarily releasing. The great reformers, Luther and Tyndale, write often of the work of the Spirit of God in a man’s soul as a process of healing and releasing from crippling and devitalising illness. Very early on in all the Synoptic Gospels we meet a paralytic released. John’s gospel moves steadily from accounts of the healing that came from Jesus saying – this is the creative word, the logos, the Word of Life – as ‘thy son liveth’, to the culmination of this sequence in John’s chapter eleven. Almost the whole chapter is given to the raising of Lazarus, life victorious even over death, through Jesus’s words: and note that the utterance is emphasised – ‘he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus come forth.’
One thinks also of the energising, releasing Greek verbs at the confirmation after Pentecost of the continued healing power of the risen and ascended Christ: the first healing is of the man lame from his mother’s womb, a miracle of special interest to Luke the Physician in what happened to someone crippled from birth. Peter says ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ Listen to Tyndale’s English verbs, the effect of Peter’s words:
And immediately his feet and anklebones received strength. And he sprang, stood and also walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking and leaping and lauding God. (Acts 3)
‘Sprang’ and ‘leaping’ suggest that something more than just remarkable happened to those unused anklebones.
To sit ‘at the lower end of the church’ and hear the Word of Life – a Gospel or Acts could have been read right through in an afternoon – with its totally fresh picture of Jesus and the Apostles, must itself have been startling. To understand what was not there must have been equally so. Jesus does not threaten people with eternities in Purgatory unless they pay up to the Church. He does not say that at a death the priest shall take for himself the most valuable thing in the household, whether a silver goblet or a lace shawl or a cow (and the scandal of these ‘mortuaries’ was an early reforming cause among lay people in England). Nor are there long passages where the Virgin Mary contemplates her soul, or her purity, or her nipple in the mouth of the infant Jesus, or her own suffering at the crucifixion taking precedence over Jesus’s, all as in Nicholas Love’s widespread Harmony of the Gospels which Eamon Duffy says made printing the Bible unnecessary.
The New Testament, given to them by Tyndale, contained surprising words. In Matthew 18, Jesus said ‘thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my congregation’. Peter replied to the startled crowd in Jerusalem after Pentecost who were asking ‘What shall we do?’ with the word ‘repent’ – not, as it had been for over a thousand years, ‘do penance’. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 exalts ‘love’ not ‘charity’. Tyndale reserved the word ‘priest’ for the Greek hiereus (basically ‘sacrificer’, Latin sacerdos), and for the New Testament presbuteros he printed ‘elder’. ‘Confession of sins’ (implying to the ear of a priest) Tyndale replaced with ‘acknowledgement of sins’ (a private activity of the stricken soul). It was the use of these words which Thomas More so volcanically and at huge length attacked, though they are standard, indeed correct, translations of the Greek of the New Testament.
The complete Gospel narratives, and Luke’s continuation in Acts, complete, must have been extraordinarily gripping. To this little New Testament-like group, the New Testament word ‘congregation’, instead of the colossal edifice of universal political authority implied by ‘church’, must have struck deep. But equally releasing must have been being able to digest the whole of the epistles of Paul, Peter and John, especially Paul, and especially the Epistle to the Romans, a central document of the Christian faith, now given to the people, to every man, woman and child, to the ploughboys, as a scholarly work, and not just to an Oxford high table.
Less than thirty years before, in 1496–9, some arresting lectures had been given in Oxford by the young John Colet, lectures which may or may not have been heard by the visiting Erasmus. (We need to strip away the sentimental Victorian distortions which have made Colet’s lectures the trumpet-call for reform, said to have been revealing the essential, literal, unallegorised Paul from the Greek at last, and revealing to Erasmus that he should edit and print a Greek New Testament. With the support of the gentle Sir Thomas More, the legend went, these three, Colet, Erasmus and More, ‘The Oxford Reformers’, as the title of Frederic Seebohm’s influential book of 1867 had it, would have ensured a calm reformation in England – if reformation had indeed been needed after the work of these three fine men. It is nonsense. To chip away at it just a little – Colet knew no Greek. He certainly lectured on Paul, but, the opposite of what Seebohm says, those lectures have not survived. As far as we can reconstruct, Colet lectured on a morally-educating Paul, the opposite of the radical justification-by-faith-alone of Romans.
No. Colet certainly lectured, but the point is that Colet mentioned Paul at all, amid and not instead of the standard Oxford ‘theology’ of Aristotle, Aquinas and Scotus and the Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius. Instead of his lectures being grounded on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the standard text for all theological teaching all over Europe at the time, Colet actually mentioned the New Testament. This was startling. Yet even so, we must not lose the Oxford high table exclusiveness of these discussions. Moreover, everything was in Latin of course: the lectures, the discussions, the few letters. Erasmus knew no English.
Less than thirty years later, a group of young men in a small English country town, no doubt including ploughboys, are spending their free Sundays ‘in the lower end of the church’ with the whole New Testament in English, the heart of the radicalising theology of Paul and all. And this is happening all over Britain. It is thanks to Tyndale and his little books.
They will again have been startled as they went through by what is not in the New Testament of church doctrine and practice. Instead they will have heard read Paul’s Epistle to the Romans chapters 5 to 8, that great extended hymn to the power of Christ over sin and death, beginning, in Tyndale’s New Testament in 1526, ‘Because therefore that we are justified by faith, we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ …’. That ‘faith’ is in Christ, and not, as maintained by Tyndale’s enemies (the whole Catholic Church, Europe wide), faith in the wisdom of Mother Church, under the Pope. You cannot read Romans and be in any doubt about what he means by faith. No wonder the Church wanted to burn the New Testament, and the readers of it. The text of the Constitution adopted at the Provincial Council in Oxford in 1408 explicitly condemns not only the translating of Scripture, then and in the future, in any book, pamphlet or tract, but also the reading of any text of the Holy Scripture in English, sub pena maioris excommunicationis (on pain of the greater excommunication) i.e. death.
In Romans 5–8 Paul tells what his readers may now experience. There is a new opportunity for forgiveness of sin and a restored relationship to God which is offered in Christ. ‘But God setteth out his love that he hath to us, seeing that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’, as Tyndale has it. The new relationship is based on God’s initiative in opening the way through Christ to righteousness in the present and salvation in the future. The dilemmas of being under the law and sin are solved by God’s grace in Christ, who died and rose again. This is raw New Testament theology, being read by, or to, ploughboys. The Church wanted those who could read English to contemplate the Virgin’s breast and her sorrows at the crucifixion. Tyndale wanted them to hear that ‘God setteth out his love that he hath to us, seeing that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’. (5:8) ‘It is God that justifieth: who then shall condemn? it is Christ which is dead, yea rather which is risen again, which is also on the right hand of God and maketh intercession for us.’ (8:33,4)
I want to stress how new it was in the later 1520s that ordinary people could read Paul. I recently gave a lecture in an English Cathedral city. At the end, a young clergyman, with the air of someone serving an ace at Wimbledon, asked where Tyndale got his reformed theology from, since I had said he never met Luther and it was too early for Calvin. He beamed round, smugly. I simply said ‘Paul’, and he was very surprised. It can still be there in the history of our faith in this country, this blank about the Bible, and Paul in particular.
Tyndale’s ‘bare text’ of the New Testament, remarkable as its effect was, was, however, only half the story. All his other Bible translations printed in his lifetime had prologues and marginal notes.
I don’t want to stop on the prologues to each book on the Pentateuch printed in Antwerp in 1530 (you could buy each book separately), except to point to Tyndale’s insight into Deuteronomy, which his Hebrew knowledge had caused him to love (in this he was like Luther). Tyndale’s prologue to Deuteronomy begins:
This is a book worthy to be read in day and night and never to be out of hands. For it is the most excellent of all the books of Moses. It is easy also and light and a very pure gospel that is to wete, a preaching of faith and love; deducing the love to God out of faith, and the love of a man’s neighbour out of the love of God.
Nor will I stop for the moment on the prologue to New Testament he was working on in Cologne in 1525 when the printer was raided and he fled up the Rhine: a few sheets of what he had managed to print off (as far as Matthew 22) circulated in England, and the Prologue became the first printed Lutheran document in English. One set survives, known as the Cologne Fragment, in the British Library.
What must now have our full attention is the small, chunky well-printed revision of his New Testament that he made in Antwerp in 1534. We have no idea how many of that were printed, but some survived. It was the standard New Testament for many English people. The surviving copies include a personal one printed on vellum owned by Henry’s second Queen, Anne Boleyn, inscribed by her. (Work remains to be done on Queen Anne’s support for English reformers. She also owned a copy of Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man, and showed it to King Henry, who read it with approval.) It was this revision of the text which went forward into all following English Bibles.
In this 1534 New Testament, as we noted, every book has a prologue except Acts and Revelation, the prologues being reprinted in the frequent successive editions. The first prologue, to the whole New Testament, begins by explaining that differences from his earlier version are largely because he has discovered the Hebrew behind the New Testament Greek, altering the Greek – his own, essential discovery, taken for granted ever since then. I want to stay with the prologues to individual books. Those to the chief epistles of Paul are all significant, but of overwhelming importance for my subject this evening is Tyndale’s long preface to Romans. This was reprinted not only in successive editions of the New Testament, but, far more importantly, alone of the prologues it was printed in the first complete Bible to contain all Tyndale’s translations, ‘Matthew’s’ Bible, assembled by John Rogers, Tyndale’s English friend in Antwerp, chaplain to the English House there, and published as in 1537, with a licence from the King, only months after Tyndale’s martyrdom. This ensured, from 1537, an even wider readership.
At the heart of this prologue is one of Tyndale’s central declarations of biblical faith. Tyndale starts from the belief, of course, that the root of Christian belief and life is in Scripture, by which everything, even (rather, especially) the Church has to be judged. It then sees the Scripture as a whole, a God-given unity from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, all revealing the nature of God’s dealings with his people. Since that canvas, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, is colossal and almost overwhelmingly crowded, so the nature of God’s dealings with his people is also multiple: yet everything points to one event as told in the Gospels, our redemption by Christ’s act of sacrifice on the Cross, an act containing the point of the Incarnation, and made for the here-and-now salvation of every person in the world. Before that happening, the Old Testament events and persons foreshadow it by means of a typology which is not imposed but sanctioned by Scripture. After the happening, its significance is gradually revealed in what one might call the working theology of Paul and other apostles in the New Testament, and unknown writers as to the Hebrews and of Revelation. Here, in these covers, read or heard, is God in all his declared – as it were, spoken – majesty and goodness – God is Word. Hence Tyndale’s relentless concentration on Scripture. For God is Word to be freely available in the common language is something to die for.
Though a limited typology, and an even more limited allegory, is sanctioned by Scripture itself, Scripture means what it says, not something allegorically applied by later ingenuity. Much of Scripture contains apparently absolute commands of the Law: so, much of the Christian Scripture is about what that means in its paradoxical demand for obedience to it and yet release from it. The heart of the theological working-out of that release is in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and in the understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.
That longest prologue in Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament to that Epistle to the Romans is itself a translation and adaptation of Luther’s own celebrated prologue to Romans, and a reworking of Tyndale’s own earlier writing in the Prologue to the Cologne fragment of 1525 and his A compendious introduction, prologue or preface unto the epistle of Paul to the Romans. The latter slim little book came from his printer in Worms just after the 1526 New Testament, and was clearly meant to accompany it: it made the second printed ‘Protestant’ tract in English (the word ‘Protestant’ had to wait several decades by the way, until 1553 in fact, before it was used in this sense). The first English ‘Protestant’ tract, as we noted, was the unbound sheets of the Prologue to the abandoned Cologne fragment of the previous year, 1525. Now, while we all value the recent concentration on, and editing of, by the Catholic University Press, as part of the Thomas More project, Tyndale’s more general writings about the doctrine of works, for example, in his The Wicked Mammon of 1528, or on politics and abuses in the Church in the Obedience of the same year, or The Practice of Prelates of 1530, or the Answer to More of 1531, it does seem to me, as to others, that if you seek the very heart of this Christian man, which is his faith, you must turn to his translation of, and what he wrote about, Romans, in those four separate but interlinked publications, though the Epistle is never far from his mind. They are first that 1525 Prologue, in its sheets. Then that 1526 Compendious Introduction, which is different. Then, thirdly, the 1525 Prologue revised in 1530 as A pathway to the Holy Scripture. Fourthly his now extensive 1534 Prologue to Romans in the 1534 New Testament.
I am going to read the first paragraph of that Prologue. It pretty faithfully translates Luther’s Prologue at the same place in his first 1522 and all his subsequent German NT translations.
Forasmuch as this epistle is the principal and most excellent part of the new testament, and most pure evangelion, that is to say glad tidings and that we call gospel, and also a light and a way in unto the whole Scripture, I think it meet, that every Christian man not only know it by rote and without the book but also exercise himself therein evermore continually, as with the daily bread of the soul. No man verily can read it too often or study it too well: for the more it is studied the easier it is, the more it is chewed the pleasanter it is, and the more groundly it is searched the preciouser things are found in it, so great treasure of spiritual things lieth hid therein.
The first pages deal with the law as Paul understood it, that is the word law not as in man’s usage, but God’s, ‘who judgeth and requireth the ground of the heart’ – a very Luther phrase, that.
The climax of the opening pages on law is this sentence: ‘Such lust and free liberty to love the law, cometh only by the working of the spirit in the heart, as he saith in the first chapter.’ The next paragraph, and effectively the next section, begins
Now is the spirit none otherwise given, than by faith only, in that we believe the promises of God, without wavering, how that God is true, and will fulfil all his good promises toward us, for Christ’s blood’s sake, as it is plain from the first chapter.
The next great section, longer than the first, is about faith. There are not many marginal notes to this prologue, but a cluster here tells the story: ‘The spirit cometh by faith’, ‘Faith cometh by hearing the glad tidings’, ‘Faith only justifieth’, ‘Works spring of faith’, ‘Faith is the mother of all good works …’
Two pages later, a new paragraph begins ‘Wherefore then before all good works as good fruits, there must needs be faith in the heart whence they spring.’ This is a recurrent, indeed ringing, Tyndale affirmation – that works are the fruits of faith. Tyndale, and Luther, conclude these pages on faith with continued definitions ‘Faith then is a lively and steadfast trust in the favour of God, wherewith we commit ourselves altogether unto God …. Righteousness is even such faith, and is called God’s righteousness …’.
A page on the flesh follows, before Luther, and Tyndale, settle in to an analysis of the Epistle chapter by chapter, from 1 to 16, expanding when they come to the fourth and fifth chapters to expound the ‘fruits and works of faith’: peace, rejoicing in the conscience, inward love to God and man: moreover, boldness, trust, confidence and a strong and lusty mind and stead-fast hope in tribulation and suffering … and so on.
Near the end, after the account of the last, 16th, chapter comes a change of key, when it is no longer Luther, but Tyndale writing solo, a splendid five-paragraph summing-up, beginning,
The sum and whole cause of the writings of this epistle, is, to prove that a man is justified by faith only …
He affirms that the whole of scripture is ‘to bring a man to the understanding and feeling that faith only justifieth’, which faith and justification brings healing and forgiveness of sins. The penultimate paragraph begins,
Finally that we say faith only justifieth, ought to offend no man. For if this be true, that Christ only redeemed us, Christ only bare out sins, made satisfaction for them and purchased us in the favour of God, then must it needs be true, that the trust only in Christ’s deserving and in the promises of God the father made us for Christ’s sake, doth only quiet the conscience and certify her that the sins are forgiven.
Had Tyndale not been executed in October 1536, he would have gone on to translate the second half of the Old Testament, the poetic and prophetic books (and not having these is a cruel loss – and especially cruel is the Royal licence that Henry gave to the English Bible merely months after Tyndale was killed): then, I am sure, he would have made yet another revision of his New Testament translation, taking further his at-that-time-unique experience of seeing the Hebrew behind the Greek, particularly in Paul, and particularly in Romans. That discovery altered nothing in his beliefs about the unity of Scriptures – Paul’s Hebraic Greek, if we can so put it, still points absolutely to faith.
The opponents of the earliest reformers tended to dismiss the doctrine of Justification by Faith Only as a novelty. The reformers responded, as Tyndale led, by showing not only that that was a charge brought against the teaching of Christ and his Apostles, but that even within the medieval church itself there are expositors of the doctrine. The reformers printed and circulated widely collections of quotations from the Fathers and from Scripture largely, if not wholly, in their support – for example in that packed, dense, widely-reproduced volume first printed by Martin de Geyser (Tyndale’s Antwerp publisher) in 1527, the Unio dissidentium (the subject of two papers at our second Oxford conference, both printed in Reformation 2): and especially in things like John Frith’s Patrick’s Places, the popular name for Frith’s English translation in 1531 of the Scottish martyr Patrick Hamilton’s Latin collection of Scripture passages on Justification by Faith Only, several times reprinted. What Tyndale was doing was not offering to his country the heart of the Bible as a novelty, a curious newly-discovered thing, but something that was part of the great stream of English life, gone underground, and now purified with proper reference to the original texts. To change the metaphor, with sensitive instruments applied to English religious life for some centuries before, one can discover a constant, if often faint, magnetic pull towards the Epistle to the Romans and justification by faith alone.
We also need to be sure here that we are clear where Tyndale-on-faith-from-Romans stands in relation to later English thought. Putting Tyndale on the sidelines is not only a great injustice to a remarkable man: it is flatly wrong for the last two decades of the reign of Henry Vlll, and long, long after. Between Tyndale’s first printing of an English New Testament in Cologne in 1525, and Henry’s death in 1547, 22 years, as well as the bibles (some 100,000 by then) a large number of books were printed in English, mostly abroad. The overwhelming majority, over eight hundred separate items, were religious books. The overwhelming majority of those religious books were from the reformed position, with only a meagre few written to refute them. These reformed books were thoroughgoing, invariably propounding Justification by Faith alone as the root of New Testament belief. The prologues and glosses of Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament are the fountain-head of all the great stream of reformed writing and printing on faith, at first in Antwerp, then in England itself, that followed.
I want to finish by going back to Romans itself. I want us to put ourselves in the places of those unnumbered men and women, many of them young, all across Britain, who were the beating heart of the English Reformation, reading or hearing Tyndale’s words from Paul in Romans 8:
Therefore brethren we are now debtors. not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye must die. But if ye mortify the deeds of the body, by the help of the spirit, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the spirit of God: they are the sons of God. For ye have received not the spirit of bondage to fear any more, but ye have received the spirit of adoption whereby we cry Abba father. The same spirit certifieth our spirit that we are the sons of God. If we be sons, we are also heirs, the heirs I mean of God, and heirs annexed with Christ: if so be that we suffer together, that we may be glorified together.
1. Julia Briggs, This Stage Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580–1625. (Oxford: OUP 1997), v.
2. ibid. vi.
3. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992), 222–3. paperback, hardback
4. The Tyndale Society Journal, 9, April 1998, 19–37. http://www.tyndale.org/TSJ/9/daniell.html
5. The Poetical Works of Chaucer, ed. F.N.Robinson (Oxford: OUP, n.d., p. 25, lines 527–8.
6. Duffy, 79.
7. Tyndale’s New Testament, (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1989), 207. hardback, paperpack