Woodcut from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs
depicting the martyrdom of William Tyndale
Tyndale was born in a village in Gloucestershire in the west of England sometime around the year 1487. As a young man he enrolled in Magdalene Hall Oxford (today Hertford College). He was a gifted linguist and fluent in classical Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as contemporary Spanish, French, German and Italian. From the beginning of his education he was very dissatisfied with the University program because there was no systematic study of the Scripture. One had to learn dogmatic theology and then approach the Scripture with the principles of dogmatic theology already in place. This would, of course, bias the reading of scripture and reduce it to mere apologetics. Tyndale had a passion for the scriptures and when a fellow priest (Tyndale was ordained sometime around 1520) said to him that we could do without God’s Law but not the Pope’s, Tyndale replied “I defy the Pope and all his laws, and if God spares me many years, I will see that the common plowman knows more Scripture than you do.” So we have an incipient Protestant long before Henry is ready for his break with Rome.
Tyndale was chaplain to Sir John Walsh. A chaplain’s duties were provide liturgical service in the family chapel but also to serve as tutor to the children of the household. Tyndale’s opinions got him into trouble more than once and he was summoned to the court of the Bishop of Worcester in whose diocese he lived, but not formally charged. He went to London to appeal for patronage from Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, an admirer of Erasmus, for his (Tyndale’s) translating the bible into English. Tunstall wanted to see reform in the Church but he, like most bishops of the time, was a political creature and saw where the wind was blowing with Lutheran ideas drifting over from Germany, and he did not want to jeopardize his own career by sponsoring a project that could be seen to lean in the Lutheran direction. Bishop Tunstall declined to lend his help in the project but Tyndale was taken in by some merchant families and supported while he worked on his translation. He lectured at a London parish, Saint Dunstan’s in the West, where his ideas about scripture appealed to the merchant class.
Tyndale was quick to embrace the ideas of Luther and that was dangerous in Henry’s England. Henry had written—or had published under his name a book written by John Fisher—In Defense of the Seven Sacraments, an attack on the German reformer. Tyndale, seeing that his ideas put him in danger in England, set out for Germany to meet Luther. It is unclear if the two ever met but it is likely given the presence of both in Wittenberg in 1525. While in Wittenberg, Tyndale finished his English translation of the New Testament and had it printed. It was smuggled back into England where Bishop Tunstall warned booksellers against making it available. Nonetheless, it was a best-seller as many, especially in the merchant class, were anxious to deepen their own personal religious experience. Sometime about 1528 Tyndale moved to Antwerp and worked on translating the Old Testament as well as revising his translation of the Old Testament. Antwerp was in the domain of the Emperor Charles V, a staunch opponent of Protestantism and Tyndale was arrested and betrayed to the authorities in 1535. The following year he was strangled at the stake before his body was burned. He is counted as one of the first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation in England although he was executed on the continent by Imperial authorities.
It is curious to know from where Tyndale got his ideas about scripture. It was common methodology in the late medieval period that dogmatic theology (the teachings of the Church, or the “Tradition”) trumped scripture. Scripture was seen as providing the “proof texts” to justify particular doctrines rather than seen as the foundations for what we believe. Candidates for the priesthood—the only people allowed to study theology—spent their coursework on doctrine and canon law with very little attention to scripture. There are those today who still put a primacy on doctrines—real or imagined—over Revelation, but the issue is not nearly as pernicious as (for the most part) what is being preached in the pulpit is in line with official Church teaching which, in turn, is more deeply rooted in scripture than it was in the late medieval period.
In several entries in the not too distant past, I brought up the nouvelle theologie, the theological revival that began in the inter-war period of the twentieth century and which was a return to scripture and patristics over the neo-Thomism of the nineteenth century. This nouvelle theologie, represented in the work of people like Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Josef Ratzinger, has anchored our faith much more closely to scripture than at any time since the end of “the Age of the Fathers”—usually marked as the death of Bernard of Clairvaux (1153). As the patristic method went into decline with the rise of Scholasticism—often associated with Thomas Aquinas but generally embracing most theologians of the Late Middle Ages) theology found itself ever more independent of its scriptural foundation. There was a strong movement among the Reformers to sweep away the Scholastic theology and do their theology from a scriptural base. Luther himself was a Scripture scholar, not a dogmatic theologian. While men like Luther—and to a lesser extent Calvin—were good scripture scholars and developed sound theologies, other, more radical, Reform groups often devolved into bizarre beliefs and practices unjustifiable by sound study of the Scriptures. As we study the evolution of the Church of England we will see some of these more curious groups that split from the Church of England in the seventeenth century such as the Tenth Monarchy Men, the Diggers, Levelers, Muggletonians, and Ranters. The Quakers also have their roots in these movements as do many of the Anabaptist groups although their scriptural interpretations have over time stabilized in a quasi-orthodoxy. In American culture, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would have its origins in this scriptural popularism where a lack of sound scholarship leads communities into curious doctrines inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy. We see that same subjective approach to faith in various Pentecostal groups and even among some so-called evangelicals who—like Catholics in the late medieval period—start with their beliefs and work backwards into scripture to justify them.
Tyndale was no such radical. Much in the same vein as Luther, but not as gifted into drawing out theological doctrines from scriptural study, Tyndale simply wanted to bring the scriptures back to the center of Christian belief and practice. Unlike Luther, Tyndale seems to have been in no hurry to change the Liturgy which I find very curious. One of Luther’s first objectives in the Reform of the Church in Germany was to make a revision—a conservative revision, but a revision—of the Liturgy. While he kept the basic structure of the Mass quite intact, and even did not object to the use of the traditional vestments, and while he kept altars and the common position of facing away from the congregation at the altar, he did remove every trace of the idea that the Mass was somehow or other in and of itself a sacrifice. This was due to a faulty understanding—both on Luther’s part and the part of most Eucharist and sacrifice. Again, because of the separation of dogma from scripture, many Catholic thinkers had come to think of the Mass as a sacrifice that in some way repeats or makes anew the one eternal Sacrifice of the Cross. That is they thought of each Mass as Christ being sacrificed again instead of understanding that in the Eucharistic celebration, the one, single, and eternal sacrifice of Calvary is made mystically present to the believer; or perhaps better, that in the Eucharistic Celebration the believer is made mystically present to the one, unique, and eternal sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. Luther was appalled—and rightfully so—at this idea that Christ was somehow slain day after day, time after time, but such ideas are precisely the fruit of what happens when doctrine is allowed to run ahead of scripture. Tunstall, on the other hand, like Wycliff before him, seems to have had some sort of spiritual schizophrenia which left him able to live with a divergence between faith and practice.
Again, the liturgical revisions of the 1970 Missal of Paul VI were an attempt to clarify our Catholic understanding of the Mass by removing some of the doctrinal ambiguities that had crept in over the centuries and to express our Catholic faith in a way consistent with the work of scripture scholars and theologians who had—thanks to the nouvelle theologie, done much to recover the patristic heritage that had been lost in the Middle Ages with the rise of Scholasticism.