TYNDALE AND HIS TRACTS – by Dr. Herbert Samworth


Before Tyndale departed from Worms, he issued his first tract, exclusive of his translations of the Word of God. It was entitled a Compendious introduction, prologue or preface of Paul to the Romans. This is the first tract that Tyndale authored and although he did not attach his name to it, it was quickly recognized as his work. It was primarily based on a tract of Martin Luther that he placed before the book of Romans in his September Testament. An enlarged edition of this prologue was also included in his revised New Testament of 1534.

The importance of this tract was not only that it served as an introduction to the book of Romans which of all the New Testament books gives the clearest and most logical explanation of the Gospel and the doctrine of justification, but that it was a fulfillment of Tyndales’s vow to make the ploughboy know what the Scripture meant. We will never truly understand the life of William Tyndale until we recognize that the translation and printing of the Scriptures in the English language was but the prelude to instructing people to understand the Word of God. We will have reason to return to this theme a bit later, but for the present, we merely wish to make the point that Tyndale was intent on providing a key to the understanding of the Word of God as well as providing the text.

In our last lesson on Tyndale, we conjectured that after he left Worms and the printing of the first complete New Testament in English, Tyndale parted from Roye and went to Antwerp in the Low Countries. Finding that the situation was dangerous, we believe that he left Antwerp and spent time in Hamburg at the home of Mrs. Von Emerson. It was undoubtedly at that time he worked on his translation of the five books of Moses.

However before we speak of Tyndale and his return to Antwerp, we must make mention of the first theological book that Tyndale authored. It was entitled The Parable of the Wicked Mammon and is based on the parable taught by the Lord in Luke 16. However, it is not a Biblical exposition of the parable as much as it is a tract dealing with the doctrine of justification by faith. One might wonder why Tyndale chose that Scriptural passage to expound one of the most, if not the most, important doctrine of the Christian faith and the one that marked the differences between what the Catholic and Protestant churches on how a person can be justified by God.

There can be several reasons for his choice. First, Tyndale was the first person to put into print an exposition of this crucial doctrine. He did not do it from the perspective of a learned theologian teaching a class in a university but as one who was vitally interested in the fruits of justification. The early English reformers, especially Tyndale, sought to show the radical difference in the lives of those who held to the Church’s doctrine of justification and those believed the Biblical teaching. Their main concern was to contrast the visible fruits of the Protestants and the Catholics. Thus it was not a scholastic debate but a battle for the hearts and minds of the English people who were able to see the sharp difference between the conduct of the priests and those who taught the Protestant doctrine. The Parable of the Wicked Mammon soon attracted the attention of the English authorities and it was ordered to be suppressed.

There are additional matters about the book that require our attention. For the first time, Tyndale revealed himself to be the translator of the New Testament. Note his words:

The cause why I set my name before this little treatise and have not rather done it in the new testament is that then I followed the counsel of Christ which exhorteth men Matthew vi. To do their good deeds secretly and to be content with the conscience of well doing, and that God seeth us, and patiently to abide the reward of the last day, which Christ hath purchased for us and now would I fain have done like wise but am compelled otherwise to do.

Just five months after The Parable of the Wicked Mammon saw the light of day, Tyndale again appeared in print. This book, called The Obedience of a Christian Man also came from the press of Johannes Hoochstraten. The book was twice the length of The Wicked Mammon.

Why should Tyndale appear in print so quickly? The book on the Wicked Mammon dealt with the doctrine of justification by faith as shown in its fruits while this book answered a grave charge that had been leveled against the Protestants. The Reformed were charged with being the cause of the violence that had shaken Europe. There was some plausibility for this charge. Luther had been personally blamed for the outbreak of the Peasants’ War that ravaged Germany and Sir Thomas More lost no time in accusing him. More also charged Tyndale with teaching that subjects were not required to render obedience to their kings. To rebut these charges Tyndale wrote The Obedience of a Christian Man.

Some scholars believe that, apart from Tyndale’s Bible translations, this is his most important book. There is considerable merit to this evaluation because the entire Reformation was in danger of being charged with anarchy. This charge would play into the hands of those who wished to withhold the Scriptures from the common people. They would be able to justify their opinions by appealing to the present situation. Already a very horrendous war had broken out in Germany, would other countries also have to face such turmoil and loss of life? It would do little good to say that those who had abetted the uprising of the peasants in Germany were unstable men because this would merely justify the withholding of the Scriptures from the common people. Thus Tyndale was faced with a daunting task in his book. How did he did respond to the charge?

Basically Tyndale divided his exposition into three parts:

  • The first part dealt with the attitude that people should manifest when they face persecution. Tyndale was concerned that their faith would be strengthened because the Scriptures taught that those who followed God would suffer persecution.
  • A short section of about eight pages followed this in which Tyndale expounded his basic thesis that all obedience originates and is rendered ultimately to God.
  • The third part of the book, which is the major part, dealt with the application of the principle of obedience to the various classes of society.

Suffice to say, Tyndale by no means advocated revolution or anarchy. God is the One Who assigned men their place in society and had organized it in a hierarchal manner. Thus each class of persons was required to render obedience to the ones above them. This flowed upward to the position of the King whom God had set over the entire realm. For example, children were to render obedience to their parents, the wife to the husband, the servant to the master, etc.

But what was required of Kings? To whom were they required to render obedience? There was no greater human authority in society. Did this mean that they were free to do as they wished since there was no human authority to which they had to give account? By no means, they were required to render obedience unto God, the supreme Judge. For those who live in the 21st century, this may appear to be carte blanche but we cannot read back into the 16th century the thinking of modern time. In a society where the fear of God and the need to render an account to Him was taken seriously, this would put a brake on the absolute power of a sovereign.

But for the church member would this not require him to submit to his spiritual authorities including the Bishop of Rome? No, because the office of the Papacy was not revealed in Scripture. In order to understand the book and Tyndale’s argument, we must take into account that it presupposed the availability and knowledge of Scripture. He turned the argument of persons such as Sir Thomas More who would withhold Scripture from the people because it would cause anarchy on its head. Rather the opposite would be true: if the people were denied access to the Scripture, there would be anarchy. The only preservative against anarchy was the Word of God in the hearts and minds of the common man.

Thus we can see how this book served to confirm Tyndale’s resolve to have the Word of God translated into the language of the people. It was imperative to have Word of God available for all people.

Next: The Life of William Tyndale – Part 8: The Pentateuch