William Tyndale “The Obedience of a Christian Man”

William Tyndale, apart from his translations of the Bible, was also the author of a number of theological treatises, including one against Henry VIII’s divorce, because in Tyndale’s view it was – you guessed it – unscriptural. The division lines among various factions ran in more complicated ways than we could think. Obviously, this did not please Henry and probably led to Tyndale’s death at the hand of Flemish authorities (but inspired by Hnery). This treatise, on the other hand, appealed to Henry very much, as Tyndale argued in it, in line with Luther, that everybody owes an unquestioning obedience to their king (and also to their superiors, husbands, parents and so on). He apparently skipped the part in which Tyndale writes that the kings are responsible to God and God only. Of course, this does not mean much from a secular perspective – great, so I have to obey this tyrant, or suffer calmly the punishment imposed by him, hoping vaguely that in the end he is going to burn in hell – but for Tyndale and his contemporaries it is no small responsibility.

However, the fragments chosen by the editors here are about other matters. The first one, on the forgiveness of sins, argues that the only thing needful to have our sins forgiven is repentance and any other sort of acts imposed by the Catholic Church such as the confession, penance, indulgences, are in fact offensive to God and sinful. We should try to redress any harm we have done to our neighbours, or ask their forgiveness, if the redress is impossible, but the thought that we can compensate God in any way is ridiculous.

The second fragment is on scriptural interpretation, in which Tyndale argues, against the tradition of medieval hermeneutics, that the Scripture should be read and interpreted literally. But he gets a bit muddled, I think, when he tries to answer the argument “what about all the parables, proverbs, allegories and so on?” He answers that they should be interpreted literally too, in the sense of the generally accepted meaning. He quotes several English proverbs and sayings, like “everyone knows that ‘don’t cut the bough you stand on’ means ‘don’t oppress the common people'”. And here Tyndale gets problematic, because for instance in my country the saying now means more like “don’t sabotage yourself”. And you can easily find passages in the Bible which are by no means so self-explanatory as Tyndale would have us believe. Heck, there were people who claimed that the visions of Ezekiel were about aliens in spaceships. Allegories themselves do not prove any point, they are just means to make people remember the preaching better. An allegory that cannot be “translated” into a plain text is as useless as the tales of Robin Hood.

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