KEY Commentary Side Textual Bibliographic Scriptural
II. Theology

William Tyndale's rebuttals and counterpositions to Thomas More's Dialogue Concerning Heresies emerge from a coherent cluster of doctrinal convictions. Tyndale argues from consistent views on major theological themes such as the church, the Bible, true teaching in the heart by the Holy Spirit, fallen humankind, God's gracious work to save his elect, and the sacramental rites by which the elect are instructed and formed. The theological commentary that accompanies this edition of Tyndale's Answer will draw attention to these theological positions, but the notes are unavoidably scattered and diffuse because they follow the text in its unsystematic movements of response to More. Here, we offer an ordered sketch of Tyndale's thought to orient one's reading of Answer as an expression of Reformation thought, teaching, and argument.


Tyndale understands the history of the church in accord with a biblical pattern that has been realized once more in his own day. Scripture tells of the People of God repeatedly falling from their original devout obedience into error and corrupt worship. But a recurrent , counteractive series of events also took place. Moses and the prophets initiated reform and restored some of the people to their pristine faith and life. When later Judaism declined under the scribes, Pharisees, and high priests, then John the Baptist and Jesus himself led a small group out of the corrupt multitude. But Christianity too has degenerated into a religion of erroneously understood ceremonies, especially under the papacy (40/21–43/20).

The Reformation has resulted from God's new intervention to create a small prophetic community. Among members of a true church of elect believers, the Holy Spirit has inscribed upon docile hearts a renewed faith in Christ, love of the law of God, and insight into the true meaning of both Scripture and Christian rites and sacraments. But, alas, a further element of the biblical typology is also realized, namely, the persecution by the carnal multitude of this Little Flock of believers spiritually taught (104/29–105/10). Master Thomas More writes for this powerful majority, while Tyndale exerts himself to respond with an account of the faith that the Spirit has instilled in the Little Flock of believers.


The Answer that Tyndale gave to More, strange to say, draws upon two sources of doctrinal truth. This of course is not the duality of Scripture and ecclesial tradition, for Scripture has no need of supplemental oral revelations that the church later certifies. Scripture in fact suffices for instruction on what Christians are to believe and do (24/25–30). It gives a full account of the meaning of rites and sacraments in their relation to Jesus and his saving death for humankind. Scripture has been validated by miracles occurring in the early Christian centuries to confirm the true books of God's revelation.

But still Tyndale is a "two-source" theologian because of the importance he also attributes to the Holy Spirit's work in the heart to inscribe God's law at the center of the person. In fact, he formulates the key to understanding the Scripture as twofold. Biblical interpretation must proceed first from the doctrine of justification by faith as Paul formulated this at the center of Scripture. Secondly, true comprehension of Scripture also needs the Holy Spirit's interior writing of God's truth upon the hearts of docile believers (170/13–21). Public instruction is to rest on the biblical texts in their original meaning, but the individual needs the Spirit's internal guidance to attain faith and godly living in love (54/1–55/5).

The unreformed church must be confronted and overcome because of the hierarchy's opposition to Scripture, both to its teachings and to its diffusion among the people. Accurate rendering into the vernacular, as in Tyndale's English New Testament, improves on the misleading language that has been obscuring the truth. Answer, however, has much more to say about biblically grounded doctrine beyond its defense of the new translation (10/1–23/11).

God's Salvation Given to Fallen Humankind

Thomas More charged the Reformation with error in its doctrine of the bondage of the will. Tyndale responds that while human beings have the power of voluntary action as a good gift from the Creator, sad to say, "the God of this world hath blinded the wittes of the vnbeleuers" (2 Cor. 4.4, 191/24–25). This blindness is the cause of all evil (212/5), for by it men and women find themselves inevitably caught in error and sin. What More proposes about free choice cannot apply to our fallen race.

The way out of the human predicament is the grace of God that brings light to our "wittes" and judgment. God comes in this way to his elect out of a love that precedes any good effort on their part. A person's will cannot act to predispose itself for God's grace or to collaborate with it. An outward ministry of the true Word does work in tandem with God's interior enlightenment, but it is the latter that impresses upon the heart a new-found appreciation for the divine law. Faith then is new sight given to those who were blind. God's Spirit writes upon the heart so that it perceives the sweetness of God's law, from which springs a heartfelt consent (175/10–26). The "wit" comes before the will and in salvation this means that a "feeling faith" in God, given by God, precedes one's assent to God's law.

Interior agreement with the law is, however, central to justification in Tyndale's account. Faith lays hold of God's mercy and forgiveness given because of Christ, but faith's full form includes explicit assent to God's law as good. Here Tyndale has moved beyond Luther regarding a key element of justification. Assent to the law is essential to conversion and the reversal of sin's blindness. God thus creates in the elect a good will, consequent upon faith, and from it a new practice buds forth. Assent to the law gives rise spontaneously to good deeds of loving service. These deeds, however, are not perfect and the righteous person is simul iustus et peccator, for the norm of one's action is the loving dedication of Jesus Christ, beside which all love and works are radically deficient (174/22–25, 209/2–6).

God's elect are taught interiorly to look for salvation solely by the grace of Christ. Their lives then unfold under the rod of God's tribulation, so as to overcome the evil remaining in them. Their faith is not held in peaceful possession but is ever tried and tempted, as they are schooled in the knowledge of their own infirmity. For a while sin and error may even get the upper hand, but this is a step toward purging out pride and self-reliance. God is present in these trials to restore and heal (32/11–33/29).

Tyndale is eloquent on the new freedom from calculating self-regard that marks the life of the elect. Right faith instilled by the Holy Spirit issues in right love, a love that treats the neighbor without thought of gain and acts with a spark of the same gratuitous love God has shed forth upon oneself. Serving God in the Spirit, the elect see Christ in everyone and serve him in everyone with love and gratitude (107/2–14).

Sacraments and Worship

In the biblical pattern of decline and prophetic reform, the fall of God's people was especially evident in their life of ritual worship. What God instituted for the schooling of Israel, such as circumcision , the paschal lamb, the sabbath, and the Temple sacrifices, degenerated into good works to win divine favor (63/27–68/5). In Christianity an analogous development took place, as Christians lost the signification of their sacraments.

Tyndale underscores the original didactic and inspirational purpose of sacraments. They do not cause grace, as medieval theology and the Council of Trent hold, but instead they represent significations central to living in the light of faith. Baptism shows forth the death and new life of repentance from sin, while the Lord's Supper signifies that Christ's body was broken and his blood shed for our sins (96/23–26, 150/10–17).

Sacraments are not specially qualified good works but instead instructional reminders about God's saving work in Christ and about the right pattern of living in the sphere of this salvation. It is not enough, however, to have the right theology of sacraments. Here, too, the Holy Spirit must inscribe faith and love in the heart, and then one will approach sacraments rightly (54/13–29).

Regarding the Lord's Supper, Tyndale's Answer voices the Reformation rejection of eucharistic sacrifice offered by the priest to God as a renewal of Christ's passion. The movement of the Supper is instead toward the people. But Tyndale has also accepted the Zwinglian critique of a giving of the body and blood of Christ for true eating and drinking by believers. Faith is misplaced if directed to a miraculous presence of Christ in and with the bread and wine. At the Supper one should eat and drink in the Spirit, and this means to hearken to the signification of the broken bread and shared cup, as they represent Christ's death. In his death for sinners, faith finds its true object (150/9–30, 179/12–180/7).

Tyndale's Answer offers in brief the Reformation arguments against Catholic claims for other sacraments such as confirmation (71/1–73/7), penance (172/10–173/24), marriage (176/17–177/4), and ordination (177/5–13). But the treatment of the role of images in worship and the invocation of the saints is more extensive. Images of Christ, his mother, and the other saints should bring the believer to loving recollection of God's saving mercy, his promises, and his call to obedient living. An image is not a way to gain protection against bodily harm, and giving honor to it is not a good work that will be rewarded. Images are creatures at a lower level than human beings and so they should serve the human spirit (59/7–16).

The saints loom large in the More-Tyndale dispute. Tyndale proposes limiting their role in Christian life and prayer. There is no biblical word that justifies invoking their intercession, no matter how hard More may strain to find textual openings to such prayer. But the saints, for Tyndale, can serve as models of faith in God even unto martyrdom, of heroic love of others, and of patience in suffering. Images that remind us of them in this sense can be of service (59/3–16). Along with Mary and the saints, believers are being schooled under God's hand in faith and life (185/8–11).

But these sacramental and devotional practices have under the papacy been vitiated by misconceptions that leave believers bereft of the true meaning of rites and ceremonies. Here reform has a primary target.

The Church

The term "church" can stand for the great multitude of all those professing Christianity. But this group can be divided into the carnal multitude and the Little Flock of the elect. The latter then are "the church" in the strict sense, being the congregation of those who trust in God's promises and assent interiorly to his law. Members of the right church of the elect have repented because the Holy Spirit has inscribed faith and the law upon their hearts. Their faith is not belief about past history or submission to a present authority but "feeling faith" by which they spy out God's true word and the voice of their shepherd (47/6–22).

In the church of the elect, the significations of rites are taught and God's law is affirmed as good. But the elect, once they are instructed in true piety by the Holy Spirit, have to face a hostile adversary. The carnal multitude is always a persecutor, as it defends its traditions, meritorious works, and image-worship. From Tyndale's vantage point the truly Christian people have been oppressed by the papal hierarchy for eight hundred years. The carnal multitude has institutionalized itself in a structure of power claiming to be normative for the church. The New Testament had foreseen the rise of this "Antichrist ," that is, a vicious opponent of the elect (100/6–104/29).

This then is William Tyndale's understanding of the ecclesial situation in which he writes his Answer to More. His adversary's Dialogue had in fact made only brief mention of the papacy, but Tyndale saw behind More's accusations and arguments an errant and obdurate enemy of biblical teaching and authentic faith.