'The Obedience of a Christian Man' Lecture — Report

It is not easy to give a lecture immediately after lunch on a drowsy, humid English summer afternoon. Professor David Daniell, however, performed this difficult feat with his lecture to the Tyndale Society on 26 May on The Obedience of a Christian Man.

This seminal work for an understanding of the Reformation was published by Tyndale on 2 October 1528. The book created a storm because most people were ignorant of the Bible. Ideas such as the possibility of a married clergy or, more importantly, the revelation that there need be no intermediary between the soul and God would have come as a great surprise to most of Tyndale's original readers.

Despite the heroic efforts of John Wycliffe 150 years earlier to provide a Bible in English, draconian powers of censorship by the mediaeval church had kept the great mass of the people in ignorance of God's word. Wycliffe also anticipated Tyndale in his thinking through the whole question of civil authority in the light of the Scriptures. He attacked the work of contemporary monks and friars and he queried the whole subject of the Pope's feudal power for which Wycliffe found no Biblical warrant. Tyndale does not refer to Wycliffe — to have done so would have courted trouble. Both men, however, reached the same conclusions on the nature of Christian society and on the corruption of the church by using the same route; namely by an extensive study of the New Testament.

There is a double message in Tyndale's Obedience. First there is a divinely ordained social structure from below (children, wives, servants) and from above (fathers, husbands, masters, rulers). God blesses us if we obey and curses us if we do not. Obedience applies to all — even kings must be servants of God. From Christ came the law of love; not the making of riches at the cost of other people. Secondly the book tackles the corruption of the clergy of the English church in the direct control of the Pope. The king himself should rid the English nation of them and demand reparation.

With the authority of Scripture, Tyndale can attack the follies associated with the worship of saints and modern 'miracles'; fraudulent beliefs associated with purgatory; the 'belly-brotherhood' of monks and friars; the dangers of the confessional and the great suffering imposed on ordinary people through corrupt priesthood. One example of this was the practice of 'mortuaries' whereby the officiating priest at a funeral could take the most valuable item in a household.

To put Tyndale's case in a nut shell: into the proper obedience within all the divinely appointed levels of English 'life has been thrust thee 'false power' of the Pope by means of keeping the Scriptures in Latin and withholding them from the people.

The book proved to be dynamite. It was the first and the most ardent plea for the removal of Roman interference from English life, the dismissal of what Tyndale calls ' the Pope's false power'. In addition the book was written with all Tyndale's glorious command of the English language. Tyndale resolved the paradox of Christian 'powers that be' to be outwardly obeyed by subjects who themselves are subject to their own spiritual calling. This conflict., according to Tyndale, is resolvable 'in Christ'.

Professor Daniell ended his fine lecture with these words; 'the challenge of the book today is Tyndale's New Testament vision, open to all through reading the Scripture in English, of a truly Christian commonwealth.'

© Stephen Green, August 2001.

Editor's Note

The details of the book, available from the Tyndale Society, on which this lecture was based are: Daniell David (edited and introduced by), William Tyndale: The Obedience of a Christian Man, Penguin Classic Paperback, 2000, ISBN 01400434771, 8.99 (US$ 13.50).

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