Search TAP

William Tyndale: Mercy Rejoiceth Against Judgment 

Wm Tyndale, a martyr for the Gospel, is commemorated in this stained glass window in Wycliffe College Chapel in Toronto. (Photo: Sue Careless) 

By David Widdicombe

IN A SMALL CITY near Brussels on October 6th, 1536, England’s greatest translator of the New Testament was strangled and burned at the stake. His dying prayer was, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” That man was William Tyndale and those eyes belonged to the one man above all others that could see to the health of the Christian commonwealth.

As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has argued, those final words were not merely a plea that the king should be open to new theological concepts.1 Tyndale wished the king to know that what the teachers of the Reformation taught were truths that had far-reaching social implications. They meant nothing less than a renewal of the whole commonwealth “in conformity to the basic commitments of evangelical faith.” Tyndale wanted to know “what a society might look like that took justification by faith as its cornerstone.” This was not a matter simply for the church’s clergy. As lay Christians make up the body of the commonwealth, govern, work, live, and witness within it so must lay Christians, the King chief among them, bear responsibility for the reform of both the Church and the nation. They were, as the Epistle of James has it, to So speak … and so do as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For there shall be judgment merciless to him that showeth no mercy, and mercy rejoiceth against judgment (James 2.12).

So speak and so act – this is the vocation of the Christian, particularly of the lay Christian, in all aspects of her life. And as any reader of the Epistle of James can tell you, a society built upon justification by faith will pay especial attention to the mercy that God would have us show to the poor.

Tyndale could remember, as many modern Christians do not, that the earliest Christians believed that private property was a remedial institution given after the fall and tainted by the very evil it was meant to mitigate. It was assumed that after the Fall lay Christians must work within remedial institutions but, ever aware of the compromises involved, they were to be always reforming them as they kept their eyes on Christ’s counsels of perfection. All things are owned by God alone, they reminded each other, received as gifts from the hands of God and intended for the good of all.

But in 1329 Pope John XXII had made a decision fraught with implications for the future, both for good and for ill. From the time of its creation, humankind, he decreed, following the pattern of God’s own lordship or ownership of all things, was collectively endowed with full lordship and full ownership of all earthly goods.

Herein lies one of the origins of the modern liberal doctrine of human rights. Human beings possess things, above all themselves. Their rights derive from this self-ownership, hence the doctrine of possessive individualism and the subjective interpretation of what has by now become the uncontrolled multiplication of rights according to the inflationary logic of human desire.

Tyndale, of course, was not the first English Christian to worry about this concept of ownership. John Wycliffe, the great Morning Star of the Reformation, had already, in the same century that Pope John had made his decree, pointed out that the problem with private property is that the liberty of disposing of it or of hoarding it is dependent upon the safeguards of coercive human sanctions, laws and procedures. In paradise we did not own things, contrary to what the Pope may have thought. We are not our own but Christ’s (I Cor. 6.19), he acerbically reminded his fellow countrymen. We are not self-possessors, we do not own any human rights, we are not proprietors of our own powers much less of the earth, nor do others have rights – rather they are a claim upon us; all that we have is theirs.

It was against this background that William Tyndale wrote The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, a lengthy text of some eighty pages that Williams calls “the most powerful treatment of social morality” to come from the English Reformation.* Beginning with Christ, Tyndale points out that Christ does not perform works of mercy in order to earn something. He was not the greatest of the prophets adopted or approved by God by virtue of his obedience. He was already God, replete with all the splendours of divinity. His life, death and resurrection were an outflowing of the completeness whereby he achieves as man what he already was as God. Jesus did not win grace, he is grace. “He was full and had all plenteousness of Godhead,” Tyndale wrote, “and in all his works sought our profit and became our servant.”

Consequently works do not save the Christian; God does not need them. We cannot affect his judgment; it is mercy already and all the way down. God is free, his liberty is final, overflowing and supreme. He has already forgiven our debt, and so our works have no role in setting things right since we are no longer in arrears! If our works, then, are useless, our faith is also useless and dead...unless of course those works have some other purpose to fulfill. Tyndale then poses the vital question: “How can or ought we then to work, for to purchase that inheritance withal, whereof we are heirs already by faith?”

He answers: the unjust steward wrote off the debts of his master’s debtors in order to have friends. Wealth exists for the purpose of making friends among the poor and as we have not merited God’s favour so they do not have to merit ours. Freely you have received, freely give. The Christian, indwelt by the Spirit of Liberty, experiencing the Law of God as the mercy-infused Law of Liberty, “feeleth other men’s need.” If the right to ownership of possessions is a remedial institution, it is overcome in Christ’s counsels of perfection because love maketh all things common.” If that is not clear enough, Tyndale goes on: “Christ is lord over all; and every Christian is heir annexed with Christ and therefore lord over all; and everyone lord of whatsoever another hath.” Some people, he laments, cannot be convinced that they are sinners, yet such a one “raises the price of corn for his own vantage, without respect of his neighbour, or of the poor, or of the common wealth, and such like.” The answer is, he says, to care for the poor of one’s parish, those who cannot work and those who can find no work and “are destitute of friends.” Furthermore, he argues, charity is not enough - the Scriptures make it clear that we must find work for the unemployed and, having done that, we must go further afield in our efforts to care for others for we are debtors even to the infidels.

“If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” So a young man had vowed to a skeptical priest, and so he would die at the hands of his king secure in the knowledge that he had kept his vow. So speak and so do – these words from the Epistle of James capture as well as perhaps anything could the integrity of a Roman priest who wanted so to reform the Church that every man and woman in the nation could have the Scriptures in their native tongue and therein discover that grace of God in Christ that would become the cornerstone of a commonwealth of grace wherein the people of God would So speak … and so do as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For there shall be judgment merciless to him that showeth no mercy, and mercy rejoiceth against judgment (James 2.12,13 Tyndale translation).  TAP


1    Anglican Identities by Rowan

      Williams, p.11 (2004).

 Dr. David Widdicombe is rector of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg.



Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.
Member Account Required
Comments can only be made by registered members of the TAP community. If you would like to be a member of TAP online, please go to our registration page.  If you're already a member and just haven't logged in yet... well, you know what to do.  God bless you!