Proto-Puritan William Tyndale (10)

His Sacramental Theology - The Lord's Supper

In our last post, we started on Tyndale’s theology of the sacraments first generally and then specifically with baptism. We will now finish up on Tyndale with his convictions on the Lord’s Supper. 

The majority of Tyndale’s sacramental writing centered on the Lord’s Supper. This makes sense, given the extensive focus on the topic in the 1520s. Such was marked by a united Reformation attack on transubstantiation and the related debate between the Lutheran and Reformed on the presence of Christ at the Supper. The deliberation reached its apex during the Marburg Colloquy (1529), which included most notably Luther and Melanchthon debating Zwingli and Johannes Oecolampadius. Tyndale himself entered into the general discussion with The Supper of the Lord (1533), even if it focused primarily on the attack of Catholic Sir Thomas More against Tyndale’s colleague John Frith (d.1533), martyred in part for his rejection of transubstantiation. 

Tyndale’s doctrine of the Supper placed considerable emphasis on the humanity of Christ (in union yet not commingled with his divinity) and a natural body located in only one location at a time. Thus, he challenged More, who scoffed at Frith’s argument that Christ’s body could no more be in two places at once than Frith’s own. The matter is vital, for transubsantiation necessitated the presence of Christ’s physical body and blood at innumerable masses simultaneously (while in heaven also). More claimed that if God told him he could be in fifteen places at once, More would accept it. 

Tyndale denied that just because “God may make his body in many places at once; ergo, it is so.” More is “too busy” thinking about what God may do and say (his absolute power) than what he actually does and says (his ordained power). Tyndale wants to know: Would More believe this idea “if Christ never told it [him]”? And if he has told this to More, Tyndale wants to know “where you spake with him, and who was by to bear ye record?” (Supper).  Clearly, Tyndale points the reader to what Christ has actually said and revealed in the Scriptures.

This he does especially from John 6, which while not directly about the Lord’s Supper, tells us how we should understand the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Regarding the offense that the Jews took about Jesus requiring that they eat his flesh and drink his blood, he makes clear that the key to understanding the Supper is to recognize Christ’s explanation, “ ‘My flesh profiteth nothing;’ meaning, to eat it bodily” as it is the Spirit, by and with the Word, that gives life. With this in mind, in the words of institution for the Supper, “Hoc est corpus meum” (This is my body), “est is taken for significat;” which means that the bread “signifieth my body” (Supper). Such an approach connected to John 6 was held in common with Zwingli and Oecolampadius (and Dutch humanist Cornelius Hoen before them).

For Tyndale, the bread and cup symbolized the body Jesus gave and the blood he shed for the forgiveness of sins of the believing eater. Tyndale defends such an allegorical (and literal, for that matter) understanding of Scripture from other texts such as 1 Corinthians 10, where consuming spiritual meat and drink means “to eat and drink Christ,” denoting nothing else than “to believe in Christ.” It is no mistake that he takes such an approach in line with “the opinions of Oecolampadius and Zuinglius,” mentioned specifically by Tyndale. The two argued, he observed, “This is my body, is as much to say as, This signifieth my body.” More had alleged that the two had misused church fathers such as “Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Austin,” while Tyndale appeals to quotes from the fathers arguing for a spiritual understanding of the sacrament (Supper).

Tyndale not only rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (with explicit reference to Aquinas and the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215); he also opposed the Lutheran position of consubstantiation (without explicit reference to Luther). He refuted transubstantiation and consubstantiation together, since the latter position also supported the idea that the body and blood of Christ were in some way physically present with the elements. He summarizes those who support consubstantiation as saying,

As the Godhead and manhood in Christ are in such manner coupled together, that man is very God, and God very man; even so the very body and the bread are so coupled, that it is as true to say that bread is the body of Christ, and the blood so annexed there with the wine, that it is even as true to say that the wine is Christ’s blood (Supper).

Tyndale believed that there existed three positions: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the symbolic view. I use “symbolic” on purpose, because a “memorial” view does not characterize him. Nor does it represent Zwingli, who clearly affirmed the sacramental-though-spiritual presence of Christ at the Supper. In refuting the physical presence of Christ at the Supper, Tyndale did so without denying the spiritual by saying, “eating” is “none other thing than the belief in himself offered up for our sins.” Like Zwingli and Oecolampadius before him, for Tyndale, eating is believing (Credere est edere) as we feed upon the true “spiritual food and meat of our souls.” In the Lord’s Supper we are indeed remembering what Christ has done for us (“in remembrance of me”) but in true communion with our Savior. So, “we testify the unity and communion of our hearts, glued unto the whole body of Christ in love: yea, and that in such love as Christ at this his last supper expressed; what time he said, his body should be broken and his blood shed for the remission of our sins” (Supper).

In Tyndale, we can affirm support for Christ’s presence at the Supper with his appeal to the gathering of two or three in Matthew 18 (Sacraments), even if he does not explicitly discuss how Christ is present. We must remember that, at the time of Tyndale’s writing, the further elaboration of Calvin and others on the matter had not yet occurred. Would he have agreed with Calvin’s claim that in mystical union with Christ, the Spirit lifts us to heaven in the Supper to feed on the substance of Christ’s “vivifying body” (Confession of Faith concerning the Eucharist, 1537)? We cannot be sure; he may have challenged such an idea with his emphasis on “est is taken for significat.”

This much we can conclude: Tyndale rejected both transubstantiation and consubstantiation while affirming a true spiritual communion with Christ and his bride in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. He was not where the Westminster Confession (1647) would be in affirming (in line with Calvin) that Christ’s body and blood are not carnally but “spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance” (29:7), but his thought helped to inform the formulation of Chapter 29 over a century later. 

Previous Posts:

  1. Life in England
  2. Life in Exile
  3. His Translation Work
  4. His Writings
  5. His Theology of the Word
  6. His Theology of Justification Considered
  7. His Theology of Justification Compared
  8. His Covenant Theology
  9. His Sacramental Theology — Baptism

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is an OPC minister and serves as the Director of Research and Dean of Students at the Greystone Theological Institute. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. In connection with his Bunyan studies, he has written an allegory of his own, one for children: Nutonius of Acornshire.

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Bob McKelvey