Proto-Puritan William Tyndale (8)

His Covenant Theology

In our last post, we compared William Tyndale’s doctrine of justification with Augustine and Luther. This time, we will consider his Tyndale’s covenant theology, which played a vital role in his theology of justification. Next time, for our final episode on Tyndale’s theology, we will consider his convictions on the sacraments.

To begin, we should note that Tyndale used the terms “testament” and “covenant” and “appointment” interchangeably, though he employed “testament” in A Pathway into the Holy Scripture (1536) in the sense of a last will and testament regarding what Christ accomplished in his death. Primarily, his understanding of biblical covenants focused on a relational and familial agreement between God the Father and his people in Christ. 

Likewise, Tyndale saw covenants as the key to biblical interpretation and comprehending the gospel. He argued that the “covenants made between God and us,” are “right way, yea, and the only way, to understand the scripture unto salvation” (Prologue to Matthew, 1526). Carl Trueman goes so far as to argue that the concept of covenant “dominates all areas” of Tyndale’s later thought “from hermeneutics to the sacraments” (Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and the English Reformers 1525-1536, 1994).

Writing so early in the time of the Reformation, Tyndale exists as an early proponent of a Reformed covenant theology arising out of medieval theology. In line with such development, Richard Greaves (1967) and others observed two traditions in covenant theology arising in England with an eventual impact on Puritanism. The first represented a ‘moderate’ sort of Calvinism supposedly descending from the Zwingli-Bullinger-Tyndale tradition impacting the majority of Puritans with more of an emphasis on the conditional aspect of the covenant. The second strain manifested a ‘strict’ Calvinism highlighting the absolute and unconditional nature of the covenant, through the influence of the Calvin-Perkins-Ames tradition. 

John Von Rohr in The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (1986) rightly observed that Greaves reached too far in his categorization. Instead of an "either/or," the Puritans in general emphasized "both/and" in varying degrees. Von Rohr attests,

...the distinctive feature of the covenant as absolute is that it becomes God’s means of bringing to completion the covenant as conditional. For God’s chosen there is the divinely covenanted commitment that the conditions will be fulfilled by God’s own doing, and this commitment is without conditions. 

In other words, the gracious and unconditional activity of God leads to the conditional aspect of the covenant as summed in the biblical affirmation, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”

This interplay between the unconditional (absolute by grace) and conditional (mutual according to obligation) clearly manifests itself in the theology of Tyndale. So, he says, the elect are “under the everlasting testament of God in Christ” (Pathway). Within such an arrangement, God made a familial “appointment betwixt him and us, in Christ’s blood” to “be a father unto us” (The Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John, 1531) and in justification to “take them for his sons, and to love them as though they were full righteous” (The Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Chapters of Matthew, 1533). 

Still, this absolute covenant obligates man, as it did with Abraham, to whom God promised “to be his God” while Abraham “promised for him and his seed to be his people, and to believe and trust in him, and to keep his commandments” (A Brief Declaration of the Sacraments, 1536). In another instance where Tyndale links the unconditional promise with the conditional obligation, he attests, “all the good promises which are made us throughout all the scripture, for Christ’s sake, for his love, his passion or suffering, his blood-shedding or death, are all made us on this condition and covenant on our party, that we henceforth love the law of God, to walk therein, and to do it, and fashion our lives thereafter, . . . because there is no promise made him, but to them only that promise to keep the law” (Sermon on the Mount).

Tyndale places no explicit emphasis on an initial covenant of works with Adam. However, he does manifest a two-Adam theology with the failure of the first undone by the second. Tyndale affirms, “By nature, through the fall of Adam, are we the children of wrath, . . . by birth, yea, and from our conception” and subject “to eternal damnation by the law, and are contrary to the will of God in all our will.” God’s sovereign initiative alone overcomes this bondage and condemnation, for, “[b]y grace (that is to say, by favour) we are plucked out of Adam the ground of all evil, and graffed in Christ, the root of all goodness” (Pathway). Tyndale also observes that Paul “likeneth Adam and Christ together, saying that Adam was a figure of Christ” and “as Adam is father of all sin, so is Christ father of all righteousness; and as all sinners spring of Adam, even so all righteous men and women spring of Christ” (Parable of the Wicked Mammon, 1527). At least in concept, but without mention of a covenant of grace and works scheme, Tyndale seems to allude to covenantal headship in the figures of Adam and Christ as they represent the sinner under condemnation and the elect under grace, respectively. 

With Tyndale limiting explicit covenant language to what we have in Christ, it is no surprise that he viewed the Mosaic covenant in an entirely gracious manner. The blood of sacrifices under the “old testament” (covenant) was offered to God and sprinkled on the people “to confirm the covenant and to bind both parties.” Such blood pointed ahead to the “better blood” of Christ and a “better testament” in him (Sacraments).

Note also, within the union with Christ language above (“graffed” or grafted into) in the Pathway, the mention of God’s eternal favor towards his children in the same paragraph: “In Christ God loved us, his elect and chosen, before the world began, and reserved us unto the knowledge of his Son and of his holy gospel.” In line with our earlier mention of “the everlasting testament of God in Christ,”Another possible reference to this covenant is in The Testament of William Tracy Expounded (1535), where Tyndale testifies, “the treasure of his mercy was laid up in Christ for all that should believe, before the world was made; ergo, nothing that hath happened since hath changed the purpose of the invariable God.” Tyndale seems to be referring to these instances to an eternal counsel of redemption (pactum salutis) between the persons of the Trinity. Some may think that Ralph Werrell (The Blood of Christ in the Theology of William Tyndale, 2015) sees too readily “the covenant between the Persons of the Trinity” that “binds God to save his elect” in the writings of Tyndale, but the English Reformer made at the very least an implicit statement of this eternal inter-trinitarian covenant.

In summary, Tyndale made a significant contribution to the covenant theology emerging in England and abroad, yet more would be to come as the English Reformed entered the seventeenth century. Likewise, by the time of Tyndale’s death, there existed already the covenant groundwork of theologians such as Zwingli (e.g. the two-covenant scheme of works and grace), Oecolampadius (e.g. the covenant of redemption) and/or Bullinger (e.g. the bilateral nature of the covenant and covenant as key to the Scriptures).

We are not certain how aware Tyndale was of their work in this area or how much they impacted him. Still, we can appreciate Tyndale’s emphases: the fact that covenants between God and his people cannot be understood except in Christ alone and by grace alone yet, the intimate relationship between their unconditional and conditional elements (their bilateral nature), and the claim that covenants are key to understanding the Scriptures generally and the gospel specifically. Such would be held in common in the more mature covenant theology among the Puritans in the following century. 

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

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