Proto-Puritan William Tyndale (9)

His Sacramental Theology - Baptism

In our last post, we looked at Tyndale’s covenant theology, which contributed to the development of a mature Englished Reformed theology in the following century. This time, we will treat Tyndale’s sacramental theology in general and then baptism specifically. Our treatment of the Lord’s Supper will have to wait until next time; this was originally one post and the last in this series but, alas, it was too long. 

In Obedience of a Christian Man (1528), Tyndale took aim at the Roman sacramental system, including its views on the two he deemed Scripturally genuine: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In general, Tyndale defined a sacrament as a “holy sign,” which “representeth alway some promise of God.” In the Lord’s Supper, for example, we have a promise “that his body was slain and his blood shed” for our sins, and believe so that we may  be “saved and justified thereby.” Otherwise, it  does not good, "though thou hearest a thousand masses in a day." As far as Tyndale was concerned, a sacrament is effectual only when joined to faith, which rejects the Catholic concept of an automatic conferral of grace in the sacrament itself (ex opere operato). 

So too, baptism as a “washing” does not automatically confer forgiveness of sins. It, like the Word of God verbally proclaimed, preaches visibly the promise “that we are cleansed with Christ’s blood-shedding.” Such cleansing is conferred on “all that repent and believe, consenting and submitting themselves unto the will of God.” With an allusion to baptism by immersion, Tyndale says that “plunging into the water signifieth that we die, and are buried with Christ, as concerning the old life of sin, which is Adam. And the pulling out again signifieth that we rise again with Christ in a new life, full of the Holy Ghost” (Obedience). Baptism symbolizes what Christ has done and how we respond to him in faith, without regard to whether the latter is expressed before or after baptism. 

In A Brief Declaration of the Sacraments (1536), Tyndale sees baptism replacing circumcision as a confirming “seal of the promise” of God’s covenant with both the unconditional and conditional aspects of the covenant affirmed: “to keep the promise in mind, that they might have wherewith to bind God . . . and bringing forth the obligation and seal thereof, in all times of necessity and temptation.” Tyndale sees continuity between the two signs (without denying discontinuity) in that they are applied to the posterity of believers (including infants not yet expressing faith) as confirming seals of covenantal promises and obligations. Additionally, the two both signified “entering into the body of Christ, . . . to die, to be buried, and to rise with him, to mortify our flesh, and to be revived in spirit” (Supper).

In the end, and in refutation of the church’s sacramental system, “it is the covenant only, and not the sign, that saveth us; though the sign be commanded to be put on at due time, to stir up faith of the covenant that saveth us.” So, regarding the subjects of  baptism (including infants), we are “bound to God, and God to us, and the bond and seal of the covenant is written in our flesh; by which seal or writing God challengeth faith and love, under pain of just damnation: and we (if we believe and love) challenge . . . all mercy, and whatsoever we need; or else God must be an untrue God” (Sacraments). 

Tyndale emphasized baptism as a covenant sign of promises and obligations, an entrance into the covenant community, empty apart from faith,  continuous with circumcision as a covenantal sign, and administered to covenant children. With these emphases, Tyndale’s baptismal-covenantal theology shows considerable affinity with his contemporary Ulrich Zwingli. 

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

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