A Relentless Zeal: Luther and the King (Part 3 of 5)

Introductory Note: This section is a rather short (compared to the last two) addition to the last topic, being the influences upon Tyndale (part 2 dealt with Erasmus). One that is only briefly covered here is Martin Luther, his influence is far greater than the snippets in this section, but the rest of the essay does speak more about him in various places. The last and final influence covered in detail in this essay is King Henry the VIII and the political scandals surrounding him. It was no doubt a great part of England’s overall outlook during that time.

1. Erasmus (covered in the previous section).

"Sola Scriptura"


2. Luther

Now Martin Luther must be looked at briefly to see how he influenced Tyndale, specifically through his Theology and his September Testament.

While Erasmus was a humanist, largely uninterested in practically reforming the Church, Luther was in it up to his neck, and always on the verge of ‘losing it’ in his zeal to reform the Catholic Church. Erasmus sought to peaceably reconcile the Catholic Church with the Reformer’s ideas, and while Luther did begin with this in mind, he soon realized it was hopeless. The Church was broken and on the verge of death, not simply wounded. As Daniell states, “Christologically (as in most areas), where Luther thunders, Erasmus makes a sweet sound […] Erasmus, for all his importance, did not have that great change: Luther and Tyndale did” (Tyndale 69). The ‘great change’ refers to the change in desire that the reformers shared to make the Bible and salvation through Christ alone through faith the center of a Christian’s life, as opposed to the dependence on the Church for salvation, teaching, and security. Erasmus did not share this desire, at least not in action.

It was Luther’s boldness that likely influenced Tyndale more than most other things. Imagine the Englishman’s fears of going up against the massive waves that were the dominating ideas of the Church in England, and then to see that he was not alone. That another man had done it, and that one man with God’s power could turn an entire country on its heels. Martin Luther accomplished this in part with his September Testament, the German translation of the Latin Bible which he completed in 1522. In England the effects were soon felt, and this translation “was the subject of a critique drawn up in 1523…which listed in it hundreds of ‘heretical errors and lies.’ In the three years between the Diet of Worms (1521) and Tyndale arriving in London, there had been much fear of the sudden spread of Lutheranism, a fear…that it would bring anarchy, schism, and the dislocation of authority” (Daniell, Tyndale 94). England as a whole was completely adverse to Luther, and Tyndale would feel the consequences of it. In this it helped him to see to what extent the Bible in English could be used, but it also called him to count the cost. He counted it and found it to be worth everything (Tyndale, Obedience 186-88).

3. Henry VIII and Politics

The last major step in understanding the background to the focus and drive of William Tyndale is to take an overview of the political tensions of the day under Henry VIII and his fight against the papacy for non-religious reasons.

James D. Tracy briefly sheds light on King Henry’s influence on the Reformation, and while most happens after Tyndale’s translation of the Bible and his death, it is of some relevance. In 1503 (Tyndale being about nine), when King Henry VIII took the place of his deceased brother, he also married his wife, Catherine of Aragon, the younger daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Pope Julius II stated this marriage to be legitimate (186), based on Deuteronomy 25:5, which deals specifically with levirate marriage: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.”

But Catherine could not produce a male heir for Henry, and he believed it was a curse from God, defending himself with Leviticus 20:21, “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” By 1527 he was then determined to divorce Catherine on these grounds, and marry Anne Boleyn. There was nothing wrong with this, in the eyes of many, except for two factors. First, this would imply that the Pope, now Clement VII, would have to overrule the previous statement by the last pope, both of whom were believed to be speaking for Christ. Secondly, there was political and military turmoil in Europe, and Clement desperately needed the aid of Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew (Tracy 186). The allegiance between the Pope and Charles came about largely because of the Sack of Rome in 1527 by German mercenaries (137).


Henry and Anne

This infuriated Henry, especially because the Pope kept on giving excuses, and so Henry demanded that he be allowed to marry Anne. He succeeded by having himself named the Supreme Head of the church in England—a radical and dangerous move. He then pronounced Thomas Cranmer as the archbishop of the newly forming Church of England, and in this office he declared the annulment of the previous wedding, thus allowing Henry and Anne to be married in 1533 (187-8).

William Tyndale had other, non-political reasons for denying the king divorce—biblical ones. In his Exposition of Matthew V, VI, VII (printed in 1532) he quotes from Matthew 5:32 and defends Christ’s explanation of the law, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” While he does not directly accuse King Henry VIII, he does make comments such as stating it to be wrong to “provoke all [women] who were one weary of their husbands to commit adultery, for to be divorced from them, that they might marry other which they loved better” (Tyndale, Works of William Tyndale, The 2, 51-2). His Practice of Prelates (printed in 1530) even more forcibly, and in great detail, denounces the divorce of Henry and Catherine. “I considered the falsehood of our spirituality, how that it is but their old practice, and a common custom; yea, and a sport to separate matrimony, for to make division where such marriage made unity and peace…neither can the king’s grace, or any other Christian man, of right be discontent with me” (332).

Needless to say, such comments were hated by Henry, and his overall feelings towards Tyndale were negative. Ultimately it set the tone for England’s perception of William Tyndale; he stood for the truth when it was neither wanted nor politically helpful (Tracy 185-6).


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